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Constructivism and emerging online learning pedagogy: a discussion for formal to acknowledge and promote the informal

Shalni Gulati
City University, London, email:

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Universities Association for Continuing Education - Regional Futures: Formal and Informal Learning Perspectives, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Glamorgan, 5-7 April 2004

"If one seriously adopts the constructivist approach, one discovers that many more of one’s habitual ways for thinking have to be changed" (von Glasersfeld 1995)

This quote by a contemporary radical constructivist signals the need for different ways of thinking and doing things, if conventional education is to realise a constructivist worldview. Although, recent years have seen an increase in constructivist discourses in learning, the emerging formal education practices may continue to rely on the objectivist view of knowledge, where outcomes visible to the educator are greatly emphasised over the diverse active (implicit and explicit) learning processes.

This paper attempts to illustrate the underlying assumptions of the emerging online learning pedagogy that advocates the use of online collaborations for constructivist learning. The emerging online strategies that place emphasis on participation in online collaborations are challenged for their shallow interpretation of the constructivist worldview. The traditional, normative influences on the emerging online learning practices have resulted in a continued focus on measurable and visible learning behaviours. This focus has encouraged disassociation and disregard for informal, often radical and emancipatory aspects of learning that may lie implicit within and outside online learning discussions. In conclusion, this paper aims to argue that for constructivism to be truly embedded in learning, formal online and offline educators need to explore and acknowledge practices that promote informal learning.

Constructivist Discourses in Education

Formal education has traditionally relied on the objectivist view of knowledge. This view of learning assumes that knowledge can be imparted from teacher to learner through instruction, lecture and practice. This view of traditional adult education assumes true reality can be determined by "a large accumulation of facts" (Kelly 1970, 2). Teaching and research driven by this philosophy discourage different views and understandings, disregarding different contexts and experiences of individuals, and regard individuals as passive recipients of knowledge. Although lectures and information-giving techniques may be affective in some contexts and for some individual learning styles, their continued use as a dominant pedagogy has allowed limited recognition to diverse preferences of learning. Limited learner participation and interaction in the objectivist view has also disallowed pedagogues to realise the need for learner control during the process of learning. Learning in this context rather places emphasis on teacher-control and learner compliance.

In recent times, educators and institutional discourse has begun to challenge the objectivist view, with an increasing appreciation of different ways of knowing the world. Constructivist writers in education have described varied versions of constructivism, but commonly acknowledge the active role of the learner in interpretation of reality (Larochelle and Bednarz 1998, 5). They challenge the objectivist view that suggests ‘facts speak for themselves’ and that "knowledge is the reflection of ontological reality, and that language objectively refers to this reality" (Larochelle and Bednarz 1998, 5). The constructivist alternativism philosophy, described by George Kelly (1970) instead suggests that our constructions and views of the world are not stable, but are in continuous change as we build on past experiences. This change signifies learning and supports the understanding that as human beings, we are always construing and learning, and we are never inert (Kelly 1970).

The constructivist view is increasingly been accepted at least at a discursive level within formal education. According to McCarty and Schwandt (2000, 42) the talk about one’s course as ‘constructivist’, or oneself as a ‘constructivist educator’ may be influenced more by the modish need to shift towards this politically correct position in education, and less by the critical understanding of constructivism and different versions of constructivism. Bredo (2000, 128) identifies that the nature of constructivist view allows for these diverse versions, and warns that "any conception of constructivism that fails to take into account the full variations and change in the way the term is used will itself be a humanly created construct". Phillips (2000) calls on educators to begin by critical appraisal of the extreme and in-between versions of constructivism: radical individual constructivism and radical social constructivism. Such appraisals could motivate an ongoing need for us as educators to understand how people learn.

In contemporary education most of us are familiar with the writings of Dewey (1966a), Vygotsky (1962), Freire (1972), Brookfield (1986), Knowles (1998), and many others. These writers do not occupy the extreme versions of constructivism, but draw from different aspects of both individual and social ways and influences in knowing the world.

Dewey (1966, 192) criticised the limitations of the objectivist view of formal education, particularly for its limitations in enabling students to draw from their past experiences in construing new meaning. He called for the need for formal education to realise the importance of freedom and flexibility in education by allowing the "expression of even immature feelings and fancies" (Dewey 1966a, 190) to enable learning.

Vygotsky (1962) went beyond the focus on the individual in constructing and construing the world. He brought forth the idea that participation in social interaction and symbolically mediated thought facilitated by language and dialogue, dependent on socio-historical nature of a society, are important for individual learning.

Freire (1972) is known for his criticism of the ‘banking concept’ of education that disregards the needs of the socially oppressed groups in the society. He argued that importance of radical emancipatory learning as the pedagogy of the oppressed, which viewed learning as a more complex involvement in social and individual life.

Constructivist thinkers like Knowles (1998, 67) conclude that large amount of adult learning is informal. Knowles (1998, 67) identifies the importance of real-life situations as the main learning contexts, over the conventional subject-orientated approach in formal education. He argues that learning originates during the life’s simple and complex experiences, while he contends against the rigid, criteria-based curriculum that encourages conformity (p. 68).

Pertinently, Brookfield (1986) identifies two pre-requisites for personal construction: freedom and autonomy, at two levels. First is the commonly identified attribute of being able to independently choose the resources for learning (Brookfield 1986, 57). The second is the level of autonomy, realised when adults feel free to exercise critical thought, and make informed choices from alternative ways of thinking and living (p. 62), relative to their personal learning goals (p. 58).

The key points that the constructivist discourse suggests is the importance of learner-control, learning in real-life contexts, flexibility in learning, freedom to chose learning resources and openness in discussing issues. These aspects of learning are often commonly found in what Freire (1972) calls radical learning outside the control of formal educational hegemony. The following discussion questions if the formal online education recognises and encourages these constructivist and informal learning characteristics.

Formal Online Pedagogy and the Constructivist Worldview

As previously stated, contemporary education, theorists and philosophers have begun to see constructivist position as important in understanding diversity in education. Almost all emerging online learning literature refers to learning as a social experience, and assumes that flexibility offered by online technologies can help support the needs of diverse learners’ (Miller and Lu 2003, 164; Clerehan et al 2003, 15). The need for constructivist learning strategies is acknowledged in online learning research, including those reported by Monteith and Smith (2001, 119), Hughes and Daykin (2002, 217), Sims (2003, 88) Alexander et al (2003, 41), and Jung et al (2002, 153).

Mason (1998), Laurillard (1994) and other online learning advocates like Salmon (2000, 44) encourage a constructivist view to address diverse learners’ needs and promote democratic learning. Mason (1998, 3) states that constructivist thought could be encouraged through learner participation in structured online discussions, collaborative online activities, online assessment, interactive course material, and the changing role of the teacher from "a sage to a guide" (p. 4).

Laurillard (1994, 19) also identifies the importance of discussion and interaction during the online learning process. She identifies two further processes: adaptation and reflection, to encourage socially constructivist online learning. This includes adaptation by the teacher, of the learner’s world, through feedback on learners’ work and discussion. Then the learner reflects on that feedback. Laurillard (1994, 21) acknowledges that reflection takes time and effort. She warns that if the tutor gives little time for reflection, they fail in providing the opportunity for the learner to construct new meaning in relation to the existing meanings, leaving the learning process incomplete (p. 21).

Laurillard’s and Mason’s perspective on constructivism in online learning practices acknowledges the need for traditional institutions and educators to rethink the concept of the university, in order to invite open critical and discursive learning. However, a closer examination of the emerging pedagogy reveals that the emerging collaborative online learning practices may be building on the traditional, normative, campus-based, linear teaching experiences, which are dominated by lectures occasionally often followed by smaller group seminars.

In the same way, in an online environment the teacher identifies, structures and prepares text and website links for the learners to study. In some cases, this ‘information giving’ may take place through a series of online asynchronous audio lectures and PowerPoint presentation. This is may be followed by completion of individual or group tasks, which are then presented for online discussion.

A structured learning experience could be an expectation of most learners enrolled on formal education courses. However, the popular collaborative online learning strategies may assume that pre-defined learning structure and schedule suit all learners (Misanchuk and Schwier 1992, 356). This pre-definition of learning structure is reinforced through a defined course syllabi, schedules and requirements for participation in online discussions. There is an assumption that collaboration in teacher-defined tasks and questions in online courses is learner-centred and flexible, because it allows learners with flexible access to online discourse and learning materials in their own time (Hughes and Daykin 2002, 218; Oliver and Shaw 2003, 58; Monteith and Smith 2001, 119).

Do the formal online courses really enable flexibility for adult learners, who access continuing education and higher education in their own time? Do pre-defined structures for learning encourage learner-control, freedom to choose learning resources and ask questions in an open and trusting environment?

Knowles’ (1998, 23) criticises chain-like sequence of learning events to focus on predicting results, as providing a very elemental rather than a holistic worldview. Online learning practices often promote ‘chain-like’ sequence of events and need to be challenged for their interpretation of constructivism.

In an evaluative study by Hughes and Daykin (2002, 217) aimed to explore if their collaborative online strategy using the above stated format enabled constructivist learning. Their evaluation, of an online undergraduate module in nursing management offered at the University of West of England, was completed through analysis of online discussion postings and two focus-group interviews with 37 (out of a cohort of 220) learners (p.218). The course required learners to participate in three assignments: to read the given online text and post a short essay on the discussion board; draw on others’ essays to discuss links between theory and practice; and make recommendations to change or improve practice (p.218).

Seemingly, the stated learning strategy in this course appears to enable learner involvement, inviting them to post their own views, challenge others views and develop a critical though process. Yet, results of the course evaluation study show that learners mainly participated in online discussions on topics that the learners themselves started. These included "the use of ICT in nurse education and nursing practice" and "complaints about the stresses of online assignments and group work" (p.220). Discussion on teacher-identified topics was minimal or none.

Despite an in-depth sharing of issues pertinent to learners’ own needs, the researchers concluded "knowledge construction debate was limited" (p.222). Hughes and Daykin (2002, 222), who were also the online educators on this course; do not regard learner-initiated discussions on radical and critical issues affecting the learners as important in constructing learning. They refer to Salmon’s (2000) five stage model of online collaborative learning (p.219) to ascertain that constructivist learning would have been possible and demonstrated through discussion on material and topics provided by the tutor. Their interpretation of constructivism is clearly limited to the learning processes they have defined.

Likewise, Khine et al (2003, 113) report on a study identifying lack of online discussion among 42 adult trainee teachers on a pre-service Post-Graduate Diploma in Education, in Singapore. They conclude that trainee teachers’ inability to actively participate in online discussions demonstrates their preference of information acquisition over constructivism (p. 122). The researchers state that the learners "were not critical thinkers" and were surface learners, because they failed to sustain interaction (p. 122). This conclusion is reached without any indication that researchers considered other ways in which online learners may have engaged in the learning process.

In reference to the use of discussion to build critical thinking skills, researchers Hughes and Daykin (2002, 222) also conclude that learners’ were reluctant to criticise each other and to engage in discussion. Here, the researchers may have ignored the key issues of trust, rapport, confidence and power discourses that affect a truly open discourse, particularly in a formal environment monitored by the teacher. These issues are identified by online learners in Sims (2003) study, who set out report on learners’ perceptions and expectations of flexibility through online interactive learning.

Sims (2003) analysed open-ended questionnaires with 68 multimedia learning undergraduates in Australia, and found that learners felt the need to have control over the discussion topics (p.94), and wanted the freedom to choose learning directions depending on their particular requirements (p. 97). Sims (2003, 97) recognises the inconsistency of this finding with the current teacher-centred model, which considers "set sequences or fixed discussion threads" as the best way to achieve learning.

Formal online educators often conclude that redesigning learning activities may enable greater participation in online discussions. This conclusion ignores two key attributes of learning practices. Firstly, it suggests lacks of reflexivity among educators and content developers regarding their own understanding of behaviourism and constructivism. Secondly, it demonstrates failure to recognise that need for informal and open learning spaces, which enable learners to feel free to construct learning from personal and other’s experiences. The following sections discuss these attributes as necessary for constructivist online learning.

Focus on Observable Participation

‘Learning by doing’ and ‘active learning’ are important principles that have emerged within the constructivist viewpoint (Bredo, 132). Therefore, the strategy of active participation in online discussion may be seen as a practice of this viewpoint. For some learners, active participation in online discussions throughout or during some parts of the online course may be positively influential in their learning. For others, active participation may be difficult or unwanted due to different reasons. For many, discussing course topics online may prove to be a very different experience than discussions in a face-to-face environment.

In a recent literature review of online learning, Williams (2002, 267) confirms that despite requirement of compulsory participation in online discussions, many learners choose not to participate in online discussions. Indeed, in most online courses, despite compulsory requirement to contribute, many learners do not post messages as required but complete the course successfully. The construct of learning that justifies compulsory contribution assumes articulation of ideas to a formal authority is a critical element of the learning (Beaudoin 2002, 149).

In an online discussion on compulsory participation an academic, Thompson (2003) cites W.H. Auden (Nordquist 2002) to justify the need to participate: "How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?" In referring to this quote Thompson (2003) has neglected the issue that for deep engagement the person who needs to understand and hear is themselves, and not anyone else! Formal educators may interpret this quote as the need for learners to provide evidence to educators what they understand, and allow tutors to monitor the learners (Macdonald 2001, 22).

Brookfield (1986, 12) warns that enforced or coerced participation may result in learners either being increasingly physically or mentally absent, "in the sense of not being engaged with ideas, skills and knowledge". Few have explored the impact of making online participations compulsory in formal education courses. Oliver and Shaw (2003, 60) studied the impact of formalised participation in asynchronous discussion in Biochemistry, Human Anatomy and Lower Extremity Anatomy courses that were part of a Podiatry Medicine Degree in California (USA). They found that most contributions were assignment focused and did not lead to constructive knowledge sharing events (p.65). Oliver and Shaw (2003, 64) analysed types of contributions to find that "participants" were simply "playing the game" of assessment.

Requirements for compulsory participation may simply be extending the need for learners to conform to the defined learning structure, and thus normalising learning experience based on the dominant discourse and interpretation of constructivism. Dewey (1966a, 189) reasons that "to subject the mind to an outside, ready-made material", and to impose rigid and normalised requirements on the process of learning, "is a denial of democracy and the principles of self-directing individuality".

Online collaborations may and often do form an important part of the ones’ learning, however the requirement to make this learning explicit and externalise is influenced by Skinnerian behaviourism that "assumes meaning of events (i.e. online participation) is fixed by contingencies outside of the learner’s control" (Bredo 2000, 132). Enforcing requirements over participation by defining what is to be discussed and by controlling the time-scale of discussion, formal education remains situated in the objectivist worldview, maintaining control over the learning processes and limiting opportunities for democratic and radical participation. Emphasis on participation in online discussions, accounted-for by the postings and contributions, rewards participatory behaviour. In contrast, "lurking" or silent online behaviour is punished resulting in deduction of the final mark.

Silent Construction and Informal Online Learning

‘Lurking’ or silence in formal online course discussions may be treated as an unwanted behaviour. Some educators see "lurkers" as readers and beneficiaries of others’ discussions, who do not share their own ideas (Salmon 2000). Kollock and Smith (1996) describe "lurkers" as free-riders and non-contributing, resource-taking members. Only a few online educators acknowledge that "lurkers" are learning (Beaudoin 2002, 148).

Beaudoin (2002, 148), who is among a few to challenge the assumption that online participation is compulsory for learning, studied the primary factors influencing "non-participation" in online discussions. He found that 23 out of the 55 online education master’s degree learners, offered by University of Maryland university College and Oldenberg University, did not actively participate in discussions (p.149). An online survey questionnaire sent via email to the 23 "low visibility or "no visibility" learners (p. 150), found that these learners spent most time reading assignments, reading others’ comments, web searches, writing assignments, and least time on writing comments for online discussions. Beaudoin (2002, 150) also found that three-fourths of the learners’ simply preferred to read what others’ wrote, or did not feel any different from what was already said. 40% said they weren’t sure how to phrase their ideas, 30% said they did not understand the topic well enough to comment, 30% said they were not sure what to say because the discussion had drifted away from the topic, and 25% said they did not feel comfortable in presenting their ideas online (p.150).

Beaudoin (2002, 153) also concludes that half the learners identified themselves as autonomous learner, who did not prefer active in-group learning. A large majority (n=22) of learners said they were processing ideas gained from reading others discussions, and 8 learners said they gained more from other course activities than online discussions (p.151). The study suggests that for these learners most learning actually occurs’ in "unseen dimensions of online learning", and that low visible participation does not imply less engagement in learning (p.154). Beaudoin (2002, 154) argues that active participant may participate at the expense of their reflection time, and it is possible that silent learners are more engaged.

Nonnecke and Preece (2000, 110), who interviewed 10 online members from an open online discussion list, have found "lurking" to be a useful participatory activity. They found 117 possible reasons for "lurking", 5 primary "lurking activities", and a number of key "lurking" strategies (130). The "lurkers" interviewed described management of messages as the key "lurking" activity (p.122). Nonnecke and Preece (2000, 122) found "lurking" as not a passive but active involvement in reading and applying strategies to "determine what to read, delete or save". The participants’ strategies were goal-driven and were related to management of information (p.122). Participation in "lurking" was also dependent on other priorities in individuals’ lives.

Nonnecke and Preece (2000, 126) conclude that

"Lurking is not free-riding but a form of participation that is both acceptable and beneficial to most online groups. Public posting is only one way in which an online group can benefit from its members. All members of a group are part of a large social milieu, and value derived from belonging to a group may have far-reaching consequences".

Nonnecke and Preece (2000, 127) interviews also found that "lurkers" can also feel a sense of community, when the dialogue engenders "a sense of trust and care". This sense can make people feel members of a community, on the other hand "lurking" may be an indirect way of saying "they are not yet members, but are trying to be" (p.128).

Like informal, implicit yet engaged participation in other forms of learning exercises, ‘lurking’ may be informal learning online, at least for some learners. This silent, informal participation in online learning is not recognised by the visibility and outcome-based, behaviourist formal online education model. Indeed, for some learners participation in informal learning through lurking and other invisible activities may be deeper and more engaging, than formal online provisions.

Crook and Webster (1997, 47) describe findings from three email studies that also show that most student-student and student-tutor interactions, outside a defined online course context, are spontaneous and informal. They consider that most useful interaction between learners takes place in the form of "serendipitous talk precipitated in corridors and other shared spaces" (p.47).

In their discussion, Crook and Webster (1997, 51) conclude that current use of asynchronous construction sharing tools in online courses is poorly adapted to meet the informal social practices of the student community. They state that while formal educators continue to suggest the need to develop online discourse and their roles as facilitators, learners’ perceive online communication with tutors, particularly in the course context as formal (p.50). Crook and Webster (1997, 50) infer that having accessibility to shared constructions, does not influence informality.

Is it possible that by advocating use of online communication tools for learning community development as the key means to construct learning, online educators are reproducing the distribution of power for some learners over others? Is the normalisation through online learning techniques imposed by formal education, a denial of constructivism?

Power discourses and formal participation: a denial of Constructivism

The participatory rhetoric in online discussions is assumed to enable equal access for all learners to share their own views and challenge others’ views. By implication, this practice does not enable neutral learning experiences. There may be many power influences, in a pedagogy that requires exposition of the defined participatory behaviour by all learners.

Firstly, the openness of the online discussion environment and opportunity for discursive exchange is power-laden.

Nonnecke and Preece (2000) in their in-depth study of 10 online group members, cited earlier, found one of the reasons for "lurking" was related to remaining anonymous and preserving privacy and safety. The issue of safety is not only central to participation in discussions, but according to Maslow (1972, 43) it is central to all learning. In an open online discussion list silent learners may feel uncomfortable in putting their opinions out in the open, or they may feel unconfident in challenging others’ views. However, they may continue to maintain their safe learning zone by watching, drawing from an online discussion, and feeling free to choose the silent course of learning.

In some formal online learning discussions, the choice of safety through silence may not be an option. The formality of online practices that aim to promote openness and democratic learning seemed to have ignored the need to feel, free, confident and secure to choose to participate openly or learn silently.

The irony is that in our increasingly risk conscious society, as technologies develop, the systems respond by requiring greater accountability of the functioning institutions and individuals, leading to increased surveillance (Lupton 1995, 78). This is evident in these so-called "democratic" online learning systems, where ‘open’ and ‘safety’ discourses are misinterpreted as increase in teacher monitoring and control over the learning process.

Online educators’ ability to monitor discussions, log-in times and other learner activities are used as a selling point for all virtual learning environments (Land and Bayne 2002). Most online learner activity is ‘open’ to surveillance. Awareness of teacher presence is the awareness that one is being watched. According to Foucault (1977, 200) hierarchical relationships in which one is being watched by another, while the watched needs to comply with the disciplines laid down by the watcher, give rise to disciplinary power.

The surveillance and disciplinary power of the teacher, who has normalised judgement for compulsory participation (Foucault 1977, 179), may cause the silent learner to feel pressured and powerless to continue silent learning. The fear of loosing marks will further deter learner confidence in "reaching out to the environment in wonder, interest, and express whatever skills she [sic] has" (Maslow 1972, 50). In this unequal power distribution in the dominant formal education system, the learner’s need for safety is displaced by fear, lack of choice and lack of control.

Likewise individuals may experience power differences among themselves, where one learner may appear to contribute more than others, or a learner may display a greater depth of knowledge. Where this display of knowledge is not constructively facilitated (yet not controlled) by the online tutor, it may result in other learners feeling inadequate and less able.

In a study of seventeen educational professionals with masters degrees, studying for an online Administration and Supervision course at City University of New York, Picciano (1998, 10) identified qualitative issues related to participation in online discussions. Despite the learners’ high level of experience as senior teachers, the group reported feelings of hesitance, fear of exposure, and discomfort in ‘speaking-up’ in an open forum (p. 11).

Similarly, in a grounded theory research with purposeful sampling of 12 experienced online learners and 6 new online learners, Brown (2001, 28) also identifies the complexity of construction and engagement in online learning. Although Brown (2001, 25) shows the intended community through collaborative discussion was formed for his learners, 5 of his learners said that they felt no sense of community and 4 were inconclusive about their answers. For those who experienced depth of social engagement in the community and collaborative learning, it took a longer time to build friendship, community or camaraderie that it would take for face-to-face relationships (Brown 2001, 32). Brown (2001, 31) also concluded that the online community feeling may be present for some learners and not for others, even if they are in the same class.

Research studies cited above have identified that some individuals may not participate because of a feeling of "lack of connection with individuals" and "feeling like an intruder" (Nonnecke and Preece 2002, 7).

It is useful to recall Bourdieu’s (Grenfell and James 1998, 20) concept of habitus and cultural capital, to understand feelings of disempowerment experiences by individuals who may have limited experience of using discussion boards, or poor experiences of the formal education system. "A process that is empowering for someone may then be disempowering for others and will be resisted by them" (Leach et al 2001, 294).

Formal needs to embrace the Informal

The above discussion has argued that online learning environment cannot be presumed to be neutral. The discussion also suggests that a pedagogy that rejects silent invisible forms of learning, and sees the need to normalise learning by giving importance to visible behaviours assessed by a teacher in power position, are not only disempowering but also not constructivist.

Clearly there may be benefits in providing structured and discursive learning opportunities. These practices may also allow campus-based, distance and part-time learners to feel part of a community of learners. While this is a positive influence on learning, the very effect of formalised, behaviourist and normative practices within formal education, may not always allow the freedom, flexibility and control sought by individual learners in their online learning spaces.

Yurkiw (2002) criticises conventional education for its behaviourist approaches that place emphasis on visible outcomes through formative and summative examination and assessment. Yurkiw (2002) argues that this approach rewards success, defined in the normalised education and subject terms, and discourages learners from taking risks due to avoidance of failure. It formalises all stages of learning, where the educator continuously confers her[sic] power position by setting out the learning criteria, schedule and outcome expectations.

Brookfield (1986, 14) identifies the need for an informal environment that allows fearless learning. This is learning for the joy of learning, and not being worried about putting an alternative view forward. In a constructivist paradigm, errors are a positive part of learning. Openness and allowance for errors is also an opportunity to gain insight into understanding one’s own constructs, and can influence growth for others’ through interaction.

I suggest that formal educational environment and the emerging online learning practices need to give greater attention to the issues of safety, informality, confidence, and trust, and need to see mistakes as important for learning. Results of studies by Sims (2003), Li (2002) and Crook and Webster (1997) confirm that learner’s may seek confidence and learning spaces where they can take risks; and some learners may find this confidence in their role as "lurkers", and others may find it through participation in informal discussion on topics of their own choice.

According to Kelly (1970) "role is placed in context of something a person himself is doing, and it springs from the notion that one may attempt to understand others in terms of their own outlooks". This perspective encourages the view that the role of the learner is more concerned with what an individual constructs as an engaging process. Therefore, unlike in the behaviourist paradigm, ‘visible’ and ‘silent’ roles are personal constructs, and are enacted to understand the world in view of how individuals construct their own perspectives (Kelly 1970, 25). This perspective equally respects the role of the learner, both as a 'visible' online participant and 'silent' learner who attempts to understand another person's outlook.

Online learning practices that embrace constructivism need to recognise the impact of formal requirements that do not allow varying roles for learning, and continue focus on observable behaviours. The link between constructivist worldview and informal learning that enables an environment of trust and risk taking, needs to be realised if formal education is truly going to implement open, flexible and learner centred strategies.

Formal education and structure is not all bad, but it is the control it imposes on learning and the power influences that prevent learner autonomy during learning experiences, which needs to be understood. A greater understanding of informal learning that goes on in online learning contexts and the complex issues enacted by enforced formal participation, may help us see the importance of immeasurable, implicit and personal learning experiences in formal learning. Joining up of formal pedagogy with informal learning could allow for more diverse learning opportunities that do not rely on outcome and only what is seen, but instil in the learner the ability to construe and critically understand the world around them.


This paper has explored the underlying assumptions made about constructivism when it is translated in the formal educational discourse and emerging online learning practices. The discussion has demonstrated that continued focus of formal online educators on observable outcomes during online learning suggests continuation of behaviourist learning approaches. Research discussed in the paper demonstrates that participation in online discussion is not a neutral experience and may be influenced by learner’s contexts, their previous learning experiences, feelings of trust and safety to take risks and make mistakes, and power discourses due to and outside the online learning space. It is argued that for online learning experiences to enable constructivist learning firstly, there needs to an acknowledgement that some individuals may be learning informally and silently, not visible to teachers. Secondly, facilitators of online learning experiences need to enable informal and trustworthy learning spaces, where learners feel confident and supported in working on their own and with each other. Thirdly, informality in online learning needs to be fostered and realised, to enable true constructivism in formal education.


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