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Editor's Note: Dr. Alesandrini provides excellent insight into the bright promise constructivism offers for achievement of quality in the Distance Learning arena. Her research is compelling and her understanding of the benefits to be gained by implementation of constructivism is worth serious consideration and adaptation by distance learning faculty across the curricula and grades K-thru-graduate school.
Visual Constructivism in Distance Learning
Several professional organizations have issued standards and guidelines for effective practice of distance teaching including directives to use media appropriately, actively engage the learner through simulation and application of real-life experiences, and maintain close personal interaction with students and foster interaction among students themselves (ADEC, 2001; AFT, 2000; NEA, 2000). Yet too many of today's distance learning courses suffer from low levels or weak forms of interaction with students (Bork, 2001) and from overly verbal approaches to instruction as the limitations and inadequacies of traditional courses are repeated with new delivery methods (Miller, 2001). As Miller put it, "the same boring lecture is still present, and the same textbook or blackboard presentations are even more difficult to read 'on screen'." In a perfect world, the typical distance learning course would feature a high degree of learner interactivity as well as a high level of visual constructivism characterized by instructors or intelligent online agents that visually clarify complex topics, understand learner-generated creations, allow visual exploration of authentic tasks and environments, and assess learning through authentic assessments.
A survey of distance learning in higher education by the National Education Association revealed that most distance-learning faculty see themselves as designers of course content, and not simply as managers of information (NEA, 2000). Of the 78% of faculty who say they design the content of the courses, the largest percentage (80%) develop original course content and only 18% use mostly pre-packaged materials. Of that 80% who develop original course content, the majority (78%) have no professional assistance in developing materials. This paper offers a framework for these teleteachers and planners of distance learning programs to understand the impact of visuals and constructivist methods in distance learning and to guide effective practice and decision-making.
Interaction in Distance Learning
NEA has acknowledged interactivity as important by naming it as one of the ten standards for quality education. According to its survey, most distance learning faculty report that their traditional course in the same subject does a better job of developing student interactivity than their distance learning course (NEA, 2000). The finding did not apply to Web-based courses, however. Faculty teaching Web-based courses report that their distance learning course and their traditional course do the same job at developing student interactivity.
Still, many current approaches to interactivity in distance learning fall short of fostering the kind of deep-level, meaningful interactions characteristic of constructivist learning. Bork (2001) has dubbed current approaches to interactivity "weak", citing methods such as email, pointing, and multiple choice. He calls for high-quality interaction in distance learning that provides individualized help to each student every few seconds rather than "weak" interactions occurring once a week or so in periodic emails or chat-group discussions. Bork envisions a free-form dialog between each student and an intelligent agent conducted in the student's native language. This approach to interaction may be categorized as verbal constructivism in that the student would be generating verbal questions, answers, comments, and reflections based on the creation of connections between the new content and their current knowledge base. Constructivist responses could also be visual, of course, as discussed later in this paper.
Online learning enables types of interaction not possible or feasible with other media. Landis (2001) identified 10 unique characteristics of online interaction and concluded, "Concepts, rather than time, are the organizational elements of on-line communication."
She observed new instructor-student roles when students rotated into the role of leader and instructors followed rather than led the discussion. Landis along with distance instructors found denser and deeper communication sequences in online courses than in traditional or AV courses although students evaluated the online courses more harshly than traditional classes.
The efficacy of distance learning has been evaluated at least in part by measures of student satisfaction and student opinion surveys. Yet the Landis study illustrates a limitation of this approach: the interaction was better in the online courses but received lower student ratings than did interaction in the traditional classes. Student ratings of interactivity in my telecourse sections of an introductory classroom computing course for teachers consistently matched that of face-to-face classes despite the fact that objective measures of interactivity were substantially lower in the telecourse (Alesandrini, 1998). Professional organizations have provided general standards for interactivity in distance learning (ADEC, 2001; AFT, 2000). The American Federation of Teachers has also set a standard that "Evaluation of distance coursework should be undertaken at all levels." Current practices in the evaluation of K-12 classroom teachers employ carefully crafted rubrics that relate performance to teaching standards. Perhaps the same type of performance-based standards constitute the next step to ensure quality in distance learning.
Constructivist Learning: Beyond High Quality Interaction
When learners are passive, they fail to achieve deep levels of understanding of course content since, according to the constructivist view, learners must take an active role in constructing links between new information and their prior knowledge (Wittrock, 1990). The American Distance Education Consortium identified active participation and knowledge construction as important characteristics of quality web-based teaching and learning (ADEC, 2001). Constructivism has become a popular term that can refer to many aspects of the teaching and learning process. Some refer to a truly constructivist approach as "radical constructivism" (Spiro et al. 1991). Indeed, constructivism posits a radical departure from traditional educational approaches that treat a learner as a tabula rasa and the teacher as the imparter of information to be written on the blank slate (Brooks and Brooks, 1993; Jonassen, et. al., 1999; Kafai and Resnick, 1996; Lambert, 1995). Instead, constructivists realize that learners come to learning situations with prior knowledge that influences the knowledge they will construct from learning experiences.
In professional development workshops for educators, we use constructivist methods to teach about constructivist learning (Alesandrini & Larson, 2002). Instructors in our workshops learn through hands-on experience that constructivist learning refers to learning that occurs through the process of student-generated creations that may be verbal (e.g., summaries, essays, or reflections) or visual (such as drawings, photos, videos, multimedia productions, 3-D models etc.). It's easy to recognize constructivist activities, because each student creates a unique product as we observed in our workshops on constructivism. Traditional hands-on activities or student worksheets typically result in student productions that essentially "all look alike" or are inherently the same. In contrast, constructivism posits that learners create knowledge from new information in light of their previous experiences. Since each learner brings a distinct background of experience, results of constructivist projects and papers will differ. In general, no two "products" from a constructivist activity look anything alike; no two essays or written reflections are the same.
Collaboration and cooperative inquiry have proven to be effective educational strategies, yet conventional methods often limit interactivity to cooperative discussion groups or chat sessions. Constructivism favors collaborative work groups that actually work together interactively to accomplish shared goals rather than just talk about what each group member will do individually at a later time (Alesandrini, 1993; 1994, October). The ADEC identifies group collaboration and cooperative learning as an important characteristic of quality Web-based teaching and learning (ADEC, 2001). As the ADEC points out, "Learning is social and sensitive to context. Learning experiences based on interaction and collaboration support learning communities while building a support network to enhance learning outcomes. Multiple interactions, group collaboration and cooperative learning may provide increased levels of interaction and simulation." Many distance courses are using collaborative methods. A survey of freshmen writing distance learning courses in the United States, for example, revealed that students in these classes were using computers to facilitate their group writing, conferencing, and peer review, especially the latter activity that was included by 75 percent of the courses surveyed (Melzer, 1999). Most distance learning tools support chat and threaded discussion groups but many do not allow the type of collaborative computing that enables a workgroup to write or use an application interactively in real time. Versioning in Word, for example, allows small workgroups to collaborate in real time if the distance tool supports simultaneous use of an application in online whiteboard or shared space.
Constructivism involves an active process exploration and discovery. Throughout the learning experience, meaning is constructed and reconstructed based on the previous experiences of the learner. An important aspect of constructivism is that learning occurs during this process. Rather than requiring an understanding before applying that understanding, students in a constructivist course learn concepts while exploring their application. During this application process, students explore various solutions and learn through discovery. In the constructivist paradigm, the instructor's role is not to lecture or provide structured activities that guide students step-by-step to mastery of some teacher-imposed goal. Instead, instructors in a constructivist paradigm are called to provide rich learning environments and to function as facilitators who coach learners as they blaze their own paths toward personally meaningful goals.
Another tenet of constructivism is that learning should be meaningful by requiring learners to participate in authentic activities. Learning should be based on activities and problems that students might encounter in the "real-world." Learning tasks should include "those that have real-world relevance and utility, that integrate those tasks across the curriculum, that provide appropriate levels of complexity, and that allow students to select appropriate levels of difficulty or involvement" (Jonassen, 1996, p. 271). In traditional courses, activities often are decontexualized to the point that they bear little resemblance to meaningful, authentic activities. Standards for distance learning courses set by the ADEC include a focus on real-world problem solving and higher-level thinking. According to the ADEC, "Where possible, learning outcomes should relate to real-life experiences through simulation and application" (ADEC, 2001). Interactive simulations have been available for years on CD-ROM and are proliferating on the web. A popular frog dissection simulation from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for example, lets learners interactively dissect a (digitized) frog named Fluffy in order to learn about anatomy "first hand" without the obvious disadvantage of killing a real frog in the process.
Evaluation within the constructivist paradigm differs considerably from traditional assessment as explained by Jonassen (1992), who presents ten criteria for constructivist evaluation emphasizing authentic assessments. Constructivists do no rely on traditional assessments such as multiple-choice tests since they represent artificial tasks with few or no counterparts in the real world. Additionally, evaluation of learner end products such as final exams and term papers emphasize whether the learner has attained mastery of facts or skills. To the constructivist, the process of evaluation is as important, if not more important, than the outcomes of evaluation. Following a constructivist approach, learners play an ongoing, active and critical role in assessment as they articulate what they have learned as it relates to their prior knowledge throughout the learning experience. In fact, it is through the self-assessment activities of written or visual reflection that learners come to realize the meaning of what they have experienced.
Basic Levels of Visual Constructivism
Distance learning courses may be categorized according to the mode of information presentation (i.e., verbal or visual instruction) and the mode of the learner's constructive response. To illustrate the four levels of visual constructivism, consider a distance-learning course from California State University, Chico that includes all four levels of visual constructivism in an introductory educational psychology course for students working toward a teacher credential (Hanson, 2001).
Level One: Verbal Instruction-Verbal Constructivism
In a level one course, the instruction is delivered through readings, lectures, written materials, and other verbal information. Student assignments and responses are also verbal and may include, for example, essays, written observations, and verbal summaries. In Cal State Chico's online educational psychology course, students read the textbooks (i.e., Verbal Instruction) and write summaries and critical reflections on assigned readings (i.e., Verbal Constructivism).
Level Two: Verbal Instruction-Visual Constructivism
Level Two consists of verbal instruction as with Level One. However, the student's response is visual and may include, for example, drawing, photography, or video production. Students in the Cal State Chico class read the textbooks that present case studies and other content about such topics as counseling and confrontational skills (i.e., Verbal Instruction). Then the students are required to create brief student-produced video clips that demonstrate their counseling and confrontational skills (i.e., Visual Constructivism).
Level Three: Visual Instruction-Verbal Constructivism
Level Three entails visual instruction in the form of drawings, photos, films, or other forms of visual communication. Student responses and learning activities are verbal as with Level One. Most distance courses that use videos fall into this category. The typical approach is to direct students to watch an assigned video then fill out a worksheet to answer study questions about the video. Students in the Cal State Chico online course, for example, watch feature films about teachers and education (i.e., Visual Instruction) and post their written observations and reflections about the films (i.e., Verbal Constructivism) for their fellow students and the instructor. Films include, for example, To Sir With Love, Music of the Heart, Dangerous Minds, Dead Poet's Society and others related to the teaching experience.
Level Four: Visual Instruction-Visual Constructivism
Level Four employs visual communication for both instruction and for the learner's response. In the distance educational psychology course, students watch feature films about teachers and education (i.e., Visual Instruction) and create brief student-produced video clips that demonstrate their skills (i.e., Visual Constructivism) related to the films. For example, after watching Stand and Deliver, the student creates a video in which he or she plays the part of a teacher accused by a parent of undermining parental authority. The student-created video after watching The Blackboard Jungle portrays the distant learning student as a teacher talking to a student who has been sent from the classroom and given detention for disruptive behavior. Similarly, visual constructivist activities in the course are required for eight other feature films that depict teaching.
High Quality Visual Instruction in Distance Learning
Increasingly, experts and professional organizations in distance learning are directly or indirectly calling for appropriate use of visuals and media. A guiding principle for distance teaching and learning according to the ADEC (2001) is: "The learning environment makes appropriate use of a variety of media." A related standard set by the American Federation of Teachers stipulates that the design of distance courses be shaped to the potentials of the delivery medium. "Faculty members developing distance education courses should approach … visual aids… not in terms of replicating the traditional classroom, but in terms of maximizing the potential of the medium that will be employed" (AFT, 2000). Miller (2001) has called attention to the importance of visuals but observes that faculty members are often given no additional compensation, resources, or training in specific skills needed for teaching at a distance.
Visually-rich content can be found on many commercial websites affiliated with television programming. Consider the visually-compelling content on websites such as TechTV, The Discovery Channel, the BBC, and CNN. The recent commission report The Power of the Internet for Learning noted the extraordinary promise that the web holds for education but noted that current "content available for learning on the Web is variable: some of it is excellent, much is mediocre." The commission called for public institutions to join forces with the private sector in creating high quality content and to deliver it over broadband connectivity implying that high-quality content necessarily entails multimedia. The report also echoed the common theme that there should be relevant training and support for instructors.
Use of a visual medium is, in and of itself, no guarantee of effective visual instruction. Consider early television or the many campus telecourses with their "talking heads." Technology matters only when it is used appropriately to provide content that facilitates learning and motivation. A cursory look at PowerPoint presentations in web courses suggests that most instruction occurs verbally with visuals thrown in to decorate and add interest. The problem may stem from the fact that although teachers learn pedagogical methods and other skills during coursework leading to certification, none of their coursework formally covers the skills of visual thinking, learning, and communication. Most preservice teachers now learn about technology and how to create a PowerPoint presentation using a plethora of clip art but never learn how to use clip art effectively to communicate a message or teach the subject.
Instructors and others involved in providing distance learning coursework should know about the power of visuals as well as how to design and use visuals effectively with their students (Alesandrini, 1994, June; 1992). Visuals are not only motivating, but a wealth of research indicates that well-designed and appropriate visuals facilitate learning for students of all ages (Alesandrini,1987; Alesandrini, 1985c; Alesandrini, 1984; Rieber, 1994). Recent studies of web graphics confirm earlier findings (Rieber, 2000).
Whether the goal is to improve distance learning or to understand and assess its impact, it is useful to categorize graphics on the basis of the functions they serve in the instructional process. A taxonomy introduced by Knowlton (1966) and refined by Alesandrini (1985b, 1987) categorizes graphics as representational, analogical, or abstract. Representations depict the referent in an iconic way; an analogy depicts something else that shares a common characteristic with the referent, and an abstract graphic consists of a graph, schematic, symbol, or other visual abstraction that relates logically to the referent rather than through a visually iconic relationship.
Use of representational graphics in teaching and learning is supported by research and theory on the potency of visual memory and the importance of providing examples when teaching concepts. Many online courses appear to make good use of representational graphics especially in the areas of science, math, engineering, and technology. A good example of representational graphics in distance learning may be found at Connected University. The rich content of many courses offered at the site (www.classroom.com) was developed by Classroom Connect education specialists and partners such as the American Museum of Natural History, Tech4Learning, and Tom Snyder Productions. A few examples include Play on African Thumb Piano record and play tunes
Analogical graphics are particularly important in the early phase of learning according to cognitive theorists and constructivists. Building an analogy bridge for the learner by presenting analogical graphics allows a smooth transition from prior knowledge to new concepts and information. According to top researchers in the field, the importance of analogies for learning cannot be overstated (Ausubel, 1968; Wittrock, 1977). Noted researcher David Ausubel stated, "If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly" (Ausubel, 1968). One of my favorite examples of good analogical graphics may be found in the computer tutorial about chess, Maurice Ashely Teaches ChessTM. Maurice's trademark use of sports and other real life analogies brings the game of chess to a lively new level. Unfortunately, despite their importance, well-designed visual analogies are rarely found in textbooks, computer tutorials, or in online courses (Alesandrini, 2001; 1985a; 1984a).
Abstract graphics get to the essence of a new concept or topic to be learned. Graphs, flowcharts, and other schematized charts and diagrams help simplify information and portray its essence. Diagrams order and sort information to show structure, clarify concepts, or illustrate procedures. This online journal previously published the following abstract graphic in the form of a simple diagram that helps clarify the idea that power is shifting from the traditional teacher /learner relationship to learners as active controllers of the learning process as they control when they want to learn and who/how the instruction is presented (Jukes and McCain, 2001).
A variety of effective abstract graphics in distance learning may be found in "The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives for Interactive Mathematics." The site presents many abstract interactive graphics for K-12 math concepts aligned with national standards. For example, Number Line Arithmetic visualizes simple addition on a number line using animated vectors.
High Quality Visual Constructivism in Distance Learning
Distance learning courses that combine high quality visual instruction with the latest constructivist methods enable learners to explore concepts visually and to construct meaning by generating links between the new information and previous knowledge and experience. A cornucopia of online simulation labs exemplify high quality visual constructivism in distance learning. These labs provide interactive, hands-on learning opportunities for distance students that involve visual constructivism.
A good example of high quality visual constructivism is the series of college-level biology labs called Biology Labs On-Line (http://biologylab.awlonline.com) sponsored in part by California State University. This site presents a series of interactive, inquiry-based biology simulations and exercises. In the CardioLab, for example, students explore the interaction of variables related to heart rate, vessel radius and more. Realistic case studies such as hypertension and congestive heart failure can be interactively investigated. Another popular simulation is the FlyLab, where students learn the principles of genetic inheritance by designing matings between female and male fruit flies carrying one or more genetic mutations. A variety of other simulations include the LeafLab, PedigreeLab, DemographyLab and many more.
A variety of other examples demonstrate the power and appeal of visual constructivism. Even highly abstract or complex topics come to life and seem easy to understand. Consider the activity called Area Probability ( Throw Darts!) that enables learners to manipulate the size of a circle and rectangle to explore the probability that a dart thrown into the rectangle will land in the circle. This activity makes the topic of probability fun to learn! Other complex or abstract topics that are simplified by visual constructivism include Additive Colors (mix red, green, and blue light to create other colors as well as white light), Freefall Lab (explore terminal velocity as you drop a ball under six conditions that you control such as height, weight of the ball, wind speed etc.), Golf Range (study the range equation in a golf-like setting to understand principles of mechanics), Lissajous Figures (adjust the frequency, amplitude, and phase shift of inputs to an oscilloscope and create varied patterns), and Vector Addition (drag the "head" and "tail" of two vectors and see the resultant addition in real-time animation).
All of these examples use either representational graphics or abstract graphics. More effort is needed to develop visual constructivist activities that are analogical for the purpose of introducing new concepts and information to learners in a compelling way. As constructivism reminds us, the most important thing is for learners to relate new concepts to prior knowledge, and nothing does that better than an analogy.
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About the Author
Dr. Kathryn Alesandrini received her Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles. She began her research on animated computer graphics in 1973 at the University of Illinois using the PLATO computer-based instruction system. She served as a professor of instructional design and technology at the University of Iowa and California State University, Los Angeles. She taught a graphics-rich telecourse about computers in classrooms for five years and now concentrates on web-delivery of distance learning as well as the issue of blended courses. She may be reached at email@example.com.