Technology and Constructivist Pedagogies

The Impact of Technology on Constructivist Pedagogies

By Kristina Ford and Leslie Lott

Abstract

Currently, within the field of education, constructivism has taken an influential lead as the focus of researchers has turned to determining how knowledge is constructed.  With the advancement of technology, constructivist learning theories have been reviewed and revised as educators try to incorporate technology while balancing constructivist based pedagogies. Technology offers flexibility and adaptability reflective of pedagogies across various learning models based in constructivism. Pedagogy of constructivist learning theories such as activity theory, social constructivism and situated learning have been altered and empowered through the use of technology as a tool in learning.

Keywords: educational technology, constructivist pedagogy, activity theory, social constructivism, situated learning

Introduction

The history of learning theories sheds light on an ever-changing and evolving field.  Through studying behavior, knowledge acquisition, and memory, promising new procedures and/or concepts have prompted discussion and further research regarding the nature of learning.  Currently, within the field of education, constructivism has taken the limelight as the focus of researchers has turned to how knowledge is constructed.  Even as constructivism has and continues to be a main focus of learning theorists, the tools used in education have become increasingly powerful and crossed the crevasse between day-to-day life and education.  These tools relate to one another under the umbrella we term technology.

Technology as a tool in learning has been embraced by some and disgraced by many, yet today’s digital natives traverse virtual worlds without hesitancy or misgivings. “Students are far more technologically savvy than the institutions that support them” (Desai, Hart, & Richards, 2008, p. 329).  This poses a problem as teachers try to reconcile personal constructivist pedagogies with a tool they are unaccustomed to or intimidated by. Yet, it’s this very tool which opens the door to new and innovative applications of constructivist teaching and learning methods.  According to Desai, Hart, and Richards (2008), “The vast amount of information that computers supply on a daily basis has allowed teachers and students new ways to explore education compared to ordinary instructional tools” (p. 329). Technology offers flexibility and adaptability reflective of pedagogies across various learning models based in constructivism.

Historical and pedagogical perspective on constructivism

The early roots of Constructivism are from the educational theories of John Dewey and Jean Piaget (Brown and Green, 2006). Dewey set the foundation for constructivism by finding inquiry to be a key part of learning. Piaget’s theories also helped to shape constructivism with the key concepts of assimilation, accommodation and schema. Combined, these theories constitute the beginning of the constructivist learning process by focusing on how learning is processed and structured (Neo, 2007).

Constructivism was further developed through the works of Bruner, Vygotsky and Papert (Neo, 2007). Vygotsky’s fundamental contribution to constructivism was the formal introduction of a social aspect to learning. Theorists who have contributed to the development of constructivism have a common theme which is knowledge is considered dynamic and constantly changing. Learning is an active process which involves the learners personal interpretations created through experience. Instructors take an interactive role providing scaffolding and collaboration for learners. Constructivist pedagogies are built from these foundations.

“In an educational context, pedagogy often refers to the teaching strategies, techniques or approaches that teachers use to deliver instruction or facilitate learning” (Wang, 2008, p.412).  Constructivism, stated simply, contemplates how the learner constructs knowledge in a meaningful way. One way this is done is a focus on the types of tasks given to learners.  Two guidelines used to determine if the task falls within constructivist pedagogy include if the task is meaningful and if it is authentic.  To be considered a meaningful task, the learner should derive applicable, understandable knowledge from it.  An authentic task is directly related to the course of study and is applicable to the real world.

Constructivism emphasizes the responsibility of learning lies within the student while the teacher acts as a facilitator of learning.  Desai, Hart, and Richards (2008) stated, “Technology is also often assumed to be the catalyst of new pedagogical change” (p. 327). This paper clarifies pedagogical change impacted by technology within three constructivist based learning theories; activity theory, social constructivism, and situated learning.

Activity Theory

Based on Marxist philosophy, Activity Theory was developed from the works of Vygotsky, Leont’ev and Luria (Jonassen, 2000). Aligning the importance of social interaction with cognitive development, Activity Theory provided an alternative to the more popular theories at the time. Traditional theories focused on cognitive development through internal activities separate from external activities while Activity Theory assumes that activity and learning cannot be separated (Jonassen, 2000). Learners produce cognitive tools through social interactions resulting from the cultural environment produced by an activity system.

The purpose of an activity system is to process an object which produces an outcome and that outcome is the production of knowledge (Jonassen, 2000). An activity system produces a product or object through the interaction of two subsystems which interact with each other in order to produce said object. The components of both sub-systems are interrelated and cannot produce the outcome individually. Components of the sub-systems include a subject, object, tools, rules, community and division of labor (Jonassen, 2000).

Activity Theory prior to technology was relegated to the physical classroom.  Murphy and Manzanares (2008) list the elements of the system with the teacher as subject, teaching students as objects. Tools include eye contact, body language, textbooks and blackboard; rules include seating in rows facing the teacher, informal planning and no talking in class (Murphy & Manzanares, 2008).  The community consists of teachers, students, parents and administrators, and the division of labor is strictly linear following a direct line down from the Department of Education, school district, community, school, principal to the teacher (Murphy & Manzanares, 2008).

With the advent of technology in the form of the virtual classroom, the rules and tools affecting an activity system differ dramatically from the environment of the physical classroom. According to Murphy and Manzanares (2008) instead of the tools being tangible, such as chalk and a blackboard, they take the shape of email, software and texting. The pedagogies associated with Activity Theory have been impacted due to technologies influence on the activity system components. The time and workload invested in the virtual classroom compared to the physical classroom is significantly heightened. Preparation, planning, evaluation and assessment in the physical classroom may be done informally and with ease Teachers in the virtual classroom must complete the same steps formally which result in a heavy investment of time and effort (Murphy & Manzanares, 2008). Murphy and Manzanares (2008) provided an example of students in a physical classroom handing in homework which the teacher assesses during class time and gives feedback if needed. In a virtual classroom homework must be downloaded, reviewed, marked appropriately and then sent back to the student. Technology is assumed to automatically increase production by completing tasks more efficiently and effectively but the initial impact requires a significant investment from the teacher (Dillon, 2004).

Additionally the instructional design in a virtual classroom requires extensive planning and preparation which is not the case in the physical classroom. “E-teachers need the lead-time to get PowerPoint notes developed. They cannot start from scratch on a blank outline whiteboard” (Murphy & Manzanares, 2008, p. 1067). Virtual classrooms present some difficulty because few teachers have the knowledge and expertise needed to fully utilize educational multimedia, virtual learning environments and the types of educational transaction they support (Dillon, 2004). While the components of Activity Theory may be scaffolded by technology, in order to be fully realized, teachers must invest a significant amount of time and effort in learning the technologies themselves.

Technology’s greatest pedagogical impact within this theory may be in the area of social interaction. The exchange of personal, social and cultural norms determines the work environment which in turn creates the rules of performance in an activity system (Benson, Lawler & Whitworth, 2008). In a physical classroom the personal, social and cultural clues are learned from direct social interaction in the form of body language, visual cues and facial expressions (Murphy & Manzanares, 2008). The application of technology in a virtual classroom removes all physical contact and the environment of the system must be determined through email, texting and discussion forums. This impacts the object of Activity Theory by shifting it from teaching students to helping them learn (Murphy & Manzanares, 2008).

Social Constructivism

The origins of Social Constructivism are attributed to post revolutionary Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1978) expanded the Constructivist epistemology by arguing that social interaction plays a key role in the development of cognitive function and higher order thinking results from relationships between individuals. The distinction between constructivism and social constructivism is that in social constructivism learners are incorporated into a knowledge community based on language and culture (Vygotsky, 1978).

According to Social Constructivism, learning is a collaborative process which is differentiated between two developmental levels. Distinguishing between these levels as actual development and potential development resulted in Vygotsky’s identification of the “zone of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 85). The zone of proximal development is the potential level of cognitive development a learner has if they are provided with the appropriate support. Scaffolding is the process that supports individual efforts through the structuring of interactions and the breakdown of instruction into steps that are manageable by the student in response to their level of performance (Brown & Green, 2006).

Technology has impacted the pedagogies of Social Constructivism significantly. According to Desai, Hart, and Richards (1998) instructional design is a critical factor in the creation of effective online instruction. “One of the most important steps in creating a successful e-learning environment includes the development of flexible technology-based course content” (Desai et al., p.331). There must be a significant investment of time and effort on behalf of the instructor in order to create a successful e-learning environment. “Instructors find that e-learning is much more labor intensive and they have to acquire unusual skills, experience, and dedication to be successful than comparable traditional learning” (Desai et al., p.331).

Social interaction, a key component in the Social Constructivist pedagogy, is also dramatically altered by the impact of technology. “In a nutshell, each major transition in communication media from speech to print to video to electronic form has resulted in changes in our means to create, record, store, distribute, access and retrieve information” (Desai et al., 1998, p.331). As a result of these changes, the social interactions between students and students, and teachers and students have changed. Students are no longer dependant on the teacher as the main source of information. “Web-based environments are important forums for joint problem solving, knowledge building and the sharing of ideas” (Nevgi, Virtanen & Niemi, 2006, p.937).

Because students learn in a social setting by communicating with more knowledgeable people, educators in an online environment must redefine their communication skills (Desai et al., 1998). A high degree of interaction between student and teacher is critical to the success of instruction (Desai et al., 1998). In a pre-technology setting, traditional classroom communication would have not required much forethought. Technology requires the teacher to remain active in communicating to students in order to maintain attention and motivation.

Part of social interaction in the context of an online learning environment includes learner participation in group work. Communication practices within virtual group work include email, texting and instant messaging, all of which provide for a “Social Presence” (Desai et al., 1998, p.328). Prior to technology, a social presence was communicated by dialogue and social clues such as facial expressions, non-verbal clues and inflection (Nevgi et al., 2006). Technology requires “a distinct interaction with learners and high technology devices” providing “a strong interaction between the learner, learner/instructor, and the content as well as other learners” in the distance education environment (Desai et al., 1998, p.328). Online learning management systems such as Moodle are based on Social Constructivism where a culture is fostered by the collaboration of groups to construct knowledge.

Situated Learning

Related to social constructivism, situated learning is a recent, more defined learning theory.  Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger worked together in the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s to study and eventually publish their first book defining and, arguably, justifying situated learning.  “Jean Lave’s ethnographic studies of learning and everyday activity reveal how different schooling is from the activities and culture that give meaning and purpose to what students learn elsewhere” (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989, p. 35).  The premise and pedagogical foundation of this theory is that learning is more effective in shared social situations, termed communities of practice.  Wenger went further to define the following three aspects of communities of practice, the domain, the community and the practice.  The domain is the specified shared pursuit and is the shared group attribute. The community is the environment in which interaction takes place and relationships are developed.  The practice is defined as the “shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, [and] ways of addressing recurring problems” (Smith, 2009). The concept of communities of practices is heavily weighted in the pedagogies of collaboration and learning contexts.

The context in which learning takes place is essential to determining the authenticity of the task.  According to Neo (2007) “context is an integral part of the learner’s concept of meaning, and their cognitive experiences must be situated in authentic experiences in order for them to pursue solutions to their tasks”.  If one were to reflect on the context learning has taken place in education in past years, most would visualize a room with desks lined in a row, an instructor in the front of the room and students whose participation usually took place in response to an inquiry made by the instructor.

Sadly, many would say that is what they see in a school room today which is not reflective of the authentic societal context we live and socialize in and vehemently conflicts with constructivist pedagogies.  “A primary guiding principle… recommends involvement of students in authentic activities that are situated in strong, life-like context, that encourage construction of adaptive knowledge, and that make those students good thinkers and problem solvers today and tomorrow” (Taylor, Casto, and Walls, 2004, p. 123).  Industry, government, business down to the core of society, the family, communicates and collaborate using tools of technology.

If learning is to take place in an authentic context, technology, specifically the Internet, must be utilized. This authentic context has “been applied to the learning digital technology and cultures in spaces such as social networking sites as young people immerse themselves in the language, skills and discourses of communities online” (Willet, 2007, p. 170).  If one was to peruse the Internet, countless online groups with specific shared interests exist and within these groups people learn, share, and grow together.  An essential constructivist pedagogical attribute shared within these authentic communities of practice is collaboration.

In some classrooms, collaboration holds to constructivist pedagogy as students work together on authentic tasks and as the teacher provides scaffolding, feedback and guidance as a facilitator of learning.

“The collaborative activities with others, promoted by this [type of] learning environment, allow [students] to develop multiple perspectives, where some type of ‘shared reality’ is produced” (Neo, 2007, p. 151).  Collaboration guides learners toward “the domain” necessary in communities of practice.  Integrating the powerful and common tool of technology, collaboration extends beyond the four walls of a classroom to communities around the world.  In a classroom, students can utilize technology in a collaborative effort as they research information on the web or create a product using software guided by a common goal. Outside of the classroom, learners can use online discussion boards, social networking sites, online chat, wikis and numerous other technology based tools to collaborate on a common endeavor.

Some concerns have been voiced with the use of technology in collaboration including “power relations which are enacted in these environments, how relations of inequity are being rehearsed rather than challenged, and what happens when a member of a community … wants to challenge the practices of the community” (Willett, 2007, p. 170).  More than ever, the role of the instructor as a facilitator is the key to effective collaboration in online communities of practice.  A study by Tu, Shih, and Tsai (2008) found “learners with more constructivist-oriented epistemological beliefs tended to express more preferences to engage in metacognitive thinking in web environments” (p.1143). As collaborative learning using technology becomes increasingly common, more concerns might arise and will need to be studied and addressed.  Although situated learning established in authentic contexts using collaboration is somewhat attainable without the use of technology as a tool, achieving success in constructivist pedagogies has greater possibilities and truer opportunities when technology becomes a part of situated learning.

Conclusion

“Carroll (1997) indicated that technology is changing our ways of life everywhere except in the schools.  He stated that we still have Industrial Age schools in an Information Age where less that 10% of the classrooms are fully equipped with computers” (Lunenberg, 1998). This is unacceptable and directly opposes the pedagogical beliefs of constructivism, especially meaningful tasks, authentic contexts, and effective collaboration. “There are ways, indeed almost an unlimited number, to stimulate constructivism at every educational level and in every teaching setting.  When considering technology for this stimulation, the World Wide Web (WWW) is important to instructional design” (Lunenberg, 1998). Pedagogy of constructivist learning theories such as activity theory, social constructivism and situated learning have been altered and empowered through the use of technology as a tool in learning and with the ever increasing use of technology, more research on effective learning theories will be procured.

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