Constructivism in practice or a buzz-word???
Constructivism, with its emphasis on learning as “an individual matter” and learners constructing “reality in terms of their prior experiences, their conceptual knowledge, their procedural schemas, their values, their attitudes, and their preferred ways of knowing” (Jenkins, 2006, para.5), has been increasingly seen by educators and learning theorists as best suiting the on-line learning environment, which “allows learning to be place and time independent” (Huang, 2002, p.28) and thus relies heavily on a learner’s / a group of learners’ autonomy (Beaudoin, 2002; Schunk, 2012).
On-line courses are gaining popularity in the community (Marque, 2010), and a lot of adults “can benefit from this second chance to educate themselves (Huang, 2002, p.28). The flexible, “non linear nature of the internet” affords learners an opportunity to follow their own unique “learning paths” and, in this way, to create “a natural learning environment”, with learners taking responsibility for “actively seeking and focusing on material of interest” (Marque, 2010, para. 6-8). On-line learning has a lot of potential in taking the learning process away from the teacher-centered to learner-centered practices, an objective “which has been seemingly unattainable by traditional linear approaches” (Marque, 2010, para.11).
The operational merits of online learning are numerous: they “can reach a greater number of people more easily and efficiently”, they arguably “provide an avenue to circumvent the financial barriers . . . that have restricted some students access to universities in the past” (Schell & Janicki, 2012, p.27), and “learners can arrange their learning around their everyday lives” (Huang, 2002, p.28). However, as Schell and Janicki claim, these are arguments to “efficiency”, not to “effectiveness” (Schell & Janicki, 2012, p.27). In their view, the effectiveness of an on-line course is determined by the appropriateness of the learning theories that lie at its core.
The constructivist learning model is seen as better serving the purpose of online learning (and ideally all types of adult learning) than the objectivist learning model traditionally employed in formal educational environment. The constructivist approach transforms the teacher’s role from that of “an expert model” to that of “a facilitator/guide”, allows learners to go beyond the textbook and use “a variety of sources / media”, focuses learning on questions rather than facts, and “discovering” rather than “packing” information (Schell & Janicki, 2012). These intrinsic features of constructivism bring learning closer to the environment that the student will encounter after the university experience, when “there will not be a professor to guide him/her through a problem” (Schell & Janicki, 2012, p.34), in other words, providing “value beyond school” (Jenkins, 2006, para.25).
However, developing an online course that promotes constructivist learning is fraught with a number of problems, such as organizing the course in compliance with the security and copyright regulations, appropriate use of information technology, and the true cost of course delivery (Schell & Janicki, 2012).
Moreover, on-line learning, however constructivism-friendly it may seem and be claimed to be by universities offering on-line courses to the community, is currently far from being truly constructivist. Shalni Gulati (2004) insists that the “normative” linear objectivist learning model that formal education has traditionally relied on is being transferred onto on-line education, allowing “limited recognition to diverse preferences of learning” (Gulati, 2004, para.2-3). Gulati further argues that the highest-achieving on-line learners are objective teaching oriented.
Among the greatest drawbacks of current on-line education, Gulati (2004) identifies “observable participation” in discussions on “teacher-identified topics”, which, in her view, promotes behaviorist practices. Gulati claims that “the requirement to make . . . learning explicit and externalise [sic] . . . . enforcing requirements over participation by defining what is to be discussed and by controlling the time-scale of discussion, formal education remains situated in the objectivist worldview”, it rewards participatory behavior [sic]” and punishes “silent online behavior” by deduction of the final mark (para.33). Gulati insists that educators should review their attitude to the rate of participation if the constructivist assumption of individual learning is to be observed. Low-profile participation, or “lurking”, does not mean that the learner “is less engaged in meaningful learning”, moreover, “it could be argued that the ‘overactive’ online students (i.e., those who are constantly inputting words) do so at the expense of a more reflective, but less visible learning process in which their silent peers are actually more fully engaged” (Beaudoin, 2002, p.8). Gulati (2004) cites Nonnecke and Preece, who found that one of the greatest contributors to “lurking activities” was “the surveillance and disciplinary power of the teacher” (para.49).
Further, Gulati (2004) challenges a pre-set syllabus providing “a chain-line sequence of learning events” prescribing learning materials and focusing on “predicting results” (para.19) as going counter to the constructivist assumptions of learning revolving around and relying upon a learner’s prior knowledge and individual experience, as well as letting a learner take control of how and what he / she learns. Moreover, Gulati (2004) argues that “in a constructivist paradigm, errors are a positive part of learning”, and calls for on-line instructors “to enable informal and trustworthy learning spaces, where learners feel confident and supported” (para.63).
Thus, critics of current online education generally recommend that formal education take on a more informal character to enable true constructivism.
As for my own experience, I need and feel comfortable with the instructor’s supervision. I fully understand that an educational degree must meet state standards and be completed in a certain period of time. Instructors’ guidance spares me a lot of trouble I would be in for trying to find my own individual idiosyncratic learning path. I do not think a purely constructivist approach can be implemented in formal education, it is rather a viable option for non-degree learning, which has no (or flexible) standards to comply with and does not involve many people who are supposed to keep common pace in order to interact productively and efficiently in the course of learning.
Beaudoin, M. (2002) Learning or lurking? Tracking the “invisible” online student”. The Internet and Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.c3l.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/series/mbfin.pdf
Gulati, S. (2004). Constructivism and emerging online learning pedagogy: a discussion for formal to acknowledge and promote the informal. Retrieved from http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003562.htm
Huang, H.-M. (2002). Towards constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology. 33(1), 27-37. Retrieved from http://www.umsl.edu/~wilmarthp/modla-links-2011/Toward-a-constructivism-for-adult-learners–in-online-learning-environments.pdf
Jenkins, J. (2006). Constructivism. Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. Retrieved from http://knowledge.sagepub.com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/view/edleadership/n121.xml
Marque. S. (2010, March 20). Constructivist learning in online courses. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.brighthub.com/education/online-learning/articles/38850.aspx
Schell, G., & Janicki, T. (2012). Online course pedagogy and the constructivist learning model. Journal of the Southern Association for Information Systems. 1(1). 26-36. Retrieved from http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jsais/11880084.0001.104?view=text;rgn=main
Schunk, D.H. (2012). Learning theories: An educational perspective. (6th ed.). Pearson education, Inc.