Is online learning necessarily constructivist?
As both How do People Learn and Delivering Learning on the Net make clear, online learning can take a number of different forms – from a just-in-time network-based training session which uses online as a medium for delivering instruction, to an open-ended, work-oriented, informal community of practice. Reynolds, Caley and Mason identify three main genres of eLearning – web-based training, supported online learning, and informal eLearning (Reynolds J et al, 2002) while Weller suggests a fourfold classification into high-tech / low-tech didactic, and high-tech / low-tech constructivist (Weller M, 2002). Unsurprisingly, each different form of eLearning utilises somewhat different internet functionalities and instantiates a different theoretical approach to learning.
Web-based training or WBT is (at least currently) the type of online learning most often seen in the work setting. Such courses deliver locally-bespoke computer-based training material direct to the individual learner’s browser, may be highly interactive, and usually incorporate automated tests to check understanding and reward progress. WBT uses the internet or company network as a one-to-many distribution system with integrated return channel for interactivity, tracking and test feedback. Courses are linear in format and there is little if any interaction with tutors or peers.
This type of online learning has its foundation in behavioural theories of learning with their emphases on one-way instruction, the primacy of the expert, step-by-step progression, stimulus and reward, and summative assessment.
On the other hand, eLearning experiences belonging to what Soren Nipper calls the ‘third generation of distance learning’ have very different characteristics, centering round student interaction with course materials and dialogue with the tutor and with other learners. This type of online learning utilises a much wider range of internet communication affordances: one-to-one, few-to-few and few-to-many as well as one-to-many. The format will usually be less linear and more hypertextual, there will be less prescription and more learner control over content, and interaction will take the form of synchronous or non-synchronous conferencing (text, audio or video) plus individual and collaborative production of wikis, websites, podcasts etc – the whole gamut of internet communication and publication technologies.
This kind of online learning casts the teacher in a facilitative rather than an expert role, and emphasises dialogue, the personal construction of meaning, learning by doing, and the social context of learning. It is clearly founded in constructivist, social-constructivist or community-of-practice approaches to the nature of learning.
The important point to bring out at this point is that while WBT makes only very partial use of the functionalities afforded by the internet, third generation online learning makes full use of them. So while it’s not the case that online learning is necessarily constructivist in nature, it is the case that the constructivist approach is much more closely aligned with what Neil Postman calls the ‘ideological bias’ inherent in the internet as a technology. For technologies are not neutral; on the contrary,
Embedded in every tool is … a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. (Postman N, 1993)
A related point is that online learning which makes full use of the internet’s affordances in this way will result in a different kind of learning than that resulting from using it simply to deliver instruction. While WBT may be an efficient way of delivering finite packets of factual knowledge, or new procedures, or technical skills, it is not suitable for delivering the higher order learning skills – communication, planning, analysis, evaluation and reflection skills – that enable students to become independent, self-directed, lifelong learners: for these you need interactivity, dialogue, participation. And it is these lifelong learning skills that are increasingly at a premium in the networked organisation and the networked economy.
Nipper S, 1989. Third generation distance learning and computer conferencing. In Robin Mason and Anthony Kaye, editors, Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education, chapter 5, pages 63-73. Pergamon Press.
Postman N, 1992. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage.
Reynolds J, Caley L, Mason R, 2002. How do People Learn? Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Weller M, 2002. Delivering Learning on the Net. Routledge Farmer