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2.3 Constructivism

Constructivism is concerned with how knowledge is constructed. The main proponents of constructivism were Piaget (1957) and Vygotsky (1986). Piaget was interested in how knowledge is constructed by the individual, and in particular, how children move through several different stages of development in terms of constructing knowledge.

Vygotsky, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s and was translated into English several decades later, was more concerned with the important role that the social construction of knowledge has to play in this process. With respect to online education, one of the important notions to take from Vygotsky’s work is the ‘zone of proximal development’, or ZPD. In short, this suggests that learners progress best if they are continually presented with tasks that are just beyond (i.e. proximal to) their current zone of ability or development. If tasks are too simple, boredom ensues, and, for example, a student may drop out of a course. If tasks are too advanced, enthusiasm can be lost, frustration builds and again, the student may lose interest.

Vygotsky suggested that the tasks in that zone of proximal development are ones that most learners can achieve with just a little help – which is where the role of the online educator is vital. Some of the ways in which an educator can offer support and challenge are different from those used in face-to-face settings, as this course will explain.

Activity 4 How do educational theories match with your practice?

Timing: Allow about 25 minutes

Make brief notes on the differences between behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. Are there ideas that are present in your current practice? How do they appear? Do these theories fit with your experiences of learning in general and your learning on this course?

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If you are an educator, you may be familiar with these theories already, but it can be helpful to take a step back and look at your practice with a critical eye. This activity should help you to identify where you draw on the theories. As you move through the course, this should also help you to decide where the theories will play a role in your online practice.

In this section you have explored some of the theories that inform the underpinning principles of effective online teaching. However, online education cannot take place without the application of technology, and this is what you will focus on next.