Constructivism. Putting the social into e-learning

There is no one true reality – rather, individual interpretations of the world. These are shaped by our experience and our social interactions. Learning is a process of adapting to and organising one’s quantitative world, rather than discovering pre-existing ideas imposed by others. Clements & Battista, 1990.

Constructivism is essentially a theory of learning, which developed from the work of Piaget. It is based on the belief that ‘reality’ is not an external absolute, but a personal composite constructed from our active thinking and previous experience. Learning requires the active construction of knowledge, rather than absorbing it from books  and lecturers (Eckerdal, et al. (2006). Thus, understanding is created as we engage mentally with our ‘environment’ in an effort to make sense of it, referring, as we do so, to what we already ‘know’ to be true. The word environment is used loosely here – it could be the world around us, a specific situation, a mathematical problem or a poem; essentially any situation which we strive to make sense of.

Zurita, G. & Nussbaum, M. (2004:235-6) cite the work of Rochelle and Teasley (1995) in listing the characteristics of effective constructivist working environments. These include learning being constructive, active, significant, based on consultation, reflexive and collaborative. Thus:

Constructive means that the students have to modify their current knowledge schemes to integrate new information and acquire new knowledge. Active indicates that a total student participation is expected. Significant refers that learning has to be with a meaning, built from the conceptual structure the student already has. Based on consultation points out that the child has to formulate his/her own questions, from multiple interpretations and learning expressions. Reflexive shows that the student has to mirror his/her own experience on other students, making them experts in their own learning. Finally, to be collaborative indicates that the child learns from others by working together on the same objective, where each group member is a potential source of information.

For constructivists, learning is a transformative process in that our understanding is constantly changed by additional meaning making. Mezirow (1991:94) argues that transformative learning ‘‘begins when we encounter experiences, often in an emotionally charged situation, that fail to fit our expectations and consequently lack meaning for us, or we encounter an anomaly that cannot be given coherence either by learning within existing schemes or by learning new schemes.’’

The ability to reflect is seen as a powerful tool by constructivists. Mezirow (117) states:

Reflection is involved in problem solving, problem posing and transformation of meaning schemes and perspectives. We may reflect on the content of a problem, the process of our problem solving or the premise upon which the problem is predicated. Content and process reflection can play a role in thoughtful action by allowing us to assess consciously what we know about taking the next step in a series of actions. Premise reflection involves a movement through cognitive structures guided by the identifying and judging of  resuppositions. Through content and process reflection we can change our meaning schemes: through premise reflection we can transform our meaning perspectives. Transformative learning pertains to both the transformation of meaning schemes through content and process reflection, and the transformation of meaning perspectives through premise reflection.

Constructivists believe in creating learning environments that offer learning opportunities that are meaningful to the learner, provide maximum learner control over the learning situation and encouraging the learner to be active in their construction of mental representations of phenomena in their world. Constructivist teachers value the understanding (often informal in the case of young children) what learners bring to the table and use it as a starting point for further learning. Constructivist do not really believe in ‘teaching’; rather that learning occurs in an environment which is creative, exciting, engaging and motivating for learners.  The function of the facilitator (teacher) is to create this environment, and to guide or support the learner in his or her path to understanding. This is done in a number of ways, including asking pertinent questions which steer the learner’s thinking so as to provide direction.  Bruner called this  support scaffolding, based on Vygotsky’s idea about the zone of proximal development, being the difference between what a person knows now, and can learn next.

Social constructivism (socio-constructivism) is based on constructivism, but places emphasis on the social aspects of learning. Vygotsky saw language as the prime conduit for learning, saying that our most valuable learning is gained by talking about things. Knowledge making can occur as we reflect on issues as individuals, but discourse – discussion, questions, argument, explanations – is the most powerful method of refining our understanding. Downes puts the idea neatly by saying (2008:24) “Although we learn what we learn from personal experience, we usually learn what we learn from other people.”

Learning environments reflect the change in our beliefs about how learning occurs. Today, desks are arranged to facilitate discussion and teachers provide opportunities for groups to discuss issues. Fernandez, (2008) provides us with a useful contrast between the learner as an individual and the learner as a member of a social group, reflecting on Brown’s comments that the idea of ‘I think, therefore I am’ should be replaced by ‘we participate, therefore we are.’

Constructivism was welcomed by educationists who were turned off by the assumptions of the behaviourist school, which tended to see learning simply as a matter of responses to stimuli. Lowerison et al. (2004:466) say that  “the objectivist position is that reality exists independently of the human mind and is not affected by an individual’s particular belief system. Physical laws are constant, and are based on an objective and reliable set of facts, theories and principles. Perceived changes in the nature of reality are simply the evolution of our knowledge about the “truth” driven by the discovery of some previously unknown, but pre-existing, phenomena.” The essence of the difference between these paradigms is the way they perceive the nature of truth, and the way one goes about ‘acquiring’ it.

E-Learning and social constructivism

It is relatively easy to create a social constructivist environment in a classroom. It is more difficult to do so in the context of distance learning, whether paper based (these still exist in developing countries) or electronic. Early distance education e-learning environments tended to be simple electronic versions of old paper based ones, where lecture notes was provided for students to read on screen. Communication was more or less limited to e-mail discussion with  the course tutor. The attrition rate in distance education has always been high, one of the reasons being that the systems designed to deliver e-learning has tended to leave students students feeling isolated (Flood, J. 2002). E-learning designers have struggled to design systems which provide a social constructivist environment, largely because it is impossible with the technology available at this stage to recreate classrooms online. According to Valentine (2002) problems include “the quality of instruction, hidden costs, misuse of technology, and the attitudes of instructors, students, and administrators.”


The kinds of applications used to ‘deliver’ content have been called Learning Management Systems (LMSs), managed learning environments (MLEs) and virtual learning environments (VLEs).  VLEs like Blackboard force users down a narrow, highly directed path and are not particularly user friendly as a result.  However, vast improvements have been made by open source developers, who are involved in ongoing work on more flexible applications like Moodle, which is more capable of supporting  constructivist pedagogies (Downes, S. 2008). Fernandez (2008) makes the point that Moodle “isn’t just a piece of software used for teaching and learning, it’s also a community of educators and software developers who have incorporated the culture of the guild and apprenticeship into their work processes.” The influence of educators is important when it comes to providing systems which match the needs of learners.

We see here that better software does facilitate better design and provision. This notwithstanding, it is useful to take cognisance of Farmer’s comment (2008) that “the use of constructivist methods does not necessarily require a specific e-Learning system…” and that providers need to “focus on instructional methodology rather than information technology.”

Virtual Learning Environments as we understand them today, are unlikely to be as powerful as blended learning environments for the simple reason that it is is impossible to mirror the classroom, with all its nuances, vocal and visual clues. However, e-learning providers have learned much in recent years, supported by more powerful computers, communications infrastructures, Internet technologies and applications enabled by the changing way in which we understand and use the web.  What has become clear is that a high level of personalised support or “hand-holding” (Martinez, M. 2003:1) is important for distance learning students and that learning-management packages need to come bundled with tools which enable students to communicate effectively with one another to make use of the potential of socially constructed learning.  Computer mediated communication plays an important part in this, providing the potential for supporting both personalised and social learning in terms of choice of tools and the means to communicate with one another to create effective learning networks. More and more communication tools are on offer – email, messaging, sms texting, discussion boards, video-conferencing, blogs, wikis, podcasts, vodcasts, microblogging applications like Twitter, Plurk and (until recently) Pownce. The number of choices grows almost daily. Downes (2008:24) has suggested that developments in conferencing applications “will make actual in-person meetings less necessary, and the ‘blended’ aspect of blended learning will come increasingly to reflect the in-person activities people undertake in their own workplaces or communities.”


The bottom line is that educational institutions as we now know them are bound to change. Already we see lectures being replaced by podcasts and a steady reduction in tutor-student face to face time as management types replace academics as leaders of universities and universities become more like businesses, trimming costs and urging faculty to ‘work smarter’. New applications like Second Life are already attracting a good deal of interest in academic circles, raising the possibility of adding value to both  distance education and replacing at least some part of current face to face blended learning. In the future, the brave new world of virtual reality will have an even larger impact on the way we communicate, learn, recreate and do business.

In the immediate future, new, web-savvy students who were raised in a digital age and use powerful information technologies on a daily basis for both personal and work purposes are pointing us in a new direction, that of personal learning environments (PLEs). Unlike VLEs, these are created by the users themselves, providing rapid access to the resources they require to do what they do. From a pedagogic perspective, the importance of this is that PLEs provide a high level of personal control as opposed to institutional control, providing a good fit with the constructivist paradigm.  ‘Digital natives’, as Prensky (2001) calls them, are natural networkers, highly ‘connected’, social, collaborative, multi-taskers. They use information and communications technologies intuitively, even if they do not always understand the educational potential of all the applications they are familiar with (Trinder et al. (2008). The idea of connectivism (Drexler, 2008) ties in well with social constructivism, demonstrating how new generation learners use the power of our networked world to tap into remote sources of knowledge, including experts in various fields.  These learners work in a world without boundaries from a technological point of view. They are adept at finding, storing, managing and sharing information using new web-based applications. More importantly, they are involved in knowledge creation, using blogs, wikis and other on-line applications to mash and developing new ways of looking at and using information. These students bring fresh challenges for learning institutions across the educational spectrum, given their need for a fast moving, game oriented learning (Pensky, 2001) which traditional learning environments are hard pressed to provide.

The video below, created by Wendy Drexler, shows how today’s independent learners use technologies to find, organise and manipulate information in our information rich world, using their connections to develop powerful social networks to mediate their construction of knowledge.  It is these skills which are essential for all learners if they are to flourish as members of the knowledge economy.





This post first published on M’s CBLT Blog.


Bellefeuille, G., Martin, R. & Buck, M. (2006)  From Pedagogy to Technagogy in Social Work Education: A Constructivist Approach to Instructional Design in an Online, Competency-Based Child Welfare Practice Course Child and Youth Forum, 34(5). 371-389.

Clements, D. & Battista, M. (1990) Constructivist learning and teaching. Arithmetic Teacher, 38(1). 34-35.

Downes, S. (2008) The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On. Accessed 30/11/2008.

Drexler, W. (video) Access via Belshaw, D. (2008) Finally! A video that explains what I’m aiming for as a teacher. (accessed 29/11/2008)

Eckerdal, A., McCartney, R., Mostrom, J., Ratcliff, M., Sanders, K & Zander, C. (2006) Putting threshold concepts into context in computer science education (2006) Proceedings, ITiSE ’06, June 26-28, 2006, Bologna, Italy.

Farmer, J. (2008) Social constructivists and eLearning. Michael Feldstein’s e-Litrate blog. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Fernandez, L. (2008) Moodle and social constructionism: Looking for the individual in the community. Academic Commons. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Flood, J. (2002) Read all about it: Online learning facing 80% attrition rates. TOJDE 3(2)

Lowerison, G., Sclater, J., Schmidt, R. & Abrami, P. (2006)  Student perceived effectiveness of computer technology use in post-secondary classrooms. Computers and Education, 47. 465-489.

Martinez, M. (2003) High attrition rates in e-learning: Challenges, predictors and solutions. The e-learning development journal.

Mezirow, J. (1991)  Transformative dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pear, J. & Crone-Todd, E. (2001) A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction.  A social constructivist approach to computer-mediated instruction. Computers and Education, 38(1-3).221-231.

Prensky, M (2001) Digital natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001).

Trinder, K., Guiller, J., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Nicol, D. (2008) Learning from digital natives: bridging formal and informal learning. The Higher Education Academy.

Using distance learning to your networking advantage. The e-Learning Portal. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Valentine, D. (2002) Distance learning: Promises, problems, possibilities. Accessed 29/11/2008.

Zurita, G. & Nussbaum, M. (2004) A constructivist mobile learning environment supported by a wireless handheld network (2004 Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 20. 235-243.

Supplementary material.

Belshaw, D (2006) The kind of school in which I want to work. Accessed 1/12/2008.

Brahm, Taiga (2008) PLE illustrations. Social Software and More blog. Accessed 3/12/2008.

de Freitas, S. (2008) Serious Virtual Worlds. A scoping study. Serious Games Institute, JISC

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1 Response to Constructivism. Putting the social into e-learning

  1. Pingback: Connectivist Ecologies « CCK08 - Viplav Baxi

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