According to constructivist learning theory, learning doesn’t happen simply by pouring information into our brains. Knowledge is constructed by the learner, not transmitted. To transform mere information into useful knowledge requires effort and purposeful mental activity on the part of the learner. Information needs to be mentally processed, it needs to be made sense of, worked with for a while, to see how (if) it fits with existing knowledge and the mental models we all have. And our mental models may need adjusting to accommodate new experiences and new information. Essentially, learning is a search for meaning.
Processing new information and constructing knowledge is made easier for students if they engage in meaningful learning activities that have been designed to help learners construct, retain and recall new knowledge. Prior knowledge impacts the learning process, so these activities must be appropriate for students’ existing level of understanding – not so challenging that they are overwhelmed (students need to be able to relate new information received with their existing knowledge), but not so simple that learning doesn’t happen.
The socio-constructivist variant of the learning theory maintains that learning is social – students learn from each other and the wider social environment they inhabit, and discussion and collaboration with others helps students to construct knowledge. Learning is also contextual – the things we learn and are most likely to remember are connected to the things going on around us.
Another element of constructivism concerns authentic learning activities. One of the reasons that fieldwork, work placements etc. are so valuable in education (and highly valued at UWE) is that they involve learning activities embedded in the social and physical context within which the learning will be used. They provide authentic learning experiences that students are likely to encounter when they enter the profession or sector in which they intend to find employment. And if students make use of knowledge in a meaningful context, they are more likely to embed that knowledge and be able to draw on it when needed.
Feedback from peers and tutors is another important consideration to help make learning happen. Feedback may simply be some supportive words (“Well done, keep going”), but more usefully it addresses what learners got right and wrong, why it was right or wrong, and how it can be improved.
Our task as educators, therefore, is to design appropriately challenging, scaffolded, authentic learning activities, preferably in authentic environments, and to support students as they undertake these activities by providing formative feedback so they can make sense of information and experiences in order to construct knowledge. How does Seppo help us do this?
What Seppo offers to help make learning happen
Seppo is specifically designed to support learning, so it’s not surprising it has lots of features that educators will find useful for designing learning experiences.
We can’t always teach and learn in authentic environments (because of safety, access or cost issues for example) but with Seppo we can give students the impression they are in an authentic context. Using live GPS-enabled maps (think Google Maps), 360-degree interactive images and static images we can produce environments and experiences that feel meaningful to learners. These help to replicate real-world experiences, and can give learners the impression of space, place and activity that are found in the real world.
Open-ended exercises (called ‘creative’ exercises in Seppo) can be used in many ways. With this question type learners can submit text, images and audio and video recordings in response to questions. Asking students to submit an image, for example, might require them to first create a diagram, do a sketch, or fill out a form (all of which might be authentic activities, depending on the context) before photographing it and submitting it.
Video and audio recordings are good ways to elicit explanations in more detail, and can be used to ask for more detail about an image or another answer that’s been submitted, for example, or to provide further examples or counter-arguments.
Multiple-choice and multiple-select exercises – these are good for checking prior knowledge and understanding of new information and its application. They may not sound particularly authentic (in how many professions are multiple-choice questions standard practice?) but they are certainly useful in giving students practice in recalling information in a given situation or context, which is often a requirement in working life.
Time limits can be applied to exercises, meaning students must respond within a set time or be unable to complete the exercise. This can introduce a sense of urgency that is often evident in real-world professional environments.
Exercises can also be GPS-enabled when using live maps in Seppo. This means students can only see and respond to the exercise when they are physically nearby. Students are therefore required to physically visit the locations rather than working from the comfort of the classroom or their home, which, again, is frequently required in real life.
Tutors can set a series of exercises to be done in a specific order, too, so students need to complete exercise one before they can attempt exercise two.
As already discussed, it’s important not to overwhelm learners with ideas and activities that are way beyond the students’ capability. Learning is more likely to take place if content is presented in managed ways that allow students to gradually build new knowledge onto existing knowledge. This might be done, for example, by checking students’ existing knowledge first then providing more advanced information and tasks to stretch learners understanding. Seppo allows tutors to do this using ‘levels’ whereby learners need to complete the tasks they are presented with at level 1 before being able to move onto more challenging material at level 2.
Another useful approach to learning is look at a given topic from several perspectives. Again, Seppo makes this easily achievable. If using ‘exploration mode’ in Seppo, learners can be presented with up to ten ‘game boards’ (i.e. 10 different 360 images, or 10 different locations on a live map – it’s not possible, unfortunately, to have five 360 images and 5 live maps in the same game, however.) One game board could be used as an introduction, for example, with others used to represent the viewpoints of different professions or different stages of a process.
Providing feedback to students is another very important way to help make learning happen in Seppo. With multiple-choice and multiple-select exercises feedback can be automated and students receive their feedback immediately after submitting their answer. For other exercise types the tutor needs to construct bespoke feedback but this is made easier in Seppo with the ability to have a bank of feedback comments to choose from for each question. Because tutors can see what students submit immediately there’s the possibility of providing feedback quickly, while students are still engaged with the activity, and this immediate feedback can be very powerful. Seppo has a function that allows tutors to ask students to redo or improve their answer to an exercise.
Another very useful feature that supports fast effective feedback is the messaging system included in Seppo. This allows ad hoc messages to be sent between tutors and students (student to student messaging is not supported) and can be used to provide additional timely information and feedback to support students’ learning.
The learning and teaching principles expressed in UWE’s Strategy 2030 include providing ‘innovative learning strategies and environments’ and ‘experiences of practice-based learning within and outside the University’. Seppo and similar tools can help us to achieve these strategic aims.