Collaboration and Constructivist Online Learning Models Support Cultural Inclusiveness

Smith & Ayers (2006) and Hannon & D’Netto (2007) both write about the propensity of online learning to amplify epistimologies of Western culture. If that is the case, it mitigates the potential promise of using technology to reach new audiences of adult learners and using the Internet as a tool for equity. We know that our adult basic education programs in the U.S. only serve about 10% of adults with basic skill needs.  According to Smith & Ayers (2006), most of these previously unreached adults do not share a cultural affinity with the creators’ web content, so the Internet and online learning can be perceived as another place represented by a discourse that excludes them.

Because students of different cultures learn in different ways, instructional designers and teachers must strive to understand cultures of diverse/potential student bodies to provide culturally responsive learning opportunities.  Online content could do this by using a “multiple-cultures” paradigm that is constructivist/cooperative, relevant for minority students AND helps them navigate dominant culture. McLoughlin (2000), as described by Smith & Ayers (2006) provides suggestions to ensure this type of opportunity:

  1. Learning is contextualized in action and played out in everyday situations.
  2. True knowledge is acquired through active participation.
  3. Learning is a process of social action and engagement rooted in distinctive ways of thinking, acting, and communicating.
  4. Learning can be assisted by experts and solidified through apprenticeship.
  5. Learning is an important means of participating in a social environment. (p. 409)

I’m going to keep this list in my back packet. It’s a reminder of the strengths of constructivist-modeled learning opportunities and reminds me that learning in online communities happens beyond transmission of pre-defined content.

Hannon, J., & D’Netto, B. (2007). Cultural diversity online: student engagement with learning technologies. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(5), 418–432.

Shaffer, B. (2012). Overview of Adult Basic Education in Minnesota – FY 2012. St. Paul.

Smith, D. R., & Ayers, D. F. (2006). Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Online Learning: Implications for the Globalized Community College. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 30(5-6), 401–415.

Building Trust

There is ample research and writing on building community that discusses the importance of building trust. Whether it is in a classroom or an online environment, learners must trust that the course will be a source of learning, that their classmates will be respectful and contribute to their knowledge, and (most importantly) that the teacher is trustworthy. If trust is lacking in an online environment, there is no discussion or interaction, and hence, according to Ortner (2010), no community. In other words, any socio-cognitivist aspirations the instructor or designer has about learners co-constructing knowledge will be left unfulfilled.

I have lived this as a designer/facilitator of online learning! My first troubling experience like this was with a group of teachers, new to technology, who wanted to learn more about social media and technology integration into their classrooms. I used Schoology as an online learning venue and set up modules allowing for lots of interaction. During our in-person orientation and kick-off meeting, I gave them time to play in the site and gave support where needed. When it was time for them to personalize their homepage and leave an introductory blog post, they resisted. I heard many concerns about privacy and reluctance or refusal to put anything personal online.

No matter how I explained privacy settings and the security of the site, several refused to do anything that would contribute to developing their social presence online. They were very afraid of posted information being used against them and of identity theft. I allowed them to follow their intuition and didn’t press them; however, not surprisingly, these same teachers refused to participate in the online discussion. They said that they were worried about being judged by others in the group. They didn’t see how sharing their ideas could be a springboard for learning. I see a direct connection between their unwillingness to engage socially, TO TRUST, and their resistance to share their opinions and contribute to both their own and their colleagues’ learning.

How could I have prevented this? I think I should have started with baby steps. First of all, they didn’t know me personally, so I had none of what Brookfield (2006) referred to as “authenticity”. My assurances were not enough to mitigate their fears about privacy on the Internet. I could have put all of these beginners in an isolated group and had them practice interacting using low-impact topics where we could all get to know each other. Such sheltered, unstressful discussion may have eased their fears, proving that the only readers of their writing were trusted, nonjudgemental colleagues. I hope I get a chance to try this again with newcomers!

Brookfield, S. (2006). What students Value in Teachers. In The Skillful Teacher: On Trust, Technique, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (pp. 67–78). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kelly, R. (2008). Creating Trust in Online Education. Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies. Retrieved from

Ortner, N. A. (2010). Developing trust; the superglue of online communities. California Virtual Campus. Retrieved from