By 1997, web-based learning was gaining a lot of attention, and with this focus people began to search around for new models of teaching. Simply recreating the lecture model online was problematic in a period when bandwidth limitations meant that streaming video was not a realistic option for many. More significantly, the advent of the web seemed revolutionary, and for those educators who were keen to exploit its potential, there was a desire to utilize the characteristics that the web brought to the fore and not simply recreate the existing model. These characteristics included communication, access to different knowledge sources, non-linear narratives created through hyperlinking, and democratization of publishing. To fully realize this potential, it seemed obvious that a different model from the conventional lecture-centred one would be required. Later interpretations of online learning, particularly MOOC, have reverted to an instructivist, lecture-based model, which indicates its resilience as an approach, but it also highlights that the technological limitations of the early web forced educators to search for a different model. Had the ubiquitous broadband been available in 1997, maybe the early e-learning models would have been less innovative. In order to represent this pedagogical thinking that the arrival of the web inspired, the selection for 1997, therefore, is not a technology but rather an educational theory.
Constructivism was by no means new in 1997, dating back to Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. Piaget (1964) proposed the processes by which learners (particularly children) construct knowledge. This can be seen as a reaction against the behaviourist models created by psychologists such as Skinner (1963). Constructivism emphasizes the experience and role of the individual in developing concepts. Vygotsky (1978) developed this concept further with the idea of social constructivism: the proposition that learning is not an individual exercise but is developed through social interaction and couched in language. An influential notion from Vygotsky for many constructivists is the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD), which is the difference between what a learner can do with help, what they can do unaided, and what they cannot do. The ZPD is where a learner can progress if they are aided by an educator. This highlights the social and dialogic aspects of learning by emphasizing the interaction between educators and learners. From this, Bruner in particular (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976; Bruner, 1978) developed the concept of “scaffolding,” which can be seen as points, actions, and support methods that allow a learner to work effectively in the ZPD. Scaffolding was a key concept in the early adoption of web-based learning, as it seemed to offer a model for helping learners through this new environment, without resorting to very prescribed, didactic approaches.
The principal concept of constructivism, then, is that learners construct their own knowledge, based on their experience and relationship with concepts, often through some form of social interaction. Jonassen (1991) described it thus:
Constructivism . . . claims that reality is constructed by the knower based upon mental activity. Humans are perceivers and interpreters who construct their own reality through engaging in those mental activities. . . . What the mind produces are mental models that explain to the knower what he or she has perceived . . . . We all conceive of the external reality somewhat differently, based on our unique set of experiences with the world and our beliefs about them. (p. 6)
It’s a (sometimes vague) learning theory rather than a specific pedagogy, so how it is implemented varies. It has often been put into practice by active learning, or discovery-based approaches. The appeal of this for online learning is the sense that the web gave agency to learners — they could create, collaborate, and discover for themselves, freed from the conventions of time and distance. When people can learn anywhere and anytime, then the pedagogy designed for a lecture hall seems limiting.
A commonly used phrase at the time was that constructivism, and in particular constructivist approaches delivered online, saw a fundamental shift in the role of the educator from “the sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side.” King (1993) summarized this transformation thus:
In contrast to the transmittal model illustrated by the classroom lecture-note taking scenario, the constructivist model places students at the center of the process — actively participating in thinking and discussing ideas while making meaning for themselves. And the professor, instead of being the “sage on the stage,” functions as a “guide on the side,” facilitating learning in less directive ways. (p. 31)
It was a neat, if overused, phrase and certainly came with a set of value judgments about the “transmittal” model that were not fully justified. The concept of placing the student at “the centre” of the learning process is still something you occasionally hear today, and for me always prompts the response “As opposed to the periphery?” But in that phrase, there were a number of valid challenges to the traditional mode of education, such as how to deal with abundant resources, numerous voices, and content of unknown origin, while operating in a networked world. The modern development of digital literacies might be seen as the descendant of the “guide on the side” idea.
In 2001 constructivism had become so popular in web-based learning that Oliver (2000) argued that “the theories of learning that hold the greatest sway today are those based on constructivist principles” (p. 18). And it did seem that just about every conference paper at the time opened with a piece on “student-centred” learning and their constructivist approach. In reality, this often equated to little more than saying, “We gave them a forum.” And sometimes it could be an excuse for poor design, a reason for the educator to absent themselves from creating content, because in constructivism everyone had to construct their own interpretation. Mayer (2004) suggested that such discovery-based approaches are less effective than guided ones, arguing that the “debate about discovery has been replayed many times in education but each time, the evidence has favoured a guided approach to learning” (p. 18). It is also an approach that doesn’t apply equally across all disciplines; quantum physics, for example, is almost entirely theoretical and largely counter-intuitive, so bringing your own experience of quarks isn’t going to help or expecting undergrad students to all have Einsteinian epiphanies is unlikely. It is probably also true to say that there was a sense of snobbery about it, as constructivism was the new way for the new technology and all the old-fashioned instructivist approaches were plain wrong.
There was a significant amount of research on effective online implementation. For example, Carr-Chellman and Duschatel (2000) proposed a series of components for an “ideal online course” after analyzing a range of successful ones. These components are summarized here:
A study guide: Online study guides must provide a level of detail that is sufficient to enable the learner to proceed without substantial further personal interaction or clarification from the instructor.
No online textbook: The ideal online course should generally not have the primary learning resources online.
Assignments: The course is centred on the set of student tasks (projects, assignments) that constitute the learning experiences that the students will engage in, either independently or collaboratively.
Examples online: The availability of prior student’s work online.
Course communications: Emphasizing student-to-student interaction and using a range of communication methods that include asynchronous, synchronous, and email.
Interactive skill building: An approach that emphasizes intellectual dialogue for all conceptual and advanced intellectual skills development; dialogue that is developed through the communication methods mentioned above.
From a modern perspective, this list holds up well as general principles of course design and is an example of the type of research and approach that was largely forgotten and then rediscovered with later ed tech developments. Carr-Chellman and Duschatel (2000) emphasized that their thinking was “aligned with current conceptions of constructivist learning” (p. 237). However, not everyone was convinced of the possibility of the new medium to implement effective learning. Bork and Britton (1998) declared that the “web is not yet suitable for learning,” and saw it as primarily a support tool, concluding that they were concerned “with situations in which the website is intended to be the primary delivery method for learning, not when it is a supplement to learning delivered mainly in other ways, such as through lecture” (p. 115). This judgment may not have been overly harsh given the quality of many web-based courses at the time, but it does highlight how a focus on current limitations can miss the broader, long-term implications.
This highlights that, even with the reservations described above, constructivism was significant because it showed educators engaging with technology in a meaningful, conceptual manner. The focus was not simply on web technology but rather the possibilities it opened up for new pedagogy. For example, Spiro, Feltovich, Feltovich, Jacobson, and Coulson (1991) saw constructivism as a means to combine the possibility of hypertext and non-linear approaches to learning in “ill-structured domains”:
More appropriate strategies for advanced learning and instruction in ill-structured domains are in many ways the opposite of what works best for introductory learning and in more well-structured domains. For example, compartmentalization of knowledge components is an effective strategy in well-structured domains, but blocks effective learning in more intertwined, ill-structured domains that require high degrees of knowledge interconnectedness. (p. 29)
It also marked the first time many educators engaged with educational theory. This may sound surprising, but lecturers rarely undertook any formal education training at the time; it was usually a progression from researching a PhD into lecturing, with little consideration on models of teaching. The lecture was such a default assumption for university education that it almost didn’t need training to implement but was simply built on one’s own experience (good and bad). It took technology to cause that reflection on practice. As we saw with CMC, one benefit of technology has been to prompt such reflection by making explicit many hitherto implicit assumptions. Research conducted on the impact of open educational resources (OER) in 2014 similarly revealed that one of the main benefits of OER is that they cause educators to reflect on their own teaching practice (de los Arcos, Farrow, Perryman, Pitt, & Weller, 2014).
The interest in constructivism can be seen as symptomatic of an increased exploration of new pedagogies or as renewed interest in existing ones. In examining the current physical space, Michael Wesch (2008), a professor of social anthropology who focuses on the impact of new media, asked students what a lecture hall “said” about learning; in essence, what were the signals perceived by students of the standard learning environment. This would have been true in 1997 also. Students listed the following:
- to learn is to acquire information;
- information is scarce and hard to find;
- trust authority for good information;
- authorized information is beyond discussion;
- obey the authority; and
- follow along.
These are somewhat at odds with what most educators regard as key components in learning, such as dialogue, reflection, critical analysis, and so on. They were also at odds with what many perceived as the prominent benefits of the new online world. This environment was characterized by democratization, informality, shared knowledge, social interaction, and learner-generated content. Constructivism, then, offered a means of framing the possibilities of this new environment. However, it is not a pedagogy in itself, and so alongside renewed interest in learning theory came the application of a number of specific pedagogies. These included the pedagogies that follow.
Resource-based learning (RBL) emphasizes the learner’s interaction and selection with a range of resources, including human ones. Rakes (1996) summarized it as a process where “students learn from his or her own interaction with a wide range of learning resources rather than from class exposition” (p. 52). If one views the web primarily as a collection of numerous, accessible resources, then RBL was a natural contender for renewed interest. Greene and Land (2000) saw the web as a “resource-based learning environment,” but noted that students often encountered difficulties with an RBL approach due to a lack of digital skills, disorientation, incomplete knowledge, and deficits in quality appraisal. Their response to these issues is to construct appropriate scaffolding for learners. Like any pedagogy, it can be applied poorly, but what the RBL approach, particularly in tertiary education, highlights is the access to a vast range of resources that learners now possess. This removal of the filter to knowledge, and the lowering of barriers to access, represents a fundamental shift in education — from the lecturer or textbook being the sole arbiter of knowledge to an environment which is typified by abundance. Although there has been much progress in recognizing this, for example, in developing digital literacies, this shift and its implications is one that higher education is still struggling to accommodate.
Barrows and Tamblyn (1980) summarized problem-based learning (PBL) as “the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem. The problem is encountered first in the learning process” (p. 1). This emphasizes that it is the presentation of an ill-structured, or open-ended, problem that frames the subsequent learning experience for students. They may work individually, or often in small collaborative groups, to reach a solution, drawing on a range of resources. The types of problems used are often those where there is not a single definite answer, and so it is suited to particular domains where this is common. The role of the teacher is one of facilitator, helping individuals or groups to overcome obstacles, providing useful resources and advice. In medical education, in particular, PBL has been well researched, and there has been some evidence that it is more effective than traditional methods (Vernon & Blake, 1993; Smits, Verbeek, & de Buisonjé, 2002). As with RBL (and perhaps in conjunction with it), PBL can be seen as shifting agency and activity to the learner, and thus needs careful support and scaffolding to work effectively, but it represents the type of learning many of us undertake on a daily basis using the Internet as our resource.
Communities of Practice
Lave and Wenger’s (1991) book on situated learning and Wenger’s (1998) influential book on communities of practice highlighted the social role in learning and the importance of apprenticeship. They proposed the concept of “legitimate peripheral participation,” which not unlike the ZPD, proposes that participants move from the periphery in a community to its core by engaging in legitimate tasks. A very practical example of this is seen in open-source communities, where participants move from reading and occasionally commenting in forums to suggesting code fixes and taking on a range of functions, such as moderation and code commenting. Crowston and Howison (2005) proposed a hierarchical structure for open-source communities, consisting of the following layers:
- A centre of core developers, who contribute the majority of the code and oversee the overall project.
- In the next layer are the co-developers who submit patches, which are reviewed and checked in by core developers.
- Further out are the active users who do not contribute code but provide use-cases and bug-reports as well as testing new releases.
- Further out still are the many passive users of the software who do not contribute directly to the main forums.
Bacon and Dillon (2006) suggested that some of the practices seen in open-source communities can be adopted by higher education, particularly the process of peer-production and the situated method of teaching and learning. With its practical approach, self-direction, user-generated content, and social aspect, the communities of practice approach attracted much attention. As with the other pedagogies outlined here, it was not suitable for all domains; for example, what constitutes a “legitimate peripheral” task is easier to define in some domains than others, and the progress through these layers may be more readily mapped and achieved. The process of undertaking higher education itself can be viewed as one of entering a community of practice, moving from structured work to more independent research and analysis. This can provide a useful model for online courses, where becoming a member of the community itself is seen as a useful outcome.
This is a brief summary of some of the pedagogic approaches that the arrival of the Internet encouraged people to explore, and as such does not provide a detailed evaluation of each. What these approaches highlight is an interest in constructivism and related pedagogies as educators sought to match the nature of the environment of the web to education. The web and the Internet are now seen as unremarkable components of everyday life, and the online world has become more regulated and structured, so it could be argued that educators have ceased to ask these more fundamental questions regarding the different nature of that environment.