This article explores how social interaction need not be restricted to multi-user online learning environments. Through creative instructional design and character-driven narrative, application of social constructivism theory can effectively enhance the lone eLearner experience.
Traditionally, online learning has been transmissionist in nature. It is instructor-
centred – the technology delivers the knowledge. The learner is passive, an empty vessel to be filled with this knowledge. The learner reads, watches, listens and (hopefully) learns.
Contrary to this, contemporary approaches to classroom-based learning are often underpinned by constructivist theory. Constructivism views students as learning best through active engagement. Rather than the expert at the front of the classroom imparting all their knowledge on the learner, the teacher takes the role of facilitator or the provoker of learning, guiding and supporting the learners as they construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.
Social constructivism takes this concept a step further, placing emphasis on the social aspects of learning. Underpinned by the work of Lev Vygotsky, social constructivists believe we learn best through our interactions with others. The design of many contemporary classrooms reflects this idea, recognising the power of discourse with desks arranged in groups to facilitate discussion, rather than the more traditional forward-facing rows. Social constructivists also embrace Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) – the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with the help of a ‘more capable peer’ (Vygotsky, 1978). The more capable peer can be a teacher or a more experienced peer (Bekiryazıcı, 2015).
While social constructivism might easily underpin classroom-based learning, how might this theory be applied in a virtual learning environment? Instructional design has taken this into account in recent years, as reflected in the rise of online collaboration between distance learners via, for example, email, messaging, video conferencing, and digital sharing platforms such as Padlet and Stormboard.
But what about the lone elearner whose only interaction is with the online course is the computer screen in front of them? How can social constructivism be applied to their learning experience? What lessons can be learned to improve instructional design?
One example of this can be seen in the instructional design of echo3education’s new Move More at Work course. The course is delivered by ‘Echo’, a cartoon expert who guides candidates through their learning. As our virtual teacher, Echo speaks directly to the learners, supporting them in developing their knowledge and understanding. She encourages candidates to apply course content to their own individual contexts. This enables them to more effectively reflect on the positive changes they can make to their work habits in order to reduce sedentary behaviour.
In terms of social constructivism, Echo is the more capable peer, helping candidates cross their ZPD, from what they can do/understand without help, through what they can do/understand with Echo’s support, to what they currently cannot do/understand independently – but will be able to by the end of the course.
Joining candidates on our Move More at Work course is a bear character whose development reflects that of the learner, thus providing a visual representation of the progress the candidates themselves are making as Echo supports them in crossing their ZPD.
A common turn off in eLearning is that many existing courses consist of a series of text-heavy PowerPoint-type screens, some voice-overed, many simply reliant on the learner reading. With a learning experience like this (which, realistically, is often the case with health and safety content) course engagement diminishes rapidly. By the middle of the course the learner is clicking the advance button repeatedly without bothering to read the text and towards the end the learner is banging his head off his desk wondering if this hell will ever end. Not very conducive to effective learning.
In contrast to this, our specially commissioned visuals take candidates on a narrative journey which heightens learner engagement through a blend of humour, animation, voice-over and storyline. Candidates can empathise with the bear (or Echo), as together they actively engage with learning activities and self-reflection.
That said, at echo3education we are also sensitive to the fact that many people view online training as a tick box exercise, something they have to do simply to evidence existing knowledge and understanding. In these situations, the elearning doesn’t develop the learner’s competencies – it reinforces what they already know, enabling them to evidence this by way of a completion certificate. There is no crossing the ZPD as the candidate’s knowledge and understanding already match course learning outcomes.
Taking this into account, our hope, in using our ‘expert guide’, is that moreknowledgeable candidates will recognise themselves in Echo, consolidating and evidencing their understanding and ultimately going on to share their expertise as the more capable peer, supporting their colleagues in crossing their own ZPD to move more at work.
Social constructivism theory places emphasis on the collaborative nature of learning, with the underlying assumption that knowledge is constructed through the interaction of others. If eLearning developers apply creativity and innovation to instructional design, social constructivism need not be restricted to multi-user virtual environments. Instead of being confined to transmissionist, instructor-driven online learning, the lone eLearner will instead have a platform where they play an active role in their own development. Yes, this takes additional commitment in terms of time and cost but, at the end of the day, isn’t that worth it in terms of course impact and learner attainment?
References: Instructional Design Instructional Design Instructional Design
Bekiryazıcı, M. (2015) ‘Teaching Mixed-Level Classes with A Vygotskian Perspective’ in Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 186: pp913 – 917.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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