DISTRACTION, DOMINATION, AND DISCONNECTION IN WHOLE-CLASS, ONLINE DISCUSSIONS

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1 DISTRACTION, DOMINATION, AND DISCONNECTION IN WHOLE-CLASS, ONLINE DISCUSSIONS Kim E. Dooley Texas A&M University Leah E. Wickersham Texas A&M University Commerce Online courses continue to gain popularity at colleges and universities, with a primary tool for demonstrating critical thinking and interaction being the discussion forum. Instructors and students of online courses are faced with the dilemma of sifting through potentially hundreds of postings when all students are placed within a forum. The purpose of this study was to determine the level of critical thinking and interaction present during whole class discussion compared with smaller virtual learning communities based on the Newman, Webb, and Cochrane (1996) indicators. A content analysis of discussion threads revealed that critical thinking was present, although unique communication patterns did emerge. INTRODUCTION In a previous Quarterly Review article, Wickersham and Dooley (2006) posit that whole class discussions can result in overwhelming amounts of written dialog to decipher and respond to, often with instructor assessment based on quantity and not quality. A concern was expressed whether critical reflection and deep learning occurs using whole class discussion versus smaller virtual learning communities. A content analysis based on critical thinking indicators (Newman, Webb, & Cochrane, 1996) was used to measure cognitive engagement with smaller virtual learning communities. The 10 critical thinking indicators used were relevance, importance, novelty, outside knowledge, lack of ambiguities, linking, justification, critical assessment, practical utility, and width of understanding. It was determined that all critical thinking indicators were present in each smaller virtual learning Kim E. Dooley, Texas A&M University, Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications, College Station, TX Telephone: (979) The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Volume 8(1), 2007, pp. 1 8 ISSN Copyright 2007 Information Age Publishing, Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

2 2 The Quarterly Review of Distance Education Vol. 8, No. 1, 2007 community and that many postings incorporated all 10 components. There was consistent critical thinking across all groups and individual students were interacting equally within the community (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006). An area noted for future research was to determine if the same level of critical thinking and interaction would occur if students were exposed to and expected to interact in a whole class discussion (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006, p. 192). CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK One common thread in distance education research is the notion of assessing quality of instruction. When building learning communities online, many courses use discussion forums to help scaffold course content and build in opportunities for interaction. Knowledge is socially constructed (Vygotsky, 1978) and thus interaction between and among learners and instructors is critical. Most (if not all) of the communication online is text based, with interpretation of conceptual understanding contingent on students ability to express their ideas through typed messages. Assessing the quality of these messages is difficult and instructors often look at quantity as an indicator of participation, rather than a measure of cognitive presence or critical thinking. Critical thinking can be defined as reasonable and reflective thinking based on clarification, assessing evidence, making and judging inferences, and using appropriate strategies and tactics (Bullen, 1998). Cognitive presence is often associated with critical thinking because it seeks to discern a learner s ability to construct meaning using reflection and discourse in a critical community of inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001). Newman et al. based their critical thinking indicators on the works of Henri (1992) and Garrison (1992). Henri identified five dimensions to help instructors evaluate online discussion: participative, social, interactive, cognitive, and metacognitive (1992). Garrison elaborated that critical thinking is based on solving a problem (1992). There is a belief that a link exists between critical thinking, social interaction, and deep learning (Newman et al., 1996). Havard, Du, and Olinzock (2005) purport that deep learning leads to understanding and long-term retention of information through the critical analysis of new ideas (p. 125). Online learning can support critical thinking and deep learning, as it provides a learner-centered environment and allows time for learners to reflect and respond to issues being discussed (Havard et al., 2005, p. 125). Ngeow (2003) proposes the use of instructor grading criteria for online discussion based on the themes of idea elaboration, new contribution, reflection, creativity, tone, and connectivity. Although these themes were used to assess written materials, they are similar to those proposed by Newman et al. (1996) for measuring critical thinking. Garrison et al. (2001) state that online discussion must be more than undirected, unreflective, random exchanges and dumps of opinions. Higher-order learning requires systematic and sustained critical discourse where dissonance and problems are resolved through exploration, integration, and testing (p. 21). A critical community of inquiry, or learning community, should create an environment for social reinforcement and intellectual exchange (Moller, Harvey, Downs, & Godshalk, 2000). Moller et al. determined that more peer interaction resulted in higher learning outcomes. Online dialog and information exchange allows learners to consider new perspectives and analyze their own perceptions. This requires active participation within the learning community and cognitive manipulation of the course content. [A] learning community contributes to effective learning by fostering cognitive development through communication, argumentation, and critical analysis (Moller et al., 2000, p. 295). Bullen (1998) found that some students appreciate the potential of whole-class discussion because of the many-to-many communication options that it offers. Accessing

3 Distraction, Domination, and Disconnection in Whole-Class, Online Discussions 3 multiple ideas and opinions and having equal access to the floor was considered a positive impact of online instruction. Although viewed positively by the learners, there was concern that it may have affected the quality of student participation. Only two students mentioned that it had a positive impact on their ability to think critically. They felt the online discussions allowed them to consider multiple perspectives on the issues and to refine and revise their ideas based on feedback and from reading the contributions of other students and the instructor. (p. 12) Bullen continues that online courses place tremendous demands on the learners, requiring self-discipline, self-direction, and good organization skills. For some learners, the need to log in regularly and make contributions can be taxing. Student characteristics such as their previous experience with distance education or independent study, their cognitive maturity, and their experience with participatory and interactive learning environments seem to be necessary preconditions for the successful implementation of computer conferencing where success is measured by high levels of participation, interaction, and critical thinking. (Bullen, 1998, p. 25) The conceptual framework for this study is based upon the need to examine best practices for creating online learning communities in which cognitive presence and critical thinking can be measured through content analysis of discussion transcripts. The need for learners to dialog (through typed exchanges), clarify ideas, make judgments, and eventually construct meaning using reflection and discourse in a critical community of inquiry are important theoretical constructs for assessing quality of online discussion. Previous research has shown that critical thinking can be measured through content analysis of online discussion in smaller, virtual learning communities. As Bullen suggests, there is a need to determine if student characteristics affect the ability of students to develop critical thinking skills and if unique patterns emerge when students are interacting using whole class discussion, rather than more intimate virtual learning communities. PURPOSE The purpose of this study was to determine if the same level of critical thinking (Newman et al., 1996) and interaction is present using a whole class discussion forum compared to smaller virtual learning communities (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006). Are there unique patterns or learner characteristics when comparing whole class to smaller virtual learning communities? METHODS The setting for these research studies was an online graduate course with an enrollment of 28 students. Both studies took place during a minisemester (2½-week format), with the same instructor, textbook, and discussion topic strengths and challenges of learnercentered instruction. In the initial study it was found that critical thinking could be measured using content analysis of the online discussion with the Newman et al. (1996) critical thinking skills model (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006). The researchers followed the same methods utilized in the initial study to conduct a content analysis of the whole class discussion forum to determine if the same level of critical thinking would occur when the discussion was opened to all 28 students. To ensure confidentiality, all respondents were coded with a number indicating the order in which they first responded. As within the initial study, students read a chapter from the textbook in addition to related research articles on learner-centered instruction prior to participating within the discussion forum. The instructor required that each student submit an original posting in response to the forum question and reply to at least one thread. Although

4 4 The Quarterly Review of Distance Education Vol. 8, No. 1, 2007 learners were not given the critical thinking skills framework, the instructor informed students that grading of the discussion forums was based on quality of discussion and not quantity of postings. This study used content analysis within the qualitative research paradigm. Content analysis is a technique that enables researchers to study human behavior in an indirect way, through an analysis of their communications (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1999, p. 405). This research employed a social anthropological approach (Berg, 2001). One of the researchers was the course instructor and spent considerable time in the community (prolonged engagement). This researcher participated directly with the study population, which provided perspective on the materials collected during the research and a special understanding of the participants and how these individuals interpret their social world (Berg, 2001). Content analysis allows the researcher(s) to examine written documents unobtrusively in order to provide a passport to listening to the words of the text, and understanding better the perspective(s) of the producer of these words (Berg, 2001, p. 242). Strauss (1987) suggests that researchers use sociological constructs based on a combination of the researcher s scholarly knowledge and knowledge of the field under investigation. For this study, the Newman et al. (1996) critical thinking indicators were used as the sociological construct and coding scheme to reach beyond local meanings to broader social scientific ones (Berg, 2001). The unit of analysis was words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs within the online discussion transcripts. Abrahamson (1983) suggests that researchers begin by immersing themselves in the documents in order to identify the themes (inductive) and use some categorical scheme or theoretical/ social construct for assessment (deductive). Content analysis is a qualitative data reduction and sense-making effort that takes a volume of qualitative material and attempts to identify core consistencies and meanings (Patton, 2002, p. 453). Content analysis requires deciphering skills and pattern recognition to ensure that variations can be rigidly and consistently applied so that other researchers or readers, looking at the same messages, would obtain the same or comparable results (Berg, 2001, p. 241). For this study, the research team incorporated independent corroborative techniques (like inter-rater reliability) and detailed excerpts from relevant statements to document interpretations. This study used an open coding technique (Strauss, 1987). This process involves carefully reading the online discussion transcripts to determine the concepts and categories (emerging themes). This study cannot be separated from its context and the descriptive examples in the findings allow readers to draw their own inferences of transferability. FINDINGS Content analysis of the whole class discussion transcripts revealed that critical thinking was present; however, three distinct patterns emerged: discussions were more often offtopic, certain students tended to dominate, and there was more disconnect between and among the critical thinking indicators with fewer intense interactions. Distracted Discussions For the topic of strengths and challenges of learner-centered instruction, there were 146 postings for the whole class discussion. Of those, 97 were on-topic and 49 were off-topic (34%). One student who widened the discussion by posting a reference to schools not wanting authentic assessment related to individual growth (17) resulted in another student s response that was off-topic. Just to add a little personal bit into the picture as to how over rated letter/number grades can be, my 17-year-old daughter has Mono and has not been to school in almost two weeks and next week is the last week

5 Distraction, Domination, and Disconnection in Whole-Class, Online Discussions 5 at a time when she needs to be fully resting, she is twisted in panic knots. (9) This statement resulted in a long discussion about stress and grades. Although instructors working with adult learners do not necessarily need to cut off discussion that is off-topic, these diversions can disorient the flow away from the primary objective. In a traditional classroom, it is easier for the instructor to pull everyone back together and redirect the discussion. In an asynchronous environment, discussion that is off-topic confuses the learner who joins later and has no idea where the discussion went askew. The researchers did not find evidence of this pattern in the analysis of the discussions within the smaller virtual learning communities (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006). Dominated Discussions A phenomenon that is not unique to the online environment is the domination of discussions by one or two students. One student alluded to this in a posting about learner-centered instruction in relation to working in groups. Unfortunately I see the alpha member monopolizing, and the followers sitting back although each member is responsible for completing certain activities (Student 3). This phenomenon was also present in the whole class discussion. As previously mentioned, he assignment specified that students were required to submit an original posting and reply at least once within the discussion forum. The emphasis was on quality and not quantity of responses. The alpha student in this class was consistently engaged from the beginning to the end of every topic (9). This student not only posted most frequently (28 times), but also influenced whether or not the discussion stayed on-topic. Discussion domination directly influenced the previous pattern of off-topic discussion. To illustrate this point, a discussion was analyzed from a topic posted by the alpha student that was not related. Eleven individuals were pulled off-topic and diverged away from the original objective of the discussion. Figure 1 illustrates the communication network that resulted. The alpha student pattern was not prevalent in the small virtual learning communities previously studied (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006). Disconnected Discussions The final pattern that emerged from this analysis was that the overall critical thinking indicators were less integrated and synthesized in the whole group discussion. Students incorporated fewer critical thinking skills in one posting, but over numerous postings included one or two critical thinking skills within their statement. Responses during the whole class discussion were scattered and disjointed. The following is an example of a posting that incorporated relevant and important statements, linked ideas, facts, and notions, used outside relevant material, brought in a new idea, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of solutions, and widened the discussion by bringing in a larger perspective. 11 Many of my ideas regarding education mirror John Dewey s idea of experiential learning and I believe it to be the most effective for the individual learner and for society. Simply put, the educator must 9 19 FIGURE 1 Communication Network: Off Topic Alpha Student (9) 22 5

6 6 The Quarterly Review of Distance Education Vol. 8, No. 1, 2007 help guide the student on their journey to relate the subject to his/her own values, thoughts and pre-conceived ideas. Once a student can do that learning can truly commence. The student s experiences bring in the importance of their community into education. The challenges that face learner centered instruction are based in fear. Administrators who do not want their teachers to deviate from the standard curriculum; Administrators who fear giving up control of their school to students; Educators who may not be comfortable utilizing and promoting different types of learning styles; and fear of changing the type of instruction by which the community has become accustomed to. (27) This example had potential for quality interaction and dialog with others. Instead, only three postings resulted, one of which was the original author. Respondent 25 welcomed outside knowledge by stating: WOW all I can say about your explanation is that it is perfect. I guess as a third grade teacher, I have not given much thought to a high school student s future in the real world. We continued to see this pattern of welcoming of new knowledge but nothing more in terms of critical thinking within postings/interactions. Not only did discussion fail to incorporate many of the critical thinking skills within one posting, learners also found it difficult to follow the thread of discussion with 28 individuals with one forum. One student even stated: This discussion has gotten rather large and it is hard to follow a post when you have slept (or not!) since you read it all (6). This pattern was not evident when smaller virtual learning communities were formed (Wickersham & Dooley, 2006). CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS A summary of findings with implications will be discussed in relation to the purpose of the study. Research by Wickersham and Dooley (2006) concluded that the critical thinking skills model developed by Newman et al. (1996) could be utilized to analyze quality of discussion in online forums within smaller learning communities, and that all individuals within these learning communities engaged in relevant and quality discussion. These findings, however, indicated the need to conduct further research to determine if the same level of critical thinking and interaction would occur in a whole class discussion forum compared to smaller virtual learning communities. Analysis of the whole class discussion utilizing the critical thinking skills model (Newman et al., 1996) revealed that the majority of students postings incorporated critical thinking within the discussion forums; however, the researchers noted three distinct patterns that emerged not previously seen in the smaller virtual communities. Specifically, discussions were distracted or off-topic more often, dominated by only a few individuals, and disconnected with little intense interaction. A significant portion of the postings within the whole class discussion forum became what the researchers labeled as distracted or offtopic. As adults, students may focus on a specific portion of a posting that piques their interest although it may ultimately not be directly related to the original purpose or intent of the topic of conversation. As a result of the discussion changing direction, students may fail to achieve what the instructor originally intended. It is important for the instructor to remain vigilant within the discussion forums and move the discussion back on track; however, it is equally important for students to have a place to pursue their interests and to engage in a common dialog with their peers. To help prevent off-topic or distracted discussions, the instructor can create an online forum to allow for student self-directed discussion and should encourage any dialog not related to the graded forum to occur within it. As often is the case with the traditional classroom, the discussion within the whole online class tended to be dominated by a select few. An alpha student emerged within the discussion forum and had the ability to influence the direction of the discussion and whether or not the discussion remained on topic. While

7 Distraction, Domination, and Disconnection in Whole-Class, Online Discussions 7 still important for the instructor to remain alert within the forums, with the student ability to post and reply asynchronously, it is impossible to monitor around the clock. While critical thinking was present within the whole class discussion, the threads produced by 28 individuals were overwhelming in number and difficult for students to sift through. As the discussion forum grew, individuals became lost within the discussion threads and difficult for the instructor to track, as the instructor has the same view of the forum as do the students. The researchers noticed fewer intense interactions within the postings as opposed to the smaller virtual communities. Even with the emphasis on quality of discussions versus quantity of postings, the numerous postings only incorporated one or two critical thinking elements in reply to an individual s post. Time is wasted for students to move through the multiple postings produced within whole class discussions and is better spent on students having to only worry about a select few within a smaller learning community to develop a thoughtful and reflective dialog among peers. The critical thinking skills model developed by Newman et al. (1996) provided a good framework to conduct the content analysis within the discussion forum. Although the researchers concluded that critical thinking does occur within the whole class discussion, the three patterns that emerged within a whole class discussion raise cause for concern and provide evidence that it is better to move students into smaller virtual learning communities for online discussions. Through the design of smaller virtual learning communities, students and instructors in online courses are better able to engage in quality discussions with a high degree of interaction, remain focused and on-topic, and better manage the numerous threads that develop within the forums. Forums with fewer individuals have the potential to provide an environment for learners to have equal opportunity to voice their opinions and thoughts and demonstrate their understanding to their peers and instructor. Within the smaller virtual learning communities, if students get off-topic or distracted, it is easier for the instructor to pinpoint when and where the distraction occurred and redirect the flow of conversation. Similarly, the presence of an alpha student may be less of an issue within the forum with fewer individuals. The previous study by Wickersham and Dooley (2006) recommended the need for further research in the self-selection of groups within whole class discussions based upon student interests/needs. It is important to investigate this notion as it may provide further evidence in support of the establishment of smaller virtual learning communities. Online courses will only continue to grow in number at colleges and universities and students will continue to enroll in these courses as they better fit the many demands they face as adults. As a result of this continued growth, it is important for instructors of online courses to provide a quality environment for learning and to continue to explore methods and strategies that best support a critical community of inquiry. REFERENCES Abrahamson, M. (1983). Social research methods. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Berg, B. L. (2001). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon. Bullen, M. (1998). Participation and critical thinking in online university distance education. Journal of Distance Education, 13(2), Fraenkel, J. R., & Wallen, N. E. (1999). How to design and evaluate research in education. New York: McGraw-Hill. Garrison, D. R. (1992). Critical thinking and selfdirected learning in adult education: An analysis of responsibility and control issues. Adult Education Quarterly, 42(3), Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. The American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7-15.

8 8 The Quarterly Review of Distance Education Vol. 8, No. 1, 2007 Havard, B., Du, J. & Olinzock, A. (2005). Deep learning: The knowledge, methods, and cognition process in instructor-led online discussion. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(2), Henri, R. (1992). Computer conferencing and content analysis. In A. R. Kaye (Ed.), Collaborative learning through computer conferencing (pp ). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag. Moller, L. A., Harvey, D., Downs, M. & Godshalk, V. (2000). Identifying factors that effect learning community development and performance in asynchronous distance education. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 1(4), Newman, D. R., Webb, B., & Cochrane, C. (1996). A content analysis method to measure critical thinking in face-to-face and computer supported group learning. Retrieved June 28, 2006, from contpap.html. Ngeow, K. Y. (2003). Assessing the quality of students contributions in online discussion forums. Global E-Journal of Open, Flexible & Distance Education, 3(1). Retrieved July 3, 2006 from karen.htm. Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Strauss, A. L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. New York: Cambridge University Press. Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wickersham, L. E., & Dooley, K. E. (2006). A content analysis of critical thinking skills as an indicator of quality of online discussion in virtual learning communities. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7(2),

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