Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The message below looks at the role that the constructivist approach to learning plays in online courses. It is from the Summary and Conclusion chapter of the book, Distance Learning in Higher Education: A Programmatic Approach To Planning, Design, Instruction, Evaluation, and Accreditation by Alfred P. Ravai, Michael K. Ponton, and Jason D. Baker. Teachers Collage Press, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York and London. Published by Teachers College Press, 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027. © Copyright 2008 by Teachers college, Columbia University. Reprinted with permission, all rights reserved.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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The Constructivist Approach and Online Learning
Summary and Conclusion
The concepts and theories presented in this book represent a philosophy of teaching and learning that helps readers better understand the principles of distance education. Common threads of perspective will be apparent to assist individuals in formulating a philosophical foundation for online learning with implications for instructional systems design. The first concept discussed is constructivism.
The philosophy of learning that each individual constructs knowledge through his of her interactions with the environment, including other learners. Thus, from the constructivist viewpoint, knowledge is not purely objective but is socially constructed in part, the learner is an active processor of information and creator of personal knowledge, and the instructor's major role is that of facilitator of learning.
Adult Teaching and Learning
College and university students are adults who possess unique needs, motivations, goals, and self-concepts. Most current theories of adult teaching and learning are based on the work of Malcolm Knowles (1988), who popularized the term andragogy to describe the learner-centered art of helping adults learn. Andragogy is a learner-centered approach characterized by active learning and self-directedness that draws from the principles of contructivism. It assists adults in moving from dependency to self-directedness as it draws from their life experiences in order to help them solve problems and apply new knowledge.
Online learning relies on computer-mediated communication (CMC), which represents how people communicate using computers. CMC supports the interactivity and collaborative work that is valued in a constructivist environment. In asynchronous learning networks, CMC's strong points include opportunities for reflective thought prior to participating in a discussion and post-participation review/access to written discussions. The weakness most often cited in the professional literature is the reduction of nonverbal cues, such as encouraging gestures, during the communication process. Consequently, CMC tends to be less friendly. Moreover, there are increased opportunities for miscommunication when using CMC, especially in a multicultural learning environment.
Sense of Community
Sense of community is also an important aspect of distance education that supports the constructivist approach to learning. Community-building also helps reduce or prevent feelings of isolation and alienation that often contribute to distance education student attrition. Sense of community in an educational setting includes social community and learning community (Rovai, Wighting, & Lucking, 2004). Social community represents the feelings of the learning community members regarding their cohesion, connectedness, mutual trust, safety, interdependence, and sense of belonging. Learning community, on the other hand, consists of the feelings of community members regarding the degree to which they share group norms and values and the extent to which their educational goals and expectations are satisfied by group membership. The online instructor fosters a sense of community by creating a safe environment where students are not threatened when they express their ideas, promoting socialization, communicating respect for diverse perspectives and backgrounds, providing timely feedback that gives direction and keeps information flowing, responding to the educational needs of students, and maintaining an online presence.
Presence is a sense of "being there" and is important to building a strong sense of classroom community. Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, and Fung (2004) describe a "community of inquiry" (p. 63) model that highlights three important presences that are necessary for a meaningful online educational experience: social, cognitive, and teacher. Social presence refers to the copresence of students and teacher to create a climate that supports productive CMC to accomplish shared educational objectives. Cognitive presence refers to an individual student's constructivist learning via CMC and, hence, level of content engagement within the course. Finally, teacher presence refers to the instructor's presence, which promotes interaction among all members of the learning community and provides feedback and direction. Because the online learning environment does not support these various presences by scheduled, physical proximity, the online instructor must continually assess presence within the learning community and respond as needed to any perceived weaknesses.
Self-Directed and Autonomous Learning
Self-directed learning is an approach to learning in which students take the initiative to determine their learning needs, formulate their own learning goals, identify resources for learning, adopt suitable learning strategies, and evaluate their own learning outcomes. Learner autonomy can be defined as the characteristic of the person who independently exhibits agency (i.e., initiative) in learning activities where independence is the characteristic of the person who controls his or her own actions. The main benefits of self-directed and autonomous learning are typically seen as fostering lifelong learning by allowing students greater abilities to control their own leaning process, create their learning agendas, develop their learning strategies, and establish a learning pace. Educators must support the building of necessary cognitive processes within learners that further the development of their self-directedness and autonomy. These processes include helping students value learning as a means to desired outcomes, understand that the accomplishment of suitably chosen learning goals can lead to desired outcomes, and assume responsibility for one's own learning.
The goal of social equity is to ensure that no individual or groups of individuals are subject to discriminatory practices based on factors such as race, national origin, religious practices, age, ethnicity, disabilities, and gender. Social equity is promoted by self-directed and autonomous learning that permits every individual to choose a life trajectory by developing in personally meaningful ways without being hindered by discrimination. Social impediments to learning can occur when students of diverse backgrounds experience dissonance between (a) derived meanings and intended meanings, and (b) culturally influenced preferred communicative patterns and those perceived as required or appropriate. Both of these factors influence the effectiveness and efficiency of communication. Online instructors must be diligent in strengthening text-related modalities, reducing the cultural effects of misconstrued meanings, and encouraging all forms of respectful participation so that all members of the learning community have equal opportunities to learn.