October 8, 2015

Knowledge Construction in the Online Classroom

by Jacqueline Clark, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

Knowledge construction is the step-wise process of learning through which we build upon pre-existing experiences and prior understanding. It is based on the premise that our current knowledge influences not only what we learn, but the way in which we learn. Although learners have different styles and preferences, knowledge construction is thought to be a common process for all learners.

Knowledge construction begins by connecting. During this step, learners are provided with resources such as textbooks and validated online references, and are prompted to complete assignments to build upon existing knowledge. The next step, communicating, is achieved by the sharing or elaborating on the material. This may be achieved through any type of informational presentation, such as student-led presentations, topic discussions, and group assignments. Next, collaborating is achieved when teachers and learners review the assignments, contrast interpretations, and compare them to structured content, such as a textbook chapter. Finally, learning (or acting) collectively is achieved through the further synthesis and interpretation of all aspects of the process, in order to achieve an understanding for application to future situations.1

Researchers have put great effort into examining the knowledge construction process. In a study focused on problem-based learning, researchers looked for an association of student questions and knowledge construction drive.2 Results suggest that student learning is driven by questions. More specifically, learning is closely related to the ability to ask the "right" questions. The extent by which the students’ "right" questions could be answered was associated with a continued quest for knowledge – thus stimulating their motivation.2

In an era of recorded lectures and online student forums, do the same opportunities for asking the "right" questions, receiving appropriate responses, and sustaining interest still exist? In this course [Educational Theory and Practice PHMY 545], we witness firsthand the process of knowledge construction in the setting of an asynchronous online discussion. We are instructed to first, read and analyze literature on the topic, such as books and articles. We then read and analyze our classmates' interpretations of the topic by reviewing the responses posted on the discussion board. Next, we are encouraged to post our own thoughts on the topic in response to the instructor's prompts. After reading comments from our colleagues, both in response to our own posts and to others, we are encouraged to draw conclusions. Although we may not have realized it, we are participating in the knowledge construction process!  Also, in addition to encouraging high-level thinking, we are grounded by the instructor's comments. The instructor provides us with answers to our questions. If we happen to stray away from the purpose of the discussion, we are re-directed and are led back to asking the "right" questions.

There appears to be three cognitive phases of the knowledge construction process.  These phases are prompted by "questions or tasks."

Applying these concepts to the discussion board assignment in this course, the pre-construction phase includes gathering the information required to answer the questions. This includes information from experts (e.g. the literature), information from colleagues, and integrating these sources with our pre-existing understanding of the topic. The stage of cognitive imbalance occurs when we are writing about our own interpretation in response to another's interpretation. High-level thinking occurs when we evaluate our own interpretation — comparing and contrasting to another’s interpretation. This step provides a chance to re-consider our original conceptual understand and thus collaborating with others to build upon our knowledge.3  The re-construction phase makes us aware of how our original understand differs from our newly acquired knowledge. This may include disregarding a previous assumption or going forward with a stronger understanding and increased confidence in future situations.4

Knowledge construction does not end when the discussion board is over. In one study, the researchers found that learners continued to construct their knowledge outside of the online class through interpretation and application to daily life.4 Our discussion board engenders application outside the class too. So, in an era of online instruction, do we have the same opportunities for optimal knowledge construction?  The answer is yes! Technology and modern forms of communication do not hinder us – but they must be used and applied wisely based an understanding of how learners learn.

  1. Olson, R. Collective Knowledge Construction. Ideas Lab. Available at: http://www.ideaslab.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Understanding-Virtual-Pedagogies_CKC_ideasLAB. Accessed September 22, 2015.
  2. Chin C. and Chia L.G. Problem-based learning: Using students' questions to drive knowledge construction. Sci. Ed. 2004; 88: 707–727. doi: 10.1002/sce.10144
  3. Rahman S, Yasin RM, Jusoff K, et al. Knowledge Construction Process in Online Learning. Middle-East Journal of Scientific Research 2011; 8: 488-492.
  4. Kanyka, H and Anderson, T. Online Social Interchange, Discord, and Knowledge Construction. International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education. 1998; 13: 57-74.

No comments: