Enhancing Instruction through Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, and Cloud Computing

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  • 34 TechTrends July/August 2012 Volume 56, Number 4

    Enhancing Instruction through Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, and Cloud ComputingDavid W. Denton, Seattle Pacific University

    AbstractCloud computing technologies, such as

    Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live, have the potential to enhance instructional methods predicated on constructivism and cooperative learning. Cloud-based application features like file sharing and online publishing are prompt-ing departments of education across the nation to adopt these technologies. However, realizing the full potential of these tools necessitates that future educators develop an understanding of how they can be used. Strategies for integrating cloud-based applications are suggested and re-sults from a case study involving graduate edu-cation students are presented.

    Keywords: case study; cloud computing; constructivist learning; cooperative learning; Google Docs; instructional strategies; Web 2.0

    lthough the term cloud computing is a metaphor for technologies that allow people to access computing services and

    to share data over the Internet, the growing im-pact of this technology on teaching and learn-ing is anything but metaphorical. For example, in 2010, the Oregon Department of Education began offering Google Apps for Educators to staff and students (Casap, 2010; Dessoff, 2010). More recently, the same cloud-based applica-tions were introduced to educators in New York State, reaching three million students and two hundred thousand teachers (Claburn, 2010). Officials in Kentucky have followed suit, opt-ing for Microsofts system, Live@edu (Dessoff). Inevitably, more states will adopt cloud-based technologies. The rate of adoption is bound to increase as private companies create products for linking cloud computing with traditional educational technology. For example, Cloud


    Connect (Lindenberg, 2011) automates online identify management for staff and students, and ePals integrates social learning networks with Google and Microsoft cloud applications (Hols-inger, VanMeter, & Pala, 2011).

    Despite these advances, promoting the use of innovative technologies as a regular part of the K-12 schooling experience has proven to be a challenge (Bauer & Kenton, 2005). An impor-tant dimension of this problem is getting future educators to integrate educational technology as a regular part of their approach to instruction (Abbitt, 2011). Nevertheless, researchers have been investigating the use of cloud computing to improve teaching and learning and these efforts may also improve the extent to which teacher-candidates adopt innovative instructional prac-tices. For example, Wood (2011) utilized Google Docs, a cloud-based office suite, for having undergraduates write collaborative laboratory reports. Similarly, Bonham (2011) employed Google Speadsheet and Forms to collect and graph data points from students during a labo-ratory experiment. Alternatively, Blood (2011) described three special education teachers at a high school sharing a Google Spreadsheet to track behavior points for students. And in a de-scriptive report, Rienzo and Han (2009) com-pared Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live on several criteria, including sharing and editing capabilities, as a way to illustrate potential uses of web 2.0 tools for managing college classes.

    In a case study, Schneckenberg, Ehlers, and Adelsberger (2011) utilized cloud computing to enhance instruction for graduate students in a business course. The class focused on construc-tivist and cooperative pedagogy, facilitated by cloud technologies, specifically Google Docs. Class activities included group-brainstorming sessions, publishing reflections on wikis, and

  • Volume 56, Number 4 TechTrends July/August 2012 35

    conducting peer- and self-evaluation. Accord-ing to Schneckenberg et al., end of course eval-uations showed positive results, 9.35 out of 10, which the researchers attributed to using in-structional practices facilitated with cloud-based applications. Constructivism

    Interestingly, Schneckenberg et al. (2011) employed constructivism and collaborative learning as the theoretical foundation to their re-search. In many ways, the features of constructiv-ism and cooperative learning are enhanced with cloud-based technologies. For example, con-structivism suggests that students integrate prior knowledge with unfamiliar information to create new learning (Richardson, 2003). Cloud applica-tions contain tools that support activities for ac-cessing prior knowledge such as retrieving and sharing information. Furthermore, constructiv-ism suggests that bodies of knowledge are cre-ated collaboratively and that the results of these constructions are influenced by time and place (Richardson). Many features of cloud-based ap-plications emphasize these characteristics, such as synchronous typing and Internet publishing.

    There are other characteristics of construc-tivism that show connections to cloud-based ap-plications. For instance, constructivism involves 1) facilitation of group dialogue, 2) reference to formal domain knowledge, 3) opportunities for students to select challenge level, and 4) prac-tice of metacognitive skills (Richardson, 2003). Although a teacher can deploy these activities through traditional methods, such as paper and pencil assignments and whole-class discussion, organizing them with the support of cloud com-puting is efficient and innovative.

    For example, students can share files (docu-ments, drawings, spreadsheets, presentations) and simultaneously add information, such as definitions to terms, steps to solve a problem, or data from a lab. In addition, instructors can publicly display files while students are adding content. Rather than existing as static displays, such as pages in a textbook, socially constructed knowledge, facilitated through cloud technolo-gies, is alterable by anyone sharing in the cre-ation of the file.

    Although information created in the cloud is labile, it can also be stable. For example, cloud computing enables users to chronicle and save changes over time. Functions such as See revision history in Google Documents creates a history of revisions, identified by date, time, and author. And since files can be shared, saving information from one class session to the next is streamlined. With a traditional approach, such as recording

    information on the dry board, whatever is writ-ten is removed at the end of class. This tends to create a transient record, perhaps diminishing students ability to reflect upon and summarize learning across multiple class sessions.

    To take another example, one typical ap-proach to classroom discussion is for students to share their responses one at a time. Although this method promotes order, primarily because the instructor acts as a conversation gatekeeper, it also tends to create a bottleneck in the flow of information. Alternatively, simultaneous responding through a shared file in the cloud promotes information flow, albeit in nonver-bal forms. Another advantage is that students can see the thoughts of their peers as they type, which promotes open communication, which is a characteristic of constructivist teaching (Matthews, 2000).Cooperative Learning

    Similar to constructivism, cooperative learning is another approach to instruction readily aligned with cloud technologies. One reason for this is that the various tools available in cloud applications, such as sharing and in-ternet publishing, match the principle of social interdependence, which means that individu-als must work together to accomplish a goal (Johnson & Johnson, 1974; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2007).

    For purposes of comparison, competitive learning is the opposite of cooperative learning, and as the name suggests, it focuses on compe-tition. Specifically, most individuals must fail, in order for a few to succeed (Johnson et al., 2007). Promoting the success of a few students

    Figure 1: Google Docs includes a complete office suite of cloud-based applications, which users can share and publish online.

  • 36 TechTrends July/August 2012 Volume 56, Number 4

    through competition is generally antithetical to the ideals of egalitarian education (Nod-dings, 2007). This is especially the case since cooperative learning involves promotive inter-action, which is characterized by mutual help, open communication, and exchange of needed resources (Johnson et al., 2007). These charac-teristics are widely valued by professional orga-nizations, such as Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which has stated that teamwork, flexibil-ity, and collaborative problem solving are essen-tial skills for todays students (Johnson, 2009).

    Although researchers have repeatedly proven the effectiveness of cooperative learning on achievement and classroom climate (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), combining cloud computing with cooperative learning is relatively new (Ert-mer, Newby, Liu, Tomory, Yu, & Lee, 2011; Kear, Woodthorpe, Robertson, & Hutchison, 2010). Nevertheless, the research that has been con-ducted shows promise for enhancing coopera-tive learning through cloud-based technologies. For example Nicholas and Ng (2009) found that preservice science teachers attitudes and beliefs about the efficacy of online learning improved through the use of wikis and blogs.

    Nevertheless, an important question, which researchers are beginning to investigate, is how educational theories, such as constructiv-ism and collaborative learning, are enhanced through cloud computing. One obstacle that might prevent researchers from fully answering this question is the belief that digital technolo-gies are more of a distraction, rather than an aid to learning (Traxler, 2010).Setup

    Dealing with this belief, and the realities upon which it is likely based, requires some careful planning. For example, it is important to establish policies and procedures for how stu-dents are expected to use their laptops, tablets, and smart phones during class (Traxler, 2010). Similarly, it is also necessary to deploy instruc-tional methods that promote time-on-task engagement, and to help students understand digital technologies as tools for learning, not just entertainment.

    The first place students encounter expecta-tions for appropriate technology use is on the syllabus. However, instructors need not estab-lish these expectations through trial and error. Rather, the International Society of Technology Education (2012) has established the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for appropriate digital citizenship, and these can be used as an effective starting place for developing specific practices. For example, one of the NETS

    states that students learn digital citizenship by practicing safe, legal, and ethical technology use. A specific expectation shown on a syllabus might be written like this: students are expected to use their laptops for class related activities only.

    Along with thoughtful expectations, es-tablishing procedures is also important. For example, using phrases such as lower the lid (to your laptop) helps students move away from their screens to focus their attention elsewhere, such as on the instructor. Inevitably, engaging students in an active lesson requires transition-ing between activities, so having methods for redirecting student attention (from their lap-tops, to the projector screen, and then to the dry board) is critical. Successful technology integra-tion requires these types of procedures.

    However, even the most tightly worded ex-pectations shown on a syllabus, and reinforced through procedures, will fail unless engaging instructional practices are deployed throughout a course (Bain, 2004; Lemov, 2010). In a class-room setting, an open laptop to a disinterested student is an invitation for distraction. Although describing instructional techniques that pro-mote engagement is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few steps that instructors can take, such as carefully planned lessons, focused objectives, varied instructional approaches, and circulating around the room during student-led activities (Lemov, 2010).

    After establishing expectations and proce-dures for how students are to use technology in the classroom, the next step is to choose suitable cloud applications. Two systems frequently asso-ciated with instruction include Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live. Each system has its own set of advantages and disadvantages (Rienzo & Han, 2009). However, Google Docs has gained more traction with teachers as an aid to instruction in comparison to Office Live (see Blood, 2009; Bonham, 2011; Nevin, 2009; Schneckenberg et al., 2011; and Wood, 2011). One advantage of Google Docs is that a single account allows us-ers to create websites (Google Sites) and blogs (Blogger) through the same profile. The strate-gies that follow describe methods for integrat-ing cloud computing technologies with Google Docs, rather than Office Live. Nevertheless, an instructor could adapt any of the following de-scriptions to work with the Office Live interface.

    Regardless of the system one chooses, par-ticipants will need to create an account associ-ated with a specific email address. However, most students are familiar with creating online profiles (Carnevale, 2008). The instructor will also need an account as well, preferably one that

  • Volume 56, Number 4 TechTrends July/August 2012 37

    is tied to a course-specific email, such as Phys-ics101@gmail.com. Linking a particular email address to one class makes managing files, con-tact lists, and correspondence easier.

    Another step in the setup process is for students to send an email message using their Google account to the specific email address cre-ated for the course. This enables the instructor to add each student as a contact, to promote ef-ficient file sharing. During this step, cross refer-encing the class roster to the contact list serves to confirm that every student is included as a contact. Strategies for Integrating Cloud Computing

    Once these steps are complete, an instruc-tor can design a variety of learning activities by following a few strategies. Some of the strategies that follow are situation specific, such as con-structing a rubric, while others are general, such as providing feedback. However, each one incor-porates characteristics of constructivism and co-operative learning.

    1. Group Projects: In 1919, Thomas Kilpatrick suggested that projects promote purposef...


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