Topic 3: Survey of Online Courses
Instructor's Notes


Constructivism and the Student-Centered Approach

"When you make the finding yourself — even if you’re the last person on Earth to see the light — you’ll never forget it."
Carl Sagan

In surveying courses it can be helpful to look critically at both student-centered and teacher-centered courses to see which technique might be worth adapting and which may not work for your course.

Student-centered courses focus on the learner rather than the teacher. Student-centered teaching is based on the constructivist model in which students construct knowledge rather than receive it.

In "The Virtual Classroom: Learning Without Limits Via Computer Networks," Roxanne Star Hiltz describes the student-centered constructivist model of teaching::

Constructivist learning models require active input from students and requires intellectual effort and aids retention. The role of the teacher in student-centered learning is to facilitate the students' learning by providing a framework (i.e. activities for students to complete) that facilitates their learning. For example, the teacher posts activities or questions that students complete. Projects include: writing papers, essays, and reports, publishing Web pages, conducting research, answering open-ended questions, creating artwork, and organizing events.

Constructivists believe that for higher levels of cognition to occur, students must build their own knowledge through activities that engage them in active learning. Effective learning happens when students take stock of what they already know and then move beyond it.

Key Concepts in Constructivism

  • People create mental schemas or scaffolding in which to store and recall the information.
  • The broader a student's schema, the more that student is able to learn.
  • Multiple types of experience and data relating to a subject creates a strong foundation and multiple levels of information can be easily added.

In most cases, if students have actually constructed their own framework or schema by experimenting, they are more likely to retain the facts learned about it.

Example: Eleven facts about a banana:

Category = Fruit

Type of fruit=Tropical
Maturation identifiers

Skin = Thick and peeled from top down when ripe Color

  • Green = Not ripe
  • Yellow = Ripe
  • Black = Over ripe


  • Not yet ripe = Starching and bitter
  • Ripe = Sweet
  • Over ripe = Sweet and fermented


  • Not yet ripe = Hard and starching
  • Ripe = Slightly firm easy to slice, break or mash

If we had never seen or tasted a banana we may have a hard time understanding, remembering, or caring about these banana facts. After one bite of ripe, unripe, or overripe bananas, the student will recall these eleven facts and more, probably for a lifetime.

green bananas

So, once we have constructed our own knowledge about something, we create a schema or scaffolding on which to place the new information. By tasting the banana we are able to assimilate more information about it. For example, once you have tasted the banana you can understand and remember more information about it, via teacher-centered techniques like lectures, text, videos, graphics, etc. By tasting the banana and experiencing it first hand you create a schema that helps you store and recall a large amount of new data relating to the banana. Cognitive psychologist believe that the more solid and diverse schemas a person has, the easier it is to process and assimilated new ideas, concepts, and facts.




Constructivist methodology

A constructivist teacher will begin a lesson by asking students to recall what they already know about the subject. Then they will involve students in an activity that will take them beyond what they currently know. The student must actively engage in the learning process by doing something.

Constructivist activities include:

  • constructing
  • experimenting
  • practicing
  • summarizing ß reading
  • conducting research and analysis
  • articulating (writing, drawing)

In order to carry out these learning projects, students often need preparation and guidance. This preparation and guidance in the online environment can be:

  • instructor's notes (text-based Web pages, listservs, emails chat session or via audio or video streaming)
  • other media (books/videos)
  • collaboration with other students

A Constructivist Speaks on the Transition from Classroom to Online

"The Myth Of The Talking-Head"
Boise State University technical communications instructor Mike Markel challenges the idea that teaching a distance learning course requires a whole new pedagogy that substitutes an "independent-learning, student-centered, empowering model" for the old "talking-head, teacher-centered, passive-student model." Markel says the notion that instructors in traditional classes spend most of their time lecturing is a myth; what they really do is help students organize information, help them with their projects, give students a chance to meet with their teams, and motivate the students. And that's exactly what needs to be done in a distance learning environment as well. Everyone will lose if traditional and technology-supported forms of education are pitted against each other, because conscientious instructors need to do the same thing, whether they offer distance education or classroom-based education. The goal should be to think continuously of what we are trying to accomplish in the teaching/learning process, and to orchestrate the particular techniques and resources in the best and most effective way to accomplish the complete set of specific educational objectives. (Mike Markel, "Distance Learning And The Myth Of The New Pedagogy," Journal Of Business And Technical Communication," v13 n2 99)

This can be found on the eduprise site 07-02-1999 eduprise/NEED-TO-KNOW

Project-based, student-centered, collaborative courses require a lot of thought, energy, and creativity to build and facilitate both online and face-to-face (f2f). They also require that the teacher relinquish the center stage.

Teacher-Centered Techniques

The preliminary research shows that courses that are entirely teacher-centered can be effective in the face-to-face environment but when converted to the online space they have an extremely high drop out and failure rate. Many of the built-in motivators that exist in the traditional classroom (peer pressure, respect for the teacher, required attendance, courtesy, and conformity) are transformed in the online space. By being stripped of the traditional schedule, setting and social requirement to sit and listen, the teacher-centered online course often becomes analogous to the unused gym membership or workout video.

Students put off the tiresome task of reading or listening to an online lecture and say to themselves, "I’ll do it tomorrow." But as we all know, tomorrow never comes. For all but the most motivated students, the online teacher-centered course becomes a lesson in procrastination. The research shows that the student-centered courses are more effective online because the students feel supported and engaged by their classmates and think of the teacher like a personal trainer who cares about their progress and monitors their achievements. In student-centered courses a sense of community can be created.

While the current studies in distance education support student-centered teaching methods, in the 1980s–90s, countless studies were conducted proving the effectiveness of Computer-Based Training (CBT) that for the most part followed the teacher-centered model but replaced the teacher with text and multimedia presentations. (See Topic 3 Resources on the "Developing an Effective Online Course" Web site for citations of studies.) So, we can see that if the motivation exists, teacher-centered techniques can, in-fact, be powerful and effective.

Some of the enthusiasm for online learning is based on the fact that the computer automates many of the mundane teaching tasks associated with teacher-centered techniques such as grading multiple-choice or true/false tests and disseminating factual information.

The Best of Both Worlds

All educators (teacher-centered and student-centered) agree that motivation is one of the most important components in learning.
Many effective online courses involve some combination of both; teacher-centered techniques involving the transfer of knowledge (lecture, texts, video) and student-centered techniques (write, discuss, draw, conduct experiments, conduct research, analyze, plan, collaborate, etc.).
Your job as a course designer is to find which techniques will most effectively the achievement of the course goals and objectives.



Site about Jerome S. Bruner father of Cognitive Psychology

"Cognitive Versus Behavioral Psychology" by Fred T. Hofstetter
University of Delaware

"A Template for Converting Classroom Courses to Distributed, Asynchronous Courses" by Lowell H. Roberts, Director (1997-98) UNC-Chapel Hill Institute for Academic Technology


Developing an Effective Online Class
© 2001 Valerie Landau 2001. All rights reserved