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Constructivism in a Blended Learning Environment
Kevin Kaiser 88480975 University of British Columbia ETEC 530 65A Dr. Samson Nashon March 2, 2008
Constructivism in a Blended Learning Environment
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Blended learning environments are reaching all levels of instruction, and there are as many teaching strategies as there are instructors. Constructivist strategies in blended learning environment have definite benefits, but allowing students the freedom in a changing educational world is dangerous, and properly instructing constructivism is equally dangerous. Introduction The teaching profession has seen fewer changes in the past one hundred years than any other profession. In Kelowna, British Columbia, teaching middle school has gone through drastic changes over the past three years. In a way, the Kelowna school district is paving the way for the future of education. By way of a new laptop initiative, every student in grades seven through nine is given a free laptop. This has created a blended learning environment, or computer/Internet based instruction along with face-toface instruction. Ultimately, this change has forced teachers to rethink their teaching strategies – changing education. Teachers of all ages and skill sets have to work with technology and technologically savvy students. Educational Change One of the key reasons education has changed is the wide spread use of the Internet and the students that have grown up with the Internet. Prensky calls this generation of students digital natives, and the rest of the population are digital immigrants. Digital natives have grown up with full exposure to the Internet. “They’ve been networked most or all of their lives. They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and “telltest” instruction.” (Prensky. p. 3). The traditional classroom and the stand and deliver approach is lost on most of these students. This does not mean that simply adding a
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computer to the classroom is going to enable these digital natives learn. Blended learning has many tools that digital natives will readily understand. “Blended learning programs may include several forms of learning tools, such as realtime virtual/ collaboration software, self-paced Web-based courses, electronic performance support systems (EPSS) embedded within the job-task environment, and knowledge management systems. (Singh, pp. 52-53). The tools in blended learning are the same as those in an e-learning (distance education) course. Mixing in teacher led classrooms and lectures and synchronous physical environments give the teacher in a blended learning environment a real opportunity to mix constructivist approaches into the learning environment. Blended Constructivism The key to making this blended environment work is to allow for flexibility in teaching methodology, and constructivism is a good fit with the learners of today. Teaching a course, such as English, in the traditional manner, may involve the usual writing, thinking, reading and understanding. This remains the same with or without computers in the classroom, but the presentation does change. “This will result in a learning environment that can be described as consisting of a content, a communication and a constructive component.” (Kerres & Witt. 2003) While Kerres and Witt conclude that the blended learning environment lends itself to many different didactic approaches, constructivism remains a strong and necessary component in the blended learning environment. The passive learner is not prominent in the blended constructivist classroom. Students cannot be empty vessels waiting to be filled with teacher led instruction. Liaw
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attempts to prove that social constructivism is a characteristic of a powerful learning environment. “In Web-based collaborative learning, students have more opportunities to be in full control of their own learning. They can also be active learners who not only absorb information, but also connect their previous knowledge to their newly acquired information.” (Liaw, Chen, Huang. p. 951) The blended learning environment is a good fit with the constructivist approach to learning because the students connect with others in a safe online environment, while having the opportunity to interact with others in a face-to-face course. Scaffolding the students learning may take a different form than a traditional classroom, or a computer void classroom. Understanding what the students can and cannot do will help structure a course that different skill levels can successfully complete. The problem lies in understanding what the students know. Prensky quotes Peter Moore, and highlights the need for understanding. “Linear thought processes that dominate educational systems now can actually retard learning for brains developed through game and Web-surfing processes on the computer.” (Prensky, p. 10) Understanding the learner is the key to scaffolding the lessons to best suit the learner’s progress. Problem based learning at the basic level has new meaning in a blended learning environment. The same problem posed to students with computers and the Internet will produce more answers than without computers. Avoiding the one right answer approach will allow for flexibility in not only what is understood, but in how it is understood. These answers can be way off base if the teacher does not know the limitations of the students. Understanding truth on the Internet is different through the eyes of a fourteen year old as opposed to an adult. Although this problem-based learning may not be taking
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place in a real world setting, it is mimicking a real world setting. The problem can still be real, and the students can still come up with more than one correct answer. Teachers in a blended learning classroom must understand their limitations. They should be willing to let go of their classroom more than they would in a traditional classroom. This hybrid model of instruction can take many forms. “The role of the instructor in a constructivist learning environment varies from time to time depending upon student needs and circumstances within each class.” (Rovai, p. 85) The students can take control of their learning more than they would in a traditional classroom, and the teacher can still be flexible enough to passively and actively teach. Constructivism in the blended learning environment lends itself to directing learning more than directly teaching more. Understanding the Environment Measuring learning and monitoring progress is vital to the blended learning environment. Students have to move at the best pace, and the teachers have to measure this pace. This asks the teacher that may be used to traditional classrooms to change their traditional approach. This can be a leap of faith for some of the teachers who are not as adept with technology as others. Liaw et al states, “The acceptance and use of technology by users appear to be limited due to fear of technology, resistance to new technology, not understanding the importance of technology, lack of motivation to adopt technology, or even low quality of technology.” (Liaw et al. p.953) With new teachers who have used technology throughout their academic careers, all of Liaw’s points are hardly relevant. To a digital immigrant, they all can and will affect their teaching. If a teacher feels inadequate to teach in this blended learning environment, constructivist strategies would
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be understandably impossible. Constructivist tools in the blended learning approach are widely available and sometimes free. Blogging is a popular way to get a group of learners to share, read, write, challenge, debate, validate and build knowledge as a group. Blogs can be used as a platform for directing learning in a new way. The knowledge learned by the students would be theirs. It would be shared knowledge rather than taught knowledge. Jigsaw grouping is a cooperative learning technique that has each participant responsible for completing and understanding one part of the whole. Each participant must share his or her knowledge effectively with the group to complete the puzzle. Each member of the class becomes an expert in one area and must present the knowledge to the rest of the class. While this can be utilized in a traditional classroom, the knowledge can be shared with a wider audience via the Internet. By adding constructivist strategies in the blended learning environment, the need for authentic activities is compounded. Project and problem based learning, for example, accommodates different approaches to learning, makes content more meaningful and develops higher-order cognitive skills, life skills, technological skills and selfmanagement skills. Getting students of all ages to buy into this approach is the challenge. “In essence, the strategy is to define a territory and then to work with the learner in developing meaningful problems or tasks in that domain. Alternatively, we can establish a problem in such a way that the learners will readily adopt the problem as their own.” (Savory, p. 4) Students take initiative, assume responsibility for their own learning and make choices about their learning. The main reason this type of learning is not used is because it is not as easy to assess. Learning often takes place in the form of group work,
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and the students learn from one another. Collaborative construction of knowledge often will allow the learners to gather information from their peers rather than regurgitating information in a lecture format. The term “guide on the side” best describes this type of teaching because it takes the teaching out of the teacher. “Allowing the problem to be generated by the learner, an option discussed above, does not automatically assure authenticity. It may well require discussion and negotiation with the learner to develop a problem or task which is authentic in its cognitive demands and for which the learner can take ownership.” (Savory, p. 5) The students become the teachers, and the teacher becomes a director. Letting go of the classroom does not mean totally letting go. The blended learning environment is a mix of traditional teaching and directing along with authentic problem focused learning. The teacher must become a coach who scaffolds the learning to new levels with new discoveries within the learning paradigm. “Rather than simplifying the environment for the learner, we seek to support the learner working in the complex environment.” (Savory, p. 5). Each lesson needs ample time to reflect on what has been discovered. This will highlight the learning, and it will authenticate the learning experience. Each area of education has its own metaphor for learning. Blended learning is no different. In the First Nations community, the education system as a whole is compared to “Walking with a drum in one hand and a computer in the other.” This reflects the struggle to hold on to the old teachings and integrate the new teachings. Essentially, education is a changing entity, but not everything needs changing. The First Nations community understands this metaphor, and can adapt the needs of the community to ensure that
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learning is focused in the right area. Conclusion The blended learning environment can be compared to partially tearing down the ivory tower. As the ivory tower once represented higher learning, higher learning is changing. It is changing as the youth who are growing up with technology, digital natives, work with technology at all levels of schooling. Understanding that there is a change will allow teachers and students to prepare for education at every level. This change will mean a thorough understanding of all learning theories, including constructivism. If the true definition of blended learning is finding a harmonious balance between online access to knowledge and face-to-face human interaction, then the ivory tower is truly coming down.
References Prensky, Mark. (2001). “Digital natives, Digital Immigrants” On the Horizon NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001 Kerres, Michael, De Witt, Claudia. (2003). “A didactical framework for the design of blended learning arrangements” Journal of Educational Media, Vol. 28, Nos. 2– 3, October 2003 Liaw, Shu-Shen. Chen, Gwo-Dong. Huang, Hsiu-Mei (2008). “Users’ attitudes toward Web-based collaborative learning systems for knowledge management.” Computers & Education, Vol. 50 (2008) 950–961
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Rovai, Alfred P. (2004). A Constructivist Approach to Online College Learning. Internet and Higher Education 7 (2004) 79 – 93 School of Education, Regent University, 1000 Regent University Drive, Virginia Beach, VA 234649800, USA Savery, John R. & Thomas, Duffy M. (1995). “Problem Based Learning: An Instructional Model and its Constructivist Framework” Educational Technology, 1995, 35, 31-38. Singh, Harvey. (2003). “Building Effective Blended Learning Programs” November - December 2003 Issue of Educational Technology, Volume 43, Number 6, Pages 51-54.