E-learning, Constructivism, and the Disappearance of Difference
Have managerialism and instrumentalism appropriated online learning? Is a radical online pedagogy still even possible or has ‘e-learning’ become just managerialist spin on cost-cutting and resource re-distribution?
This paper is about e-learning and the social and cultural implications for adult education and training in the global age. This paper introduces Constructivism and carries out a brief critique of this set of psychological theories about knowledge and instruction as it is increasingly applied through e-learning for adult education and training, whether in the workplace or in tertiary and higher education institutions. To better inform the promise of e-learning given a global constituency of learners, this paper argues for a more socio-cultural standpoint on e-learning pedagogies and asks whether Constructivist notions of learning are ready for a world characterized by globalization, social, technological, and economic transformation, multiculturalism, and the destabilization of ‘the universal’ in with respect to learning, pedagogy, literacy, and the workplace (Kress, 2005; Livingstone, 2001).
To make matters more interesting, one of the most noticeable trends in the workplace and in higher and tertiary institutions today is ‘e-learning’, which is frequently upheld as the panacea for adult education and training needs. Industry Canada (2005) makes the following observations: 1) The global market for online learning is estimated to be CAD$3.2 billion by 2010; 2) The World Bank’s education portfolio stands at US$8.5 billion for projects in 86 countries; 3) The global training market for government and industry is valued at $300 billion (Merrill Lynch); and, 4) E-learning vendors generated US$6 billion world wide (International Data Corporation). Tham and Werner (2005) note that, “According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2002), of the 4130 educational institutions in the U.S., 56% currently offer distance education, with 12% planning such offerings within the next three years” (p. 17). Higher education institutions, governments, industry, and a globalized constituency of adult learners are demanding and anticipating online training experiences, “that have a positive impact on individual and organizational performance” (Industry Canada, 2005).
By e-learning, this paper assumes Honey’s (2001) definition that, “e-learning is the process of learning from information that is delivered electronically…It leaves us, the learners, to identify relevant information, convert it into something meaningful and apply it appropriately” (p. 201). At this time, e-learning is heavily based on European and Western traditions of education and training. It epitomizes a homogenized, normalized, and universalized solution. It speaks to economics and technology; cost savings, hardware, and software.
Humanistic theories of adult learning have been slow to deal directly with online learning contexts (Baumgartner, Lee, Birden, & Flowers, 2003; Fenwick, 2001; Taylor, 1998). On the other hand, Constructivism, with its emphasis on self-directed problem-based, collaborative, and cooperative learning, is more and more often used as a theoretical underpinning for adult education pedagogy (Conceicao, 2002; Gueldenzoph, 2003; Huang, 2002), and is increasingly incorporated as an instructive foundation for adult education and training online.
Like e-learning, one of the chief criticisms levelled at Constructivism is its general promotion of European and Western values and ways of learning and knowing. Constructivism generally assumes that people are westernized, rational, and possess unitary identities not influenced by context, gender, or socio-cultural ‘situatedness’. What this implies is that facing an increasingly global constituency of adult learners, the theories of learning on which adult education and training practices are based, are primarily designed for the needs and expectations of European and Western workers. All this may not be entirely sufficient to answer the learning needs of a globalized constituency of adult learners of differing ages, races, genders, classes, and languages (Fenwick, 2001).
Popkewitz (1996) presents a compelling argument in his analysis of the ideological implications of constructivism in learning:
As an example, constructivist-based e-learning courses in higher and tertiary educational institutions deploy technologies that are proprietary to the university or commercially purchased off-the-shelf, and aim to familiarize adult learners with the particularities and functionalities of a specific technology, and, are often coordinated towards pre-defined outcomes with faculty-driven objectives and/or accreditation-standards as their top priorities. Though these courses may be ‘problem-based’, there exists some tension as to who really gets to decide what ‘the problem’ is. The relatively deterministic structure of such experiences serves only to curb innovation and temper it to the curricular, infrastructural, and functional limitations of the technology at hand. Adult learners gain situational insight into a technology as it relates to a specific educational problem or practice, but, this too does not necessarily make them proficient at work or personal growth (Remtulla, 2005).
Future trends in the adult workforce and learner constituency point to greater workplace transformation, an aging population, greater immigration, the changing roles of women, greater diversity, pluralism, multilingualism, the presence of workers with differing ability, and a greater prominence of minorities (Bierema, 2002). Still, adult education and training seems ill-prepared and their over-reliance on e-learning and constructivist pedagogies seems insufficient. Other ways of knowing that are not cognitively or psychologically focused are equally legitimate, but, are made invisible with the unproblematic adoption of European and Western theories of learning on the international stage for adult education and training (Alfred, 2002a; Birden, 2003; Flowers, 2003; Folely, 2004; Lee & Sheared, 2002; McLean, 2006). What will become urgent from a socio-cultural position is the role of pedagogies paradigmatically theorized for a global and diverse workforce and how this will all play out through the burgeoning dominance of e-learning.
Alfred, M. V. (2002). Linking the personal and the social for a more critical democratic adult education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 96, 89-95.
Baumgartner, L. M., Lee, M., Birden, S., & Flowers, D. (2003). Adult learning theory:
Bierema, L. L. (2002). The sociocultural contexts of learning in the workplace. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 96, 69-78.
Birden, S. (2003). Critical and postmodern challenges for education. In L. M. Baumgartner, M.-Y. Lee, S. Birden & D. Flowers (Eds.), Adult learning theory: A primer (pp. 29-34). Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University.
Conceicao, S. (2002). The socio-cultural implications of learning and teaching in
Fenwick, T. (2001). Experiential learning: A critical review of theory and practice. ERIC
Flowers, D. (2003). An afrocentric view of adult learning theory. In L. M. Baumgartner, M.-Y. Lee, S. Birden & D. Flowers (Eds.), Adult learning theory: A primer (pp. 1-4). Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University.
Folely, G. (Ed.). (2004). Dimensions of adult learning: Adult education and training in a global era. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.
Gueldenzoph, L. E. (2003). The Integration of constructivist theory and socialization to
Honey, P. (2001). E-learning: A performance appraisal and some suggestions for improvement. The Learning Organization, 8(5), 200-202.
Huang, H. (2002). Toward constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology, 33(1), 27-37.
Industry Canada. (2005). The Canadian Education and Training Industry.
Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York, NY: Routledge.
Lee, M.-Y., & Sheared, V. (2002). Socialization and immigrant students' learning in Adult Education programs. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 96, 27-36.
Livingstone, D. W. (2001). Expanding notions of work and learning: Profiles of latent power. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 92, 19-30.
McLean, G. N. (2006). Rethinking adult learning in the workplace. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 8(3), 416-423.
Popkewitz, T. (1996). Rethinking Decentralization and the State/Civil Society
Remtulla, K. (2005). Pushing the boundaries of preservice teacher training programs:
Taylor, E.W. (1998). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Information Series No. 374.
updated 26 January 2007