An extract from a recent paper, “Students’ Experiences of Critical Discourse”, by Liam Rourke and Heather Kanuka:
“Computer conferencing, first introduced in distance higher-education settings over 20-years ago, is increasingly presented as a forum for knowledge co-construction, informal argumentation, group problem solving, emancipatory dialogue, dialogue journaling, or relational communication (respectively, (Gunawardena, Lowe, & Anderson, 1997; Marttunen, 1998; Jonassen, 1996; Boyd, 1987; Fisher, 1996; Rovai, 2001).
“So far, many students and instructors have reported that conferencing enhances their learning or teaching, and that they enjoyed the experiences and look forward to participating in more conferences. However, two decades of research observation indicate that students rarely engage in the communicative processes that comprise critical discourse. More troubling, some reports suggest that in the rare cases when they do, they do not achieve the purported outcomes (Veerman, Andriessen, Kanselaar, 2000)….
“CRITICAL DISCOURSE is an enduring feature of higher education… As Weedman (1999) has shown, few scholars, artists, or professionals can produce their work in solitude; they need the give and take (thrust and parry?) of debate and critical discussion with their peers in order to develop their ideas. Theoretically, a wide range of scholars offer accounts of the role of argumentation in a diverse set of educational outcomes including cognitive development (Perret-Clairmont, Perret & Bell, 1989), higher order thinking (Vygotsky, 1972), conceptual change (Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann & Glaser, 1989), emancipation (Mezirow, 1990), practical competence (Orr, 1996), epistemic development (Belenky, Tarule & Goldberger, 1997), and understanding (Gadamer, 1989)…
“In 2000, Garrison, Anderson and Archer presented an influential model of computer conferencing’s role in higher, distance education. At the core of their complex model was the process of critical discourse. For a computer conference to serve as an educational environment, they argued (Garrison et al., 2001, p. 15):
it must be more than undirected, unreflective, random exchanges and dumps of opinions. Higher-order learning requires sustained critical discourse where dissonance and problems are resolved through exploration, integration and testing.
“An operational definition of critical discourse emerges in the rubric they developed to assess students’ participation in conferences. At the upper end of their hierarchical rubric are conversational actions such as challenging others’ interpretations, supporting conclusions with evidence, and developing evidentiary hypotheses. Contributing to the definition are the responsibilities they assign to instructors: identifying areas of disagreement, seeking to reach a consensus, focusing the discussion, and diagnosing misconceptions.
“This model is just one among many in which critical discourse plays a central role. Despite the warm feelings that these phrases evoke among distance educators (like us), Laurillard pointed out in 1993 that, “One of the greatest untested assumptions of current educational practice is that students learn from discussion” (p. 171). Since that time, several researchers have responded to her challenge. Using labor-intensive data collection and analysis techniques, which typically involve classifying each locution produced by each student through the duration of a course, researchers often find results similar to Marttunen’s:
…results reveal that the interaction between students turns out to be mainly non-argumentative in nature: only a small percentage of students’ references to each others’ texts express opinions opposed to those of fellow students, and only a smaller fraction indicate grounded disagreement. The results suggest that the pedagogical aim of our studies, to engage students in argumentative interaction, is not realized very well. (1998, p. 397)
“In this study, we spoke with five students (from a group of 12) and their instructor while they participated in a computer conference as part of their graduate-level humanities course. They provided several insights into our observation that the forums contained little critical discourse: 1) They did not orient to the conference as a forum for critical discourse, and worse, they had competing orientations; 2) they perceived critiques as personal attacks; and 3) they realized early on that critical discourse was a bothersome means to obtain their participation marks.
“We suggest certain elements may ease some of these difficulties, including 1) well-structured learning activities with clearly defined roles for teachers and students, 2) a method of assessing students’ participation in the conferences that reflects the time and effort required to engage in critical discourse, and 3) an understanding of the technology’s function that attends to the students’ experiences.”
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