Constructivism and E-Learning

I’m writing this from my new favourite cafe in Mountain View, California, less than an hour outside San Francisco and in the heart of Silicon Valley. I have literally eaten in restaurants featured in the HBO series Silicon Valley and have been to the GooglePlex and have driven past Quora, Nasa, Mozilla, Adobe, Netflix, Microsoft and LinkedIn headquarters over the last week. I visited an iStore specifically selected and designed by Steve Jobs himself and have, in general, watched the tech worker ants prowl around the streets in their casual work uniforms sporting the smallest, fastest, smartest tech devices around. Despite the overpowering sense that I’ve somehow accidentally stepped onto a film set and just haven’t realised it yet, it has been a trip filled with tons of good people watching and even better conversations. The work done here is fascinating, playing with and shaping the edges of what translation, data, AI and software design can do. It’s got me bubbling with ideas for future places and types of work in the field of education, technology and society and has been putting some of the newer skills I recently learned in ETEC 530 to the (conceptual) test.

ETEC 530: Constructivism and E-Learning was an advanced graduate course for educators interested in deeper philosophical discussions on knowledge and constructivism. It provided me with many opportunities to examine my personal beliefs about the nature of knowledge and truth, learn what philosophers have to say about these topics, and establish an understanding of how knowledge is central to constructivist pedagogy. As a reading intensive course, I had to dedicate about 14 hours of my working week to complete the required readings, do research and participate in online forums and assignments. This wasn’t a burden though, as time management has always been one of my top skills and I happily divided my time between my day-time teaching responsibilities and my evening and weekend time to diving deep into the philosophical world this course presented me with. I began with the coursework, keen to dig into definitions of knowledge and classical philosophical accounts thereof. In an opening forum we were asked to outline our definitions and understanding of the term ‘knowledge’. I outlined that

My day to day idea of knowledge is that it is a set of data/information that has the ability to provide predictive power. Things that can be proved in repetition and confirmed via observation and despite any influence of belief or opinion. Biased toward the scientific method and knowledge paradigm, certainly, but I find it useful for most general conversations. With this loose definition, I am able to hold knowledge as something distinct from beliefs whilst allowing me to avoid a discussion of truth/reality altogether. Equally important to my idea of knowledge, is the notion that any knowledge held will be predicated by a set of assumptions (e.g. values/beliefs/frameworks) that act as a foundation and filter from which knowledge is built. These foundational assumptions will either accept or reject information, and information that is accepted then becomes networked into a system of knowing and knowledge. (This being said, I just used quite a number of undefined terms but I think this works as a post for early in this discussion).

Following this exploration into our pre-existing ideas, we began to investigate knowledge with a close reading of Pritchard’s (2018) textbook on epistemology titled What is this Thing called Knowledge?. It was such a clear, concise and well-written textbook that made complex philosophical concepts easy to understand and analyze. This is something I really appreciate in a textbook, particularly in the social science fields, as writing can be dense and difficult to interpret much of the time.  We spent the first 5 weeks of the course making our way through this book, reading weekly chapters that we then deconstructed and discussed on forums with our peers. Using these forums meant that there were great opportunities to gain insights shared by others that I hadn’t developed on my own, or to have my own conclusions and reflections constructively questioned as well. In week 2 we took a short digression into theories of Multiple Intelligences, looking specifically at the pragmatic educational benefits to them as well as the criticisms and lack of research support. In this section, I got to put my photoshop and graphic design skills into action and created this infographic to represent Howard Gardner’s (1989) theory of Multiple Intelligences.

In the associated forum post, which required us to investigate how the concepts of epistemology and intelligence related to one another, I wrote:

In education, there is a clear aim toward meeting epistemological goals. Epistemology is best understood as a theory of knowledge, with scholars engaging with the methods, validity and scope of knowledge to investigate what distinguishes justified beliefs from opinions. However, there seems to be an equal drive toward building or rewarding intelligence in educational settings. Intelligence refers to the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. An interesting question to pose then is how the notion of intelligence would be understood from an epistemological perspective or vice versa. We can […] see that both Pritchard and Gardner, whilst discussing knowledge from distinctly different perspectives and many years apart from one another, are actually addressing similar points. Both dispute the traditional viewpoints, how to measure intelligence and what the epistemological goals of education should be, in favour of more foundational approaches. Both seem tinged with hints of critical theory, situating intelligence and epistemology in the cultural contexts of students that are being educated. Furthermore, both reject the notion that modular information, rote learning and standardized testing can be used to achieve or demonstrate knowledge or intelligence, opting instead for approaches that draw on a few skills in different contexts and that fundamentally rely on a student having used their own motivations to develop intellectual virtues that foster understanding. Both theories considered here, therefore, speak directly to the constructivist framework, tied as it is to critical theory, and offer valuable resources and support for both theoretical and practical aspects of designing and conducting a constructivist classroom for the 21st-century citizen.

One of my favourite assignments in this course also fell under the epistemology umbrella, when I got to pull out some of my hibernating media and hermeneutics skills in order to undertake a review of a film to outline where it demonstrated some of the epistemological concepts we had been studying over the last few weeks. I selected Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception to deconstruct and really enjoyed the process of analyzing it in relation to distinctions between knowledge and true belief, perceptual knowledge, virtue epistemology and how these notions map onto educational contexts. My major takeaway from this assignment is that epistemological ideas, whether supported or denied, are exceptionally useful critical thinking tools to help build various skills, insights and knowledges that are valuable to the 21st-century citizen, student or employee/employer. By making entertainment a multi-layered communication tool, offering both escapism and conversation, teachers are able to integrate media into their classroom in a meaningful and interactive way, avoiding passive knowledge exchanges. This seems like an exciting opportunity for the e-learning instructional design community to relish, as the resources are endless and varied. With this and a final forum discussion, we wrapped up the epistemology and knowledge section of the course and progressed onto constructivism, which constitutes a major theory of knowing that is based on deep philosophical assumptions about how knowledge is acquired and the nature of reality. Our primary guide through this field was a recent edition of Catherine Fosnot’s (2014) textbook on constructivism, with a series of essays from different authors in the research and application spaces of this theory on the side. Framing constructivism as a theory of how one comes to know, I read through a series of evidence-based constructivist teaching strategies as identified in primary research journals. Initially, constructivism and I did not see eye to eye, with me stating that:

I have always been content with the constructivist claim that perception and experience are going to inherently shape and filter what knowledge agents gain and how they classify, interpret and apply that knowledge in their beliefs and behaviours. However, constructivism seems incapable of explaining how individuals externalise knowledge and share it or how externalised norms impact the individual. More importantly, constructivism seemed far from a post epistemology and is instead very regressive in its foundational assumptions. This, for me, is due to the fact that a) most constructivists seem to write from a position in which they are making implicit value judgement, showing pessimism for most (if not all) other theories,  b) it superimposes evolutionary theories onto structures of learning without much evidence beyond claimed anecdotal similarities and c) constructivism obscures any distinctions between meaning, understanding and knowledge. The latter point in the most pertinent downfall to constructivism for me, as it completely undermines the post-Renaissance epistemologies that distinguish between superstition and knowledge whilst denying an ontological reality altogether. From the constructivist view, everything in a person’s mind is knowledge and it offers no framework for external properties to distinguish between knowledge and belief, undermining the centuries of work produced by epistemologists. Any theory that suggests that a thought that persists can become knowledge is not one that I can willingly include in my pedagogical philosophies or approaches. These rejections of ontological realities also have devastating consequences for fields that I work in like history or ecology, both of which require a shared understanding rather than just one of constructs among constructs. What I have now is a sort of soft-constructivism in my educational philosophies: a willingness to accept that individuals will internalise and construct knowledge differently to others and an understanding that perception and experience are key players in the learning process. I am also drawn by the concept of knowledge and learning being seated in spaces of conflict and adaptation, as I think processes of exchange are vital for these. Furthermore, I am exceptionally happy to have a pedagogy which embraces notions of cultural/social shaping of knowledge (particularly because it aligns with my work in critical theory and related discourses). My philosophy of education therefore rests on the shoulders of epistemologists like Pritchard, historians like Foucault, thinkers like Galileo and other intellectual tools which continually develop through exchanges and filters of socio-cultural norms and individual perceptions and that give us mechanisms for a consensus around access to an ontological reality and distinctions between knowledge, superstition, justified true belief and psychosis without requiring the establishment of a dogma.

However, a host of supplementary readings on constructivism in different and combined contexts eventually helped me warm to the idea. A broader and deeper reading of the literature in the field quietened my anxiety about what I now knew to be termed as ‘radical constructivism’ and gave me insight into the variety of constructivisms and their different usefulness’s and applications. Together, these collective theories of learning seemed rich with ideas on how to integrate experience and interaction in a student’s learning environment to make information meaningful and easier to engage with and remember. Furthermore, constructivism seemed like a great framework for 21st century learning as it integrates various skills that the contemporary citizen needs for employment and world-navigation that they could not gain from the industrial educational model seen in more traditional environments. I now particularly appreciate the notions of using pre-existing knowledge of the student before situating them in spaces in which they can develop, reflect, broaden or change these notions as well as the theories emphasis on group learning and collaboration. Inverting the teacher’s authority to have a more student-led system was also a promising tenant of constructivism, as it allows learners to hone cognitive and intellectual virtues like self-motivation/regulation and research/analytic skills, meaning that they hold more than memorized facts by creating systems for knowledge creation and rejection outside of the classroom environments. These new viewpoints along with discussions on the weekly forum boards were stimulating and engaging and I have to greatly thank my peers for their rigorous research, succinct insights and productive feedback and questioning. Eventually, due to efforts in class discussion fora and the assignments and projects, I was holding onto a vast scope of methods and justifications for education grounded in engaging student-centered lessons, collaborative hands-on activities or problem-solving in groups. This knowledge was to be useful in informing a series of curricular design projects that reflect constructivism, beginning with a Research Cafe we had to design and then host for our peers over the course of a week.

For my cafe, I put together a pitch for a week-long look into distinctions in theories for online vs offline learning, critical thinking when teaching with constructivism and the retention of authenticity in new social learning structures for teachers shifting to a constructivist classroom. This entailed consideration of how constructivism is a theory of learning and not of teaching and what implications this has for how we are required to extrapolate teaching methods from an understanding of how learning will occur rather than designing teaching methods to inform learning. This inverse model seems like a promising framework for 21st-century citizen’s education, but it will require a substantial paradigm shift from the perspective of the teacher familiar with more traditional frameworks. My cafe worked in this space, looking at how the role of critical thinking is more actively required from the student and how to foster this with an authentic and equal presence in the classroom. The approach for engaging with this content was bidirectional, asking participants to self-reflect on their pedagogy and teaching methods as well as investigating the principles and applications of constructivism in e-learning environments. To do this, there were three micro assignments following primary readings I had supplied for this focus area. The final one requested my peers to make a fun listicle summing up the core tenets of constructivist teaching that they had identified. My favourite one was this beautiful post, put together and designed by Katherine Costales:

Designed and Created by Katherine Costales

I got really great feedback on this project, my participating peers saying they enjoyed the activity and the supervising professor Dr. Janes offering up a “well done” and stating that “I like your follow up questions going forward! I liked how you integrated activity into your work on the cafe…with great participation showing because of it!”. This was particularly heartwarming feedback and made me eager to explore instructional design that involved constructivist e-learning models in the near future (I’m open for employment if anyone has a job going). After participating in 7 other research cafe’s run by others in the course, with topics ranging from Constructivism in VR to Digital Citizenship, it was time to turn to our large final assignment that constituted 30% of our final grade. We were tasked with doing one of two things: designing a constructivist lesson plan OR designing a professional development workshop to educate others in my field about constructivism and its applications. I decided for the latter option and developed a short essay as well as 1-hour workshop looking at Constructivism in Conservation Education. A summary of the project is that it looks at how public education organisations (such as zoos, museums or wildlife rehabilitation centres) can use constructivist principles in their exhibits and subsequently help individuals internalise conservation knowledge, find meaningful connections with it and will therefore more readily uptake conservation behaviours. Furthermore, if knowledge is diversified to reflect local knowledge and be more approachable than the traditional scientific languages used in these spaces, then these educational goals will be much more easily reached as they integrate social dimensions into their practices. This research has just been accepted into the 15th conference run by the European Ecological Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal.

With this, the course came to an end and I shot off on a holiday with my mother and sister around Thailand, followed by a short excursion to California to visit my fiance’s brother which brings us full circle back to the beginning of this article. ETEC 530 was my 4th course in the MET program and helped me realise and hone my interests, nestling further into my corner seated at the intersection of technology and culture. Whether I will put all these skills into action in a conservation environment is still to be determined, but I am feeling increasingly well equipped to work in spaces relating to online community development, instructional design, open source education, research and user data analysis, investigation of knowledge paradigms and technological accessibility, digital citizenship models and vast other unexplored avenues that arise from the melting pot of technology, media, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, culture, psychology, design, research and education. Up next is a course on Online Cultures and Communications, beginning next week Monday, and I’m ready and raring to go further and learn more in this academic adventure!

A visual diagram I designed and made for an assignment during the course

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Jamie Dimitra

Producer/Director/Founder of JDBA Creatives. Currently enrolled in the Masters of Educational Technologies at the University of British Columbia. Avid photographer, self-defined designer, working in the fields of conservation media, educational media and curriculum design.