Learning environments increasingly become more diverse by the use of information technology. Thereby, the share of face-to-face situations between students as well as between students and mentors becomes smaller, while the share of encounters in virtual space is growing larger. Thus, computer mediated communication (CMC) is growing in importance in all learning environments. Since standard learning environments involve both formal and informal communication, it seems reasonable to claim that without informal communication students and faculty would have difficulties in sustaining the learning processes. Beyond the ever-growing exchange of formal content, the opportunity of informal communication appears increasingly essential for the successful pursuit of online studies.
Constructivism And Self-Organization
The constructivist approach to learning—following the path of Dewey, Piaget, Bruner and Vygotsky, among others—includes an understanding that involves interrelations as well as a relevant context of the learning matter (for an introduction, see Goldhaber, 2000). Constructivism assumes the individual’s active construction processes within mental models, whereby knowledge is conceived as the result of construction processes performed by individuals. Knowledge is regarded as being tied to the individual and inseparable from the act of learning and “… is principally bound to situations” (Gruber, Law, Mandl & Renkl, 1995, p. 170). In addition, proponents of the so-called moderate constructivist approach attach great importance to social components for learning processes (see Gräsel, Bruhn, Mandl & Fischer, 1997; Alavi, 1994; Gruber, 1995).
Initially, hypermedia technologies were regarded as the perfect means for implementing constructivist ideals. Today, the Internet and its various services are favored as the ideal working and learning environment.
Many design proposals for online learning environments claim that their goals are based on constructivist learning theory (see Goldhaber, 2000; Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). When such projects are implemented, however, the requirements that result from a strictly constructivist approach are frequently of no consequence whatsoever. Either the didactic design of the projects provides only a passive part to the learners, or teamwork and other social interactions are not really considered.
We often observe that in many projects explicit claims and concepts are worlds apart from their actual implementations. This suggests that in today’s academic discussion on computer-supported learning constructivist ideals in a way constitute a dogma, while traditional concepts of teaching and learning still govern the imagination of the architects of learning systems.