Reflecting on Constructivism and Online Learning

What does the constructivist perspective mean to me and my thinking about teaching and learning in an online context, now? How has my thinking changed and why?

The readings and discussions in this course have allowed me to reflect further on constructivism and its implications for designing learning experiences and assessments. In Week 2, Sawyer’s comments on objectivism and the success of such teaching practices in transmitting a standard body of facts had me considering whether our traditional didactic lectures and digital modules were actually suitable for medical learners. If these modalities “work” to allow learners to acquire knowledge from the clinical experts, then why disrupt the model? This shallow understanding of constructivism and objectivism had me considering cherry picking the best epistemological stance depending on the situation, or “reflective eclecticism” as Posner calls it (qtd. in Vrasidas, 2000, p. 13).

However, as the weeks progressed, I feel that my understanding of the purpose of learning evolved greatly and changed my perspective.

First of all, even if instructionism can successfully fill medical students full of all of the medical facts they need, “factual and procedural knowledge is only useful when a person knows which situations to apply it in, and exactly how to modify it for each new situation” (Sawyer, 2008, p. 2). My understanding of the purpose of Medical Education was also advanced over the past 4 months through work, which has also helped me to understand why instructionism is not a viable option. The concept of the Master Adaptive Learner is core to our curriculum renewal. This concept suggests that Medical Learners need to learn not only foundational knowledge, but also how to be adaptive, reflective, and critical problem solvers (Cutrer et. al., 2017).

Furthermore, I realized that if we consider learning to be a process of enculturation (see Weeks 5 & 6 journals), then instructionism is even more inadequate. In order for learners to gain membership to communities of practice, they must understand the language, knowledge practices, and culture of these communities. This requires observation and opportunities for authentic practice and application of knowledge in context.

Thinking of online learning: How would you describe online learning now? How has your understanding changed (if it has changed) from the first entry?

My understanding of what online learning is has not changed a great deal since my initial post, where I agreed with Tony Bates’ assertion that online learning is a modality not a methodology (see Week 1 Journal and Bates, 2016). In fact, in this course I found I was less and less inclined to draw a distinction between classroom and online learning, and found more value in reflecting on learning in general.

Many of the concepts that we explored in this class, including the Community of Inquiry Framework (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007),  collaborative learning (Pantiz, 2000), constructivist approaches to assessment, and the concept of invisible or passive learners (Nordic Council of Ministers, 2017), have important implications for classroom or online learning. I found a great deal of value in considering much of the course content in relation to our current curricular renewal at work, which is primary a classroom-based curriculum. However, in reflecting on this, it help me to understand how digital tools could help support the paradigm shift further.

My understanding of online learning as a modality was further reinforced by Quinton’s critique of Online Learning Environments and how, more often than not, they reflect traditional, objectivist epistemological beliefs about teaching and learning. (See Week 8 journal entry and Quinton, 2010). I feel that this article in particular will have a lasting impact on my approach to curricular development. As an LMS administrator, I have been as guilty as any one of my colleagues of assuming that moving content from the classroom to the LMS reflected innovation. I will now be more more critical of the learning environment design and the conceptualization of teaching and learning that is implicit in it. 

How has the Community of Inquiry Perspective influenced my thinking?

I was previously familiar with the Community of Inquiry concept. However, revisiting it in this course allowed me to reflect on it’s applications in Medical Education. I found the practical inquiry model to be a useful tool for designing my assignment for this course (Garrison and Arbaugh, 2007). I actually was able to draw numerous parallels between this model and problem based learning (PBL), which lead me to redesign my asynchronous activity.

Furthermore, I think that reconsidering the Community of Inquiry has allowed me to better understand my role in the construction of the learning environment as a curricular developer / instructional designer. (See Week 4 journal entry and Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). The “Teacher Presence” aspect of the COI framework, which is perhaps poorly named, can be formed through not just the instructor, but also anyone who contributes to the instructional design and organization of a course. I believe this will help me navigate my role better at work and on the various course committees that I participate in.

What questions am I left with, when thinking about assessment in online learning?

Again, my questions about assessment are not specific to an online learning environment. I have found myself left with questions on valid assessment within a constructivist learning environment (and how constructivist assessment can be practically applied to a CBME curriculum). I think assessment may be the topic that I have had the least resolution with through this course. The biggest concern that I have remains from Week 2, in that change really needs to be driven by assessment (see Week 2 journal). As long as our students are still being assessed primarily on their acquisition of facts, a culture shift in teaching methodology will be challenging. They have less motivation to engage in dialogic or collaborative learning.

Reflecting on my initial questions: 

At the start of the course, I set myself three guiding questions to help direct my learning. Since then, I feel like I’ve ended up with many more questions and areas that I would like to explore further. I also ended up modifying my initial questions as I reflected on them. 

How can interactivity in asynchronous learning materials be designed to provide an optimal learning experience? 

I realized that this question did not fully account for the complexity of interaction in online learning environments. In Week 5, I reformed the question to include all types of interaction, which according to Vrasidas includes not just learner-content interactions (as my initial question assumed), but also learner-learner, learner-teacher and learner-interface questions. (See Week 5 Journal; Vrasidas, 2000).

In this course, we focused primarily on the social types of interaction, learner-teacher and learner-learner. These types of interaction are addressed by the second question I posed on the onset of the course (see below). However, I did not find that there were many opportunities to explore the other types of interactivity (learner-content and learner-interface) in great depth. One article that I found in my own research on silent learners and engagement discusses the sociomateriality of learning and the importance of recognizing engagement with non-human actors in learning networks (Gourlay, 2015). I understand the implications of this to be that interaction, whether it be between human actors or non-human elements of a learning environment, is much more complex than even how I understood it in Week 5. I would like to explore this concept in much greater details as I progress through my studies beyond CTL1608.

What kind of discourse does structured/facilitated online discussions result in and how does that impact learning? 

The type and quality of discourse in online discussions seems to be very dependent on the teacher presence in the discussions. As I discussed in my Week 4 journal, Garrison and Arbaugh view teacher presence as consisting of three components: instructional design and organization, discourse facilitation and direct instruction. All three of these components can have a direct impact on the resulting learner-learner and learner-teacher discourse.

First, the design of the learning activity can have a significant impact on how students progress through it and the resulting discourse. The question, problem, prompt (or other triggering event) of the task will directly impact the cognitive activity engaged in by the learners. In order for a task to lead students through all 4 phases of the practical inquiry model and result in a resolution, it must be well-designed with clearly defined “shared goals requiring a collaborative solution or artifact” (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007, p. 162). In absence of a reason to engage in collaborative learning, the discourse may often be less substantial.

Secondly, the balance between direct instruction and discourse facilitation will have a further significant impact on the discourse and cognitive activity of the students. According to Mercer and Howe, if faculty primarily engage in direct instruction, or “authoritative talk”, they often do not leave room for exploratory talk (2012, p. 14). This can also result in less substantial discourse among learners.

How can online learning support a balance between both individualized/personal  learning and social learning?

As I continued to reflect on the Practical Inquiry Model from Garrison and Arbaugh (see Week 4 Journal, and Final Assignment), I realized that individualized learning and social learning can be complementary rather than disparate. This model, which I used in my asynchronous discussion activity, provides opportunities for learners to engage in both individual and social learning tasks. Within my activity, learners would explore the problem together, identify knowledge gaps, and then individually conduct the research to fill those gaps. Then they reconvene to share their research and come to a resolution.

The use of online tools can also make it easier to create learning environments that support learner diversity. In their report on Silent Learners, Árnason et. al. discuss the importance of using multimodal resources and providing multiple ways of students to engage in the content and activities. I think that this is very important to keep in mind when designing learning activities.

Students may prefer to not engage actively in discussion activities, for example, so instead they can demonstrate their thinking processes through reflections or a portfolio. Vrasidas discussed other alternative assessment tools for documenting knowledge construction that could be used to support personalized learning (2000, p. 11-12).

Although the importance of dialogue and learner-learner interaction for learning is very clear in all of the literature on social constructivism, individuals can be supported by providing options and opportunities for some learner autonomy in determining how they navigate the learning environment.


  • Árnason, H., Creelman, A., Eklund, C., Grubbe, J., Kekkonen, T., Knudsen, A., … Slåtto, T. (2017). Silent learners – a guide. 25. Retrieved from
  • Cutrer, W. B., Miller, B., Pusic, M. V., Mejicano, G., Mangrulkar, R. S., Gruppen, L. D., … Moore, D. E. (2017). Fostering the Development of Master Adaptive Learners: A Conceptual Model to Guide Skill Acquisition in Medical Education. Academic Medicine, 92(1), 70–75.
  • Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. Internet and Higher Education, 10(3), 157–172.
  • Gourlay, L. (2015). ‘Student engagement’ and the tyranny of participation. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 402–411.
  • Mercer, N., & Howe, C. (2012). Explaining the dialogic processes of teaching and learning: The value and potential of sociocultural theory. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 1(1), 12–21.
  • Quinton, S.R. (2010). Principles of Effective Learning Environment Design. In Ebner, M. & Schiefner, M. (Eds.) Looking Toward the Future of Technology-Enhanced Education: Ubiquitous Learning and the Digital Native, 327-352.
  • Sawyer, R. K. (2008). Optimising learning implications of learning sciences research. Innovating to Learn, Learning to Innovate, 9789264047, 45–65.
  • Vrasidas, C. (2000). Constructivism versus objectivism: Implications for interaction, course design, and evaluation in distance education. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 6(4), 339–362.

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