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e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: a literature review

Publication Details

This e-Learning literature review examined texts across a range of countries, but within a relatively short time frame of the preceding five years. A range of criteria were used to select or eliminate studies for closer review (see Methodology and Methods section). Some key terms are defined for the purpose of this review: outcomes, e-Learning, tools, affordances, Web 2.0.

Author(s): Noeline Wright

Date Published: July 2010

Critical thinking, metacognition and multiliteracies

  • Critical thinking is related to multiliteracies. It is the development of the facility to understand aspects of texts such as agency, motivation, gaps and silences, and political and economic agendas. It is also about purposeful and reflective judgement, involving determining meaning and significance of phenomena, including different kinds of texts. This deliberate critical stance is as important to e-Learning texts as it is to the critique of traditional texts, because it is about higher order thinking skills: Thinking is a Key Competency in NZC.
  • Pedagogies that feature collaboration and problem-solving tend to involve students in higher order thinking, and support them to retain learning long after they first meet new content and concepts. Through such practices, students are encouraged to talk, pose questions, take risks, experiment, reflect and share ideas.
  • ‘Multiliteracies’ is a term coined by the New London Group in order to describe what constitutes literacy in the 21st century. The term acknowledges the idea of textual multiplicity. This idea encompasses the technological explosion of what constitutes a text, and considers this in relation to cultural and linguistic diversity and what it means to be literate. Another facet of this definition refers to the agency of making meaning: that this can be a critical factor in social change.

Aspects of critical thinking have already been alluded to in this review especially regarding metacognition and the ability of students to navigate and manipulate electronic texts to develop conceptual understanding. Critical thinking is also related to multiliteracies: it is the development of the ability to understand aspects of texts such as agency, motivation, gaps and silences, and political and economic agendas. It is also about purposeful and reflective judgement, involving determining meaning and significance of phenomena, including different kinds of texts. This deliberate critical stance is as important to e-Learning texts as it is to the critique of traditional texts, because it is about higher order thinking skills: Thinking is a Key Competency in NZC.

Wan et al. (2008) for instance, considered the importance of students’ virtual competence in learning. They defined ‘virtual competence’ as an individual’s ability to leverage virtual settings to their maximum potential. This ability to use such leverage can be understood as a critical thinking capacity. A teacher’s role is to harness these skills educatively, so that students develop greater independence as learners and can function as thoughtful citizens.

Rumpagaporn’s (2007) thesis identified the value of ICT tools in classrooms to outcomes of critical thinking and positive attitudes to e-Learning. Data from this research, using both qualitative and quantitative means, led to the view that overall, many students improved their levels of critical thinking during the course of the research. Critical thinking was, for the purposes of this study, defined as consisting of not only three essential processes (problem-solving, a reasoning and decision-making) but also the ability to be self-reflective and willing to critique others’ thinking. The Thinking Key Competency in The New Zealand Curriculum links to this definition, since it identifies “using creative, critical and metacognitive process to make sense of information, experiences and ideas” (2007, p. 12) as important components of this competency. Thus, any tools which help students develop critical thinking capacity, are worth experimenting with in classrooms.

A doctoral thesis conducted in Queensland senior physics and junior science classrooms identified the impact of using web-based tools on students’ outcomes in these subjects (Chandra, 2004). Examining interaction and teachers’ pedagogical actions were key components of the study. Outcomes in this study specifically related to positive effects on academic performance as well as general attitudes to ICT. Interestingly, Chandra did not discern any differences between the performances and attitudes of girls or boys, but found that the senior physics students benefited most from using ICT as a problem-posing/problem-solving tool. It may be that this lack of differentiation between the performance of boys and girls could be attributed to their self-selection for physics, which may include a predisposition to problem-solving methods using tools at hand, but even so, problem-solving involves critical and analytical thinking.

Pedagogies that feature collaboration and problem-solving involve students in higher order thinking, and support them to retain learning long after they first meet new content and concepts. Higher order thinking includes the ability to judge, analyse, synthesise, critique. Problem-posing and problem-solving practices tend to encourage students to talk, pose questions, take risks, experiment, reflect and share ideas. These practices also suggest evaluative thinking - examining how they arrived at their decisions, and making judgements about quality – of the processes they used and the products they created.

The work of Moos and Azvedo (2009) and Chism (2006) allude to the importance of students applying metacognitive skills. Active learning processes align with Edgar Dale’s (1969) cone of learning, in which ‘doing the real thing’ or simulating experiences supports the effective long-term memory of new learning. Additionally, while students are together actively engaged in grappling with content and concepts with and through technological means, they articulate their reasoning and thinking processes in order to complete the task and develop new understanding. The gaming practices Gee (2003) examined link to similar knowledge creation processes that involve interaction, problem-solving and trial-and-error. These tasks, by their nature, inherently require students to engage in higher order thinking processes. Gee argues that these cognitive skills also link to what it means to be literate. When these ideas are aligned with the pedagogical practices which become foregrounded in e-Learning rich classrooms, the link between more purposeful thinking and active learning becomes clear. They also link to the growing body of knowledge about multiliteracies.

‘Multiliteracies’ is a term coined by the New London Group in order to describe what constitutes literacy in the 21st century. The term acknowledges the idea of textual multiplicity. This idea encompasses the technological explosion of what constitutes a text, and considers this in relation to cultural and linguistic diversity and what it means to be literate. Another facet of this definition refers to the agency of making meaning, noting that this can be a critical factor in social change. The New London Group (Cazden, Cope, Fairclough, Gee, & et al, 1996) identified a number of ways through which meaning is made. These include:

  • Linguistic Meaning - language in cultural contexts (sometimes linked to critical literacy)
  • Visual Meaning - seeing and viewing
  • Audio Meaning - hearing and sound
  • Gestural Meaning – movement
  • Spatial Meaning - space and place. (“Multiliteracies,” n.d.)

In terms of e-Learning, this set of contexts for making meaning are important, since e-Learning contexts are likely to combine a number of these elements if the pedagogical practices are oriented to co-constructive processes. They also relate closely to what it means to be critically literate, and “supplements traditional literacy pedagogy” (Cazden et al., 1996).

McLeod and Vasinda (2008) argue that critical literacy and Web 2.0 affordances are intertwined. They propose that 21st century learners must be able to “carefully consider authors’ intent and context and determine the purpose, reliability, and credibility of information” (p. 260) because of the ubiquity of Web 2.0. They also argue that 21st century learners must be able to “think abstractly about problems, work collaboratively in teams, critically evaluate information, and perhaps even speak multiple languages” (p. 260). Thus, critical literacy is “no longer an option”. Web 2.0 affordances, which include blogs, Wikis, and podcasts, are so easy to use and create, that individuals as well as organisations and businesses can have a web presence. These tools, according to McLeod and Vasinda, mean that people can continually update anything they created on the Web, any time they choose as long as they have access to the Web.

This ability to continually individually and collectively make meaning, suggests loose and changeable connections among people who may move in and out of communities of practice in both formal and informal contexts. As Wan et al. (2008) noted, the virtual competence of users of e-Learning tools in terms of socialisation protocols might be hugely important when these affordances are corralled for educational use. When users can alter texts and interpretations at will, the locus of control regarding information and knowledge is altered. ‘Mashing’ and ‘modding’ can be both individual and collective efforts, creating new artefacts and ways of perceiving the world, thus potentially creating a constant state of reinvention2. These are multiliteracies in action.

Critical literacy – the ability of readers to evaluate, critique and transform texts - is thus an important skill for learners to develop. This is because readers are no longer confined to the role of passive recipients, but can become active creators of information and knowledge. Only by becoming a critically literate learner will a student be better able to detect authorial intent and perspective, judge reasons for the existence of specific texts, and make reasonable guesses about what and why specific elements have been excluded or included. Essentially, “When readers consider issues behind the text, question the author’s perspective and intent, and reflect upon how thy are changed because of the encounter with the text, they are approaching reading from a critical perspective or stance” (McLeod & Vasinda, 2008, p. 261).

A clear implication of students developing these metacognitive and critical thinking skills, plus becoming active creators of information through using Web 2.0 programs, is that teachers are no longer the educational controllers of either information or knowledge production. Instead, they become the facilitators of opportunities for students to engage in critical and analytical thinking about various kinds of texts and environments. This suggests something of the importance of integrating ICT tools into content areas and teaching both students and teachers how to be critical users of technology in situated contexts.

A primary school class in Finland demonstrated this well (Teachers TV, 2006). The teacher described the collaborative uses to which the ICT tools were put, increasing the ability of students to not only build on the knowledge that other students have created, but also make links to the wider learning community of which they are part. The teacher talked of this as progressive learning, which could also be understood as a version of scaffolding. And while these students developed their skills as ICT users, they were engaged in content learning across the curriculum and using a variety of texts and affordances to do so, thus demonstrating multimodal (ie working across a range of modes, such as visual, oral, symbolic, written, moving, static) behaviours and multiliteracies in action.

As Mcvee, Bailey and Shanahan (2008) argue, teachers’ approaches to the demands of learning, their knowledge of and about multimodal text design, plus their attitudes to literacy/multiliteracies and technology, may be more important to students’ learning than any particular ICT tools they use. The ability to integrate the tools into authentic learning opportunities appears to be a significant factor in successful ICT/e-Learning environments.

Footnote

  1. see http://patchworkearth.net/?p=74 for examples of this.

 


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