The Application Of Constructivist Theory Education Essay

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Following the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), educators could no longer just think about implementing research-based teaching strategies. These laws clearly mandated practitioners must use theory and research to provide evidence that teaching methods lead to improved educational outcomes (Slocum, Spencer, & Detrich, 2012). Initially rooted in the healthcare professions, evidence-based practice (EBP) has been adopted by many professions to enhance the practitioner's ability to be a supporter of research, guide decisions, and address the research-to-practice gap (Biesta, 2010) .

A long struggle in many disciplines continues to exist related to the disparity between the methodologies supported in research and what is implemented in actual practice (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007). This ongoing division between practitioners and researchers, as well as theorists and policy-makers, has been recognized, however, despite the increasing amount of research being done, little has been accomplished towards finding resolution. Researchers assert the results of investigations are not well understood on the part of the practitioner (Spencer, Detrich, & Slocum, 2012). In contrast, practitioners appear to believe the research may not be applicable or real world to their field. In addition, the results of research may not be readily available in practice related journals (Torres, Farley, & Cooke, 2012).

EBP in education and other disciplines has been met with the question of whether there is really a new way of practicing or just another way of depicting what has always been considered standard procedure. In trying to narrow the research practice gap in healthcare professions, the use of EBP is a direct outcome for a call for client safety. This could apply as well to education related to improving learner outcomes (Spencer et al., 2012).

In healthcare professions, the Institute of Medicine (IOM, 2011), has described EBP as a decision-making process, integrating the best research support with clinical expertise. For the practitioner, this should involve locating superior external evidence to answer questions. Unfortunately, the vast majority of practitioners rely primarily on their more experienced colleagues for direction or continue on the same practice path because that is the way it has always been done (Benner, Sutphen, Leonard, & Day, 2010; Langer & Langer, 2009). Either of these methods may lead to inaccuracies when not supported by research based evidence and most likely result in poor outcomes (Langer & Langer, 2009).

If the expectation is practitioners are to make decisions based on evidence, then the evidence must be relevant, of high quality, applicable, and readily available (Spencer et al., 2012). Although the quantity of education related research has increased since NCLB was enacted, there are few studies which incorporate precise design processes, such as randomized controlled trials. As a result, many practitioners find little quality evidence to support their decision making (Butler & Schnellert, 2010).

As the EBP movement continues, practitioners, researchers, and policymakers are being encouraged to become engaged and collaborate (Spencer et al., 2012). Researchers need to seek educator contributions in order to address practice related issues. In addition, providing results of research to practitioners in a way that is clearly understood, more easily accessible, and promote usability would contribute to narrowing the research practice gap (Butler & Schnellert, 2008). The implementation of resources, such as What Works Clearinghouse (WWW, 2002), enables practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to connect. WWW provides rigorously designed research for EBP decisions and treatment interventions. Through the use of these sites, the practitioner is able to find information quickly without having to search through large databases.

The implementation of EBP in the educational arena is not optional. The literature indicates there is not a lack of evidence, but rather a lack of implementation (Spencer et al., 2012). With the research practice gap averaging 17 years, practitioners and researchers must move the evidence into action (Spencer et al., 2012). At the higher education level, teachers must model the importance of theory, evidence, and research to their students. Many students do not understand theory and just like practitioners, find it difficult to frame for many of the same reasons (Slocum et al., 2012). If EBP is to be fully implemented and the research practice gap reduced, not only must practitioners and researchers work together, practitioners and the practitioners of the future must work to understand, apply, and visualize the benefits of research.

Constructivist Theory

Constructivist approaches to learning have traditionally been emphasized in higher education and are presently considered to be the most commonly accepted model by educators (Hoic-Bozic, Mornar, & Boticki, 2009; Hussain, 2012). Learning is viewed as an active process in which previous knowledge is believed to be foundational (Holly, Legg, Mueller, & Adelman, 2008; Makgato, 2012). The underlying principle of constructivism is that the learner is considered a complete individual at a social, cognitive, and affective level, which is thought to enrich and deepen the learning process (Hrastinski, 2009; Ke, 2010).

The growth of online and blended course work continues to be significant with the majority of enrolled students being of the adult population (Allen & Seaman, 2011). Within distance education learning, much research has been influenced by constructivist and social learning theories (Hrastinski, 2009; Legg, Adelman, Mueller, & Levitt, 2009; Makgato, 2012). Despite the volume of research related to online learning, there has not been an adult learning theory, which educators can or will subscribe to, to drive practice and guide further research (Minter, 2011; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010).

The six most ideal characteristics which contribute to successful online learning are discussed in the literature (Cercone, 2008). These attributes are: a strong relationship between the student and the facilitator/instructor, an engaging and collaborative student-to-student connection, the requisite of reflection on the part of the student in order to link new knowledge with foundational experience, a sense of community, the application of learning to the real-world; and motivation on the part of the learner (Boling, Hough, Krinsky, Saleem, & Stevens, 2012; Jackson, Jones, & Rodriguez, 2010; Pelz, 2010). Although all of these characteristics are important, the building of community is considered the critical component (Garrison, 2011; Palloff & Pratt, 2011). The success of developing, implementing, and maintaining community very often leads to the other attributes being effective as well (Garrison, 2011; Ruey, 2010).

Research related to student learning and the development of community indicates a positive relationship (Boling et al., 2012; Hussain, 2012). A study based on surveying students regarding their experiences within an online community and course performance indicated 85% found the community experience to be positive, which enhanced their learning (Vesely, Bloom, & Sherlock, 2007). Two additional studies that were focused on perceptions and attitudes of online students showed a significant connection between learner satisfaction, student interaction, and community and knowledge acquisition (Liu, Magjuka, Bonk, & Lee, 2007; Sadera, Robertson, Song, & Midon, 2009). Although the research related to online community development is convincing, those in distance education contend that in order to attain deep learning, accessing content online and learner interaction is not sufficient (Garrison, 2009; Ke & Xie, 2009).

The emphasis must be about developing quality learning outcomes (Ke & Xie, 2009). It is believed the best approach to accomplishing this is through the design of collaborative highly engaged learning communities (Garrison, 2009; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Although people glean meaning from personal reflection and critical thinking, the dialogue which takes place in groups of learners is what creates knowledge (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010; Garrison, 2011).

Online learning in the 20th century was primarily focused on bridging the physical expanse for those students who had restricted access to education (Garrison 2009). The focus is now shifting to issues related to teaching and learning online, technology, and improving the anytime-anywhere means of interaction. Although these are important issues, unfortunately, they remain geared to the independent student rather than to the whole of a community of learners (Akyol, Garrison, & Ozden, 2009).

Over the last decade there have been many theoretical contributions to the online learning discipline. Each has reflected progression towards improving the teaching and learning principles (Garrison, 2011). The question practitioners and administrators are faced with is whether the theories that have been developed previously, provide the foundation for moving online learning into the 21st century and will these theories support the immense changes occurring with current and future technology (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010).

Application of Constructivist Theory: The Community of Inquiry Model

The pedagogical as well as technological developments are clearly changing the landscape of higher education and online learning appears to be at the forefront (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Administrators and faculty must recognize those students in the higher education system today require preparation to survive in a 21st century workforce. Current teaching methodologies no longer meet the needs of today's learners and with the call for educational reform, redesign of learning experiences is essential. The next important step in moving forward is the determination of a theoretical framework to guide practice and research in order to provide meaningful learning outcomes as well as critical thinking (Garrison, 2011; Ke, 2010; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010).

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a dynamic framework built on constructivism and social learning with theoretical foundations from Dewey, Vygotsky, and Bruner (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, 2010; Garrison, 2009; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Developed by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2000) to support online learning practice and research, the focus of this framework is that successful online learning requires knowledge building based on the development of community (Shea et al., 2012). Within higher education settings, CoI assesses effectiveness of online curriculum by three core components: (a) social presence, (b) cognitive presence, and (c) teaching presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). These three elements intersect with each other to add to the online educational experience as represented in Figure 1.

Garrison (2011) described presence as awareness or a sense of being that is influenced by learner-facilitator and learner-learner interpersonal communications. Essential to every part of life is the concept of community. Unfortunately, many are of the belief that learning in conventional online coursework is in isolation and therefore the concept of community is thought of as major weakness (Garrison, 2009, 2011).

Over a decade has passed since Garrison et al. (2000) developed the CoI framework. Research using this model has been extensive and appears to validates the core components of social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Arbaugh, 2007, 2008; Kanuka, Rourke, & Laflamme, 2007; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010). Substantial, cross-institutional studies have shown the stability of the CoI model (Arbaugh et al., 2008; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010).

The challenge for researchers desiring to use the CoI framework has been the lack of a common instrument to operationalize the model in order to measure the three presences in an online setting (Shea & Bidjerano, 2009; Swan et al., 2008). In 2007, the CoI Questionnaire

(CoIQ) was developed and tested in a multiinstitutional study (Arbaugh et al., 2008; Swan et al., 2008). This 34-question Likert survey was administered to 287 online graduate students with results supporting its use as a valid instrument. Cronbach's alpha indicated 0.91 for social presence, 0.95 for cognitive presence, and 0.94 for teaching presence (Arbaugh et al., 2008). The use of the CoI survey provides researchers with a consistent means to study the elements of CoI as related to teaching, and learning, as well as retention in online education (Garrison, 2011).

Bangert (2009) supported the validity of the CoI survey instrument by investigating both undergraduate and graduate students (N = 1173) in fully online and blended classes. Analysis of survey responses were consistent with the three CoI elements. Results of this study indicated the survey is an appropriate tool for managing the development and implementation of online course work (Bangert, 2009).

The concepts of social presence. Social presence is defined as the level in which the learner feels connected to other members both socially and emotionally within an online setting (Garrison, 2009, 2011). The ability of learners to identify with each other online is generally through the use of asynchronous text. Although this method lacks any sense of nonverbal communication and immediacy, both of which build social presence, educators are often challenged by this type of exchange (Garrison, 2011; Shea & Bidjerano, 2010).

Garrison and Arbaugh (2007) noted that the use of text is often more valuable in facilitating the skill of critical thinking. Once social presence has been established, Akyol and Garrison (2008) noted cognitive presence is also enhanced. In contrast to this research, however, Jahng, Nielsen, and Chan (2010) studied 12 online graduate students, concluding that a diminished cognitive interaction occurred when social communications were increased. This outcome indicated unnecessary time related to course introductions may well be ineffective as a part of community development (Garrison, 2011; Shea, Hayes, & Vickers, 2010).

Social presence has also been linked to student perceived learning and final course grades (Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Caspi & Blau, 2008). Additional support for the acceptance of a model for online learning is related to retention as attrition rates are significantly higher than those of on-ground classes (Boston et al., 2009; Garrison, 2011). A study of undergraduate online students (N = 28,877) using the CoI survey resulted with the indication of a significant relationship between student retention and social presence (Boston et al., 2009).

The concepts of cognitive presence. Cognitive presence describes the degree in which learners construct knowledge through participating in critical reflective thinking and discussion (Garrison, 2009, 2011). Considered an essential component of critical thinking, cognitive presence is designed within a social-constructivism viewpoint (Shea & Garrison, 2008). Cognitive presence has been operationalized through the Practical Inquiry (PI) model that involves four stages: (a) the triggering event, (b) exploration, (c) integration, and (d) resolution (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2010).

The CoI framework supposes that the learner progresses through each phase of the PI inquiry as reflected in Figure 2 (Garrison, 2007). In addition, this process requires enhanced teaching presence and is frequently influenced by the social presence of the group (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). Bai (2009) noted that many learners do not clearly understand the requisite for engaging in and generating evidence of critical thinking in online discussion forums.

A study of online graduate students in an educational technology course comparing students in the fall to those in spring was conducted by Bai (2009). Fall students were provided with a rubric indicating the number of required posts, due dates, suggestions to include outside resources and how to access forums while the spring group was given a guide using the PI model with the four stages as categories, including characteristics of each and the emphasis was on critical thinking (Bai, 2009). Study results indicated more than half of the threads in both groups never advanced further than the exploration or brainstorming phase (Bai, 2009). Those students in the spring group, who had been provided the PI model posting guide, demonstrated higher levels of interaction and critical thinking as compared to those in the fall group (Bai, 2009).

Arbaugh (2007) noted cognitive presence is the most difficult element for educators to achieve online. Studies indicated this concept appears to be more related with design, facilitation, and direction in relation to teaching presence (Bai, 2009; Swan et al., 2008). The most important requirement in creating cognitive presence relates to the facilitator who builds discussion, monitors discourse, and guides learners to critically think (Garrison et al., 2010).

The concepts of teaching presence. The third element of CoI is teaching presence. The focus of this concept is on instructional design, facilitation, and the sharing and scaffolding of content by the instructor (Garrison, 2009; Garrison et al., 2010). Teaching presence is considered critical to the entire process as it is seen as significant in relation to course satisfaction, a feeling of community, and the perception of learning by the student (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). A clear understanding of the dynamics related to the presences is needed if a collaborative CoI is to be created and sustained (Akyol & Garrison, 2008, Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2010). In addition, it must be noted that teaching presence is an integrative concept, which brings cognitive and social presences together (Garrison et al., 2010).

The role of the educator in an online CoI encompasses three primary components: (a) course instructional design and organization, (b) facilitation of discussion, and (c) direct instruction (Nagel & Kotze, 2010). Teaching presence online is about maintaining balance wherein the instructor guides and models for the learner (Shea et al., 2010). Once students begin to take responsibility for their learning and collaborate as well as comprehend content, balance occurs (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2010).

Research clearly indicated teaching presence influences the success and satisfaction of online learners (Arbaugh, 2008; Abdous & Yen, 2010, Ke, 2010). Baker (2010) explored how educator presence and immediacy relates to student motivation, cognition, and affective learning. Undergraduate and graduate online students (N = 699) were surveyed and results indicated a positive, but not a statistically significant relationship between student motivation, cognition, and affective learning, and educator immediacy (Baker, 2010). Educator presence, however, was a significant predictor of these three characteristics (Baker, 2010).

CoI Critique

Over the past ten years a considerable amount of research has been accomplished specifically related to each of the individual CoI elements (Garrison, 2011; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010; Lowenthal, Lowenthal, & White, 2009). More recently, researchers have begun to use the entire CoI framework to guide online learning practice and future research (Lowenthal et al., 2009). Although reviews of research indicated the CoI framework is valuable in studying online learning (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Garrison, 2011), others contended there is little evidence the framework provides meaningful learning experiences (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009).

Between 2000 and 2008, Rourke and Kanuka (2009) reviewed literature referencing the CoI framework. Actual course data had been examined in only 48 of the 252 journal articles found. Only five articles had involved exploration of student learning perceptions, which had been reported as a measurement of student learning. This finding resulted in Rourke and Kanuka (2009) concluding CoI research had failed to explore the assertion that the framework comprised of social, cognitive, and teaching presences influenced learning outcomes.

Responding to this review, Akyol et al. (2009) emphasized the CoI was presented as a knowledge building learning process model based on social-constructivism theory only. Arbaugh (2008) noted CoI research indicated social, cognitive, and teaching presences are clearly related to student perceptions of learning. What remains in question is whether there is a true association between meaningful learning and student's perceptions of learning (Rourke & Kanuka, 2009).

In reviewing the literature, there are apparent gaps between the CoI presences and learning outcomes. Research has not validated deep learning as the definitive result of the online interactions between students, content, and facilitator/instructor. The research related to CoI lacks investigation of the variances that may exist within academic disciplines and the impact this may have on the presences (Smith, Heindel, & Torres-Ayala, 2008). There is the possibility that much of the research reports only on individual courses rather than several courses and/or a program. Lowenthal et al. (2009) noted there was a strong possibility that differences existed due to the fact that educators and learners belong to distinctive practice communities. Additionally, learner participation in a community may be difficult due to language as well as literacy issues as many disciplines have their own language, for example, medicine, nursing, and law (Smith et al., 2008).

Recently, Carlon et al. (2012) studied 330 undergraduate and graduate students from disciplines such as physical therapy (n=32), nursing (n=274), and healthcare management (n=24) using the CoI Survey. Across the disciplines, results indicated there was no difference in teaching presence; however, there was a statistically significant difference within nursing in the social and cognitive presence as compared to the other disciplines. This study indicated support for the findings of Shea and Bidjerano's research (2009).

The design, development, and delivery of an online course can also affect the three presences (Lowenthal et al., 2009). Whether a course is developed by an instructor, a group of instructors, or an instructional designer, it will impact presence as well as the type of learner activities developed for the course (Lowenthal et al., 2009). Lowenthal et al. (2009) noted these issues are rarely considered in the design and development phases.

A New Presence: Learning

Shea, Hayes, and Vickers (2010) discovered that a substantial amount of teaching presence occurred outside the online discussion forum; this came in the form of emails, messages, and private student folders which were not included in previous studies. The results indicated that although all attempts to record teaching, social, and cognitive presence online, there was a presence which could not be coded.

Shea et al. (2012) reviewed 56 studies which had involved learner self-regulation elements. The researchers concluded online learners were self-regulating to meet course goals and this did not fit within the current CoI model (Shea et al., 2012). Because online learning requires a great deal of self-direction on the part of the learner, Shea et al. (2012) noted that this gap would need to be addressed. The current CoI implies social presence occurs in isolation and teaching presence fails to take student contributions into consideration. Shea et al. (2012) recommended accounting for these weaknesses by proposing a revised model that would include contributions from both the teacher and student as well as emphasize socio-cognitive learning (Shea et al., 2012).


The CoI framework is considered one of the principle models guiding research in online higher education (Shea et al., 2010). Focusing on the development of the online community, learner knowledge is noted as the result of collaborative effort (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). Most of the research using CoI has been limited to the study of online discussions; however, this is expanding to examination of entire online and blended courses (Garrison et al., 2010; Shea et al., 2012). Although there are acknowledged weaknesses in the CoI model, researchers continue to explore this framework with the goal of developing a more comprehensive model and investigating entire courses for the three presences simultaneously (Shea et al., 2012).

The most recent published study has linked the Quality Matters (QM) peer review program with CoI (Swan, Matthews, Bogle, Boles, & Day, 2012). Researchers used the QM and CoI frameworks to redesign an online graduate course linking design, implementation, and learner outcomes for the first time (Swan et al., 2012). Initial findings in this ongoing investigation indicated QM and CoI course revisions can be connected to improved learning outcomes. Future investigations will determine if these two frameworks will work in disciplines other than education (Swan et al., 2012).