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
Joe Luca
School of Communications and Multimedia
Edith Cowan University
    The potential of computer conferencing as a flexible, innovative form of networked learning was signalled in the literature several years ago and since then it has become mainstream pedagogic practice in many tertiary settings. Online units now incorporate discussion forums, list servs and bulletin boards as learning spaces, where students can engage in collaborative networked learning. However, there is limited empirical evidence that online learning and asynchronous text based communications support the higher order forms of learning that university graduates need to develop. Tertiary educators know why higher order thinking (HOT) is important, but they may not know how to recognise HOT or how to support it through tasks, activities and interventions while teaching online. This paper provides analysis of an asynchronous, text based communication forum in a Web CT environment and provides a framework for analysis of online interactions. In addition, the paper suggests that the educational effectiveness of computer conferencing depends on a balance of task design, facilitation and scaffolding of participant interactions so that higher order thinking can be achieved.
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Introductory perspective

The literature on technology supported learning abounds with promises that computer conferencing provides an engaging, collaborative environment where learners can interact, build knowledge and engage in critical thinking (Hiltz, 1994; McAteer et al, 1997). Harasim (1989: 60) refers to computer conferencing as 'an augmented environment for collaborative learning and teaching giving learners flexibility, choice and freedom and enabling divergent thinking through idea generation'. Similar promises are made that the new paradigm is 'networked learning', a unique form of interaction not dependent on time and place (Harasim, Hiltz, et al 1997).

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.

What does the research say about higher order cognition?

Much of the research on computer mediated communication has been conducted with young learners, and the area of tertiary online learning is still being explored (eg., McLoughlin & Oliver, 1998a; McLoughlin, 1999). One of the most pressing issues is to discover how to support intellectually productive interaction and foster higher forms of cognition, such as those competencies outlined by Candy (1991) and by Tinkler, Lepani & Mitchell, (1995). See Table 1.

Table 1: Examples of generalisable competencies

  • Making reasoned decisions in problematic situations
  • Adapting to change
  • Reasoning and thinking critically
  • Collaborating productively in groups or teams
  • Learning independently
  • Seeing multiple perspectives
  • Solving problems

    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.

    Context of the study: Project management and thinking skills

    At Edith Cowan University, final year students completing a degree in Interactive Multimedia are required to develop skills in project management, as this is an essential part of the intended career path of most graduates completing the degree. To develop project management skills, a unit of study has been designed for delivery online using Web CT software. Through a range of tasks and projects, students learn about design specifications, story boards, concept maps, evaluation, quality auditing and copyright issues. Most development work and teaching is undertaken by engaging learners in teams to work on actual tasks, where they gain experiential knowledge of project management. Task teams are required to publish a short summary paper weekly on the bulletin board (known as the forum) on an aspect of project management that has arisen. The team is responsible for moderating discussion during the week and then providing a synopsis of issues discussed at the end of the week. Team members assume roles in the forum so that each team participates in a task such as questioning, summarising, introduction of issues or discussion moderation. This allocation of roles ensures that participants are active agents in the forums. Tasks are structured so that students are engaged in dialogues which extend their skills of interpretation, planning and problem solving. Participation in the forum is assessed and accounts for 30% of students' total mark.

    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.

    How do cognitively productive interactions occur online?

    Recent investigations of electronic social interactions and text based dialogue have uncovered forms of teacher and peer assistance in these environments and have explored effective forms of interaction (Pilkington & Parker-Jones, 1996; English & Yazdani, 1999). At the same time, there is evidence that online teaching concerns are often focussed more on the operational efficiency and technical features of the software than on the theoretical and educational rationale for using them. For quality learning outcomes, is essential that educators maximise the benefits of interactive technologies to support learning.

    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....

    What is the link between higher order cognition and learning theory?

    Recent research on forms of productive interaction in online environments is linked to socio-cultural theory (McLoughlin & Oliver, 1998a; McLoughlin & Oliver, 1998b) as this has been found to be robust and flexible in accounting for group and individual processes in computer conferencing environments. The theoretical basis for great deal of research on thinking is derived from a cluster of theories relating to communicative, socially based practices in learning. The recognition that learning and everyday cognition are tied to language use has influenced theorists to pay close attention to the influence of social processes on learning and to socio-cultural theory (Resnick, Levine & Teasley, 1991; Coles, 1995). According to sociocultural theory, dialogue in a learning setting plays an important part in helping learners to internalise ideas and knowledge from the social plane. Learning advances when tasks are pitched just beyond the learners' zones of proximal development, (ZPD) ie the area between students' actual or unassisted performance and their performance when provided with outside support or assistance. In order to advance the learner towards more complex forms of understanding, scaffolding can be provided by peers and others. Whereas much of the research applying Vygotsky's work has been based on the asymmetric interactions of teachers and learners, contemporary research is also investigating the interactions in more symmetrical learning environments involving learners working collaboratively (McAteer, Tolmie et al, 1997). Thus, the interactions that occur among peers in computer conferences are legitimate forms of scaffolding that offer opportunities and support for cognitive development. When learners have to explain ideas to each other, irrespective of the relative abilities of those involved, a more explicit and organised understanding can result (Repman, 1993). This form of co-construction leading to cognitive change is critical to the development of higher order thinking processes.

    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).

    What kinds of interactions are cognitively productive?

    With these principles in mind, how might socio-cultural theory help in the creation of online environments for higher order thinking? One approach would be to create tasks and scenarios that are at the edge of learners' zones of development, that is where their current skills and knowledge are insufficient to solve the problem. Support or scaffolding would need to be provided to learners to assist with the development of new skills and conceptualisations. The objective would be to help the learner until support was no longer required, and the task could be performed independently.

    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:

    The creation of appropriate contexts, tasks and support roles for teachers and peers are fundamental to development of these processes. Collaborative learning technologies and tools offer some unique opportunities both for peer and electronic support of higher order thinking, and online forums and bulletin boards provide opportunities for student dialogue that stimulate interchange of ideas and reflective processes. In the context of the present study, where students were engaged in learning about project management, peer support online was found to be essential in the maintenance of a positive and supportive environment.

    Evaluating CMC for higher order thinking: What tools are available?

    The immediate concern in university settings is to find out whether CMC is effective pedagogically, and to see whether it meet the outcomes for which it is intended. In the Project Management course at Edith Cowan University, we adopted a content analysis method to investigate whether learners were engaging in higher levels of cognition, or merely engaging in social chat and conversation. It was important for us to establish the degree of HOT in order to measure the extent to which the course objectives were being met. To do this we needed to analyse the text based interactions that occurred online.

    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.

    What types of cognitive interactions did we find?

    Our analysis showed that most of the forum messages were in the first category of comparing and sharing information. These interactions were expressions of social interchange between group participants. There was little evidence of construction of new knowledge, critical analysis of peer ideas or instances of negotiation. Instead, the evidence from our analysis indicated that the majority of interactions were related to the elaboration of existing beliefs and knowledge. Students expressed their own understandings of concepts and exchanged views with peers. This exchange of information consolidated participants' existing knowledge frameworks and therefore served to consolidate the learning experience. While this learning activity added little to the knowledge base, it nevertheless offered a forum for display of existing knowledge. The forum did not appear to foster testing and revision of ideas and negotiation of meaning, which are processes fundamental to higher order thinking. During the duration of the full semester course, only a small percentage of contributions could be categorised as higher order cognition and awareness of knowledge building.

    How do we improve the learning environment to create conditions for higher order thinking?

    If we value constructivist learning at university, we need to address the question of how to evaluate online learning processes in ways that recognise how knowledge is constructed. Bearing in mind that every definition of constructivism refers to active knowledge creation and not reproduction of information, we realise that learners must engage in intentional, authentic contexts for learning where they are required to construct new knowledge. These principles are illustrated in Figure 1, which presents a number of pedagogical approaches that could be applied in the design and management of online discussion forums.

    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.

    What about roles for students?

    While our study was conducted on a small scale with one cohort of students, it provides evidence that if forum discussions are to become knowledge construction events, we need to re-educate learners in the processes of engagement with ideas, critical analysis of their own views and revision of concepts in the light of conflicting ideas. It would also require teaching students how to articulate their current understandings and misconceptions and this might be achieved by a tutor modelling such processes. Peer review of ideas, group work, team building and the creation of a social climate for discussion are also important, so that participants develop the social skills needed for successful interaction.

    What about the role of the online teacher?

    Supportive roles for tutors such as mentoring and motivating, are important in a computer conferencing environment. For learners, the process of articulation may be constrained by the need to socially edit one's contribution so as to appear 'correct' and to maintain the illusion of being knowledgeable. Affective concerns in relation to computer conferencing should be considered, as social inhibitions may constrain open inquiry and construction of new ideas, particularity if all contributions are being assessed. Above all, online tutors must relinquish the model of communication identifiable as the 'fact transmission' model. According to this model a sender and a receiver each exchange 'packets of information' which fill in slots in each other's knowledge repertoire. This model is similar to the 'empty vessel' approach to teaching which the learner is filled up with knowledge by the expert teacher. In a negotiated model of communication, there is give and take of ideas among equals, and in the course of the conversation, assumptions emerge, are changed and revised and are open to challenge. Luarillard's (1995) iterative model of conversational dialogue leading to learning is an example of a communication model that can involve the learner as an active agent.

    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.


    Online conferencing has the potential to play a very important role in the development of higher order thinking in tertiary settings as it is based on asynchronous dialogue and text based interaction that allows reflection and composition of thoughtful responses. Dialogue and language use are fundamental to higher order cognition, and the processes of articulation and sharing of ideas assist conceptualisation. To ensure that online forums and bulletin boards are supportive of higher order cognition, the learning environment must be designed to so that tasks are engaging and cognitively demanding, students have active roles and online tutors scaffold thinking processes.


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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://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/confs/tlf/tlf2000/mcloughlin.html

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