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This paper addresses the issues surrounding the implementation of online environments that enhance and facilitate learning, particularly from a constructivist or collaborative perspective. I have applied the findings of a research study into collaborative learning through computer mediated communication to a later course I developed to implement the findings and which I then researched. I will discuss the issues that have arisen from such an implementation. The paper initially describes the theoretical perspectives of my view of learning online, then provides a rationale for this approach to online teaching and learning through a brief review of the literature about experiences and advantages of this environment. Practices and strategies for effective online environments are described and the issues and problems that arise from learning in this way are raised.
Duffy, Lowyck and Jonassen (1993), in describing the importance of the context to meaning and understanding, also stressed the social aspect of constructivism of people constructing knowledge 'socially through collaboration and discussion' (p. 1) which results in a shared meaning and understanding. Knuth and Cunningham (1993), describing tools which facilitate constructivist learning, focused on dialogue as an important knowledge construction process' (p. 170). Jonassen's (1999) model of Constructivist Learning Environments (CLE's), explains how technology can enable collaboration and social construction of knowledge. CLE's engage students in investigation of a problem, critique related cases and review information resources. Learners develop needed skills and collaborate with others, using the social support of the group to learn effectively. Jonassen, Prevish, Christy & Stavrulaki (1999) claim that 'the key to meaningful learning is ownership of the problem or learning goal' (p. 52), some component of which the learners must define. In these studies, students defined the issues for discussion, found and shared the resources, then socially constructed their ideas in online discussion. These activities were developed by the group with teacher guidance and scaffolding.
My constructivist concepts about knowing which underlie the research include:
Recent Canadian analysis of online teaching structures (Campos, Laferriere & Harasim, 2001) reported a move to collaborative activities through online integration especially with teachers more experienced in online teaching and learning. Other studies of online use also reported advantageous collaborative attributes (Stacey, 1999, Rogers, 2000, Curtis & Lawson, 2001, Baskin, 2001) as well as consideration of the teacher and student roles in establishing a collaborative and constructivist environment.
The research was undertaken as an ethnographic study, and the context of the group formation and development and the process of their collaboration were described through multiple research perspectives. I investigated the groups' ongoing processes of communication and interaction, through observing, recording and analysing the text of the electronic communication and through analysis of its content and the system usage pattern of the participants. The learning processes they experienced using this medium were described through the students' reflections during pre study and post study interviews and through my analysis of electronic observation of their communication.
However there were many issues and challenges with the changes and technical hurdles of the electronic environment, often due to the early stage in Internet development which meant all students were new to the environment and had a minimal localised technical support. On the positive side, the problems group members encountered in using CMC did provide a common ground as their groups were formed. Technical hints were often shared, with the students who were more technically capable helping the others. The humour and informality of reply in solving these technical problems collaboratively set the tone of the group's interaction as well as providing the group with a purpose for interaction and discussion, an important aspect in groups' forming relationships.
The study investigated twenty postgraduate students (4 male, 16 female), most aged between 40 and 50 years, and working full time who were all studying off campus and were geographically distributed over every state of Australia and in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Korea, Fiji and Vietnam (3 students deferred over the course of the semester for reasons external to the study).
The study researched: 1) how computer conferencing was used in teaching and learning as a dynamic environment for sharing ideas and constructing knowledge, 2) how students learned collaboratively in an asynchronous, text-based computer conference, 3) how students perceived the effect of online interaction on their learning.
Data were gathered electronically using qualitative methods:
Students were appreciative of the required interaction as a way of making them engage more actively with the content of the course. It enabled them to construct their own understanding of the course content with feedback from other participants to assist that construction.
The different perspectives provided by the different students was particularly seen as an advantage to their learning as it took them out of their own more limited view of the subject (often with difficulty). They reported that the other participants challenged their ideas and provided new thinking.
They described how the group communication in the developing online community provided a motivation for learning and how they enjoyed the interaction which reduced their usual isolation in distance learning. They had a sense of community, particularly in the sharing of resources.
They did identify the increased time spent on the subject as a disadvantage though this was an element that the students usually saw as a choice and as a self-management issue.
Some students complained that they chose to work at a distance as they preferred their independence and the ability to work at their own pace and did not learn well in groups
Content analyses pointed to the role and importance of the conferences for social interaction and administrative sharing as well as for a cognitive focus.
The small collaborative group environment meant that students could establish small group relationships in a more informal space and this was conducive to social presence comments included in most content messages whatever their complexity
Cognitive content also rose over several weeks, reflecting the cognitive focus and purpose of the discussions, but this was accompanied by a continued high level of social presence factors .
A few students elected to work independently on their assessment but students working in collaborative groups produced higher quality assessment tasks than those working individually.
The development of small groups who worked collaboratively was an important component of the constructivist approach where "learning revolves around learners' conversations about what they are learning, not teacher interpretations" (Jonassen, 1999, p229). An environment independent of teacher directed learning yet with the overall facilitation and structuring by the teacher, gave students greater ownership of their learning and freedom to construct their own understandings in a social context.
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Curtis, D.D. & Lawson, M.J. (2001) Exploring collaborative online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(1). http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/Vol5_issue1/Curtis/curtis.htm [verified 20 Aug 2002]
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|Author: Dr Elizabeth Stacey is a Senior Lecturer in the Education Faculty at Deakin University. She teaches preservice teacher education studies, postgraduate distance education coursework and supervises students researching flexible learning and computer and communication technologies. Her research and publications are focused on these areas including learning with computers, and the use of interactive technologies, particularly audiographics, interactive television and computer conferencing.
Please cite as: Stacey, E. (2002). Learning links online: Establishing constructivist and collaborative learning environments. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/2002/stacey.html