Article Review 1: Creating a Constructivist Online Instructional Environment.

Bryant, J., & Bates, A. (2015). Creating a Constructivist Online Instructional Environment.  Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning,  59(2), 17-22.

For this review, I chose the article “Creating a Constructivist Online Instructional Environment’ (Bryant & Bates, 2015) because I am very interested in finding practical ways to incorporate elements of constructivist theory into course design.   The fact that this was published in the last 6 month was also attractive, as I hoped the technology references would not be outdated.

The authors of the article are education faculty at Willamette University who claim a social constructionist theory of teaching and learning.   The article is an anecdotal narrative of their experience in converting two masters level educational programs from a face-to-face format to an online format. The article describes the tools and strategies the authors found to be the most useful, in what they describe, as a successful conversion and conclude, “The online, technology-rich environment provides unique opportunities for pre-service and in-service teachers to engage in a community of discourse, scaffold knowledge, experience cognitive presence and develop “personal’ relationship with course instructors.’

The reader is given an introduction to the programs social constructivist nature and a quick description of how the the authors chose the tools they were to use by matching them to course objectives. Three of the chosen tools were examined in more detail in sections with the headings ‘Social Constructivism Through Podcasting’, ‘Social Constructivism Through Google Documents’, and ‘Social Constructivism Through Frequent and Varied Feedback’.

In each of these sections the authors briefly describe what tool was chosen and how it was employed.   Their is no elaboration on the technological aspect of the tools but instead focus is placed on how each is incorporated into their online pedagogy in relation to a social constructive lens.     The authors theorize on how they believe student learning was influenced through use of the tool and specific examples of student work are used to illustrate individual student growth through a collaborative communication process.

Though I found the article interesting and did find some excellent examples of specific   assignments supporting constructivist learning, I couldn’t help but notice that in the examples the students often felt confused and lost as to the purpose of the assignment and how they were supposed to proceed.   Being a student myself, i must admit to being influenced by their suffering and have to wonder if deliberately confusing students is necessary. It may be effective, but couldn’t equally effective techniques that don’t cause so much angst be chosen? I can concede the point that being pushed out of your comfort zone encourages growth, but I don’t think I believe a student has to remain constantly in that uncomfortable place in order for learning to occur. This is when I started to really applaud the conclusion, drawn by Ally (2008), that a combination of the three main pedagogical theories is the desired approach.   The combination drawing from a variety of theories would allow some students to be pushed out of zone some times, but not necessarily all students at all times.

Of all the techniques described, the one that I felt had the most fully realized result was the section on feedback.   The authors point out that “feedback from professors in online classrooms is even more imperative than for F2F teaching because of the student-instructor distance that is inherent in a virtual format.’ Though I realized feedback was important I had not before thought about the distance as an influencing factor nor fully appreciated why a personal and varied approach was so effective.

In conclusion, I think the article was worth reading and I came away with a more comprehensive understanding of a social constructivist approach in addition to specific real world examples of the theory in online action.   I will not, however, choose to employ all the techniques described in the manner they were used and have come away with a solidified appreciation for a toolbar of strategies drawn from a variety of theoretical approaches.

5 thoughts on “Article Review 1: Creating a Constructivist Online Instructional Environment.

  1. Hi Kim,

    Nice review.

    On the subject of feedback – interesting point. I would side with you and the authors on the subject, however, what about very large lecture hall courses? Do students feel connected to their instructors simply because of that face-2-face contact, even if they don’t actually get individual attention – ever? Similarly, is it possible to have a successful online experience in a very large online course, a MOOC for instance, without any direct instructor feedback? Is that different than face-2-face?

    Is it relevant that this is coming from a small-private liberal arts college? I wonder if online program research from say, Arizona State, would come to similar conclusions? Are there institutional biases involved here, or are we starting to understand something deeper about how we learn?


    1. Owen – I think that, yes, students do feel similarly disconnected in large lecture hall courses. You aren’t getting any personal time with professors who teach those courses and it can be a real drag. On the other hand, chances are decent that you will at least have a TA to work with. That’s a real hit-or-miss experience of course but it’s certainly better than nothing! And I think there’s something to be said for at least the ability to see your professor in person. I’m trying to think back to the last time I had a large course in a lecture hall and I don’t remember ever conversing with the professor, so I’m guessing the feelings are similar.

      On a side note, I have no experience with “MOOCs” but I have Googled them now out of curiosity and they sound fascinating. I have used things like KhanAcademy, Duolingo, Yale Lectures, employee trainings etc. where you are “taking a class” for your own personal learning. There are no other students to interact with and you’re not getting a grade. A “class” where you have dozens (hundreds?) of students and one professor, that’s all online…sounds positively dystopian! Like some sort of cyberpunk mass-education program. How do they work? What is the student interaction like? I’ll have to do more research into this topic.

      1. Hi Nicholas,

        YES! Check them out. Some MOOCS are great, some are horrible.

        I took a Global Civ. course from that was great…and had less successful elements. There were 80K students enrolled and participating synchronously with me. Some of the “discussions” (via bulletin boards) involved scholars in specialty fields there were participating as students, even though they knew more about specific topics than the instructor. They even corrected his text a time or two. Fascinating.

        Also check out I took a course there on the Greek Hero from Gregory Nagy @ Harvard. He’s pretty much the top global scholar on some of the classics at the moment. I felt very lucky to have access to such a resource – even if it was just via his recordings.

        So, how different from a textbook is Khan Academy or DuoLingo? They’re all just an assemblage of content. Is a huge face-to-face “course”, where students don’t actually interact with the instructor and take the multiple choice exams graded by scan-tron, really a course? Is a text a course? What about a self-paced, auto-assessed online math “course” or workplace safety “course”?

        The ultimate question here is what is a course?

  2. Kim – I have often felt those same feelings when reading educational research, and social science research in general. Research requires experimentation, and experimentation often gets messy when you involve students. I don’t like using students as test subjects, even if it’s technically harmless, because I can imagine if I was in that position I would not like it. Being deliberately made to feel confused for a prolonged period of time isn’t helping ME grow, it’s helping THEM do research. I know that’s a bit of a short-sighted way to look at social science research but I’d rather privilege student success in real settings. Similar research can always be done with controls or in experiments where a university education isn’t being played with (that ain’t cheap!).

    1. I would say that intentionally causing confusion is poor pedagogy. Intentionally asking difficult questions or offering minimal instruction to enable broader student interpretation can be solid pedagogy. But there’s no reason for something less than clear communication.

      (forgive me, please, when I’m unclear!)

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