Tagged constructivism

Screenshot of the Chirality VR experience displaying two 3D models being manipulated by virtual hands.

Virtual Chirality: A Constructivist Approach to a Chemical Education Concept in Virtual Reality


Extended reality (XR) is a growing interest in academia as instructors seek out new ways to engage students beyond traditional learning material. At the University of Florida, a team of library workers at Marston Science Library identify and design virtual reality (VR) learning objects for faculty and staff across campus. In summer 2019, the team at Marston Science Library and faculty in the Department of Chemistry partnered to pilot the implementation of a VR learning object into a general chemistry course. The Library team met with chemistry faculty and teaching assistants and developed a corresponding experience in virtual reality using the Unreal Engine, a game engine used in VR development. The VR learning object was designed for the section of the course related to chirality, an important chemistry concept that requires spatial awareness to understand. This article will explore VR as an approach to constructivist pedagogy and its application in chemistry education, specifically as a tool to positively impact spatial awareness. The results of the pilot implementation of the VR learning object was successful as chemistry faculty anecdotally noted increased student engagement and understanding of the course material. After a successful pilot, the learning object was also deployed in two organic chemistry courses. A survey was used to collect information from the students’ perspectives and demonstrated that the experience was beneficial for users developing spatial awareness of molecules for chemistry education.


Extended reality (XR) and its subsets, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR), have expanded their roles in academia as researchers continue to seek out emerging technologies to solve modern problems. In the realm of teaching and learning, instructors are turning to XR learning objects as potential improvements on traditional learning objects. In response to this interest, universities have grappled with deploying VR learning objects in spite of associated costs and complicated logistics (Kavanagh et al. 2017). At the University of Florida (UF), Marston Science Library (hereafter Library) created MADE@UF, a virtual reality development space run by library staff, with the vision of providing VR technology to all of campus. The Library’s mission for MADE@UF is two-fold: supporting student learning and development of virtual reality, and aiding faculty in identifying, developing, and implementing VR experiences in curriculum.

In maintaining and coordinating a VR development space, the Library collaborates with faculty across campus from various disciplines including English, medieval studies, astronomy, psychology, and tourism, to name a few. These collaborations can involve identifying existing VR experiences to deploy as well as creating VR experiences for specific courses. In summer 2019, faculty from the Department of Chemistry approached the Library with an idea for VR experience to be designed for an Accelerated General Chemistry course in fall 2019. The Library assembled its team of experts, consisting of the Engineering Education Librarian, who is also the director of MADE@UF, the Chemical Sciences Librarian, and the 3D and Emerging Technologies Manager. Each Library team member brought their individual expertise in learning theories and pedagogies, chemistry education, and virtual reality development, respectively, to consider how creating a virtual simulation would benefit teaching and learning in this Accelerated General Chemistry course.

Constructivist Pedagogy in Virtual Reality

Constructivism as a learning theory involves the learner constructing their knowledge based out of their experiences in which the learner is an active participant (Glasersfeld 2003). Most VR experiences discussed in scholarly literature are not built on constructivist pedagogy; rather, most practitioners focus on and research intrinsic factors, such as immersion, motivation, and enjoyment, as essential to using virtual reality applications in teaching and learning (Kavanagh et al. 2017). This initial oversight is understandable, as before establishing the pedagogy of a virtual reality experience, the most fundamental aspects of virtual reality must be established. However, early VR researchers reference the importance of presence, accommodation, and collaboration while advocating for VR as a framework for constructivism (Bricken 1990). Immersion, another intrinsic factor, is fundamental in creating a virtual reality experience that is compatible with constructivism, specifically that “immersion in a virtual world allows us to construct knowledge from direct experience, not from descriptions of experience” (Winn 1993). These fundamental aspects of a VR framework must emphasize the importance of establishing identity, presence, and collaboration within a virtual space, all of which would be self-evident in physical spaces; this would then allow the learner to experience conceptualization, construction, and dialogue, which are staples of constructivist pedagogy (Fowler 2015). These intrinsic factors guide the creation and implementation of VR learning environments as frameworks for pedagogies to build upon (O’Connor and Domingo 2017).

In addition to focusing on intrinsic factors, researchers are also attempting to categorize VR learning objects retroactively under various pedagogies and learning theories such as experiential learning, situated cognition, or constructivism (Johnston et al. 2018). Of all the pedagogies and learning theories used in VR, constructivism is the most referenced pedagogy to accompany virtual reality experiences in education (Kavanagh et al. 2017). Constructivism is not inherent to all virtual reality experiences as it requires more than VR can independently provide. Rather, constructivist VR experiences should aim to provide feedback that results in revision and restructuring of previous knowledge constructs (Aiello et al. 2012). The VR experience also needs to include active learning, a component of constructivism in which learners derive meaning from their sensory inputs, so learners can freely explore and manipulate their environment while receiving sensory feedback (Chen 2009). VR experiences using a constructivist approach can facilitate knowledge construction and reflection as well as social collaboration (Neale et al. 1999). A benefit of a constructivist approach in virtual reality is improving the learners’ perceived usefulness of the learning material, which is the most significant contributor to positive learner attitude (Huang and Liaw 2018). A constructivist approach to VR has also led to gains in knowledge, skills, and personal development in a VR learning environment (Bair 2013). Spatial visualization, an important factor in chemistry education, has proven malleable and positively impacted by VR designed with constructivism pedagogy (Samsudin et al. 2014).

Chemistry Education Background

The molecular properties and chemical reactivity of compounds rely heavily on the way molecules are arranged and oriented in three-dimensional space, which is referred to as the stereochemistry of a molecule (Brown et al. 2018). A fundamental skill for chemistry students is the development of spatial awareness at the molecular level: understanding the structural geometries and relative sizes of molecules, as well as how to mentally translate between different visual representations of molecules, is a prerequisite to understanding and predicting chemical phenomena (Oliver-Hoyo and Babilonia-Rosa 2017). Teaching students how to visualize molecules in space is one of the quintessential challenges in chemistry education, particularly because the nebulous nature of chemistry concepts can be difficult to make tangible. Because there is no way to directly observe a molecule or molecular interactions at the sub-nanometer scale, models are used to represent chemistry concepts in both chemistry education and practice. A particular stereochemistry concept introduced at the undergraduate level is the chirality, or handedness, of organic molecules. Chirality refers to the relationship between objects that are mirror images of one another but cannot be perfectly aligned (or “superimposed”) on top of each other (Brown et al. 2018). This property is visible in all everyday objects that aren’t perfectly symmetric, such as a person’s left and right hands, threaded screws, and headphone earbuds. At the molecular level, organic compounds have a chiral center at any carbon atom with four different groups attached to it. Recognizing chirality and systematically naming chiral molecules are particularly troublesome tasks for undergraduate students due in large part to the difficulty of mental 3D visualization required to “see” these properties (Ayorinde 1983; Beauchamp 1984).

Research has indicated that handling concrete and pseudo-concrete representations of molecules (tactile models and computer-generated graphics) improves students’ spatial understanding of molecular structures in comparison to abstract 2D representations (Ferk et al. 2003). Educators have deployed a variety of visualization tools to help students translate the 2D representations of compounds in the pages of their textbooks into visualized 3D objects, including handheld “ball-and-stick” modeling kits and computer-based modeling programs. Ball-and-stick models were first employed in the mid-nineteenth century (Matthew F. Schlecht 1998) and are still the most widely used method for 3D visualization in undergraduate chemistry curricula. However, these model kits make a number of assumptions about molecular structures that are not accurate, including that bond lengths and atom sizes are all uniform. Commercially available modeling kits vary widely and leave more advanced visualization nuances to the imagination of the students. Computer modeling programs have the ability to represent individual molecules more accurately in terms of bond lengths, bond angles, and atom sizes because they do not rely on fixed physical pieces that the user assembles. Most of these programs are streamlined for ease of use and there are many free and open source software options for students to access (Pirhadi, Sunseri, and Koes 2016), including the popular programs Avogadro, JMol, MolView, and Visual Molecular Dynamics. The largest drawback of computer graphic representations for student learning is that they are not tactile and are typically viewed on a computer screen. A comparison of the 2D structural drawings common in chemistry materials, 3D models built with ball-and-stick model kits, and pseudo-3D digital images generated by computer software are shown in Figure 1.

The chiral molecule bromochlorofluoromethane as represented by the typical 2D line-angle formula created in Chem Draw, two different commercial ball-and-stick model kits, and computer modeling generated in Mol View.
Figure 1. The chiral molecule bromochlorofluoromethane (CHBrClF) as represented by (a) the typical 2D line-angle formula created in ChemDraw; (b) two different commercial ball-and-stick model kits; and (c) computer modeling generated in MolView.

Now that the costs of developing XR learning objects and obtaining the equipment necessary for students to experience them are becoming more obtainable, chemistry educators are exploring the use of AR, MR, and VR in the classroom. A review on the use of XR in education highlighted that course content being presented in a novel and exciting way, the ability to physically interact with the media, and the direction of students’ attention to the important learning objectives were all positive factors in the success of XR lessons (Radu 2014). Some examples specific to the chemistry domain include laboratory experiments designed in game engines like Second Life (Pence, Williams, and Belford 2015), AR smartphone applications that allow molecules to jump off the pages of lecture notes as 3D structures (Borrel and Fourches 2017), molecule building and structure interactions with AR (Singhal et al. 2012), environmental chemistry fieldwork simulated through VR (Fung et al. 2019), and VR experiences involving interactive computational chemistry (Ferrell et al. 2019). For teaching students about stereochemistry and chirality, the power of VR to bridge the divide between the structural accuracy of computer modeling and the tactile advantage of ball-and-stick model kits seems promising.

Many chemistry-education protocols have proposed that using multiple model types is the most beneficial approach for teaching students who may learn in different ways (Dori and Barak 2001). While there is evidence that viewing instructors manipulate computer models on a screen does improve student understanding in large chemistry lecture courses (Springer 2014), allowing for students to directly manipulate the model themselves has been suggested as the ideal approach to implementing computer modeling whenever feasible (Wu and Shah 2004). Encouraging students to translate between 2D and 3D representations during a facilitated interaction with 3D models has also been suggested to improve students’ ability to reason with chemical formulae, as opposed to students using models on their own with no instructor intervention (Abraham, Varghese, and Tang 2010). Combining these constructivist and chemistry education pedagogical insights, we chose to design and implement a lesson on visualizing, handling, and naming chiral organic molecules using an in-house built VR experience. During this lesson, the following strategies were employed:

  1. Undergraduate chemistry students in the class were previously instructed on the concept of chirality in their lecture course and had been exposed to 2D representations of chiral molecules.
  2. Each student had the opportunity to individually participate in the VR experience.
  3. Students were able to freely handle, rotate, and superimpose the molecules in the 3D virtual space.
  4. Students in groups were asked to make observations and explain the chemical phenomena in the virtual experience.

Design and Implementation of the VR Learning Object

The VR chirality experience was designed for CHM 2047, a one-semester, accelerated undergraduate General Chemistry course designed for students with a strong high school chemistry background who are interested in moving into upper-level chemistry courses. The course met three times a week with two lecture periods and one discussion period. The faculty member led the weekly lectures and split the students into five groups for the weekly discussion periods; each of the discussion groups was led by a peer mentor, an undergraduate student who had recently completed CHM 2047 and finished at the top of the class. Chemistry doctoral students were also involved in the course as teaching assistants (TAs) and participated in some supervised instruction as well as oversaw the undergraduate peer mentors. For the discussion period related to chirality, the faculty member for CHM 2047 solicited the expertise of the Library team to incorporate a virtual reality learning object. The Library team created a virtual reality template for classes to use in an assignment that allows learners to interact with 3D molecular models using virtual tactility and physics. During this interaction, the Library team devised a constructivist approach for the learning object.

Learners would recall knowledge learned in prior and current chemistry courses, specifically knowledge related to chirality and systematically describing chiral geometries. Drawing on this knowledge, students in groups would hypothesize and discuss their observations of the virtual environment and the molecules within it. Students would interact with other group members, testing their ideas about the virtual experience, and constructing an understanding of the learning object. Ultimately the objective for the students is to locate the chiral center of a molecule, describe the geometry of this chiral center, and realize the non-superimposable nature of chiral pairs. Additionally, students may be able to create a mental visualization of the molecules and improve their spatial awareness.

In order to prepare the VR template for use in the course, the instructing professors were asked to compile a list of relevant chiral molecule examples, generate computer models of these molecules using the software of their choice, and provide the models to the Library team in .PBD file type form. Although this activity was focused on small organic molecules, the Library team proposed this workflow because .PBD file types can accommodate small molecules as well as large macromolecules, such as proteins and polymers. This practice would allow for the use of protein structures from the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a global archive of 3D structure data of biological macromolecules (wwPDB consortium 2019), in future VR activities with ease. It is also possible to allow students to directly generate structures and provide them to the Library team, rather than the course instructors, as a part of the chirality lesson. The Library team was then able to import these 3D models into the game engine while retaining all color information provided in the original software. The Library team used an in-browser file converter designed by chemists to rapidly generate XR files from chemical structure files called RealityConvert (Borrel and Fourches 2017) to process the models from their original filetype (.PDB) to .OBJ 3D models with associated .PNG and .MTL files for mapping color to the model’s topography.

The team chose Unreal Engine V 4.20 because it is free to use for educational purposes and boasts pre-built VR interactive tools. Aside from its practicality, Unreal Engine can reproduce a project for Windows, Mac, mobile, HTML5, and other platforms. Once the VR template is set, it is relatively easy to drag and drop a new molecule model into the program and view it in immersive VR. The template was designed to show every loaded model in a museum-style room on a pedestal with the name of the molecule displayed above. The learner can approach each model, walk around it, and see from every angle. They can pick it up using motion controls and rotate the model in their hands. They can also grab a model in each hand to freely move the models around and compare. Once released, the model snaps back to its original position. For increased usability, the team felt it was necessary to design a physics object that had a natural feel when the viewer grabbed the model and rotated it using their own wrist and controller movement; this is notable as the team removed any physics interaction created by overlapping objects as well as the game engine’s own preset “gravity.”

The team chose a very plain room to model, using rectangular topography so as not to distract the learner from the molecules placed throughout the space; ample lighting was generated to create a well-lit space to explore. Additional lights were added below each of the models to highlight the topography and heighten the sense of three-dimensionality. The experience allowed the learner to move around the room by two separate methods depending upon the configuration of the VR experience. Either the learner could physically move through the space if using a VR setup that allows for full-range motion tracking; or the learner could use a trigger on the hand controller to point to a specific point in the virtual space and “jump” to it when releasing the trigger. A simple text document was provided to explain the controls.

The pedestals in the room were arranged according to a grid with three pedestals in each row. The learning objective of the VR experience was for students to compare the two versions of chiral arrangement for each molecule selected by the instructor. Chiral molecules are systematically classified as either R (“Rectus,” right-handed) or S (“Sinister,” left-handed) configurations. In each row of three pedestals, the R and S versions of the molecule were placed on the far left and right sides of the row. On the center pedestal of each row, a side-by-side display of both R and S versions was shown for the students to view. Because students were expected to determine and assign R or S configuration to the molecules they viewed, the R and S structures were intentionally randomized in regard to their positions on the “left” or “right” side of the room so as not to indicate chiral configuration. For example, one molecule might be arranged as R, R and S, S in its row in the room, while another might be arranged as S, R and S, R.

It is worthy of note that because the 3D models were placed in the VR space as non-rigid bodies—meaning that the objects can clip through one another and occupy the same virtual space—students were able to experience the non-superimposability of chiral molecules in a unique way. The defining feature of chiral molecules is that they cannot be perfectly aligned on top of one another, and typically ball-and-stick models of the two versions are held side-by-side as closely as possible to demonstrate this property. However, in this VR environment, students were able to hold one version in the same space as the other version for each chiral pair and see that no matter how they manipulated the models, they could not align all atoms in a way that matched.

Screenshot of the Chirality VR experience displaying two 3D models being manipulated by virtual hands.
Figure 2. Screenshot of the Chirality VR experience displaying two 3D models being manipulated by virtual hands.

Once the template was updated to include the student-created models, the VR learning object was installed on VR-ready computers in the MADE@UF space at Marston Science Library. Library workers set up three Oculus Rifts on VR-ready computers in MADE@UF for five consecutive class periods on the day of a discussion period. Groups of two to four students moved to the VR stations, each with an Oculus Rift headset for the student and a monitor for the supervisor, a role filled by the peer mentor, teaching assistant, faculty member, or chemistry librarian. The role of the supervisor was to explain logistical questions with minimal input about the content of the experience, although supervisors would intervene if the students’ conclusions about the virtual experience were incorrect. The students interacted with the five sets of molecules, each set increasing in complexity as the student progressed through the virtual space. The students were able to manipulate, compare, and superimpose the two models in order to assign R/S configuration.

Further Use and Assessment

The CHM 2047 course instructor was looking to expose students to more advanced chemical concepts beyond the typical first-year general chemistry curricula in an innovative way. Chirality is a concept that may sometimes be introduced at the general chemistry level but is universally taught during the subsequent organic chemistry sequence. After the VR program was created and implemented in CHM 2047 during the fall of 2019, the same program was used for facilitated VR experiences in Fundamentals of Organic Chemistry (CHM 2200) and Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry 1 (CHM 3217) during the spring 2020 semester.

After these VR sessions were completed, a brief survey instrument (see Appendixes) was deployed in order to assess the student’s perceptions of the VR experience’s effectiveness in improving their understanding of chirality, including in comparison with other chemistry model types, and whether the students experienced any accessibility barriers during the process. Responses were collected from twenty-one students in total from the three chemistry courses.

Students were asked which molecular visualization methods they have used while studying chemistry and which they found most valuable to their understanding of chemical concepts. The four methods were VR (used by nineteen), ball-and-stick models (used by sixteen), drawings (used by nineteen), or a non-VR computer model (used by nine).

Bar graph depicting student use of visualization methods in chemistry.
Figure 3. Student use of visualization methods in chemistry.

In terms of ranking how valuable each visualization method was, VR was ranked as the top choice with ten of twenty-one students, followed by drawings (seven students) and ball-and-stick models (four students). Two students ranked VR as their lowest choice method. Although nine students answered that they have used non-VR computer modeling before, none of the respondents ranked computer modeling as their top preferred visualization tool, which may be related to the intangible nature of computer modeling for novice chemistry learners.

Bar graph depicting student ranking of preferred visualization method while studying chemistry.
Figure 4. Student ranking of preferred visualization method while studying chemistry.

The majority of students believed that virtual reality was a benefit to their spatial awareness of molecules. Eighteen of twenty-one students believed that manipulating the molecules in the virtual reality experience improved their ability to make R/S assignments. Sixteen of twenty-one students believed that manipulating the molecules in the virtual reality experience improved their understanding of the non-superimposibility of enantiomers. Lastly, seventeen of twenty-one students believed that manipulating the molecules in the virtual reality experience improved their ability to mentally visualize molecules. Students who answered in the affirmative to these questions often referenced that being able to see, visualize, move, hold, and touch the molecules was a benefit. One student described the experience as “incredibly helpful experience for someone like me that isn’t the best at spatial configurations,” while another mentioned that they “can still visualize how the molecules looked in the virtual reality experience and it has helped me to visualize molecules in my head.” A small group of students did not believe the VR experience was helpful. These students indicated that they already had an understanding of the concepts or that ball-and-stick models were superior. One student noted that “ball and stick models do the same without all the fancy equipment.”

The student responses to the survey highlight a need for improved methods for teaching content that requires spatial reasoning. While some students already have the requisite spatial reasoning skills, other students struggle with converting 2D, non-tangible drawings to a 3D mental construction. VR in chemistry can then serve as a tool to create more accessible content for a subset of students who historically have struggled with spatial reasoning. VR could then be used in conjunction with the traditional 2D drawings and ball-and-stick models.

One area of improvement for the VR experience was related to the visual accessibility of the program. Survey responses recorded that one out of the twenty-one respondents experienced “barriers” during the lesson, but this respondent did not disclose specific details of the accessibility issue. However, during one of the sessions hosted in the library, a library facilitator was needed to dictate the colors of specific atoms and indicate their identities to a user with color blindness. This accessibility concern is widespread in chemistry and chemistry education because periodic table elements are typically designated by a common color scheme and visualized molecules usually do not contain textures or patterns in addition to color coding. In future iterations of this VR experience, finding ways to depict atom identities that do not rely on color perception will increase user accessibility.

Reflection and Conclusion

Overall, the VR experience was successful. Chemistry faculty and TAs conducted informal debriefing sessions with the students following the Library VR session. Students provided positive feedback, with several noting an increased understanding of chirality following the VR experience. The faculty and instructors noticed the students were more engaged during the VR session than during other discussion or lecture periods, a feat that was observed to be uncommon for undergraduate chemistry courses. The course instructor mentioned that in previous years, the typical assignment on chirality involved students drawing 2D representations of 3D structures on paper; after the VR experience this semester, students commented on the ease of model manipulation the experience granted and said that they “truly understood” what the concept of chirality meant. The professor also noted that the undergraduate peer mentors (who had previously been students in the course before the VR lesson was implemented) “were particularly content on the new way to look at molecules, describing it as a more direct way to understand the role of 3D in chemistry.” The chemistry faculty are already interested in using the experience again for their Fall 2020 coursework, and several other chemistry faculty have also contacted the Library about deploying a similar VR learning object for their classes. The CHM 2047 professor commented that “it is clear from the success of this assignment that teaming up chemistry instructors with experienced librarians is the best combination to implement new technologies within the chemistry curricula.”


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Appendix A: Survey Instrument

Appendix A

Appendix B: Survey Results

Appendix B

About the Authors

Samuel R. Putnam is the Engineering Education Librarian at the University of Florida, where he is the mechanical and aerospace engineering and engineering education liaison and directs the MADE@UF virtual reality development space. He received his MLIS from Florida State University in 2009, focusing on library management and leadership. Samuel’s current research focuses on multimodal and multimedia instruction as a means to promote information literacy and active learning.

Michelle Nolan is the Chemical Sciences Librarian at the Marston Science Library in the University of Florida, where she serves as the reference and instruction specialist for users pursuing chemical research. She received her PhD in chemistry from the University of Florida in 2018, where her doctoral studies focused on organometallic synthesis and materials deposition, and she transitioned from bench scientist to library employee later that year. Michelle’s current interests include student-centered learning related to chemical information and the promotion of social justice in STEM disciplines.​

Ernie Williams-Roby is a visual artist and designer based in Gainesville, Florida. He holds an MFA in Art + Technology from the University of Florida. He has contributed internationally to digital media artmaking and invention in the academic and public spheres for over a decade.


A Constructivist Approach to Teaching Media Studies Using Google Drive


In this paper we consider online teaching and learning from a constructivist pedagogic perspective and illustrate how learning theory connects to teaching practice in online contexts. To do this we employ an Ontario Media Studies grade 11 course unit to explain how Google Drive applications provide the necessary tools to facilitate constructivist online learning. The media studies unit is a culmination of years of iterations and reflection on the delivery and efficacy of media lessons online. First, the Google online learning environment (GOLE) is discussed in relation to constructivist learning theory, and the grade 11 media studies unit objectives and expectations are explained. Second, the applicability of various Google Drive tools for the constructivist teaching and learning activities related to the unit are considered. We then focus on how the media studies unit will be taught using the GOLE. The administration and unit plan are outlined and decisions regarding learning activities and various Google Drive tools are justified. Finally, two lessons are described in detail to illustrate how constructivist learning theory informs the teaching of various unit tasks and activities. It is our hope that in sharing this sample unit and accompanying theory, other educators can learn from, and adapt our work for their own courses.


In the past twenty years, a series of profound technological developments has impacted education. Newly emerging technological tools, applications, and online learning environments present opportunities and possibilities for peers to collaborate in new ways, irrespective of location. As seasoned educators, we have experienced the shift towards online learning in the form of blended and flipped classrooms as well as fully online, credited courses. An integral part of this shift is the role online tools play in facilitating learning, and how the implementation and use of these tools impacts instructional design and online pedagogy. As practitioners, we experiment with online tools to establish what does and does not work in a given learning context. This is important work. However, as educators we also have a responsibility to ensure learning theory and research inform our decision making when planning, reflecting on, and evaluating curriculum tasks, activities, and pedagogic practices.

In this paper we examine a sample media studies unit within a constructivist learning theory framework to show how Google Drive tools can be used as an effective online learning environment (OLE). Although Google tools have been discussed here in JITP and in other reputable publications such as Kairos, the aim of this paper is to illustrate how modern online pedagogic practice and tools connect to key founding theories of constructivism and online learning. The sample media studies unit is a culmination of years of iterations and reflection on the delivery and efficacy of media lessons online. The Ontario Media Studies grade 11 course curriculum is used to illustrate how various Google Drive tools provide the appropriate affordances to facilitate constructivist online learning. While this is an elective course for Ontario students, each grade in the secondary school curriculum contains a media studies strand in the mandatory English curriculum, hence the unit can be adapted for Ontario English courses. It is our hope that in sharing this sample unit and accompanying theory, other educators can learn from, adapt, and build on our work for their own use, not only in media-related courses, but in other subject areas as well. Prior to this, an overview of some of the more pertinent constructivist theories and approaches used in the design of the Google online learning environment (GOLE) is provided.

The Theory behind the Practice

Highly influential constructivist education writers and researchers (Dewey 1916; Piaget 1973; Vygotsky 1978; Bruner 1996) all agree that active learning and the construction of new knowledge is based on prior knowledge, and that the role of the instructor is that of facilitator. Moreover, Dewey (1916) argues that the improvement of the reasoning process is a key function of education. Indeed, utilizing problem-solving methods on personally meaningful and real life problems can act as motivation for students, engaging them in process of discovery. With this in mind, the design plan for our GOLE ensures students have every opportunity to utilize their critical thinking skills and prior knowledge, while making personally relevant choices about what topics and themes to investigate in the media studies unit.

Dewey (1938) also argues that interaction is one of the most important elements of a learning experience and that “an experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment…” (Dewey 1938 cited in Vrasidas 2000, 1). The GOLE design acknowledges the reciprocal nature of learning interaction and the variety of relationships and communicative exchanges required to facilitate meaningful learning (Simpson & Galbo 1986). As the teacher facilitates activities throughout the course, they should consider the nature and types of interaction present in learning environments: learner-learner, learner-teacher, and learner-content (Moore 1989), as well as the ways these interactions translate to an online learning environment. This social constructivist approach stresses the critical importance of interaction with others in cognitive development and emphasizes the role of the social context in learning (Huang 2002).

Vygotsky (1978) details the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and explains how important social interaction is in the psychological development of the learner. Vrasidas (2000) describes the ZPD as, “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (10). The GOLE features afford students multiple opportunities to learn with others and advance their knowledge through collaboration, working with a variety of learners in different activities using a selection of Google Drive tools.

Class Introduction, Overview of Media Studies Unit, and Expectations

The proposed unit for a media studies course is based on best practices and pedagogy from previous media studies lessons conducted in online learning environments. A Grade 11 English Media Studies course from the Ontario Curriculum is the site of this unit. Figure 1 provides a breakdown of the unit sections and related objectives/expectations.

Unit Sections Unit Objectives
A. Understanding and Interpreting Media Texts 1. Understanding and responding to media texts:

– demonstrate understanding of a variety of media texts;

2. Deconstructing media texts:

– deconstruct a variety of types media texts, identifying the codes, conventions, and techniques used and explaining how they create meaning.

B. Media and Society 1. Understanding media perspectives:

– analyze and critique media representations of people, issues, values, and behaviors;

2. Understanding the impact of media on society:

– analyze and evaluate the impact of media on society.

C. The Media Industry 1. Industry and audience:

– demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the creators of media texts target and attract audiences;

2. Ownership and control:

– demonstrate an understanding of the impact of regulation, ownership, and control on access, choice and range of expression.

D. Producing and Reflecting on Media Texts 1. Producing media texts:

– create a variety of media texts for different audience;

2. Careers in media production:

– demonstrate an understanding of roles and career options in a variety of media industries;

3. Metacognition:

– demonstrate an understanding of their growth as media consumers, media analysts, and media producers.

Figure 1: Grade 11 English Media Studies from the Ontario Curriculum

Overall expectations addressed in the proposed unit include:

  • Industry and Audience: demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the creators of media texts target and attract audiences.
  • Producing Media Texts: create a variety of media texts for different audiences and purposes, using effective forms, codes, conventions, and techniques.
  • Metacognition: demonstrate an understanding of their growth as media consumers, media analysts, and media producers.
  • Deconstructing Media Texts: deconstruct a variety of types of media texts, identifying the codes, conventions, and techniques used and explaining how they create meaning.
  • Understanding and Responding to Media Texts: demonstrate understanding of a variety of media texts. (The Ontario Curriculum Grades 11-12: English, 2007)

The Online Learning Environment: Why Google Drive?

When thinking about designing a constructivist OLE it is useful to consider how social constructivist theory can inform which tools to include in it. Vygotsky (1978) argues that people socially construct meaning and cultural norms and that learning is situated. Lave and Wenger (1991) suggest implicit and explicit knowledge is acquired through legitimate participation in situated communities of practice (CoP). Learners participate on the periphery of an activity within a CoP and as they participate and learn they become more knowledgeable. This enables them to move, if they wish, towards the center of the CoP and play a larger role in the communities’ activities. The central idea of situated learning is that learners appropriate an understanding of how to view meanings that are identified with the CoP, and that this process forms a learner’s identity within the learning community. For example, to become a television production assistant a person must appropriate the skills, values, and beliefs required in the practice of working in the television industry.

Hung and Chen (2001) provide a number of design considerations related to situated learning that can help learning designers decide what tools need to be included in an OLE to best support constructivist learning. They argue situatedness can be fostered by contextualized activities that encourage implicit and explicit knowledge acquisition such as projects based on the demands and requirements of the course curriculum. Furthermore, students need to be able to access their OLE in their situated contexts at any time and preferably on portable devices.

Hung and Chen (2001) suggest students also need to learn through reflection and internalize social learning through metacognitive activities such as journaling and asynchronous discussion. Google Drive is available online on portable devices and includes the weblog (blog) software Blogger in its suite of applications. Blogs can be used as interactive online journals, which can be personalized by the learner and used for important metacognitive reflective activities essential for deep learning (Sawyer 2008).

Also as Bereiter (1997) argues, electronic records of learners engaged in discourse on networked computers produce significant knowledge artifacts in and of themselves. These knowledge artifacts are essential for educators because “knowing the state of a learner’s knowledge structure helps to identify a learner’s zone of proximal development” (Boettcher 2007, 4); which in turn allows educators to understand where and when learner scaffolding is required within the OLE.

Hung and Chen (2001) also introduce the concept of commonality, the idea that learning is social and identity is formed through language, signs, and tools in CoPs. They explain that commonality can be fostered through learners having shared interests in books, for example, or having shared assignment problems. Learning designers can leverage commonality and embed tools in their OLEs that enable students to communicate and collaborate on their common interests.

Google Drive has several tools that enable collaboration through computer mediated discourse. These tools include Google Messenger (synchronous and asynchronous text and video messaging), Google Circles (synchronous and asynchronous text messaging and multimedia sharing), and Google Hangouts (synchronous video chat with up to nine people at once, face-to-face-to-face). The interactive nature of blogs also allows them to be used for communicating and sharing ideas within online CoPs. In terms of assessing student engagement and interaction, the revision history tool in Google Docs allows teachers to follow the contributions of each student by observing their writing and editing process, as well as the comments they post to their peers.

Google Drive has several other tools suitable for the online administration of courses. Gmail, the email application, can be used for formal teacher-student correspondence and the distribution of grades and other important announcements. Google Calendar is suitable for updates about the syllabus and deadlines and alerts regarding the course. Google Docs can be used to construct online surveys and polls, often used by constructivist educators to allow learners to vote on aspects of the course they would like to change in some way or for students conducting research of their own. In addition, Google Drive folders can house the course documents; the syllabus, readings, FAQs, and sign up forms can be accessed and updated from anywhere at any time. Student folders can be created on Google Drive for students to upload their work. Educators can use Google Hangouts to discuss group work in online video conferences. Furthermore, YouTube (part of Google) is an ideal platform to present digital artifacts that illustrate project based learning. The affordances Google Drive technology provides learners are numerous (see figure 2).

Quinton (2010) notes that it is essential for student learning that dynamically constructed learning environments be customized to meet the preferences and needs of individual learners in OLEs. The integrated nature of Google Drive enables all course communication, discussion, administration, and student work presentation to be fully integrated and customized to the learners’ needs. Users can personalize their settings and receive updates and notifications about all activity on the course. The GOLE enables students to communicate informally, fostering social presence, either by using one-to-one synchronous messages on Google Messenger, or by setting up their own Google Circle for group chat.

Formal discussions and reflection are afforded by Google Circles, Google Hangouts, and Blogger. Note, Google Hangouts enables synchronous video conferencing. This affordance is particularly useful for teaching and learning because OLEs often do not enable the interactants to see one another’s paralanguage, making the possibility of misunderstanding common, particularly for people from different cultural backgrounds (Dillon, Wang, & Tearle 2007).

An Illustration of the Google Online Learning Environment (GOLE).

Figure 2. An Illustration of the Google Online Learning Environment (GOLE).

Educators and groups of students can see, hear, and talk to each other at scheduled times using Google Hangouts, which has the potential to really boost the social, teaching, and, subsequently, the cognitive presence on GOLE courses. Students have numerous customizable applications to compose and display their learning, such as the Blogger, YouTube, and Google Presentation applications as well as word processing, drawing, and spreadsheet software. All these applications empower users to share and collaborate with each other and determine who can see and contribute to whatever they are working on prior to when it is presented for feedback. Used appropriately, the tools in Google Drive facilitate distributed constructionism, whereby learner knowledge emerges from the distributed discourses and knowledge artifacts they have access to in their OLE (Salomon 1994).

Administration and Unit Plan

From our experience teaching in OLEs, we conceive three key objectives at the course start: acclimatizing students to the online environment, establishing a community of learners, and making explicit the goals and objectives of the course. Early peer to peer and peer to instructor interaction is essential because, as Garrison & Arbaugh (2007, 60) point out, “it takes time find a level of comfort and trust, develop personal relationships, and evolve into a state of camaraderie.” Furthermore, positive social climates promote the rapid mastery of the hidden curriculum and enhances group tasks, self-disclosure, and socio-emotional sharing (Michinov, Michinov, & Toczek-Capelle 2004).

Therefore, one of the first activities in our unit plan requires students to create a biography using general questions and prompts from the teacher, and to share it using Google Docs. For example, we incorporate a simple media studies-related icebreaker using threaded discussions. Students post to the discussion board three personality traits, three favorite television shows, three favorite musicians, and three most used websites. Students are then asked to find at least three other students they have something in common with and write a response. In our experience, sharing commonalities and interests builds rapport and community in peer groups, particularly if this is done at the start of the course.

At the same time, educators must be mindful of critical pedagogy and how identity can play out in online environments. While the opportunity for disembodiment and the de-emphasis on race, class, and gender in virtual environments can lead to many positive possibilities, caution is warranted. As Dare (2011, 3) argues “the constitution of the online classroom as a color-blind space free of raced and sexed bodies is one which deserves greater reflection by examining the implications of ‘disembodying’ students and instructors in the virtual classroom, within the context of classes about race, gender, and globalization.” Such awareness is a necessity and instructors should work to create an inclusive, supportive, and non-threatening community. We have found the best practice is to allow each student to regulate how and what they choose to share about their identity with their peers over time.

During the first week, students are asked to watch an introductory YouTube video created by the instructor using screen capture software such as Jing. The video serves to welcome students and provide a virtual tour of the Google Drive platform, which assists students in locating administrative information to begin the course. All Administrative documents (course outline, assessment and evaluation information, online etiquette, and so on) need to be detailed and explicit to reduce uncertainty, and they should remain in one Google Doc folder for easy reference.

In the administrative section, students should also have access to their grades and feedback through the Google Spreadsheets feature. Students require opportunities to play an active role in their learning process and self-evaluation, through the negotiation of course objectives, content, and evaluation. In previously taught courses, our students have written reflections alongside the teacher-produced grade reports, putting the onus on students to take responsibility for their progress and next steps. Active participation, a central tenet of constructivism, increases the likelihood of embracing and accomplishing tasks used to facilitate learning (Vrasidas 2000).

Finally, a section for technical help should be made available to students using the Google Communities feature. Here, students can post questions and discuss technical issues they may be facing with Google Drive tools, allowing them to collaboratively diagnose problems and find solutions. In our courses, we encourage students to ask course and technical questions in the group forums rather than emailing the instructor. Doing so allows an opportunity for other students to come forward and support others with their knowledge, while also reducing repetitive emails to the instructor with the same questions. This feature “connect[s] people to people and information, not people to machines[,]” and enables students to “engage in collaborative knowledge production and facilitation of understanding—in effect, a connected network of mentors/ interest /practice” (Quinton 2010, 346-47). A high level of teacher presence is required at this stage to monitor the OLE and ensure that any outstanding issues are fully resolved in a timely manner.

Sample Unit Plan: Our Mediated Environment

The sample unit provided below highlights the type of lessons, activities, exercises, and assignments students engage in throughout the course. (Some lesson plans have been adapted from curriculum materials freely available at Mediasmarts.ca and the Association for Media Literacy).

Part One: Marketing to Teens

Throughout the first unit (3-4 weeks), the teacher should moderate class discussions, and explicitly model some of the skills, strategies, and critical thinking techniques that students will need to acquire for moderating future class discussions. As Vrasidas (2000) points out, “having students work in groups to moderate discussions, organize debates, summarize points, and share results will help them achieve their full potential” (10). Following the first unit, pairs of students should select a week to moderate the discussions (based on a topic/ theme of interest) in partnership with the teacher.

In addition to modeling discussion-moderation techniques, the teacher can provide a tip sheet of strategies and offer constructive feedback during their moderation period. As Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) conclude, “to learn [how] to use tools as practitioners use them, a student, like an apprentice, must enter that community and its culture. Thus, in a significant way, learning is […] a process of enculturation” (33). Furthermore, research demonstrates that teacher presence plays an important role in enabling students to reach the highest levels of inquiry (Garrison et al. 2001; Luebeck & Bice 2005).

Lesson 1

Students are assigned two readings online: How Marketers Target Teens and Advertising: It’s Everywhere (Media Smarts n.d.) to introduce concepts such as psychology and advertising, targeted advertising, building brand loyalty, ambient and stealth advertising, commercialization in education, and product placement. Students begin the first threaded discussion using Google Circles with a series of questions and prompts regarding the ubiquitous nature of advertisements targeted at youth. For example, guided prompts might ask questions such as “why are youth important targets for marketers?” “how do marketers reach teens?” or “which media advertisements do students feel have the greatest appeal and why?” The quality of guiding questions directly impacts the quality of responses and interactions between students. As evidence shows, the questions initiating online discussion also play an important role in the type of cognitive activity present in online discussions (Arnold & Ducate 2006).

Activity 1: Research

For this activity, students take a 10-15-minute walk in their local neighborhood, and they note the type and location of all advertisements they encounter (on bus shelters, billboards, newspaper boxes, bike racks, people’s clothes, shopping carts, buses, and so on). They then share their Google Map coordinates and a screenshot to highlight their selected route and share their findings with the rest of the class using Google Presentation. Students then form groups of four in a threaded discussion group to further examine one another’s Advertisement (Ad) Walks. Throughout this activity, students should be encouraged to use a selection of knowledge sources such as libraries, museums, and email exchanges with industry professionals. Asking students to engage in learning with activities such as Ad Walks places them in the center of their learning so “teachers will no longer be [seen as] the only source of expertise” or the only resource (Sawyer 2008, 8). Next, students are asked to consider the target audience for the ads and speculate on the rationale for the location of advertisements (i.e. advertisements targeted at teens are often located close to high schools and shopping malls). In a threaded discussion with teacher prompts, students should have an opportunity to examine the difference in advertising tactics on reservations, in rural, suburban, and urban environments; hence sharing “their situated experiences and knowledge with one another (Dare 2011,10).

Dewey (1916) argues that learning results from our reflections on our experiences as we endeavor to make sense of them; therefore, students should also be asked to compare and comment on the extent of media advertisements in their own homes (internet, television, magazines, radio etc.) and reflect on their findings using the blog and guided questions prepared by the teacher. The teacher should also ask students to read at least two student blog posts and to post comments on each other’s reflections. This activity is intended to increase student motivation and provide authenticity to the learning process, as students will know that there is an active online audience for the online artifacts they are creating (Resnick 1996). The use of technology and other cultural tools (to communicate, exchange information, and construct knowledge) is fundamental in constructivism because as Vrasidas (2000, 7) argues “knowledge is constructed through social interaction and in the learner’s mind.”

Activity 2: Connecting Media Concepts

At the beginning of the course, students should be given the choice to select a unit that holds particular interest to them. In small groups (3-4), they are then given the responsibility for creating a mind map that demonstrates the connections and intersections of new concepts they have been exposed to. Using a mind map, the student groups work collectively to define each of the concepts and identify and illustrate connections among meanings. For example, the unit highlighted in this paper introduces stealth advertising and product placement. These concepts can be connected by their approach; both are non-traditional forms of advertising and are often embedded in other forms of media that contain covert messaging (see figure 3 for student exemplar). Mind mapping tools such as Lucidchart can be located in Google Docs add-ons. Teachers are encouraged to review all the add-on features and extensions that will best suit the needs of their students.

This image is a student examplar of a mindmap created on Lucidchart mindmapping software. The main concept, media messages, is at the centre. Radiating out from media messages are three concepts: targeted advertising, product placement, and stealth advertising. Connected to each of the three terms are examples of student-generated definitions for each.

Figure 3. Mind map student exemplar that demonstrates the connections and intersections of new concepts they have been exposed to.

This ongoing constructed resource shifts and grows throughout the course as students manipulate the document to build new meanings together. This nurtures the collective cognitive responsibility of the class, whereby “responsibility for the success of a group effort is distributed across all the members rather than being concentrated in the leader” (Scardamalia 2002, 2). The students are made responsible for their own learning and should ensure that their classmates “know what needs to be known” (ibid.). This is a particularly effective way for knowledge-building communities to form and grow because collaborative activities need to involve the exchange of information and the design and construction of meaningful artifacts for learners to construct and personalize the knowledge (Resnick 1996). To consolidate and distribute learning, this activity should be repeated for each of the five units in the course.

Part Two: Decoding Media Messages

Lesson 2

In this lesson, students explore the values and beliefs hidden behind advertising messages by analyzing a selection of print, audio, and video advertisements. Students watch an introductory video on “values and media messages” on YouTube (created by the teacher). The teacher video should contain an explanation of how the two media frameworks used throughout the course (The Eight Key Concepts of Mass Media and the Eddie Dick Media Triangle; See figure 4) and how they pertain to decoding and deconstructing advertising and marketing messages. The video provides an introductory explanation of the concepts being discussed in the course and adds important elements of teaching presence such as focusing discussion, sharing meaning, and building knowledge (Garrison et al. 2001). Both frameworks should be made available in the class Google Docs folder titled Administration.

To further their understanding of the constructed nature of media advertisements, students are also asked to watch the Dove Evolution Commercial on YouTube, along with one of the parodies for the Dove Evolution Commercial that can also be found on YouTube. Using their online journals, students then write a reflection on their personal reaction to both the commercial and a Dove parody video, and then identify some of the key elements found on the Media Triangle to arrive at intended and unintended meanings. Online journaling is considered an aspect of cognitive presence, defined as “the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse” (Garrison & Arbaugh 2007, 161) in which students work through the stages of inquiry and arrive at their own meanings through reflective practice.


This is a diagram depicting the Eddie Dick Media Triangle. At the centre of the diagram is a triangle shape with the term "media messages" inside. Outside of the triangle are three concepts: production, audience, and text. There are three double-headed arrows just outside of the triangle to signify the interconnectedness of the three concepts. Below each of the concepts are corresponding questions intended to assist students in media deconstruction activities. An example of such questions is, "in what ways does this text tell a story? Does it connect to a larger story?"

Figure 4: The Key Concepts of Mass Media and the Eddie Dick Media Triangle. Adapted from http://frankwbaker.com/mediatriangle.htm

Activity 3: Group Presentation

Through discussion in small groups using Google Circles, students deconstruct one advertisement of their choice to be presented to the class using the prompts on the Media Triangle handout. The objective is for students to deepen their awareness and understanding about the explicit and implicit values and meanings associated with their selected advertisement. The use of Google Circles enables the teacher to view what is being discussed and provides the necessary scaffolding (Vygotsky 1978) for the learners to continue to extend their ZPD. Furthermore, working in groups on collaborative activities facilitates social presence in online courses as it enables learners to “project themselves socially and emotionally” (Garisson & Arbaugh 2007) and develop a sense of community and improve and practice “real life” working relationships in online courses.

Using Google Presentation feature, students upload their work in a shared folder in Google Drive for the rest of the class to evaluate. In an asynchronous exercise, students are asked to view all presentations (about 4-5) and offer a critique for each work in Google Circles. Having peers critique group presentations produces further insights/perspectives the group may have overlooked or not recognized. As a result, students are more likely to gain a deeper understanding from “the expertise (knowledge and skills), perspectives and opinions” of their peers and “draw from each other’s strengths” and “make use of each other’s abilities” (Hung & Chen 2001, 7) to help construct knowledge.

Activity 4: Reflection

Using their blogs, each student repeats the process of activity 3 using a media advertisement that has personal relevance or meaning. Students also respond to guided prompts such as, “Explain one way the advertisement communicates to its audience and what one resulting meaning is for you.” Dewey states that “learning results from our reflections on our experiences, as we strive to make sense of them” (Russell 1999, 2); and through reflection, students “externalize and articulate their developing knowledge, [and] they learn more effectively” (Sawyer 2008, 7).

Activity 5: Parody Advertisement Media Production

In this activity, students work either in pairs, independently, or in a small group to create of a parody advertisement. Using their new knowledge about advertising strategies and their understanding of the media construction frameworks from prior activities, students deconstruct one parody advertisement and then create their own media artifact with a focus on branding: for example, a parody print advertisement of their own, a short commercial, a radio jingle, or an audiovisual slideshow.

To introduce the concept of branding, students view a four-minute segment of the award-winning Canadian documentary, The Corporation. In this segment, Canadian activist Naomi Klein discusses the impact of corporate branding on individuals and culture (Note: This YouTube video is a legal chapter segment shared online by The Corporation Director Mark chbar). In a threaded discussion on Google Circles, the teacher prompts discussion by asking students what comes to mind when they hear the terms ‘brand’ or ‘branding,’ and what they think about the video.

Students should also be provided with the following definitions:

Branding: the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers. (Business Dictionary, n.d.)

Corporate branding: An attempt to attach higher credibility to a new product by associating it with a well-established company name. Unlike a family-branding (which can be applied only to a specific family of products), corporate branding can be used for every product marketed by a firm. (Business Dictionary, n.d.)

As a class, students examine the iconic brand Nike. The teacher forms small groups of students who have not yet worked together and these groups develop responses to the following questions adapted from lessons available on the Association for Media Literacy (AML) website. This can be completed on a collaborative document in Google Docs and later transferred to the threaded discussion to share with the rest of the class. Students respond to the following prompts:

  • List the positive (intended), neutral, and negative values/ messages that come to mind when considering the brand, Nike. (Responses may range from: cool, stylish, youthful, attractive, wealthy, iconic, patriotism and child labor, mass production and the environment, human rights violation, etc.).
  • Using the Media Triangle framework, how does Nike portray their intended values?
  • How have you been informed about the neutral and negative values?

When students have completed the responses in their small groups, they share their findings with the rest of the class on the threaded discussion and respond to other groups.

Students will then explore the concept of parody advertisements using a Nike Adbusters parody advertisement (see figure 5).

A photograph of Tiger Woods the golfer in his Nike branded cap and top on the left. On the right, a photoshopped photograph of Tiger Woods in a suit with the Nike 'swoosh' Logo behind him that looks as if it is going through his head, and his smile has been photoshopped into the Nike 'swoosh' logo.

Figure 5: Nike vs. Tiger Woods: Image shows two different photographs of Tiger Woods. Adapted from: http://www.adbusters.org/spoofads/unswooshing/

As a reflection assignment to be completed on their blogs, the teacher asks students to consider the following statement from the Association of Media Literacy:

Parody advertisements are a fun way to analyze popular advertisements, especially advertisers who are selling products, which have social and political implications. When you spoof an advertisement, you take elements of the message that give it power and turn the message around to show that it is ridiculous or even untrue. (Association for Media Literacy, March 25, 2017)

Reflection Questions:

  • What elements make this a parody advertisement?
  • What was the first thing you noticed about the advertisement, what is being made fun of? Why is humor an effective way to make a point?
  • What elements are different or the same compared to the real advertisement? (see codes and conventions on Media Triangle Framework)
  • Does the parody advertisement change how you perceive the original advertisers?
  • What is the value message in this parody advertisement? If you could write a statement message for the parody advertisement, what would it be (2-3 sentences)?

To further distribute knowledge, learning, and social and cognitive presence, students are then asked to comment on a student blog they have not visited during the course. As Cole and Engestrom (1993, 15) reason, one person cannot contain all the knowledge or culture of the group that they identify with, thus knowledge can and should be, “distributed among people within a cultural group.”

With background experience in branding and the parody advertisement critique experiences now in place, students are well prepared for the final activity: the creation of a parody advertisement. Students form groups or pairs based on their personal interests (radio jingle, video, magazine advertisement, website etc.). As Resnick (1996) argues, when personally meaningful artifacts are constructed, new knowledge is constructed with greater effectiveness. Students should be encouraged to use freely accessible Google+ applications such as Pixlr (image editing), UJAM (audio editing) and Magisto (video editing). By having students use popular applications from their own cultural context, the task is rendered more authentic, lessening the often ‘transmuted’ activities students may experience in school (Brown, Collins & Duiguid 1989). Student groups create a Google Community to carry out the following tasks:

  • Select a brand to spoof (ideas can be found on Adbusters website)
  • Identify the intended values and value messaging of the brand and their advertisements
  • Select the new value message the group wishes to convey and create a slogan or tagline
  • Using Google+ applications and tools, create parody advertisement in the Google Community.

Once the parody advertisements have been completed, each group signs up for a synchronous video conference with the teacher using Google Hangouts (up to nine participants) to take part in a group critique of their work. Students working independently can be grouped into one critique group. Other students will be encouraged to attend the Google Hangouts session which should also be recorded for students who wish to view the critique afterwards, as well as for teacher evaluation and assessment.


This paper has considered online learning from a constructivist perspective and applied a selection of the key concepts and ideas of influential constructivist thinkers to the design of an online media studies course for 11th graders studying in Ontario. The affordances Google Drive offers to constructivist pedagogic practice have been shown to be numerous. The integrated nature of the suite of applications and the communication, sharing, presentation and administration possibilities the software affords educators planning an online course make Google Drive a very useful pedagogic tool. The central idea of constructivism—that knowledge is constructed in people when incoming information meets and integrates with their existing experience and knowledge—has been discussed and illustrated using authentic current curriculum documents and teaching activities.

To encourage and facilitate constructivist learning, well thought out, student-centered learning tasks and activities that leverage the various affordances of the technology need to be devised, monitored, reviewed, and added to, to ensure the learning experiences of students and educators constantly extend. The construction of knowledge is both an individual and group endeavor that changes from moment to moment and from an educational perspective from course to course. Individual learners that make up the community of any course shape its conversations, its direction, and consequently the learning that happens within it. The fluid nature of this kind of learning makes it an engaging and stimulating way to learn. It is the work of online learning designers to ensure that when they are making pedagogical decisions that they fully exploit the affordances of the technology they use to promote student-centered activities that nurture and sustain learner engagement and stimulation.


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About the Authors

Chris Harwood has taught English for academic purposes, and writing composition for over 20 years in high schools and universities around the world. He recently completed a PhD in Language and Literacies Education at OISE, University of Toronto, and is currently teaching critical reading and writing in Japan.

Alison Mann is an award-winning media and film educator with over 18 years of teaching experience. She is currently pursuing a PhD. at the University of Toronto focusing on critical media literacy, online learning environments at the secondary level and intercultural communication.

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