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  • MERLOTJournalofOnlineLearningandTeaching Vol. 4,No. 1, March2008

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    CollaborativeOnlineLearning:AConstructivistExample

    DonnaAshcraftProfessorofPsychology

    ClarionUniversityofPennsylvaniaClarion,PAUSA

    ashcraft@clarion.edu

    ThomasTreadwellProfessorofPsychology

    WestChesterUniversityofPennsylvaniaWestChester,PAUSAttreadwell@wcupa.edu

    V.KrishnaKumarProfessorofPsychology

    WestChesterUniversityofPennsylvaniaWestChester,PAUSAvkumar@wcupa.edu

    Abstract

    While many other disciplines have implemented constructivist pedagogical changes,psychologyhasbeenslower to implementsimilareducational reform. In thisarticlewedescribe a constructivist method to teach group processes. Pretest/Posttest dataindicate this type of learning experience results in significant increases in studentscontent knowledge in four targeted areas (American Psychological Association writingstyle, group processes, social psychology, and research methodology) from thebeginningtotheendofthesemester.Studentperceptiondataindicatestudentslearnedcontent"aswellas"process"informationintheonlinecollaborativecourse.

    Keywords: OnLine Collaborative Learning,Electronic Group Development , SocialConstructiveness, VideoConferencing,Webboard,ChatRooms, FileManager,CourseContent Evaluation, Student Perceptions, Project Guides (peer mentors), CORALPedagogy,SocialPsychological.

    Introduction

    Constructivismisadecadesoldphilosophythatsuggeststhatlearnersdevelop(orconstruct)theirownknowledgethroughexaminationof theirexperiences, i.e.,bymakingmeaningof theirownworld(e.g.,Dewey,1938Piaget,1970Vygotsky,1978).Whileotherfieldshaveembracedthistypeoflearningasmoreeffectivethantraditionalobjectivistmethods,suchaslecturing,andhaveimplementededucationalreform to reflect this perspective, psychology, and other social sciences, have beenmuch slower toacceptandutilizethisformoflearning(U.S.DepartmentofEducation,2004).Infact,discoverylearning,which is sometimesmisinterpreted as a constructivistmethod, has been criticized as an instructionalmethodofthepastinarecentarticleintheAmericanPsychologist (Mayer,2004),onethatdidnotmeettheexpectationsitpromised.

    While some interpret constructivism as pure discovery learning, such assumptions are based onfundamentalmisunderstandingsofconstructivistpedagogy.Constructivismisnotthesameasunguideddiscovery learning, i.e., as group work with little or no guidance from the instructor. This erroneous

    mailto:ashcraft@clarion.edumailto:ttreadwell@wcupa.edumailto:vkumar@wcupa.edu

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    assumption that the two concepts are equivalent implies that students must develop their ownknowledge without the aid of instructordesigned activities that lead students to understand courseconcepts.Nothingcouldbefurtherfromthetruth.Constructivistteachersdonotassumethatstudentsmust reinvent science. Instead, theyutilizeactivitiesanddiscussion todrawknowledgeoutof theirstudents.AsVrasidas(2000)notes,learnersshouldbeprovidedwiththetools,resources,andsupportnecessarytomanagetheirownlearningandassignedtasks(p.9).

    Thesetwoteachingmethods(activitiesanddiscussion)illustratetwobasicschoolsofthoughtwithintheconstructivist paradigm: personal and social constructivism. In personal constructivism, knowledge isdevelopedthroughcognitiveactivitythatinterpretsandorganizes,orreorganizes,experiences.Insocialconstructivism,knowledge is developed throughcognitiveactivity thatoccursduring thediscussionofexperiences with other people. The social interaction is necessary for the cognitive interpretation,organization,orreorganizationtooccur.However,itmustbenotedthatsome,butnotall,groupworkisconstructivist.Forexample,cooperativelearning,wherebystudentsdivideuppartsofassignmentsandcomplete those parts on their own, is not (social) constructivist in nature because students do notinteract together in ways to encourage cognitive reorganization. Collaborative learning, on the otherhand,wherebystudentsinteractandbuildoneachothersideas,isconstructivistinnature.

    Similarly,notalllearningactivitiesareconstructivist.Mayer(2004)distinguishesbetweenactivitiesthatarecognitiveand those thatarebehavioral,andrightlyso. It is importanttonote thatnotall learningactivitiesareconstructivistinnature.Constructivism,bydefinition,involvescognitiveactivitythatallowsforanunderstandingofourworld.Studentparticipationinactivitiesthatlackcognitiveengagementisnotconsideredconstructivistinnature.

    Giventhelargequantityofsupportiveresearchonconstructivistmethods,coupledwiththeendorsementof these teachingmethods by theDepartment of Education and theNationalResearchCouncil (e.g.,National Research Council, NRC, 2000) one can assume that constructivist teaching methods areeffective,notonlyinotherdisciplinessuchasthenaturalsciences,butinsocialsciencesaswell,aslongasappropriategroupandindividualactivitiesareprovided.

    In this study we present evidence supporting constructivist teaching in an online social psychologylaboratorycourseanddescribeaconstructivistteachingmethodforthestudyofsocialpsychologicalandgroup processes, one that provides guidance to the students developing their knowledge. Anassessmentofthismethodisalsoaddressedusinginstrumentsthatevaluatecontentknowledgegainedbystudentsandthatevaluatewhetherstudentshavegainedany"process"skills,i.e.,whetherstudentsdevelopedanynewproceduresorskillsthatcanassisttheirlearning.

    CollaborativeOnlineResearchandLearning(CORAL)CourseDesign

    Inparticular,wedescribeourCollaborativeOnlineResearchandLearning (CORAL)methodwherebystudents from two universities, enrolled in two different courses, form groups who work together onsemesterlong projects designed to help them learn about group processes. Teams comprised ofstudentsfrombothuniversitiescompletearesearchproposalonatopicpertainingtobothcoursetopics.Whileengagedinthecompletionoftheproposal,teammembersobservetheirgroup'sbehaviors.

    Throughout the semester, student teams complete collaborative analyses that are designed to helpstudentslearnsocialpsychologicalconcepts.Forexample,studentsstudyTuckmans(1965)stagesofgroupdevelopment,grouproles,communicationpatterns,groupnorms,persuasion,socialloafing,socialinfluence, ingroupsandoutgroups,homogeneitybias, theselfservingbias,andsuperordinategoals.Studentsreadseveralrelevantarticlesonthetopics,completeactivitiesdesignedtoillustrateconceptsby using their own group's behaviors as examples, and report their team's group processes in acollaborativelywrittenpaper.(Theactualassignmentdescriptionscanbefoundathttp://coral.wcupa.edu.) Studentsuseavarietyof technological tools tocommunicateacross,andwithinsites, tocompleteassignments.Thisincludesdiscussionboards,videoconferencing,filemanagers,onlinecalendars,andchat rooms. (Foramoredetaileddescriptionof theCORALcoursedesign,seeTreadwell&Ashcraft,2005.)

    http://coral.wcupa.edu/

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    HowisCORALconstructivist?

    The CORAL model can be described as constructivist for a number of reasons. First, there is nolecturingintheCORALcourses.Instead,studentsuseboththeirinclasstimeandoutofclasstimetoread assigned articles, understand assignments, interact with their fellow teammates, and completeassignmentsas teams.Thus, there isamovementaway fromtheobjectivist (lecturing),and teachercenteredmodeofteachingtoonethatismoreconstructivist,andlearnercentered,i.e.,anapproachthatallowsstudentstodeveloptheirownknowledge.AsVrasidas(2000)notes,Inaconstructivistcourse,the learners have a lot of control over their own learning and are given the opportunity to negotiatecontent,assignments,procedures,anddeadlines.(p.9).ThisiscertainlytrueofourCORALcourses.Studentsdetermineresearchproposaltopicsanddesignaslongastopicsarerelevanttocoursesubjectmatter.ThismeansthatnotallstudentsinaCORALcoursewilllearnthesamethingbecausedifferentteams will choose different topics for their research proposal. This is also characteristic of aconstructivistteachingpedagogy:Constructivistteachersdonotassumethatallstudentsneedtolearnthesamematerial(Vrasidas,2000).

    Studentteamsalsohavemuchtosayabouttheirteamsdeadlinesforpapersanddecidehowbesttocompleteassignments.Forexample,teamsdeterminewhethertheyshoulddiscussmattersoverchatrooms, discussion boards, or video conferencing. This too is constructivist. Vrasidas (2000) noteslearners should be provided with the tools needed to manage their own learning and to completeassignments, and instructors essentially become facilitators, helping students to develop their ownknowledge.CORALdoesthis:studentsaregivenassignmentguidelines,resources,andtoolssuchasdiscussionboards,chatrooms,filemanagers,andvideoconferencingsothattheycanlearn.CORALprofessorsarepresenttoanswerquestionsandmakesuggestionsthatassiststudentsintheirlearning.Studentassignmentsaredesignedspecificallywiththeobjectiveofhelpingstudentsunderstandcourseconceptsbyexaminingtheirownexperiencesinateamsetting,applyingsocialpsychologicalconceptsfrom their readings, along with applying social psychological terminology to team organization anddevelopment.Asaresultstudentsembraceconstructivistteaching/learninginasimulatedreallifeteamsetting.

    Finally, our approach is social constructivist in nature as a result of assignments being completedcollaboratively. To meet this standard, students learn that interaction is essential to completeassignmentssuccessfullyand thatsocialinteraction is thehallmarkofsocialconstructivism. Learningtakes place, according to this approach, because students discuss material and assignmentscollaboratively,thusbringingaboutcognitivechanges(i.e.,learning).

    Additionally, we employ the use of project guides. These are students who have previously taken aCORAL course and who serve as peermentors to those students who are currently enrolled in theCORAL cour