Monday, July 9, 2012

Online Learning, OER, and Constructivism

One theory of learning that applies particularly well to online and P2P learning is the constructivist approach. Audrey Gray defines constructivist teaching as “the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction rather than passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge.” Rather than a traditional model of the teacher lecturing the content, constructivist classrooms ask students to find which questions they need to ask, which they need answers to, and how to find the knowledge. Instructors then support students’ attempts to find content and develop answers with other students in the class. This is a truly student-centered model as “the teacher facilitates a process of learning in which students are encouraged to be responsible and autonomous” (“Constructivist Teaching Learning”). Students are engaged and involved in the learning process. Similar to the activities in this course, students may be guided by their instructor to a set of queries but are ultimately responsible for the development of content and knowledge through self-discovery and peer-interaction. This is a great chart highlighting the differences between traditional and constructivist classrooms.

In constructivism there is also a big focus on students reaching their own conclusions through critical thinking and discussion. teAchnology, an online journal and resource website, writes, “Instead of having the students relying on someone else's information and accepting it as truth, the students should be exposed to data, primary sources, and the ability to interact with other students so that they can learn from the incorporation of their experiences.” In this type of classroom (online or face-to-face), students search for meaning that is applicable to them, while receiving input from other peers’ perspectives. Instructors push students to confront their assumptions and to use critical thinking skills.

While I support several of the constructivist concepts that research supports: teaching others and immediate use of learning has the highest average of retained information (vs. reading 10%, lecture 5%), I also see the criticism of constructivism and wonder how to find balance. Although there is a positive correlation between constructivist teaching methods and student achievement, it also produces quite a variance. This suggests that some students achieve more than others. If this is true, how will students who want a more traditional education model-not an open source, P2P model-succeed? How will they be able to complete the course if they aren’t willing or do not have the prior knowledge to work effectively with peers? Is being willing to develop knowledge actively and having experience with learning in a constructivist environment an almost unstated, defacto requirement of an OER course?