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Combining Two Contrasting Philosophies to Instructional Design

Designing an online course is not as simple as putting the syllabus on the Internet. Course design for Web-based education is one that entails combining a variety of instructional strategies into a unique environment, which is why the two contrasting paradigms of the objectivist and constructivist approach should be embraced and utilized. The two approaches (objectivist and constructivist) are thought of as being opposite teaching philosophies, but in an online environment these two opposing methods can be combined, and both approaches should be considered when designing an online course.

The objectivist approach is essentially pouring information into the learner. The most basic assumption is that knowledge is external to humans, and the meaning of the world exists independent of the human mind (Jonassen, 1992). In the opposing paradigm of constructivism, knowledge is constructed in the mind. The world is created in the mind through interaction with the world and is based on interpretation, perception, sensory experiences, and social interaction. Meaning is a result of an interpretive process that is dependent on the learners' experience and understanding (Jonassen, 1992).

An Objectivist Approach to Instructional Design

Vrasidas (2000) identified the models of instructional design based on the objectivist philosophy as the input-process-output model. Before designing the instruction for a topic, the educator identifies the knowledge that he or she intends to transfer into the minds of the learners. That knowledge is identified in specific behavior objectives. All of the learners are expected to achieve the learning objectives in the same manner. The evaluation procedure entails using an objective evaluation method to determine whether the objectives have been met and to what degree.

There are ways to integrate the objectivist principles into distance-learning course design. When designing the course, sequence is important; therefore, the user cannot proceed to the next step until the prior step has been completed (Vrasidas, 2000). The instructor makes the decisions. For example, if a student has a question about the course content, it is the instructor's role to answer the question, because he or she is considered the expert. The instructor identifies in advance the one correct method to perform a task, and the learner is expected to follow the linear approach to completing the task. It is the instructor's responsibility to develop specific learning objectives.

When designing the distance-learning course, the two most valued interaction types are learner-content and learner-teacher according to the objectivist philosophy. To promote learner-content interaction, the instructor assigns readings, literature reviews, reaction papers, and asks specific questions about the content. The learner-teacher interaction is promoted when the instructor asks or answers questions using electronic messages and two-way video or audio technologies. Another way to promote this type of interaction is when the instructor provides feedback to the learner about his or her work.

In my courses, the learner-content interaction occurs through assigned reading in the textbook, and each week a lecture is posted that provides additional content. At times, articles are posted or a link is posted to direct the students to another source of information. The learner-teacher interaction is enhanced by my direct responses to student questions and comments. Weekly feedback is provided to the student's personal email account. The feedback addresses the student's strengths and points out areas that need improvement. Responses to student's comments and papers are posted in the online classroom throughout the course.

For the objectivist instructional designer, learning only can be demonstrated by observable behavior. In the evaluation process, the instructor specifies when the learner will demonstrate certain behaviors. The evaluation measures are criterion referenced. Some examples of this type of evaluation include online quizzes and tests, listing steps in a process, and papers.

A Constructivist Approach to Instructional Design

Building upon the constructivist learning principles, Dunlap (1999) provided guidelines and examples for using the Web to create a rich learning environment. Constructivist environments are interactive, collaborative, student-centered, active, based on authentic content, and allow for intentional learning. The five attributes of student-centered learning are (a) intentional learning, (b) applying dynamic learning activities, (c) utilizing authentic learning contexts, (d) encouraging collaboration, and (e) reinforcing reflection.

Intentional learning is when the learning is purposeful, effortful, self-regulated, and active. Intentional learning gives learners ownership, the ability to find the content more relevant, and offers life-long learning skills. To provide the opportunity for intentional learning, Web-based courses should permit learners to manage their own learning by allowing students to identify their learning needs, select learning strategies, and assess their own learning.

Applying dynamic learning activities includes learners engaging in activities rather than being observers. Learning activities may include conducting research in order to support positions, accomplish tasks, or create products. Therefore, it is important to provide the learners with Internet resources that they can use during the research process. Other ways to engage learners is by asking them to answer questions and allowing them to determine what about the content area they wish to learn more about.

Authentic learning refers to students need to be able to establish goals that are meaningful to them. It refers to students selecting topics relevant to the course that of meaningful or of interest them. For example, in a nutrition course, a student may elect to write about diabetes as it runs in his or her family.

Collaboration also should be encouraged, because it exposes students to multiple perspectives, refines their knowledge through argumentation and structured controversy, shares and tests their knowledge, produces gains and appreciation for the value of individual strengths, and makes the learners more willing to take risks when they encounter authentic situations. Online discussions about specific problems or cases can facilitate collaborative learning.

Reflection supports the development of metacognitive skills. Self-reflection is the ability to look objectively at oneself and make changes to improve performance. Questions and journals are a good way to encourage reflection. Some example questions include how did your prior knowledge affect your approach to this project or how can you apply the reading to your work setting?

Dunlap's principles are the pillars of my courses. Students are given some general guidelines about the assignments, but they are free to select the specific topic that is of interest to them. Case studies and current media articles assist learners with applying the content to real-life situations. Several discussion questions are posted weekly, and students can select which two questions they want to answer. Their responses to the discussion questions are posted in the main classroom, and students read and reply to the messages throughout the week. Students are assigned to learning teams, which they work with throughout the course. They may request who is on his or her team. The remaining students are assigned according to time zone. Individual and team-based assignments are given to enhance student to student interaction, collaboration, sharing of information and resources, expand perspectives and knowledge, and to build and collaborative learning environment. Students are required to submit a weekly summary, which allows for reflection and integration of information. In some courses, reflective journal writing may be appropriate.


Web-based education demands a well-prepared, thoughtful, and creative course design. A blend of objectivist and constructivist teaching methods is the best approach to instructional design (Beck, 2000; Chang, 1994; Vrasidas, 2000). Educators should select the most appropriate tool for a given purpose as the instructional approach should be based on the content, context, resources, and learners (Vrasidas, 2000).


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