Education Reform


Learning Theories and Online Education

In the article entitled, “Learning metaphor-Understanding of an elephant based on Instructivism, Constructivism, and Connectivism”1 the story of the four blind men and the elephant is used to explain the underpinnings of 3 different learning theories. In this story each of the four blind men touches one part of the elephant and thus extrapolates their understanding of the whole elephant based on their limited experience.


Under Instructivism, the instructor would explain the why and how to learn about the elephant.”


Under Constructivism, the four persons will communicate with each other, and share their understandings, feelings, and knowledge, experience, and then come up with new knowledge…the teacher may become the facilitator”


Under Connectivism, the four persons will connect their thoughts, their understanding at neural, conceptual and external, social level with information sources, formally or informally. They will also link with others who have experience with elephants-communities, networks and experts.”

Constuctivism, specifically social constructivism, is the learning theory preferred in many online classrooms. As stated by Lehman and Chamberlin2 “dialogue is the core element of nearly all online courses” and many aspects of online dialogue differ from traditional classrooms. In online classrooms participation is mandatory, interactions are free flowing, and the dialogue is recorded and continuously available. These differences in dialogue lend themselves to the use of constructivism, where interactions between the students are the main focus of the course, instead of instructivism, which does not allow for the dynamic dialogue integral for online classroom success1.

Connectivism is a much more recent development in the learning theory pantheon. Connectivism was introduced in the early 2000’s by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in their respective papers, “Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age3” and “An Introduction to Connective Knowledge4”. It is an attempt to consider the ways that the digital age has impacted learning and to come to terms with a variety of changes including:

  1. The ubiquity of information

  2. The ever expanding amount of information

These lend to the importance of a number of skills/abilities:

  1. Curation or discernment of information

  2. Determine patterns in information

  3. Make connections between information

  4. Collect networks of specialized nodes or sources of information

Connectivism thus emphasizes the network of learners and their ability to identify information sources, generate connections, and determine the utility and meaning of information in a “nebulous environment2”. Connectivism does not require an instructor or facilitator and thrives in a environment of motivated learners that share a similar interest.

Personally, connectivism sounds like an exciting idea in which I would love to participate. Indeed, I often feel like my classes at UWStout have an element of connectivism that arises in the group discussions and are my favorite aspect of the courses. I do wonder about the drawbacks of both constructivism and connectivism and what student and/or environments are most suited to each learning theory.

(FYI: MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses were originally envisioned as connectivist environments but many have not fulfilled this vision)

  1. Sui Fai John Mak “Learning Metaphor- Understanding of an elephant based on Instructivism, Constructivism, and Connectivism” 2009
  2. Lehmann, Kay and Lisa Chamberlin (2009). Making the Move to eLearning: Putting Your Course Online. Rowman & Littlefield Education Publishers. (Paperback) ISBN-13: 978-1-60709-041-0.

  3. George Siemens Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age 2004

  4. Stephen Downes An Introduction to Connective Knowledge 2005


Online Laboratories

Currently, the topic of moving laboratories online is hotly debated and contested.  How could a student possibly understand the intricacies of wet lab work through an online platform?   Frankly, trying to fully replicate a wet lab experiment such as prepping and running a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) online is impossible.  I have done many PCR experiments in the laboratory and have also utilized a few simulations and there is just no comparison.

However, the real question we should be asking ourselves as educators is are we more interested in students being able to run a PCR or is the goal to be able to design and conduct experiments using the scientific process?  Students should be able to analyze data, make conclusions, and determine if their original hypothesis has been supported by the data.  Indeed, critical thinking and scientific design can be done without the need for expensive technical equipment.  Most students in higher education basic sciences courses will never utilize this equipment outside of this course and the take home message should be focused on the ability to research topics, ask questions, troubleshoot, and make conclusions.  Students are much more likely to be confronted with the question of which drug would be most beneficial considering the side effects and reported benefits than how often should you replace the tip on your pipette?


Project Based Learning

Project based learning (PBL) has been identified by a number of organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) [1], National Research Council (NRC)[2], and  Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)[3], as a key component in the reformation of science education at the undergraduate level.

As the Biology instructor at St Mark’s school I was the facilitator of a novel PBL curriculum entitled SEPUP: Science and Global Issues Biology.  In this curriculum students were introduced to current societal problems and asked to utilize higher order thinking to understand the role of science in addressing these problems.  An example of this work was the investigation of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.  Students read about the problem and were exposed to concepts of the nitrogen cycle, the process of eutrophication, and abiotic and biotic contributing factors.  They were then given an unknown body of water and information regarding the health of the ecosystem and its surrounding environment.  The students worked in small groups to utilize what they had learned about the Gulf of Mexico to develop hypotheses as to what may be causing the current eutrophication problem and proposals for alleviating the situation.

PBL stimulates student interest in science and develops proficiency in the scientific literacy skills of organizing, analyzing, and interpreting quantitative data.  PBL is readily adapted to the undergraduate level by utilizing primary literature and advanced laboratory work[4].  Additionally, a specific goal in undergraduate biology is not only for students to develop the skills to analyze primary literature but to evaluate the credibility and quality of readily available sources, such as WebMD.  PBL also can readily incorporate topics of relevance to the students’ fields of study and enhance leadership skills and a collaborative mentality, important in science and life in general.


[1] American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011).  Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, Washington, DC.

[2] National Research Council (2003). BIO210: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, Washing, DC: National Academies Press

[3] Association of American Medical Colleges and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2009). Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians: Report of the AAMC-HHMI Committee, Washington, DC, and Chevy Chase, MD.


[4] Goldey ES, Abercrombie CL, Ivy TM, Kusher DI, Moeller JF, et. al. (2012). Biological Inquiry: A New Course and Assessment Plan in Response to the  Call to Transform Undergraduate Biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education Vol  11, 353-363.


Can Video Games Be Effective Teaching Tools?

A recent study highlighted in Science indicates that indeed high-school students may benefit from video game based learning platforms!  The specific game studied is entitled Mission Biotech, and includes the use of biotechnology techniques such as PCR.  Students take part in real-world based case studies to save the world from global pandemics and hone skills in mini-games.  As a child of the Carmen Sandiego era I can fully appreciate the utility of video games in the classroom.  What better way to supplement hands on experience than with fun motivational games!!

Maria Guillily, PhD