Knowledge-centered Learning Environments

Knowledge-centered learning environments support students’ construction of deep understandings of particular topics and disciplines (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Constructivism likens knowledge-centered learning to learning a landscape by living in it and exploring it from a variety of perspectives (Spiro &Jheng, 1990) and so argues for the design of learning environments that encourage sense-making and learning with understanding through in-depth explorations of big ideas. It puts less emphasis on breadth and the acquisition of a large number of ill-connected facts and procedures, and concentrates instead on learning in context, on the development of complex knowledge, on authentic problem solving, and on the authentic practice of particular disciplines. The constructivist argument is not that students do not need to learn facts and procedures, but rather that facts and procedures are only learned when they are integrated within the rich corpora of individual understanding.

As with learner-centeredness, the online medium provides unique affordances and constraints to the development of knowledge-centered learning environments. On the one hand, because the WWW is clearly an information environment, online learning seems ideally positioned for knowledge-centered learning. The way in which courses are created and placed online not only allows for the design and refinement of well-structured, knowledge-centered materials and activities, but, as previously noted, supports a greater variety of ways for integrating diverse media than traditional lecture and text environments. Moreover, the WWW itself offers unprecedented access to information and authentic contexts (McClintock,

1999) which can be easily incorporated into course materials and activities. At the same time, the nature of the online medium makes it possible for students to visit and revisit such diverse course materials and activities in ways and at times of their own choosing (Spiro &Jheng, 1990).

On the other hand, as Shank (1998) reminds us, information is not knowledge. The abundant possibilities for presentation and creation of knowledge, the near infinite access to information, the freedom learners have to access and navigate course materials, in short, the enormous knowledge-creation potential of online environments paradoxically challenges knowledge-centered course design. If knowledge is constructed in individual minds and does not exist outside them, it is impossible to know what information, what kinds of presentations, and what sorts of learning activities in what combinations and sequence best support knowledge construction for particular learners at particular times. Even if we could know such things, we could not enforce them in the non-linear, multi-task online universe. We can, however, explore the cognitive effects of much smaller intellectual landscapes.

We can presume that knowledge-centered online learning environments will be those which support students’ deep exploration of big ideas through multiple and varied learning activities, that such activities will be generative, employ a range of media and include opportunities for reflection, discussion, assessment, and feedback, that as much as possible they will be authentically situated and problem or project based. My personal preference would be to conceptualize knowledge-centered learning environments in a sort of recursive framework (for example, at the program, course, and concept level) with an emphasis on the development of small online educational resources (OERs) centered on single concepts (Rothkopf, 2008) meeting the criteria outline above. Not only could instructors and course designers draw from some set of such concept oriented mini-environments in developing larger course environments, but they could offer students bounded learning choices, multiple paths for meeting course, and potentially program objectives. This is the conceptual frame for competency-based and adaptive learning systems (Dziuban et al., 2016).

Assessment-centered Learning Environments

Assessment-centered learning environments put particular emphasis on the ongoing provision of meaningful feedback to learners (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). While most theories of learning and instruction recognize the importance of assessment and feedback, constructivists believe that knowledge construction, hence learning itself, emerges from our ongoing reflections on feedback from environmental interactions. Constructivism thus suggests self-assessment is integral to learning, and so believes that opportunities for self-assessment should occur continuously and be embedded within learning activities. Constructivist theory further suggests a pedagogy which encourages students to continuously interrogate and reconstruct their knowledge and to evolve and change their understandings in response to feedback. Thus, constructivist approaches contend that good formal assessment practices are those which value revision and the processes of knowledge construction. Because constructivism views knowledge as complex and evolving mental structures, constructivist approaches further maintain that good formal assessment practices evaluate for deep understanding and the ability to apply knowledge to novel situations.

In many ways, the online environment offers considerable support for the development of assessment-centered learning. To begin with, online learning necessitates ongoing assessment simply because assessment and feedback are its main avenues for teacher/student interaction. Most online course platforms provide very complete records of student work, including user logs and discussion transcripts, and make these available from a range of perspectives including something like individual e-portfolios. They also support multiple and varied forms of assessment, including assessments involving a variety of media, peer assessment, and revision sequences. Most course platforms also provide tools for embedding assessments within student work thus linking feedback to performance, and for managing and grading course assignments in ways that are transparent to students. Moreover, as previously noted, computer-based assessments can be easily embedded in online courses to give automated and instantaneous feedback to students, making it possible to provide far greater opportunities for self-assessment with little cost to instructors.

However,assessment and feedback, especially at the deep understanding level prized by constructivism, can be particularly taxing for online instructors. As previously noted, the lack of regular face-to-face meetings makes frequent, regular feedback critical. Online instructors typically need to develop and assess many more assignments over the course of a semester than face-to-face instructors, who have the opportunity to informally assess and remediate student understandings in the classroom. In addition, online learners expect a much faster turn-around on their assignments than traditional students. While this is good for learners, it is hard on instructors. While automated assessments are easily managed online, some research suggests that students learn better from personal feedback tailored specifically to their needs (Kashy, Abertelli, Bauer, Kashy, & Thoennessen, 2003), especially when learning involves higher order understanding and the application of knowledge (Kiccomini, 2002). One solution to this conundrum may be found in Bill Pelz’s (2004) first principle of effective online pedagogy': “Let the students do (most of) the work” (p. 33). Pelz suggests having students lead discussions based on text chapters, locate and discuss relevant web resources, check and grade their own homework, and provide initial feedback on assignments to each other. The instructor, he argues, can then concentrate on thoughtfully providing necessary structure, direction, support, and corrective feedback when necessary, and making final evaluations.

Community-centered Learning Environments

Community-centered learning environments support the development of community on two levels (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). At the first level, community-centered learning environments support the social construction of knowledge within relatively small, tight-knit learning communities. At the second level, community-centered learning environments connect to students’ larger community and the larger society and culture. On the first level, constructivism implies that learning is strengthened by environments which support and value the participation of all students, whose social norms encourage collaboration, the negotiation of meaning, and the search for understanding, and in which multiple perspectives are respected and incorporated into collective meaning making. On the second level, constructivism suggests that learning is enhanced when it is related to students’ interests and experiences, when it is situated in authentic “real world” problem solving, and when it is linked to and resonates with the greater culture and society at large.

At first glance, it might seem that online learning is particularly ill-suited to the development of community-centered learning environments at the first level identified above. Indeed, some communication theorists have argued that the lack of the vocal and visual cues available in face-to-face learning diminishes the quality' of social interactions online to such an extent as to render the social construction of knowledge all but impossible (Piccard, 1997; Rice; 1992; Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976). Researchers experienced with online teaching and learning, however, contest this view. What is important, they contend, is not media capabilities, but rather personal perceptions (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001; Swan, 2002; Walther, 1994). Their research demonstrates that participants in online courses often feel less psychological distance between themselves and their classmates than they do in traditional, face-to-face classrooms. However, the development of community' is something that must be consciously engineered and supported in online courses (Shea, Li, Swan, & Pickett, 2005), much more so than in face-to-face classrooms (Rovai, 2002).

The second level of community centeredness, making connections to students’ larger community and culture, is less well-documented, perhaps because it seems much more straightforward. The interconnectedness of Internet sites and their frequent updating makes it quite easy, to a greater or lesser degree, to situate learning in authentic, real world problems and link it to local communities and cultures. Indeed, links to the Internet, as previously noted, make it possible to explore a variety of world cultures to an extent that would not otherwise be possible. As in any learning environment, online discussions and learning activities can be designed to engage students’ interests and experiences. Unlike other venues, however, online discussions and activities can involve more experienced others from around the world. Anecdotal accounts suggest such strategies are very effective in supporting learning, but more research in these areas is clearly indicated.

Serendipity: an Aside and Transition

In the previous section of this chapter, we saw how emerging digital technologies remove many of the constraints on educational activity that have historically encouraged teacher and instruction centered practices. In this section, we saw how contemporary educational theory favors constructivism’s learner and learning centered approaches. We explored some ways in which online environments can be designed to be learnercentered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and communitycentered, using digital technologies to implement constructivist pedagogy.

As previously noted, more than a few communications scholars at the time doubted the capacity of purely text-based digital communications to convey enough “social presence” to support the development of learning communities (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Rice, 1992; Picard, 1997). As also previously noted, however, researchers actually working with online discussion reported the exact opposite; that participants in online discussions strongly perceived each others’ presence (Walther, 1994; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997). Online educators, moreover, noted the ways in which online discussion seemed to embody the academic ideal of Socratic inquiry, and so online learning evolved with online discussion as its centerpiece. Indeed, a group of Canadian researchers investigating online discussion developed an inquiry-oriented model of online learning (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000; Garrison, & Anderson, 2003) that is probably the most commonly referenced among online educators. Their Community of Inquiry (Col) framework is discussed in the next and final section of this chapter.

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