Using Sociocultural Practices to Increase Effectiveness of Online Learning

Concurrent Session 8

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This discovery session will demonstrate theory-guided online course development using student-centered collaborative practices grounded in sociocultural theory. We will engage participants in exploring affordances of online/blended instructional modalities. Participants will walk away with a template, rubric and several practical examples for implementing sociocultural practices within an online environment.  


Bohdana Allman is an adjunct instructor in the Teacher Education Department at Brigham Young University where she has been working since 2000, assisting with research, developing materials, and teaching a variety of college-level courses to teacher candidates and in-service teachers as part of the TELL (Teaching English to Language Learners) program. Bohdana is currently working on her Ph.D. in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University. She holds M.A. in TESOL/Linguistics and B.S. in Human Development from Brigham Young University. Her interests focus on effective pedagogical practices and potential applications of sociocultural theories of learning to online and blended environments.

Additional Authors

Extended Abstract


Across the world educators argue for a need to accelerate learning through the use of effective online practices enabled by quality technology mediated instruction, where students can actively engage in learning on demand and at their pace (Graham, Cagiltay, Lim, Craner, & Duffy 2001). While online approaches proliferate and the quality of the content may be strong, the quality of the pedagogy is variable. A fundamental issue is that there is no comprehensive theory guiding the pedagogy of online instruction that attends to student-centered collaborative practices grounded in sociocultural theory or constructivism.

Educators understand the importance of developing virtual communities of practice in supporting deep and meaningful learning (Garrison, 2017) and the critical role different types of interaction play in this process (Anderson, 2004). Researchers have identified critical types of knowledge needed by a teacher for effective technology integration (Koehler, Mishra, Kereluik, Shin, & Graham, 2014) and others recognize the importance of using best practices for online learning (Keengwe, Onchwari, & Agamba, 2014). As designers explore online learning from these perspectives, they utilize tools and activities that enact these practices. However, careful consideration of the experience of the learner in a specific context is often neglected. Bonk and Cunningham (1998) pointed out that when tools and instructional strategies are utilized in an eclectic manner, they are often abstracted from their underlying theory and are void of pedagogy, potentially resulting in being stripped of their original meaning and utility. For example, a designer may use a discussion board to increase interaction but may fail to theoretically and pedagogically attend to orchestrating students’ strengths and needs, the content being taught and the particular context. Based on this information, they could have selected other appropriate technological tools and strategies to increase the efficiency of the learning experience, such as synchronous video discussion or guided instructional conversation. This intentional and strategic selection of tools and activities to optimize the learning potential of every student is referred to as pedagogy. While in this paper we use the term pedagogy, we recognize that the term andragogy may be more appropriate in situations where adult learners are involved. Although Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning (1978, 1986) is the main theory framing our ideas, since adult educators are involved we also rely on principles of Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning (1991).

Indeed, much remains to be uncovered about effective pedagogy and the successful deployment of affordances in online and blended  learning environments. As Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich (2013) (2013) states: “Technology integration is no longer an isolated goal to be achieved separately from pedagogical goals, but simply the means by which students engage in relevant and meaningful …work. The call for pedagogical rather than a technological goal is not new” (p. 175). This argues for designing technological integration with at least as much attention to the pedagogical interactions as there is to the technological tools being used. Student-centered collaborative practices grounded in sociocultural theory of learning empower educators in a traditional classroom and provide powerful tools for differentiated instruction that are both supportive and engaging (Reusser & Pauli, 2015). Frequent interaction, guided collaboration and active facilitation in support of reflective practice and deeper understanding create successful learning conditions in many teacher education and professional development courses (Desimone, 2009).  As designers work to bring these practices into online and blended instructional environments, they must attend to the strengths of online/blended instructional modalities, affordances of online collaborative tools and the pedagogical orchestration that will promote the kind of powerful learning that sociocultural education can provide. To do this instructional designers and educators must attend to the technological modification and supports that will provide optimum learning environments leading to more meaningful exchanges that embed learning in authentic tasks and support participation in communities of practice (Bonk & Cunningham, 1998).

Constructing online teaching environments may require somewhat different pedagogy from that of a face-to-face classroom in order to provide similar opportunities for learning and engagement. Even though similar design and instructional principles apply regardless of whether the learning modality is face-to-face, blended or online, it is critical to design instruction with the end in mind, carefully considering learning objectives, determine acceptable evidence of learning and identify purposes of learning activities. Based on this knowledge, we can apply principles of effective pedagogy grounded in current understanding of learning and purposefully utilize affordances of online medium and related collaborative tools.

The purpose of the presentation

Within this presentation, we will demonstrate ways in which theoretical and pedagogical considerations and technological analysis guided our construction of an online teacher development course. Based on analysis of these three concerns, we intentionally selected and modified online pedagogical tools and practices to engage students more effectively in an online learning environment that more fundamentally represented sociocultural learning experiences. Our design attempted to create affordances for experiential learning that was both dialogic and reflective. In our design process, we utilized the principles of backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), Anderson’s theory of online learning (2004) and the sociocultural instructional strategies of modeling, coaching, scaffolding and fading, questioning, articulation, exploration and reflection as informed by merging Tharp and Gallimore’s Assisted Learning model (1988) with the Cognitive Apprenticeship model (Dennen, 2004) as suggested by Bonk and Cunningham (1998). In designing specific learning activities, we were especially cognizant of engaging students in joint productive activities, focusing on language and literacy development, contextualizing, providing cognitive challenge and using instructional conversation (Dalton, 1998).

Description of the presentation

This  interactive discovery session will present a template that was used to develop online learning events. Participants will analyze the learning events using a provided rubric, which was used by course designers to attend to the complex integration of theory, pedagogy and technology in designing online learning events. The session will focus on how sociocultural practices combined with the strengths of online/blended modalities provide support for both educators and learners in creating more individualized and meaningful learning. Initially, we will explain the template we developed and the rubric that emerged from simultaneous consideration of theory, pedagogy and technology. We will then engage the audience by providing them with rubric and having them analyze a learning event. The audience and presenters will work together to unpack the ways in which the template, rubric and learning event attend to the integration of theory, pedagogy and technology. Next, participants will work with a partner to analyze a second learning event and critique the use of online tools, using the rubric that guided the lesson development. Finally, participants will make their own personal evaluation of the quality of learning and engagement. Participants will consider how the design and practices enable students to  engage in deep and meaningful learning experiences. Participants will walk away with a template, rubric and several practical examples for implementing sociocultural practices within an online environment.


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