Social Constructivists and eLearning

This is a guest post by Jim Farmer

On July 15th Luke Fernandez, Weber State University and frequent Sakai contributor, posted “Moodle and Social Constructionism: Looking for the Individual in the Community” on Academic Commons. Broadly interpreting his post about attending the San Francisco MoodleMoot US 2008, he identified two issues: (1) How does the choice of an instructional method impact the design, development, or choice and use of a learning system? (2) And implicitly from his response to this conference, what conferences and conference programs increase the adoption and use of education methodologies and technologies? Both have been topics of discussion since the San Francisco MoodleMoot; this post responds to those issues.

Constructivism in Practice

Perhaps one of the earliest eLearning systems to be designed to support constructivist learning was Fred Hofstetter’s Serf learning system. (For a summary, see “Lunch with Fred Hofstetter” published on e-Literate). This early Serf development paralleled Blackboard development where Blackboard focused on automating faculty activities at Cornell University. The two systems, at that time, had sharply different designs.

The use of constructivist methods does not necessarily require a specific eLearning system. A example of current application of constructivism is described in Cheryl Reynolds and Liz Bennett’s “A social constructivist approach to the use of podcasts” published in July’s ALT Online Newsletter. Although not described as constructivism, John Mayer, The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, suggests “test what has been learned in a formative fashion” as one method of engagement listed by Reynolds and Bennett.

Stanford’s Charles Kerns used Course Works assessments to manage student activities. These requirements were used in the development of Sakai’s Samigo Assessment Manager. During the Samigo design discussions Kerns gave this example: “Attend a session in district court and describe the role of the jury (as an essay answer). The answers were “Done” and the default “Not yet.” A series of such “questions” then has some of the characteristics of sequenced learning.

As the eLearning systems—Blackboard, ANGEL, Desire2Learn, Sakai, Moodle, ATutor and Olat to name a few—increase functionality there are fewer functional differences among the systems. Georgetown University’s Peter Farkas recently commented: “Now the choice of an enterprise learning system depends upon reliability, scalability, and ease of use.” And responsive technical support when it is needed—a requirement for any enterprise system.

Focus on the Use of Instructional Technology

Some observers suggest eLearning Conferences should now focus on instructional methodology rather than information technology. “Tool-based” conferences tend to attract information and education technologists responsible for system development and administration, and assisting faculty use the technology. The discipline-based “conferences” tend to be tracts within the discipline oriented conferences. For example the American Physical Society and Association of Physics Teachers hold conferences and exchange practices and results through the Physics Education and Research series of papers. (The work of the Physics Department at the University of Colorado, Boulder is an exceptional resource). Similarly the American Economics Association’s Committee on Education has an active program in teaching and learning recommending both learning objectives and methods of instruction for undergraduate economics. The Association of American Medical Colleges has a Group on Educational Affairs (GEA) Program Overview that holds sessions at the Annual Conference. The Association of American Law Schools has a Committee on Curriculum now devoted to innovation in legal education and published the Journal on Legal Education as well as workshops for new Law School teachers (that focus on learning theory and the classroom—the knowledge that every instructor should have).

The U.S. MoodleMoots focused on higher education began in 2006. The MoodleMoot was held one day before and at the same location of the Instructional Technology Council’s eLearning 2006 Conference. Martin Dougiamas keynoted the ITC Savannah conference. (More than 1,000 DVDs of Martin’s presentation were distributed in the U.S. and 400 in Europe). Similarly the 2007 MoodleMoot was held one day before eLearning 2007, but in a different location in Albuquerque. This conference was keynoted by Kevin Kelly from San Francisco State University’s School of Education. He focused the conference on the implementation of learning systems. (San Francisco State University now used Moodle). The San Francisco Moodle-Moot was held at a different location and several months later that eLearning 2008, and combined some information technology with instructional technology sessions.

Remote-Learner CEO Bryan Williams has suggested returning to the joint conference arrangement for 2009 because of the number of learning managers and instruction technologists at the ITC eLearning conference. Others have pointed out that a Sakai regional conference at the same time may also be productive. A combined conference could have presentations focused on learning using technology appropriate for any learning system with tracks for Sakai and Moodle or any other learning system. Fernandez’ review of MoodleMoot 2008 suggests this as an alternative. Teaching methods in primary tracks, specific learning systems in other tracks or an early workshop.

There have been some discussions among eLearning Hub’s Jason Cole—one of the San Franciso MoodleMoot organizers , Sakai Executive Director Michael Korcuska, Avron Barr formerly with ADL, and Lisa Petrides and her colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) about collaboration with the discipline-oriented education conferences. Since many faculty have limited travel opportunities and would choose the conference of their discipline, incorporating sessions on instructional technology could extend beyond the enthusiastic early-adopter faculty into the early and late majority. Early discussions are beginning with these discipline-oriented organizations to learn more about their interests.

Further discussion and exchanges may provide additional information about better serving and expanding the teaching community and improving student learning with available learning systems. Fortunately Luke spent his July 4th in his office sharing his experience with all of us.

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Jim Farmer is an engineering economist at instructional media + magic inc. His interests include educational technology, academic research, and information standards. He also writes for Intellectual Property Magazine. For more information, see his profile page.
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8 Responses to Social Constructivists and eLearning

  1. Pingback: Social Constructivists and eLearning

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  3. Pingback: Some comments on constructivism… « M’s CBLT Blog

  4. Pingback: Constructivism. Putting the social into e-learning « M’s Primary Weblog

  5. You mention that “as the eLearning systems—Blackboard, ANGEL, Desire2Learn, Sakai, Moodle, ATutor and Olat to name a few—increase functionality there are fewer functional differences among the systems. Georgetown University’s Peter Farkas recently commented: “Now the choice of an enterprise learning system depends upon reliability, scalability, and ease of use.” And responsive technical support when it is needed—a requirement for any enterprise system.” However, Farkas’ comments and the elearning systems you referenced are heavily biased towards the academic world, as if academia were the only important sphere in which e-learning exists. The fact is, many CMS platforms are becoming increasingly differentiated due to very distinct needs between the academic world and the corporate world. Having spent the past 18 years developing e-learning platforms for global organizations that demand corporate accountability and quantifiable results, the functional need for integrated performance management and talent management are just two examples of major functional areas that differentiate corporate e-learning platforms from their distant cousins in academia. Just my 2-c.

  6. Curt, having spent a number of years as a corporate e-learning consultant myself, I know what you’re talking about. But this post is in the “higher education” category, and this blog is heavily higher education-focused. But if you’d like to comment on how, say, SumTotal does or does not support social constructivism (which is one of the main subjects of this post), then hey, go to town.

  7. Michael, your point is well-taken and I certainly didn’t mean to take any jabs at higher education. Having had the privilege of attending one of the early educational technology programs, I recognize the importance of studying pedogogical approaches for the sake of studying pedogogical approaches. However, very few are willing to pay you to do it. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to apply a wide range of educational theories to the “real” world in ways that provide value to the organizations willing to pay for the results of that knowledge (but not for the knowledge itself). What I’ve seen is a vast chasm that exists between the corporate world and academia. It has been a passion of mine to try to bridge that gap. Anyway, your blog provides a great forum to discuss such issues, and I appreciate your candor and criticism of my arguments, and all others willing to post.

  8. Matiul Alam says:

    One of the strengths in modern day on-line education system is that it allows us fully employ constructivist approach in generating knowledge utilizing students’ existing views and understanding of the problem. Instead of dictating what students must learn from us, we facilitate learning as a process. I find such student centered, existing knowledge and experience driven bottom-up participatory approach makes certain instructional programs more interesting, beneficial and empowering for both the moderator (facilitator) and the student. Proponents of meaningful inclusive instructional programs with Paulo Freire and John Dewey’s vision would prefer such student engagement for our modern day digital schooling over face to face instructions.

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