The past two decades have ushered in a very pronounced gravitation toward a constructivist approach to teaching and learning in all realms of society and most particularly in the online distance education environment. Augmenting communication in and among those in the academic, business, and military communities, the exponential advancement of science and technology has availed vast amounts of information to virtually millions of people around the globe. In conjunction with this knowledge explosion has been a growing concern for the democratization of the learning process, with constructivism driving much of the educational agenda. This article examines the resurgence of this approach to teaching and learning, its convergence with rapidly changing technological advances, and how it forecasts future trends in online pedagogy.
While the constructivist method has been highly emphasized in the more recent literature (Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995; Rovai, 2004; Tenenbaum, Naidu, Jegede, & Austin, 2001), it is not a new approach to learning. Presenting an early example, Socrates facilitated discourse with students asking directed questions to assist them in realizing the weaknesses in their logic and critical thinking. This enabled them to share in the responsibility of their learning through active participation while negotiating meaning in the creation of shared understanding. In contrast, over time, most professors in Western culture often served as primary repositories of information along with the scrolls and velum texts found in the limited number of physical libraries available to educators. This role included the important function of disseminating information, as well as assisting students in shaping and forming that knowledge. The lecture served as the quickest and easiest way to reach both small and large groups of individuals.
While the lecture method was the norm of information delivery for centuries in Western culture, the knowledge explosion of the 20th century demanded more active learner participation. In light of this constant and rapid flux of information and knowledge, students became lifelong learners compelled to use metacognitive skills to constantly evaluate and assimilate new material into their respective disciplines. As this implies, knowledge was no longer viewed as a fixed object; rather, learners constructed it as they experienced and co-created an understanding of various phenomena by collaborating and working with peers and professors as well as with the information. Based on the work of Kidd (1973), Long (1983), Moore (1989), and Palmer (1993), Grooms’ (2000) Learner Interaction Model (see Figure 1) illustrates that in the constructivist culture, the learner perpetually interacts with these three components of learning.
Now, rather than strictly acquiring information, Duffy and Cunningham (1996) explicated that “learning is an active process of constructing…knowledge and…instruction is a process of supporting that construction” (p. 171). Critical in this process is recognizing the shifting role of the professor who becomes the guide on the side or content facilitator and is no longer the proverbial sage on the stage or content provider. The student’s role also has changed from being a passive receiver of information to an active participant in the knowledge-making process (Weller, 1988), aligning with Bandura’s (1977, 1994) concept of the autonomous learner, an important dimension of the constructivist model. Table 1 delineates these two approaches to learning.