3 E-pedagogy

by Sven Åke Bjørke, June 2016 (Revised version)

When discussing pedagogical approaches in e-learning, we usually end up in debating instructivist vs constructivist ways of doing things. Here is “information in a nutshell”, with no ambition of covering the whole issue.

In pedagogy in general and online learning in particular, we talk about stages in learning processes and hierarchies of learning and understanding. Bloom’s taxonomy is a classic example of such a hierarchy of knowledge.  Bloom’s taxonomy of knowledge levels has in turn led to a whole system of questions to test the level each student has managed to attain. Bloom’s taxonomy mainly describes content and knowledge.

The British educator Gilly Salmon has made a pyramid depicting the typical online learning process; the five step pyramid. Progress in online learning means that we move in steps from mainly being an information exchange group eventually arriving through stages at learning in a community; sharing, supporting, challenging, critiquing, questioning the information presented in order to construct new knowledge, partly building on existing participant knowledge and experience.

Pedagogy is not an exact science, even though some pedagogues would like to look at it that way. As a consequence, exact definitions are not possible. The categories are more concepts, almost heuristics at times. It is easier to say something general, and then state what is typical for each category.

Three main pedagogical approaches in elearning.

Three main pedagogical approaches in elearning.


Instructivism or behaviourism ’in a nutshell’ 

Behaviouristic instruction is a traditional way of education delivery. Emphasis is on the transmission of theoretical units of information in a traditional classroom situation: The teacher in front lectures the students facing the teacher. There might be opportunities for dialogue between a student and the teacher. These opportunities are reduced with an increasing number of students present in the classroom. Communication between the students is discouraged.

The instructivist approach: The teacher prepares and serves the information for the student to ‘absorb’. Focus is on what the teacher

The instructivist approach: The teacher prepares and serves the information for the student to ‘absorb’. Focus is on what the teacher teaches

Emphasis is on “getting the message across”, where the teacher channels “objective truths” from the information source to the students. A good teacher dishes out the information in well structured “chunks”, using didactic skills. The main way of communication is one way. When students communicate with the teacher it usually is in response to control questions posed by the teacher. The teacher knows the answer – s/he has the correct answer, a ‘facit’. The teacher controls what is delivered, and decides pacing and process. We therefore call this approach teacher-centred. The information taught is often “decontextualised” i.e. the student studies for the sake of studying, or rather for the exam, in a classroom or school setting. This as opposed to ‘contextualised’ learning where the student has to learn something in order to solve a problem or assignment connected to real life, maybe even outside of the school situation.

The instructivist teacher - the sage on the stage

The instructivist teacher – the sage on the stage

The student able to repeat what the teacher has said and / or what is written in the text book gets good grades. Rote learning is often used. Own opinions are as a rule discouraged.

Metaphor: The teacher fills up empty vessels (the students) with knowledge.
From the student’s perspective: the teacher told me.
Assessment: Exam.
Associated pedagogical theory: behaviorism. Philosophy: positivism.
Research method: quantitative
Pedagogues: Skinner, Thorndike, Watson.


Many students focus on strategic, shallow learning, just learning the stuff necessary to get good grades on the tests. Critical, independent thinking and acting are often weak points. You risk getting people who without objections accept instructions, or what is written. You also get people who depend on instructions from somebody  ”who knows” to lead, motivate and correct. Some students also find that what they learn applies only to the school situation and is not very useful in a work situation in the context of the ordinary society.

Many students tend to focus on performance rather than learning. They think that their performance at a test is due to their ability, not effort. (“I can never learn maths”, rather than: “If I put in more effort, I will learn maths”).

It has been argued that behaviorism is a pedagogy for the industrial society depicted in the Chaplin movie “Modern Times“. In the Information age, by some called the rather unclear “postmodern age“, it is necessary to add the constructivist dimension to education.


The teacher controls what is  ”served”. The correct information is given. Time is not wasted on understanding why it is correct. Basic knowledge such as learn how to read, write, do simple calculations, grammar etc. can be efficiently taught by cramming, drilling, repetitions and tests. Pupils are e.g.  told about Archimedes’ law and Pythagoras rule. They don’t have to think this out by themselves. They also do not have to learn the difference between poisonous and edible mushrooms by trial and error. Discipline and correct individual behaviour in the learning situation are important values. It is fairly easy to control curriculum and content. The students’ ability to cram and reproduce to an exam can be externally verified, e.g. by standardised multiple choice tests and quizzes. Authorities can check whether the teacher has covered the curriculum or not.

The pedagogical challenge:

Do my students really learn, i.e. understand what I teach them? Do they just learn things by heart, forgetting them the day after the test? Do they use words they think I like to hear, even if they don’t understand them? What if I ask the test questions in half a year, will they be able to answer then? Is the knowledge they gain of any use in real life outside the classroom? Retention – the ability to remember knowledge – as a rule increases with the time used to work with the information, number of senses and emotions used, testing out ones own understanding and negotiate meaning in interaction with others, and level of understanding gained.

What is more efficient:

  • a) learning by heart, drilling, study a text for the sake of studying, testing etc or
  • b) active problem-solving, activities building up insight and understanding, critical reflexion?

The answer is probably: It depends. If you want your students to learn irregular French verbs, some types of theoretical maths and the latin names of plants and animals, you might consider  the instructivist method. If you rather want to develop information literacy – the ability to assess various types of information critically, develop skills that can be used in ‘real life’; independence, integrity, social awareness and interpersonal skills, communicate, solve unknown problems, use heuristics, take initiative, decision-making, responsible behaviours and ability to administrate own work etc; other methods might be more efficient.

More on behaviorism


The constructivist approach argues that people have to be active learners and construct knowledge themselves based on what they already know. The knowledge is seen as more subjective, dynamic and expanding rather than objective and static. The main tasks here are processing and understanding of information, making sense of the surrounding world. The learner has a clear responsibility for his / her own learning. This approach is therefore “Learner centred”. This approach can be summed up as “I made sense of…”.

Constructivism demands participation at all levels and moves responsibility and empowerment down the hierarchy, thereby flattening it. The teacher, the “instructivist “Sage on the Stage”,  will increasingly become a “Guide on the Side” in this setting. The approach is often Problem-Based Learning (PBL). The student is given a task or a problem to solve. E.g. “Make a vehicle for transportation of two persons that can go on land as well as water!”

The constructivist teacher - the guide on the side

The constructivist teacher – the guide on the side

  • a) the student must decide the process him/her self how to solve the problem or task. S/he must find the resources and tools and decide how to use these resources. The individual student may choose to learn in isolation or obtain interaction and feedback from peers. Mainstream constructivists such as Piaget, claim that learners learn best in interaction with peers (as opposed to interaction with teachers or other authorities).
  • b) the student may get some guidance with suggestions on how to solve the problem or task, and may be given some resources.
  • c) the student gets access to a mentor or tutor to ask when stuck. The tutor gives guidance but not the answer. Various resources are provided.
  • d) Assessment of product as well as process.


The student develops independence and creativity; s/he learns to be critical when choosing his/her resources. The problems or tasks are authentic, and the student as a rule sees that what s/he learns can be applied in the real world. The learning is contextualised: the entire society around can be used when learning, the student is not secluded in a closed classroom with an artificial setting.

Constructivism encourages learning rather than performance. (If you have failed now, go and put more effort into it! See Attribution theory and motivation  and article on performers vs learners )


It is time-consuming to find out by trial and error, going to the library, asking various people etc. There is a real danger of developing completely individual systems which in some cases may be useful and creative, but often are idiosyncratic; i.e. too individual to be communicated to others. Focus is on the individual or the individual learning in interaction with others. The student may risk becoming a “nerd”. Weaker students who are used to a lot of support will have problems. Undisciplined students may simply give up and do other things they find more amusing without the guiding hand of an authoritative teacher. This way of study may be best suited for elites of the resourceful and independent. External control of what has actually been covered is difficult, and standardised multiple choice testing is often less relevant.

Metaphor: Einstein. Computer freak. ”I found out”.

Associated pedagogy: Genetic epistemology, cognitive development. “Summerhill schools”

Pedagogues: John Dewey, Jean Piaget.

Research method: Qualitative.

Pedagogical challenge:

Make the student find the ‘correct’ information and use it properly by e.g. questioning reliability and relevance. It might also be difficult to decide when to guide and when to let the students get on with it. Making the less resourceful and dependent work well in this type of environment without disturbing the others, might be problematic. It takes some experience to find the correct balance between giving no resources at all and define, prepare and deliver all learning resources for the students. Another challenge may be pacing of progress.

More on constructivism

Constructivism as a paradigm for teaching and learning

Bruner – constructivism in education

Social constructivism or socio-cultural pedagogy

A community of practice requires actitivity and questioning (DM studenst, F2F Sri lanka)

A community of practice requires activity and questioning (DM students, F2F Sri lanka)

Social constructivism means that the students join a knowledge-generating community; a community of practice (CoP), and in collaboration with others solve real problems and assignments in an authentic context as part of their study. In a social constructivist environment, the teacher will, though an “old-timer” (a master), to some extent be a learner together with his/her students, as the generic skills of collaboration, problem-solving and creating new knowledge are important goals by themselves.

In a community of practice the newcomer is regarded as a “legitimate peripheral participant”(LPP), “scaffolded” or guided and supported into the community, meets participants, take part in goal-directed activities and learn in “zones of proximal development (ZPD)”

In a community of practice the newcomer is regarded as a “legitimate peripheral participant”(LPP), “scaffolded” or guided and supported into the community, meets participants, take part in goal-directed activities and learn in “zones of proximal development (ZPD)”

Learning takes place in “zones of proximal development” (ZPD) where newcomers or novices meet and interact with more advanced peers; the More Knowledgable Other (MKO) and old-timers or masters. Newcomers become members of a community  by participating in simple tasks that are nonetheless productive and further the goals of the community. The MKOs will meet the newcomer at various stages and make “scaffolds” facilitating the newcomer to approach the centre of the community. Learning is defined as increased participation.

Through peripheral activities; legitimate peripheral participation,  novices become acquainted with the tasks, vocabulary, and organizing principles of the community. The more experienced may give advice and corrections, but as a rule there are few “correct answers” or “facits” in a learning community of inquiry. Everything is up for questioning.

Through this social interaction learning takes place and competence increases through socio-cultural development according to the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. The tasks will be processing and assessing knowledge, negotiate meaning and generating and co-constructing new knowledge. Learning is a social activity where the students have to use the information they gather actively by applying it in discussion with others. It is not enough to just state opinions; the students must support their statements by referring to reliable and verifiable sources. The demands to academic rigor are about the same as for instructivist courses. Studying for the sake of studying is avoided. Studies should be undertaken for a purpose, and the participants should critically assess information according to relevance and usefulness in solving the task at hand. Often,the educational institution requires that their students develop core values or characteristics like: courage, compassion, curiosity, respect, responsibility and integrity and work systematically to install such values in the daily studies.


The strengths are similar to those of constructivism. In addition: the participants learn synergistic collaboration and socializing.

Socio-cultural learning requires collaboration. The students are not competitors. Group work and a grade in common for the group.

Socio-cultural learning requires collaboration. The students are not competitors. Group work and a grade in common for the group.

The constructivist approach emphasizes the individual learner cooperating with others in order to learn. In socio-constructivism, focus is more on the group and group learning than on the individual.

It is much easier to keep up the study motivation together with others. Communication skills improve. The student uses the information gathered by formulating and stating arguments. The knowledge gained is actively used and modified in confrontation with the opinions of others, and thus understanding and insight increase with the discussions.

Constructivist approaches as a rule promote insight, understanding and deeper learning more than cramming information instructivist style..


Constructivism is as a rule time-consuming and demanding. Best suited for resourceful and independent students.

Pedagogues: Vygotsky. Engestrøm. Lave, Wenger, Bruner, Biggs. Saljø.

Research method: qualitative.

More on socio-constructivism

In a learning situation, the various methods can be used in combination. The challenge is to find the right balance. The tutor can see these approaches as tools. Metaphorically: At times it is appropriate to use a hammer, at other times a saw. The same is the case with pedagogical approaches. The good pedagogue knows when to choose what tool and how long to use it.

Links to various other pedagogical approaches:

Bloom’s taxonomy

Blended learning

Pedagogical theory


Next: Flipping the classroom?


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