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What are Learning Contexts?

An instructional context represents all the factors external to the learners within an instructional environment that provide meaning for the messages they receive.  These are the factors that influence and define what, when, where, how, why, and with whom individual learners learn from instruction. 


 Individual factors that define instructional contexts have traditionally been grouped into the following categories:



Instructional media present in the learners’ environment


Opportunities for learners to interact with instructor as well as other learners throughout the learning experience


Degree to which instructional messages gain learner attention, are personally relevant to the learner, provide the learner with a feeling of confidence in learning and a feeling of satisfaction once learning is accomplished

“Complete” learning experiences often employ more than one discrete type of sub-context.  For example, suppose a group of learners were going to participate in a Civil War reenactment.  This context could be used as an environment for learning a variety of skills associated with culture, politics, and 19th-Century American history.  In preparation for the reenactment, the learners may need to learn how to sew by hand, cook using simple camping-style implements, and perhaps learn how to recognize the rank and role of various military personnel based on their uniforms.  Some of these skill sets might be learned outside the reenactment itself.  Viewing an instructional video, participating in a sewing session, and reading books depicting Civil War military uniforms could constitute “sub-contexts.”  Each of these sub-contexts plays a different role in the overall context of preparing to participate successfully in a Civil War reenactment.  Such discrete “sub-contexts” can be categorized as orienting, instructional, or transfer based on the function played within a “complete” instructional experience (Tessmer & Richey, 1997):

Orienting Context: An orienting context is used to introduce an instructional program, provide experiences with which new information will be based, motivate learners, establish a need for learning new skills-knowledge-attitudes (SKA), provide a bridge between what learners already know how to do and new SKA to be learned, etc. 

Instructional Context: An instructional context is used to engage learners in activities associated with those effective conditions most appropriate for the types of SKA to be learned [see the conditions presented within the Designing Computer-Supported Instruction section of the Toolbox].

Transfer Context: New and different environment in which learners must apply (perform) what they learned within previous instructional contexts to succeed.  Appropriate scaffolding and incentives are usually an important part of this context type. 

 Computer and Context 

Brent Wilson (1996, p.5) defined learning environments as places “…where learners may work together and support each other as they use a variety of tools and information resources in the guided pursuit of learning goals and problem-solving activities.”  In one sense, this definition defines the concept of instruction as well, though it may be a bit too narrow since it specifies only a small range of interaction types that should occur within the environment.  On the other hand, it could be used to define the term constructivist-oriented instruction.  Since this material presents definitions and examples for specific types of constructivist-oriented learning environments, a clearer understanding of the overall concept is required.

 Three Different Roles of the Computer within the Learning Environment

The following information describes three categories representing the different roles computers can play in defining instructional contexts.  Although the terms used to describe each category have been previously introduced in a number of literature sources, the specific categorizations were originally presented by Wilson to group case studies in the text he edited titled Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design (1996).  See Brent Wilson’s article titled “Metaphors For Instruction: Why We Talk About Learning Environments” for more background information and examples about the different categories of learning environments discussed in this section.

 Category #1: MicroWorld Computer-Based Learning Environments

Microworlds represent instructional contexts in which learner’s become “immersed” in self-contained computer-based environments to learn.  Microworlds may be somewhat supported by the larger classroom experience, but they generally represent completely computer-based environments in which the instructional goals are accomplished. 

HyperStudio 4 Product Info

A good example of a microworld would be assigning student’s the task of using Hyperstudio ( a multimedia development authoring program), along with its HyperLogo scripting, to develop a computer-based game.  The entire experience could exist within the confines of the computer itself, and the computer constitutes the medium for which the end-product is designed. 


Category  #2: Classroom-Based Computer-Supported Learning Environments

In classroom-based computer-supported learning environments, the computer is used to support a classroom-based learning experience.  Within this type of learning context, computers play a support role in an overall learning experience that is not confined to the parameters of a computer. 

A good example of a classroom-based computer-supported learning environment would be the Jasper Woodbury problem-solving series.  These learning experiences present high quality computer-delivered video stories that require students to consider collect and interpret a variety of information from the story itself.  The computer-delivered nature of the video allows learners to directly access any portion of the story needed.  The computer is also used as a tool to help students organize and communicate information from the story in an attempt to solve the problems presented. 

 Journey to Cedar 


Category #3: Virtual Community Computer-Supported Learning Environments

Virtual community computer-supported learning environments are defined by learner activity centering around, and dependent upon, computer-based interactions with other members of a learning community connected via the computer.  E-mail, listservs, electronic bulletin boards, shared whiteboards, text-based chat environments, and computer-based video conferencing represent some of the more common ways that participants in a virtual community interact with each other.

WITH versus FROM Contexts

The information presented above describes a scheme for categorizing the general roles that computers can play within instructional contexts.  An easy way to categorize more specific types of instructional contexts are presented within the two distinct categories below:

Learning WITH Technology: “Constructivist-oriented” instructional contexts in which learners learn with technology, making sense of the learning environment through their purposeful interactions with it.

Learning FROM Technology: Instructional contexts that reflect the more traditional manner in which computers are used in the classroom (learning from computers via tutorials, drill & practice, and linear information presentation).



Tessmer, M. and Richey, R. (1997). The role of context in learning and instructional design. ETR&D 45 (2) 85-115.

Willson, B. (1996). Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

copyright © 2002 Greg Sherman