The manner in which computer-based technology is (or should
be) integrated into contemporary teaching and learning practice
is a topic of extensive debate because few agree on how this
can be done successfully. For instance, Sandholtz, et
al. (1997) contend that: “Technology is most powerful
when used with constructivist teaching approaches that emphasise
problem solving, concept development, and critical thinking
rather than simple acquisition of factual knowledge”
(p. 174). But what challenges face teachers who wish/must
make the transition to constructivism?
Based on the need to ground educational commentary in specific
contexts, this article glimpses at the authors’ work
by reflecting on a critical teaching incident relating to
the use of information and communication technology (ICT)
to ‘support’ online language learning. Although
the following discussion is speculative, it is based on our
experiences of setting up and working in online learning environments
in Singapore. We end by proposing a possible direction for
further work in understanding how teachers can best overhaul
their teaching and learning approaches in the information
“I have found that if I just have a quick look through
the test, I can catch the brief meaning of it, but unfortunately,
I can’t understand the detailed information very well.
So, my question is: how can I improve the percentage of
comprehension while the speed is very fast? Can I find a
way to balance the reading speed and the comprehension rate?
I can understand that the reading improvement needs time,
but is there a shorter cut to solve the problem?”
This text is taken from an email message that was sent to
the second-named author by a female Chinese tutee attending
an intensive English communications skills programme. She
was a volunteer in a research study and these comments were
received soon after she received a score of 30% in an initial
online multiple-choice assessment test in reading comprehension.
The tutor, who had developed the testing material in question,
perceived that his student would be disappointed if she got
another low score in the next test. Thus, he spent time composing
a response that was designed to be supportive and reassuring.
He offered to work with his tutee in developing learning strategies
for dealing with challenging material online. In particular,
he suggested that she scanned reading passages first before
attempting to deal with the questions in detail. He also pointed
out that readers usually have some background knowledge of
a subject area and that this can be deployed in decoding text.
He ended by instructing his student to frame focus questions
before embarking on a reading passage because decontextualised
information is very difficult to understand. In due course,
the student thanked the tutor for his time and advice. She
never mentioned the topic of reading comprehension again!
What effect(s) on learning were produced by this case?
First, let us assume that the tutor did his best under the
circumstances. He fulfilled his function as ‘expert’
by suggesting ways to approach a traditional comprehension
test. However, it can also be argued that his actions only
scratched the surface of the student’s concerns. If
any learning occurred, it is perhaps best described as ‘fragile’
and ‘decontextualised’ (Brown, et al.,
Perhaps we need to reconsider the purposes and methods of
language comprehension testing within a system that places
a high value on performance under controlled circumstances.
“The activity in which knowledge is developed and
deployed…is an integral part of what is learned. Situations
might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity.
Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are
fundamentally situated.” (Brown, et al., 1989)
The act of decontextualising a text actually makes comprehension
artificially much more difficult to achieve. All meaning is
situated; activity and situations are integral to cognition
and learning. It can be argued that language learning, especially
in a professional context, needs to be based around both comprehension
and authentic application, not as isolated events but as integrated
Handled differently, reading comprehension could be ‘tested’
by asking students to develop and write a report on how to
solve a problem or a case study arising from authentic circumstances.
To assist, students could be given access to an appropriate
‘case library’ (Weigel, 2002) that contains relevant
context-sensitive documents that are written in a range of
styles. Students could then be tasked to understand, synthesise
and represent a range of information in their own words.
As far as assessment goes, the students’ reports could
be evaluated using a rubric that covered a range of performance
factors. In addition, if discussion groups were used, evidence
would be available concerning how they reached their solutions
and these could guide them in developing necessary strategies
‘just in time’ as opposed to retroactively.
The proceeding discussion is not to be taken as a recommendation
to use problem solving or selected values and methods from
constructivism to ‘tweak’ classroom practice.
This is because constructivism is unlikely to cure the ills
of an existing system that favours decontextualised learning.
At worst, inappropriately applied innovations have a tendency
to create aberrant learning behaviours and unnecessary stress.
“Constructivist conceptions of learning assume that
knowledge is individually constructed and socially co-constructed
by learners based on their interpretations of experiences
in the world. Since knowledge cannot be transmitted, instruction
should consist of experiences that facilitate knowledge
construction.” (Jonassen, 1999)
In our estimation, the only potentially effective way of
dealing with traditional methods of education is to start
by building learning environments from scratch.
As Singapore currently advocates the use of ICT to support
student-centred approaches and deep learning methods, we propose
to conduct further work in order to produce models of good
teaching and learning practice that are appropriate for implementation
in the local context. This could be achieved by:
- charting pathways for designing, producing and implementing
learning tasks that are driven by realistic problems and
the need for self-directed enquiry; and
- providing a rationale for pedagogic change that is grounded
in authentic practice and is designed to help teachers and
learners leverage on the power of ICT to save time and share
Finally, it is essential for us to build a corpus of knowledge
about teachers and learners’ experiences of using ICT
in Singapore. Readers, therefore, are invited to contact us
to share their anecdotes, cases and problems. The greater
the pool of information that we have to work with, the better
our chances are of producing work that is of value to the
widest possible audience. We look forward to hearing from
Brown, John Seely; Collins, A.; & Duguid, P. (1989).
‘Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning’.
Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, pp. 32–42. http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/ilt/papers/JohnBrown.html (Last accessed: 29 January 2003).
Jonassen, D.H. (1999). ‘Designing Constructivist Learning
Environments’. In Reigeluth. C.M. (Ed.). Instructional
Design Theories and Models: Their Current State of the Art (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp.
Sandholtz, J.H.; Ringstaff, C. & Dwyer, D.C. (1997). Teaching with Techhnology: Creating Student-centred Classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.
Weigel, Van B. (2002). Deep Learning for a Digital Age:
Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.