Education has undergone a paradigm shift

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Education has undergone a paradigm shift in recent years with emphasis moving towards learning rather than teaching. Learning is no longer regarded as a unidirectional process of knowledge transferral/distribution, but rather is considered a transformational process in which learners acquire facts, theories and principles as conceptual tools for problem-solving and reasoning within meaningful contexts. Distance learning (DL) has not been immune to this shift and the technological developments of recent decades has hastened the rate of change. Distance learning is defined by the separation of learner and teacher in space and/or time (Teaster and Blieszner, 1999) and Keegan (1995) considers that it results from the technological separation of learner and teacher which removes the necessity of "travelling to a fixed a fixed meet a fixed order to be trained or educated" (p.7). Although distance learning might be thought of as a relatively new term, it has existed in various forms for over a hundred years, starting life through correspondence courses and continuing in this way until being superseded by instructional television and radio in the mid 20th century (Imel, 1996).

While it is acknowledged that DL continues to take place through diverse media, and that online delivery is just one of these methods, the groundswell in interactive technologies in recent years has concomitantly fostered the development of new methodologies which engender (social) constructivist approaches, and it is the issues which surround these developments, and in particular some of the ways in which constructivist ideals can be realised in DL that will be the focus of this assignment. One of the salient features of DL is that it enables learning to be time and place independent, adult learners are able to arrange learning around their everyday routines without being constrained. In the age of IT a diverse range of teaching (and other) technologies exist to facilitate distance education where instructor and learner are spatially separated and online media are used to span the educational gap. As technology has advanced, so the definition of DL has changed, videotaped lectures were the standard form of delivery in university/professional DL courses in the 1980s and 1990s (Moore and Lockee, 1998) and this model of spatial and temporal separation continued until the Internet, email and compressed video moved DL into new directions and allowed it to occur in real-time. Ongoing technological developments: chat rooms, wikis, discussion boards, weblogs and videoconferencing have continued to reduce the distance in DL as social media technologies have enabled an increase in engagement through collaboration. The use of Web 2.0 tools has accelerated the adoption of two-way, synchronous, collaborative e-learning experiences that are beginning to replace the top-down, unidirectional instructional model. These changes have led many commentators to suggest that DL requires a new, qualitatively different pedagogy built upon this emerging relationship between instructors and learners. Pedagogical considerations must recognise that the virtual classroom possesses a distinctive social-interaction context and that, although technologies may be considered transformative, they cannot, of themselves, transform the learning experience and educators must understand that "distance education is really about creating a different kind of structure for learning and teaching, not the use of technology" (Kearsley 1998, no page no.).

Petraglia (1998) has suggested that educational technologists may have misunderstood the challenges which are posed within the DL setting by "the attempt to make learning materials and environments correspond to the real world prior to the learner's interaction with them" (p.53). These attempts at pre-authentication risk undermining the epistemological dimension of constructivism since the educator pre-determines what authentic learning is, and this may be in conflict with the learner's own perception of what is authentic for them. This attempt at contextualising learning limits constructivism's application since "we need to convince learners of a problems authenticity rather than promote environments that deliver pre- authenticated problems" (Ibid., p.13).

Knowles, Holton and Swanson (1998, p.23) have criticised 'chain-like' sequencing of learning events as being elemental rather than holistic, and yet some online learning models still use 'chain-like' sequencing which fail to incorporate constructivist elements or take advantage of adult learning theories to enhance the learning environment.

Since DL operates in a different environment from the traditional classroom, distance educators must use distinctive perceptions and techniques to ensure success, and some educationalists (Moller, 1998; Petraglia, 1998; Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell and Haag, 1995) have proposed that constructivism is most relevant to this context. Furthermore, adult learners have particular needs and requirements compared with adolescents and children, hence, distance educators must know how adults might learn best because of their particular requirements. Thus, this assignment will attempt to examine the impact that constructivism has in the distance learning environment when focussed upon adult learners, and the ways in which new technologies are supporting the development of constructivist and social constructivism ideals within this environment.

From behaviourism to constructivism

Conventional education has commonly relied upon an objectivist epistemology, this view presumes that knowledge can be transferred from tutor to student via instruction and practice, and that 'true reality' can be discovered by the amassing of facts (Kelly, 1970). Teaching underpinned by this philosophy discourages diverse understandings and views, disregards the different contexts/experiences of the individual, and considers students to be the passive receivers of knowledge. Although the didactic, information-giving technique may be appropriate for some learning styles and in some contexts, its continuation as a dominant pedagogy has stifled recognition of diverse learning preferences. In this context emphasis is placed on teacher-control and student-compliance, in contrast, an acknowledgement that adult learners bring their own particular learning characteristics to any learning situation leads effective educators to recognise these characteristics when planning and delivering learning.

DL has a different setting from the traditional classroom resulting not only from the spatial separation of teacher and learner, but also from the differences in instructional design (Moore, 1991). Since DL cannot facilitate face-to-face interaction in the same way that the conventional classroom does, and as Moore (Ibid.) has noted, group or individual interaction is influenced by the educational philosophy in use, various researchers (McHenry and Bozik, 1995; McDonald and Gibson, 1998; Comeaux, 1995) have focussed upon the study of interaction in DL.

Constructivists (e.g., Dewey, 1916; Bruner, 1966; and Vygotsky, 1978) consider knowledge as socially constructed through learner's interaction with others. However, Knowle's (1970) adult learning theory (andragogy) might be viewed as conflicting with the ideals of collaborative learning due to its focus on learner-centred instruction and individual learning objectives and preferences. Collaborative teamwork is likely to be regarded as antithetical to these ideals unless the adult learner can see positive benefits from participation. The theories relevant to this area will now be considered.

Constructivist and Adult Learning Theory reviewed.


In recent years educational discourse has challenged the objectivist view, with an increasing understanding that there are many ways of understanding reality. Whilst constructivist writers have described various forms of constructivism, all recognise the active role which the learner plays in interpreting the world (Larochelle and Bednarz, 1998). Constructivism contests objectivism's view that knowledge reflects ontological reality (Ibid.), and instead proposes that our constructions and world views are not stable, but rather are in a state of flux as we build upon previous experiences. These changes signify learning, and support the understanding that we are never inert, but instead are always learning and interacting (Kelly, 1970). The writings of Dewey (1916), Vygotsky (1965), Bruner (1966) and Piaget (1926) have all proposed that students learn actively and form new understandings based upon prior knowledge, and these perspectives view the role of the instructor changing from "a sage to a guide" (Mason, 1998, p.4). Dewey (1916) believed that learning situations represent the experience(s) of the environment which affect the learner, and that interaction occurs between the learner and the environment. Therefore knowledge is predicated upon active experience.

Both Dewy and Piaget considered that educators have a role to play both in shaping the student's experience from the environment, and understanding which surroundings are likely to engender experiences that will lead to growth. Dewey (1916) believed that education's main function was to develop the reasoning process, and that problems to be studied should be drawn from the learner's own interests. He viewed it as essential, therefore, that "there be a continuous activity in which he is interested for its own sake" (P.163) and that "...a genuine problem develop within this situation as a stimulus to thought" (Ibid.). In this way, constructivist methods emphasise the development of the learner's ability to solve real-life problems, and in doing so 'free-discovery' and 'problem-solving' come together. As a result, knowledge is dynamic and constructed upon the discovery process (Dewey, 1916), and the instructor is viewed as a guide instead of as a director of learning since learning allows for creative interaction rather than being purely outcome-based.

Vygotsky (1965) moved beyond focussing upon the individual, construing and constructing meanings of reality, instead seeing individual learning as grounded in the socio-cultural context, and symbolically mediated through language/dialogue. For Vygotsky, the learner's social interactions, including those with teachers and other learners, are critically important to cognitive development, resulting in Vygotskian theory often being referred to as social constructivism. Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) describes how engagement with another (teacher or peer) enables learners to refine their thinking or performance and make it more effective; this idea was taken further by Bruner (1966) in developing the concept of scaffolding. Bruner (Ibid.) views education as a process of personal discovery, with cognitive growth occurring as students progress through three learning stages: enactive, iconic and symbolic. In order to generate understanding, students must move through the stages successively, generating new concepts and ideas in a process of discovery learning, or, with the assistance of another, through guided discovery. Knowles et al. (1998) contend that this discovery should take place in real-life situations in order to be truly effective and argue that much adult learning is informal. Knowles is best known for his proposal of a theory of adult learning which will now be reviewed.

Adult learning theory

Andragogy as an ideology of concepts, ideas and approaches for adult teaching and learning was introduced by Malcolm Knowles in 1968 in recognition of the different needs and motivations of adults compared with younger learners. Conventional pedagogical models do not take account of these differences and so may produce tension, resistance and feelings of resentment (Knowles et al., 1998) Six principles of adult learning have been outlined:

Need to know - adults want to know why something should be learned, "what learning will occur, and why learning is important" (Ibid., p.133). The objectivist model assumes that students will learn what they are told to learn. However, adults are used to controlling and understanding what they do, therefore they want to know why something should be learnt and what benefit(s) learning will bring.

Self concept - "Adults resent and resist and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them" (Ibid, p.65). Whilst they feel the need for autonomy, previous educational experiences may have made them dependent. It is the adult educator's role to encourage students to become self-directing, taking responsibility for their learning.

Role of experience - Adult learners are more heterogeneous than young students, their prior experiences impact on learning, and they want to make use of existing foundations of knowledge, applying them to new learning experiences.

Readiness to learn - Adults are only prepared to learn if/when their life situation creates a need to learn (Knowles, 1970).

Orientation to learning - Adults favour problem-solving orientations, learning best when real-life contexts are used to present knowledge.

Motivation to learn - Internal priorities are more important than external motivators, adults are motivated to learn when the knowledge can be utilised to solve problems in their lives.

Brookfield (1995) also considered approaches to andragogy, agreeing with Knowles that adults need to be self-directed and take control of their learning, and that this learning should be grounded in experiences. Additionally, Brookfield identified as important critical refection - focussing on how adults thinks contextually and critically, and learning to learn. Brookfield (Ibid.) describes the teaching of adults to learn how to learn as an "overarching purpose for those educators who work with adults" (no page no.)

Distance learning and (social) constructivism

Behaviourist educational strategies, relying on the development of instructional sequences with outcomes that are predetermined, have formed the basis of subject development for a number of years. Constructivists are critical of this model because of its relegation of the role of the student to one of passive recipient, and it reliance upon 'drill and practice' learning activities with little attention paid to mental strategies or the meanings behind them. This approach does not make allowances for negotiated shared meanings, and fails to recognise the value of learning from mistakes made (Williams and Burden, 1997).

Constructivism, in contrast to behaviourism, focuses on student's innate attempts to make sense of the world as the basis for the learning process, and recognises that individuals use their prior experiences in this process. The onus on the educator shifts, therefore, from being the 'mechanic' of knowledge transfer, to becoming the 'midwife' in understanding's birth (von Glaserfield, 1996) with responsibility for creating rich learning environments which provide the opportunity for meaningful experiences. In considering the role of constructivist theory in distance learning, Jonassen et al. (1995) propose four principles for constructivist environments that "engage learners in knowledge construction through collaborative activities that embed learning in a meaningful context and through reflection on what has been learned through conversation with others" (p.5). The principles propose that online distance learning environments should be built with a focus upon: Context, including a real-world element to avoid 'chain-like' sequencing; Construction, allowing active knowledge construction through articulation and reflection; Collaboration, occurring amongst learners to support the development and evaluation of beliefs and hypotheses, and Conversation, for the negotiation of solutions to problems.

The recognition of the importance of collaboration and conversation amongst learners as key elements in the learning process is rooted in constructivism's offshoot: social constructivism, which emphasises learning's social and collaborative nature (Vygotsky, 1978). McLoughlin and Oliver (1998) consider that the constructivist view fails to fully recognise that social processes, for example collaboration, peer interaction and language use, have an important impact on learning. Social constructivist thinking views knowledge as constructed when learners engage in conversation or activities about mutual tasks or problems. Meaning is constructed through a dialogic process and learning occurs as students are enculturated by better skilled peers (Driver, Asoko, Leach, Mortimer and Scott, 1994). Through this process, cultural tools are acquired via involvement in cultural activities. Wells (1999) considers that Vygotskian theory supports this idea of a teacher-led collaborative community in which "all participants learn with, and from, each other as they engage together in dialogic enquiry" (p. xii).

Thus, it is possible to view learning not as the teacher-directed solitary activity of creating specific responses to precise cues as behaviourism suggests, nor as an independent way of exploring the world and making sense of the experience as Piaget proposes. Rather social constructivism views learning as a socially interactive process in which individuals make meanings through interactions with others. Mediation, therefore, can be seen as an essential element in the social constructivist learning process. A mediator is another who is more knowledgeable or experienced than the learner (i.e. teacher, parent or peer) who assists the learner in making sense of their experiences in order to fashion new understandings. By adding the factor of mediation to the concept of constructivism, Jonassen et al. (1995) and Williams and Burden (1997) have proposed that four factors influence learning, these are: teachers, learners, tasks and contexts, and Williams and Burden (Ibid.) consider that "they all interact as part of a dynamic, ongoing process" (P. 43). In this way, social constructivism regards the teacher as guide or facilitator working with learners in a collaborative group functioning within real-world contexts to create meaning from problem-based tasks.

Building communities and narrowing the distance

The challenge for the distance educator is to combine these factors into a successful learning environment and diverse issues of constructivism and andragogy need to be considered. Palloff and Pratt, (2007) suggest that creating successful distance education using online methods will involve transferring our best practices from the classroom into a new arena, "in this new arena, however, the practices may not look exactly the same" (p.6). The online medium obliges DL educators to think differently in order to utilise its learning-enhancing functionality and pedagogic/andragogic potentials. It poses the challenge, and presents the opportunity, of creating a sense of community which can engender social constructivist learning.

Within education, sense of community includes learning community and social community (Rovai, Wighting and Lucking, 2004), and community-building has been identified as a factor in reducing or preventing the feelings of alienation and isolation which may contribute to student attrition in DL (Rovai, 2002). Learning community comprises of how members perceive group membership with regard to shared norms/values and to the ability to meet educational aims/expectations (Rovai et al., 2004). Social community is representative of the feelings of community members towards their connectedness, cohesion, safety, interdependence, mutual trust, and sense of belonging (Ibid.). The DL educator fosters this sense of community through the creation of a safe environment wherein students do not feel threatened when expressing ideas, by promoting socialisation, displaying respect for diverse backgrounds, providing feedback which directs and keeps communication flowing, responding to students' educational needs, and maintaining an obvious online mediating presence.

Brown (2001) links the degree of community experienced by learners with the level of engagement and dialogue within the class and this is a view shared by Moore (1993) who considered the transaction of distance learning. Transactional distance theory defines the distance in DL as more than just the spatial disjuncture of teachers and learners, but rather as a distance of perceptions and understandings which is partially caused by geographic separation; this separation must be reduced if effective learning is to occur. Transactional theory evolved from work by Dewey and Bentley (1949), and "connotes the interplay among the environment, the individuals and the pattern of behaviours in a situation" (Boyd and Apps (1980), cited in Barbadillo, 1998, no page no.). The DL transaction takes place between learners and teachers within an environment with the distinctive characteristic of spatial separation and the resultant array of special learning and teaching behaviours.

Transactional distance is engendered by the physical separation which creates a communicational gap, or psychological space - an area of possible misapprehension between the inputs of the teacher and learner (Moore, 1993). Moore (2007) considers that transactional distance is relative, not absolute, and that learning programmes are not 'distance' or 'not distance' but rather they have "more distance or less distance" (p.91). Transactional development is influenced by three factors: dialogue, structure and autonomy (Moore, 1993). The nature and extent of dialogue may be affected by diverse factors (course design, teacher/learner personalities, subject matter, environment etc.), but the medium of communication is also an important factor. Programmes with little or no dialogic interplay have a greater transactional distance than those which foster dynamic dialogue.

The use of interactive, electronic media supports this dynamism and so aids the shortening of transactional distance. Structure is evaluated by Moore (Ibid.) from the perspective of the course's flexibility or rigidity in terms of the establishment of teaching techniques, educational goals, assessment procedures and the degree to which individual needs are met. Finally Moore (Ibid.) views autonomy as the extent of learner control exercised over learning procedures - the amount of choice the student has over issues of learning goals, rate of progress, manner of teaching and assessment methods.

Moore's theory has obvious parallels with constructivist, social constructivist and adult learning theories, and it is apparent that as andragogical and constructivist elements are introduced, transactional distance will decrease. Transactional distance and dialogue are inversely proportional, thus a decrease in dialogue will result in an increase in transactional distance, whilst an increase in dialogue reduces distance. Although Moore (1993) focussed upon the dialogic interplay between teacher and learner, utilising constructivist approaches in combination with social software fosters dialogue amongst peers as well as between learner and teacher in the spirit of Williams and Burden's (1997) socially-constructed, dynamic process. Dialogue is also proportional to course structure, an increase in structure decreases dialogue and consequently increases transactional distance (Moore, 1993); Moore speculated that adult learners naturally exhibit independent behaviour and this autonomy relies upon reduced levels of transactional distance e.g. low levels of structure and high levels of dialogue. Constructivist ideals can foster the reduction of transactional distance and so increase autonomy in the spirit of Knowle's self-conception. Interaction plays an important part in this process, and the ways in which technology can assist this must be considered.


There are essentially two types of interaction in a learning situation. One consists of the learner interacting individually with content, while the other involves social activity - the learner's interactions with others (peers or teacher) about the content. A DL environment that is to provide affective and effective learning whilst creating a sense of community and narrowing the transactional distance must engender both kinds of interaction. In the past, social interaction about content primarily took place between the educator and learner, but emergent technologies have made it increasingly feasible for learners to interact with each other and this interaction gives learners the opportunity to reflect, reconsider and cooperate in authentic problem-solving (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Berge, 1995). Social interactions which would normally occur in the conventional classroom (e.g. sharing, discussion, group activities, peer reviewing, etc.) must instead take place via tools and technologies in distance learning environments. However, some of these tools/technologies have limitations which may affect the sorts of interactions that are possible or likely to happen. Online technologies provide affordances that can be utilised for learning through infrastructures which allow connections to objects and people that are in other environments (Ryder and Wilson, 1996; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles and Turnoff, 1995). Although these technologies can foster beneficial interactions, they may also hinder them since students cannot interact effectively unless they are easily able to utilise the media that they have been tasked with using (Kruper, 2002; Salmon, 2001).

Web 2.0 technologies, which encompass a diverse range of components that can be used to enhance the constructivist learning process, may offer a solution to this problem. These tools are characterised by their rapidity of deployment/ease of use, enabling powerful information sharing and engendering constructive collaboration (Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler, 2006). The minimal skills needed to access the features of these technologies allow learners to focus upon information exchange and collaborative tasks without the distraction of an environment which is technologically complex (Kirkpatrick, 2006). These tools - wikis, blogs, RSS feeds and podcasts etc. have been collectively called 'social software' and encapsulate a range of collaboration and information-sharing features which may act as cognitive reflection tools, aiding construction of meaning as learners develop content.

The collaborative nature of social software allows for the building of knowledge both with and for others, focussing upon the community rather than the individual learner. Collaborative learning may be synergised by occurring in a community of practice context - with learners engaged in collective learning within a shared domain (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Social software tools can act as knowledge platforms for such a community, enabling information-sharing, discussion and collaboration thus aiding the development of a constructivist environment. However, Marjanonic (1999) has criticised synchronous collaborative tools for enabling "communication... rather than computer-mediated collaboration" (p.131). Hesse, Garsofsky and Hron (1997, cited in Pfister and Muhlpfordt, 2002, p.1) delineate the possible limitations of using synchronous text-based tools for collaborative discourse: lack of social awareness, insufficient group coordination and deficient coherence of contributions; Pfister and Muhlpfordt (2002) also stress the difficulties that there may be in engendering coherent communication, and equalising contributions within synchronous discourse.

However, even in the classroom environment collaborative learning is not without its problems, there may be, for instance, students who dominate, passive students, students who are reluctant to present their ideas (particularly if these contradict the teacher's), or students doing no work at the expense of others. The online environment may actually help to mitigate some of these problems and lead students to perceive online group discussions as more democratic and equitable than the traditional classroom's counterpart (Swan, 2001). Some (e.g. Jonassen and Kwon, 2001 ; Lai, 1997) assert that subjects involving discussion, brainstorming or reflection are particularly suited to the online environment, and reflective learning - approaches that enable learners to reflect on their learning and their learning processes - may be especially effective in this context. An important element of reflective learning is that of reflecting upon knowledge in order to make it explicit. Social software, for example wikis, enables this reflection to take place collaboratively, bringing learning closer to the social constructivist ideal.

Employing tools which foster reflection and self-assessment is a type of meta-cognitive scaffolding that assists students in linking learning processes to objectives, and motivates them to assume responsibility for their own learning. The use of scaffolding as an enhancer of student learning was proposed by Bruner (1966) building upon the work of Vygotsky (1965) and in its original form viewed the teacher as the most likely scaffolder, creating support systems for the student. However, in a technologically supported, constructivist environment where the educator's role as guide/facilitator is emphasised, peers, support tools or computer tutors are just as likely to provide scaffolding. Beed, Hawkins and Roller (1991) consider that scaffolding must take place within a collaborative context, operating across the learner's ZPD, and be withdrawn as the learner develops competency. From this it is clear that scaffolding within a DL environment may be an inherently social process within which supportive interaction occurs in a collaborative context.


Much has changed in distance learning since its nascence, rooted in correspondence courses, in the 1800s. Early courses were highly structured, with minimal dialogue between teacher and taught, and consequently the distance between them - Moore's psychological and communications gap - was great. Subsequent developments in communications technology narrowed this distance, but the objectivist philosophy underpinning the exchange remained essentially the same. Whilst it has been recognised for a number of years that constructivist approaches may improve the quality of teaching and learning in our classrooms, it has only been in recent times, with the widespread use of broadband and the development of tools which take advantage of its capabilities, that constructivist ideals have been fully capable of integration into DL programmes. The new capabilities afforded by social software technologies and the ongoing development of online synchronous communications enable innovative scaffolding and engender social learning. However, distance educators should not be tempted to use the advantages that technology offers to attempt to recreate the traditional classroom virtually, or to create situations which pre-determine learning. This risks limiting the application of constructivism, and fails to acknowledge that distance learning occurs in a distinctive socio-interactive context which requires a unique approach to teaching and learning.

Recent decades have seen significant changes in the delivery of DL as a result of new understandings about how adults learn, and prefer to learn, as well as the rise of technologies which enable the distance educator to be 'present' even though temporally or spatially separate. The application of constructivist and andragogical theories combined with emergent technologies have enabled the creation of virtual classrooms within which collaborative communities can develop together, with the educator assuming the role of facilitator in the group's co-construction of knowledge and meaning. This synergistic combination of theory and technology has allowed distance learning to offer the adult learner the ability to learn without time or place constraints whilst also providing the benefits - sense of belonging and collaborative enterprise - which the conventional classroom may offer. As a result, students no longer have to 'trade-off' the advantages of interactive learning against the convenience of distance study, but rather can enjoy the benefits of both.