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Changing the Nature of Knowledge

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The Nature of Knowing

One of the most important innovations that an educator can embrace is not a software program or particular technological tool, but rather a philosophy of teaching. In the 20th Century, the theory behind learning and the very nature of knowledge has changed several times. Learning theory has moved from Pavlovian and Skinnerian Behaviorism at the start of the 20th Century , to Cognitivism inspired by Bruner and Piaget in the 1960’s, to the Constructivist ideas of Vygotsky in the 1990’s and, most recently, to Social Constructivism (SC) with theorist such as Lave and Wenger leading the way. Under the social constructivist paradigm, social interaction is required for learning to take place. This most recent change aligns nicely with online education because of the advanced communication technology of the Internet and the prevalence of online social networks and the collaborative meaning-making tools of Web 2.0. These elements are central to both social constructivism and Web 2.0 and the delivery of online education on the Internet and the use of these technologies makes social constructivism a natural fit for virtual learning.  

Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When applied to education in general or online education specifically, this learning theory has the potential to change both what it means to teach and to learn. While all current institutions may not allow flexibility in course design, the innovative online educator with the freedom to experiment should be looking to take advantage the following opportunities to facilitate innovative thinking in crafting their courses:

Social Media: It seems redundant to point out that social media would be a key component of fostering SC-based virtual learning, but thinking about how to use social media effectively in this capacity is important. Social media can help the SC-focused instructor engage students in establishing a learning community and facilitating students in working together to make meaning. Innovation is the key ingredient here and new uses for social media will occur as you explore. Here is one example from the PBS Frontline special "Living Faster: Life on the Digital Frontier," of a middle school teacher using social media to engage her students by “Friending Boo Radley”:

While this example takes place in a brick-and-mortar, middle-school classroom, the use of social media to engage students in the study of literature is an inspiring example of the possible direction that any educator could take to incorporate interactive technology.

Other possible applications of social media include using Twitter as a tool for student discussion and debate or using polling or opinion tools similar to those found in Facebook for establishing consensus in the classroom. Entire classes can be designed and delivered in the social media-sphere if the instructor is willing and able to innovate beyond the “walls” of the learning management system (LMS). 

Authentic Experiences: Some of the most powerful tools of the Web 2.0 Internet, audio and video conferencing, rich simulations and the ability to use powerful, professional tools, allow online learners to connect to real-world experiences in the virtual classroom. The use of these tools presents nearly endless possibility for the virtual classroom. In order to make learning experiences authentic, online instructors should be prepared to use the advanced communication capabilities of the Web to connect their remote learners with actual “clients” or experts in the field with whom the students can engage in real projects to both learn and provide a service. This whitepaper from EDUCAUSE: Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview presents the complete picture of authentic learning – from why authenticity is important to concrete examples showing it in practice.

Collaborative Meaning Formation:  Blogs, Wikis, discussion forums, web sites, videos and podcasts are just a few of the possible resources that an online educator can use to provide students with a venue for working together to socially construct meaning in the virtual classroom. For example, using the group authoring functionality of Wikis to allow students to collaboratively create meaning for themselves is a natural fit for the use of social constructivism in the online classroom, playing to the strengths of the Web 2.0 Internet and SC theory. As with all innovative uses of technology, roadblocks will need to be overcome, but the reward for students collaboratively generating their own knowledge comes in the enduring understandings that they will take away from the experience. This resource page from the not-for-profit Teaching, Learning and Technology Group provides comprehensive information for those interested in using blogs, Wikis, podcasts, and other collaborative tools in the classroom.

Who Will Lead the Evolution?

This change in the theoretical understanding of how learning happens aligns nicely with the structures and technological innovations that have led to the recent proliferation of online learning. The rigid structures of brick-and-mortar institutions and the functional silos that seem to characterize many educational disciplines work in direct opposition to the collaborative, active, flexible understanding of what it means to know something under the social constructivist paradigm. While it is possible, given societal pressures, that the traditional university will change to better align with this theory, it seems unlikely that institutions that have embraced the same one-to-many, transmission model of learning since the Middle Ages will spontaneously abandon a methodology that has proven successful for so long. In contrast, as a relatively new concept, online learning and its structures are still flexible enough to embrace change and move along with the pace of technological innovation. The use of the Internet as the delivery medium for online learning also facilitates rapid adoption of change in methodology as it changes and takes the virtual classroom along with it.