Constructivist Approaches to Communication Skills Instruction
Paul Gruba and Brian Lynch
The University of Melbourne
Constructivist approaches to instruction gain popularity as more and more learning takes place in technology-rich environments. This paper reports on the use of constructivist principles to teach a tertiary communication skills subject in a technology rich environment. After providing an overview of 'traditional' communication skills instruction with constructivist approaches, the application of constructivist principles to a series of three tertiary communication skills classes is described. A discussion of how the role of instructors, evaluation practices and student learning outcomes were affected by utilising a constructivist approach within a technology-rich environment concludes the paper.
constructivism, positivism, collaborative learning
Constructivist approaches to instruction are gaining favour as a preferred method of teaching within technology-rich environments (Driscoll, 1994). This paper reports on the use of constructivist principles as a basis for tertiary communication skills instruction First, an overview of 'traditional' methods is provided. Secondly, constructivist approaches to instruction are described. The third section of the paper describes the application of constructivist principles a tertiary communication skills subject. The paper concludes with suggestions for the design of research into technology-rich environments.
Overview of 'Traditional' Communication Skills Instruction
Consider a sketch of our 'traditional' approach to communication skills instruction. First, we would stress the importance of good communication practice. Types of communication dominated initial discussions: intra-personal was clearly demarcated from interpersonal communication; public communication was easily distinguished from mass communication. Following that, elements of communication were neatly set out: the place of senders, messages, channels, receivers and feedback are each given a role and a definition. Next, we would survey the competing models and theories of communication. 'Transmission' models of communication (eg. Shannon & Weaver, 1949; Berlo, 1960) were eventually dismissed in favour of 'transactional' or 'meaning-based' versions (eg. Barnlund, 1970). Throughout these introductory lectures, the highly contextualised nature of communication was emphasised. Following this point in the subject, however, theory was often not put into practice. Classes proceeded with application tasks, case studies, or discussion of communication practices. An attention to word-processing skills occupied a central position during our computer sessions. Like students, we would end our classes wondering if we were just pretending to communicate. Real communication, it seemed, took place somewhere else.
Against a background of similar experiences, we reconcieved the possibilities of available IT resources at our university to align with the 'ecologies and enterprises' view outlined in Ullmer (1994). Briefly, we began to think of the networked computer labratory as a social setting as opposed to an area occupied by a group of workstations. Given this capacity for interaction, communication could take place in a contextualised setting, vary according to audience and be purposeful. The pedagogical basis for our foray into this networked environment was grounded in constructivist approaches to instruction.
Constructivist Views of Learning
Arguably, the pedagogical basis for 'traditional' styles of teaching rest on realist and objectivist views of knowledge. At the ontological level (the "what is it that can be known?" level), the realist perspective refers to the belief that the object of our inquiry really exists, 'out there' in the world. This reality is assumed to be governed by immutable laws and mechanisms that are independent the researcher and when and how they are investigating reality. In its pure form, the realist perspective represents, essentially, the classical positivist tradition. A modified, or postpositivist perspective (see Phillips, 1990) is that, although the object of our inquiry exists outside and independent of the human mind, it cannot be perceived with total accuracy by our observations. This represents the critical realist ontology, as articulated by Cook and Campbell (1979).
From either the realist or critical realist perspective, the epistemological level (or the "what is our relationship to what we are trying to know?" level) that follows is an objectivist stance toward our inquiry. Basically, this means we must remove our influence from the research setting, distance ourselves from the object of inquiry, in order to arrive at the most accurate correspondence between our observations and this reality. The postpositivist, modified objectivist perspective admits that complete objectivity is nearly impossible to achieve, but still pursues it as an ideal to regulate our search for knowledge.
Taken together, these perspectives represent a view of knowledge with implications for instruction that contrast sharply with constructivism. Following Guba and Lincoln, (1989) and Lincoln (1994), we would place constructivism within a paradigm that is relativist rather than realist, and subjectivist rather than objectivist (although admitting that not all philosophers of science will agree with pitting relativism against realism, and not subscribing to an extreme, irrationalist view of relativism).
Based on the work of the pragmatic philosopher Rorty (1991), Savery and Duffy (1995) summarise the characteristics of constructivism in three central propositions. At the core, constructivists hold that understanding comes through interactions with the environment. The results of learning can not be separated from how learning takes place; cognition rests not solely with the individual but is 'distributed' within its context (Salomon, 1993). Further, constructivists hold that cognitive puzzlement stimulates and organises learning. Therefore, the goals of learners need to be centrally considered. A third tenet of constructivism is that knowledge develops through social negotiation and reflection upon individual practices. From these roots, constructivism has flowered into a number of directions (Ernst, 1995).
Applied to educational settings, constructivism has served as the pedagogical basis for several recent learning innovations. Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson and Coulson (1991), for example, discuss the development of a hypertext system for teaching post-structural literary interpretation. To save space, interested readers are directed to an online collection of essays on constructivism (Author, 1997), edited work by Duffy and Jonassen (1992) and a volume edited by Steffe and Gale (1995). The remainder of the paper examines the application of constructivist principles to a series of semesters of our tertiary communication skill subject.
Description of the Subject
Based on a goal-oriented syllabus, the central aim of our 'Communication Skills and the Internet' is to use the networked computer system as a 'site of communication' and foster communication skills development. In line with constructivist principles, we thought it best to allow students to create a project any way they would like. Accordingly, during the first semester of the subject, little overt structure was given.
Initial students in the subject eventually created an online 'ezine' for a university audience. Upon reflection, however, we decided that the electronic magazine project was not wholly successful. Given the nature of small group consensus building, for example, it took longer than an expected to agree upon a basic direction for the project. Within the thirteen week semester, there was not sufficient time to elaborate the project. As a result, many features of the planned ezine were left unfinished. Further, that sense that we were 'pretending' to communicate returned: the project lacked a readily identifiable audience and lacked outside scrutiny; oral presentations rang hollow; deadlines unmet had little consequence. By the end, students themselves suggested that instructors take a more active role in the formulation of the group project.
Following the initial class, the syllabus was revised. Importantly, we followed Salomon (1991a) and directed students from the start to develop, administer and realise a formal academic conference. The Internet would serve as both a focus for research activities and a means of achieving them. The 'conference model' (as we have come to call it) fit well into constructivist approaches. Our experiences fill out the five point framework set out by Driscoll (1994, pp. 359-377):
1 Integrate authentic activity within a complex learning environment
The realisation of an academic conference is an authentic task within a tertiary setting. Students readily identify with the project and feel a sense of ownership towards it. Importantly, working through processes to organise a conference allows for practice of communication skills interpersonally (within small committee work), institutionally (as an entity within the university) and personally when they present papers. At each juncture, discussion of theory precedes the upcoming activity. The networked computer lab itself provides a level of complexity: the Web, email, word processing and electronic presentation skills must come to together in a successful group project.
2 Emphasise social negotiation as integral to learning
Placing the group project at the core of the class focuses student attention on group dynamics and interpersonal communication. The conference is too large a project for an individual or a small clique-students soon understand they must work together to meet the impending public deadline. Social negotiation, both within and outside the class, must be used to organise the conference. Throughout negotiation, our role of instructors is to provide for periodic reflection on social process as they take place.
3 Juxtapose instructional content and include multiple modes of representation
The Internet, by its very nature, contains a juxtaposition of ideas and information that the students struggle with from day one. Students must extrapolate information from that environment into a formal academic paper and later transform that into an electronic presentation. The nature of the group project and, importantly, the assessment tasks which build up to and include the conference, results in the students becoming familiar with and experienced in presenting their work in a variety of modes-spoken, written, individual, group, and electronically assisted.
4 Keep instruction relevant to student needs
Despite our provision of structure through 'the conference model', where the students are given the basic task in advance, there is still a great deal of room for students to shape the conference. Ownership is maintained throughout the life of the project. Students set the theme for the conference; they find appropriate target audiences; they find guest speakers and arrange for venues, refreshments and security. Our role as instructors is to facilitate the project, not to intervene. As a need arises in relation to the conference-and this includes conflicts within the group-we provide instruction and perspective. Students then apply their understanding directly and, we hope, another aspect of communication skills is deeply learned.
5 Reflect on practice
As Winn (1991) notes "there is a point where the complexity of learning makes prediction of performance and prescription of instruction impossible" (p. 40). To monitor that complexity, we utilise a series of assessment tasks throughout the term. Early in the term we require students to self assess on their spoken tasks, as well as to assess their peers. Outcomes are discussed and suggestions for improvement given from both instructors and students. All marks are included in our final determination of their grades on those tasks. For the written tasks, the students are encouraged to submit drafts of their work to us and to their fellow students for pre assessment feedback. The conference takes place at least one week before the end of term. Following that, the group project is assessed, in part, through self and peer assessment reports written by each student. We have found that post-project reflection encourages critical perspective and provides an imporant forum to discuss theory against practice.
Problems and successes
Perkins (1991) points out that complex learning environments place a high cognitive load on learners. In our classes, student feedback indicated that they thought the subject was a) time intensive; b) required advanced computer skills; c) the style of instruction was unfamiliar and, at times, uncomfortable and d) there did not seem to be readily defined goals for the class. The last two problems demand the greatest attention.
There is no doubt that the unfamiliar style of instruction for the class initially posed difficulties for the students. Given the opportunity to 'do as they wish', the first reaction of many students was to not take the subject seriously, or to assume that other students would provide the necessary direction for the class. However, by the end of each semester, most if not all of the students have actively engaged with the group project and the dynamics of the class.
There remains a tension, even with the conference model, about readily defined goals for the class. The role of the lecturer can seem ambiguous for many of the students, given their traditional experience and expectations. Even when they take up the challenge of setting their own project goals, there is periodic anxiety concerning whether they are "doing enough", presumably in relation to the expectations of the lecturer. This is primarily the result, we believe, of the fact that final assessment and grading decisions are still controlled by us, the lecturers, not the students.
Despite the problems, the application of the constructivist principles in the class brought out a number of positive learning outcomes. First, a key feature of this class has been the sense of camaraderie that develops for the students in designing and carrying out the group project. In regards to our own teaching, we have recorded a number of strongly favourably student impressions in quality of teaching surveys. Students also see that the class teaches them several transferable skills relevant to other subjects at the university and the workplace as well.
Students come away with a sense of achievement. Individual accomplishments, including papers and presentations, are woven into the structure of the common project and students readily see where there contribution has fit. Peers, not just instructors, recognise each other's talents and contribution to the success of the whole class.
Another effect of the conference as a group project is that the students gain valuable experience in advertising and promoting an event for which they are responsible. This has taken them out into the University and the larger Melbourne community (for example, one conference organised a guest speaker from the Internet Cafe; several students made contacts with local Web developers and small business owners in the course of their research).
The key aspects of our syllabus, and the constructivist principles on which it is based, have since been adopted for use in a large lecture class of first and second year Agricultural students (Rimmington & Gruba, 1997). Next year, a similar communication skills subject designed for computer science students will be launched. Each situation presents a rich site for further investigation, and prompts discussion of appropriate research design.
As Hawkbridge (1996) notes, advances in research within technonology-rich environments have been stemmed because "the majority of us have clung to behavioral psychology and continue to advocate the use of familiar tools" (p. 2). One alternative to a traditional views of research (cf. Clark & Sugrue, 1991) to complement Salomon's (1991b) systemic and analytic approach is to use the large simple designs employed recently in medical trials (Ullmer, 1994). This emerging approach of research holds that broad entry rules, an extended duration, and large populations can help determine major learning outcomes and their influences. Similarly, Lynch (1996) details the use of qualitative approaches in program evaluation that can be used in such research designs. The use of alternative research designs and methodologies, coupled with openness to changing traditional teaching and learning concepts and practices, promises to integrate informational technology into quality university teaching.
We would like to highlight and acknowledge the contribution of our students in Communication Skills 145-231/331 for their generous assistance and feedback in the course of subject development.
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Subject and student website addresses:
Communication and the Internet 145-133/233
Advanced communication skills '@' Conference; Semester 2, 1996:
[ http://www.arts.unimelb.edu.au/projects/advcs/ ]
Spider web conference; Semester 1, 1997: [ http://www.arts.unimelb.edu.au/projects/CSNet/]
(c) Paul Gruba and Brian Lynch
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