December 1998 // Commentary
Facilitating Knowledge Construction and Communication on the Internet
by Maggie McVay Lynch
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Maggie McVay Lynch "Facilitating Knowledge Construction and Communication on the Internet" The Technology Source, December 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Instruction and the Internet are becoming the combination of choice for many distance education efforts. Many colleges and universities across the nation are giving up their television broadcast learning efforts and are electing to use the Internet as the primary knowledge dissemination vehicle for distance learning. The difficulty is that facilitating learning on the Internet is significantly different from working with either classroom-based instruction or telelearning efforts modeled on classroom-based lectures. The keys to facilitating knowledge construction on the Internet are interaction and communication.

Ritchie and Hoffman (1996) define instruction as "a purposeful interaction to increase a learner's knowledge or skills in a specific, predetermined fashion." If one accepts this definition, the plethora of educational Web pages currently in existence with links to other pages or other electronic resources do not constitute instruction. Though one may argue that there is interaction with the content, that is not enough to constitute instruction. Where is the interaction between peers? Where is the mentoring relationship with the instructor? Where is the problem-solving and application to real-world situations? One cannot assume the best learning will occur by simply reading content and following links.

Both faculty and students are accustomed to the classroom-based model of learning. In order to enhance the success rate of learning on the Internet, both students and faculty would benefit from an orientation to the Internet learning environment. McVay (1998) outlines such an orientation program that includes not only technology skills, but also focuses on learning how to learn (setting expectations, using a reflective learning process, communicating in electronic environments, building learning communities, capitalizing on learning styles, and doing research).

Faculty Development in the New Environment

Distance teaching on the Web needs to be more than information dissemination. Distance education should create learning communities on the Web just as faculty members do in a classroom environment. A learning community allows individuals to share information, experiences, discoveries, and emotions in an ongoing exchange. This requires a high level of interaction—and that interaction in distance learning must be accomplished through a combination of curriculum and Web page design, with the instructor acting as a learning facilitator.

When beginning development of a Web-based course, take a moment to list all the things that currently take place in the classroom environment (e.g., discussions, role-playing, case studies, question and answer sessions, and assignments). Then, formulate a plan for incorporating all those same interactions into the Web-based environment. Table 1 depicts how those types of interactions may occur in a Web-based distance education environment.

Table 1: Translation of Classroom-based Interactions to the Web

Classroom Interaction

Form of Web Interaction

Description of Potential Use

Class discussions

Chat—synchronous, immediate interactivity

Schedule specific chat times when students may gather to discuss a topic. It is useful to structure the chat by providing questions or topics in advance.

Bulletin Board—asynchronous, gives time for considered responses

Post questions on the bulletin board and ask for student responses.


MOOs/MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions)

Students come to chat in assigned roles; a scenario can be previously posted on a Web page.

Case Studies


Provide case study in advance (via textbook or Web pages) and ask students to come prepared to chat.

Bulletin Board

Post specific case-related questions to bulletin board.


Ask for a written, analytical assignment to be attached to e-mail.

Question and Answer sessions

Bulletin Board

Designate a topic on the bulletin board for Q&A.


Have chat office hours posted in advance. It is advisable to pick at least two differing times (e.g., Saturday 8:00 am and Wednesday 9:00 pm); remember geographical time differences within your student population.

Assignments and peer critiques

E-mail Attachment

Send attachments to the instructor via e-mail for grading and feedback.

Web Page

Post to Web and send URL to instructor.

Bulletin Board Posting

Cut and paste to bulletin board for sharing with entire class–may also use peer critique with this method.

Student Development in the New Environment

Simply providing well-designed curriculum and interaction opportunities is not enough to ensure students' success in a Web-based learning environment. Though the technology enhances knowledge construction and communication, this is worthless if the student does not understand and use it. Providing students with an introduction to distance learning is of primary importance, and they must be shown more than a "how to" of hardware and software. An introduction needs to include how to learn in the Internet/distance environment. This environment is very different for both students and teachers; if that fact is omitted or glossed over, chances of failure increase drastically.

Educational institutions have developed a number of ways to provide this introduction: online instruction, videotapes, and textbooks, among others. For example, Franklin University has chosen to provide this orientation through a seven-week, one-credit course, which provides:

  1. A CD-ROM containing tutorials on all the software the student may be expected to use (e.g., Netscape browser and e-mail, Microsoft Word, chat room, bulletin boards, electronic whiteboards).
  2. Interactive practice with the instructor and classmates, using each of the expected interaction mechanisms (e.g., e-mail, bulletin boards, chat rooms, MOOs/MUDs, shared critiques, and shared web pages).
  3. Self-surveys focusing on suitability for distance learning, computer skills, and learning styles. Students complete the surveys online and receive scored comparative results immediately posted to their e-mail. In this way students may evaluate their skills and style preferences in reference to other students and to their individual learning processes.
  4. A companion textbook that includes information on adult learning theory and reflections on the students' ownership of the learning process.

Communication is the Key to Maintaining the Learning Community

In their discussion of the psychological dimension of online learning, Stelzer and Vogelzangs (1998) cite isolation and motivation as primary difficulties in the Web-based environment. Ensuring a high level of interaction, as suggested previously, goes a long way toward alleviating some of these difficulties. However, one must recognize that the absence of body language and voice inflection can also play an important role in the students' feelings of non-connectedness.

The effective use of Internet communication is the glue that holds a learning community together; it is important that the communication be informal, that it allows for emotional expression, and that it is reinforced throughout the learning process. Instructors can facilitate this communication through the three-step process of planning, teaching, and modeling:

  1. Plan, well in advance, to use the communication tools of the Internet throughout your facilitation of the course.

    • Use Web pages to display information, give examples, lay out expectations, group together frequently asked questions and answers, and give instructor's notes or additional readings/links.

    • Use bulletin boards to elicit thoughtful responses to specific questions or scenarios.

    • Use chat for role-playing—but only after having prepared students with a detailed Web page. Chat works well in allowing student emotions to come through, and moves very quickly.

    • Use chat for "office hours," when students can ask questions, get tutoring help, or just share what's going on in their life.

    • Use shared electronic whiteboards for reviewing math problems with students. The draw capabilities provide a way for instructors to write out equations, draw diagrams, and work in the same manner they would use an overhead projector. Whiteboards are also handy for software reviews, or any time you need to provide a picture or model to describe something to the student on the fly.

    • Use Microsoft Word's Comments/Track Changes functions (attaching documents to e-mail) for paper critiques. This function may be used between students, for peer critiques, as well as to provide instructor feedback on papers.

    • Ask for peer critiques in a number of formats, such as bulletin boards, shared whiteboards, or Microsoft Word's Track Changes function.

  2. Teach students to use Internet tools to appropriately express themselves. Teach them about emoticons. De-emphasize grammar in short communications (while keeping it emphasized for papers and scholarly work). Reinforce the students' efforts by mentoring their progress and praising them when they do well.
  3. Model communication yourself. When you communicate with students, be fun, let your emotions and passion "hang out." Feel free to make typos and use bad grammar—even joke about it so that they understand it is the feelings and the thoughts that count.


Learning is a collaborative experience where understandings are developed. Constructing knowledge is not a one-way transmission of information from the instructor to the learner. Constructing knowledge involves the opportunity to critically analyze information, dialogue with others about its meaning, reflect upon how the information fits within a personal belief and value structure, and arrive at a meaningful understanding of that information. The online learning environment lends itself well to active learning through participation and dialogue. It provides multiple opportunities to shift away from a prescriptive approach to an engaging one. By using the tools of the Internet (e.g., Web pages, e-mail, bulletin boards, and chat rooms) you can work together with learners to solve problems, argue about intepretation, and negotiate meaning. Think about how rich the discussion in your course can be if everyone is involved in shaping the experience. Every student has something to offer. Provide multiple opportunities for student inclusion in an active learning process and you will be rewarded with participation from every student and an exciting, active class environment.

[Author's note: Franklin University has provided a "demo course" for their community college alliance partners to access password free. The demo course includes individual learning units from several different courses. The introduction and syllabi from current alliance courses can be viewed at the Franklin University alliance site. Select the "info & news" button, then click on "courses available" and select a course that interests you. The learning units are password protected, but the syllabi provide an overview of interactions and assignments associated with the courses. A Web page setup for a MOO using chat can be found at: mblschool/techgap1.html]


McVay, M. (1998). How to be a successful distant student: Learning on the Internet. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster Publishing.

Ritchie, D. and Hoffman, B. (1996). Using instructional design principles to amplify learning on the World Wide Web. Retrieved August 18, 1998 from the World Wide Web: WWWInstrDesign.html

Stelzer, M. & Vogelzangs, I. (1995). Isolation and motivation in on-line and distance learning courses. Retrieved August 24, 1998 from the World Wide Web: online94/chap8/chap8.htm

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