Evolving Web Technologies and Changing Learning Theories

James Brown

Boise State University


Abstract

Who would have dreamed that the Internet would become what it is today? People all over the world are now able to communicate, collaborate, and learn from one another in ways that have not been seen since before the Tower of Babel when mankind was still capable of communicating in one language. With the unleashing of the Internet, a new virtual world has been born consisting of blogs, wikis, virtual worlds, social networking websites, web based office applications, mobile technologies, and online video communication. What value do these new technologies hold for past and present learning theories? Are learning theories being created from these new technologies or are these new technologies merely tools that are being used by educators to create virtual leaning environments where learners are finally able construct their own knowledge? The focus of this paper will be to examine the constructionist learning theory and to determine if the Internet has finally given constructionists the tools they need to build rich learning environments. This chapter will also focus on the possible new learning theory of connectivism and determine if new technologies are creating new learning theories.

Introduction
 
What came first, learning theory or the technology? Technology expert Lynne Schrum (2001) from the University of Georgia likes to share her motto, “Theory comes before technology, except in the dictionary.” Is she correct? Does theory truly come before technology or is technology merely a new tool whose sole purpose is to aid in the constructing knowledge? Is technology bringing about new learning theories such as connectivism? To answer these questions, we must first examine the constructionism learning  theory developed by Seymour Papert and why the constructionist learning theory may have failed to gain  popularity until the early 1990’s. Next we will examine the role of the Internet along with some of the more popular Internet tools that have been developed. The final phase of this paper will  then examine connectivism which is touted as being a new modern age learning theory by George Siemens to see if it truly is a new learning theory, or if is simply a new type of learning environment.. By looking at these three elements, we should be able to answer the question: Are emerging web technologies creating new learning theories such as connectivism, or are they simply being used to create realistic constructionist learning environments that could not have been created in the past due to limited resources and the lack of proper tools?
 
Constructionism
 
Constructionism, a learning theory developed by Seymour Papert is based on the premise that knowledge is constructed by the learner. According to Papert (1993), it is both a theory of learning and a strategy for education. It builds on the "Constructivist" theories of Jean Piaget, asserting that knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to student, but actively constructed in the mind of the learner. In his own words, Papert describes Constructionism as such.  “Constructionism—the N word as opposed to the V word," shares constructivism's view of learning as "building knowledge" structures through progressive internalization of actions. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe" ( Papert & Harel, 1991, Introduction).

Papert's primary work with contructionism was introduced in 1967 with the introduction of a  programming language called Logo. Logo was designed as a way to teach fifth grade students geometry. The thought process behind Logo was to teach children how to think and  solve problems with the aid of an on screen turtle. Using the Logo programming language, students could instruct the turtle to create a series of geometrical shapes which allowed students were able to construct their own knowledge. When students encountered errors, students were presented with an additional, unanticipated learning opportunity in which students could learn problem solving skills. Papert theorized that by involving children in the learning process, it would strengthen their ability to construct their own knowledge.
 
Why Constructionism may Have Failed to Gain Acceptance in the Past?

A typical constructionist learning environment includes four components: (a) an enabling context, (b) resources, (c) a set of tools, and (d) scaffolds (Hannafin, Land, & Oliver, 1999). Before the evolution of the internet components b and c were not readily available to educators. These components were (b) resources and (c) a set of tools. According to (Jonassen, Mayes, & McAleeso, 1993), cognitive tools, along with constructivist learning environments, guide and activate cognitive learning strategies and critical thinking. In the late 1960's the kinds of tools and resources modern educators readily access were non existant for eductors of this time era.

Enabling context


        Constructionism is about the learner constructing knowledge. In order to facilitate this, constructivist learning environments require students to perform meaningful tasks in authentic contexts. Plainly stated, you would not teach learners to play football in a china shop. Not only would this prove disastrous, but the learner would learn nothing from the experience.  A good example of  enabling context may be seen in Papert's use of  Logo to teach Geometry to elementary students. Based on a series of commands, students would command a Logo Turtle to draw various geometric shapes. The benefits to this learning environment was that the results were immediate and it was easy for students to troubleshoot issues when the turtle failed to produce the desired shape. Logo is still used till this very day to teach basic computer programming concepts (Hussain, Lindh,Shukur, 2006).    

Resources

        Resources required to build a constructionist style learning environment come in many forms but the two most common forms are (a) human and (b) infrastructure. Examples of human resources would encapsulate individual knowledge, skills and education. Examples of infrastructure resources would include local and wide area ethernet networks, ample network bandwidth, fiber optic cables, and funding in which to pay for all of the required resources.

Set of Tools

        Constructionist learning environments cannot be easily built without a quality set of tools. Examples include Liquid Chrystal Display(LCD) projectors and database/spreadsheet applications that allow students to visibility share information with their classmates. Other examples include personal computers and high speed internet connections that allow students to research topics and locate scholarly documents and word processing applications allow students to generate electronic media that may be easily edited and shared with teachers and fellow classmates.


Scaffolds


        Scaffolds describe the type of assistance offered by the educator to support and promote learning. During the scaffolding process, the educators aids the learner in mastering a skills that the learner was not able to acquire independently. Throughout the entire scaffolding process, educators must remember to only aid to learners in tasks that go beyond their current capabilities or understanding of the learner. The goal of a constructionist learning environment is for the learner to construct their own knowledge, and this may only be accomplished if the learner is allowed to do their own work. Naturally the learner will encounter errors, but with the help of the educator, the learner is able to eventually master the task. Once the student has mastered the task, the educator will withdraw their assistance encouraging the learner to work on their own which enables the learner to work independently.


New Tools  & Resources for the Constructionism Learning Environment.
 
Starting in the late 80's and continuing on through the late 90's, three major events took place. The first  event was the evolution of computer  technology and the changing of perceptions about the use of the computers. During the 1980's and 1990's computers under went a lot of changes. For the first time, Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) took over from traditional command-line interfaces. Users used mice to point and click on icons to launch  applications and text could be selected and edited. Computers were beginning to shed the image of being merely skill-and-drill tools or the electronic successor to the typewriter. Instead they were being viewed as tools for enhanced communication and learning (Cesarini, 2004).

The second major event was the expansion of the internet backbone or main trunk connections of the internet between 1992 and 1995. Prior to the 1992, the internet was primarily controlled by the government and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and strict polices enacted by the NSF restricted the use of the Internet to non commercial use.  By July 1992, this policy was removed when Delphi began offering email service to the pubic with full Internet access by December 1992. Over the next three years the funding of  the Internet backbone transitioned from the NSF to commercial companies and  by 1995
, the NSF relinquished control over the backbone of the internet, handing it off to for profit concerns who collectively brought about a massive expansion of the net's data carrying capabilities.

The final major event was the introduction of Web 2.0 tools. Paul Anderson (Anderson, 2007, p.5) defines Web 2.0 as such, "to make a reference to a group of technologies which have become deeply associated with the term: blogs, wikis, podcasts, RSS feeds etc., which facilitate a more socially connected web where everyone is able to add to and edit the information  space."  With the introduction of Web 2.0 tools educators finally had all four ingredients required to create a constructionist learning environment.

How Web 2.0 Tools are Being Used in the Classroom
 
In today's modern day classroom, teachers are finding new ways in which to implement Web 2.0 technologies into their classrooms which appear to compliment the constructionist learning environment. As mentioned above, the constructionist learning theory is about students constructing knowledge by getting students evolved in the activity. Web 2.0 technologies not only do this, but they open up new ways in which students are able to socially interact and collaborate in and out of the classroom that was never before possible. Here are just a few examples how they are being used today.

Wikis are used to facilitate computer-supported collaborative learning,  (Augar, Raitman, & Zhou, 2004) where students use them as collaborative  workspace to post notes and shared resources (Frydenberg, 2008). Blogs are being used to provide a real audience for student writing, provide extra reading practice for students, increase a sense of community or to create an online portfolio of student written work. Google Docs are used by students to collaborate after school hours on projects and to foster online collaboration among  peers. Search engines are used to research and retrieve information from the web. Virtual worlds such as Second life are being used by instructors to take students on virtual tours without leaving the confines of the classroom.
 
Connectivism: A new  Learning Theory or Pedagogy?
 
Connectivism, a new learning theory proposed by George Siemens, suggests that what we know is not  as important as how to find and manage that information. Connectivism is about establishing connections and knowing where to find information. With prior learning theories such as constructionism learning  takes place within the learner, however, Siemens proposes that "Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing" (Siemens, 2005,"Connectivism", para. 2). If learning takes place outside of the learner, can it be a learning theory? Where does the deep level thinking take place? If the deep thinking is not required and if learning does not take place in the learner, than it cannot be a learning theory and Kop and Hill (2008) conclude that what Siemens is describing is not a learning theory, but a new learning environment. Kop and Hill (2008), also conclude that connectivism is more a pedagogical view than a learning theory stating that “it does not seem that connectivism’s contribution to the new paradigm warrant it being treated as a separate learning theory” and  connectivism plays “an important role in the development
and emergence of new pedagogies” (Kop & Hill, 2008, p. 11).

Conclusions

Learning theories have been around for a very long time, but technology on the scale that is currently being displayed has never been seen before. Never before has mankind been able to communicate with such over great distances. The world once fragmented by distance is now coming together to form a global community. In the beginning of this chapter, three questions were posed. Did theory come before technology?  Is technology creating new learning theories or is technology finally creating the learning environment envisioned by Seymour Papert forty years ago? After examining the constructionism theory, new technologies and the new emerging connectivism learning theory it is safe to say that Shrum (2001) is correct with her motto that “Theory comes before technology, except in the dictionary" (Shrum, 2001). Based on the findings of Kopp and Hill (2008), Connectivism is not a learning theory. Instead it appears to fall more in line with a  pedagogy. Constructionism, on the other hand  has been around for over forty years. Papert's radical vision of using computers to create student centered learning environments during the late 1960's may have seemed radical and futuristic to his peers then, but now what may have seemed impossible, or inconceivable makes perfect logical sense. Looking back at  Papert's vision of a student centered learning environment, the only things lacking were the resources and tools. Today this deficiency has been corrected, and it will be interesting to see just how Papert's radical ideas of the 60's will transform the classes of the future.

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