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Online Teaching and Constructivism: Reflecting on a High School Online Course

Johanne Brochu

University of British Columbia

ETEC 530

Submitted to Dr. Diane Janes

March 6, 2011



Online Teaching and Constructivism: Reflecting on a High School Online Course

The constructivism theory was first attributed as a theory of knowledge in which Jean

Piaget, at the beginning of the 20 th century, argued that humans are generating knowledge and

meaning coming from their experience and their ideasreferring to systems of knowledge he

called "schemata" (Bhattacharya & Han, 2001). This theory suggests that, while sharing new

experiences, learners internalize knowledge by accommodating their own experiences via contact

with the external world. This centered-learner approach makes learners responsible for their

learning process and knowledge building while the teacher is adopting the facilitator role.

This paper will focus on demonstrating how the online FRA4C (Français, 12 e année

précollégial), a grade 12 French applied online course, I administer through the Consortium

d’apprentissage virtuel de langue française de l’Ontario, is not representative of constructivism

because of its design, a too structured, not opened, learning environment, and its failure to engage

and challenge learners in a CMC (online discussion) collaborative learning environment.

Course Design

First, the coursedivided in five unitsis presenting contents in compartmented activities

that are for the most not related to each other.

For instance, unit one’s content varies from narrative texts to administrative directives and

includes asynchronous themes like hunting, love experiences and food wasting, and it provides a

summative evaluation where students write a short story. Learners then interpret a song to get

started with the final activity after which they must think about their independent project that will

be pursued throughout the course.

Unit two progresses with a novel study and editorial readings followed by unit three

which incorporates a theatre piece; thereafter, learners will debate on a topic. In unit four, they



study a second novel where they develop interview techniques and in unit five they focus on the

synthesis of their independent project (final course assignment).

The course material for each unit is divided into activities revealing contents followed by

specific tasks. Learners execute formative and summative evaluations on a continuous basis.

Learning Styles

Learning styles were not taken into consideration in the course design. Since the majority

of learners in this course are boys, I believe the material should procure diverse activities with

more visual features that will keep their interest up and make them more willing to accomplish

the tasks. Moreover, sets of activities should include collaborative projects or complex activities

where learners will use multiple skills promoting different learning styles. As well, the design

should reinforce the use of diverse educational technological tools that are indicative of the 21 st

century learners’ skills (e.g., Google Docs, Wikis, Blogs, WebQuests).

Besides, we now see more students with special needs taking these online courses

suggesting the need for a more adequate integration of these individuals. For example, one of my

students from this semester has cerebral palsy and another one, from last semester, was autistic.

We also have a few students from Le centre Jules Léger in Ottawa that are deaf, mute or blind.

Indeed, creativity in the way of communicating is needed by teachers in order to maintain

students’ interest into the course and for them to be successful; this can be done by promoting

their individual and special skills.

Metacognition and Knowledge Construction

Along with constructivism, the learning environment should provide learners with

activities where they can reflect and for which they can debate, using their critical thinking skills.

The learners goal should be central as they have an active role in their learning. In that regard,

Anderson and Nashon (2007) suggested that "metacognition shapes and influences knowledge



construction" (p. 318) and, because the way each individual is learning differs, the course design

should able them to function and progress into the course material according to their own

conditions and learning mechanisms.

Clearly, the traditional FRA4C’s design does not fully engage and challenge learners in

line with their individual skills and abilities. In order to celebrate constructivism, the teachers

have to modify the way some activities are developed and presented to learners.

For instance,

they should provide learners with hands on projects where they can make their own decisions

such as the way of delivering a product which involves a whole learning process (e.g., a short

story could be transformed and delivered by using technology tools like Digital Story Telling or

You Tube video). These types of activities, possibly done in teams, will promote differentiation

by allowing learners to scaffold their learning process in order to construct knowledge.

Learner-Centered and Cultural Context

The learning context of the course is unique because learners are coming from French

high schools located in different areas of Ontario. It becomes an opportunity to be part of a

exclusive French learning teenagers’ community where experiences can be shared in a safe and

controlled environment.

There is a need to recognize the multiplicity of cultures, which is part of collateral

learning (Jegede, 1995), and such a distinctive context should motivate students to engage

themselves in solving problems through collaborating with peers where individual cultural

experience may vary from area to area (e.g., people from south west of Ontario are Americanized

in comparison with those from the north).

It is important for learners to be challenged by the problems which should reflect on the

complexity of their environment. This course design does not allow complex and real simulation



of problems in a situated cognition. Most of the tasks concentrate on the students’ understanding

of different concepts instead of manipulating them.

Active Learning

Social constructivism influenced by Vygotsky’s (1978) work inferred that learning is an

active and social process because of its dependence on environment as a source of information

(Jegede, 1995). Consequently, by sharing their individual perspectives and referring to their own

experiences or activities, learners integrate knowledge and then construct their understanding of

the reality.

In FRA4C, learners are provided with one opportunity to share knowledge and experience

of concepts while discussing a descriptive paragraph they have written prior to produce a short

story. They are not offered multiple perspectives as much as they should according to

constructivism. Most of the time, learners are left alone with the material and do not benefit from

a learning collaborative approach where an active learning can take place.

Additionally, most of the activities in this course are focussing on the product, not on the

process. There are no accommodations made along the activities to integrate new strategies and

procedures to assimilate the phenomena that become intelligible (Posner et al., 1982).

In my opinion, by not including the frame for interaction between learners to happen, the

course design does not recognize the value of social and sociocultural factors that should be

involved in the learning process (Jegede, 1995). Then, understanding and learning become a

lonely process where learning is prescriptive; learners are told by teachers through the course

material what they should know and how they should learn.

Collaborative Learning and Online Discussion

Cooperative learning and group work are also encouraged in constructivism because of

the social environment it procures learners to construct knowledge. With that vision, Brookfield



(1995) stated that "collaborative processes promote initiative, creativity, critical thinking skills,

and dialogue on the part of the learners" (Palloff & Pratt, 2005, p. 6).

In FRA4C, opportunities for learners to interact with colleagues or teachers are limited to

discussing specific topics that have little to do with the course contents. Subsequently, some

asynchronous discussions appear to be the result of a non-pertinent and a non-well organized

CMC where learners belong partially to a community of practice. According to Xin and

Feenberg (2006), in order for CMC to be successful, activities should engage and motivate

learners to participate and collaborate in a common ground which I do not see happening in this


Furthermore, Matthiews (1994) raised an interesting question by asking: "what happens

when as acknowledged, the child’s constructed meaning differs from the one intended by the

teacher?" (p. 144). According to constructivism, working in collaboration will give learners

opportunities to develop knowledge using both objectivity and subjectivity and will improve the

learning process. The teacher can still engage and intervene if necessary.

In this online course environment, learners are not building knowledge together with

peers or with the teacher; nor are they developing the intrinsic motivation needed to build on their

cognitive skills, and especially at that applied level where, at first sight, most of them are not

willing to perform academically.

Role of the Teacher

In addition, the social constructivist approach maintains that teachers should be

facilitators instead of teachers and will support and coach learners to become independent

thinkers. On the one hand, the learning environment of this course is not designed to support

learners into their thinking process, but, on the other hand, it gives teachers the necessary space to

make this experience one where learners and teachers are both involved in learning from each



other which can be a motivational factor for learners. Moreover, it is essential that teachers

continue to assess the learning process of learners to ensure the knowledge they have gained.

Situated Learning and Constructivism

The decontextualised knowledge presented in FRA4C does not give learners the

possibility to reflect on authentic learning situations by applying in context an understanding of

the concepts (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). Hence, learners are not asked to be directly part in

authentic activities in which they could experienced complex relationships between concepts and

real life situations but to read texts and answered closed-ended and open-ended questions where

they have to show their understanding of concepts related to specific texts. Readings are

followed occasionally by writing productions of similar texts (e.g., short story, editorial, critic

article) which, in my point of view, is disconnected with the real life learning experience where

knowledge is built through experiencing and making decisions based on previous knowledge and


Assessment Process

Learners are given a variety of formative and summative conventional assignments that

do not show adequately a progression of understanding the concepts through the course material

or their ability to apply any of them. In the final assignment, there is an emphasis on product

instead of process; learners have to produce a multimedia presentation about a French artist. For

that to happen, an activity is proposed at the end of each unit to prepare learners for this final task

(e.g., research on the selected artist, songs’ interpretation and analyze, critic of one album,


The fact that learners’ true potential of learning is not assessed as a continuous and

interactive process (Holt & Willard-Holt, 2000) is a failure to follow the constructivism

approach. In constructivism, learners have to reflect on their performances after each production



but the course design does not encourage such reflections. And, if it does in rare occasions, the

next assignment might have nothing to do with the previous one which shows incoherency.

Indeed, assessment and learning are seen and approached as separate processes that do not allow

a clear and definite progression of learning. More space should be given to the assessment

process (e.g., by using activities like journals and portfolios) as part of the learning process and

students should receive regular feedback from the teacher along with that process and the diverse

tasks which should all be interrelated toward a global learning goal.


To sum up, FRA4C is not designed under the constructivist approach even though it does

provide a few opportunities for learners to learn based on previous knowledge and that teacher

have the space to engage with them and intervene if necessary. Along with constructivism, it

should provide more activities to engage and challenge learners in their learning process. Finally,

more than ever, online teachers have to address different learning styles and needs and integrate

learners’ special skills by making them collaborate with each other; and the constructivist

approach should be consider in order to make this possible.




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