|Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]
Cognitive engagement and higher order thinking through computer conferencing: We know why but do we know how?Catherine McLoughlin
Teaching and Learning Centre
University of New England
School of Communications and Multimedia
Edith Cowan University
The link between computer conferencing and collaborative learning is well established in the literature and groups working around computers appear to perform better than individuals (Crook, 1994; Howe & Tolmie 1999; Johnson & Johnson, 1996 ). In these studies, learner-learner talk and social interaction has been shown to be closely linked to qualitative changes in learning, arising from opportunities to clarify ideas, cooperate and receive feedback from peers.
|Making reasoned decisions in problematic situations|
|Adapting to change|
|Reasoning and thinking critically|
|Collaborating productively in groups or teams|
|Seeing multiple perspectives|
When we talk about higher order thinking, theorists may differ in the definitions they offer, but agree that it means the capacity to go beyond the information given, to adopt a critical stance, to evaluate, to have metacognitive awareness and problem solving capacities. Having the capacity to be an autonomous thinker and make reasoned judgements is the quality that most often emerges in the literature discussing higher order thinking (Lipman, 1991; Paul, 1994). Much current debate surrounds how to create optimal conditions in online environments for productive interactions that lead to higher order cognition and enable learners to develop as independent thinkers. Most research on CMC has been positive about its potential and capacity to provide a social and supportive climate for learning (Eastmond, 1995; Harasim et al 1995), but few empirical studies have made recommendations about pedagogy to practitioners in higher education. This issue was addressed by focusing on a particular context where interactive learning via bulletin boards was integrated into unit design and used to foster higher order thinking.
The activities and interactions of the forum were monitored throughout each semester, analysed and used to refine the structure of tasks and overall design of the online unit. The major goal was to investigate the quality of interactions that occurred in the discussion forum and whether these contributed to knowledge creation, as opposed to providing students with additional forms of social interaction and support. Prior to reporting on findings, general issues surrounding online learning and development of thinking processes are discussed.
Recent research on cognition suggests that learning is best achieved when social and cognitive approaches are integrated. For example, Vygotsky (1978) maintained that the social environment is the source of individual cognitive development. Other theorists have looked beyond the individual to the shared social context when investigating cognitive development. Sustained interaction between learners triggers the processes of argumentation, negotiation, discussion and joint construction of understanding (Laurillard, 1995; Wegerif & Mercer, 1996). Several examples can be cited in support of this perspective. Cognitive benefits have been claimed for the processes of collaborative learning that occur while learners interact to create a collective solution to a task or problem (Johnson & Johnson, 1996). Collaborative learning fosters positive social interdependence, such as giving and receiving help and feedback while fostering reflection on progress and process. When the task is complex and requires greater problem solving and creativity, the social support and cognitive benefits are likely to be greater. Reciprocal teaching, as explained by Brown & Palincsar (1989) has been shown to result in higher levels of comprehension and cognition and greater on task engagement. Could the same benefits be applied to online environments if tasks were similarly structured? There is considerable support for the idea that the critical factor in developing cognition is articulation and self explanation (Crook, 1999). By externalising thinking processes, students make statements and counter statements, defend and challenge each other's assumptions, all of which are processes leading to higher order thinking.
A further important issue is that higher order thinking is considered to be a process of both internal activities and social, or external forms of verbal engagement (Anderson & Garrison, 1995). As expressed by McKendree, Stenning, Mayes et al, (1998) the social, participatory and shared verbal activity in online environments is a trigger for higher order thinking:
Learners can see their peers and tutors modelling the process of interpretation and application; they can analyse and compare their own understanding to that of others. To see their peers struggling and benefiting from the struggle may help exhibit to them the social nature of the quest for understanding....
According to Laurillard (1995) technology enables iterative conversations during which learners revise and reconstruct their ideas and make significant changes to the way they interpret the world. Technologies mediate forms of interaction with the environment and support joint problem solving and development of understanding. Technology fosters collaborative activities and communicative interactions and supports the social processes of learning. Peer collaboration, review of concepts and discussion through sharing of ideas in technology mediated environments have been found to facilitate forms of reasoning and higher order cognition (Wegerif et al, 1997; Crooks, 1994). By externalising thought, technology can scaffold intellectual activities and partnerships, and enable learners to construct or display knowledge in multiple ways (McLoughlin, 1999; Jonassen & Reeves, 1996).
Drawing on a wide range of literature on interactions in electronic environments, types of activities that have been found to be productive of socio-cognitive interactions that lead to conceptual development have been found to be between peers who:
Among the approaches to talk analysis which have contributed to our understanding of group interaction there are several: sociolinguistic, ethnographic, conversation analysis, systematic observation, and interaction analysis, each with a distinctive array of analytic procedures and conventions for setting out transcripts of data, drawing inferences and analysing cognitive processes. Originating with Flanders (1970), interaction analysis describes and categorises various forms of instructional practice that take place between teachers and students where there is a teaching-learning speech transaction. Categories used to code behaviours tend to be prescriptive and narrowly defined, reflecting static rather than dynamic patterns of interaction.
For the present study, a qualitative understanding of the processes of interaction was essential. For this purpose we used the content analysis instrument developed by Gundwardena, Lowe and Anderson, (1997) who propose a five phase analytic model where knowledge construction moves through five levels from knowledge sharing to knowledge building.
|Phase 1: Sharing and comparing of information||In this phase, verbal transactions take the form of statements and observations.|
|Phase 2: Discovery and exploration||During this phase participants become aware of differences in views and interpretations. Typical utterances at this stage would be questions, clarifications and elaboration of concepts.|
|Phase 3: Negotiation of meaning and co-construction of knowledge||In this phase there is evidence of negotiation of outcomes and areas of agreement and disagreement, with proposals for mutual understanding.|
|Phase 4: Testing and revision of ideas||Interactions would include statements of evidence against criteria, use of examples and investigation of alternative viewpoints|
|Phase 5: Awareness of newly constructed knowledge||This phase would entail metacognitive statements demonstrating new knowledge construction and reflection on areas of agreement or disagreement.|
This discourse analysis approach was used for investigation of the online transcripts as it provided an appropriate tool that was consistent with the goals of the study, ie to investigate higher order thinking processes online. Each of the discussion threads in the weekly forum was analysed and assigned to one of the phases above.
Figure 1: Pedagogical principles for online teaching
It is proposed that appropriate interventions by a teacher or online tutor, who can 'scaffold' higher order thinking by offering timely feedback, fostering independent thinking and presenting alternative viewpoints through argumentation may redirect online discussion towards knowledge construction. Timely questions, recommendations, comments and articulation of key concepts towards course requirements are also strategies that online tutors could use to guide performance. Fostering argumentation online also provides a shared electronic experience that can fuel interpersonal understanding and build new knowledge.
Figure 2: Three supportive roles for online tutors
To summarise the teacher's role in a computer conferencing environment, we propose that there are intersecting concerns that needed to be addressed in assisting the learner: affective, regulative and cognitive (Vermunt, 1999). (See Figure 2). If we conceptualise these roles from a socio-cultural perspective, all three dimensions of supporting learning can be viewed as scaffolding. For example, teaching online requires attention to the cognitive dimension and this could be achieved by creating tasks and problems sufficiently complex so as to stretch students' current level of understanding, having them present cases, arguments and conflicting views so as to encourage articulation and justification of ideas. The affective dimension can be provided by tutors by giving students personal responsibility for learning, by enabling them achieve success and by emphasising the importance of setting personal goals that can be realised. The regulative or metacognitive dimension of learning needs to be supported by allowing students to monitor their own and others' progress, by fostering reflection through learning logs or dairies and by incorporating self assessment.
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|Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. and Luca, J. (2000). Cognitive engagement and higher order thinking through computer conferencing: We know why but do we know how? In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/mcloughlin.html|