Edtech 504: Final Paper

Applications for Constructivist Theory and Transactional Distance Theory in Online Learning Communities

Alyssa Rose

Educational Technology Graduate Studies

Boise State University

EDTECH 504 – Spring 2012


            Online Learning Communities are becoming more prevalent in classrooms across the country. This paper addresses the need for a combined mix of Constructivist Learning Theory and Transactional Distance Theory in order to effectively manage and for students to be engaged in an OLC. This paper shows that when used correctly, Constructivist Theory and TDT create an optimal learning environment for students. It discusses examples of how each learning theory may be used in each environment, as well as the advantages for using each theory. It also discusses the ways in which Online Learning Communities provide learning experiences that can allow learners to relate to and connect to prior knowledge. The paper also addresses how each of these theories addresses major issues in Online Learning Communities and aims to decrease student isolation and increase student autonomy.


Online learning has become a topic of fascination, inquiry and criticism in the Educational Technology arena. Many of the recent studies over online learning have elicited the same conclusion: more research must be done in order to determine effective learning acquisition online. Due to extensive variables like age, learning outcomes, prior experience, self-directedness and the variety of online learning tools, this endeavor of finding the ideal combination for effective online learning will develop more over time.

Technology is becoming more prevalent in schools across the country and in mixed-mode/ hybrid and completely online courses in colleges. Colleges more frequently use the Online Learning Communities (OLC) as shown in their Blackboard or Moodle applications for the course. Secondary schools are also adopting these learning communities in their classrooms, some with greater difficulty due to some of the variables listed above.

An OLC is defined as “a developed activity system in which a group of learners, unified by a common cause and empowered by a supportive virtual environment, engage in collaborative learning within an atmosphere of trust and commitment” (Ke & Hoadley, 2009). OLCs in their very nature are meant to push students to be self-sufficient, while at the same time be collaborative and supportive members of a group whose sole intent is learning. This learning is focused and meant to include development of technological skills as well as inter-personal skills. OLCs are meant to include a wide variety of hands-on activities but also a lot of time spent on self-reflection, evaluating thinking and peer evaluation. OLCs are beneficial to the educational community because of their “universal availability of a variety of effective educational technologies to every instructor and every learner” (George & Sparrow, 2000).

Based on this description of an OLC, this paper adopts the idea that one “ideal combination” for an effective OLC would be the combination of Constructivist Theory and Transactional Distance Theory put into practice.

 Constructivist Theory

The main contributor in the Constructivist Theory was Jean Piaget, who developed the Constructivist Model of Knowledge. This model suggests “learners construct understanding. Learners look for meaning and will try to find regularity and order in the events of the world even in the absence of full or complete information” (Bodner, 1986). In essence, students are the ones that build their own understanding of a certain idea, topic, etc. When presented with a new idea, students will connect it (find a relationship) to something previously learned in order to understand and remember it.

Piaget’s theory also explains that students bring prior knowledge, experiences and belief systems with them into the learning environment. This explains how or what students can connect new learning ideas to in order to create an understanding of the new topic. To a constructivist learning is not a process in which the student waits for learning to happen. The students are constantly engaged and exploring ideas, as well as reflecting upon those activities and explorations.

Through this belief, knowledge is thought to be “constructed uniquely and individually, in multiple ways, through a variety of authentic tools, resources, experiences and contexts” (Dimock, Adams, Zuhn and Heath, 1999). Learners are proactive in their own construction and are given very little direct instruction, but rather guidelines and a facilitator meant to foster educational experiences instead of telling every student what they are meant to take away from the lesson.

Application of Constructivist Theory in an OLC

           Constructivist Theory was created to be used in OLCs, or at least we can easily presume this upon reading Piaget’s work. Actively engaged students need tools and hands-on experiences to effectively construct knowledge, and technology harbors excellent results. Students cannot only engage in hands-on experiences online, but they can also collaborate with peers, self-reflect on their learning and evaluate new solutions for real world scenarios. Using Constructivist Theory, the students are engaged in a self directed learning where they “ have control over both the direction and content of their learning” (George & Sparrow, 2000). This type of situation might occur when a teacher gives a research assignment where students have the option of choosing their topic, or creating a solution for a problem presented by the teacher. In both scenarios, students are given the opportunity to explore and evaluate their own work as well as the work of others.

The way in which instruction is presented in an OLC with a Constructivist foundation must not be considered lightly. Instruction must be limited and only necessary to give basic instructions without giving away the knowledge to be learned. This knowledge needs to be built by the students during the process, through collaborating with others and through self-reflection at the end of the activity. Through the self-reflection students can interpret the experience, link it to prior knowledge and experiences and understand the role of it in their overall learning. A great tool for this self-reflection or reflecting on what they know and how they know it, is a program called Inspiration. “Inspiration is a visual tool for semantic mapping, brainstorming, and many other applications” (George & Sparrow, 2000).

Constructivist theory used in an OLC needs to have minimal teaching of tools and then allows students to explore within the tool to experience new ideas and ways in which to utilize it. It also requires the learners “to seek out the help and advice necessary to be successful in the learning process” (George & Sparrow, 2000). This is important to note due to the fact that although Constructivist Theory is letting them construct knowledge based on prior experiences, it is essential that they understand that the teacher’s role is to facilitate but not inform students what knowledge they are meant to construct.

 Transactional Distance Theory

           According to Gokool-Ramdoo (2008), Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) aims to describe the cognitive space between learners and teachers in an online learning environment and how this space can be avoided. TDT, put forth by Michael Moore at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, explains that this miscommunication between teacher and student is what causes many of the issues in OLCs. When the teacher is not present in the classroom with the student, as is the case in most online learning communities, there is potential for miscommunication of ideas and directions.

This transaction that is taking place is “based upon seeking understanding and knowledge through dialogue and debate” (Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008). In an OLC, students are meant to learn and utilize new concepts through dialogue and collaboration among peers. Educational transactions taking place do present the possibility of being misinterpreted due to the distance between learners and teachers. Therefore, it is important for teachers to take multiple considerations into account when developing an OLC or course in which the transactional distance is geographically large between student and teacher.

The primary focus of TDT is on the needs of the learners in the OLC.  These needs can be described as dialogue between students and teacher, structure of the course and autonomy of the student (or self-motivation and preparedness). The dialogue and structure of a course will reflect upon the learner’s autonomy in it.  Autonomy of the learner becomes essential within all OLCs, due to the fact that the learner needs to take responsibility of their learning. Moore’s theory maintains that the learner must be able to mentally and maturity-wise take responsibility for their learning. However, in secondary classrooms, this may not always be the case. TDT does not put an emphasis on specific age groups, but does focus on the OLC, not containing a teacher present. There are few secondary classrooms like this presently, with the exception of some GenNet programs in which the teacher is viewed on a monitor at an offsite location, independent study programs. In each scenario, students are expected to exhibit some autonomy in the OLC, however not to the extent or level of a post-secondary program/ OLC.

Application of Transactional Distance Theory in an OLC

             As described, TDT is focused on the needs of a learner in an OLC. In order for students to maintain a sense of autonomy (including motivation and assurance in their abilities to be successful in the course), the structure and dialogue of the OLC needs to be taken into consideration. Gokool-Ramdoo (2008) claims that “the autonomous learner is responsible for decreasing transactional distance given their position in the structure/dialogue dichotomy”. This means that communication online is a “two-way street”, in which learners need to aggressively take hold of their education by participating actively in the discussions and debates. Although a lot of responsibility is placed on the student to communicate with other students as well as with the teacher, there also needs to be a “feedback loop” coming from the teacher on a regular basis, to ensure students’ involvement (Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008).

Teachers need to be aware of the fact that miscommunication can indeed happen in OLCs if every available outlet for communication is not utilized. Students need to have multiple ways of connecting with and contacting teachers, tutors, other peers, etc. Online courses should have communication components such as email, live chat options, discussion boards, forums and contact information are set up so that students have multiple outlets of getting a hold of others, including the teacher. Also, teachers should have a policy in place so that students are aware of when and how they will receive feedback so that they don’t feel the isolation that can sometimes happen in an OLC.

Teachers should be aware that the goal of using TDT in creation of their OLC should be that the student will end up being completely autonomous in their online experience as well as they will in fact end as pupil and teacher of themselves. They will be able to evaluate themselves and perceive that they are in fact in control of their education and work to get feedback from others. The transactional distance between teacher and student lessens because there is effective communication. In this way “distance education as a discipline can be said to belong to a culture of continuous improvement” (Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008). With TDT as a foundation, OLCs can function more effectively through the communication and autonomy of the learner. The self-reflective and evaluative nature of TDT ensures that the feedback loop will continue and improve upon elements of the OLC, so that it can reach its maximum potential.

An Example of Constructivist Theory and TDT in a Secondary/Post Secondary Online Learning Community using Edmodo

Edmodo is a social networking site that is available to teachers and students in all age groups. Since there is more information geared towards the secondary arena, the focus will remain on learners in the high school and above age group. An Online Learning Community (using a program such as Edmodo) with a foundation in Constructivist Theory and Transactional Distance Theory, that is geared towards secondary and post-secondary learning, needs to first and foremost be explained to the students. Students should be aware of the requirements and demands of the OLC. Autonomy is the goal for all students.

Students are to be aware of the dynamics of the OLC, in that they are responsible for their postings, their reflections, reading, making connections to prior information presented and communicating with the teacher as well as other students. The Constructivist nature of this site is that students can be asked to collaborate with other students by the teacher assigning groups and creating group forums where those students can share information and comment on others postings as well. They can upload videos, pictures and links so that they may create a project or presentation to share. Through this process, they are able to share ideas, comment on what others have found and make connections from research to their actual intended goals for their project or presentation.

Students using the program are also able to create reflections either on a posting made by the teacher or a new post  that they themselves create. The teacher may choose to create a forum specifically for reflections only. Allowing students time to reflect upon what they have learned and made connections about is very much rooted in the primary goals of constructivist thinking. The hands-on portion of this program is the actual use of the Internet and its accessibility anywhere. There is an app for Edmodo for the Ipad, Iphone and Android system. Students have access to their classroom anywhere and everywhere. They can take a photo of a cocoon outside and upload it to their Edmodo group forum to add to a Power Point presentation of Metamorphosis in Nature.

Transactional Distance Theory is rooted in this program as well because there are multiple options for students to contact other students as well as the teacher. Students can email their teachers and other students, as well as talk through forums and online chats. Students posting on other reflections, postings and class questions are left with a time stamp that allows students to actually see when their work is being looked at which will help to decrease the feeling of isolation sometimes present in an OLC.

Through this OLC, founded with Constructivist Theory and TDT, students can gain autonomy and knowledge through collaboration with others and self-reflection in a secure program that is user-friendly.


             George and Sparrow (2000) state that “technology is merely one additional means of facilitating the educational process”. This facilitation can be effective through the use of Constructivist Theory and Transactional Distance Theory as a foundation for and Online Learning Community. OLCs maintain different levels of interaction and communication, which if fostered with constructivist ideals and TDT can eliminate misunderstandings and distance in communication transactions. The collaboration within the OLC allows students to create, maintain and foster new ideas for solutions to problems. It also allows students to become invested in their OLC and create a stronger autonomous nature for themselves in relation to the experience.

In the constructivist and TDT founded learning environment, “the teacher is a facilitator, guide, mentor, coach in providing learner-centered environments that supports meaningful learning” (Keengwe & Hofmeister, 2004).  According to Keengwe and Hofmeister (2004), “meaningful learning is active, constructive, reflective , intentional , authentic and cooperative”. Using constructivist theory as a foundation for an OLC is the perfect way to incorporate all of these elements. Students participate in hands-on, real world activities that foster independence as well as social connections with other learners. Through these social connections, students are able to confer, analyze and create new solutions through discussion and collaboration.

There are many combinations of theories that one could employ in an Online Learning Community, however Constructivist Theory and Transactional Distance Theory not only seek to provide the learner with the best learning experience but also seek to provide the best communication online as well. These theories encompass and provide solutions for all of the difficulties that teachers and students face in an OLC. Constructivist Theory allows for students to learn on their own as well as in a group setting, which helps stronger learners as well as weaker learners feel confidence in their abilities. It also provides an outlet for reflection, which helps them to organize thoughts, make connections to prior knowledge and gain insight into their own knowledge of a particular subject. Transactional Distance Theory provides solutions in the OLC for communication. It allows for teachers and students to become aware of the growing need for multiple communication methods in the OLC. Email, live chats, forums, phone numbers, Skype and other online live phone options should be made readily available between teacher and students and between students themselves.

Technology is continually changing and with that change comes a crucial need for solid pedagogy in our Online Learning Communities. It is of the utmost importance for our education system as a whole. There is still much research that needs to be done. For now, Constructivist principles and Transactional Distance Theory solutions are the most pedagogically sound options for the Online Learning Communities.



Bodner, G. M. (1986). Constructivism: A theory of knowledge. Journal of Chemical Education, 63(10), 873. Retrieved from http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ed063p873

Dimock, K.V., Adams, S., Zuhn, J. & Heath, M. (1999). Restructuring teaching with technology and Constructivism. In J. Price et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 1999 (pp. 657-659). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/9237.

George, E.J. & Sparrow, J. (2000). Constructing technology-based Constructivism: A new approach to the Educational Computing Course. In D. Willis et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2000 (pp. 322-328). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/15576.

Gokool-Ramdoo, S. (2008) Beyond the Theoretical Impasse: Extending the applications of Transactional Distance Theory. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol. 9, No. 3 (ISSN: 1492-3831) retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/541/1151

Ke, F., & Hoadley, C. (2009). Evaluating online learning communities. Educational Technology Research & Development, 57(4), 487-510. doi:10.1007/s11423-009-9120-2

Keengwe, J. & Hofmeister, D. (2004). Using Technology to enhance meaningful learning experiences in the classroom- a constructivist perspective. In R. Ferdig et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2004 (pp. 1225-1227). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Retrieved from http://www.editlib.org/p/13640.


1.4 Learner Characteristics


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