While developing our courses, we realized the importance of the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) in supporting our students. Learners’ experiences and backgrounds influence the learning process by bringing together the current learning situation with their individual social and historical backgrounds. Vygotsky (1978) defined the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86). Learners move from needing constant assistance to becoming knowledgeable participants who at times may need to review previous learning. Each student has the potential to provide needed scaffolding for others in the group by becoming the knowledgeable other in appropriate situations. This shared power based on “levels of understanding” (Driscoll, 1994) allows the learners to achieve a state of intersubjectivity.
Learning is taking on a whole new dimension with distance and Web-based learning environments. Chickering and Gamson (1987) identified seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. Others have furthered the work on these principles of good practice in adult learning (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996; Poe & Stassen, 2002; Provost’s Task Force on Student-Centered Learning, 1997; Richard, 2003). Incorporating these principles into distance or Web-based learning is a significant challenge. In addition, adult learners are often required to master more than the coursework. They may need to become proficient in computer technology as well as the academic content of their courses. The use of Web-based technologies such as Blackboard or WebCT have made the creation of electronic courses and supplements much easier for the instructors to develop and more uniform for the students to use.
Constructivism has also informed the creation of electronic support (Gifford, 2003). It is with caution that we use the term “constructivism” because, as Phillips (2000) points out, the terrain of constructivism lies between the poles of social constructivism and psychological constructivism, and the “between” is a varied field of definitions. For our purposes, the term applies to knowledge that is constructed socioculturally through interactions between individuals and the world in which they live. According to Bruner (1966), constructivism involves the creation of new knowledge based on prior understanding, so there is a natural link between cultural historical and constructivist approaches to be used when creating and teaching electronic learning environments.