In reflecting on my attempts to understand and differentiate between and absorb all of this new information about learning theories, it occurs to me that it might make more sense for me to stop trying to see them all as separate, and stop trying to make value judgments about them. I think I am beginning to see that it is important to recognize the value each theory has for separate purposes, or that overlapping theories might have for a single purpose.
What may have finally pushed me in this direction was when I found, during my research for my final synthesis paper, which focuses on taking a constructivist approach to a blended learning model. Some of the examples of blended learning that I encountered discussed the use of social media and mobile devices outside of the classroom as a way for students to construct learning together. Interestingly, the authors typically referred to this as a social constructivist approach to teaching and learning, but few discussed this as a connectivist approach. However, the overlap seems quite clear. In one article, the authors discussed how “constant connectivity afforded by the mobile devices [allowed] students to remain engaged in content creation,” ideas that clearly show the merging of connectivist and constructivist approaches (Gikas & Grant, 2013, p. 20). Mobile devices, particularly when used to connect to social media, offer students opportunities beyond collaboration with classmates and faculty, allowing them to connect to informal learning networks that they can maintain well after the class ends.
While I did not consider this in writing my synthesis paper, it occurs to me now that transactional distance theory, as described by Gokool-Ramdoo (2008), may offer an explanation for the success that many students seem to find in taking blended courses. According to Vaughan (2007), some higher education faculty with whom he spoke resisted incorporating a blended model of teaching into their classrooms for fear that less time in the classroom together might weaken their connections to their students (p. 86). Yet, after teaching a blended course, these same faculty felt more connected to their students than in fully face-to-face classes (Vaughan, 2007, p. 86). If, as Gokool-Ramdoo suggests, the “distance” between teacher and learner increases with the level of structure in the classroom environment, then it may be that where physical distance in blended components of a class requires more student autonomy, the connectedness between teacher and learner necessarily increases as they engage in “dialog or interaction and negotiations of meaning during the teaching/ learning process” (p. 7). Blended learning may offer students a transition from cognitivist approaches to teaching/learning, in which they require the structure that often comes in the face-to-face classroom, to constructivist or connectivist approaches–and possibly fully-online courses–which require a greater ability to learn independently and to self-motivate.
This semester, I have been trying to focus on having students construct knowledge. I’ve had students collaborate using Google Docs to build a course-related guide to research (something I have typically created for classes in the past), and I’ve helped students use data to create infographics. These activities went well in most cases, but I also found that in some cases students were not ready for constructing their own meaning. They needed more structure, more instruction. With little knowledge of “where the students are” in a given class–and they are often all over the board, even in classes of the same level–it is often difficult to know ahead of time whether they are ready!
Gikas, J., & Grant, M. M. (2013). Mobile computing devices in higher education: Student
perspectives on learning with cellphones, smartphones, and social media. Internet and
Higher Education, 19, 18-26. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2013.06.002
Gokool-Ramdoo, S. (2008). Beyond the theoretical impasse: Extending the applications of
transactional distance theory. International Review of Research in Open and Distance
Learning, 9(3), 1-17. Retrieved from
Vaughan, N. (2007). Perspectives on blended learning in higher education. International Journal on E-Learning, 6(1), 81-94. Retrieved from http://www.aace.org/pubs/ijel/