Critical Thinking in Discussion: Online versus Face-to-Face1

Critical Thinking in Discussion: Online versus Face-to-Face1

Leonard Shedletsky (University of Southern Maine, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-878-9.ch016
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This chapter explores the question: does online discussion produce critical thinking? It presents a selective review of the literature concerned with critical thinking and/or interaction during online discussion. It presents an experimental study of the effects of instructional media and instructional methods on critical thinking. The study tests the influence on critical thinking of online vs. face-to-face discussion, individual vs. group consensus in summarizing discussion, and discussion of examples of concepts vs. discussion of more abstract analysis. The purpose for reviewing the literature and carrying out the study is to increase awareness of variables that may influence the quality of discussion.
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In general we define discussion as an alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique. The purposes of discussion are fourfold: (1) to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, (2) to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique, (3) to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and (4) to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world (Brookfield & Preskill, p. 6).

A close look at online discussion in education takes us headlong into a heated battleground of strongly held beliefs about the classroom. Some maintain that the traditional, face-to-face classroom is an environment of debate and interaction and immediacy between human beings and that the online classroom is a cold and inhuman landscape. Others hold that the online discussion forum extends the classroom interaction and makes the online experience worthwhile, that in fact, discussion online surpasses discussion face-to-face. Which is it?

Discussion as a way of learning has been extolled by numerous scholars. Gergen (1995) wrote of ongoing exchange as part of the collaborative construction of knowledge, where students are involved in “ . . .engaging, incorporating, and critically exploring the views of others” (p. 34). Curtis and Lawson (2001) wrote: “Interactions among students make positive contributions to students’ learning (Laurillard, 1993; Moore, 1993; Ramsden, 1992) (p. 21). In their book, Discussion as a Way of Teaching, Brookfield and Preskill (2005) write:

Whether labeled “discussion,” “dialogue” or “conversation,” the liveliest interactions are critical. When participants take a critical stance, they are committed to questioning and exploring even the most widely accepted ideas and beliefs. Conversing critically implies an openness to rethinking cherished assumptions and to subjecting those assumptions to a continuous round of questioning, argument, and counterargument. One of the defining characteristics of critical discussion is that participants are willing to enter the conversation with open minds. This requires people to be flexible enough to adjust their views in the light of persuasive, well-supported arguments and confident enough to retain their original opinions when rebuttals fall short. Although agreement may sometimes be desirable, it is by no means a necessity (p. 7).

One major argument offered for teaching online is the increased opportunity for discussion and collaboration (Murphy, 2003; Swan, 2006). Meyer (2003), based on her review of over 30 studies comparing web-based and traditional courses, said that “ . . .if there is one strong area where the Web is used to consistent effect, it is by making ample interaction feasible, including students interacting with the course material, faculty or other experts, as well as other students” (para. 4). The constructivist model is often invoked to argue for the power of online discussion. Lapadat (2002) maintained that discussion promotes critical thinking and that asynchronous online discussion, because it is written, even further enhances the higher order thinking processes. Pena-Shaff and Nicholls (2004) explained that:

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