A central component of constructivist pedagogy at the college level is the modeling and practicing of critical thinking, and since Socrates, discussion has been the basic vehicle for accomplishing this. Advocates of online teaching have argued that the written and asynchronous nature of online discussions enhance its ability to teach critical thinking. Unless online discussions are properly designed, however, these apparent advantages may in fact have the opposite effect. This chapter sets forth six basic principles for designing online discussions that model and shape critical thinking experiences for students, and illustrates them with examples from two different online college literature classes.
Online Discussion And Critical Thinking
Many early advocates of online instruction argued that one of its defining features, asynchronous discussion, had the potential to combine the learning benefits of discussion with the advantages of a written medium. Because students have time—often days—to formulate their responses to discussion prompts, their contributions to discussions tend to be more thoughtful and coherent than those of students asked to respond on the spur of the moment, and under a certain degree of social pressure, in a classroom. Students can avail themselves of the precision and structural devices of writing to compose their thoughts completely and precisely, with clarity, complexity, and nuance that would not be possible in a classroom discussion. Kaye (1989), for example, argued that student contributions to asynchronous discussions “are often more thoughtfully composed because of the text-based nature of the medium”; he found the medium therefore particularly appropriate for teaching in disciplines which try to encourage students to learn through “discussion and debate” (p. 11). Harasim (1990) claimed that the “need to verbalize all aspects of interaction within the text-based environment can enhance such metacognitive skills as self-reflection and revision in learning” (p. 49), and Cooper and Selfe (1990) made similar arguments in their pioneering study of the use of computer conferencing in literature classes.