Constructivist learning theory and eLearning

Written by Millie van der Westhuizen
Mar 12, 2020

Despite the growing popularity of eLearning, there are still many who question whether it can truly facilitate the actual learning process. To ensure that eLearning resources promote active learning, educators are turning to well-established theoretical frameworks to evaluate their relevance to the online learning environment. Constructivist learning theory is key among these. Specifically, it offers some guidelines on how educators can ensure that learning takes place effectively.

Constructivist learning theory and eLearning

Constructivist learning theory

Before we consider its application to eLearning, it is useful to identify the core beliefs that define this theory.

Firstly, constructivists believe that learning is an active process, whereby new knowledge develops based on the learner’s prior experiences. In this context, it is important to identify what the learner’s current knowledge base is. This ties into another constructivist belief, which states that learning should be grounded in real-world experiences.

Another key principle relates to Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. This theory states that prior knowledge plays a central role in the learning process, which is divided into two developmental levels:

  1. The ‘actual’ development level, which allows learners to solve problems on their own
  2. The ‘potential’ development level, which requires guidance or collaboration for effective problem-solving

In contrast to Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner believed in self-directed learning. Here, the tasks are complex enough to require some facilitation, but are ultimately still solved through the learner’s process of discovery.

Both of these perspectives correspond with John Dewey’s belief – namely, that it is important to utilise a problem-solving approach, rather than making use of rigid instruction or rote memorisation.

Constructivist learning theory in practice

In summary, constructivist learning theory encourages educators to do the following:

  1. Function as a guide or facilitator of learning
  2. Use realistic and relevant contexts
  3. Use various modes of representation to make connections with existing knowledge
  4. Foster self-guided learning
  5. Embrace social approaches to learning
  6. Encourage reflection

Constructivist learning theory in eLearning

Having considered how these theories have contributed toward education in general, let’s explore how they might inform eLearning practices.

1. Function as a guide or facilitator of learning

With traditional teaching methods, the educator often represents an authoritative source of knowledge. As such, the idea of acting as a ‘guide’ may require some re-conceptualisation on the educator’s part.

In an eLearning context, this means including activities, discussion forums and wikis, for instance, rather than resources that simply disseminate information. This allows learners to collaborate and learn from one another. Combining these resources, or designing activities that require independent research, can also play a facilitative role.

2. Use realistic and relevant contexts

This is one of the most important principles of constructivist theory. Given the belief that new information is processed based on existing knowledge, it is important for educators to understand what learners already know prior to engaging with the content.

In other words, they should aim to establish new knowledge in a way that builds on existing knowledge. One way of doing this is by using real-world examples that include relatable situations or characters. This also achieves a higher degree of relevance, authenticity and complexity.

3. Use various modes of representation

Bruner has recommended three modes of representation for facilitating knowledge acquisition:

  1. Enactive representation (action-based)
  2. Iconic representation (image-based)
  3. Symbolic representation (language-based)

It is important for educators to consider how these modes can be used to draw connections between content. Here, information that is presented symbolically (e.g. in a written format) might be accompanied by pictorial representations (e.g. images or videos). Thereafter, a quiz or interaction can be used to test learners’ ability to apply this knowledge. This should result in optimal knowledge acquisition.

4. Foster self-explorative learning

eLearning resources (especially those used for assessments) are often highly structured, with a clear learning path set out. Although this guides learners in navigating their learning experiences, it is still possible to encourage self-explorative learning in this scenario. One way of achieving this is by including links to external websites, or adding word-search functions to the learning management system (LMS).

5. Embrace social approaches to learning

Constructivists believe that learning is optimised when it occurs in a social context, rather than in isolation. This can be difficult to achieve in a virtual environment. As such, it is important to identify opportunities to maximise interaction between learners. This is where synchronous learning becomes crucial.

Hosting live-streaming sessions or providing online forums are two options for encouraging learner participation. However, a more organic form of collaboration is likely to result from group activities, workshops or wikis.

6. Encourage reflection

Finally, constructivist theory encourages reflection on the learning process – which is especially valuable when the process has been one of self-explorative study. Leading questions and blogs are both valuable tools for encouraging reflection in an eLearning context.

Conclusion

Although constructivist learning theory deviates from traditional theories in many ways, these theories are not without value to eLearning practitioners. Traditional theories can still encourage educators to reflect on their own practices, to find ways of achieving understanding and reinforcing knowledge acquisition in their learners. However, constructivism suggests that educators should primarily function as guides, rather than as authoritative sources of knowledge. Ultimately, this means encouraging self-guided exploration, social collaboration and real-world application, rather than developing resources that simply disseminate knowledge.

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