A Theory of Critical Inquiry in Online
D. Randy Garrison
University of Calgary
University of Saskatchauan
Online learning represents a new paradigm for distance and distributed learning. Furthermore, this new paradigm is affecting education in general: the previously marginal subfield of distance education has become a central focus of the field of education because of the flexibility and general attractiveness of its new paradigm.
What distinguishes online learning from previous paradigms of distance education is its ability to create critical communities of inquiry. That is, as distance educators we are now able to do what was previously impossible—conduct collaborative learning regardless of time and place. This ability to provide interactive learning experiences characterized by critical discourse is what has attracted the attention of traditional educators and institutions. Ironically, it has also seriously challenged the subfield of distance education to hold its place as a leader in its own area of expertise, since many other educators and trainers from the public and private sectors are now becoming involved with online learning (Tait & Mills, 1999).
The question here is whether the subfield of distance education has the vision and theoretical foundation to distinguish itself as a leader in shaping new initiatives related to developments in online learning. It is not enough for distance educators to be good practitioners. To be leaders, scholars working in the field of distance education must demonstrate theoretical insight as well as retain their position as innovative practitioners. One challenge they face is to provide a theoretical framework with the potential to explain and shape distance education practice in the area of interactive online education. The theory outlined in this chapter is intended to be a practical tool that will help educators think through their needs and understand the pedagogical, technological, and organizational options open to them.