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Turning up critical thinking in discussion boards Dr Susan Wilkinson University of Wales Institute, Cardiff Amy Barlow University of Portsmouth

Summary This paper adopts a constructivist view of learning. It seeks to explore the mechanisms behind knowledge construction and higher-order thinking in discussion board usage amongst a less traditional, increasingly growing student population of work-based, distance learners. Recent studies (JISC, 2008; 2009) have highlighted a need to endorse and value studies which focus on the learner experience and have illustrated the need for students to have control and ownership of their online environments in order for them to be successful. However, these studies only included full-time students, in the 17-19 age bracket. As a consequence, this research aims to fill the gap by exploring the development of an online community within a more diverse and mature group of learners. This paper details an empirical study which explores an online environment and identifies the factors needed to enable work-based, distance students to learn from sharing their professional experience. The authors believe that there is a need for insight into the ways in which this subgroup of students communicates, and the individual learners‟ experience within this. This paper will therefore discuss how the project explores the processes that lie behind the foundations of a successful online community, in the hope that this will help us to better manage the development of this technology within work-based online courses. It considers the views of this group of students and attempts to provide solutions to the issues raised concerning the underuse of this interactive tool. The research may therefore be of value and interest to those involved in designing work-based eLearning modules.

Keywords: virtual learning environments, discussion boards, work-based learning, distance learning, critical thinking

Introduction Online learning environments (also referred to as virtual learning environments) are increasingly becoming a staple component in teaching and learning in higher education. The influence these environments have on the nature of the communication that takes place within courses carries with it huge pedagogical implications. Within this, the discussion board is the universal and pervasive communication tool; it has a significant, not to mention influential, effect on the kind of interaction that takes place. It is not surprising, therefore, that the design eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


and operational components of these discussion boards can greatly influence the learning processes within these collaboration tools. Online discussions give students the opportunity to learn, not only from the course content, but also from each other. If the use of discussion boards in higher education aims to achieve higher order learning in these VLE‟s, then a community of learners is a vital element of this educational experience (Garrison and Anderson, 2003). Furthermore, Garrison and Anderson claim that higher education being viewed as a critical community of learners is not an ideal, but has “become a practical necessity in the realisation of relevant, meaningful, and continuous learning” (2003, p 23). This shift in higher education that moves towards the concept of a community of learners is supported by the social constructivist view of learning. Social constructivists maintain that knowledge creation is not an individual experience, but a shared one, and that knowledge comes about through negotiating within these collaborative discourse communities (Prawat and Floden, 1994). This paper adopts a constructivist view of learning. It seeks to explore the mechanisms behind knowledge construction and higher order thinking in discussion board usage amongst a less traditional, increasingly growing student population of work based, distance learners. Within this, lies the issue of cognitive processing and whether working in a discussion board environment impacts upon the quality of work-based learning achieved. A study by Schellens and Valcke (2005) found that task-oriented communication was higher than non-task-oriented communication, which suggests that the design and delivery of discussion board activities may play a significant role in whether or not the students engage. If they know that they are being monitored and evaluated on their contributions, then they may be more likely to engage. Schellens and Valcke (2005) also found that the online collaborative learning environment encouraged higher phases of knowledge construction. This raises issues regarding the relationship between the structure of the task and the phases of knowledge construction, and they concluded that a careful balance was necessary to ensure optimum levels of cognitive processing. This highlights the need for careful consideration and planning in the design of the discussion board activities. There have been many studies investigating the ways in which higher order thinking and increased cognitive processing can be encouraged in collaborative learning environments such as discussion boards (e.g. Schellens & Valcke, 2005; Kanuka & Garrison, 2004. Mcloughlin & Mynard, 2009) but few, if any, have tested this in non-traditional, distance learners. It is this gap in the research that this paper aims to address. Our student cohort are mature, distance learners enrolled on undergraduate and postgraduate work based learning courses with the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University. They are all in full time employment, many are high ranking professionals, many are international students, and most are returning to higher education after a long break. A work-based learning programme can be defined as “a process for recognising, creating and applying knowledge through, for and at work which forms part or all of a higher education qualification” (HEA, 2009). Established aims of these courses are for students to explore the links between theory and practice, take part in critical debates about their subject area and reflect on their own professional development. For work-based learners, applying the taught theory to their working experiences is a vital component of the course. For campus-based students, this creation of knowledge is partly eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


fostered through critical discussions between students in seminar settings. For distance learners however, this collaborative learning process is directed solely through online discussions. Therefore, the need to create a supportive online environment which encourages interaction between students is crucial. Recent research urges that attention be paid to the influence of technology on the delivery of the curriculum. For example, JISC, Managing Curriculum Change (2009), urges for increased awareness into how the curriculum can continue to support the professional development of the work-based learning cohort. We have identified the successful managing of online discussion boards as a key factor to be examined within this. A further JISC report „Great Expectations of ICT‟ (2008), illustrated the need for students to have control and ownership of their online environments in order for them to be successful. However, this study only included full time, traditional students, in the 17-19 age bracket commenting that an influential factor governing online learning is that these young people have grown up with technology as an intrinsic part of their lives. They are familiar with talking to each other in online environments and through blogs. The majority frequently use sites such as myspace and facebook as communication tools. This highlights the influence that age has on engagement with virtual learning environments; individuals who unlike this group, have not matured in the age of technology (referred to as “digital immigrants” as opposed to “digital natives”, Prensky, 2001), will approach learning online differently. What then are the other influences on the student experience of this mature, highly professional, work-based learning cohort? 40% of which, according to the Leitch Review (2004) should be qualified to level 4 or above by 2020. For these mature, work based students the impact of being new to online learning and returning to education significantly contributes to the amount of new skills and information they are expected to discover in the discussion boards. These learners often report experiencing higher levels of information overload (Kushnir,2009). Unlike campus based students who have different centres of support for areas such as course teaching and admin, for distance learners online discussions provide answers on a variety of topics. For example, students use discussion boards not only to learn but also to manage their units, deadlines and to contact core admin and teaching staff regarding queries. The implication of the multiple functionality of the VLE is that students entering the online environment to learn, are simultaneously faced with practical course issues. They are therefore required to maintain higher levels of concentration in order to stay focused in their line of thinking, which could distract from their engagement with discussion board content. Kushnir (2009) considered the relationship between user characteristics and the experience of information overload commenting that “if students lack the technical skills required to participate then they may be more susceptible to experiencing overload” (p.290). As many mature, work based, distance learners are new to online learning, their experience could be hindered in the early stages of their course, which will, in turn, impact their connection with critical, subject based discussion. In these early stages “it is important for students to learn how to learn, how to be an independent learner and how to communicate with others to find relevant information” (Sabry and Barker,2009,p.185). This highlights a need for facilitators to recognise the unique standpoint of this cohort and sensitively manage their early experiences of online discussions. How this can be achieved will be discussed in the later findings of this paper.

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An important factor to consider when managing the success of discussion boards is how to make the transition from a set of tentatively linked posts to worthwhile, knowledge building interactions (Dennen,2005, Salmon, 2004). In order for work-based learners to share their professional experiences and learn from each other, they must feel comfortable with the online environment they are working in. For example, non-participation in the instigation of discussions may mean that students become anxious and isolated, causing them to refrain from joining discussions at a later date (Zembylas and Vrasidas, 2007). In order for higher order thinking to occur in discussion boards, an integrated group is essential (McLoughlin and Mynard, 2009). This integration needs to occur early on in course (Salmon,2004) and consideration made to how to overcome the time barriers experienced by the learners. This presents challenges when working within this non-traditional cohort due to their demanding professional role and living in different time zones. This nature of their study patterns hinders a succinct flow of dialogue in discussions boards, which in inhibits students from partaking in critical discussion. As detailed above, the characteristics of our participant group create certain barriers to critical reflection and knowledge construction in a collaborative learning environment. Many of the students in this group are new to online environments, especially as tools for learning, and some of the more mature students are not comfortable with online activities other than the basic email and word processing tools. Even for those students who are familiar with online environments, many are new to learning within these environments, and therefore may not be aware of the benefits of engaging in these activities, or the way in which they should behave within these environments. In addition, many students are international, and therefore language may be a barrier that is preventing them from fully engaging with others. Some have commented that they are not confident enough to expose their weaknesses of the English language with a community of learners, most of whom they do not know. Many work-based mature learners may also be lacking in academic skills at higher education level, and may not have studied for many years. These potential barriers are likely to lead to resistance to engage, and therefore must be considered when designing the curriculum and activities in the discussion boards. Other barriers include busy work schedules with unpredictable shift patterns, family commitments, and demanding professional roles. These factors will inevitably impact on the students‟ ability to engage critically and reflectively in online discussions, and will hinder the development of higher order thinking. Our study revealed that, with these students there is a serious lack of a sense of community, and students do not feel part of a community of learners within the online environment. This also links with the failure on the part of the institutions and instructors to address the preconceptions students have about discussion boards. The students on our groups were not aware of the educational benefits of collaborative learning, and saw no need to engage with discussion boards. This may also have been partly due to the lack of structure and purpose to the discussion board activities, and perhaps an increase in task-oriented activities would foster more communication. These barriers often lead to a lack of understanding of the purposes of discussion board activities, and in turn to an under-use of this type of collaboration tool.

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Methodology Seventy-four undergraduate and postgraduate students took part in the survey, with the ratio of approximately two thirds undergraduate (including foundation degree) and one third postgraduate. 58% were male, and 42% female. Over half of the participants were in their first year of study, 52.5% were in the age bracket 26-35, and 44% were over 36. Just under a fifth of the participants were living abroad at the time of the survey. All current students enrolled on courses at the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at Portsmouth University were emailed with an invitation to take part in the survey. In order to encourage participation, they were all advised that if they took part, they would be entered into a draw to win £100 worth of vouchers. The survey was created in SurveyMonkey, and was comprised of 15 questions. The questions were a combination of closed answer tick box options, and open ended opinion questions, with the aim of collecting basic quantitative data about discussion board usage for these students, and also more qualitative data regarding the students opinions about discussion boards and their motivations to engage/not engage with them. The survey also collected basic demographic data. Analysis The qualitative data from the survey was analysed using a combination of thematic and comparative analysis. The data was analysed sequentially on three levels. The data was first read through for meaning and sense, then re-read to ensure understanding; meaning units were then identified (i.e., a string of text that expressed a coherent thought) and coded; and finally the recurring meaning units were grouped together. These meaning units formed the basis of the themes identified below. This was carried out independently by two researchers, and then compared to produce the final themes. Findings and Discussion Due to the investigative nature of this paper, the findings and discussion will be combined, in order to more effectively analyse the data and contemplate the implications of the results. We will split this section into two further subsections, the first dealing with the dominant themes that arose from our analyses, and the second addressing these issues in terms of what practical measures could be taken in order to overcome some of the difficulties highlighted by participants.

Themes Lack of time The study found that the high workload and pressure experienced by these criminal justice professionals created a barrier to the potential use of the discussion boards. This is also heightened by the differences in some of the time zones where the students were based. Participants commented that this was the factor which stopped them from participating in discussion boards as much as they would have like to. However, there was an awareness of this, with 63% of participants stating that they spend too little time in the discussion boards. Although asynchronous discussions were a component of the courses, the flow and development of these was hindered by staggered posts from students who were struggling to eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


balance a high workload. Thomas (2002) commented that the nature of asynchronous discussions is a barrier to creating conversational learning (Laurillard,1993;1999), which in turn hinders critical thinking. This sporadic engagement with the discussion boards suggests that new ideas and criticality are developed over a substantial period of time. As the majority of participants accessed the discussion boards once a week, thought and argument became disjointed, sometimes staggered over several weeks. This prevented the students from joining as a coherent group to learn, meaning that they became isolated due to the short, fragmented time spent engaging with the subject matter (Thomas, 2002). A further consequence for this was that students appear to be logging into discussions boards to find quick answers to questions, rather than any prolonged engagement. They used reading posts as a way to quickly access information; 43% stated that they rarely started a new topic themselves or added to an existing thread. Beaudoin (2002) asked whether students who only read discussion threads are still actively involved in learning. He talked about „witness learning‟ (p.154), stating that it occurred in both the physical and virtual classroom. Our results suggest that students do not feel fulfilled or challenged by this purely observational activity. It has, in fact, dominated the majority of their online behaviour which has presented a large barrier to collaborative learning and the development of critical thinking. Confusion about the purpose of discussion boards Participants appeared to be confused as to the purpose of discussion boards. When asked about the main benefits of using the discussion boards students did not identify learning from the group, or discussing their units as a perceived advantage. They commented that they gained an increased understanding of their course but did not feel challenged by the interaction. The number of students on the courses may have been another contributing factor here. Many discussion board areas are shared by over two hundred students. The impact of seeing many different names appeared to increase the autonomy of the students and cause them to withdraw early on. Following this trend, the students appeared to look to the discussion boards for re-assurance, to clarify that they were on the right track with their studies rather than challenge their views or lines of thought. The perception that the students have, as to what constituted collaborative learning, caused a barrier to higher order thinking and increased cognitive processing. Student Identity and Confidence Many of the students were not confident enough to properly engage in debates within discussion boards; 42% admitted that they definitely did not challenge the views of fellow students and only 21% saying that they sometimes do. One student wrote “I usually do not find I have confidence to challenge views and prefer to read and learn from others, rather than exposing my limited knowledge. From this point of view, discussion boards do not help confidence.” Being in a learning environment is often a strange concept for some of these students, due to the fact that many are high ranking professionals, often with a lot of responsibility and authority within their organisation. It is difficult for them to adjust and make the transition from being a “professional expert” in their field to being a “learner novice” on their course. eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


This failure to adjust their own expectations of what they can. or should be able to achieve leaves students feeling disappointed and frustrated, which in turn damages confidence. Almost three quarters of respondents agreed that they needed to understand the content of the discussion thread before they would contribute, which again flags up issues of lack of confidence impacting on engagement. Main reasons for using the discussion board Although 78% of respondents claimed that they use the discussion boards, the data suggests that many students only use the discussion boards to check for administrative changes in the course, and 60% admitted that they use it to gain clarification on something by quickly entering the discussion board for relevant information. This indicates that there is little critical thinking and analysis occurring within the discussion threads, and that they are not being used to help develop analytical or reflective skills. Their purpose to enhance higher order thinking is therefore not being achieved. However, they do help almost 60% of students feel supported, and as one student wrote, “it helps to know I am not alone with my problems as discussions show others are having similar issues”. The students themselves also recognise that they should contribute to the discussion boards more often (even if they are not entirely sure why), as 63% admit they do not contribute enough. Despite the fact that 37% claim they check the discussion boards daily or every other day, and 26% check them weekly, two thirds of these visits last for less than 10 minutes, which reinforces the indication that students are using the discussion boards for quick clarification matters rather than prolonged critical or analytical discussions with their peers. The fact that 43% rarely start a new topic also confirms this „quick check‟ behaviour. It was also suggested that perhaps if tutors could be involved a little more in the discussion boards, and instigate some group discussions, then the students would engage more with the activity. This supports the Schellens and Valcke „s (2005) argument mentioned previously, that communication among students is likely to be higher if the online environment contains task oriented activities, rather than unstructured discussion threads. It was also suggested by some respondents to the survey that they think the discussion boards would be used more if they were build more into the course, in terms of having structured activities that are a required element of their studies. This could be seen as a reflection of the students‟ negative experiences of using the discussion boards but also of their confusion around the purpose of them.

Practical steps for overcoming these barriers Based on our observations and the results of our student survey, there are a number of initial practical steps that we propose in order to overcome some of these identified barriers. These are based on the belief that early interventions which shape the students relationship with subject based discussions are vital in order to foster an environment of critical reflection. By introducing a programme of guided support that recognises these barriers, course teams can ensure that learners begin to develop skilful working practices in discussion boards. Beginning this in the first semester, as part of their introduction to “learning online” means that eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


learners may be less likely to develop bad habits, for example only engaging in witness learning (Beaudoin,2002). The main aim of this intervention will be to explore ways in which these barriers to critical reflection can be overcome. This study has highlighted these barriers as: 

Time management issues which impact on the length and depth of asynchronous discussions

Confusion around the purpose of discussion boards due to their multiple uses in other areas such as course administration

A lack of confidence to participate in discussion for some learners who are returning to education after a long break and are unfamiliar with the online environment

Overcoming the varying student priorities when entering the VLE

Our findings indicate that it is important to de-mystify the purpose of discussion boards early on. This could be intensive and comprehensive training regarding the purpose and benefits of discussion boards. This would educate the learners as to why they should be using discussion boards, and what educational and professional benefits they may reap as a result of online collaborative activities. The aim of this induction to the discussion boards should be to give clarity around what is expected in each discussion, providing clarity around time spans, purpose and who should participate in each discussion. This could include providing students with examples of successful online discussions to analyse along with instigating introductory activities. For those who are not familiar with talking to each other in online environments and blogs this would help learners grasp what is expected of them early on. Within this it is also key to instigate activities which include international students. One of the main barriers to engagement with discussion boards for our participant group was time. Due to their high work commitments, many were frustrated that they lacked the time to properly engage with these activities. Perhaps some structured time management training very early on in their courses would help them to recognise spare time they could devote to online learning activities. In order to address the needs of individuals, this could also be done in the form of individualised study plans that are negotiated with their tutor. This would increase awareness about what is a realistic study pattern, and perhaps highlight that, at times, the amount of time spent reading and considering the discussion board content is more important than frequency of visits to the VLE. This would distill the belief that quick checks to keep up to date with what is occurring is sufficient. Facilitators should aim to give clear and realistic participation targets for Semester 1. At the same time encouraging an attitude towards more prolonged engagement with the discussions and acknowledging the inexperience within the group course facilitators can also build confidence in the learners. In addition to tutor support, peer support is also key, and perhaps facilitation of peer to peer support early on would help to foster good learning relationships between the students. This also helps to create a community of learners, who can support and encourage each other

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throughout their studies. Mentoring programmes are also an option, having final year students mentor first year students, to help them get used to the difficulties of being a distance learner. Finally, it may be beneficial to operate a kind of buddy system, which would pair up similar students in terms of profession or location, so they can draw on each other for support and guidance. It has been established that through using constructivist tenets and a self directed enquiry based approach, virtual learning environments can lead to higher order cognitive skills, including critical thinking and reflection, and transferable learning. A key ingredient for the development of critical thinking and reflection is confidence, and this can be developed through building on and enhancing group identity among the students. Dirkx and Smith (2004) argue that students‟ reservations about online collaborative learning may stem from the fact that students cling to highly subjective and individualistic understandings of teaching and learning and that evidence of these perspectives can be seen in the students‟ approach to decision making and group inquiry. Dirkx and Smith (2004) explored the experiences of mature students in online collaborative learning environments and the difficulties they had in “learning to learn” in these groups. Students are expected, in an online environment, to integrate their knowledge of theory and practice with their own experiences, all within a group situation, often having never met the other students in person. What is it that fuels this ambivalence towards working in this way? Boyd (1991) argues that the answer lies in the concept of individuation, and Smith and Berg (1997) propose that it is due to the forces of group development. The Jungian concept of individuation is a process that involves an individual recognising differences and becoming aware of the existence of the separate selves that operate within one‟s psyche. The purpose is ultimately the development of the individual personality, which is arrived at via the formation and differentiation of individuals. It is essential that students go through the process of individuation within their group, so that they may begin to see themselves and other members of the group as separate but also interrelated beings. However, this level of individuation fails to ripen in many group environments (Dirtx and Smith, 2004). The fostering of interdependence and intersubjectivity necessitates intimacy within a group, which entails group members opening up to others and being receptive to the differences between the group members. Dirkz and Smith (2004) suggest that students get caught between conflicting fears of their loss of individual identity and voice, which is associated with the feeling of belonging, and fears of isolation and alienation from the group, associated with the assertion of individuality. As the online group attempt to move forward, these fears feed the group ambivalence, thus making it difficult for the students in the group to adapt to an online collaborative learning environment. If our wish is that mature distance learners create effective communities of practice in an online environment, where they are able to develop skills such as critical thinking and reflection whilst sharing and constructing new knowledge, then we must address these issues and put in place structures and support that will allow these students to overcome such barriers to learning.

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Conclusions The findings in this study suggest that this unique student group may be prevented from achieving their full potential within existing discussion board design. This highlights an increased need for more research into adapting practice to suit the needs of this diverse student population. With an increase in students fitting the profile outlined in this paper, the need for more structured, customised collaborative learning environments seems imperative. Further research involving a detailed thematic analysis of the kinds of interaction that occur in these environments for these students would be a sensible and constructive point from which to start understanding the true nature of these interactions and how they can be encouraged to develop more fully. The philosopher and educator John Dewey famously believed that the key ingredients for an effective learner experience were interaction and continuity of interaction. In order to facilitate the continued interaction of these mature, work based, distance learning students, more thought and preparation must be invested at the design stage of interactive online collaboration tools, to ensure the highest possible level of engagement. We believe that this initial research gives an insight into the ways in critical and analytical thinking and increased cognitive processing may be fostered through the use of discussion boards for work based distance students. This study acknowledges that guided discussion board activities, focus sets and carefully moderated discussion are crucial in order to encourage critical thinking. By devoting the time early on to overcoming these barriers which are linked to this cohort, students are much more likely to engage with these discussions on a deeper level. Putting the groundwork in during the first semester, will provide learners with a strong footing and remove any anxiety or pre-conceptions that they have about studying at a distance. It is possible that through giving them the knowledge and skills to become independent learners in the discussions that student-to-student interaction and knowledge sharing will occur.

References Beaudoin. (2002). Learning or lurking? Tracking the „„invisible‟‟ online student. Internet and Higher Education Vol 5, pp 147–155 Boyd, R. D., (1991) Personal Transformations in Small Groups: A Jungian Perspective. London : Routledge Dennen,V. (2005). Message posting to learning dialogues: factors affecting learner participation in online discussion, Distance Education, 26 (1),125–146 Dewey, J. (1933) Experience and education. New York : Macmillan Dirkx, J., and Smith, R. (2004) Thinking out of a bowl of spaghetti: Learning to learn in online collaborative groups, In T. Robert (Ed) Online Collaborative Learning: theory and practice, London : Information Science Publishing st

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eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


Authors Dr Susan Wilkinson University of Wales Institute, Cardiff Amy Barlow University of Portsmouth

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eLearning Papers • • Nº 21 • September 2010 • ISSN 1887-1542


Turning up critical thinking in discussion boards  

This paper details an empirical study which explores an online environment and identifies the factors needed to enable work-based, distance...

Turning up critical thinking in discussion boards  

This paper details an empirical study which explores an online environment and identifies the factors needed to enable work-based, distance...