Constructivism and Online Learning

My notes from: Huang, H. (2002). Toward constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology. Vol 33. No 1. 27-37.

Online learning requires a new pedagogy that is built on establishing a relationship between the instructor or facilitator and the learners. One of the most salient features of online learning is that it allows learning to be place and time independent. Learners can arrange their learning around their everyday lives.

Andragogy – Knowles –six principles:

  • Learner’s need to know: how learning will be conducted, what learning will occur, and why learning is important.
  • Self-directed learning is the ability of taking control of the techniques and of the purposes of learning.
  • Then, prior experience of the learner impacts learning in creating individual differences, providing rich resources, creating biases and providing adults’ self-identity.
  • Readiness to learn
  • Orientation to learning – adults prefer problem-based learning
  • Motivation to learn – adults have a high motivation to learn when they can gain new knowledge to help them solve important problems in their lives.

Jerome Bruner – technology is a powerful tool for instruction. Technologies are cognitive tools that help learners elaborate on what they are thinking and to engage in meaningful learning.

Jonassen (2000) summarized that learners use technologies as intellectual partners in order to:

  • Articulate what they know;
  • Reflect on what they have learned;
  • Support the internal negotiation of meaning making;
  • Construct personal representations of meaning; and
  • Support intentional, mindful thinking.

The Web provides immense resources for adult learners. Through the Web, learners can search actively and discover rich resources to solve problems or construct his or her own knowledge. In this way, the Web becomes an effective tool for constructivist learning.

Seven Issues of constructivism for online educators:

  • The issue of humanity and the learner’s isolation, since individual learning at a distance is a basic design for online learning. Because online learning constrains us by allowing communication through computer technology, not a real person, it loses some humanity or it forms social isolation.
  • Distance learners should determine the quality and authenticity of their learning. Adult learners usually are self-directed learners so they actively participate.
  • The real role of instructors is that of facilitator, that is, the learners move from passive receivers to control of their learning.
  • Pre-authentication – the attempt to make learning materials and environments correspond to the real world prior to the learner’s interaction with them.
  • Evaluation of learners’ achievement is time consuming. It is not easy to evaluate learners’ learning outcomes.
  • Constructivists emphasize that teaching and learning should be learner-centered. On the other hand, adult learning focuses on learners as individuals since they have a different prior knowledge and life experiences.
  • Collaborative learning is in conflict with individual differences. When teamwork in collaborative learning is required, the instructor might experience difficulty in taking into account individual learning objectives, preferences and capabilities.

Constructivist Design Principles for Online Learning

  • Interactive learning – people naturally learn and work collaboratively in their lives. Interactivity provides a way to motivate and stimulate learners. It offers a way through activities and online discussions for instructors to cause learners to consider and reflect on the content and process of learning. Interactions between instructors, other learners, and content are crucial functions in online learning.
  • Facilitating learning – create a safe environment for learners to express themselves freely in appropriate ways, to share ideas, and to ask questions. Instructors in constructivist learning environments have a responsibility to monitor and warrant the quality of learning and peer discussions. It is necessary for the instructor to build sufficient support, directions and guidelines for online learners.
  • Authentic learning – Constructivist learning stresses that learning should be authentic and meet real life experiences. The learning environment should provide real-world, case-based environments for meaningful and authentic knowledge.
  • Learner-centered learning – Constructivism and Andragogy similarly stress ownership of the learning process by learners, experiential learning, and a problem-solving approach to learning. Self-directed learners are highly motivated, know what they want to learn, set their objectives, find resources, and evaluate their learning progress to meet their goals.
  • High quality learning – online learning should involve higher-order thinking skills to determine the authenticity and quality of information by assessing the authority of the source and validating it from other sources. Learners must learn how to manage, analyze, critique, cross-reference, and transform information into valuable knowledge.

Connecting Critical Thinking to Online Learning

My notes on: Thinking Critically about Assessing Online Learning

Johnson, Daniel. (2008). Thinking Critically about Assessing Online Learning. The International Journal of Learning, Volume 14, Issue 12, pp.125-130. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 487.276KB).


The importance of assessment in education coupled with the relevance of student –centered knowledge construction presents a strong case for critical thinking skills being used in online course assessments.

The reasons for assessment include determining student achievement, modifying instruction, and improving curricula.

Two basic forms of assessment are formative and summative.

  • Summative Assessment – a cumulative exam usually having a major role in determining a course grade.
  • Formative Assessment – learners take quizzes throughout a course to demonstrate his/her course knowledge.

Educational psychologists have had an impact on assessment proposing more responsive forms of assessment such as authentic assessment, alternative assessments, and portfolio-based assessment.

Changes in assessment models led to changes in curricula which in turn led to the development of educational taxonomies such as Bloom’s taxonomy.

Evolution of Online Learning

The evolution of education has included an increasing attention to and expansion of technological resources.

  • One-way technologies – print, audio, radio, television, and computer-based learning
  • Two-way technologies – audio and videoconferencing, online chat, and webinars

The result is more individualized learning with less external discipline.

Constructivism – defined as a paradigm that emphasizes the active role of the learner in building understanding and making sense of information. Constructivism encourages learners to develop their own understanding of the course content and thereby figure things out for themselves. Educators are encouraged to explore critical thinking activities when designing assessment in online learning.

Critical Thinking

With roots extending to the early part of the 20th century, critical thinking is an outgrowth of critical theory, a movement associated with the Frankfurt School founded in 1923.

Critical thinking includes thinking for one’s self, using inductive and deductive reasoning skills (Bloom, 1956; Ennis, 1962; Sternberg, 1985) and is “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do [with newly acquired information].

In Dimensions of Thinking: A Framework of Curriculum Instruction (1988), Marzano addressed the concern that high school graduates were not sufficiently prepared to use higher-order thinking skills independently. The authors identified one goal of education as the development of competent thinkers who can learn and make use of knowledge independently.

In the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), Bloom proposed six levels of thought:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

In 2001, Anderson and Krathwohl revised Bloom’s taxonomy and published Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning. The authors modified the levels of the original taxonomy, added a knowledge dimension, and facilitated the process of student assessment using the taxonomy. The revised taxonomy lists these six levels of thought:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

The new dimension of knowledge compromises four levels of increasingly more complex order:

  • Factual Knowledge
  • Conceptual Knowledge
  • Procedural Knowledge
  • Metacognitive Knowledge

From constructivist paradigms to educational interventions, critical thinking can be understood as a movement based both on theory and applied techniques. Among the goals of this movement is the responsibility to educate independent thinkers and autonomous learners (Paul, 1993).

Norris (1985) highlights several points regarding critical thinking:

  • Critical thinking is an educational ideal
  • Teachers should look for reasoning behind students’ conclusions
  • Having a critical spirit is as important as thinking critically

Online learning often utilizes lower-level cognitive forms of assessment. These include multiple-choice, true-false, and matching items. While not inherently ineffective, these items do not fully address the complexity of higher-order thinking outcomes. They also do not take advantage of the networking possibilities that online education offers.

Using chat rooms, discussion boards, and live chat, students and instructors can collaborate to develop ideas and consider ideas from alternative prospective.

Gunawaredena, Lowe, and Anderson (1997) articulated several components of online discussions including: sharing and comparing information; discovering and exploring conflicts; negotiating meaning and collaborative knowledge construction; testing and modifying proposals; and applying originally constructed meanings (cited in Sigla, 2005).

A Mission Statement for Constructivist Learning

A mission statement for constructivist learning:

We need to organize learning environments and activities that include opportunities for acquiring basic skills, knowledge, and conceptual understanding, not as isolated dimensions of intellectual activity, but as contributions to students’ development of strong identities as individual learners and as more effective participants in the meaningful social practices of their learning communities in school and elsewhere in their lives (Greeno, et al., 1998, p. 17)

In other words, learners need to develop individual competence, but within a context of effective participation within groups and communities.

Constructivist teaching practices involve active techniques such as experiments and real-world problem solving. Learners in constructivist classes are assigned tasks in which they must implement particular instructional goals in “genuine,” real-world tasks. Student projects can range from the development of web pages to participation in large, ongoing collaborative resource projects that involve many students and faculty over many years of development (Bass and Rosenzweig, 1999). Barr and Tagg contend that constructivism is a new “Learning Paradigm” shifting from passive learning to more active learning where students are active participants and constructors of their own learning (1995). The roles of teachers and students shift in the constructivist classroom; the teacher provides guidance and students help plan their own learning.

Constructivism and Authentic Assessment

Constructivism is a theory about how people learn. Constructivists believe that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world by experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.  To do this, we have to ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.

Characteristics of Constructivist Learning:

  • Learning and collaboration should emulate real-world environments.
  • Problem solving, creative thinking, and inquiry should be stressed.
  • Products and presentations should be used as evidence of learning (not standardized tests.)
  • Learning should encourage collaboration in (and out of) the classroom
  • Assessment should be authentic in nature.

Constructivist Learning favors authentic assessment; assessment that is part of the learning process. Authentic Assessments measure learning which has meaning for the learner beyond a particular class addressing the skills and abilities needed to perform real-world tasks.

Classroom Ideas for Authentic Assessment

  • Checklists
    • Objectives
    • Project Progress
    • Team Work
  • Self-Assessments
  • Writing
  • Journals
  • Demonstrations/ Performances
  • Oral presentations
  • Multimedia Projects
  • Portfolios