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Fostering Reflection in Online Learning Environments

Page history last edited by stuartcmarshall@... 10 years ago

Group Assignment Submission


Andrew Oraeki and Stuart Marshall




Since Dewey first advocated the use of reflection in education back in 1933, much has been written about its vital role in the learning process. Since the advent of the internet and online learning, debate has arisen about the most appropriate means of fostering reflection of this type via that medium, particularly with regard to the affordances of web 2.0 technologies.


This paper will critically review contributions to this body of work and present its findings with particular regard to how the technologies available can be best exploited by the tutor to promote reflection within an online learning environment.




Definitions for reflection are abundant. One that is widely used is from Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985, p.3) who suggest that reflective activities are ones in which “individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciation”. Mezirow (1990, p.5) suggests, however, that this view of reflection is limited and misses the critical element that Dewey was advocating. It is only where the individual questions “the grounds of one’s beliefs” (Dewey 1933, p.9), in an act termed ‘critical reflection’, that the full benefits can be realised.


Critical reflection enables students to frame problems of practice in light of multiple perspectives, critiquing and reframing problems within broader sociopolitical and moral perspectives, and taking action that is informed by such reframing (Whipp, J, 2003). This means the student has the opportunity of multifaceted perspective, enabling a deeper understanding through learning that is meaningful.


Reflection is most commonly practiced by an individual (self-reflection). However it can also happen within a group or community (group-reflection), the benefits of which have been widely discussed (Gerlach 1994; Johnson, Johnson and Smith 1995). This paper focuses on a third approach, where reflection (either self or group) can be promoted, facilitated and guided in an online course environment by the tutor.


The promotion of metacognition is seen as a useful way for tutors to trigger this type of critical reflection in learners and, properly executed, it becomes a key part of the ‘deep’ or ‘active’ learning process. Barell suggests that "In order to transfer knowledge or skills from one situation to another, we must be aware of them; metacognitive strategies are designed to help students become more aware" (1992, p.259). Likewise, Bransford et al point out that strategies such as this “can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and actively monitoring their progress in achieving them” (2006, p.66).




The act of reflection is, ultimately, one that the students themselves have responsibility for (Laurillard 2013, p.76) however the tools and technologies that are available, and how these are presented to the student by the tutor, also have a large part to play in whether this actually occurs or not.


Discussion Forums


Vygotsky (1978) first identified the role of peer discussion in the learning process. More recently, and with regard to reflection, Entwistle and Peterson suggested that educators should “provide opportunities for group discussion of both content and learning processes” (2004, p. 424). One way to achieve this in an online environment is by using discussion forums. These have virtually become an ubiquitous feature in online courses and, as such, have been widely used by students for some time. Mak S et al (2010) found that using technologies such as this (i.e. those with text input) don't require a huge learning curve. This is obviously beneficial as the learner can progress with the reflection process without first having to learn a new system.


In addition, discussion forums can help to foster a ‘community of inquiry’ (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2001) and enhance the feeling of ‘social presence’ and ‘connectedness’ (Belderrain, 2006) .


Discussion forums, within a course, provide scope to centralise reflection and allow learner to more easily compare and contrast their own reflections with those of others, often promoting further reflection. This is supported by the work done by Levin (1999) which proposed that discussion forums prompted reflective thinking as multiple perspectives and individual reasoning are made explicitly visible among groups of peers. This is an advantage over even face to face discussion as online forums afford the opportunity for the reflection to be recorded and to continue for a long time, even allowing the perspective to change and evolve. This further encourages the opportunity for deeper learning processes to occur.


Discussion forums as a tool for reflection exposes the emotional links that people make during the learning process. (Gleaves, Walker & Grey, 2008, p. 230). For meaningful and purposive learning to take place, ‘students clearly need educating in the importance and processes of critical reflection in every sense – cognitive, emotional and experiential’. This depends on the connections made between the forum members and the length of time that they have been together. This can help to build the confidence of students to participate and to activate the thinking process of the students.


Alternative technologies


Online blogs or journals are also often used as reflection tools and offer a number of benefits (Murray et al 2007; Oliver 2007). These technologies however are perhaps best used outside of a course environment for personal reflection, or used in the workplace to promote reflective practice. This findings of this paper suggest that the centralised nature of discussion forum activity means that (when in the confines of an online course unit) they offer more affordances than these other technologies. In addition, Mak S et al (2010) discovered that the rate of interaction with forums was faster than with blogs or other asynchronous computer-mediated-communication (CMC) systems. This is something that is highly valued by students.


Synchronous discussion forums are another option however these can be difficult to organise in a distance setting, especially for large groups. Additionally, the output from these sessions is often stored, if at all, as a video file which makes it more difficult to dip into in future to allow for further reflection.


Role of tutor


Although there is great potential for the technology to facilitate deep learning and reflection (Garrison & Anderson, 2003), it is not enough on its own (Wu and Hiltz, 2004). Neither is the tutor simply instructing their learners to “go and reflect” (Welch 1999). “Peer discussion”, Laurillard states “requires careful planning and support by the teacher if students are really to develop their cognitive understanding” (2013, p.142) . As such, there is a requirement on the part of the tutor to scaffold and support the reflection process within these technologies. To do this there are a number of methods that can be adopted by the tutor.


Firstly, the promotion of the discussion forum as a ‘safe space’ is critical. This can be done by fostering the feeling of connectedness and the establishment of social presence previously discussed.


To begin a discussion the tutor can use various questioning techniques. The wording and ‘openness’ of these questions can have a large bearing on how the responses manifest.


When the discussion has begun then the tutor has to adopt the role of coach or eModerator (Curtis and Lawson 2001; Macdonald 2003; Salmon, 2004) to help ensure that the discussion stays active and does not veer off onto tangents. The techniques advocated by these researchers also allow the tutor to provide timely and meaningful feedback. Tutor intervention can be timely and can bring insight into the reflection to encourage students participation. Likewise, the tutor can also prompt the student to justify their comments therefore forcing the use of metacognition (Lin and Lehman, 1988). According to Mazolinni, M and Maddison, S (2004) there are three opportunistic point of insertion of a tutors comment within a discussion forum. This include when to make a comment, how often to make a comment and what kind of comment to make. This is very important because the tutor can either become the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’. Students are often encouraged to take part in online forums if they see that their tutor is playing an active role.  


Another option for the tutor is to employ group management strategies (Eom, Wen & Ashill 2006) and role distribution (Koppenhaver and Shrader 2003). These techniques put some of the onus back onto the group members themselves to participate in meaningful debate.


The size of the discussion group can also have a large bearing on the success. Desanctis et al (2003) believe that when forum discussions involved fewer people it encouraged a deeper, more insightful reflection (and which also was better at facilitating a feeling of community and increased social presence). Large groups often mean the students feel exposed and scrutinised by many people and this will invariably affect their level of participation. Generally people in large membership discussion forums often identify with an idea rather than at relational level.


Some studies have shown that the use of assessment can increase the quality of participation in an online discussion (MacDonald, 2003). Being assessed essentially ‘forces’ the student to participate and to put in more effort than they may have otherwise.


Some students struggle when it comes to reflection because there is a tendency for students to be unsure what to reflect on and indeed how to reflect.  According to Rocco, S. (2010) this challenge is compounded with the need to ensure that students make time for the reading and evaluation of relevant literature. By requiring reflective learners to synthesise and analyse the critical elements of selected readings, students were able to purposefully engage with the relevant literature. The use of discussion forums to facilitate this is obvious.




Although discussions (in face to face settings) have been found to be excellent forums to provoke critical thinking (Brookfield, 1990) there has been doubts raised over the ability of online forums to do the same (Collette, Kanuka, Blanchette, & Goodale, 1999). Research in this area is still in its infancy.


And as Laurillard points out, “the test [of their success] is often whether discussion and interaction takes place, not whether something is learned” (2012, p.151). It is difficult therefore to identify how much reflection has taken place or gauge how much the students are pushing themselves simply by determining if they were active within a discussion.


Additionally, even though discussion forums are now widely used there is still reticence from some students, through a sensitivity or a feeling of awkwardness, to fully engage with the discussion / debating process (Kuhn, 1991; Curtis and Lawson 2001; Holton 2001).




The literature reviewed supports the theory that, properly positioned within an online course, discussion forums can provide a strong platform that affords the student with the opportunity to engage in reflective activity, individually or as part of a group. Whether the student exploits this affordance is, to a large extent, up to the student themselves however, as we have seen, there are a number of ways which the tutor can encourage participation. The hope however may be, as Mak, S et al (2010) suggest, for forums to be structured largely by the learners themselves, with minimal or no ‘facilitation’ required. As learning online becomes a more and more regular occurrence then this may well be possible. This area will need further research.


Although other technologies afford learners the opportunity for reflection, the use of discussion forums, as the literature confirms, offer a number of unique benefits. Primarily the ability to centralise the reflection of a number of students, allowing for easy analysis of the entries made by peers. This can also promote the act of further reflection. Where reflective activities have taken place in synchronous settings the details of the discussion are unlikely to have been transcribed (though they may have been recorded) making review of the debate difficult.


A major difficulty that the literature highlights, and which is the same for any type of reflection, is the difficulty in determining how much reflection has actually taken place. It’s almost impossible to gauge to what extent the student is applying themselves to the process or whether they are operating well within themselves. This is an area that requires further analysis. What the studies do support though is the value of promoting student engagement with the metacognitive process to aid their learning.




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