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As an instructional medium, IT does not necessarily cause changes or improvements in teaching and learning. This CDTL Brief presents the first of a two-part discussion on how instructors may utilise the options and opportunities in IT-supported Learning Strategies for improved teaching and learning.

August 2003, Vol. 6, No. 8 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Supporting Online Learners in a Constructivist Manner: A Case for Future Development Work in the Singapore Context
Mr Christopher Cheers
Lecturer, Educational Courseware & Design Development,
Teaching & Learning Centre, Ngee Ann Polytechnic
Dr Phillip Towndrow

Assistant Professor, English Language & Literature Academic Group
National Institute of Education

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 age.

Critical incident

“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., 1989).

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 experiences.

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.

Pedagogical implications

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:

  1. charting pathways for designing, producing and implementing learning tasks that are driven by realistic problems and the need for self-directed enquiry; and

  2. 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 their resources.

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 you.


Brown, John Seely; Collins, A.; & Duguid, P. (1989). ‘Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning’. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, pp. 32–42. (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. 215–239.

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.

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Supporting Online Learners in a Constructivist Manner: A Case for Future Development Work in the Singapore Context