Historical Context of the Study

The traditional “face to face” (f2f), classroom-based model of higher education involves students traveling to a central campus in order to attend classes involving lectures, assigned readings, discussion groups, and/or laboratory experiences. Students often have the opportunity to interact with professors, fellow students, or teaching assistants (usually senior or graduate students) in f2f higher education.  Even so, this situation is changing. Many post-secondary instructions today offer some form of distance or blended courses. Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) contend that this interaction with peers and mentors forms the core of the learning experience in modern higher education.

Distance learning courses and programs have historically been offered through printed materials sent by postal mail, through radio and television programming delivered over the air, or through a combination of both, often with pre-recorded audio and video sent through the mail (Rumble, 2001). These methods were considered to be poor approximations of a “real” higher education experience because the interaction between students and faculty (and even more so between students and their peers) was either so slow as to be virtually ineffective (students would have to wait for several days or weeks to get any feedback from their instructor), or it was non-existent. However, recent advances in the capabilities of modern personal computers as well as the Internet have created opportunities for distance students to reap similar benefits as those attending campus-based institutions with regard to interactions with peers and mentors. Online distance learning has prompted a renaissance of sorts for the field of online distance learning (Rumble, 2001).

In contrast with earlier distance learning models, students in online courses and programs today can interact with an extensive collection of media-rich learning materials; with a few mouse clicks, they can access thousands of scholarly journals in hundreds of databases; they can interact virtually face-to-face with their instructors in real time; they can collaborate on assignments and projects with distant peers, and they can do most of it at any time or place. Distance learners are most often separated geographically, and now, with modern information and communication technologies, they can also be separated across time zones.

However, despite the reported educational advantages to learners interacting across time and place, it is also true that the technology supporting the network can be misused. Too many well-intentioned educators use the Internet as a place to store static materials such as lecture notes or articles, which can turn a class website into a passive “page-turner” for a print-based course (Lee & Dashew, 2011; Pelz, 2010). Even those instructors who use the Internet to promote interaction with discussion forums may lack guidance and professional development on best practices for designing the discussions to maximize student interaction with the aim to promote critical thinking (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005).

In the same way that it would be inadequate to tell students in a face-to-face class to “Talk about the article,” and hope that they are fully engaged in the resultant activity, it is also inadequate to post some questions on a discussion board and expect that students’ posts will show evidence of critical thinking (Kanuka, 2005). If a learning activity is intended to promote learner agency and critical thinking skills in an online environment, the activity must be designed with those goals in mind and its structure and directions should guide the process to ensure that the learners are in fact thinking critically and that they have options with respect to how they will meet the objectives of the activity.

Considering that many faculty do not have sufficient training in instructional design or the facilitation of online learning experiences or even teaching in general, it is important to investigate ways in which critical thinking skills can be embedded into the design of online distance learning courses and to specify how instructors can best facilitate those learning experiences. By ensuring that students can engage in critical thinking and complex reasoning, and communicate in clear, written language, we can avoid creating graduates of our higher education system who cannot think or reason well.

Cooperative learning researchers (Johnson & Johnson, 1999b; Slavin, 1980) suggest that structuring learning activities to require cooperation and providing students with the appropriate cooperative and cognitive skills are essential prerequisites to realizing the goal of student-student interactions that generate and require critical thinking skills. Instructors cannot assume that simply allowing or requiring students to work in dyads or small groups will provide significant learning benefits.