Enhancing Instruction through Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, and Cloud Computing

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  • 34 TechTrends July/August 2012 Volume 56, Number 4

    Enhancing Instruction through Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, and Cloud ComputingDavid W. Denton, Seattle Pacific University

    AbstractCloud computing technologies, such as

    Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live, have the potential to enhance instructional methods predicated on constructivism and cooperative learning. Cloud-based application features like file sharing and online publishing are prompt-ing departments of education across the nation to adopt these technologies. However, realizing the full potential of these tools necessitates that future educators develop an understanding of how they can be used. Strategies for integrating cloud-based applications are suggested and re-sults from a case study involving graduate edu-cation students are presented.

    Keywords: case study; cloud computing; constructivist learning; cooperative learning; Google Docs; instructional strategies; Web 2.0

    lthough the term cloud computing is a metaphor for technologies that allow people to access computing services and

    to share data over the Internet, the growing im-pact of this technology on teaching and learn-ing is anything but metaphorical. For example, in 2010, the Oregon Department of Education began offering Google Apps for Educators to staff and students (Casap, 2010; Dessoff, 2010). More recently, the same cloud-based applica-tions were introduced to educators in New York State, reaching three million students and two hundred thousand teachers (Claburn, 2010). Officials in Kentucky have followed suit, opt-ing for Microsofts system, Live@edu (Dessoff). Inevitably, more states will adopt cloud-based technologies. The rate of adoption is bound to increase as private companies create products for linking cloud computing with traditional educational technology. For example, Cloud


    Connect (Lindenberg, 2011) automates online identify management for staff and students, and ePals integrates social learning networks with Google and Microsoft cloud applications (Hols-inger, VanMeter, & Pala, 2011).

    Despite these advances, promoting the use of innovative technologies as a regular part of the K-12 schooling experience has proven to be a challenge (Bauer & Kenton, 2005). An impor-tant dimension of this problem is getting future educators to integrate educational technology as a regular part of their approach to instruction (Abbitt, 2011). Nevertheless, researchers have been investigating the use of cloud computing to improve teaching and learning and these efforts may also improve the extent to which teacher-candidates adopt innovative instructional prac-tices. For example, Wood (2011) utilized Google Docs, a cloud-based office suite, for having undergraduates write collaborative laboratory reports. Similarly, Bonham (2011) employed Google Speadsheet and Forms to collect and graph data points from students during a labo-ratory experiment. Alternatively, Blood (2011) described three special education teachers at a high school sharing a Google Spreadsheet to track behavior points for students. And in a de-scriptive report, Rienzo and Han (2009) com-pared Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live on several criteria, including sharing and editing capabilities, as a way to illustrate potential uses of web 2.0 tools for managing college classes.

    In a case study, Schneckenberg, Ehlers, and Adelsberger (2011) utilized cloud computing to enhance instruction for graduate students in a business course. The class focused on construc-tivist and cooperative pedagogy, facilitated by cloud technologies, specifically Google Docs. Class activities included group-brainstorming sessions, publishing reflections on wikis, and

  • Volume 56, Number 4 TechTrends July/August 2012 35

    conducting peer- and self-evaluation. Accord-ing to Schneckenberg et al., end of course eval-uations showed positive results, 9.35 out of 10, which the researchers attributed to using in-structional practices facilitated with cloud-based applications. Constructivism

    Interestingly, Schneckenberg et al. (2011) employed constructivism and collaborative learning as the theoretical foundation to their re-search. In many ways, the features of constructiv-ism and cooperative learning are enhanced with cloud-based technologies. For example, con-structivism suggests that students integrate prior knowledge with unfamiliar information to create new learning (Richardson, 2003). Cloud applica-tions contain tools that support activities for ac-cessing prior knowledge such as retrieving and sharing information. Furthermore, constructiv-ism suggests that bodies of knowledge are cre-ated collaboratively and that the results of these constructions are influenced by time and place (Richardson). Many features of cloud-based ap-plications emphasize these characteristics, such as synchronous typing and Internet publishing.

    There are other characteristics of construc-tivism that show connections to cloud-based ap-plications. For instance, constructivism involves 1) facilitation of group dialogue, 2) reference to formal domain knowledge, 3) opportunities for students to select challenge level, and 4) prac-tice of metacognitive skills (Richardson, 2003). Although a teacher can deploy these activities through traditional methods, such as paper and pencil assignments and whole-class discussion, organizing them with the support of cloud com-puting is efficient and innovative.

    For example, students can share files (docu-ments, drawings, spreadsheets, presentations) and simultaneously add information, such as definitions to terms, steps to solve a problem, or data from a lab. In addition, instructors can publicly display files while students are adding content. Rather than existing as static displays, such as pages in a textbook, socially constructed knowledge, facilitated through cloud technolo-gies, is alterable by anyone sharing in the cre-ation of the file.

    Although information created in the cloud is labile, it can also be stable. For example, cloud computing enables users to chronicle and save changes over time. Functions such as See revision history in Google Documents creates a history of revisions, identified by date, time, and author. And since files can be shared, saving information from one class session to the next is streamlined. With a traditional approach, such as recording

    information on the dry board, whatever is writ-ten is removed at the end of class. This tends to create a transient record, perhaps diminishing students ability to reflect upon and summarize learning across multiple class sessions.

    To take another example, one typical ap-proach to classroom discussion is for students to share their responses one at a time. Although this method promotes order, primarily because the instructor acts as a conversation gatekeeper, it also tends to create a bottleneck in the flow of information. Alternatively, simultaneous responding through a shared file in the cloud promotes information flow, albeit in nonver-bal forms. Another advantage is that students can see the thoughts of their peers as they type, which promotes open communication, which is a characteristic of constructivist teaching (Matthews, 2000).Cooperative Learning

    Similar to constructivism, cooperative learning is another approach to instruction readily aligned with cloud technologies. One reason for this is that the various tools available in cloud applications, such as sharing and in-ternet publishing, match the principle of social interdependence, which means that individu-als must work together to accomplish a goal (Johnson & Johnson, 1974; Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 2007).

    For purposes of comparison, competitive learning is the opposite of cooperative learning, and as the name suggests, it focuses on compe-tition. Specifically, most individuals must fail, in order for a few to succeed (Johnson et al., 2007). Promoting the success of a few students

    Figure 1: Google Docs includes a complete office suite of cloud-based applications, which users can share and publish online.

  • 36 TechTrends July/August 2012 Volume 56, Number 4

    through competition is generally antithetical to the ideals of egalitarian education (Nod-dings, 2007). This is especially the case since cooperative learning involves promotive inter-action, which is characterized by mutual help, open communication, and exchange of needed resources (Johnson et al., 2007). These charac-teristics are widely valued by professional orga-nizations, such as Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which has stated that teamwork, flexibil-ity, and collaborative problem solving are essen-tial skills for todays students (Johnson, 2009).

    Although researchers have repeatedly proven the effectiveness of cooperative learning on achievement and classroom climate (Johnson & Johnson, 1989), combining cloud computing with cooperative learning is relatively new (Ert-mer, Newby, Liu, Tomory, Yu, & Lee, 2011; Kear, Woodthorpe, Robertson, & Hutchison, 2010). Nevertheless, the research that has been con-ducted shows promise for enhancing coopera-tive learning through cloud-based technologies. For example Nicholas and Ng (2009) found that preservice science teachers attitudes and beliefs about the efficacy of online learning improved through the use of wikis and blogs.

    Nevertheless, an important question, which researchers are beginning to investigate, is how educational theories, such as constructiv-ism and collaborative learning, are enhanced through cloud computing. One obstacle that might prevent researchers from fully answering this question is the belief that digital technolo-gies are more of a distraction, rather than an aid to learning (Traxler, 2010).Setup

    Dealing with this belief, and the realities upon which it is likely based, requires some careful planning. For example, it is important to establish policies and procedures for how stu-dents are expected to use their laptops, tablets, and smart phones during class (Traxler, 2010). Similarly, it is also necessary to deploy instruc-tional methods that promote time-on-task engagement, and to help students understand digital technologies as tools for learning, not just entertainment.

    The first place students encounter expecta-tions for appropriate technology use is on the syllabus. However, instructors need not estab-lish these expectations through trial and error. Rather, the International Society of Technology Education (2012) has established the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) for appropriate digital citizenship, and these can be used as an effective starting place for developing specific practices. For example, one of the NETS

    states that students learn digital citizenship by practicing safe, legal, and ethical technology use. A specific expectation shown on a syllabus might be written like this: students are expected to use their laptops for class related activities only.

    Along with thoughtful expectations, es-tablishing procedures is also important. For example, using phrases such as lower the lid (to your laptop) helps students move away from their screens to focus their attention elsewhere, such as on the instructor. Inevitably, engaging students in an active lesson requires transition-ing between activities, so having methods for redirecting student attention (from their lap-tops, to the projector screen, and then to the dry board) is critical. Successful technology integra-tion requires these types of procedures.

    However, even the most tightly worded ex-pectations shown on a syllabus, and reinforced through procedures, will fail unless engaging instructional practices are deployed throughout a course (Bain, 2004; Lemov, 2010). In a class-room setting, an open laptop to a disinterested student is an invitation for distraction. Although describing instructional techniques that pro-mote engagement is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few steps that instructors can take, such as carefully planned lessons, focused objectives, varied instructional approaches, and circulating around the room during student-led activities (Lemov, 2010).

    After establishing expectations and proce-dures for how students are to use technology in the classroom, the next step is to choose suitable cloud applications. Two systems frequently asso-ciated with instruction include Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live. Each system has its own set of advantages and disadvantages (Rienzo & Han, 2009). However, Google Docs has gained more traction with teachers as an aid to instruction in comparison to Office Live (see Blood, 2009; Bonham, 2011; Nevin, 2009; Schneckenberg et al., 2011; and Wood, 2011). One advantage of Google Docs is that a single account allows us-ers to create websites (Google Sites) and blogs (Blogger) through the same profile. The strate-gies that follow describe methods for integrat-ing cloud computing technologies with Google Docs, rather than Office Live. Nevertheless, an instructor could adapt any of the following de-scriptions to work with the Office Live interface.

    Regardless of the system one chooses, par-ticipants will need to create an account associ-ated with a specific email address. However, most students are familiar with creating online profiles (Carnevale, 2008). The instructor will also need an account as well, preferably one that

  • Volume 56, Number 4 TechTrends July/August 2012 37

    is tied to a course-specific email, such as Phys-ics101@gmail.com. Linking a particular email address to one class makes managing files, con-tact lists, and correspondence easier.

    Another step in the setup process is for students to send an email message using their Google account to the specific email address cre-ated for the course. This enables the instructor to add each student as a contact, to promote ef-ficient file sharing. During this step, cross refer-encing the class roster to the contact list serves to confirm that every student is included as a contact. Strategies for Integrating Cloud Computing

    Once these steps are complete, an instruc-tor can design a variety of learning activities by following a few strategies. Some of the strategies that follow are situation specific, such as con-structing a rubric, while others are general, such as providing feedback. However, each one incor-porates characteristics of constructivism and co-operative learning.

    1. Group Projects: In 1919, Thomas Kilpatrick suggested that projects promote purposeful ac-tion, social skills, and interest for the learner. Kilpatricks description has shown remarkable durability, because of its focus on teamwork, problem solving, and group decision-making. Nevertheless, Kilpatrick emphasized the role of the teacher in structuring project work, noting that students are rarely able to complete a mean-ingful project without guidance. He also suggest-ed that the process was just as important as the final product. Organizing project work through cloud-based technologies enables instructors to provide structure, while also emphasizing pro-cess. For example, Google Docs allows users to share and simultaneously edit documents, while keeping a digital record of team member contri-butions over time. Likewise, results are readily displayed in Google Sites or Blogger.

    2. Peer Assessment: Thomas, Matrin, and Pleas-ants (2011) defined peer assessment as processes which require students to provide feedback to their peers, based on established criteria. En-gaging students in peer assessment has been shown to improve learning (King, 2002; Li, Liu, & Steckelberg, 2010; Willey & Gardner, 2010). Yet, helping students develop the metacognitive skills necessary for monitoring the quality of their work during production is difficult (Willey & Gardner). Nevertheless, there are a number of features available through Google Docs that are ideal for engaging students in peer assessment. For example, users can share files for viewing and

    editing, make comments, chat while working, and create specific forms (surveys, inventories, and tests) to gather and share feedback. Users can publish forms online, or solicit participa-tion through email notification.

    3. Student Constructed Presentations: Lecture is a time-honored instructional practice (Fries-en, 2011). However, successful teachers do more than lecture, they carefully select from a variety of instructional approaches to match activities with objectives (Bain, 2004; Lemov, 2010). Ap-plying constructivism to the concept of lecture, supported through cloud computing, provides an opportunity for instructors to involve stu-dents in the presentation of subject matter. Sadik (2008) and Robin (2008) described this process as digital storytelling, and as the name suggests, it involves collaborative organization and presentation of content material. One way to engage students in digital storytelling is with a Google Presentation. Create a presentation and assign one slide to each student, or group of students for larger classes. Provide general guidance on the contents of each slide, such as describing a concept, defining a term, or elabo-rating with an example. Then allow students to fill the slide with specific information to show their understanding of the subject matter at hand. Display the presentation using a projec-tion system as students create their slides so the whole class can observe changes over time.

    4. Simultaneous Class Discussions: Conduct-ing whole class discussion is another common teaching strategy (Lyle, 2008; Mayhill, 2006; Smith, Hardman, Wall, & Mroz, 2004). It usu-ally involves addressing discussion questions, with one person speaking at a time, while the instructor directs dialogue. An alternative ap-proach to this format is to have students ad-

    Figure 2 : Create a distinct email address to help manage contacts and files.

  • 38 TechTrends July/August 2012 Volume 56, Number 4

    dress discussion questions at the same time by sharing their thoughts through a cloud applica-tion. Similar to the previous strategy, an instruc-tor can use Google Presentation to assign one slide to each student for showing a response. Students use the slide to write responses at the same time, and then present the results to the whole class. During presentations the instructor can inspect specific slides and call upon students for explanations, or revisions.

    5. Collaborative Reflection: Similar to whole class discussion, reflection is a widely used in-structional practice (Dunlap, 2006). Usually, students write reflections on their own, after the learning event has occurred (see Pavlov-itch, 2007; Spalding & Wilson, 2002). How-ever, Hubbs and Brand (2005) have suggested interactive class reflection as an alternative to individual reflection. This format involves col-laborative journal writing during class, the contents of which focus on proximal learning events. Another approach is team reflection (Goldsmith, 1996), where teams of students re-flect in a shared journal on team progress and learning. The procedural requirements of each of these methods are facilitated by sharing files in the cloud. For example, a team of students can share a Google Document and type their reflec-tions simultaneously. An important advantage of document sharing and simultaneously typ-ing is that students can collaborate throughout the writing process, both in terms of planning and revising. Lastly, the entire document can be published online or presented in class.

    6. Assisted Writing: One way to improve student writing is through the assistance of an instructor for planning, drafting, and revising (Graham & Perin, 2007). Although this practice is intuitive, there are logistical challenges, such as frequent paper exchanges, which tend to be cumbersome and time consuming. Cloud technologies elimi-nate many of these obstacles. For example, au-thoring a paper with Google Documents enables users to share their work so that another person can make changes or view progress. Additional features include comments, chat, and collabora-tive emailing. To be sure, large class sizes limit the use of this strategy, although students could work in peer-partnerships to reach the same re-sults. Another advantage is the feature See revi-sion history, which permits viewers to observe all of the changes made to a paper over time, elimi-nating the need to manage separate drafts.

    7. Learning Illustrated: The prominent educa-tional philosopher Jerome Bruner (1966) sug-gested that most of the information presented to students in educational settings is symbolic, appearing as letters and numbers. Bruner advo-cated for the use of two alternative representa-tions, including images and experiences. Using Google Drawing to have students create an im-age in class is an opportunity to represent infor-mation visually. For example, students can draw a flow chart to show steps for solving a problem or completing a task. Similar to previous strate-gies, students can create these diagrams collab-oratively, through the sharing function, or pub-lish them online as a web page.

    8. Class Inventory: Typically, assessment data is collected twice during a course, at midterm and final. However, limiting the collection of assess-ment data to two times during a class generally eliminates opportunities to take corrective action (both for students and instructor). Limited data collection is especially problematic since infor-mal checks of student understanding have been shown to improve achievement (Black & Wil-iam, 1998). Google Forms is a convenient way for instructors to gather data to gauge student progress, classroom climate, or both. A form can be published online as a standalone web page, or embedded into a learning management sys-tem such as Blackboard or Moodle. Results from Google Forms are automatically downloaded as a Google Spreadsheet for analysis.

    9. Collaborative Rubric Construction: Assess-ment rubrics consist of columns and rows show-ing criteria and levels of achievement. They are

    Figure 3: Involve students in the presentation of content material by sharing a Google Presentation and assigning one slide to each student.

  • Volume 56, Number 4 TechTrends July/August 2012 39

    useful for improving student understanding of the characteristics of a quality product or perfor-mance. Shermis and DiVesta (2011) recommend including students in the construction of rubrics to reduce ambiguity and clarify expectations. One method for doing this is to share a rubric with students through Google Spreadsheets and then invite suggestions or alterations. Alterna-tively, an instructor could use Google Forms to gather input on scoring criteria and then create a rubric from this information, with student help. The advantage of an open approach is that the instructor and students can discuss and negoti-ate elements of the rubric to promote transparent evaluation processes and improve outcomes (Lai & Ng, 2011; Shermis & DiVesta).

    10. Website Publishing: An important ad-vantage for Google Docs users is that creating one account streamlines access to Blogger and Google Sites. These tools facilitate quick and easy web publishing, which has been shown to im-prove student interest and collaboration (Davies, Pantzopoulos, & Gray, 2011; Terrell, Richardson, & Hamilton, 2011). For example, users can co-author posts on Blogger or embed presentations, spreadsheets, and drawings on Google Sites. These options facilitate alternative instructional approaches, such as project- and problem-based learning.

    A Case StudyThe strategies listed above were used with a

    quarter-long class of graduate education students learning about assessment. In this class, students worked in groups of three to create a website, using Google Sites, showing examples of assess-ment techniques, such as multiple-choice items, constructed-response questions, and perfor-mance evaluations. Students used Google Docs to collaboratively write content to each page of their website, focusing on subject-matter from their particular endorsement area. For example, students shared a Google Document to describe how they would implement portfolio assessments in science, math, and English. They also wrote weekly reflections on what they were learning as a result of their project work. Students shared these reflections in class and summarized their contents on the last page of their websites. In ad-dition, students made a diagram together, using Google Drawing, to show examples of formative and summative assessment practices and as a way to emphasize nonlinguistic forms of com-munication.

    During in-class activities, students simulta-neously wrote notes to a Google Presentation,

    as a form of collective note-taking, and then used information from these notes to make ad-ditions to their websites. Near the end of the course, the instructor and students constructed a rubric together, using Google Spreadsheet. For the rubric, students choose grading criteria and decided on point distributions. Students also practiced with the rubric through self- and peer-assessment activities before the instructor used it to assess website projects.

    At the end of the course, students com-pleted a class inventory, which surveyed their learning of content material and attitudes to-ward using cloud technologies to enhance in-struction. The inventory was administered us-ing Google Forms and it consisted of four Lik-ert scaled items, from 1 (Strongly Agree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The Cronbachs Alpha for the survey was .83.

    According to results from the inventory, students overwhelmingly indicated that they would use Google Docs with their students as a method for enhancing instruction (M = 1.17, SD = .39, N = 12). Similarly, students reported that they would have their students create web-sites using Google Sites (M = 1.25, SD = .62, N = 12). And although some sources report that technology use tends to distract students from content mastery (Traxler, 2010), this was not the case for participants in this study. Rather, students indicated that their understanding of assessment concepts was enhanced as a result of learning through cloud computing technolo-gies. For example, students reported that they could construct different types of assessments (M = 1.17, SD = .62, N = 12) and deploy both formative and summative assessments in their preferred discipline (M = 1.17, SD = .58, N = 12).

    These results corroborate research con-ducted by Schneckenberg et al. (2011) who found that students responded favorably to using Google Docs in a constructivist learn-ing environment. Similarly, Nicholas and Ng (2009) found that students working in collab-orative teams preferred using blogs and wikis in comparison to traditional techniques. How-ever, the research method used for reporting results in this article, as well as the research of Schneckenberg et al., involved case study. Ad-ditional empirical methodologies are needed to verify the efficacy of these results. Neverthe-less, the outcomes do suggest that integrating cloud computing as an instructional practice in teacher training courses will influence future educators to adopt these technologies as a regu-lar part of their own instruction.

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    ConclusionCloud computing, specifically integrating

    Google Docs, is a compelling approach to in-struction where constructivism and coopera-tive learning serve as the theoretical backdrop. Instruction which integrates the use of cloud technologies shows tremendous potential. Per-haps this is why entire states, including Oregon, New York and Kentucky, are providing access to these tools for both teachers and students (Cla-burn, 2010; Dessoff, 2010). Likewise, instructors in higher education are beginning to recognize the pedagogical advantages that these technolo-gies provide.

    While the integration of cloud computing as a method for improving academic achievement may seem distant, the way that these tools align with learning theories and modes of instruction suggests otherwise. The ability to share and pub-lish student constructed content, or to simulta-neously craft written narratives, or to collaborate on a wide variety of activities, will surely accel-erate the use of these modes of learning in class-rooms across the K-16 spectrum. The strategies and case study described in this article serve as an entry point for additional approaches and re-search, which are sure to follow, as more edu-cators learn about the advantages of enhancing instruction through cloud computing.

    David W. Denton, Ed.D, is currently an Assistant Professor at Seattle Pacific University, where he teaches courses in as-sessment and instructional technology. Before joining SPU, David taught middle school students for 11 years in a variety of subjects.

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    Enhancing Instruction through Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, and Cloud ComputingAbstractConstructivismCooperative LearningSetupStrategies for Integrating Cloud ComputingA Case StudyConclusionReferences


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