Social and Constructivist Learning

I confess. This discussion post has me spiraling, much like the constructivism epistemology. Therefore, in order for me to adequately address the prompt(s), it is necessary for me to divide my answers.

First, is it possible to create a true “social” environment in an online classroom?

Absolutely, it is possible to create a “social” environment in an online classroom. The majority of definitions for the term “social” involve friendliness, informal groups, and gatherings specifically for the purposes of companionship (“Social”, n.d.); however, with more detailed research there is a definition for “social” more applicable to this discussion, specifically “of, relating to, or characteristic of the experience, behaviour, and interaction of persons forming groups” (“Social”, n.d., p. 1). The latter definition lends itself immediately to an affirmative response as the online classroom discussions are designed to satisfy the purpose of interactions between cohorts. The prior definition is also achievable. “Strange as it may sound, one instructor after another notes the surprisingly close relationships that they have developed with their online students. They say that it is common for participants in online courses to develop a strong sense of community that enhances the learning process. Probably as a result of the relative anonymity of online courses, students are much more prone to open up and reveal information about themselves in e-mails and on discussion boards than they are in the F2F environment. Although some instructors may discover more than they wanted to know about their students, my online teaching experience disproves the notion that online courses are impersonal and do not foster relationships, either between students and instructors or among students themselves” (Kassop, 2003, p. 1). My personal experience, although limited, would seem to corroborate this perspective. Cohort groups tend to remain fairly static, which typically allows for relationship growth and development as students continue through the program. I noticed that it took less time for this class to begin deeper, meaningful interactions than in the first class in the program. There has also been more interaction in the class lounge during this class than the previous class as well. But, I also noticed there was some tendency for those who had been in the previous classes together to initially seek each other out, probably for a sense of familiarity. I know I felt less shy (at first) entering into discussions with previous known cohorts than new cohorts. However, after the first week or so that feeling dissipated.

Do you think online learners are able to construct meaning in the same ways as if they would in a face-to-face classroom, in which they interact freely and directly with peers and an instructor?

First and foremost, this question represents a logical fallacy, which is begging the question or circular reasoning. There is an inherent assumption being made that students in a face-to-face classroom “interact freely and directly with peers and an instructor.” This statement is not likely supported by research. There are always some students who interact freely and some who do not. In fact, students’ comments after participating in a research study comparing face-to-face and asynchronous online communication included: “The discussion forum does however encourage an equal level of participation than face to face conversation. … it got most people involved, even those people whom were reluctant to put their opinions across during class” (Ellis, 2001, p. 174) “… whereas in face-to-face communication, sometimes one person can dominate the whole conversation without giving the others opportunities to speak out their opinions” (Ellis, 2001, p. 174). Additionally, “some students thought the impersonal nature of the forum encouraged responses not likely to be expressed face-to-face,” (Ellis, 2001, p. 174) which was also the conclusion of Lewis, Treves and Shaindlin, finding that student discussion comments were “more opinionated and questioning, openly inviting exchange and healthy confrontation” (as cited in Ellis, 2001, p. 174).

Can meaningful and effective social learning take place in an online environment?

Now that the previous two questions have been put into the appropriate context, it is clearly evident that meaningful and effective social learning can take place in an online environment. Perhaps, the more important inferred question is whether or not constructivist learning is effectively achievable in an online environment.

Putting aside for this discussion that “constructivism” is “not a theory but rather an epistemology” (Ormond, Schunk, & Gredler, 2009, p. 184) and it is “not a unified theory but rather has different perspectives” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 185), “many of the principles, concepts, and ideas discussed in this text reflect the idea of constructivism, including cognitive processing, expectations, values, and perceptions of self and others … its premise that learners construct understandings underlies many learning principles” (Ormond et al., 2009, p. 185). As related to education, “learners construct reality in terms of their prior experiences, their conceptual knowledge, their procedural schemas, their values, their attitudes, and their preferred ways of knowing. Mind serves as the mediator between the learner and external reality” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 1).

In fact, Mark Kassop wrote an entire article “Ten Ways Online Education Matches, or Surpasses, Face-to-Face Learning” outlining the advantages of online learning. His listed the following advantages for the learner: “student centered learning, writing intensity, interactive discussions, lifelong learning, enriched course materials, on-demand interaction and support services, immediate feedback (as compared to traditional teachers), flexibility, and intimate community of learners and faculty” (Kassop, 2003, p. 1). Further, online discussion groups are characterized as being discussion-oriented, authentic, project-based, inquiry-focused, and collaborative” (Huang, 2002, p. 35), which are essential characteristics of constructivist theory (Ormond et al., 2009).

Finally, from a personal standpoint, although online learning was a little overwhelming at first, once I became acclimated to the protocols involved, the characteristics of the program align with my learning style to a significant degree. As an ADHD person, traditional classrooms were difficult due to attendance and time constraints. Additionally, I have found it advantageous to read others’ perspectives, and then be able to take the time to research their references for myself and reflect on them before continuing the discussion. Also, I have found the written format academically challenging as well as strategically equalizing. The cohorts in our discussions are much more respectful and considerate in constructing their responses than I have experienced in face-to-face learning experiences, whether persons would either speak without thinking or not speak at all. I consider myself blessed to have become part of this learning community and am particularly appreciative of the constructivist aspects herein.

References

Ellis, A. (2001). Student-centered collaborative learning via face-to-face and asynchronous online communication: What’s the difference? (Research Study). Retrieved from Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (Ascilite): http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/melbourne01/pdf/papers/ellisa.pdf

Huang, H. (2002). Toward constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal for Educational Technology, 33(1), 27-37. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.114.1697&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Jenkins, J. (2006). Constructivism. Encyclopedia of educational leadership and administration. Retrieved from Retrieved November 6, 2010, from http://www.sage-ereference.com/edleadership/Article_n121.html

Kassop, M. (2003, May/June). Ten ways online education matches, or surpasses, face-to-face learning. The Technology Source. Retrieved from http://technologysource.org/article/ten_ways_online_education_matches_or_surpasses_facetoface_learning/?keepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=400&width=800

Ormond, J. E., Schunk, D. H., & Gredler, M. (2009). Constructivist theory. In Learning theories and instruction (Laureate Custom Edition) (pp. 182-222). New York: Pearson.

Social. (n.d.). In Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved from Retrieved November 24, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/social

Social. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved from Retrieved November 24, 2010, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/social

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