Constructivism and Technology

prepared by
Michael Corry
for
Dr. Donald Cunningham
P540 - Spring 1996

Driscoll (1994) explains that it is not an accident that constructivism is gaining popularity and momentum at the same time interactive, user-friendly computer technologies are becoming widely available. She explains further that "the computer offers an effective means for implementing constructivist strategies that would be difficult to accomplish in other media" (Driscoll, 1994, p. 376).

During this paper, I will briefly review the underlying assumptions of constructivism, discuss the application of technology and constructivism together, and review strengths and weaknesses of this approach. During this discussion, I will assume the role of a teacher educator. In the latter sections of the paper I will attempt to turn this theory "back upon itself" while examining the strengths and weaknesses of its assumptions.

Constructivism - Underlying Assumptions

There is no single constructivist theory of instruction, rather researchers from many fields are working with many different aspects of a constructivist theory. In addition, Driscoll (1994) explains that constructivism is only one of the labels used to describe this work. Other labels include generative learning, embodied cognition, cognitive flexibility theory, situated learning and authentic instruction, postmodern and poststructural curricula, and educational semiotic.

Even though there are many researchers and many different labels for the work being done, there are some common assumptions they share. To better understand the first of these assumptions I will compare objectivists to constructivists. Objectivists assume that knowledge is external to a learner and that our job as educators is to effectively and efficiently communicate or transfer this knowledge to the learner. Constructivists on the other hand focus more on learning in context and the process of learning. They believe that there is a real world that learners experience, but that meaning is imposed on the world by the learners, rather than existing in the world independently of them. They also believe that there are many ways to structure the world and there are many meanings or perspectives for any event or concept (Duffy and Jonassen, 1991).

Building on these basic assumptions of constructivism, Driscoll (1994) has compiled a list of five constructivist conditions for learning. I believe this is a good overview of constructivist assumptions about learning, therefore I will briefly discuss each of the items on the list.

"Providing complex learning environments that incorporate authentic activity" is the first condition for learning Driscoll provides. Constructivists believe that students should learn to solve complex problems they will face in real life. This process is difficult unless complex authentic learning environments are available to the learners.

The second condition stated by Driscoll is "providing for social negotiation as an integral part of learning." Bruner (1986) explains that learning is a communal activity or sharing of culture. In other words, collaboration among learners provides an opportunity for learners to share their understandings with others and to have others do the same with them. This provides multiple perspectives to each learner and a negotiation process between learners which results in better understanding and learning.

Driscoll's third condition is to "juxtapose instructional content and include access to multiples modes of representation." In other words to "revisit the same material, at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives is essential for attaining the goals for advanced knowledge acquisition" (Spiro, et al., 1991, p. 28). This is particularly important with ill-structured content domains. Because these domains are diverse and complex, constructivists believe that to achieve complete understanding the learner must examine the material from multiple perspectives. If this is not done, the learner will achieve only a partial understanding of the material. Multiple modes of representation allow the learner to view the same content through different sensory modes.

"Nurturing reflexivity" is the fourth condition for learning Driscoll provides. Cunningham (1987) defines reflexivity as "the ability of students to be aware of their own role in the knowledge construction process." It involves being aware of one's own thinking and learning processes. Driscoll (1994) explains that reflexivity is a critical attribute in learners that allows them to be aware of how and what structures create meaning. Constructivists believe this is important for learners so they achieve goals such as reasoning, understanding multiple perspectives, and expressing and defending their own beliefs.

Driscoll's fifth and final condition is to "emphasize student-centered instruction." Hannafin (1992) describes this as having the student as "the principal arbiter in making judgments as to what, when, and how learning will occur." Students are actively engaged in determining what and how they will study or gain understanding. Central to this concept, is the idea of student ownership in the learning process.

Application of Technology and Constructivism

To better understand how technology might assist in implementing constructivist strategies I will make up an example classroom experience. This experience will center around a course in English composition. The purpose of one unit of the course is to learn to compose short stories. I will play the role of the teacher (even though I know little about composition) and I will attempt to use technology along with constructivist strategies.

First of all, I will provide the students some basic ideas about the composition of short stories and I will provide them with several examples. I will allow the students to go through the examples and reference materials for a short time. Then I will ask each student to develop their own idea about what, when, and how they will compose their own short stories. One of the requirements that I have is that each student will work in a collaborative group. This does not mean that they will all be going through the same process. It does mean that they will share their own particular process, findings, and their developing short story with their group members. However, students will not meet in groups face-to-face, they will perform all of their group work via e-mail.

Each student will have an e-mail account and a computer (we have a school with many resources) which they will use to communicate with the other students and with any outside individuals they may choose. Students are required read and respond to each e-mail message they receive. When draft versions of the short stories are available, each student in the group will be required to send that draft via e-mail to each of their group members for review and comments. Eventually, all of the final versions of the stories will be sent out in an electronic journal via e-mail to all of the students in the school. As a teacher, I will act as a coach and mentor during the process.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Technology and Constructivism

To discuss the strengths and weaknesses of technology and constructivism, I will again use the example of the students learning short story composition. First, I will discuss the strengths. The first strength of this approach is the collaborative process. This process is one used frequently by constructivists. This process allows each student to share their own perspective about what short stories are and how they should be written. This process will inevitably result in each student stating and defending their own feelings. In addition, each student will have the opportunity to fine tune their beliefs and their stories based on what they hear from their group members. As a teacher, I believe this will result in two positive outcomes. First, students will not only better understand how to compose short stories, but they will better understand the process that other group members went through to develop their stories. Second, I believe the students will have to learn how to be respectful of others beliefs and feelings. Students will learn to work together. This collaborative process could take place without technology. However, I believe e-mail makes it easier for each student to share their story, edit their story after receiving feedback, and to communicate more frequently outside of the classroom. The collaborative process is not limited to classroom time and face-to-face meetings.

The second strength of the process is allowing the students to take ownership of what, when, and how they were going to learn to compose their own short story. Allowing students to have this freedom allows students to explore ways of composing short stories that are important to them. If something is important to a learner, I believe they will spend more time working on it and they will want to do a better job. Even though it was not mentioned in the example, one form of technology, the advancement of a world-wide network, would allow learners to have access to information from around the world. This abundance of easily-accessible information allows learners to explore virtually any area they choose.

As a teacher, there are a two weaknesses I see in constructivism. The first is the problem of dealing with students who do not know how to manage their own learning. In the short story example, what could I do with the students who do not know how to do their own research or who don't know how to work collaboratively? This is where students must be assisted through coaching or scaffolding. I believe that technology can be of assistance in this situation. The teacher can monitor all e-mail messages between group members. Therefore, as the teacher identifies a problem they can respond to the student via e-mail or they can set up a meeting with that student. The e-mail allows the teacher to better monitor the students than if several groups of students were meeting at the same time face-to-face.

The second weakness I see as a teacher is the learning level and motivation of the students. It seems to me that student-centered instruction and the collaborative process will work well with motivated, high achieving students. Whereas, those students who are not motivated, are not as quick at picking things up as other students, or who might be shy and timid will not benefit from this environment. As a teacher, I believe this is a legitimate concern. The only answer I can see as a teacher is to try to improve my ability to motivate my students and to learn to be a better coach and mentor for my students. I am not sure how technology can help me with this problem beyond giving me a better monitoring device and abundant sources of information that might motivate my students. This sounds like a lot more work for me as a teacher. I hope the results are worth it!

Bibliography

Bruner, J.S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Cunningham, D.J. (1987). Outline of an education semiotic. American Journal of Semiotics, 5, 201-216.

Driscoll, M. P. (1994). Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Duffy, T.M., & Jonassen, D.H. (1991). Constructivism: New implications for instructional technology? Educational Technology, 31, 7-12.

Hannafin, M.J. (1992). Emerging technologies, ISD, and learning environments: Critical perspectives. Educational Technology Research and Development, 40, 49-64.

Sprio, R.J., Feltovich, P.J., Jacobson, M.J., & Coulson, R.L. (1991). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism, and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. Educational Technology, 31, 24-33.