Critical thinking in the Online Classroom

This is part 3 in a 3 part series discussing the concept of ‘presence’ in online learning communities.

I’ve been writing about online presence in this series and though complex, it is best understood by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, a framework of three dimensions that work together to create what I call a complete learning experience (though the  creators of the model call it an ‘educational experience’ where all three coincide (Garrison et al., 2000). In part one, I reviewed instructor presence  and part two, social presence. Though this third dimension is officially labeled ‘cognitive presence‘ I have made reference to critical thinking, as this is what should be happening in the cognitive presence domain, which I’ll elaborate on further in the post. I’ll also provide several examples of what cognitive presence looks like (or sounds like as I’ll be using actual student feedback to illustrate), and for those interested, practical strategies to build and support cognitive presence (critical thinking) in an online learning community.

What is Cognitive Presence?
I thought social presence was the most abstract and elusive, but I was wrong, it’s this dimension, Cognitive Presence that is the hardest to get my head around and put on paper. It’s in this dimension where all the action is – where the student learns thinks critically – he or she goes through the process of constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking. This model is interesting, as it illustrates how other aspects of presence, social and teaching presence need to exist before critical thinking skills are engaged and deep learning can happen. Though CoI is a model (or theory), I do see how it works in real life learning communities, based upon my analysis of student feedback, engagement levels (measured by LMS activity) and retention numbers of our online student body at my workplace. Granted, some level of learning can happen without either social or teacher presence, yet to create the very best environment for learning online all three dimensions are necessary.

cognitive presence: is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

How does cognitive presence lead to critical thinking?
There are four categories of events within the cognitive dimension that need to happen to stimulate the cognitive processes and critical thinking, 1) triggering event, 2) exploration, 3) integration and 4) resolution. These are nothing new from the educators perspective –  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

These events do not need to happen sequentially, they may overlap and run into one another – it might get messy, but all this to illustrate the need for meaningful interaction and discourse that supports the student’s development of higher order thinking skills.

Strategies for developing Critical Thinking
Creating opportunities within the course for these above mentioned events to happen takes planning, it is part of the instructional strategy, the course design. However, It does not have to be complicated, or time-consuming to develop – but intentional and purposeful. Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence.

  • Discussion forums that include meaningful and thought-provoking questions that get students to think and apply the course content. Clear participation guidelines and expectations for students are an important part of the activity. Instructor involvement will be needed to monitor and guide the discussion.
  • Small group activities where students discuss a topic, even a complex one – with the goal of creating something together – for example, a [unified] position statement on a controversial  topic OR an analysis of a problem [in the form of a presentation] that involves applying the course content and drawing upon other resources.
  • Forum structured for a debate – this takes some upfront work – but is worthwhile. For example, the instructor assigns each student one of three points of view on a given [controversial] topic, prompting students to engage in discussion/discourse through an asynchronous discussion forum [or live chat] defending their assigned point of view, even if they do not personally support that point of view. This can be effective, as it encourages students to appreciate diversity, acknowledge others’ perspectives and points of view different from their own.
  • Reflection Activities – having students create a blog for to work on throughout the course is one example, where students discuss and write about what they’ve learned in class. This is effective in promoting thinking, and getting students to internalize content. Other reflection activities could be as simple as students creating a Slideshare presentation, blog post, or forum posting at the end of the course describing the critical things they learned from the class, how the class might have changed his or her thinking and/or how they will apply the new knowledge beyond the class.

A study reported in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2007 on cognitive building activities similar to those mentioned above, determined factors contributing to the activities success:

  1. They were well structured.
  2. They provided clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the students.
  3. They provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions. (Kanuka et al., 2007).

What the students say…
You may be thinking, OK sounds good in theory but does this really work with students? Yes I believe it does – after reading through student responses from our last session in our online program at my workplace I was convinced more than ever, not only of the value of the instructor and his or her presence, but that discussion forums and group activities do develop critical thinking, promote deep thinking and engage students’ higher order thinking skills.  Below I’ve shared feedback from students, which are responses to the question “What did you like best about the course?

I liked how certain questions were asked and then I was allowed to think about them. Then when I came to the conclusion that I was not sure, Dr. ____ then took us to the [course materials] to draw our conclusions…”  [Discussion forums encouraged critical discourse].

“I loved the challenge of this course to compare philosophy [from different viewpoints]…. The choice project was awesome being able to watch films and converse about their philosophical meaning was very fun.”  [Comparing activity forced use of critical thinking]

“Probably the responses required by students after the reading assignments … it made me think deeply and apply my answer not only to the material, but to other [areas] as well.”  [This reflection activity supports analysis and deep thinking].

These are real student comments, though I’ve removed professor names, and references to specific course materials to protect privacy of students.

In this post, I’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done in this presence domain, as there are factors to consider that I’ve not been able to address, for example course topic, delivery platform, course duration, number of students etc. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for supporting and promoting critical thinking within your own online courses.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-10

Kanuka, H., Liam, R. & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 260 – 271.

Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities?

 Part 2 in a 3 part series on Presence in online learning communities.

Does it matter if students are social in an online learning community? Should we be concerned if students lurk in the background, not participate, be a [virtual] wall flower? At first blush you might think so. Isn’t this a benefit of online, letting learners choose their level of participation? I’ll take a stand on this – not OK. It’s not beneficial to learn in a vacuum, though in the ‘virtual’ world this is exactly what can [and does] happen. In one of the MOOC‘s I participated in (for a short stint that is), I remember reading a post of one of the participants who said she much preferred learning online because she could fade into the background, and participate minimally or not at all, and not be called out.

This may be preferred by some, yet much research contradicts – it appears that students want social connection – in fact one study  by Swan and Shih discovered that learners who perceived a strong social presence recorded higher scores of perceived learning, and cited learning from their peers as a benefit (2005). Another study, conducted in an online community [albeit within a social gaming platform as opposed to a learning community], examined the effectiveness of member’s engagement and repeat visits in a group gaming environment. Results revealed that when there was visual representation of group member, in other words a profile picture, the study participants exhibited higher levels of engagement [return visits to the site] and longer participation times. (Gaytan & McEwen,2007). The implications for learning environments are profound, by one [seemingly] simple action, a learner uploading an image of him or her self in the learning platform, a sense of social presence is supported.

What does social Presence look like?
Social presence in the online community is more abstract, intangible than instructor presence [as discussed in my last post], yet social presence, one of the three dimensions of presence required for complete learning is the most difficult to describe and create, and is further complicated because it is out of the instructors control. Social presence is felt by learners, yet is created by the course design and participation of other learners, in contrast to instructor presence which is mainly driven by instructor behaviours and participation. Hence the challenge.

And though social presence is a much discussed topic in literature about online learning, there are numerous [sometimes vague] definitions – the one I believe to be most fitting is:

“the sense where the learner feels part of the community, by demonstrating willingness to engage in communication exchanges,  perceives learners and instructor to be real people, and is able to project him or herself  in the online environment confidently.”

students sitting in health classIn face-to-face environments, there is a stark contrast as to how to gauge, visualize and describe social presence. In the nearby illustration, we see that the learner is present and the instructor can read the body language, make eye contact (or lack there of), identify facial expressions of learners – read the visual cues.

Why is building social presence necessary?
Social presence allows the learner to feel ‘connected’ with an emotional and personal connection to the group in order that they can express themselves socially, and eventually cognitively which ultimately leads to engagement with content and concepts. This is described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model, where the 3 presence dimensions are required for meaningful and effective learning to take place.  It is not only this model which emphasizes the social component, Kellar’s ARCS model of motivation design for learning builds on similar principles in the Attention dimension [the ‘A’ in ARCS].

In years past, when I was in training and development and conducted day long [f2f] seminars, I thought that ‘social presence’ was an extra, the nice-to-have, not the need- to-have.  In this context social presence, was created by the ‘rapport’ building exercises, also known as ice-breaker activities. These activities, in a sense did build social presence, and did help facilitate learning. Also I had the 3-dimensional advantage, where I could recognize when learners were bored [this happened more often than I’d like to admit], lost focus or would need to be drawn out. This is not so easy to do online. In fact, what is most interesting about creating social presence in online learning, is that activities and actions must be considered and planned for within the course design – built into the fabric of the course, and throughout the course. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

How to Create Social Presence Online Community?
There are a few things we have done at my workplace with our online courses to support building social presence

  1. Encourage learners to upload a picture or avatar to his or her profile (we use Moodle). Though we make this voluntary, about 75% of students do so.
  2. Create Orientation Activities just prior to classes starting. In our online program, we give students access to their course home page(s), 4 or 5 days prior to official start date of class, and among other activities we have students participate in introduction forum where they post a bio and introduce themselves and share their interests etc.
  3. Design learning activities which encourage group interaction (ideally small group activities). This will vary from course to course depending upon learning content and objectives, but each course has unique small group activities where groups work on a project together, conduct peer reviews and share work samples, or engage in small group discussion.
  4. Encourage students to join [program/school] Facebook Page, if you don’t have one, create one.
  5. Suggest students use social tools for collaborating. Example Skype, Google Docs, Facebook or Google +Hangouts.
  6. Use discussion forums  with well crafted questions that will promote meaningful dialogue.
  7. Post discussion forum etiquette. Create and post guidelines for posting to discussion forums.

Above are only a few suggestions. There are many great resources available on the Web. I’ve included a slide share below which includes some helpful tips, and also refers to the Community of Inquiry model.  Further resources listed below.

Related Posts:
Part I: Instructor Presence in the Online Class: Key to Learner Success, Click here

Gaytan, J., & McEwen, B. C. (2007). Effective online instructional and assessment strategies. American Journal Of Distance Education, 21(3), 117-132.

Swan, K. & Shih, L.F. (2005, October). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9 (3), 115-136.

Instructor involvement in Online Discussions? To be or not?

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions

How important is discussion and discourse in learning?  How about in online learning?  Somewhat important —- vital —- not?  This past week I’ve been immersed in online discussions— as a participant and as a mentor to professors teaching online. Before we go on, the answer to the question is … vital, critical, essential – the instructor that is.  A caveat, deep, authentic and successful learning is supported by instructors that guide, yet focus, redirect, and shall I say… nurture. It’s a challenge, as facilitating discussions in online classes is much different than face-to-face. It’s no surprise that instructors teaching online are often at odds with how to develop effective discussions in the online class. Some professors even feel it’s best not to get involved. What to do?

From a Student’s Perspective…
Can students have meaningful and valuable online discussions asynchronously without the instructor’s presence?  Research says no, for the most part. And from a student’s perspective, I’d have to agree. My most meaningful learning experiences involve at least some level of interaction and contributions from the professor. The involved instructor keeps the discussion focused and moving by responding to student posts with comments and questions that challenge students to build on their point and think.

What the experts say about Instructor Participation….

  • “Instructor presence [including participation in discussions] is a key element in the distinction between online and face-to-face education. Online instructors need to be “seen” in order to be perceived by their students as present in the course just as do face-to-face course instructors”. (Mandernach et al, 2006)
  • Paloff & Pratt (1999) pose that the instructor in an online class is responsible for facilitating the personal and social aspects of an online community in order for the class to have a successful learning experience.
  • Olcott & Wright (1995) assert that the responsibility for instructional quality and aggregate effectiveness of distance education rests with the instructor.

ImageCreating a framework for Effective Online Discussions
This week as I’ve been participating in a MOOC called iFaciliate a 5 week online MOOC for educators which modeled what’s needed to establish effective discussions. This course refers to the Community of Inquiry model, which synthesizes pedagogical principles and needed instructional practices for effective instruction in the online learning environment. I discussed this model in a previous post.

How to Create the Framework for effective discussions:

  • Establish guidelines and purpose for threaded discussions –  outline these at the introduction to the course.
  • Establish a Social Presence – this is where participant and instructor, introduce themselves to classmates –  sharing, introducing and connecting. Also known as the orientation  phase, Social presence is defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively.  When students feel connected with other learners, feel part of the class and community, they are more likely to engage in discourse and discussion about course content.
  • Make the technology transparent – the discussion needs to be about the students – the content and the learning, not the technology, i.e. the Learning Management system or the discussion threads. When students are participating in online discussions, the ‘technology walls’ should disappear – just as when we are in a classroom, is the focus on the whiteboard, the power point slides or the professor’s tie for that matter?

Check back this week for part 2: How instructors can effectively facilitate online discussions.

What is Online Presence?

Laptop PictureWhat is online presence?
If you ask a student of online learning to define ‘instructor presence’ in the context of an asynchronous online course, you won’t get a textbook definition – but  will likely hear phrases such as [the prof is] “really busy”, “not answering my emails”, or “missing in action”, “absent”.  These are actual phrases I’ve heard from fellow classmates in online courses I’ve taken and from students I know taking online courses. Online presence is elusive – yet, as we’ve identified, students can sense when the prof is not present –  hellooooo – is anyone there?

I am exaggerating – somewhat – but as online educators we need to take this concept seriously, define and understand what online presence is, and then CREATE online presence in our courses if we want courses that support higher order thinking skills and effective learning outcomes. Inherent to online learning are challenges and opportunities – but the potential is great for reaching students not able to take course(s) otherwise.

Online Presence – Defined
There are several definitions of online presence, but I think the best term to describe online presence is ‘being there’ and ‘being together’ (Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching). Students learn best when the technology becomes transparent, in other words when the tools  (i.e. laptop, learning management system) that bring the learning to the student, fade into the background. Online learning should not about the technology but about the learning interactions – and being there.

Three Dimensions of Online Learning
Community of Inquiry Model, 'Cognitive Presence for Effective Asynchronous Learning', Garrison

Three Dimensions
We can examine online presence from three dimensions: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence. By incorporating the three dimensions into an online course – true and authentic learning is possible with higher order thinking skills engaged. Below I briefly address teaching presence, and I’ll cover social and cognitive presence in later posts. The diagram to the left illustrates how the three dimensions intersect to create the educational experience, though I prefer to state is as the student’s successful achievement of learning outcomes.

Teaching Presence
Instructing a class of students in an online environment takes a completely different set of skills and tactics than face-to-face teaching, online teaching is unique in that students are in a different time and space than the professor, yet require structure and guidance. This is where the role of the online instructor comes in – guiding and structuring and communicating.  Check back for other posts this week on strategies and more ideas for creating teaching presence!

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, (2000), Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education