Constructivist Learning Theory and the Virtual Classroom

Does the Constructivist Learning Theory have a place in the virtual classroom?

The Constructivist Learning Theory in a few words

Let`s imagine our minds as a large cabinet with a lot of drawers that are filled with pieces of paper with formulas written on them. This is our knowledge, which is constructed out of our experiences and interactions with the world. Sometimes we encounter new challenges. In order to overcome them, we start to search through the drawers for a formula that will be useful in a given situation. A larger cabinet means more drawers. More drawers mean more formulas. 

However, sometimes we aren`t able to deal with a problem by using our own formulas, no matter how large our cabinet may be. In this case, we have to search outside for more information. How can we use this information effectively? Well, by putting it into the right drawer. There it gets categorized and catalogued like in a library and then is ready for use. It is no longer only information. It is knowledge. 

We are active in this process of transforming information into knowledge and this concept is the basis of the Constructivist Learning Theory. It introduces the idea that learning is an active process during which the learner constructs concepts and ideas based on their own knowledge and experience.

4 fundamental ideas of the Constructivist Learning Theory

Instead of listening to a story about planting seeds, which would be the approach in a traditional classroom, in a Constructivist one, the learners can do the actual planting by themselves. This process of learning about how plants grow could be very motivating for the students. They take responsibility for their work, they have to make decisions, and they are provoked to be active, to work together with their classmates, to be supportive, and to help each other. Along with the knowledge of the world around them, a sense of responsibility, the ability to make decisions, and teamwork are all skills that can be transferred to any other life or work situation in the future. 

The learner in a Constructivist classroom is active in the learning process, constructs the world, and learns how to act. They are responsible for their actions and can see the consequences of their decisions. The learned knowledge can be applied in new contexts and demonstrated in new ways later on. This new knowledge is and should be connected to existing knowledge while, at the same time, upgrading it. There are some fundamental ideas of the Constructivist Learning Theory that are the basis of a learning design. A Constructivist classroom is a learning space where there are opportunities for:

  • Social interaction
  • Reflection
  • Real life experiences
  • Monitoring and encouraging the individual progress of a learner.

The virtual classroom is an online learning environment that allows real-time interaction between tutors and students and gives them the opportunity to be digitally connected. Usually, it utilizes various tools such as videoconferencing, online whiteboards, chat tools, screen sharing, breakout rooms, a teacher’s control panel, and much more. 

These tools enable the communication and collaboration between the learners and their tutors. However, let`s take a look at whether or not the basic requirements for an efficient learning design inspired by the Constructivist Theory are achievable and applicable in the virtual classroom.

Does a virtual classroom offer possibilities for social interaction? 

Usually, the virtual classroom has tools for videoconferencing, communicating through chat, and raising one’s hand. There are also functionalities for creating breakout rooms for individual or small group work, team discussions, or the implementation of small project assignments. The tutor can create 3, 4, or more separate virtual classrooms in line with the main one in order to separate the learners according to their assignments. The tutor can visit all of them and is able to monitor the progress of the work and the discussions. After the separate groups are ready with their projects, they can virtually enter the main classroom to report to the rest of the students.

In addition, incorporating learning technologies such as those mentioned above for small groups of whole-class forums or live chats can foster student interaction and ingenuity.

Does a virtual classroom provide the opportunity for reflection?

The virtual classroom can offer the use of an interactive online whiteboard (this allows the tutors and the learners to interact on the same online page). The tutors can upload various types of learning resources (multimedia presentations, images, text, schemes, tables, diagrams, etc.) and the learners can write, draw, and make notes and comments on the same page. This allows for immediate reflection on the new learning material.

Can learning in a virtual classroom represent real-life experiences?

The virtual classroom is a learning environment that is highly interactive due to its use of live-streaming technology. It can also support situational learning in which the learner faces a challenge. This provokes them to not only use their knowledge, skills and experience, but to also be creative. The goal is clear, but reaching it is not certain.

Let`s imagine a virtual classroom in which future physicians are trained to diagnose their patients. The learners are welcomed in a virtual hospital where they are involved in a virtual patient examination. “Hints” are presented by their tutor in the form of patient complaints or blood test results.

The role of the tutor here would be to provide a blueprint in the form of offering additional information, giving feedback, asking questions, and motivating the learners. 

This is an approach through which the acquired skills can then be transferred to another real life situation and context, as well as encourages critical thinking and responsibility.

Is there a way to monitor and encourage the progress of an individual learner in the virtual classroom?

Monitoring the progress of the learners in a virtual classroom can be very different from the same process in a traditional one. The tutor can ask questions in order to both keep the learners engaged and to monitor their progress. 

Many of the software solutions for the virtual classroom allow the tutor to create polls with the same purpose. Regular communication and interaction between the participants in the classroom also can help the process of monitoring the progress of an individual learner. The tutor and the learners are constantly communicating and interacting in the virtual classroom.

In addition, the session can be recorded, which helps the tutor monitor the learning process by allowing them to go back to the sessions and review additional details.

The virtual classroom is a learning environment where the roles can be switched between the tutor and the learners. The tools for presenting can be used by the learners to take the leading role or to reflect on the implementation of the tasks. They can receive immediate feedback by the others in the classroom or by the tutor. Usually, there are teacher`s tools that help them provide feedback that can be very encouraging. 

All the ideas of a learning design mentioned above are aspects of student-centered learning. This is one of the main characteristics of the Constructivist Theory, which can be applied with success in a virtual classroom. This online learning environment gives the participants (both learners and tutors) the opportunity to share a common space in which they can  work together. 

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