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Constructivism Reconsidered in the Age of Social Media (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 144)
Date Reviewed: June 23, 2017
I was recently talking with my former doctoral advisor about a new position I accepted with the university where I teach. His seminary is exploring innovative ways of delivering courses, and I wanted his counsel as I investigate moving my programs completely online. As we were talking, he simply said, “The educational landscape has changed, and we must change with it if we are to survive.” This is something that I am fully aware of and advocate for. However it meant something more profound coming from someone who I respect, someone who has been at the forefront of practical ministry education and yet often concedes that keeping up today is more difficult than ever.
It is time to change. And not just our feelings on distance or online education, for that is now simply a question of location. Education occurs in the classroom, and that classroom may be in a traditional face-to-face format or an online format or both. In short, distance or online education is here to stay. The challenge that is before us remains a consistent two-fold challenge: what content will we deliver, and how will we deliver that content. This two-fold challenge is both a matter of content and context (or community).
It is because of this essential nature of education that constructivism has maintained such a central theory of education. Originally devised as an educational theory by John Dewey and provided a psychological foundation by Jean Piaget, constructivism is a process where a learner constructs meaning based on their subjective perception of objective reality. Briefly stated, constructivism is an active process where learners construct meaning together in a learning community through their shared experience rather than simply receiving processed information from an expert. Content is gauged against the individual and shared experiences of the learning community as meaning is generated out of conversation, collaboration, conflict, and consensus.
All of this is essential to understanding the profound nature of this short collection of essays which is the focus of this review . Stabile and Ershler, the editors, have gathered together a team of educational constructivists to assess the theory’s continued validity in this social media era. By their own admission, “Social media is constructivist” because it “embodies constructivism itself as the users engage in the development of their own meaning” (1).
While this volume tackles the enormous complexity that is the digital village, the technical use of social media is not the focus here. It is assumed that faculty are tweeting, instagramming, snapping, and pinning along with their students (or, at least, are aware that this is how people communicate today). No, the focus is on whether constructivism remains a viable option for engaging the learning process. Each of the authors seems to give a shared assent, then, to two assertions: (1) the social media era is inherently invested in crafting meaning through the shared experience of community engagement; therefore (2) constructivism remains a (if not the) viable learning theory because of its focus on crafting meaning through shared experience of community engagement.
If we who teach undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and post-doctoral students are going to remain relevant, then we must no longer see ourselves as experts who disseminate information to our paying customers. We must see ourselves as conversation partners, community facilitators, and wise mentors. We must begin constructing the classroom around a workable theory that respects our current digital age. Thankfully, for those who are unfamiliar with learning theories, Stabile and Ershler offer a timely and thoughtful collection of essays to introduce the reader to an essential theory that is still as useful today, if not more so due to the connectivity of the social media age, as it was when crafted nearly a century ago.
Visual Design for Online Learning
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Anyone who has developed an online course knows how important the design of the course is. Poorly designed courses make the course navigation difficult, causing unnecessary frustration and limiting the ability of students to achieve learning outcomes. The author of this book understands these difficulties. Drawing upon her own negative experiences with initial online offerings, she provides readers with important lessons on designing effective online experiences for both teachers and students.
Davis suggests, rightly, that the reader should use the text like a workbook, drawing from the ideas presented in the text as the reader creates her/his own course in the platform the reader uses. She encourages readers to draw upon the backward course design model: begin with learning objectives, discern appropriate ways to assess those objectives, and then generate online learning activities that will enable success in the course. Such alignment will promote student success.
The author provides an acronym, L.I.T.E., for the design framework she encourages. Readers should be sure to create clickable links to external content (L), integrate well the multimedia included (I), use typography and white space to enhance the legibility of the course (T), and embed the content at the point of need (E). She identifies four types of content pages that should be part of the design: landing page, navigation page, instructional page, and assignment submission page. Of course, most learning platforms will provide these. The key, she contends, is to create them in a way that achieves the course objectives and is user-friendly for the student.
The remainder of the chapters illustrate how readers can develop the various components of a good online course, including images and videos, integrating multimedia, facilitating instruction and interaction, and the all-important assessment. Davis provides helpful hints regarding the tools included in software such as PowerPoint, like using it to download and edit images or to incorporate online media. She also points to a number of free online tools one can use to develop a course, such as the presentation tool Brainshark, and the interaction tool VoiceThread. At the same time, she cautions users not to incorporate too many technologies into the course. The focus should be on learning the content of the course, not on overwhelming students with too many technologies.
As with any text, there are some limitations. Parts of the book require knowledge of html language. Many faculty do not know html language because they use software to develop their courses that does this automatically. In addition, for a book that emphasizes visual design, many of the illustrations are difficult to read, leaving the reader to wonder how well the text follows its own advice on legibility. Yet over all, the text is a useful step-by-step guide for developing an online course or for improving the visual design of existing courses.
Creating Teacher Immediacy in Online Learning Environments
Date Reviewed: January 30, 2017
A key issue in distance education is how to establish a vital two-way, personal communication between learner and instructor. Borje Holmberg, among other theorists, argues that the primary role of an instructor is to empathize with the learner; imparting information is a secondary matter. What, then, are the most effective ways to form a dyadic alliance between a learner and instructor? This is the major question that D’Agustino’s Creating Teacher Intimacy in Online Learning Environments seeks to answer.
This is a reference work, so it can be read profitably article by article or completely. The volume begins with a helpful detailed table of contents that provides a brief synopsis of each chapter. There is also a useful foreword by Karen P. Kaun which underscores the importance of the human component in teaching and learning regardless of the instructional format. The preface speaks to the impact of the “interactive turn,” the “undesigned remainder,” and the “modelling function” in asynchronous learning. In addition, there is a brief description of each chapter that complements the summaries in the table of contents. Every chapter also starts with an abstract and an introduction.
Pedagogy, not technology, is the focus of each chapter. Therefore, this reference is valuable for course designers, media specialists, instructors, and researchers across a range of academic disciplines. That said, there are a few chapters that all will want to read and ponder.
Oliver Dreon’s “Building Teaching Presence in Online Classes,” for example, provides an overview of the main issues along with strategies that support learning and interaction. A list of design principles is included, suggestions for future research are indicated, and there is a concise paragraph of conclusions plus an extensive list of references. A central contention made by Dreon is that practices that contribute to high quality, traditional undergraduate instruction also apply to establishing meaningful instructor presence in online classes.
Many readers will also want to look closely at Caroline M. Crawford’s “Instructor Immediacy and Authenticity: Engaging in Cognitive Vulnerability within the Instructional Environment.” Often, learner success in an online course – synchronous or asynchronous – will largely depend on the instructor’s efforts to generate worthwhile interactive opportunities. These activities require that the instructor have a clear philosophical belief system united with an understanding of the learner’s cognitive vulnerability in an online environment. Crawford explores these core issues while calling for the development of a “talent propelled” instructional environment.
Neal Shambaugh’s “Interactivity and Immediacy in Online Academic Programs” addresses quality issues in higher education distance classes. This is an important theme because, as D’Agustino notes in the preface, “online learning still has a perceived lack of legitimacy” (xxiv). Shambaugh advocates interactivity as a method to counter this concern. He offers a list of best practices for creating and sustaining online immediacy. Then he sketches a series of recommendations for undergraduate, master’s, doctoral, and specialized programs, such as teacher education, certificates, and professional development.
There is an extensive compilation of references and notes about the contributors that conclude this collection. The references alone are an excellent guide for further research and course syllabi.
A conversation about the benefits, possibilities, and challenges of teaching online with Dr. Roger Nam of George Fox University, Dr. Eric Barreto of Luther Seminary, and Dr. Kate Blanchard of Alma College.
Issues in Distance Education (New Directions for Higher Education, Number 173)
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
Distance education is a growing component of higher education. Whether students combine distance courses with traditional classroom hours or focus entirely on distance learning, the presence of distance education in major colleges and universities in America continues to expand. Hybrid courses, which combine face-to-face learning with a digital component, are becoming very popular options for students. Most college graduates in the class of 2020, for example, will have received some of their credit hours online.
The essays collected by Maureen Snow Andrade for Issues in Distance Education address each of these phenomena and more. The initial essay, “Issues in Distance Education: A Primer for Higher Education Decision Makers” by Michael Beaudoin, provides an overview of the development of distance learning in higher education. This is a very useful chapter, particularly for administrators and prospective instructors who are looking for a short introduction to how distance education became such a prominent feature of American higher education and some of the resistance it has encountered. Beaudoin refers to distance learning as a disruptive technology, which is an apt description of the kind of impact it has had on administrators, faculty, and students.
Disruptive technology requires transformative leadership in order to make the best use
of what is logistically possible. Farhad Saba’s discussion, “Theories of Distance Education: Why They Matter,” analyzes various theories of distance learning and links the theories to future institutional policies and practices. Saba advocates a community of inquiry model that combines a social, cognitive, and teaching presence that makes the best use of new technologies and flexible learning schedules.
Andrade’s essay, “Effective Organizational Structures and Processes: Addressing Issues of Change,” explores both macro and micro level structural models for distance education. She proposes four interconnected leadership frameworks for both creating and managing change. The strengths and weaknesses of each model, such as environmental and stakeholder issues, are also discussed along with a set of guiding questions for institutional change.
These first three essays provide a core of information and key questions that will serve readers well. Each of the six chapters which follow focuses on a related issue that the initial essays prompt. For instance, how can a development plan contribute to course consistency and quality? Is a team approach to course development desirable? What sort of faculty support is essential for high level learning outcomes? How can distance learning be successfully offered on a global scale? What sort of strategic planning will facilitate all of this?
This compact volume does not attempt to settle all of the issues that it raises. It does provide an excellent starting point for discussions about innovative methods for teaching theology and religion as well as the attendant policies, costs, infrastructure, and support necessary to sustain them.