Let the Learning Begin!

This learning journal is part of an assignment for my CTL1608 graduate course, “Constructive Learning & Design of Online Environments”, with Dr. Clare Brett at OISE/UT.  Although I’ve taken courses about constructivist learning and computer-mediated learning, I have yet to take a course about the design of online environments (presumably for the enhancement of learning).

The course began a week ago, and I’m already 1 week behind due to my mad scramble to compile my Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship application – a futile exercise, I know (since the odds are so low), but still a worthwhile learning experience in my opinion.  Next on my list are the SSHRC and OGS scholarship applications.

I’m intentionally beginning this learning journal before I’ve done any of the course readings because I’m curious to see how my perspectives will change as I progress through this course for the next 3 months!

What I know…
…about learning…
Constructivist learning is an active and social process by which learners engage with new concepts and with co-learners, to actively construct knowledge and understanding of the topic of study.  This is achieved through the active collaboration of learners during tasks and discussions to arrive at a shared understanding of the concept/topic of study.  Learners must have access to prior learning as they also engage in a continuous cycle of new knowledge creation and reflection.  Reflection not only informs new knowledge creation, but also helps learners to develop awareness of their own metacognition.  Learners must be able to personally connect with the material, and I believe that learning is enhanced if the learner also develops an emotional connection with the material, or with the learning process itself in their interactions with their co-learners.  Thus the learning must occur in an authentic and relevant context.  This aligns with my personal philosophy of learning, in large part because I am heavily influenced by Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter’s work on constructivist knowledge building.

…about the role of the teacher…
As for the role of the teacher in all this?  The teacher is seen more as a facilitator than the gatekeeper of knowledge, as in more traditional school settings.  My favourite metaphor for this is that the teacher is no longer the “sage on the stage”, but rather, the “guide on the side”.  I wish I knew where this metaphor came from, but it is so widely used in education and training, that it’s now been incorporated into the common rhetoric of both fields.  Personally, I think that there are still situations in which direct teacher instruction is warranted, but let it be only 50% (preferably much less) of instructional time!  As the facilitator of a constructivist learning environment, the teacher guides students gently to keep them from straying too far off their focus, and to prompt/question them when necessary to nudge them towards deeper inquiry and understanding.  The teacher is teaching students how to learn, rather than teaching them what to learn (i.e. the content).

…about online learning environments…
From a constructivist standpoint, an online learning environment should have the following functionality:

  • asynchronous threaded discussion:  so that learners may use this forum to exchange, share, analyze, and build upon each other’s ideas, and information gleaned form external resources.  This also allows learners to access these vital discussions at anytime from anywhere, thus the learning never has to stop.
  • synchronous chat:  so that learners can collaborate in real time to discuss ideas, share/analyze data/information, and perhaps work with each other to plan how they will complete their collaborative learning tasks
  • permanent record of prior learning:  so that learners may revisit their prior learning and reflect upon “where they’ve been”, compare/contrast this with “where they’re at”, which may inform them about “where they’re going”
From my own observations and experiences as an online learner, I think the following should be considered when designing an online learning environment:
  • simplicity:  a simple interface with lots of white/blank space and minimal text is attractive to the eye.  Whenever possible, replace text links with icon links.
  • 2 (ok, maybe 3) clicks deep:  the learner should never have to click more than 2 or 3 levels deep to access the webpage they’re looking for.
  • multi-media:  the social presence of the instructor and students directly correlates with students perception of course effectiveness.  Hence, the environment should allow users to easily interact with each other via self-made video- and/or audio-recordings.  A bonus would be to allow real-time video and/or audio chat.  This also addresses differentiated instruction, in which personal learning preferences/styles are taken into account.
  • gallery:  a webspace where learners can share and celebrate their “final” products/demonstrations of learning.  The gallery should also allow for peer review of work, much like how YouTube has a “Comments”section below the posted video.
  • assessment:  Having used Knowledge Forum (KF) with grade 6, 8, and 12 students; I know how much learners appreciate KF’s built-in assessment tools which can tell users how many notes students have posted and read, note reading and response interaction patterns among a class, and individual student progress in vocabulary growth.  Not only did these tools inform learners of their own progress, but these tools also served as a motivational force!  Furthermore, these tools help the teacher form a “big picture” understanding of the online class’ dynamics and can quickly inform the teacher about students who may need a little more support and guidance.
  • virtual world:  this is my personal bias.  I can’t understand why video games and digitally animated films can look so incredibly beautiful and yet, online learning environments do not.  No wonder students love to spend time playing video games!  Who wouldn’t want to stay in such a graphically stimulating environment?  It would be wonderful if an online learning environment had the look and feel of a virtual world, without having to move an avatar – I am quick to throw the latter point out there because I’ve experienced how frustrating this can be (e.g. Second Life).
Here are some online learning sites that I’ve created for various workshops and tutorials within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), but they are not what I would consider “constructivist”:
  • TDSB Blogging with Blogger:  an online tutorial about how to use Blogger to create a class blog
  • Podcasting & Vodcasting for Learning:  an online tutorial about how to create a class podcast/vodcast using Blogger
  • Dare 2 Dream:  Spirit of Dr. King:  created for Black History Month (2008) for use in elementary classrooms for the NE1 family schools in the TDSB.  Goal was to highlight leadership and spur students to think about how they might take up a leadership role to work towards improved equity in their community
My favourite classroom blog/podcast is done by a TDSB teacher named Chris Borges, called Mr. Borges & the Blog Squad.  Although I have used PBwiki and Wikispaces in the past, I don’t have any classroom examples to share.
What I Want to Learn…
  • what the “experts” have to say about good design of online learning environments
  • see examples of well-designed online learning environments
  • what aspects of online learning environment design make it “constructivist”
  • how to seemlessly integrate mobile learning (m-learning) with a constructivist online learning environment