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Supporting Constructivist Approaches to Learning through Interaction in Asynchronous Environments

Page history last edited by Jonathan 10 years, 2 months ago

By Rawan Al-Qarawi, Hasan Tanis, Ana Carrasco and Jonathan Flynn.


Supporting Constructivist Approaches to Learning through Interaction in Asynchronous Environments



Today, the rapid growth of computer technology has had a significant effect on learning activities. These shifts have provided different opportunities to shape learning and how educators can create new environments in which learners can work and engage with these technologies (Peng 2008). Technology-enhanced online learning in particular offers the opportunity for many different forms of interaction, compared to traditional classrooms (Thurmond and Wambach 2004).  Advances in technology make it necessary to reflect on the nature of technology-supported interaction. Conole (2013) points out that as a result “there are three fundamental shifts: a shift from a focus on information to communication, a shift from a passive to more interactive engagement, and a shift from a focus on individual learners to more socially situative learning (p. 82)”. From this point of view, learning theories also shift from the behaviourist-cognitivist centred learning, which offers teaching activities for knowledge acquisition, to learner-centred learning that accommodates the constructivist idea of knowledge construction by learners (Jonassen et al. 1995). Therefore, in order to explore the consequences of this new technology-enhanced sphere for distance education within the constructivist paradigm it is worthwhile to examine the three types of interaction determined by Moore (1989). These are the learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction and learner-learner interaction. These forms of interaction have been expanded upon by further research. Of particular relevance to this paper is the learner-interface interaction identified by Hillman et al. (1994).  


Interaction through asynchronous tools is often discussed with reference to the opportunities afforded by this form of learning through specific tools such as wikis and discussion boards, which may support constructivist approaches such as collaborative learning and knowledge construction. Lee (2012) points out that asynchronous communication tools provide learners with greater flexibility in terms of time available to engage deeply with content and peers in an independent manner. His research also found that discussion boards involving many students can support knowledge construction, metacognitive and task-oriented interaction. Research by Hopkins et al. (2011) found that integrating asynchronous communications tools can promote collaboration among library staff in the same department. Although technological tools such as discussion boards are practical and useful to construct knowledge in a group, Laurillard (2012) points out that instructors must have a presence throughout the learning process to ensure it remains coherent. Therefore, she argues that technology use without any structured learning plan guiding it should be rejected by tutors because only when technology is used in a guided and structured manner can meaningful learning occur. Similarly, Smith et al. (2003) say that the technology-as-tool metaphor, or instrumentalism, might cause lack of understanding between tools and theories. Therefore, a meaningful learning process and effective knowledge construction can only occur when technology and theories are used and understood together.


This paper presents a review of the literature about the four forms of interaction mentioned earlier and their role in supporting constructivist approaches within asynchronous learning environments. Section 1 begins with a consideration of the interaction between the learner and the technology mediating learning, or the learner-interface interaction as it is also known. Following this is an analysis of learner-content interaction (Section 2), learner-learner interaction (Section 3) and learner-instructor interaction (Section 4).


Section 1. Learner-Interface Interaction

Before talking about learner-interface interaction, it is necessary to distinguish between interactivity and interaction. There has been confusion about the definition of these two terms in the literature. In an effort to clarify the difference between them, Thurmond and Wambach (2004) state that interactivity includes the technology utilized in learning activities while interaction is about individuals and groups. Similarly, according to Wagner (1997), interactivity is related to technological capacity to offer connections from one point to another, whereas interaction appears when there is a mutual process between objects and events. Essentially, interactivity is a technology-based term while interaction involves learners and their learning activities conducted through technology.


Since Moore (1989) identified three fundamental types of interaction in distance education and traditional classrooms, educators have had a framework to shape their teaching activities by using those interaction forms. However, following the rapid technological changes of recent times, educators have faced a wide range of challenges to implement such technologies into educational activities (Sinha et al. 2008). Hillman et al. (1994) expanded the concept to include the challenges associated with interaction through technology, and introduced the learner-interface interaction. This consists of technological devices and software offered by the interface to facilitate the three traditional types of interaction identified by Moore. The authors point out that successful interaction only occurs in technology-enhanced education when the learners feel comfortable with the devices and software they are using for learning activities. Therefore, learners need the necessary skills to effectively use their delivery mediums in order to have successful interactions with content, instructors or other learners. Peng (2008) visualised this relationship and the mediating nature of the learner-interface interaction in Fig. 1 below.


Figure 1: The concept of a learner-centred learning system (Peng 2008)


The research about learner-interface interaction in asynchronous teaching environments is quite scarce. Most research generally focuses on instructional design within these contexts. However, a study conducted by Nandi et al. (2012) found that instructor facilitation has an important effect on interaction in online discussion forums. Essentially, the instructor has a technical facilitator role which requires him/her to make students comfortable with the learning environment by equipping them with the skills needed to interact with the interface.  According to Hillman et al. (1994), if the learners feel more comfortable with software usage, the success of the other forms of interaction might be increased. Similarly, Sinha et al. (2008) found that if technology is used in creative ways, it can promote active learning. The authors indicate that learner-interface interaction can facilitate active learning and can bridge the theory and practice associated with student engagement and retention. Hence, if learners feel comfortable with the tools that mediate their online learning activities, the interactions can be effective and meaningful.


Section 2. Learner-Learner Interaction

In previous generations of distance learning, such as outlined by Nipper (1998) and Sumner (2010), the opportunities for learner-learner participation were limited, inconvenient, time-consuming or expensive. However, recent developments in technology make it easier for distance learning to support interaction between students and as a result, support social learning and constructivist pedagogies through asynchronous technologies, creating new opportunities for deep socially constructed knowledge, unconstrained by time and location. Learner-learner interaction can now be supported in a variety of ways through asynchronous technologies, with more opportunities than ever for collaboration, interaction and social learning between learners using blogs, wikis, discussion forums and more (Balderrain, 2006). This section focuses on learner-learner interaction expressed through asynchronous technologies, and the challenges and opportunities these technologies present for supporting the constructivist paradigm.


Learner-Learner Interaction: Obstacles to Deep Learning

Wikis are an example of an asynchronous technology that is well suited for supporting learning within the constructivist paradigm. They encourage collaboration, the co-construction of knowledge and challenge the authority of the expert (Ruth and Houghton, 2009). Citing Morgan (2004), Bruns and Humphreys (2005) explain how wikis support dynamic interactions between learner and task. Firstly, wikis exist in a document mode, representing the outward-facing, somewhat stable page-topic. Instead of a monolith however, learners are encouraged to challenge the authority of the document mode through the discussion mode. In this mode, learners must discuss alterations and changes before they are made to the document mode, interacting with one another to decide how to express their understanding of the topic in the document form. In this manner, wikis can afford opportunities for deep individual learning, as learners search for research to defend and support potential alterations to the document, which they must argue, construct and agree upon with other learners in the discussion mode.


While wikis are useful tools, Forte and Bruckman (2007) point out that most wiki technology was designed specifically to facilitate the construction of an encyclopaedia entry, and not to support collaborative writing as a learning activity. Even though many wikis are marketed to and designed towards the needs of the education sector, they are still an example of a technology co-opted for use in education rather than driven by and designed according to pedagogical theory (Laurillard, 2012). Thus, aspects of wiki use such as the potential requirement to use Wiki-Syntax or variants thereof (a specialised language for editing the appearance of the topic page) may prove barriers to learner-learner interaction, as is the case in Cole’s (2008) exploration of a failed attempt to use wikis to enhance learning. Cole’s research outlines how interface and editing problems contribute to the lack of student contribution to a course wiki. That said, the potential learning benefits of effective wiki use as outlined by Ruth and Houghton cannot be ignored, and there is no reason that the problems outlined by Forte & Bruckman, and Cole, cannot be surmounted through effective induction and training in the use of the wiki environment, and appropriate scaffolding of wiki-based activities.


Beyond usability concerns, the suitability of wikis for collaborative work and enhancing learner-learner interaction can be undermined by institutional or administrative needs, as Forte and Bruckman also found when the collaborative nature of a wiki output conflicted with the institutional need for individualised assessment (p.39). Learner-learner interaction and negotiated meaning are cornerstones of constructivist learning approaches and while wikis can support such interaction and collaboration, as long as traditional teaching practices and the learning paradigms supporting them continue to persist, the potential of wikis may remain unfulfilled. Karasavvidis (2010) comes to similar conclusions. In this study, the author catalogues seven types of problems learners experience when working together with wikis, several of which relate to established teaching and learning approaches that make learners unsure of how to proceed when expected to work collaboratively and co-construct meaning. For example, individual learners were reticent to edit another’s contribution despite this being an inherent aspect of working with wikis. Additionally, as learners have been conditioned by existing models to see themselves as passive recipients of information from an expert instructor, they tended to view their collaborative creations with suspicion, feeling “sceptical about the validity of their interpretations” (p.225). Cole also noted this lack of academic confidence in her study cited earlier. What we can take from this is that while instructors such as Cole, and Forte and Bruckman - who either implemented or worked with others to implement wikis to support collaborative learning - are dedicated to the pursuit of constructivist paradigms, oftentimes these efforts are undermined by the passivity established by traditional approaches. These traditional, established learning paradigms condition the learner to consume the expertise of the instructor rather than support them in developing their own (Tynjälä, 1999).


Effective Learner-Learner Interaction: The Instructor’s Role in Changing the Paradigm

The preceding section paints a somewhat depressing picture of the instructor in higher education designing constructivist approaches to promote social learning, which students will ultimately reject as they have been conditioned to expect spoon-fed rote learning (Phillips, 2005) rather than socially constructed bodies of knowledge. This need not be the case, but the sort of extensive transformation required to not just enable learner-learner interaction, but to enable it to happen requires the deft hand of the instructor, in addition to widespread institutional support. For example, Phillips states that innovative approaches to learning are unlikely to sustain themselves unless colleagues are similarly committed and on-message about the point and utility of the constructivist approach (p547).  Similarly, Lang (2010) analyses the quality of student-student interactions in asynchronous environments, concluding that learners demonstrate only low critical engagement based around sharing information rather than higher-level engagement based around exploring contradictions, inconsistencies or negotiating meaning. Lang suggests the need for the increased presence of instructors-as-facilitators who would monitor learner interaction and prompt the type of interaction that may produce higher order engagement.

Unsupportive institutional contexts such as those identified by Forte and Bruckman and Phillips may be combated through the use of frameworks for managing change. For example, a framework proposed by Nandi et al. (2012) may be useful in the context Phillips describes to establish a uniform approach to supporting effective learner-learner collaborative interactions in asynchronous environments. The utility of this framework is in its potential for supporting a balanced environment that enhances learner interaction, where the instructor’s presence does not dominate proceedings. Albion & Ertmer (2004) also propose several guidelines on a more micro-level, suggesting ways instructors can promote useful learner-learner interaction in a manner that invites robust interaction:  “…asking students to “work together to propose a group recommendation on how to improve the feedback system in XYZ Corporation” almost demands that learners respond to one another”. 


What is clear from the literature considered in this section is that regardless of how it is done, learner-learner interaction in asynchronous environments requires much more than just implementing a technology and leaving it there for learners to use. In order to achieve true collaboration and learner-constructed knowledge, the presence of the instructor remains paramount. This is particularly so in cases where learners have been conditioned to passively engage with material and one another; and where institutional support may be lacking.


Section 3. Learner - Content Interaction

In the context of the constructivist paradigm, one of the key benefits of technology-enhanced learning is that it allows instructors to alter and use content to support deep-learning. Asynchronous learning environments are particularly suited to this form of learning as they allow content to be used in a flexible manner to support reflection, co-operation and meaningful engagement.



Learner-content interaction in an asynchronous learning environment lends itself to flexibility (Anderson 2003). In the asynchronous environment, content flexibility can take a number of forms such as discussion forums, wiki-based learning, etc. This flexibility allows the instructor to support deep learning (Balderrain 2006). As asynchronous learning environments are free from temporal constraints, this enhances the potential for deep and meaningful learning through reflection on the content (Zimmerman, 2012). Given that, in the context of the asynchronous discussion, the respondent does not expect an immediate answer, and spends greater time reflecting and exploring more complex and multifaceted issues and problems. Additionally, Hrastinski (2008) found that in an asynchronous environment, the majority of communicative statements were content-related, whereas in synchronous environments just over half of statements were content-related. The author goes on to suggest that interaction with content is crucial for expressing ideas or thoughts, sharing information, and asking and answering questions. Similarly, AbuSeileek and Qatawneh (2013) found that asynchronous learning resulted in students asking more detailed questions which required answers that demonstrated deep engagement with the content.


Additionally, interaction with content also has a bearing on learning outcomes and formal assessment. Zimmerman (2012) found that the time learners spend interacting with the content influences their grades and students who interact more with the content receive a higher grade as they are more likely to spend time exploring the content online. This could be called direct interaction. For this reason, the author recommends that instructors spend time explaining the importance of interacting with content. A case study by Beaudoin (2002) also supports this result, where course grades were higher for learners that were highly visible online. However learners with low visibility still demonstrated some engagement in learning activities “in an auto-didactic fashion” (p.7), similar to the concept of vicarious interaction (Sutton, 2001) which describes how learners who do not engage directly with one another may still experience deep learning through direct interaction with content.


Changing Content to Support Deep Learning

As discussed in the previous section, in the context of the learner-learner interaction the use of asynchronous communications tools is not a straightforward process. It is not merely enough to adopt a technology and then sit back and watch deep learning occur. Pedagogical choices need to be made to support effective interaction with the content. Hull and Saxon (2009), in a study of two groups studying the same content in an asynchronous format, demonstrate how a simple change in the instruction changed the construction of knowledge and led participants to engage with content more deeply. The students were encouraged to talk with other participants using open-ended questions, and the frequency of the tutor’s instructional statements were increased from once to twice per week. These results may suggest that the learning content, while important, is only as important as the pedagogical decisions that the instructor makes around that content. As described earlier, content can be the most flexible of the forms of interaction (Anderson, 2003) because it can be adapted and changed and the level of interaction modified quickly (Battalio, 2007).


The learner-content interaction can support deep learning in others ways. For example, it can support deep engagement through reflection on the gaps in the learner’s knowledge. According to Paloff and Pratt (2007), by focusing on student-centred learning, learners are less likely to engage in rote learning of content for its own sake, when the content is not the focus but merely a part of the process towards learning and understanding. The authors also suggest that technology is used to “assist in the development of a metacognitive process wherein the learners become aware of their weaknesses” (p. 106) from their interaction with the content. The learner can use this awareness to engage in deeper learning.


Learner-content interaction can also support co-operation and co-construction of knowledge. For example, using material found on a Wiki can encourage students to work together (Woo, Chu, Ho & Li, 2011). The advantage is that the material is easy to share and the students can compare their work with the materials produced by other groups. In this way, the content inspires and drives deeper forms of learner-learner interaction.

As can be seen throughout this section, the learner-content interaction is multi-faceted and supports the constructivist paradigm in many ways, encouraging reflection, self-awareness, engagement, co-operation and social learning. However, to be effective, this depends on the learner-instructor interaction as suggested by Palloff and Pratt (2007). The authors describe how in a poorly facilitated discussion, the content of that discussion can be misunderstood, or the discussion can wander off-topic. The presence of the instructor is necessary to avoid this and ensure that interaction with the content remains on-topic and is focused on achieving the learning objectives.


Section 4. Learner-instructor interaction

As the sections on learner-content and learner-learner interaction have identified, the learner-instructor interaction remains of great importance in the asynchronous environment, particularly in the task of supporting constructivist approaches. The learner-instructor interaction is the most traditional interaction in teaching and learning settings. As Sher states, it “refers to the interaction between the learner and the instructor” in a double direction: from instructor toward learner by “delivering information, encouraging the learner, or providing feedback”; and from learner toward instructor “by asking questions, or communicating with the instructor regarding course activities” (2009, p.104).


Outlining the forms of interaction, Moore states that the learner-instructor dimension is regarded by many as both essential and highly sought after (1989, p. 2). Certainly, it is “an important part of learning in general, not just in online environments” (Moore & Kearsley 1996, cited in Dennen et al. 2007, p.65), but it becomes of particular importance when considering technology mediated learning (Dennen et al. 2007, p.65) where there is no physical presence. Furthermore, for some authors the interaction of learners with instructor appeared even more important than interaction with peers (Herring and Clevenger-Schmertzing, 2007, cited in Journell 2008, p.322).


The construction of knowledge using asynchronous online tools

According to Salmon, because from a constructivist pedagogical perspective knowledge is constructed by students, the goal of tutors should be to encourage the shared construction of meaning rather than the mere transmission of content (2000, p.494). To this end, and as previous sections in this literature review have alluded to, the interaction between learners and tutors is highly facilitated by asynchronous online tools. Indeed, this is one of the key features of online learning as opposed to distance education (Rosman, 1999, cited in Mazzolini and Maddison 2003, p.238). This can be seen in the case of the discussion forum, where learners construct meaning through their arguments and responses (Bentivoglio 2009, p.20) for the role of the instructor is not just to enhance learning and teaching, but also to support and reinforce the sense of community necessary for this kind of learning (Mazzolini and Maddison 2003, p.252).


This is not a spontaneous activity but must be monitored by the intervention of a tutor (Bentivoglio 2009, p.20), that play an important and crucial role (Journell 2008, p.322; McPherson and Nunes 2004, p.1). However, these interventions must be carefully judged, as the timing and the quality of interventions from may either foster or hinder student’s participation (Journell 2008, p.323). For example, Maor holds that tutor’s interventions may aid “in the quality and thoughtfulness of posts”, while also pointing out that too much interaction may limit or constrain the discussion (2003, cited in Journell, 2008, p. 323). Mazzolini and Maddison reached the same conclusion (2007, p.199). Therefore, the instructor must thoughtfully maintain the balance of his/her interventions (Paloff & Pratt, 2001, cited in Mazzolini & Maddison, 2007, pp. 194–195). Mazzolini and Maddison conclude that the tutor can be a “sage”, a “guide” or a “ghost”, depending on the underlying educational design philosophy (2003, p.238).


Student’s expectations about the role of tutors

For some authors, one of the key points for a successful interaction between learner and instructor requires meeting learner’s expectations (even though some of those expectations may not be directly linked to their learning) because this contributes to learner’s satisfaction, which in turn leads to motivation, and eventually to successful learning. In this regard, Dennen & Bonk describe how satisfaction is an important element of motivation that should not be ignored (2007, cited in Dennen et al. 2007, p.77).


Learners’ expectations regarding their interaction with tutors may be grouped into two categories: “interpersonal communication needs… and information needs” (Dennen et al. 2007, p.73). On the one hand, some expectations are related to information needs, such as information about the course (Dennen et al. 2007, p.68);  information about “instructor expectations” (Dennen et al. 2007, p.73); and clear “guidelines regarding the quality and quantity of student participation” (Kuboni & Martin, 2004, cited in Dennen et al. 2007, p.67; Journell 2008, p.345).


On the other hand, some other expectations related to interpersonal communication needs, include aspects such as “motivation and personalization” (Dennen et al. 2007, p.68). For instance, many students expect instructors to contribute frequently (Mazzolini and Maddison 2003, p.252), but do not wait for them to answer each single post (Su, Bonk, Magjuka, Liu, & Lee, 2005, cited in Dennen et al. 2007, p.68). In addition, students also expect to receive feedback but their greater concern is the grade (Dennen et al. 2007, p.67 and 76). Students also look forward to finding the social element in their interaction with the teacher, like seeing the photo and hearing to the instructor’s voice (Dennen et al. 2007, p.67) and appreciate seeing their instructor’s enthusiasm (Concannon, Flynn, and Campbell 2005, cited in Dennen et al., 2007, p. 68). Another important learner expectation is the need for them to feel they have the instructor’s support (Dennen et al. 2007, p.68; Brannon and Essex 2001, cited in Nandi et al. 2012, p.692). And finally, some authors report that students expect to be addressed individually rather than as a group (Dennen et al., 2007, p. 68; Sher, 2009, p. 116).


Role of tutors

As has been seen in the previous sections, the tutor’s role is essential in shaping interactions that promote deep learning. How might we define this role?

As McPherson and Nunes report, the role of the tutor has been named in many different ways “such as coach (Murphy et al., 1998), leader (Hotte and Pierre, 2002), tutor (Gerrard, 2002), moderator (Kerr, 1986; Feenberg, 1986; Salmon, 2000; Berge 1995), facilitator (Collison et al. 2000; Marjanovic, 1999; Berge, 1992), motivator, mentor, mediator and even production coordinator (English & Yazdani, 1999)” (2004, p.1).


Following Berge, McPherson and Nunes (1995, cited in McPherson and Nunes 2004b, p.2) explain the four main roles of the tutor: pedagogical, social, managerial and technical. The first role is pedagogical or intellectual, and is considered as one of the most important roles; it includes opening, focusing, promoting, guiding and summarising the discussion among learners. The second is the social role, considered of critical importance, that involves allowing students to introduce themselves, encourage lurkers to participate, have in mind the different cultures and backgrounds of participants and promoting netiquette. Regarding the third role, managerial or organisational, it is related to establishing the learning objectives, agendas, timetabling, procedures, etc. Finally, the last is the technical role, that may be “the most daunting for academics” who need to feel themselves comfortable with the technologies and make students feel comfortable too. This perspective coincides with that of Dennen et al. who explain that even though some roles are not related to learning content outright, they do reduce barriers to learning (2007, p.67).


Barriers to effective learner-instructor interaction

A number of difficulties may also be an obstacle to the effectiveness of this type of interaction. For example, Bentivoglio (2009, p.20) found that as a result of the larger number of messages and the tutor's own subjectivity, he/she may find it difficult to understand what stage the discussion is at in order to make the appropriate intervention. Another difficulty is the tutor’s beliefs about the effectiveness of technological tools to promote discussion and learning outcomes, that influence their way of managing the course (Journell 2008, p.335). An additional obstacle is that in some cases there is little awareness about their personal way of teaching online in practice and thus their  statements do not accord with their facts (Journell 2008, p.335; Mazzolini and Maddison 2007, p.193; 208). Furthermore, another difficulty is that monitoring technological asynchronous tools is time consuming for the tutor, for it takes “even more time and energy … than engaging in classroom discussions” (Tomei, 2006 and Larson 2003, cited in Journell, 2008, p. 346-347). For this reason, bearing in mind constraints on the tutor’s time, Dennen et al. make two suggestions about the timing and quality of tutor interaction. They suggest that “constant contact seems preferable to in-depth contact”, and that “reaching the whole group is preferable to reaching select individuals who stand out with particular needs” (2007, p.77); even though, they acknowledge that students expect the tutor “to address individual needs” too (2007, p.68). And finally, McPherson and Nunes highlight what may be the greatest difficulty: selecting appropriate candidates for tutoring online courses, for they do not just need to have “subject matter expertise” and “traditional pedagogical training”, but also many “additional skills” related to the online environment and it is problematic for candidates “to provide evidence that they possess” them (2004, p.3).


In total, instructors play a crucial role in online learning environment and their interaction with students is crucial for an effective learning. However, there are also some clear difficulties that may hinder this interaction.



This literature review considered research related to the forms of interaction within asynchronous learning environments, and how they can be used to support constructivist approaches to learning. It began by outlining how the learner-interface interaction, identified by Hilman et al (1994), mediates the other forms of interaction. Thus, without the learner-interface interaction there can only be ineffective forms of interaction. Therefore, it behoves instructors to ensure that learners are familiar with, and proficient at using the interface mediating their interactions. Indeed, the role of the instructor is key in all forms of interaction, as sections 2 and 3 ultimately conclude. The former, to ensure that students engage deeply with content and reflect on their emerging understanding within their personal world. In the case of the latter, it is because the role of the tutor is necessary to ensure that deep learning results from the learner-learner interaction, and to guide the use of asynchronous technologies such that learners work together to construct meaning. Finally, section 4 considered the crucial role of the learner-instructor interaction.


In sum, access to content is mediated by the learner-interface interaction. However, building meaningful interaction with the content, particularly in the constructivist paradigm, hinges on effective learner-learner interaction. Thus it is necessary that the instructor is actively involved to ensure that knowledge building and deep learning can occur. The presence of the instructor is crucial to guide learning activities back to the key content and peer interactions if necessary. Therefore, it is the pedagogical choice of the instructor that builds the foundation necessary for deep learning. Without the learner-interface interaction there can be no effective interaction in asynchronous spaces. Ultimately, however, there can be no learning without the learner-instructor interaction.



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