Using the internet to teach critical thinking and argumentation skills might seem a little crazy to anyone who has ever read a YouTube comment section, but researchers at the Woolf Fisher Research Centre are figuring out how to do just that.

“The classroom has become a diverse place and online there’s huge global and community reach with unlimited possibilities for access to information and interactions with others. So this project is about helping students develop the skills needed to interact socially and intellectually within these diverse settings,” Naomi Rosedale, a doctoral candidate based at the centre, said.

“Creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking – these skills are increasingly being recognised as those separating students who will thrive in diverse and complex modern environments from those who will not.”

Developing Digital Worlds is a collaborative study involving students, teachers and families from 19 early childhood centres, primary and secondary schools. These schools/centres have been grouped into three clusters: an early-adopting cluster comprising schools that have operated the longest in a one-device-to-one-student programme, and two later adopters (one of which is a group of five Ngā Kura ā iwi, Māori medium schools).

“There is still so little that we know about the developmental nature of children’s social and cognitive skills in digital learning environments,” Director of the Woolf Fisher Research Centre Professor Stuart McNaughton said. “In fact, to our knowledge, this project is the first in the world that investigates the links in skill development with classroom teaching, whānau support at home, and digital learning tools, including games.”

The project is designed to investigate both cognitive and social skills. One example has been an online discussion board using Google Groups where students responded to threads based on an environmental issue around a visiting pop star filming at Bethels Beach. Students had to use critical reasoning, examine different perspectives and deal with conflicting evidence.

“It’s about looking at how texts carry particular agendas, motives and biases – which is critical when sourcing information from the internet. We also aimed to develop students’ ability to go beyond persuasive argument and take all available information into account, not just the evidence that supports their immediate position,” Naomi said.

“Schools have a tendency to teach persuasive skills, like literary essays and speech writing, but not necessarily critical argumentation, which is far more challenging. Critical argumentation takes into account any relevant counter-arguments, and counter-evidence to reach an informed conclusion. On the discussion board students’ reasoning is also made accountable and visible to others.”

Initial indicators from teachers are that digital environments do provide opportunities to teach these skills more and also for students to consider the diversity of each other’s opinions.

“One young girl downloaded an actual map of the area and demonstrated how far the filming activity was from the location in question, querying any disruption to the dotterel colony at the centre of the issue,” Naomi said. “However, others essentially went into test mode and tended to just work with the resources we gave them, even though they were given the option to use the internet for verification and inquiry, so it’s an area where they can be encouraged to have more critical agency.”

Naomi added that because these activities are online and students can post reflections to their blogs, they can start having conversations about their learning with whānau. This can be highly engaging and relevant to families, given the need for far more discussion about how to interact in responsible and positive ways online.

The Woolf Fisher research team have also created a game in partnership with Software Engineering Processes, Tools, and Applications (SEPTA) Director Dr Rashina Hoda and game design consultants InGame. This lays the foundation for developing and assessing critical literacy skills through a virtual space adventure where students collaborate to save a distant planet from asteroid collision. The game will be ready for wider distribution following final testing in the project schools later this year.

For further information about the Developing in Digital Worlds Project visit their website.

Banner image: Professor Stuart McNaughton and Naomi Rosedale

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