Online Learning, Shared Thinking, and the Development of Conceptual Understandings

Paul Sparks, Margaret Riel and Bill Moseley


In online learning, students struggle with their own emerging understandings as they are asked to formulate their positions within a context of multiple perspectives and sometimes competing or conflicting ideas. This contrasts with face to face settings where students are more likely to be receiving fully developed positions by professors in lectures. The quality of online learning relies on students' ability to engage one another in dialogic inquiry with the assumption that this process leads to deep conceptual understanding leading to professional transformation. The goal of this paper is to investigate the claim that online interactive dialogue effects deep conceptual change. In doing so, it examines theoretical claims that thinking that occurs on the social plane is internalized to inner or conceptual understandings.

The online learning in this study is a hybrid program involving both face to face learning and distributed learning using web-based tools. Over 80 percent of the program interaction occurs online. Students use a variety of social networking applications to facilitate their discussions and group projects such as chats, forums, blogs, instant messaging, and podcasts. The mix of tools changes with each year depending largely on student preference. Students also use these tools to connect socially, building trust and caring relationships. It is suspected that a strong community support enables students to extend conceptual understanding and try on new learning and leadership identities.

Thinking is a dialogic process of building knowledge through text based messaging and collaborative projects. And conceptual understandings indicate a student's ability to detail their current thinking around a set of topics. The purpose of this paper is to explore the process of individual conceptual change after a highly interactive online dialogic process.

Theory, Literature Review, and Model of Change

In this paper we will be exploring the patterns of change or lack of change in student's understanding of concepts around learning and leading. Our theory of change is based on the theory of Vygotsky which suggests that learning takes place on the social plane before it is integrated in the individual thinking. The question we raise in this paper is how does a highly interactive process of participating in a mostly online program affect conceptual knowledge construction.

Asynchronous learning networks can enhance collaborative learning and dialogic inquiry by extending the thinking time. Learners have the opportunity to reflect on a range of responses before formulating their own (Aviv 2002). In effect it is a slow motion conversation not only between teacher and students but from student to student (Bender, 2003).

The process of learning involves action, reaction, analysis, and reflection. This statement, which is consistent with the constructivist theories of (Piaget, 1952), defines the process of action research. Students need to learn to go beyond the information given, to apply what they learn in new contexts (Bruner, 1973). To integrate technology, students need to engage in a process of inquiry and experimentation to think about teaching and learning in progressively more expert ways (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993).

The Pepperdine application procedure requires students to identify a problem in their field of practice. The collective set of issues or problems students bring to the program help the faculty shape the curriculum to address these workplace problems. This means that the content of graduate courses changes in response to the unique configuration of each cadre’s needs and interests. The overarching goal of the program is for each student to understand their role in a primary community of practice, and then develop new strategies for how they might serve this community in effective ways. Each student brings a personal, local version of technology in education as practiced in his or her workplace. Students come to the program from primary and secondary higher educational communities as well as social, organization, and corporate communities. The work experiences they share in the ongoing discourse of the program’s yearlong action research project and companion courses offer a view of the variations and the commonalities in problems, issues, objects, histories, and goals. The elementary school computer lab teacher and the aerospace information technology worker share common frustrations at the consequences of working on the peripheries of their organizations. The high school English teacher and the university media specialist share their common concerns about information literacy and acceptable use policies for student Internet use. The role of each of these students in their communities of practice is the basic unit of design of each learning experience.

The cadre research advisor helps the students frame good research questions and collect evidence which will help them think more deeply about the problems in their workplace and progress towards framing increasingly better solutions. The action taken might be to listen, perform, connect, build, design, write, or interact in some way that effects a change in a social context. The evidence collected helps them analyze the reactions. Reflection on previous action-reaction cycles helps them to plan the next cycle of action (Mills, 2003). The process is cyclic because contexts shift — people and technology evolve. What works well at one time can almost always be improved in the next cycle. Students engage in a number of action research cycles with the support of the cadre and under the direction of their cadre advisor and course professors. The goal is transformative, making the process of the research the central focus. The faculty seeks to develop in students a habit of inquiry and a deep understanding of social context and social change dynamics. Often students experience a transformation of their identity within their community of practice. They come to see their role as one of leadership through service to the community, which in turn changes the dynamics of the communities.

Method of analysis

This study is qualitative. Student responses to pre and post program surveys will be coded independently by two researchers. Discrepancies will be resolved between the coders or omitted from the data set. Themes will be identified, counted and reported.

The pre and post surveys will be paired together by student so that conceptual changes for individual students can be tracked. Once pairing occurs the paired surveys will be assigned a number before coding so the students identity is not passed along to coders.

Institutional Review Board guidelines will be followed insuring privacy and anonymity for all students.

Data sources

Data for this study comes from a survey administered at the start and end of the one-year online program. The same survey has been administered regularly for the past 5 years offering an additional longitudinal view of the program's effectiveness.

While the survey has remained the same, the method of administration has changed from paper and pencil to online. This change has affected results somewhat in terms of participation and availability of results. The initial survey is taken during the first week of the program at VirtCamp, the face to face orientation session. The final survey is administered in the last weeks of the program either during the final face to face session or online. Participation is voluntary.

The survey question are listed below. They are designed to elicit understanding of the concepts of Learning, Leadership and Change. Responses lead to insights into changes in identity and transformation of professional practice.

1. How do people learn?
2. Given your understanding of how people learn, how should teaching happen?
3. What is the nature of leadership?
4. How have your ideas on learning, teaching and leadership changed (if at all) in the past year?
5. What are the skills you bring to your workplace, and how have they changed in the last year?
6. How would you characterize your identity within your workplace, and how has it has changed in the last year.

Student identity is tracked halfway through the process since it is the pre/post pairing of student responses that is of interest. Once pre and post responses are paired they will be assigned a number and blindly coded to remove any researcher bias.
All responses will be rated by two researchers and discrepancies resolved in the following manner. Where raters disagree they will discuss and agree or that students data will be disregarded. Responses will be anonymously reported.

Expected Findings

Casual observation of students writing in online forums and journals leads us to believe that significant conceptual/ identity change occurs during the year long program.

Online interaction in various forms (chat rooms, IM space, projects) provides the ongoing presence required to sustain transformation in the community. New communications technologies provide rich opportunities to share time and space online.

Students at the end of the experience made the following anonymous comments.
• I now recognize I have to step outside my own comfort zone and accept the help I need from other people.
• I now am able to reflect on the process, look at steps I took that limited my success and put me in a panic mode. I look at what went wrong and re-examine the process.
• Made me go deeper into my own self. It challenged me to read books that I would never have read before. I no longer see faults and limitation in others like before.


The significance of this study is threefold. Evidence of conceptual change in a mostly online program supports the current trend to integrate online elements in traditional classroom environments. It would also suggest that online programs can generate sufficient social interaction to support socially constructed learning. Finally, the process of conceptual change can be understood in the context of action research.

Additionally, our analysis may show additional benefits unique to the online environment.


Aviv, R., (2000) Educational Performance of ALN via Content Analysis. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 4(2): 53-72.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV). (1992). The Jasper experiment: An exploration of issues in learning and instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 40, 65-80.Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Bereiter, C., & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago: Open Court.

Bender, T.(2003). Discussion based online teaching to enhance student learning: Theory, practice and assessment.

Bruner, J. (1973) Going Beyond the Information Given, New York: Norton.

Piaget, J. (1952) The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International University Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge , MA : MIT Press.