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Constructivist Learning in Online Courses

written by: Shey Marque•edited by: Sylvia Cochran•updated: 3/20/2010

Courses on the Internet are becoming more valued in the community. Some still feel online courses are too impersonal or less effective; however, the right online courses may provide a more natural constructivist learning environment than the traditional classroom model.

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    Natural Learning Concept

    What constitutes a natural learning environment? Natural learning occurs when we actively participate in the construction of our own ideas in relation to taught and learned material, usually by linking it in to our own lives and environments.

    Constructivist learning is the process by which humans create long term retention of knowledge. It is personalized learning adapted to the individual.

    Constructivist learning in online courses does require additional motivation by the student but, it also provides the means for that to occur.

    A good online course will have the necessary supports in place. It is no longer necessary for students to leave a course with a generic certificate that implies they all have the same skills, when they could leave with well developed individual strengths

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    Engaging with Hyperlinked Learning Material

    The acquisition and application of knowledge is an acutely individual process mediated by social and cultural forces, and as such it is suited to constructivist learning methods (Brown, Collins & Duguid, cited in Fetherston 2001). Understanding needs to be sought by the student, not instructed by the tutor (Fetherston 2001). Online courses are more focused on the student rather than the tutor and the student is free to seek their own information with guidance and feedback from the tutor.

    A natural learning environment is created when the student takes responsibility for actively seeking and focusing on material of interest. Most importantly, the learning tool needs to be engaging; therefore, context is a major concern. Hyperlinked learning material that offers students different directions and examples from which to obtain the desired learning objectives has a built in wide-ranging appeal.

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    Unique Learning Path

    The non-linear nature of the Internet means that pedagogical material is produced to suit the powerful natural learning concept. One way in which it may be organized is by allowing users to choose their learning paths to suit individual requirements by inclusion of adaptive hyperlinks. This flexibility is in agreement with natural learning concepts.

    Since learning processes and pathways will differ between individuals, the assessment of knowledge also needs to be made with the same degree of flexibility. That is, the scope of assessment should be wide enough to allow the student to demonstrate in their own way what they have learned, while at the same time bringing to light any deficiencies.

    The quality and depth of the unique knowledge the student then possesses should be considered more important than that knowledge considered still lacking in determining their level of achievement, simply because not all taught material in any given syllabus will be used by every individual in their future directions.

    Online courses that focus on constructivist learning environments have a lot of potential in achieving that objective which has been seemingly unattainable by traditional linear approaches. Greater attention to the needs of individual students can therefore be achieved in online learning versus traditional learning environments.

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    Social Constructivism

    Student centered learning requires collaboration and discussion between all participants in the class. In this way the students themselves contribute a new source of knowledge. Virtual tutorials and discussion boards provide the venue for social constructivism in online courses.

    A study by Dan Melzer from Florida State University revealed that constructivist learning in online courses has significant advantages over traditional classroom based courses.

    • Participants reported that written discussions are produced with more thought and reflection because of the increased amount of time taken to formulate unique ideas and responses to others.

    • Ideas are retained because they are in writing. In a traditional classroom, tutorials are conducted by oral communication where words are quickly forgotten as conversation is diverted. In contrast, the written discussions online can be reread and considered on a more in-depth level.

    • Furthermore, since the discussion is asynchronous, the students have a greater opportunity for researching new information and considering their responses prior to presenting them to others.

    • The resulting input of new knowledge by the students is of a higher quality.
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    Course Design

    There are still instances where online courses have appeared too quickly without much thought being given to the new learning environment, resulting in a direct transplantation of older linear style learning methods on the Internet. A well developed curriculum takes advantage of the power of the Internet to accommodate constructivist learning in online courses.

    • The linked resources need to be appropriate to the topic, varied in style, and derived from authentic sources.

    • Student activities need to be created so that they interact with the content in a way that produces personal meaning.

    • Guidance and support should be provided by the tutor and peers. Students need to interact on a social level to receive critique on their work and ideas by others, and also to contribute to a continued renewal of learning resources.
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    Advantages of Online Learning

    The combination of constructivist learning within a semi-anonymous web environment means students are more likely to take control of (and responsibility for) their own learning, leading to better retention and application of knowledge. Absence of direct eye contact seems less authoritarian and offers the opportunity to speak (write) more readily and confidently, and not be inhibited by self-consciousness. Individuality, self-expression and creativity are encouraged so that students are more likely to engage in constructivist learning activities.

    Conversely, there are always some students who are less motivated or less confident about taking responsibility for their own learning paths. Optional extras, such as real time oral conversation on video, via Skype, or similar technology with the tutor and peer groups may be provided in some circumstances for those ‘at-risk cyber students’ (Wang & Newlin 2002). The natural learning environment of the Internet empowers constructivist learning in online courses.

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    • Fetherston, T 2001, ‘Pedagogical Challenges for the World Wide Web.’ Educational Technology Review, vol. 9, no. 1, viewed 3 September 2008,
    • Melzer, D 1999, 'Constructivism Online: A Survey of Freshman Writing Distance Learning Courses.' Currents in Electronic Literacy, Fall, no. 2, viewed 10 June 2009,
    • Wang, AY and Newlin, MH 2002, ‘Predictors of Performance in the Virtual Classroom.’ The Journal, May 2002, viewed 5 September 2008,