(I am attending the 2007 Merlot International Conference in New Orleans this week. Merlot, which stands for Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, allows faculty and staff in higher education throughout the world to share technological resources. The presentation I am giving at the conference, “The New Architects of Knowledge: Empowering College Students To Create Online Content,” argues for a constructivist model of learning in the online college classroom. I will post an abbreviated version of the presentation here on Okie Funk in segments throughout the week. Also, be sure to click on the house on the right for other multimedia aspects of my presentation. I plan to blog about other presentations at the conference as well.)
Consequently, here are two preliminary questions, among many others, the academy should discuss today in terms of online education: (1) Should online courses privilege constructivist models of education? (2) Are online educators changing the definition of “instructor” and “professor” in what some might call a major paradigm change now facing the university system?
The answer to both questions, I would argue, is a decisive “yes,” though online classes do and can present classical classroom material, such as lectures and objective tests. But formalism in the online classroom is already logically displaced by lack of face-to-face contact between student and instructor and by course management systems and multimedia tasks, which require students to apply process and trial-and-error skills in order to navigate through their courses.
The first question, though, ultimately raises the important issue of multimedia content in online education. We need more classroom content in multimedia forms on the Internet, and we must begin to accept the idea that the technology is actually the knowledge. The technology is the knowledge. The computer and the Internet are the way we know and discover at this juncture in the twenty-first century. It is itself. By that I mean, simply, we now construct knowledge in interconnected electronic forms, and it dictates the patterns in which we think and how we create new forms and structures in all academic fields. The shared knowledge system, Wikipedia, of course, and the Google search engine are the main examples we can use to illustrate this fundamental argument.
Research into how the Internet has changed our patterns of thinking is in its infancy. Yet we can all agree the steady growth of new material on the Internet can be viewed as a fluid example of constructivist activity. Anytime a student places material on the Internet, under the guidance of an instructor, becomes an instance of constructivist knowledge. Online instructors and their students build databases and audio files and Web sites, and the process of collecting the information and presenting it is just as important as any single piece of information.
Consequently, the continued growth of the Internet makes it natural that online education would adopt constructivist models of education. Under this rubric, students, individually and in groups, create course content and add to the existing body of knowledge on any given subject. Students learn and present subject content through multimedia processes. The culture directly benefits because the created material can be accessed online. Future students build on this material, offering refinements and using new technologies.
According to Brooks, “A lot of people try to look at constructivism as a program, or a methodology, or as a series of techniques. But it's really a life view. It's really a philosophy, it's an epistemology, it's a way of looking at teaching and learning, it's a way of looking at how people construct understandings of our world.”
The second question I pose is less problematic. By almost any measure, online educators are changing the once static definition of college instructors and professors. Under the static definition, professors stand behind podiums and profess during limited, prescribed periods of time. Some allow questions. Some do not. By contrast, online professors structure their courses on fluid models dictated primarily by the course material. They engage individual students with email, in chatrooms, and on discussion boards. They task students with creating Web sites and multimedia projects. They can teach their courses anywhere and, within certain cultural constraints, anytime. Concepts such as an instructor’s office hours have been replaced with chatroom and email availability. An article, for example, in The Chronicle of Education described it like this, “Although critics of distance education have worried that virtual classrooms mean less contact between professors and students, many professors say the opposite is true. To compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction, institutions or professors often promise students a quick response to personal correspondence by e-mail -- with some pledging to answer all student e-mail messages within 24 hours.”
Online professors also create content that can be both learning-based and/or research-oriented, which has thrown a huge wrench into the standard ways the academy determines scholarship. Is an academic Web site that receives thousands of hits on a monthly basis worth as much or more as a short, university press book that sells a few hundred copies at best?
This paradigm change has been resisted by some traditionalists in the academy, but it is impossible to turn our backs on technology advancements. Online educators are some of the brightest members of the academy, combining thorough subject content knowledge with new technologies. These educators, sometimes under appreciated and always underfunded, are changing the academy and, in the process, may well be protecting tenure systems and free speech issues.
(I will be attending the 2007 Merlot International Conference in New Orleans this week. Merlot, which stands for Multimedia Education Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, allows faculty and staff in higher education throughout the world to share technological resources. The presentation I am giving at the conference, “The New Architects of Knowledge: Empowering College Students To Create Online Content,” argues for a constructivist model of learning in the online college classroom. I will post an abbreviated version of the presentation here on Okie Funk in segments throughout the week. Also, be sure to click on the house on the right for other multimedia aspects of my presentation. I plan to blog about other presentations at the conference as well.)
“The initial stage of that developing experience which is called thinking is experience. This remark may sound like a silly truism. It ought to be one; but unfortunately it is not. On the contrary, thinking is often regarded both in philosophical theory and in educational practice as something cut off from experience, and capable of being cultivated in isolation.”—John Dewey, Democracy and Education
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?—W.B. Yeats, “Among Schoolchildren”
The ideas of constructivist knowledge first emerge in the Socratic method in ancient Greece. This method places the teacher or mentor in the role of a non-authoritarian guide. The student is tasked with creating her own knowledge through answering questions and solving problems. The knowledge created by the student becomes her subjective reality, and the process used to create it—logic, previous knowledge, personal experience—can be refined and used over and over.
As John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education, “The essentials of method are therefore identical with the essentials of reflection. They are first that the pupil have a genuine situation of experience -- that there be a continuous activity in which he is interested for its own sake; secondly, that a genuine problem develop within this situation as a stimulus to thought; third, that he possess the information and make the observations needed to deal with it; fourth, that suggested solutions occur to him which he shall be responsible for developing in an orderly way; fifth, that he have opportunity and occasion to test his ideas by application, to make their meaning clear and to discover for himself their validity.”
Supporters of the constructivist paradigm include Dewey and Jean Piaget, two well-known scholars. More recent scholars include Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, David Ausubel, John D. Bransford, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Eleanor Duckworth, George Forman, Roger Schank, Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, and Martin G. Brooks
For our purposes here, we can assume constructivist educators engage students in a process in which they find answers to problems and create their own knowledge base. This is different from the teacher-to-student model in which students are given a set of ideas and facts and made to memorize them for tests and various political assessments dictated by contemporary culture. Many, if not most, college educators use some type of constructivist techniques in the classroom as they engage students, but an emphasis on rote memory and teaching-to-the-test remain academic traditions, stubbornly supported by the corporate model of education, which privileges collective assessment over individuality. The debate between constructivist and formal ideas about education persist in our culture under the rubric of what many see as oppressive political programs, such as No Child Left Behind, which privileges widespread testing, rote memory skills, and uniformity in thought.
In a recent interview, educational theorist Brooks defined constructivist knowledge in this way: “Constructing knowledge talks about how we as the learners are reformulating, refiltering, relooking at constantly the way that we see our world, that the teacher can't give away explanations, the teacher can't give away knowledge, the student can't receive it passively from the teacher. The learning and teaching dynamic is a process of negotiation in which the people come to the table, try to make sense of the world, and in any one particular instance try to make sense of the concept at hand.”
Obviously, the advent of online and technology-enhanced courses over the past decade raises theoretical issues within the classical debate between constructivism and formalism among American educators. This is an important issue. As Sarah Chin and Jeremy Williams argued in a 2006 JOLT article, “Online delivery of education can no longer be regarded as a fad or confined to the realm of the nerd. The point of departure in this paper is that, after centuries of very little change in educational methods, we are now on the brink of a major paradigm shift in which a key factor is the ‘disruptive technology’ of eLearning (Hart & Christensen, 2002). This development is to be welcomed because of the vast opportunities it presents to people who are currently poorly served or not served at all by educational institutions.”
(Next segment: Questions for the academy about online teaching and professors.)
(An upcoming Oklahoma County Commissioner election will have a significant impact not only on many Oklahoma City area residents but also on all state citizens as well. Read DocHoc's commentary this week in the Oklahoma Gazette.)
(Update to this post: State Sen. Andrew Rice announced his bid for the U.S. Senate on Thursday. He will challenge U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe in the 2008 elections. Here is The Daily Oklahoman story about Rice's announcement. Here is a fundraising letter the Rice camp sent out. Here is Rice's ActBlue account. Please consider donating some money to help Rice beat the kooky Inhofe, who has repeatedly embarrassed the state.)
State Sen. Andrew Rice (D-Oklahoma City) is gearing up to launch a campaign against U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe within the next two weeks.
A formal announcement will come after Labor Day, but the Rice campaign will have a Web site up and running and accepting donations within a week. A recent fundraising drive for Rice's exploratory efforts exceeded expectations, according to his camp, and the candidate has received solid grassroots support while traveling Oklahoma and on the runAndrewrun.com Web site, which I have been operating.
Rice was recently in Washington, D.C. visiting with national Democrats about his possible run. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), headed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada) and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (New York), sees Rice as a potential upset challenger in the mold of U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (Montana) and Jim Webb (Virginia), who beat their Republican opponents in the 2006 elections by speaking boldly and clearly for progressive values.
The DSCC, which is beating its Republican counterpart organization by staggering amounts in fundraising, can help Rice financially challenge Inhofe, who already has a hefty campaign war chest. Overall, Senate Democrats are poised to make sweeping gains in 2008.
The DSCC and many Oklahoma political observers believe Inhofe is significantly vulnerable in 2008. He has left himself open to criticism for his continuing outrageous statements about science, the Iraq war, and social issues. His close attachment to President George Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s failed policies will deeply hurt him in votes. Both Bush and Inhofe have declining approval ratings. Both are below 50 percent in Oklahoma.
Rice's brother, David, died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Rice believes Bush and Inhofe "took their eye off the ball" by invading Iraq while Al Qaeda continued to build its terror network. Inhofe, who calls global warming a “hoax,” says he's "one of the last true conservatives left in the Senate."
Expect an Internet-savvy, creative campaign from Rice, who will not shy away from attacking Inhofe’s lack of integrity and dismal record. Watch for Inhofe to stumble badly on the campaign trail as he tries to defend himself. It will be quite a battle. Oklahoma needs it.