Social Constructivism And Social Facetoface Distance Environments Education Essay

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By the late 20th Century, a growing administrative support of and student demand for learner-controlled learner-teacher and learner-learner interactions and the development of new social technologies that enabled these interactions - namely the computer - ultimately transformed some instructivist classrooms into social constructivist face-to-face classrooms and distance-learning environments. Drawing largely from the social constructivist research of the 1930s' Russian philosopher Lev Vygotsky (1962), the interactive face-to-face classroom and the distance-learning environment focused primarily on the advantages of teacher-facilitated and learner-initiated social interaction. Vygotsky supported a dialectic style of learning that allowed the student to play an active role in dialogue in cultural and social contexts relevant to him/her. The learner, in essence, could choose when, where, and how to communicate through discourse and selected paths of exploration (Schultz, 2002).

Social constructivism, more specifically, is aligned with the "constructivist-hermeoeutic-interpretivist-qualitative" paradigm (Reeves, 1996) that holds that "truth is a matter of consensus among informed and sophisticated constructors, not correspondence with an objective reality" (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 44). As constructivists, the paradigm suggests, humans construct reality based on their collective experience. From the hermeneutic vantage, humans benefit by creating and analyzing a diversity of curricula and instructional programs to suit their needs. From the interpretivist position, humans place all analysis into social context through facilitated interaction with objects and discourse with individuals. Finally, in the qualitative perspective, humans reject the mathematical evaluation of outcomes and instead rely on evaluation through individual and collective reasoning.

In the social constructivist learning environment, in essence, all perceived interactions with subject matter are "social" if they involve feedback to humans and/or their creations (Pickering, 1996; personal communication, Feb. 17, 2003). "Even when we interact with [perceived] art[i]facts ... we bring to it much of [what] we do when interacting with other human beings" (Pickering, 1996, para. 18). "A chair, a house, a ship or a computer, are objects created by human beings with actions of another human being in mind. They are, to that extent participants in, rather than mere adjuncts to, social interactions" (Pickering, 1996, para. 19). Social illusions, nonetheless, are not all equal in levels of human responsiveness (Pickering, personal communication, Feb. 17, 2003). Perceived inanimate objects that respond as inanimate objects, e.g., a Declaration of Independence that unfolds when it is unfolded, may be considered lower in the scale of human social interaction than "art[i[facts [that take on] psychological powers" (Pickering, 1996, para. 18), e.g., a Declaration of Independence that reads itself and answers questions. "Action, memory, perception, learning and thought are no longer a human monopoly. The social skills of [some] an[i]facts have passed beyond mimicry" (Pickering, 1996, para. 19). Some artifacts, in other words, may achieve the highest degree of human social interaction.

In sum, social constructivists contend that social interaction and learner initiative work hand in hand, as "knowledge and experience are conveyed through... interaction, which is crucial to the social construction of reality" (Kerstan, 1994, para. 3). In the social constructivist learning environment, therefore, (a) learners are active; (b) teachers are facilitators; (c) all interactions are social; and (d) all knowledge is constructed in meaningful social contexts (Schultz, 2002).

Social Face-lo-Pace Classroom

Social constructivist principles of learner initiative, teacher-facilitated interaction, and learner-constructed social context emerged in principle or application in a growing number of face-to-face classrooms as early as the 1960s when ideals of egalitarianism began to counter a culture of superiors and subordinates. Growing out of open-learning programs such as those of educator Maria Montessori developed at Italian, British, and Spanish infant and junior schools (Lillard, 1996; Smith, 2001) and supported by research in certain American schools (Flanders, 1970; Pascarella & Chapman, 1983; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1976; and Pascarella, Terenzini, & Hibel, 1978), the social constructivist face-to-face classroom gave the learner room to explore and discover at his/her own pace and level of social interaction. The class marked largely by decentralized, or less teacher-centered, learning areas, freedom of learner movement from area to area or room to room, group and individual student activities, and unstructured periods of study (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2002).

By the end of the 20th Century with the growth of computer technologies, a growing number of primary, secondary, and higher education institutions began to incorporate electronic communication systems into their programs, creating social constructivist learning environments that extended the face-to-face social environment to learners at a distance (National Center of Education Statistics, 2001). A descendant of the correspondence or at-home school of the late 19th Century that relied on the U.S. mail to facilitate the exchange of information between learners and teachers, the distance-learning environment of the late 20th Century drew largely on computer technologies to empower the learner to initiate interaction with the face-to-face classroom from home or to reach out of the face-to-face classroom to other classrooms and information sources.

At-Home Distance-Learning Environment

The at-home distance-learning environment that used electronic tools of social interaction to foster learner autonomy and control quickly became the most popular at the collegiate level, as educators and administrators recognized a growing student market among working professionals. Thirty-three percent of all higher education institutions, 78% of public four-year institutions, and 62% of public two-year institutions were offering some form of distance-learning technologies, e.g., the Internet, audio-video conferencing systems, or interactive satellite TVs, in the late 1990s (Council for Higher Education, 2001; National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). According to the most recently available research from an independent data collection company, 85% of colleges and universities were planning to make Internet-based distance-learning technologies available by the end of 2002 (International Data Corp., 1999).

The computer-connected at-home classroom was also growing in popularity at the primary and secondary levels of education, as innovative schools and educated parents experimented with rapidly evolving interactive technology resources. One of the first primary-level at-home schools to use computer technologies was the Calvert School in Maryland, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade institution that had been using mail correspondence to exchange information between learners and teachers since 1906. The school began providing students with laptop computers and Internet access in addition to books, tests, supplies, and language-intensive lesson plans in the late 1990s to help them learn "to read, write, think, calculate, analyze, and understand the world" in more socially and academically enriching environments (Halle, 2002, para. 1). At-home computer-connected distance-learning environments are increasingly prevalent throughout the world at the beginning of the 21st Century, sponsored not only by schools but by nonprofit groups, churches, and interested family members themselves.

Connected Face-to-Face Classroom

Another breed of computer-connected distance-learning environment, meanwhile, emerged within the primary, secondary, and higher education face-to-face classroom, enabling learners to initiate interaction with teachers and fellow learners both face-to-face and at a distance. The connected face-to-face classroom became popular at the primary and secondary education levels in the early 2000s when schools began investing in socially interactive textual and audiovisual computer technologies, e.g., the Internet, to connect learners with teachers. Hundreds of students in the fourth and sixth grades in seven urban school districts in Chicago, Dayton, Detroit, Memphis, Miami, Oakland, and Washington, D.C., for instance, began engaging in Internet-connected textual interactions through a national study organized by the Center for Applied Special Technology and sponsored by the Scholastic Network and the Council of the Great City Schools (CAST Universal Design for Learning, 2000). The schools reported that students who participated in the Internet communication through email and message boards earned higher scores in information management, communication, and the ability to present ideas than those who did not participate. The program "offers evidence that using ... the Internet can help students become independent, critical thinkers, able to find information, organize and evaluate it, and then effectively express their knowledge and ideas in compelling ways" (CAST Universal Design for Learning, 2000, para. 2).

Secondary and higher education institutions began integrating socially interactive textual (and less frequently visual, aural, multisensory and 3-D) computer technologies into the face-to-face classroom as early as the 1980s (Sponberg et al., n.d.). Building on the principles of learner initiative, social interaction, and social context, the computer interactions brought students and teachers together in a variety of social activities, including games, musical performances, and lesson instruction. One of the first connected face-to-face classrooms delivered via the Internet at the pre-college and college levels was a project called The Concord Consortium. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley united teachers and students in a series of electronically transmitted courses called NetCourses (Hsi & Tinker, 1998). The program was launched in March 1997, with a Net-based teachers' seminar introducing faculty to collaborative learning techniques. The first courses were delivered at 28 schools, with 32 teachers and 550 students "participating". Responses from teachers were generally enthusiastic, but many expressed concern that the program remained weak in whole group instruction and nonverbal communication.

Summary of Social Constructivism and the "Social" Classroom

Researchers of the socially interactive classroom have found evidence to suggest that, whether technologies are highly sophisticated or relatively uncomplicated, they must be fluid and easy to use in order for the learner and teacher to perceive the social interaction as "real" and effective, both in the classroom and at a distance (Sponberg et al., n.d). In his annotated bibliography entitled "The no significant difference phenomenon" (1999), in fact, researcher Thomas Russell has compiled a list of studies dating back to the 1920s that suggest that distance-learning technologies may be no more effective, and sometimes less effective, than face-to-face technologies if they are too complex or cumbersome for the learner to use. Researchers have found that "relatively simple techniques can be used for producing programs with a high level of participation and presence [a feeling of being together] - and for the best projects, the technology becomes transparent" (Sponberg et al., n.d., p. 1). In the 1980s and early 1990s, "the competence in layout and typography was ... low and there were lots of examples of bad communication, and still [are]. It is not enough just to have the tools; you must also know how to use them" (Sponberg et al., ad., p. 10).

At the beginning of the 21" Century, in fact, more and more elementary schools, high schools, universities, and colleges are experimenting with easy-to-use, “transparent" desktop technologies that allow learners to engage in controlled communication through increasingly fluid textual, visual, aural, and even tactile displays (University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2002). Socially interactive videos, voice response systems, 3-D images and graphics on the Internet and in software programs are becoming less "artificial," and learners and teachers presented through them more "real" (Paloff et al., 1999; Sponberg et al., n.d., University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2002). Distance-learning environments, in fact, show the potential of becoming such highly sophisticated mediators of social interaction and generators of "virtually real" spatial and social illusions of learners and teachers that they are increasingly referred to as "virtual" (Lewis, Snow, Farris, & Levin, 1999).

Cognitive Constructivism and the Emerging Virtual Learning Environment

Through the end of the 20th Century, increasingly socially interactive visual, aural, and textual technologies in the distance-learning environment were effective at realizing, at first, instructivist objectives of teacher guidance and, later, social constructivist objectives of communication among teachers and learners. At the end of the 20th and start of the 21° centuries, a new generation of multisensory, highspatial and high-social technologies in what is becoming the Virtual Learning Environment promises to integrate cognitive constructivist objectives of subject matter absorption through sensorial immersion into instructivist and social constructivist teaching and learning experiences.

Recent research on immersive technologies, in fact, emphasizes their cognitive constructivist potential to facilitate a more thorough internalization of subject matter by enabling a learner to "interpret external events as they are encountered and eclectically incorporate them into a classification scheme" (Hiemstra, n.d., p. 3). Different from social constructivists, who depict the mind as "a distributed entity that extends beyond the bounds of the body into the social environment, cognitive constructivists describe the mind in terms of the individual, restricting its domain to the individual's head" (Chen, n.d., para. 13).

The cognitive constructivist pedagogy is attributed largely to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1932, 1970), who was interested in the logic and reasoning that children uncover and the reality that they create in their own minds (Singer & Revenson, 1978). Piaget suggested that humans construct their own knowledge. Through internalized experiences with persons, places, and things, they create models of information that grow and evolve (Ginn, n.d.; Ryder, 2001).

Like social constructivism, cognitive constructivism draws on the principles of the "constnuctivist-hermeneutic-interpretivist-qualitative" paradigm (Reeves, 1996), that truth is a matter of interpretation by the constructor, that learners benefit by creating and analyzing a diversity of curricula to suit their needs; that they construct reality based on psychological perceptions of the world; and that personal evaluation is more important than mathematical evaluation of outcomes (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, p. 44). Cognitive constructivists contend, however, that the process of finding truth, analyzing relevance, considering others, and constructing reality occurs mostly internally, as the learner puts more emphasis on his/her own system of mental constructs than on those uncovered through interactions with the outside world.

According to Piaget's research, there are two primary cognitive processes involved in learning and knowing: assimilation and accommodation (Chen, n.d.; Piaget 1932,1970). Through assimilation, a learner transforms or absorbs new information into information that makes sense to him/her. New material, in essence, is related to persons, places, and things that are relevant to the learner, e.g., a child understands how a tree needs sunlight and water to grow because he/she has seen how flowers or other plants grow. Through accommodation, a learner creatively and purposefully adjusts his/her knowledge base to receive new information, e.g., a child learns that a person can grow by drinking and eating certain nutrients, similar to other life forms.

Piaget and other cognitive constructivist theorists contend that processes of assimilation and accommodation are realized best in learning environments that promote both learner activity and subject matter authenticity (Chen, n.d.; Piaget, 1932. 1970). In the VLE, for instance, because a learner can maintain control over the flow of information, he/she may be better able to transform it from just isolated facts, and be better able to assimilate it into his/her mind (Chen, n.d.). Likewise in a VLE in which subject matter is whole, authentic, and perceptually and psychologically "real," a learner may better receive information, accommodate or adjust to it, and construct knowledge from it in meaningful ways (Chen, n.d.). "Whole activities, as opposed to isolated skill exercises, authentic activities, which are inherently interesting and meaningful to the student, and real activities that result in something other than a grade on a test or a `Great, you did well' from the computer lesson software, are emphasized..." (Chen, n.d., paras. 6, 7).

Amid a "global trend to expand virtual services in educational institutions" (Farrell, 1999), sophisticated high-spatial technologies are beginning to add active, authentic, and "real" virtual experiences to some traditional and socially interactive learning environments and to introduce cognitive constructivist strategies into lesson plans (Youngblut, 1998). Few of the advanced technologies, however, have been incorporated into a planned program of study in deliberate enough a way to be called VLEs. Instead, the high-spatial technologies are used primarily as an intermittent supplement to coursework at a growing number of colleges, universities, high schools, and elementary schools worldwide. In a handful of specialized schools, particularly in the African-American community (SUNRISE Virtual Reality, n.d.), there is a growing sentiment that immersive technologies may be better-suited for minority students as they focus more on sensory stimulation rather than traditional text and lectures. Some research has also focused on the value of using immersive technologies for students with learning disabilities (Cromby, Standen, & Brown, 1995).

Summary of Cognitive Constructivism and the VLE

In sum, at the end of the 20e and start of the 21* centuries, high-spatial and high-social technologies are becoming more available, offering teachers the resources to form multimedia Virtual Learning Environments. The transfer of 3-D environments over the Internet, in particular, is making the advanced technologies increasingly accessible to teachers and the formation of VLEs increasingly feasible (Weiss, 2002). Designers of the advanced technologies and of the emerging VLEs are beginning to explore the cognitive constructivist paradigm that there are two primary cognitive processes involved in learning and knowing - assimilation and accommodation - and that these can be best realized in environments that promote subject matter authenticity (Chen, n.d.; Piaget, 1932, 1970). Most immersive technologies, however, e.g., VR headsets and data gloves, CAVES, VRLEs, MUDS, and MOOs, are being used as short-term supplements to classroom curricula, with only a few schools integrating the advanced technologies with traditional and highsocial technologies to enhance long-term programs of study.

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