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Argumentation Theory and Online Learning Cynthia Mills Boise State University


Abstract Argumentation in the learning environment promotes critical thinking and problem solving skills. In the online learning environment, the integration of this educational theory is as necessary as in the traditional classroom; however, there are challenges that the online learning environment presents that differ from the brick and mortar setting; thus, instructors need to utilize both instructional strategies and technology tools to ensure that argumentation not only transpires asynchronously and synchronously, but also that it is cultivated through effective collaboration in order to ensure that all students have the opportunity to be engaged in higher order thinking.


Most students enjoy sharing their opinion about certain topics, and when an instructor is able to harness the energy and conviction of her students, it creates the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. In addition, in order for students to become active participants in their professional and civic lives, the ability to argue effectively is key; living in a democratic society requires its citizens to not only be able to formulate arguments, but also to defend them and revise their opinion when needed (Nussbaum, 2002). Furthermore, when students engage in argumentation, explain their contentions, and review each others assertions, they are afforded opportunities to explore learning in different ways and discover how others perceptions influence their understanding of the world around them. Today, the challenge for effective argumentation in the online learning environment has surfaced because all too often, online learners do not reap the same rewards as their brick and mortar counterparts of experiencing active collaboration to engage in effective argumentation, but with the right instructional strategies in place and the assistance of todays educational technology, online teachers can provide an engaging and stimulating argumentative learning environment. Argumentation Theory

The argumentation theory is based on the fact that humans play games, and because games involve argumentation, which is the process of constructing and critiquing, (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 114) argumentation games are vital to learning environments. These types of games not only involve authentic activities, but they also depend on synthesizing information and decision-making. In its most basic form,

ARUGEMENTAION THEORY AND ONLINE LEARNING argumentation is the exchange of viewpoints. Scaffolding from this notion, researches have found that when instructors create an activity that allows students to share their ideas, provide evidence for those ideas, and allow others to agree or disagree with those ideas, it promotes deeper learning and understanding of the initial concept. However, it is important to note that there is a difference between "learning to argue and arguing to learn (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 115). For instance, learning to argue is important in

order to defend ones position; however, arguing to learn pushes the learner to dig deeper for meaning; and generating such arguments becomes a means to creating conceptual change or deeper conceptual meaning (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 115). Thus, argumentation refers to critiquing and debating each others assertions that include justifying and defending the contentions.

First, the study of argumentation seeks to identify multiple learner outcomes. According to Baker argumentation helps students clarify their own perception of the material because knowledge becomes explicit and visible (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 116). This happens when students access their background knowledge about a topic, share their theory with their peers and/or their instructor, learn from their misconceptions, and formulate new hypothesizes or understand the concept on a deeper level. Therefore, argumentation can change and develop a students perception by allowing students to reevaluate their initial assertions (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 116). This is due to the fact that stronger arguments prevail and co-elaboration of new knowledge occurs (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 116). Finally, Baker asserts that argumentation increases articulation. For instance, during an activity that involves argumentation, students need to pay attention and become good listeners; they also need to organize their own thoughts

ARUGEMENTAION THEORY AND ONLINE LEARNING in order to respond appropriately. Just as the exchange of ideas commence, so too students acquire negotiating skills, creating chains of reasoning (Jonassen and Land, 2012 p. 117). Overall, heightening articulation skills allows students to convey their ideas with more clarity, thus adding richness to the discussion and authenticity to the learning experience.

Secondly, researchers are exploring and improving on ways in which online instructors and learners can benefit from various approaches or modules of argumentation because like traditional brick and mortar classrooms, argumentation strategies in the online learning environment foster critical thinking skills, improve conceptual knowledge, and develop and increase the ability to construct and the critique issues (Asterhan and Schwartz, 2010). However, teachers lesson designs, including educational technology tools and interaction affect student argumentation differently. For instance, one key concept Asterhan and Schwartz (2010) assert is that simply creating small egroups does not guarantee engagement or good argumentation; therefore, it is important to examine how students should be supported when they are interacting with one another in the online learning environment in order to increase effective argumentation. In other words, researchers are asking the question: what can an online instructor implement to enhance collaborative argumentation? Similarly, researchers are exploring methods of engagement that are ineffective and trying to determine why certain argumentation strategies fail.

ARUGEMENTAION THEORY AND ONLINE LEARNING Asynchronous Argumentation In the online learning environment, asynchronous communication is inevitable, but can this learning environment be used to engage learners in argumentation? If so, what is the quality of the argumentation; in other words, is it authentic or manufactured? First, it is necessary to examine the benefits of asynchronous argumentation. To begin with, asynchronous reflections and assertions can be written when convenient for the user

(Marttunen and Laurinen, 2011). This is key because participants have time to think about and plan their responses. In addition, asynchronous communication has been characterized as a democratic medium which allows various kinds of people regardless of, for example, personal appearance, occupational status, and level of education, to participate in interaction on an equal basis (Marttunen and Laurinen, 2011). Without the fear of being judged, users may be more inclined to share responses. Moreover, participants often view texting as informal; thus, the message is more about the idea than the grammar, spelling, or other mechanics or conventions. Finally, asynchronous communication can incorporate a large group, which can in turn, increase the level of discussion (Marttunen and Laurinen, 2011).

Best Practices for Asynchronous Argumentation Although the benefits of asynchronous communication appears to translate into the notion that argumentation strategies will be effective by both allowing learners time to respond and affording a safe environment to reflect, many students often avoid disagreement and do not participate in counter-arguments (Golanics and Nussbaum, 2007); thus, minimizing and even dissembling the goal of improving conceptual understanding and increasing critical thinking. Therefore, Golanics and Nussbaum (2007) researched the impact of argumentation


when students were given a goal to not just engage in arguing about the prompt, but to explore as many reasons as possible to argue the prompt and find a common solution. This is significant because argumentation is dependent on constructing and critiquing arguments and making decisions about the information presented. Not only was the theoretical framework of the study geared to create collaborative argumentation where students worked together on one goal, but also it was to find out if question elaboration increased arguments and counterarguments in order to produce authentic collaborative argumentation. Their findings suggest that this strategy is effective; asking students to generate as many meanings as possible impacted advanced students while lower level students benefitted from elaborating questions with brief mention of arguments and counter-arguments to enhanced balance and argument development (Golanics and Nussbaum, 2008). Online teachers can improve instructional design by utilizing these findings; exploratory discourse is key to improving conceptual knowledge, and it enhances problem-solving skills as seen in Asterhan and Swartz (2013).

Technologies That Support Asynchronous Argumentation Because effective collaborative argumentation depends on participation and can be enhanced when students work together on one goal, blogging, a Web 2.0 tool, can be utilized to facilitate active argumentation. According to Deed and Edwards (2011), blogging allows students to share subjective ideas in a personal, but public forum, and these ideas are subject to interactive questioning and discussion. The fact that this environment is interactive supports an active process of thinking and learning, improving understanding and building knowledge (Deed and Edwards, 2011). Moreover, blogs are organized in such a way that each posting is a chronological record of thought; learners can review postulations, accumulate

ARUGEMENTAION THEORY AND ONLINE LEARNING knowledge and compose new ideas and conceptions based on active reflection. Deed and Edwards (2011) point out that in order to construct knowledge effectively in this context, there is a need for clear communication and critical discussion as part of continual analytical dialogue leading to final agreement. Therefore, students are able to feed off of each others ideas, and as they progress through the dialogue, the analytical process that is involved in disseminating the information and deciding on a final resolution mirrors effective argumentation. Finally, blogs are an easy interface to learn, and many blog sites provide comprehensive tutorials that provide step-by-step instructions. Other Web 2.0 tools for educators to consider that can help implement and nurture

asynchronous argumentation are social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter. Based on data from the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research 2009-2010, 90% of students use social media (Chen and Bryer, 2012), and since collaboration is necessary for argumentation, these sites should be employed as a forum where both students and teachers can post prompts and questions for exploration. According to Chen and Bryer (2012), The responsibility of the teacher is not just to define, generate or assign content, but it is to help learners build learning paths and make connections with existing and new knowledge. Learning paths, such as threads on Facebook and Twitter can assist students as they engage in debates and discussions. Topics or prompts can be posted, and responses and reflections can be accessed throughout the day or whenever convenient for the learner. Threads of communication on Facebook or Twitter can also help learners analyze their own perceptions and revise their contentions as they construct their own knowledge about a topic. In addition, these sites can generate collaborative argumentation that incorporates questions, answers and contemplations, heightening the learning experience and improving critical thinking skills.


Synchronous Argumentation Studies show that students learn from collaborative activities, but researchers who have explored synchronous learning and the effectiveness of facilitating argumentation have questioned the effectiveness of the instructors role. Perhaps more importantly, Asterhan and Schwarz (2010) focused on what students thought of e-moderation in online argumentation and its effectiveness, including the differences between what is perceived to be effective by instructors and what is perceived to be effective synchronous argumentation by the students. Another important aspect of this study is the assertion that there are significant differences in strategies that employ argumentation when it come to face-to-face, asynchronous and synchronous learning environments, and not every approach can transfer to the respective learning environment. In addition, the researchers questioned if the educational goals of the digital argumentation environment are actually being met, and if they are, how does the teacher truly know? Thus, this naturally lead to examining how online teachers can best help their students in their debates and discussions. Not only is this research crucial to developing ways to help online teachers create effective, engaging, and challenging synchronous argumentation, but also it is vital that the teacher not interfere with the discussion, which can cause students to withdraw. Best Practices for Synchronous Argumentation In order to examine effective synchronous argumentation, it is imperative to understand effective collaboration because synchronous argumentation depends on students being able to work together. Many students have experienced online collaboration, but not all students have benefitted from it. In fact, many students enter the online learning environment expecting to



study and learn independently, and these students often become resentful when asked to work with others (Palloff and Prat, 2005). Other issues that may occur that impede collaboration are lack of communication, reduced participation, time commitments, lack of leadership, cultural issues, or even course design issues (Palloff and Prat, 2005). To combat these issues, Ragoonaden and Bordeleau (2000) made the following recommendations: Collaborative tasks need to be integrated into the course and their occurrence should mirror individual work time. The tasks need to be meaningful and highly interactive; the tasks also need to be based on the constructivist approach. When deemed appropriate, matching cultural and academic backgrounds should be attempted. Students need to be encouraged to celebrate diversity. Leaders should be students who will delegate responsibilities. The instructor needs to understand her role and intervene when necessary, especially when there is too much conflict or not enough participation among her students (Palloff and Prat, 2005). The bottom line is that in order establish effective collaboration that will ultimately be the building block of active argumentation, effective planning is key; students will respond positively to being asked to collaborate, thus fostering higher level thinking skills through argumentative strategies. Once an effective collaborative environment has been established, instructors need to integrate instructional strategies to promote synchronous argumentation and some of the most effective approaches include scaffolding and questioning. To begin with, scaffolding ideas occurs when the instructor helps to anchor the students prior knowledge to the concept that is



being presented. Nussbaum (2002) asserts that students who need help learning how to argue in a more explicit manner need scaffolding to supporting their evidence and see how their evidence builds upon itself. Nussbaums study involved using a graphic organizer in a collaborative setting to scaffold an argument; the scaffold allowed students to list points on different sides of the question for the purpose of choosing the strongest side. (Nussbaum, 2002). This is just one example of scaffolding; however, there are numerous approaches to this instructional strategy that can be used in a synchronous learning environment. Another strategy involves questioning; as learners interact with each other, they engage in a constructivist process of collaborative knowledge generation that can result in community building, the development of critical thinking skills, and deeper understanding of the material being studied (Palloff and Prat, 2005). In essence, this is a key ingredient for synchronous argumentation. The instructor can assist in this process by providing a wide array of questions, including open-ended questions that guide students to think and theorize, linking or extension questions that help students develop themes as information emerges, hypothetical questions so that students can grapple with what if scenarios, cause and effect questions that push learners to develop possible solutions, and summary and synthesis questions that incorporate reflection. Overall, research demonstrates that implementing these strategies work well to support meaningful interaction and can springboard effective collaboration into successful argumentation.

Technologies That Support Synchronous Argumentation Tools including Skype, Google Hangouts, Elluminate and Blackboard and Facetime, to name a few of the most popular, allow users to call, see, message, and share with others in



real time. Because of their immediate collaborative nature, these tools have many advantages to assist synchronous argumentation. For instance, Elluminate allows users to share a virtual workspace along with several different file formats. When instructors use these communication tools, students are able to be there and experience the prompts or the task at hand. Instructors can also scaffold information verbally, by messaging, or by uploading graphic organizers or other files to assist learners as they begin to formulate their opinions on the topic. Moreover, according to Santovena and Sonia (2012), It is evident that the use of communication tools in real time, reinforces the professional interaction, socio-emotional relationships and personal interactions, in short, it is a tool that facilitates and enhances interpersonal communication between users. This is an important environment to create for effective synchronous argumentation because learners need to be able to establish a rapport with their peers that make it safe and comfortable for them to engage in the exchange of ideas. Moreover, these tools allow the instructor to pop in and out of the virtual classroom, assisting when and if necessary so as not to be overbearing or impede the argumentation process. The immediacy of communication and fostering rapid response to a bilateral discussion offers a greater degree of interaction between the students and between the instructor and the students. (Santovena and Sonia, 2012). These technology tools allow online teachers to utilize effective collaboration strategies to develop critical thinkers through argumentation.

Conclusion Students enjoy sharing their opinion and witnessing their own assertions evolve into a belief system that can be supported by evidence. When students are immersed in argumentation, they construct knowledge through collaboration and dissemble and assemble

ARUGEMENTAION THEORY AND ONLINE LEARNING prior understanding and new information into active meaning; this critical thinking skill


enables students to be active members in the community and to participate in the democratic process. As more and more opportunities for online classes emerge, this instructional theory has its place, and technology tools that enhance argumentation need to be utilized to ensure that students are afforded this learning opportunity.

ARUGEMENTAION THEORY AND ONLINE LEARNING References Asterhan, S.C. &Schwarz, B. (2010). Online moderation of synchronous eargumentation. Computer-supported collaborative learning. (5) 259-282.


Chen, B. & Bryer, T. (2012). Investigation instructional strategies for using social media for formal and informal learning. International review of research in open and distance learning. (13) 87-104. Baran, B. Facebook as a formal instructional environment. British journal of educational technology. (41) 146-149. Deed, C. & Edwards, A. Unrestricted student blogging: implications for active learning in a virtual text-based environment. Active learning in higher education. (12) 11-21. Golanics, J.D. & Nussbaum, E.M. (2008). Enhancing online collaborative argumentation through question elaboration and goal instructions. Journal of assisted learning. (24) 167-180. Jonassen & Land (Eds.). (2012). Theoretical foundations of learning environments. New York, NY: Routledge. Marttunen, M., & Laurinen L. (2011). Quality of students argumentation by e-mail. Learning environments research. (5) 99-123. Nussbaum, M. (2002). Scaffolding argumentation in the social studies classroom. The social studies. 79-83. Palloff, R. & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass. Santovena, C. & Soma, M. (2012). Electronic journal of research in educational psychology. (10) 447-474.