MIT Media Laboratory
20 Ames Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences
Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education
(accepted: March 1996; published: July 1996)
- Distributed Constructionism
- Discussing Constructions
- Sharing Constructions
- Collaborating on Constructions
- The Internet as Rorschach
This paper introduces the concept of distributed constructionism,
building on previous research on constructionism and on distributed cognition.
It focuses particularly on the use of computer networks to support students
working together on design and construction activities, and it argues that
these types of activities are particularly effective in supporting the
development of knowledge-building communities. The paper describes three main
categories of distributed constructionist activities: discussing constructions,
sharing constructions, and collaborating on constructions. In each category, it
describes ongoing research projects at the MIT Media Lab and discusses how
these projects support new ways of thinking and learning.
At a recent educational-research conference, researchers were debating various
approaches for using computer networks in education. One group of researchers
talked excitedly about new ways of delivering instruction to students. They
explained how lectures by expert scientists could be beamed down to thousands
of schools. They imagined the day when personal workstations will present
problems to students, monitor student progress on the problems, and
automatically download video segments from network servers at appropriate times
during the instruction.
A second group of researchers presented a different vision for computer
networks in education. They dismissed the idea of delivering information to
students across the network. They wanted to turn the tables, putting students
in control of the information. They talked about new tools that allow students
to search through thousands of servers on the network, locating information
that they are interested in.
These two approaches are very different from one another. In one case,
information is delivered to students according to some instruction plan; in the
other case, students search for the information they need, when they need it.
But the two approaches share a common feature: they both focus on
information. Indeed, amidst all the talk about the "information
superhighway" and "information society," the idea of information is often at
the center of discussions about computer networks in education.
This paper describes a third vision of computer networks, strikingly different
from the first two. This vision puts construction (not information) at
the center of the analysis. It views computer networks not as a channel for
information distribution, but primarily as a new medium for construction,
providing new ways for students to learn through construction activities by
embedding the activities within a community.
The paper introduces a theoretical underpinning for this approach, known as
distributed constructionism, then describes a set of research projects
at the MIT Media Laboratory designed to explore the educational possibilities
for using computer networks in support of construction activities. The paper
does not go into great depth on any one project or activity; rather, it aims to
provide a framework for thinking about collaborative construction activities
and the role of computer networks in supporting those activities. It highlights
several new network-based environments that our research group is developing to
enable pre-college students to collaborate on the construction of dynamic
artifacts (such as animations and simulations).
Constructionism (Papert, 1993) is both a theory of learning and a strategy for
education. Constructionism is based on two types of "construction." First, it
asserts that learning is an active process, in which people actively construct
knowledge from their experiences in the world. People don't get ideas;
they make them. (This idea is based on the constructivist
theories of Jean Piaget.) To this, constructionism adds the idea that people
construct new knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are engaged in
constructing personally-meaningful products. They might be constructing sand
castles, poems, LEGO machines (Resnick, 1994), or computer programs (Harel,
1991; Kafai, 1995). What's important is that they are actively engaged in
creating something that is meaningful to themselves or to others around them.
Distributed constructionism extends constructionist theory, focusing
specifically on situations in which more than one person is involved in the
design and construction activities. It draws on recent research in "distributed
cognition" (Salomon, 1994), recognizing that cognition and intelligence are not
properties of an individual person but rather arise from interactions of a
person with the surrounding environment (including other people and artifacts).
Recent research projects have attempted to use computer networks can facilitate
the development of "knowledge-building communities" (Scardamalia &
Bereiter, 1991), in which groups of people collectively construct and extend
knowledge. In many of these projects, students share ideas, theories, and
experimental results with one another. Distributed constructionism asserts that
a particularly effective way for knowledge-building communities to form and
grow is through collaborative activities that involve not just the exchange of
information but the design and construction of meaningful artifacts.
Computer networks can be used to support distributed construction activities in
several different ways. The rest of this paper is organized around three major
categories of distributed construction activities (with examples of projects
from our research group in each category):
Perhaps the most basic constructionist use of computer networks is as a forum
for discussing construction activities. By using electronic mail, newsgroups,
and bulletin boards, students can exchange ideas, tips, and strategies about
their design and construction activities.
- Discussing Constructions
- Sharing Constructions
- Collaborating on Constructions
For example, Michele Evard (1996) examined how a computer network allowed
elementary-school students to share ideas with one another while they were
engaged in a project designing their own video games. The students exchanged
questions and answers through a Usenet-style newsgroup. By the end of the
project, the students produced much more sophisticated video games than
students in previous years (who did not have access to network discussion
groups). The students found answers to technical problems more quickly, and
good design ideas spread through the class more rapidly. Interestingly, Evard
found that the students used the video game newsgroups much more frequently
than they used other online newsgroups that were not directly associated with
ongoing construction activities.
Beyond simply discussing constructions, students can use computer networks to
share certain types of constructions with one another. In that way, students
can try out one another's constructions, and perhaps copy and reuse parts of
each other's constructions.
On the World Wide Web, students can create pages for others to see. But the Web
is very limited in the types of constructions that it can support. Currently,
it is used primarily for displaying "passive" data forms such as text, images,
and videos. Students can not easily post animations, simulations, and other
process-oriented artifacts that they construct.
Brian Silverman and I developed the LogoWeb to enable students to share dynamic
artifacts with one another. To the student, the LogoWeb software looks
identical to MicroWorlds, the most common commercial version of Logo. Students
can use the LogoWeb software to create animated stories and simulations, just
as they would in MicroWorlds. But instead of saving their projects on a local
hard disk, students can save their projects on the LogoWeb (a network totally
separate from the World Wide Web). Once a project is saved on the LogoWeb,
anyone else with an Internet connection and a copy of the LogoWeb software can
access the students' creations.
The LogoWeb hides all of the messy inner workings of the Internet (such as URLs
and directory hierarchies) from the students. Students need to learn only two
new commands: savelink (to save a project on the LogoWeb) and
linkto (to access a project on the LogoWeb). Students use
multiple-word file names to create an implicit directory structure (for
example, using the name of their school as the first word in the file name).
In an initial trial, two elementary-school classrooms (one in California and
one in New York) used the LogoWeb to post copies of video games that they had
written in Logo. Students at each site were able to try out one another's
games, look at the underlying code, and copy segments that they found useful
for their own projects. In the future, the LogoWeb could serve as an
ever-growing museum of Logo projects, where students go to get ideas for new
projects and to exchange projects with friends.
Of course, it would be much better if these types of projects could be shared
on the World Wide Web itself, rather than on the separate LogoWeb network with
its own software. With the new Java programming language, people can now create
LogoWeb-like dynamic projects on the World Wide Web. But there is a problem:
Java is designed for expert programmers, not for pre-college students. Java
will no doubt lead to a proliferation of dynamic Web pages, but most students
will be only users of those pages, not designers.
In an effort to blur this boundary between designers and users, our research
group is now developing a new environment that we call Cocoa--a type of "Java
for kids." As with LogoWeb, students can create Logo-like animations and
simulations, but they can place them directly on the World Wide Web. A major
challenge is to facilitate the sharing of objects in Cocoa. Our goal is to make
it easy for students to copy and reuse parts of each other's projects--for
example, copying a "flying bird" from one project and inserting it into a
different project. We are developing libraries of "clip behaviors," analogous
to clip art. Students can clip a behavior from one page and insert it directly
into another object.
Computer networks can support a more fundamental change when they enable
students not only to share ideas with one another, but to collaborate directly,
in real time, on design and construction projects.
MUDs provide one approach for collaborative construction on the Internet
(Curtis, 1992; Bruckman & Resnick, 1995). MUDs (The acronym MUD initially stood for
"multi-user dungeon," since MUD were originally developed for multi-player
Dungeons and Dragons games. Today, people sometimes refer to MUDs as
are text-based virtual worlds in
which participants literally construct the world in which they live, writing
programs to define the behaviors of objects in the online world. MUDs began as
multi-player game environments, but they have evolved into more general-purpose
meeting places on the Internet, where people gather to enjoy one another's
virtual company and to work together to extend the virtual world. For example,
you can decide to be a purple bird and build yourself a nest, or you can become
a munchkin and join others in building a replica of Oz.
MUDs explicitly combine construction and community. When people build new
objects and places on a MUD, there are always other people around to act as
users, consultants, advisers, and critics. As part of her research on the
MediaMOO project, Amy Bruckman (1994a) conducted a study of adults who learned
to program on a MUD. She found that people learned to program more easily in
MUD environments (than in traditional single-user settings). The reasons:
programming became more authentic and motivating since there was an "audience"
for the artifacts that they created; other members of the community provided
technical help, emotional support, and feedback; the MUD world was full of
example objects, providing a sense of what was possible, a source of ideas, and
collection of reusable parts. More recently, Bruckman created a new MUD called
MOOSE Crossing, designed explicitly as a learning environment for children
(Bruckman, 1994b). MOOSE Crossing includes a new programming language called
MOOSE, designed to make it much easier for nonexpert programmers to join in the
construction of the virtual world.
Computer networks also make possible new forms of modeling activities, in which
students collaboratively construct models and simulations--and, in some cases,
participate in the simulations that they construct. Greg Kimberly (1995)
developed an environment called MarketPlace that enables students to
participate in economic simulations over the Internet, playing the roles of
buyers and sellers in a virtual marketplace. MarketPlace includes online
discussion facilities, designed to support not only economic deal-making among
participants but also reflection and analysis of the economic patterns that
arise from the interactions. Kimberly found that participants gained insights
into core economic ideas such as supply and demand, economies of scale, and
Our research group is currently developing a more general-purpose modeling
environment for the Internet, called the Network Clubhouse. The decentralized
nature of the Internet makes it particularly well suited for modeling and
exploring the workings of decentralized systems. People encounter many
decentralized systems in their everyday lives (such as ant colonies, traffic
jams, and market economies), but they generally have great difficulty
understanding the workings of such systems, often assuming centralized control
where none exists (Resnick, 1994). Research has shown that modeling activities
can help people develop better intuitions about decentralized systems. The
Network Clubhouse is based on the belief that collaborative modeling activities
will provide a new avenue for people to move beyond the "centralized mindset."
For example, students can use the Network Clubhouse to collaboratively create
an ocean ecosystem on the Internet, with each student programming the behavior
of an "artificial fish"--then discussing with one another the systems-level
phenomena that arise from the interactions. It is expected that students,
through these activities, will be able to develop an understanding certain
scientific phenomena (such as feedback, homeostasis, and self-organization)
that are usually studied only at the university level, using advanced
With this type of activity, the Internet can support changes not only in the
process of learning (bringing students together into collaborative projects)
but also in the content of what is learned (providing a natural infrastructure
for modeling and exploring decentralized phenomena). Too often, educational
innovations focus only on how students learn, without enough attention
to what students learn. Many of the representations and activities used
in today's schools were developed in the context of (and are most appropriate
for) pencil-and-paper technology. New media (such as the Network Clubhouse)
make possible new representations and formulations of scientific
knowledge--making that knowledge accessible to more people (and at younger
ages) than previously possible.
The Internet acts as a type of Rorschach test for educational philosophy. When
some people look at the Internet, they see it as a new way to deliver
instruction. When other people look at it, they see a huge database for
students to explore. When I look at the Internet, I see a new medium for
construction, a new opportunity for students to discuss, share, and collaborate
Most of the projects described in this paper are still in their infancy. They
lay a foundation for the study of distributed constructionism, bringing
together ideas of construction and community. But much work needs to be done to
more fully explore the ways in which construction and community can influence
and enrich each other.
Many members of the Epistemology and Learning Group contributed to the design
and implementation of the projects described in this paper. Brian Silverman and
Andy Begel have been responsible the technical underpinnings for several of the
projects (LogoWeb, Cocoa, and the Network Clubhouse). Discussions with Alex
Repenning have helpful in developing ideas about distributed constructionism.
Cocoa and Network Clubhouse are trademarks of MIT.
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