Beyond Knowledge Construction


van Aalstvan Aalst, J. (2009). Distinguishing knowledge sharing, knowledge construction, and knowledge creation discourses. Int. J. Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 4, 259-287. Get it!


This paper is theoretical in nature and argues for distinguishing between three modes of online discourse: knowledge sharing, knowledge construction, and knowledge creation. Although the first two modes are both useful, they are insufficient for knowledge building.

Perspective Summary

Knowledge sharing

Ideas and information are exchanged, but there is little interaction between them. This can happen in several ways:

  • Most students contribute their own idea or question, but the ideas don’t interact. For example, rather than answering a question a student enters an unrelated new idea or question. Ideas are not contested; examples and elaborations are not provided. As a result, the discussion may stop quickly.
  • Many examples of argumentation are also knowledge sharing. The idea of a person becomes known and understood by others, but the idea is not improved in the process. Argumentation is good for persuading others but not for developing new ideas or improving ideas.
  • A lecture also is an example of knowledge sharing. In the literature on knowledge building this also is referred to as knowledge telling. The point here is that once you have told something as a fact, there is no need for interaction or idea improvement.
knowledge sharing

Example of lack of interaction in knowledge sharing

These four notes show an example of the knowledge sharing. #2 does not respond to #1 but is a new question. #3 may respond to #1 if it is a misreading of #1 (asserting that gas “is not affected by gravity” rather “does not seem to”). #4 lends support to #3 but does not add a new idea or question or improve the assertion in #3. These kinds of misalignments can dilute the discussion. If it happens often, we may find that many ideas get lost. In this discussion, the question in #2 is in danger of being lost. Despite the lack of interaction, there can be many notes, so just the number of notes written can be misleading as an indication of the discussion as an example of knowledge building.

Knowledge construction

Here, there is much more interaction between ideas. An idea leads to questions which are investigated. The results of these investigations lead to improvements to the idea, and further questions and ideas. Eventually we can say that the group involved in these interactions has come to a deeper understanding of the problem at hand. Many approaches to so-called “constructivist learning” involve this kind of interaction.

knowledge construction

A more interactive excerpt

In these notes  #2 fills in a gap left by #1, explaining that “all matter is affected by gravity” as the reason why the student in #1 states “why wouldn’t it be.” #3 then returns to the second part of #1, and #4 answers the question posed by #3. The answer is not fully correct (it is the density rather than the weight that is important), but the students seem to have made some progress toward understanding the question whether gas is affected by gravity.

In knowledge construction students come to understand a problem better than before. But how did they come to want to achieve this in the first place, and what will they do with it in the future? Something important is still missing. In knowledge building, knowledge construction happens frequently, but it happens in the context of the life of a community. In most classrooms, knowledge construction occurs in small groups (e.g. 2-5 students) and in short periods of time, and focuses on a task. The problem is usually not one the students have articulated themselves but is provided by the teacher.

Knowledge creation

Knowledge creation is a general name for how new knowledge is created and becomes part of the life of a community. You can think of “knowledge building” as an example. In this, mode knowledge construction occurs frequently, but additional discourse is necessary to ensure the new ideas and insights become shared in the community. In this respect #3 and #4 in the first example above ARE important because they help to establish the significance of the assertion that gas has no weight for the community (although the assertion is incorrect). Of course, what we would like to see happen is that more valid assertions become shared among the students.

To sum up, the notion of knowledge creation puts knowledge construction in the social context of a community. It involves exchanges that are not primarily of a problem-solving nature. However, although the additional discourse is social, we don’t mean that it is irrelevant chit-chat. Instead, it is discourse that helps to establish new goals or new practices that make use of recent insights. The social and cognitive aspects of the discourse are intertwined.

Practical implications

Online KF discourse does not appear as only one discourse mode. Teachers should be aware of the differences among three modes of discourse—knowledge sharing, knowledge construction, and knowledge creation—which correspond to three established theoretical perspectives. And teachers are encouraged to facilitate students work on knowledge creation mode discourse if there is a lack of it.

Suggested strategies for cultivating knowledge-creation discourse are :

  • Cultivate an “innovative ecology”, in which creative work on ideas is valued and there are mechanisms for choosing the most promising ideas for further development and rewarding creativity.
  • Set authentic tasks, which will keep the curriculum, students’ prior academic knowledge, and their interests together to forge a closer connection to the curriculum and assess the potential of ideas for inquiry.
  • Encourage sense of community, which is an important social dynamic for creating a safe environment for knowledge creation, and thus an important aspect of an innovative ecology.
  • Encourage idea-centered discourse, which will facilitate students develop a set of coherent explanations through deeper reflection on what makes a valuable contribution to KF, then to interpret and evaluate information, and to elaborate by providing examples and counter examples.
  • Encourage stronger links between Knowledge Forum and classroom practice, in which KF needs to mediate the social and cognitive work of creation. Thus students will be provided with opportunities to be aware of their discourse progress, suggest ways of addressing problems, and identify learning needs not otherwise recognized.
  • Set long-range goals. Short duration of KF practice will lead to limited meta-discourse for class work that students would not carry on for individual inquiries. Teachers can connect KF more deeply to the curriculum and set long-range goals so that students will be able to improve efforts or evaluate the evolution of ideas over a substantial period such as an entire school year.