Critical Thinking in Online Educational Discussions Measured as Progress through Inquiry Phases: A Discussion of the Cognitive Presence Construct in the Community of Inquiry Framework

By Breivik, Jens | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking in Online Educational Discussions Measured as Progress through Inquiry Phases: A Discussion of the Cognitive Presence Construct in the Community of Inquiry Framework


Breivik, Jens, International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education


Introduction

Online discussions have become a widespread learning activity. The development of critical thinking is a rationale for higher education and a feature frequently examined in research about online discussions. A common method for assessing the quality of online discussions is analysis of discussion transcripts. Nevertheless, critical thinking is not easily defined or operationalized.

Researchers have suggested a large number of different approaches to operationalize critical thinking in online educational discussions. Weltzer-Ward (2011) identified 52 different research frameworks and coding schemes employed between 2002 and 2009 in research on such discussions, although not all of these focused on the critical thinking aspect. According to Weltzer-Ward, a lack of consistent tools hinders comparison of research results and the ability to build on previous analysis. She recommended that researchers should concentrate on a smaller number of frameworks, particularly those that have been most frequently applied in the research field. Among the most frequently applied are frameworks and schemes focusing on inquiry phases (Weltzer-Ward 2011). De Wever, Schellens, Valcke, and Van Keer (2006) discussed 15 different frameworks for content analysis of transcripts from online discussions. According to their research, coherence between the theoretical bases and operationalizations is questionable for a number of the frameworks they examined.

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Garrison, 2011) is widely claimed to be a leading research approach to e-learning in general and online educational discussions in particular (Gasevic, Adesope, Joksimovic, & Kovanovic, 2015; Jézégou, 2010; Shea, 2010; Swan, Garrison, & Richardson, 2009; Weltzer-Ward, 2011). A significant number of studies based on this framework have recently been conducted (Gasevic et al., 2015; Horzum & Uyanik, 2015; Lee, 2014; Shea et al., 2014). The framework is also applied through automatic coding software based on learning analytics (Kovanovic, Gasevic, Joksimovic, Hatala, & Adesope, 2015). The CoI framework aims to describe how e-learning can support a collaborative approach to education that promotes deep and meaningful learning (Garrison et al., 1999; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). According to the framework, a challenge for online education is to overcome distance and support several kinds of presence. The model suggests the following three distinct but overlapping constructs to assess online educational discussions: social presence, teaching presence, and cognitive presence.

Social presence signifies participants' ability to present themselves as "real people" in a purely textual medium and is characterized by emotional expression, open communication, and group cohesion. Teaching presence describes the design and facilitation of the educational experience. Cognitive presence aims to describe higher-order knowledge acquisition and critical thinking as progress through the phases of a triggering event, exploration, integration, and resolution.

The abundance of different frameworks and the variety of different approaches to critical thinking indicate that operationalizing critical thinking is not straightforward. Although the research literature is rich with different approaches, literature that discusses the adequacy and validity of the different frameworks is scarce. For example, there is some discussion about reliability issues (Garrison, Cleveland-Innes, Koole, & Kappelman, 2006), yet little critical discussion of the construct validity of the cognitive presence construct within CoI research. Two articles represent exceptions to this. Rourke and Anderson (2004) noted that one explanation for the observed low levels of cognitive presence might be a result of shortcomings in the coding protocol (p. 11). This observation has not generated much attention. …

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