Using Instructional Design to Implement Constructivist E-Learning

Heather Smith

Boise State University

Constructivist learning activities help create a sense of community necessary to student engagement in an e-learning environment.  Course developers can use the principles of instructional design to systematically and consciously embed constructivist learning projects in a web-based course.  Activities like discussion forums, webquests, and jigsaw grouping all foster the student-teacher and student-student relationships that engage learners in an online environment. 


If learning theory is a discussion or explanation of how people learn, then instructional design theory is an explanation of how to best implement learning theory and design instruction so learning will take place.  Prevailing thought and research holds that learners construct their own meaning and that learners are more likely to remain engaged in e-learning in which they feel a sense of community with their teacher and classmates.  Understanding how to best design instruction that reflects constructivist learning theory is critical to student engagement and success via e-learning. 

Definitions of Key Concepts

Instructional Design

Instructional design is the process of creating effective materials that help students learn what those materials are meant to teach. At base, instructional design is “a set of rules—or procedures, you could say—for creating [learning] that does what it is supposed to do” (Piskurich, 2005, p. 3).

A common model of instructional design is the ADDIE model. While there are many different models of instructional design, many of them are based on the ADDIE model.  The component steps of the ADDIE model are analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation (Kruse).


Constructivism is a learning theory which “posits that knowledge is not passively received from the world or from authoritative sources but constructed by individuals or groups making sense of their experiential worlds” (Maclellan and Soden as cited in Yilmaz, 2008, p. 162). Constructivist learning theory owes much to the work of Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, and John Dewey, and acknowledges that “knowledge is never neutral, that the ways in which knowledge is mediated and created are as dynamic and important as the knowledge itself” (Hirtle, 1996, p. 91).


E-learning is learning mediated by the internet and computers; the term e-learning is often used interchangeably with online learning and web-based learning. According to the Concord Consortium e-Learning Model, effective e-learning is defined by nine key characteristics: asynchronous collaboration, explicit schedules, expert facilitation, inquiry pedagogy, high-quality materials, community building, limited enrollment, purposeful virtual spaces, and ongoing assessment (Elbaum, McIntyre & Smith, 2002).

Necessity of Community in E-Learning for Student Success

Effective e-learning requires a strong sense of community among the members of an online class. As Rovai summarized in his 2002 article, “Building Sense of Community at a Distance,” a strong sense of community in an online class can reduce student dropout rates and increase persistence in online education programs, provide students with increased information and support, and improve cooperation and satisfaction with group efforts. In short, “effective schools provide students with a supportive community” (p. 2).

A strong sense of community encourages students to be engaged, active, and interested in their course content and in their own learning—in isolation, this engagement is less likely to occur.  As Finkelstein states, “if the first wave of moving courses online has taught us anything, it is that opportunities for interaction and collaboration are crucial elements of successful learning environments” (2006, p. 2).

While a strong sense of community is important in e-learning in general, it is vitally important in constructivist e-learning where student interaction is necessary to student learning: “a community is a necessary and integral part of a functional learning group. Students need to bond in a community in order to have a sense of trust with each other and respect for each others’ ideas. With this level of common trust and value—so that students openly share their thoughts and feelings with each other and respect the viewpoints of their peers—students construct knowledge together as a group. This is where real learning happens” (Elbaum et al., 2002, p. 47).

Instructional Design Process

Consideration of constructivist learning theory can be embedded in each step of the instructional design process. Under the ADDIE model, an instructional designer is engaged in five major steps, beginning with (a) analysis, in which the designer ascertains the material to be learned. This step is followed by (b) design, in which the designer determines learning objectives and chooses an instructional approach; then (c) development, in which the designer creates the actual learning materials. The final two steps of the ADDIE process are (d) implementation, in which the developer uses the materials with a class of students; and finally, (e) evaluation, in which the developer assesses the efficacy of the created materials. From there, the instructional design process can begin again to make improvements to the teaching materials (Kruse).

After the instructional designer determines what needs to be learned (i.e. analysis), she can enter the design phase of instructional design. To embed constructivism in this phase, the designer must keep in mind that “the design task is to create an environment where knowledge-building tools (affordances) and the means to create and manipulate artifacts of understanding are provided, not one in which concepts are explicitly taught” (Hannafin, Hannafin, Land, & Oliver, 1997, p. 107).

In the development step, instructional designers can utilize activities that emphasize shared construction of meaning at a teacher-student level and a student-student level, as well as activities that “require learners to draw on technological, cognitive, and social resources in order to solve complex, open-ended problems” (Hannafin et al., 1997, p. 110). These types of learning activities allow students the ability to negotiate and construct meaning individually as opposed to having that meaning conveyed to them by an instructor, as well as provide students experience with the types of problems they will encounter in the real world.
Constructivist practices are best used in the implementation and evaluation levels of ADDIE by engaging students in the construction, content, and revisions of the course.  Not only can students learn from and with each other, but instructors can also engage with students to improve implementation and evaluation of a course's efficacy.  What may make perfect sense to the instructional designer/instructor may not be so clear to the students.  Eliciting feedback from the course's intended audience employs constructivist strategies in the final two stages of the instructional design process. 
Implementing constructivist learning theory in an e-learning environment is not without challenges. Instructional designers must acknowledge that utilizing a learning theory which relies upon shared meaning-making can be difficult when delivered through a computer-mediated learning environment. Deliberate use of technology—including synchronous and asynchronous communication within learning management systems, pod- and vodcasts, text and instant messaging, as well as the old-fashioned telephone—must be used to offset the distance inherent in e-learning and create a cohesive and collaborative community of online learners.  This sense of community and collaboration can be achieved through activities like discussion forums, webquests, and jigsaw groups. 
Constructivist Learning Activities
Discussion Forums
There are many constructivist learning activities which lend themselves to the e-learning environment. One such activity is the discussion forum, in which students and teachers discuss with each other, over a set period of time, a specific question or topic relevant to the course content. In discussion forums, students are able to dialogue with each other in order to learn. As Yilmaz states, “dialogue within a community engenders further thinking…learners (rather than teachers) are responsible for defending, proving, justifying, and communicating their ideas to the classroom community. Ideas are accepted as truth only as they make sense to the community and thus rise to the level of ‘taken-as-shared’” (2008, p. 168).
Another constructivist learning activity which works particularly well in e-learning is the WebQuest. In a WebQuest, students use the internet to learn through research into authentic, complex problems that require them to apply their knowledge correctly. Hannafin, Hannafin, Land, & Oliver sum this up when they say “technology is often used as a tool to explore resources and integrate knowledge while solving problems or pursuing individual learning goals” (1997, p. 109), which exemplifies constructivist learning.
Technology can also be used to mediate constructivist group learning, such as in a jigsaw activity.   In the jigsaw technique, students become "experts" on a particular aspect of a subject, and then return to a larger group to both teach their content to the group members and learn from the other group members' expert teaching.  Students can use group authoring tools like a wiki--which is a website which allows multiple authorized users to add, update, or edit content--or a synchronous live meeting tool to collaborate and share their understanding.  Finkelstein discusses an e-learning variant of the jigsaw framework called Stone Soup, in which learners use a synchronous communication tool in order to actively engage "in collaborative, concurrent discussion and project-based or problem-solving work with peers...[during which] learners share and compare the results of their group work, learning from each other about different approaches to the same problem or about new topics entirely" (2006, p. 104). Technology is also useful for facilitating peer editing of student work or for collaborative work on a paper, report, short story, play, etc.
Looking Ahead 

In many ways, e-learning is still a young field.  Further research and study into how to best implement constructivist learning activities in web-based learning--and how to best design those constructivist courses--is still needed.  Finkelstein clarifies this sentiment when he says that the "renewed focus on the quality of instruction and student engagement that has followed the first wave of online learning inevitably means a greater consideration of tools that humanize the learning experience, efficiently teach and gauge performance-based skills, and cultivate natural means for collaborating and learning" (2006, p. 2).  

Elbaum, B., McIntyre, C., & Smith, A. (2002).  Essential elements: Prepare, design, and teach your online course.  Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.

Finkelstein, J. (2006).  Learning in real time: Synchronous teaching and learning online.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Hannafin, M. J., Hannafin, K. M., Land, S. M., & Oliver, K. (1997).  Grounded practice and the design of constructivist learning environments.  Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(3), 101-117.

Hirtle, J. S. (1996).  Coming to terms: Social constructivism.  The English Journal, 85(1), 91-92.

Kruse, K. Introduction to instructional design and the ADDIE model. Retrieved April 25, 2009, from e-Learning and the ADDIE model. Web site:

Piskurich, G. M. (2005).  Rapid instructional design: Learning ID fast and right.  San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rovai, A. (2002).  Building sense of community at a distance.  International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1), 1-16.

Yilmaz, K. (2008).  Constructivism: Its theoretical underpinnings, variations, and implications for classroom instruction.  Educational Horizons, 86(3), 161-172.