Rose Colored Glasses

Random Thoughts on Instructional Design

Self Directed Learning Through Technology

As stated in one of my earlier articles, constructivists believe that knowledge is assembled, not transmitted. We learn from experiencing objects, events, activities, and processes. We then base those experiences on what we already know, reason about them, and then reflect on the experiences and our reasoning. Therefore, the meaning that we make and knowledge that we gain emerges from the interactions that we have had.

To relate technology to constructivism we must first understand the concept of knowledge building. Knowledge building requires articulation, expression, or representation of what is learned. Therefore, learning requires students to actively make meaning of their environment. As technology-using educators, one goal is to support meaningful learning by using technologies to engage students in active, constructive, and authentic experiences.

The goal of the constructivist is to think about technologies as learning tools that students learn with, not from. The role should change from technology-as-teacher to technology-as-partner. If technologies are to support learning in a constructivist way then technologies will not be used as information providers but rather as engagers and facilitators of thinking and knowledge construction. In order for this to happen Jonassen, Peck, and Wilson (1999) feel there are a different set of assumptions about what technologies are and what they can do:

  • Technology is more than hardware. Technology consists of the designs and the environments that engage learners.
  • Technologies are not a mean for communicating information, nor should they control all of the learner interactions.
  • Technologies support learning when they fulfill a learning need that is initiated and controlled by the student(s).
  • Technologies should be used to help learners build a more meaningful personal interpretation and representation of the world.

Technology cannot teach students. Rather, learners should use the technologies to teach themselves and others. Meaningful learning will result when technologies engage learners in:

  • knowledge construction, not reproduction
  • conversation, not reception
  • articulation, not repetition
  • collaboration, not competition
  • reflection, not prescription

The following examples describe how technologies can be used to support meaningful learning from a constructivist perspective. These are only a few exercises divided into key technology areas. The goal is for you to get an understanding of how technology can be used in a classroom setting to help create a constructive environment.

The Internet

Creating Home Pages

Building web pages is among the most constructivist activities that learners can engage in, primarily because of the ownership that students feel about their products and the publishing effect. In constructing web sites, students are developing multimedia views of intentional learning. Hypermedia construction allows students to reflect on their designs to make sure that they are desirable and interesting to other students. The concept of ‘meaning making’ is very applicable in this exercise. In addition to the artwork and writing, many decisions have to be made: What should be included? What gets linked to what? Who will do what, and by when?

Interactive Online Tools

This method engage students in experiences that challenge hypotheses and encourage discussion. Interactive tools also allow students to engage multiple learning styles in the completion of individual or group activities. Some examples of interactive online tools are:

If you’d prefer, you can visit the main site from which the above activities originated and select one or more activities, at:

Collaborative Authorship

This is one method of supporting social co-construction of knowledge through collaborative communication. For example students can read a novel that doesn’t have a complete ending, then write a final chapter, and post their submissions to a class blog for others to read and respond. Collaborating with other students (authors) enhances their reading experience. This simple activity will help students to think deeply about the book and about writing. It will also encourage them to write with a purpose, to think critically about what they write, to read what others have produced, and to compare their own work with the work of others. It is worth noting that having students post their work on the Web inspires many of them to take their work more seriously by reflecting on what they are about to let many individuals read. (Jonassen, 1999)

Related articles:

Open-Ended, Student-Directed Research Projects

Open-ended student-directed research projects are an excellent way for the students to access the Internet’s vast information in order to produce original work using their new knowledge. Open-ended means the student is in control of what they learn instead of simply finding answers to specific questions. Student-directed means students are in charge of their search strategies, choosing which sites are most relevant, and so on. Based on the right project, students will be constructive because they are required to articulate the nature of the problem and then reflect on their importance.


  • Blue Web’n
  • Ozline – developed and maintained by Tom March
  • WebQuest Tutorial – developed and maintained by JoAnn Gonzalez-Major


Video Problem Solving

Because of students’ familiarity with video (TV/VCR), applying video technology in a constructivist environment will easily allow students to create their own understanding of the video learning environment. Students are familiar with the syntax and semantics of TV, and the way that ideas are conceived, organized, and presented. Video can be used to convey an interesting problem that students need to solve. The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt University created and tested video-based instruction that is designed to help students to reason, think, and solve problems (One in particular is the Jasper Woodbury video series). In solving the problems presented in the video, students need to write persuasive essays based on factual research. All of the information needed to solve the problem is embedded in the video. The students need to search the video in order to find the needed information after they have determined what they need to know. Learners who work on meaningful tasks in complex problem-based learning context better understand and transfer what they learn to new situations. Therefore, they apply new learning to their previous experiences.

Tools and Techniques:

Video Press Conferences

Video press conferences offer a medium for students to portray prominent people associated with a controversial or current event topic. This is one way to make students responsible for understanding the discoveries, findings, or beliefs of the people they are portraying. They need to learn enough about the person to be able to discuss the situation effectively. Therefore, they need to construct a mental model of the issue at hand. Videotaping a press conference makes it seem more real and provides an opportunity for feedback on the accuracy of the presentation.

Video Recorded Talk Show

A talk show based environment is another natural medium where students can gather to discuss meaningful ideas. Host interviewing is such a common format on television, students naturally assume the roles of both interviewer and interviewee. Since it is based on conversation, students are to engage in the learning process through a collaborative environment. What makes this exercise challenging is the conjecture and speculation that the students must make about how their characters might respond to different issues.

Computer Programming

Learning Design By Making Games

This exercise requires students to have some previous knowledge of computer programming (i.e. Logo, Cocoa, or even Pascal or C++) and information about a specific subject matter. The goal of this exercise is to have students design a computer game that other students will experience. One specific example might be a simulated application that teaches students about fractions. Solving this problem requires students to discuss issues related to fractions, teaching, programming, and gaming and then create a list of design tasks and methods for solving the programming problem. This exercise is constructive by nature where technology is a tool used to channel their thoughts and process their design. Previous research suggests that young students may not be able to accomplish such projects because children have limited abilities in planning and dealing with complex tasks (Kafai, 1996). In this exercise there is no on right way to start, continue, and accomplish a design task. Most importantly, students learned not only through design, but also about design, and will reach a level or reflection that goes beyond traditional school thinking and learning (Kafai, 1996).

Mind Tools

Semantic Networking Programs

The concept of mind tools describes a way to use computer programs to foster critical thinking. Concept mapping is a study strategy that requires learners to draw visual maps of concepts connected to each other through links. These maps depict the semantic structure among concepts in a domain (Yacci, 1993). Recently, several computer-based concept mapping tools have become available. Semantic Networking Programs (SNP) are computer-based visualizing tools for developing representations of the semantic networks in memory. These programs provide visual and verbal screen tools for developing these maps. SNPs enable learners to identify the important ideas or concepts in a knowledge domain and interrelate those ideas in multidimensional networks of concepts by labeling the relationships between those ideas. The following are some of the tools that I have found to be useful:

To learn more about concept mapping, semantic networking and knowledge representation visit the rather dated but comprehensive portal page houses at San Diego State University.

Final Thoughts

Constructivists believe that technology should not be used as a method for delivering information to a learner, but instead they should be tools that students learn with. Technologies should engage students in meaningful learning, where students are intentionally and actively processing information while pursuing authentic tasks in order to construct personal and socially shared meaning for the phenomena they are exploring and manipulating (Jonassen, Peck, Wilson, 1999). The goal of technology-constructive exercises is for technology to help students articulate and reflect on what they already know and apply that to the new learning environment.

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This entry was posted on July 21, 2005 by in Instructional Technology.

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