Huang, H. (2002). Toward constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology, 33, 27-37.
I’m particularly interested in the needs of adult learners, since that is the main audience for our non-credit outreach education at the Cooperative Extension Service. Thus, for this first article review, I kept an eye out for journal articles that related to learning theories, online learning, and adult learners. The article that caught my eye is one that looks at intersections between adult learning theory and constructivism. Since it was written in 2002 and the online learning landscape has changed much in the last decade, it should give us plenty to discuss as far as what is different and whether or not that is for the better.
To briefly summarize the article, Huang (2002) begins with a review of the differences of an online learning environment, including the capability for asynchronous communication and the benefit this has for adult learners who are often juggling multiple demands on their time. The author’s purpose in writing this paper was to “explore the impact of a constructivist approach in online learning for adult learners” based on the premise that the teacher’s philosophical approach to designing an online course will greatly impact how the students in that course interact (p. 28).
Huang (2002) summarizes the tenets of Constructivism by noting that multiple scholars “proposed that learners could learn activley and construct new knowledge based on their prior knowledge” where the learner takes on the responsibility of the process and the teacher is more of a guide, encouraging growth (pp. 28-29). The learner is making connections to other parts of their lives, and is doing so within a social context as well. That social context can be tricky; although learning with others helps us reflect and engage deeper, it also forces us to sometimes learn in a way that doesn’t come naturally. As the author notes, “collaborative learning is in conflict with individual differences” (p. 32). We have to do some perspective taking in order to meaningfully comment on our classmates’ online discussion posts. Introverted students cannot merely lurk and absorb; the instructor often requires that they engage through a certain number of written responses, for example.
I appreciated Huang’s summary, but felt that there could be more reflection on how the online learning environment differs from the learning environment that would have been the paradigm for Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky others. Later on, Huang (2002) does note that “Through Web mechanisms, the learner can search actively and discover rich resource to solve problems or construct his or her own knowledge” (p. 30). This definitely speaks to the learner-directed aspect of Constructivism, but doesn’t touch on the social aspect and how that can affect how and what we “know.” The mechanisms for collaboration back in the early days that Constructivism were much more limited; mailing letters or attending conventions took much longer. One perhaps read books by others but rarely had the chance to speak with the author. Now, you Tweet the author and join in a discussion on his or her fan page, for example.
Huang (2002) goes on to highlight some tenets of adult learning theory, including the importance of helping adult learners see why the knowledge is important and how it can help them in their everyday life. The instructor must pay attention to what motivates adult learners, looking at the practical applications of the material and encouraging adult learners to use the new information to solve problems (p. 29). The process of reflection is much the same today as it was in the past; although we may be typing journal entries instead of penning them, the objective is identical. Think critically about what you’ve read, what you think it means, and how you can apply it in the future.
Another area I would have liked to see addressed is generational differences. When we’re talking about “adult” learners, we’re talking about folks beyond the “traditional” undergrad age of teens to 20s that can range as far as 100s. Great ranges in age, and ranges in economic opportunity, means that adult learners vary in their web literacy. I work with a volunteer group that has struggled to move from a paper-based newsletter to an online newsletter. Just the other day, I had a question from a member who was having a problem reaching the group’s web page. The member had tried to put email@example.com in the URL bar. I had to explain the difference between an e-mail address and a web page address.
In sum, Huang (2002) touches on some interesting intersections between Constructivism and adult learning, and how the online environment can facilitate the self-directed, practical learning experiences that nontraditional students may demand. However, a decade later we are still working on how to provide a meaningful social experience in online venues, especially when not all adult learners start the class on even footing when it comes to web literacy and technological comfort.