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Digital Critical Dialogue: A Process for Implementing Transformative Discussion Practices within Online Courses in Higher Education



This article seeks to suggest a method for those who teach online courses to move beyond passive instructional techniques so as to foster critical dialogue that actively engages learners in an educative process meant to uncover hidden socio-historical dynamics and inspire transformative possibilities in a digitally connected future. The article provides theoretical background for the use of critical dialogue in online contexts, building on critical digital literacies as an analytic model for engagement with digital texts. This is followed by implementation suggestions for creating, encouraging, and determining signs of successful implementation of critical dialogue within online course contexts in higher education.
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
Digital Critical Dialogue: A Process for Implementing Transformative Discussion
Practices within Online Courses in Higher Education
Jason T. Hilton
Assistant Professor
Department of Secondary Education / Foundations of Education
Slippery Rock University
Slippery Rock, PA 16057 USA
This article seeks to suggest a method for those who teach online courses to move
beyond passive instructional techniques so as to foster critical dialogue that actively
engages learners in an educative process meant to uncover hidden socio-historical
dynamics and inspire transformative possibilities in a digitally connected future. The
article provides theoretical background for the use of critical dialogue in online contexts,
building on critical digital literacies as an analytic model for engagement with digital
texts. This is followed by implementation suggestions for creating, encouraging, and
determining signs of successful implementation of critical dialogue within online course
contexts in higher education.
Key Words: critical pedagogy, critical dialogue, critical literacy, online education, higher
education, online identity, virtual learning space
With online instruction now a common feature of higher education, it is important that instructors of
courses that are either fully online or that make use of online components not lose sight of beneficial
possibilities present within group communication and collaboration, including the capacity for critical
analysis. This article seeks to assist educators who create and instruct in virtual learning spaces to
realize possibilities for critical group conversations that stretch over both distance and time, through the
fostering of critical dialogue within online courses in higher education.
Following a theoretical discussion of critical dialogue, virtual learning spaces, online identity formation,
and critical literacies, the article turns toward envisioning a process for the fostering of critical dialogue
as a central element in an online course. Though critical dialogue is not new, this conceptualization aims
to account for advances in the way students learn and in the way education is being provided in the 21st
century. As such, this conceptualization is guided by three questions meant to follow logical steps in
online course creation and implementation:
1. What design features of a virtual learning space make critical dialogue possible?
2. What processes encourage the growth of critical dialogue within a human-centered virtual
learning space?
3. What are signs of successful implementation of an online critical dialogue?
Insights gained through this questioning process are meant to assist educators in bringing the
transformative potential of critical dialogue to online courses in higher education settings.
Theoretical Framework
In order to best frame a notion of critical dialogue in an online course, it essential to describe a number
of key theoretical foundations that underlay such a conceptualization. This framework begins with a
discussion of critical dialogue as a consciousness-raising action, followed by a discussion of virtual
learning spaces as sites in which critical dialogue can occur. The author moves further to discuss online
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
identity formation as a necessary part of the critical dialogue process and the use of critical digital
literacies as an analytic process that promotes a more meaningful critical dialogue.
Throughout this discussion a number of key terms are used. The author believes every teacher has the
potential to become a critical pedagogue, a term used to describe an educator who attempts to raise
awareness of hidden socio-historical power dynamics and who attempts to enable individuals to act
toward social justice (Freire, 1970). Critical stance occurs when individuals question the authority of
texts they encounter and make use of alternative epistemologies to construct meaning (Spires, Huntley-
Johnston, & Huffman, 1993). Text is meant to include any written, visual, audio, and/or alternative form
of communicative media, rather than just “text-based.” Identity is meant to describe an individual’s
beliefs about who they are, qualities they may possess, and how these qualities are perceived by others
(boyd, 2007). Finally, learning space describes both physical and virtual locations people enter to
engage in knowledge acquisition as a central activity (Oblinger, 2006).
Critical Dialogue
In 1970, Paulo Freire, concerned with changing the social and material imbalances oppressing peasants
in Brazil, elaborated on a process of critical dialogue as a means through which to bring about social
liberation (Freire, 1970). Today, educators and researchers concerned with critical pedagogies wish to
alter educational landscapes to include more diverse experiences, more equitable access and
opportunity, engagement with socio-historical constructed power relationships, understanding of
indigenous ways of knowing, acknowledgement of personal biases, and preparation of learners to
become more critically-engaged participants in society (Griffin, Brown, & Warren, 2012; Kincheloe,
2007; Lukinbeal & Allen, 2007; Suoranta & Vaden, 2007). To accomplish this, critical pedagogues make
room for and pay attention to the diverse social and cultural locations of their students (Cho, 2010), most
often through a process of the creation and facilitation of Freireiancritical dialogue.
Critical dialogue is a problem-posing discussion setup to ensure equitable access and participation by all
members, constructed to focus on a multiplicity of viewpoints, and designed to bring awareness to social
and historical power imbalances to promote action (Cho, 2010; Freire, 1970; Kauffman, 2010;
Kincheloe, 2007; Lukinbeal & Allen, 2007). Through a critical dialogue, participants learn from one
another, allowing critical pedagogues to counteract more typical individualistic and competitive
approaches to education (Johnson & Morris, 2010; Lukinbeal & Allen, 2007; Suoranta & Vaden, 2007).
Within these critical dialogues, participants are encouraged to share explicit elements of their own
culture, both providing legitimacy to cultural diversity and incorporating these cultural understandings
into ontological and epistemological exploration (Cho, 2010; Edwards, 2010). For the teacher and the
students, the use of a problem-posing focusone that connects course content to the real-world
struggles of studentshelps to highlight and challenge hidden cultural and historical societal dynamics
that create imbalances of power (Edwards, 2010; Freire, 1970; Giroux, 2007), ultimately, providing
new ways for students to claim authority for their own experience” (Cho, 2010, p. 313).
As Wilhem (2009, p. 36) remarks, “If we want to work toward any of our goals as educators, we must be
willing to try innovative, problem-centered, and meaning-constructive ways of teaching.Through
critical dialogue, the classroom is transformed from a location for the dispensation of knowledge to
passive recipients into a place where knowledge is disassembled, approached from multiple and
missing perspectives, and reassembled in ways that create both critical understanding and paths for
social change (Giroux, 2010; Griffin, et al., 2012; Johnson & Morris, 2010). While not everyone may
benefit equally from participation, critical dialogue presents the opportunity for each participant to
become conscious of previously hidden power struggles, more understanding of those with whom they
interact, and able to work toward a more just future.
While critical dialogue in classroom settings can be a transformative practice, it is important to
acknowledge limitations and intrinsic barriers imposed by institutionalized higher education settings that
may be challenging for educators to overcome. Beyond the use of grades, the inherent imbalance of
power that accompanies the teacher-student relationship, and the physical and social boundaries of the
classroom environment (Kincheloe, 2007), higher education institutions are increasingly subordinated to
capitalrepurposing higher education from a site for civic and social engagement into a site for
economic commodification (Giroux, 2011). If not careful, critical dialogue designed to explore multiple
viewpoints can reinforce these same hegemonic positions of power if marginalized individuals feel
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
required to share of themselves when they otherwise would not have (Gorski, 2009; Lukinbeal & Allen,
2007). An effective critical dialogue would need to both acknowledge and account for these limitations in
order to realize its fullest potential as a critical collaborative venture.
Courses designed to facilitate critical dialogue in virtual learning spaces gain a number of opportunities
often not present within traditional classroom settings. The often-asynchronous nature of online learning
can improve the content and depth of class discussions, making collaborative learning more efficient
(Francescato, et al., 2006). Online, students have more time at their disposal in which to think about the
words and thoughts of others and to formulate their own responses. Indeed, Ghodarti and Gruba (2011)
note in a study of online discussions that most students preferred asynchronous forums for discussion
as this gave them more time to structure their posts and reflect upon them. This presents an opportunity
for students to return to course readings, previous posts, and/or to engage in “reflexivity” practices
(Wilhelm, 2009) that allow them to think from multiple perspectives before issuing their own written
responses. Furthermore, in US higher education settings, online courses benefit non-native speakers of
English who can be more deliberate in their writing while receiving constant feedback on the
meaningfulness and efficacy of what they have said (Burbules & Callister, 2000). Even for native
speakers of English, Burbules (2002, p. 389) explains that,
Some students speak up more under such circumstances; there is more time to reflect on what
one is writing or reading in an online discussion, as opposed to the rapid flow of live
conversation; students are required to be more independently motivated, and to find other
sources of feedback and support than immediate teacher recognition or approval.
The asynchronous nature of interaction, and the time to engage in reflexivity practices allow a properly
designed and facilitated online course to provide opportunities for an effective critical dialogue.
Instructional design that supports engagement in this type of dialogue would necessarily need to
account for the creation of human-centered virtual learning spaces, provide opportunities for identity
formation/modification based on interaction with others, and make use of critical digital literacies to
approach course content.
Virtual Learning Spaces
As online learning has flourished in a variety of educational settings, the capacity to design, shape, and
modify learning spaces has grown as well, leading “to unprecedented possibilities and combinations
for learning spaces and pedagogies” (Al-Mahmood, 2006, p. 43). Learning spaces designed to suit the
learning needs of students should account for recent thinking in learning space design that suggests an
increased role of collaboration and community building in the learning process.
The design of learning spaces, in both physical and virtual environments, shapes the learning that can
occur there (Chism, 2006). Learning space design can either bring the students together through
flexibility, permitting collaboration, exploration, and discussion with one another, or the design can
incorporate rigid and inflexible boundaries that carry a silent message of disconnectedness and solitude
(Oblinger, 2006; Thomas, 2010). For higher education institutions, researchers (e.g., Al-Mahmood,
2006; Gee, 2006; Oblinger, 2006; Thomas, 2010) advocate a human-centered design philosophy for
learning spaces that is focused on student collaboration and flexibility.
A number of principles of human-centered design easily translate into the creation of virtual learning
spaces. First, learning is a social activity and the space connects its people (Al-Mahmood, 2006; Gee,
2006). Second, learning spaces need to create opportunities for socialization while maintaining room for
privacy (Gee, 2006; Wheeler, 2009). Third, learning spaces need to encourage active engagement by
their participants, including making space for listening, presentation, critique, and social construction of
knowledge (Brown & Long, 2006; Thomas, 2010). Fourth, the learning space needs to incorporate
flexible design elements that allow it to respond to a variety of learning and teaching needs (Al-
Mahmood, 2006; Gee, 2006; Watulak & Kinzer, 2013), including the capacity to move beyond text to
incorporate audio, video and images (Lomas & Oblinger, 2006). Finally, the learning space needs to
give ownership to those within, providing inhabitants with a say in how the space looks (Al-Mahmood,
2006; Avila & Pandya, 2013; Gee, 2006; Milne, 2006; Santo, 2013).
The ultimate purpose of a learning space, which applies human-centered design principles, is the
creation of a learning community. A learning community functions as a nexus between the personal and
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
social spaces in which identity is formed, fostering reflective and collaborative learning through
discourse and dialogue (Al-Mahmood, 2006; Wheeler, 2009). In online contexts, formation of the
community requires as much attention to the background knowledge, understandings and personal
interests of the community members as it does to the content that may be the focus of the course
(Oztok, 2013). As Bickford and Wright (2006, p. 41) point out “a real community, however, exists only
when its members interact in a meaningful way that deepens their understanding of each other and
leads to learning.” Learners need to challenge each other and be challenged in their own thinking
(Bickford & Wright, 2006; Wheeler, 2009), but they also need to feel a sense of belonging to the learning
community (Lomas & Oblinger, 2006). When creating a learning space that fosters such a community,
designers need to take care to account for ways in which learners can learn about each other, as well as
challenge, engage and feel connected to one another, in order to facilitate deep and meaningful ways of
Unfortunately, the institutional nature of higher education can present limitations for virtual learning
space design. In online courses, while instructors can allow for choice and flexibility, they are still bound
by institutional form and function (Kincheloe, 2007; Scherff, 2012). The learning management systems
provided by higher education settings often mirror the content delivery structures present in traditional
classrooms that favor teacher-centered instruction (Thomas, 2010). Pierce (2009) raises this concern,
arguing that learning within online contexts often creates an automated process through which
technology is used to replicate the sort of historically oppressive “banking education” (Freire, 1970) that
persists in many education landscapes. In addition to borders suggested by learning management
systems, boundaries are also created by the limits of the mediums through which communication occurs
(Al-Mahmood, 2006) and the ideologies of the instructor and students (Scherff, 2012). Finally,
individuals may struggle to make the personal connections with others that allow for deep and lasting
learning communities to form in the short period of time in which most higher education courses take
place (Oztok, 2013). While these boundaries cannot be eliminated, appropriate learning space design
should try to lessen their influence through the implementation of human-centered design principles and
critical dialogue.
Online Identity Formation
Current advocates of critical pedagogy renew the call for a focus on identity and the social construction
of self (Davis, 2012; Kauffman, 2010; McLaren & Kincheloe, 2007). Indeed, as Gomez (2006) argues,
identity formation actions within virtual spaces are necessary for a subject to develop a critical higher
consciousness, which includes possibilities for increased online awareness and engagement, allowing
individuals to become participants and producers of knowledge in the modern digitally-connected world.
Identity formation is a process marked by constant change. Identity is negotiated through the ways
individuals experience themselves, how others experience them (Freeman & Bamford, 2004), and the
beliefs individuals have about the ways in which they are being perceived by others (boyd, 2007). As a
result, in different social settings it is common for individuals to tailor different identities as they engage
in a process of constructing and re-constructing their identity in relation to the perceived norms of groups
with which they interact (boyd, 2007; Hughes, 2007). This includes efforts to claim membership in
certain groups and exclude oneself from others through the highlighting and downplaying of certain
identity characteristics (Freeman & Bamford, 2004; Hodgson & Reynolds, 2005; Hughes, 2007).
Recognizing the role social construction of identity and expression plays for online learning/learners is
essential for understanding the function and possibilities of discussion in online learning contexts (Davis,
2012; Delahunty, 2012; Schmier, 2013). Learners must have opportunities to interact in order to
construct and project their online identities (Delahunty, 2012), a process which is often more transparent
in online discourse due to the common use of written text (Hughes, 2007). Owing to a lack of immediate
interaction and meaning-making cues, online what students mean when they post to forum
discussions becomes crucial in understanding how they construct their identity and to what extent this is
made transparent to others” (Delahunty, 2012, p. 409). In order to provide context for understanding the
interactions of others, participants in online discourse must have the ability to connect the expressions of
others to each member’s backgrounds and interests (Oztok, 2013). To that end, those interacting with
individuals online tend to most value, or pay attention to, elements of the self that either come through or
which they consider distorted (Davis, 2012). In other words, the perceived background, context and
authenticity of an individual’s online identity is under careful scrutiny. Bullingham and Vasconcelos
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
(2013) and Davis (2012) found that participants in online settings generally reproduced, and valued the
reproduction of, their offline selves but chose to emphasize certain parts of their identities while
downplaying others, which was made easier by the distance between performer and audience created
by the online environment.
Online, just as in traditional social settings, there are pressures to conform and to belong to groups that
can positively or negatively influence identity formation. These pressuresand social inequalitiesare
often as strong online as they are in face-to-face interaction (Francescato, et al., 2006; Gorski, 2009).
What students write in discussion forums gives valuable insight into their identity, and belies both their
self-perceptions of legitimacy and their belief about how others view them (boyd, 2007; Delahunty,
2012). Participants in online discussions often will change or edit their online identities in an effort to
better fit into the group(s) with which they are interacting (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013; Delahunty,
2012; Kincheloe, 2007). Throughout online presentation of identity, individuals are conceptualizing an
imagined audience and altering their presentation to fit; therefore, the more one understands the scope
of one’s audience, the easier it may be to properly present oneself (boyd, 2007).
For some, it can be challenging to find ways to connect with other group members. Eurocentric patterns
of speech can exclude students of color from conversations (Kauffman, 2010), gender bias is often
present (Groenke, 2008), and disenfranchised groups may struggle to find affirming content (Gorski,
2009). Often, just supplying those from disenfranchised backgrounds with access to digital tools, without
the ability to be critical, can result in the replication of mainstream discourses (Schmier, 2013). To
provide equity, it is important to challenge mainstream and popular discourses that currently lead to
disenfranchisement of some groups (Hughes, 2007). Within the online setting, failure to find ways to
make connections to other members of a group can have a negative impact on an individual’s identity
formation (Delahunty, 2012; Oztok, 2013) causing individuals to disengage from social learning activities
(Hughes, 2007). Online pedagogies and instructors need to account for the ways in which mainstream
discourses and ways of communicating influence identity formation if they are to create more equitable
and transformative learning spaces. This is made possible through the use of critical digital literacies as
an analytic framework through which one can approach both class texts and interactions with others.
Critical Literacies
Because of the open nature and ease of publishing online, the onus is upon educators to equip students
with the ability to sort, analyze and critique online resources (Avila & Pandya, 2013; Merchant, 2007;
Milne, 2006; Wilhelm, 2009). Through the practice and development of critical digital literacies
individuals can gain a personal critical stance that will improve their ability to question and interpret
online texts in ways that highlight alternative possibilities (Groenke, 2008; Scherff, 2012).
To guide the formation of critical stance, it is useful to think of critical literacies as four interrelated
dimensions, suggested by Lewison, Flint and Van Sluys (2002), used to guide the study and
interpretation of information. These dimensions include ”(1) disrupting the commonplace, (2)
interrogating multiple viewpoints, (3) focusing on sociopolitical issues, and (4) taking action and
promoting social justice” (Lewison, et al., 2002, p. 382). Just as critical dialogue promotes a greater
awareness and a call for action, each of these four dimensions challenges learners to become more
conscious of hidden messages within texts that promote social-historical power imbalances, and assist
these learners in envisioning more just alternatives.
In disrupting the commonplace, critical literacy practitioners recognize common modes of perception,
and look for new modes of understanding (Lewison, et al., 2002; Scherff, 2012). To accomplish this,
those analyzing texts need two skills: the ability to select texts that represent alternative viewpoints and
the ability to recognize and evaluate how common discourses are constructed within texts (Burbules &
Callister, 2000; Lewison, et al., 2002). By interrogating multiple viewpoints, one engages in an essential
critical literacy skill“reflexivity” (Wilhelm, 2009)the ability to take up the positions of others, seeking
to understand differing perspectives concurrently, and to recognize which perspectives are present and
which may be missing (Burbules & Callister, 2000; Lewison, et al., 2002; Scherff, 2012). Focusing on
socio-historical political issues allows individuals to seek out ways in which texts contribute to the social
construction of power relationships (Groenke, 2008; Kauffman, 2010; Lewison, et al., 2002; Scherff,
2012; Schmier, 2013). This includes the ability to recognize and critique legitimacy claims, as well as the
ability to move beyond the personal to recognize the larger social and political discourses that beget and
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
withhold power (Burbules & Callister, 2000; Lewison, et al., 2002). Finally, in taking action and
promoting social justice, practitioners move to a position of “praxis” (Freire, 1970), wherein they make
use of new information, insights and perspectives gained from literature to reflect and/or take action
toward a more just society (Laman, Jewett, Jennings, Wilson, & Suoto-Manning, 2012; Lewison, et al.,
2002; Scherff, 2012). Critical literacies promote a transition from the position of passive reader to one
who is actively engaged with others and who is seeking ways to challenge dominant power
Recently, scholars have considered more specifically the idea of critical digital literacies, an application
of critical literacy to online media. As Avila & Pandya (2013, p. 3) explain, “critical digital literaciesare
those skills and practices that lead to the creation of digital texts that interrogate the world; they also
allow and foster the interrogation of digital, multimedia texts.” Critical digital literacies recognize that
digital spaces present unique types of texts and unique ways of dealing with text. While critical digital
literacies still acknowledge the importance of understanding the language of power, accessing multiple
and diverse texts, and reconstructing narratives to create transformative possibilities (Schmier, 2013),
they additionally include the critical analysis of digital sources, an ethical approach to authorship for
distant audiences through digital means (Smith & Hull, 2013; Watulak & Kinzer, 2013) and a capacity to
adapt and produce within new media forms (Santo, 2013).
Because many online discussions in higher education courses make use of written text, and online
courses draw on digital media for analysis, one cannot foster critical dialogue in an online course without
simultaneously incorporating critical digital literacies. Online courses centered on critical dialogue create
openings for students to practice essential critical literacies, including: reading selectively, questioning
relationships between language and power, recognizing the social construction of power, and
considering actions that promote social justice (Burbules & Callister, 2000; Scherff, 2012), all while
authoring web content for class participants in distant locations.
Implementing Critical Dialogue
While critical dialogue has been a tool for transformative learning for over four decades, it is important to
turn toward a process for the fostering of critical dialogue within virtual learning spaces to account for
advances in the way students learn and in the way education is provided. This analysis may be most
appropriately thought of as questions.
1. What design features of a virtual learning space make critical dialogue possible?
2. What processes encourage the growth of critical dialogue within a human-centered
virtual learning space?
3. What are signs of successful implementation of an online critical dialogue?
What design features of a virtual learning space make critical dialogue possible?
Technological features can be incorporated into a virtual learning space that will make room for identity
construction, provide flexibility, and generate opportunities for collaboration, helping to create a learning
community that makes possible engagement in critical dialogue (Hodgson & Reynolds, 2005; Oblinger,
2006). This begins with the creation of a virtual learning space based on human-centered design
principles, where students can adapt their activities to fit the space and adapt the space to fit their
activities (Burbules & Callister, 2000; Gee, 2006).
For critical dialogue to become a possibility, all participants need the opportunity to establish meaningful
and connected identities within the learning community. One part of this process is a focus on the use of
a central online discussion forum in which all users possess the same level of control over topic creation
and modification (i.e. all students gain “instructor” privileges). Additionally, all members should be given
control over the capacity to create, join, and leave groups within the learning management system, each
of which would then possess its own, more private discussion forum. This practice allows participants to
belong to multiple communities within the online space, bolstering identity formation/modification
opportunities, avoiding the imposition of the views of a single group on the entire population, and
permitting sub-communities of participants to provide the support required to bring contested issues into
the more public central discussion forum (Hodgson & Reynolds, 2005). As an example, in reading
through a lengthy discussion thread on the main forum, a few students may decide that a particular view
is being over-represented. While individually, they could struggle to figure out how best to broaden the
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
dialogue beyond this largely accepted view, by forming a smaller group of like-minded individuals,
students can work together to locate and highlight alternative perspectives and then add these into the
main discussion forum in a more efficient and effective way. While it is easy to imagine abuses that
could occur from giving students both the power to control topic creation and group formation, critical
dialogue is a process that cannot happen without faith in fellow critical dialogue participants to respect
the community within which they are collaborating (Bickford & Wright, 2006; Freire, 1970; Kauffman,
2010). This equity approach allows the discussion forum(s) to become more participant-driven and
participant-focused, with the teacherguiding from the periphery rather than the center (Laman, et al.,
Additionally, all participantsincluding instructorsmust be encouraged to construct their virtual profiles
in ways they feel best communicate the aspects of their identity they wish to share with the community.
It is important that profiles include both background and academic interests, so that learning community
members can make explicit the contexts from which they originate and in which they think about
knowledge to be gained in the course (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013; Oztok, 2013). By including the
capacity to create meaningful personal profiles, the opportunity to form multiple sub-group
memberships, and equal power to control discourse within multiple discussion forums, the virtual
learning space becomes one that encourages members to participate in an identity
formation/modification process necessary for critical dialogue to take place.
Finally, the virtual learning space must account for time. Time plays an important role in both the quality
and quantity of online interactions (Ghodarti & Gruba, 2011), and is a requirement in discussion for a
critical dialogue to evolvetime to construct knowledge of oppressive issues, to deconstruct and make
issues problematic from multiple perspectives, and to reconstruct issues with more critical
understandings (Laman, et al., 2012; Poster, 2006; Schmier, 2013). Time should be respected through
the limiting of material exposure as well as provision of enough time for students to engage with the
materials presented. If students, inundated with material, are unable to engage with the material in a
critical fashion, they may find their voices and perspectives diminished (Burbules & Callister, 2000; Rice
& Vastola, 2011). This means that learning cannot move from concept to concept in rapid and sequential
fashion, but must instead take time to allow dialogue to progress and to take new directions or revisit
past content in ways often unforeseen by dialogue participants. To accomplish this, it is important to limit
a semester long course to four or five key concepts for investigation, choosing those which present the
most opportunity for critical analysis.
While the time and capacity to produce profiles, join groups, and control discussions reflects human-
centered design principles, these technological affordances can as easily be used for the replication of
hegemonic social practices as they can be used to foster transformative critical dialogue. By choosing to
incorporate these powerful features within a virtual learning space, the instructor becomes responsible
for making pedagogical choices throughout the course that allow these features to benefit all students.
To ensure that online courses are those that will foster critical dialogue rather than replicate hegemonic
practices, instructors must design them in ways that turn them into learning spaces which provide
opportunities for discussion and collaboration, as well as room for identity formation, and which provide
time for students to create their own language and critical understandings of their experiences.
Designed with these goals in mind, a virtual learning space improves the possibilities for creation of a
meaningful learning community for all participants.
What processes encourage the growth of critical dialogue within a human-centered virtual
learning space?
To foster critical dialogue, it is important for the instructor to make the intent of this human-centered
design explicitly clear from the outset. This begins by acknowledging that within this particular online
course the instructor’s goal is not just to pass on knowledge, but to make use of critical dialogue to
facilitate a personal and collaborative journey alongside students, where each can actively transform
knowledge by highlighting hidden struggles and imagining more just alternatives.
After members have been encouraged to complete their personal profiles, within the discussion forum, it
is important to make room for initial identity formation as well. However, this is also the time when
students are most vulnerable to social pressures (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013; Delahunty, 2012),
requiring vigilance on the part of the instructor to monitor and address social inequalities as they
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
develop. When starting a discussion with traditional ice breakers (such as “tell us about yourself”),
students will naturally begin to present information that aligns them with some while excluding other
members of the group (Delahunty, 2012). Alternatively, the instructor could begin the discussion process
by centering the first entries into the dialogue on a popular current dilemma, inviting students to provide
depth for their first posts by basing their responses on moral and/or ethical insights into the issue. As
Lukinbeal and Allen (2007, pp. 199-200) explain, “developing critical moral consciousness in a
classroom is an essential first step in group dynamics and challenges the group to change the norm and
create social order where learning is shared equally.” The author has previously found current events in
mainstream news connected to the content of the course to be excellent potential topics for first
discussion. While engaging students in this first dilemma is a more effective way to bring students
together, it is important that the instructor choose a well-known dilemma with which all students are
familiar, to avoid excluding some participants. Furthermore, asking that students include moral and/or
ethical interpretations in their first posts communicates to participants that the course is built on their
interests, knowledge, and judgments, rather than the acquisition of previously unknown facts. By
beginning the discussion process with this focus, students are constructing identities through discourse
within the virtual learning space, while engaging in the beginning of a critical stance-taking process that
forms the backbone of any critical dialogue (Giroux, 2010; Laman, et al., 2012; Rice & Vastola, 2011;
Wiggins, 2011).
In order for the critical dialogue to progress, students will need exposure to content and questions that
further develop critical digital literacies necessary for more effective participation. Instructors can begin
this process through juxtaposition of traditional course content with preselected texts that represent
alternative perspectives (Kauffman, 2010). By preselecting texts that represent diverse viewpoints,
students coming from disenfranchised populations do not feel required and/or expected to share these
aspects of their identity for the sake of adding diversity to the critical dialogue. Starting with a few
competing texts encourages participants to recognize the legitimacy of alternative viewpoints and to
evaluate how contending discourses of power may be constructed within each text (Avila & Pandya,
2013; Lewison, et al., 2002). Depending on the critical literacy proficiencies with which students enter
the course, this may require that the instructor make explicit which viewpoints are being expressed and
how discourses are being constructed within the texts. If the texts are editable word documents, this can
most easily be accomplished through highlighting and comments used as part of the track changes
feature in Microsoft Word. If the texts are in PDF format (to which web-based texts can easily be
converted), the use of software such as Adobe Acrobat also makes highlighting and commenting
possible. Visual or audio texts may require more creativity to comment on, although Web 2.0 tools (such
as Voicethread ( make this easily possible. Any of these methods provides
students with an opportunity to see these skills applied to texts in a way that models a critical literacy
Even though these first texts serve as an example of how to deconstruct discourses within texts,
students should still be encouraged to enter into dialogue concerning these interpretations. It is
important that the instructor make room for alternative interpretation, encouraging participants to look for
and make explicit their own knowledge and understanding of the texts. Reminding students that it is the
differences between participant perspectives that drive a critical dialogue, rather than agreement
(Giroux, 2011; Hodgson & Reynolds, 2005), may lend support to those with alternative views looking to
become more involved in the dialogue. Because this dialogue is happening in a digital format, both the
words participants write/speak and the responses they receive take on a lasting character, allowing the
process to gain a level of permanency often unattainable in face-to-face dialogue. To go further,
students ought to be challenged not only to highlight and make problematic imbedded socio-historical
discourses within the texts and previous postings, but also to imagine and suggest alternatives, allowing
students to build knowledge collaboratively, constructing critical identities through group discussion(s),
and developing a habit of working within the critical dialogue to envision more just possibilities
(Delahunty, 2012).
As the course progresses, the instructor might further facilitate the critical dialogue by making explicit
their own recognition of imbalances of power that become apparent through critical reading of the texts
and/or dialogue posts; however, it is more important that students take the lead in recognizing views
alternative to their own, locating and making problematic imbedded social-historical power dynamics,
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
suggesting alternatives that disrupt these imbalances, and questioning the understandings and
interpretations of others. By challenging others, students take control of the critical dialogue, broadening
their identities to include the authority to question the claims of others and to deepen personal and
community understandings of the social construction of knowledge (Giroux, 2010, 2011). For the
instructor, explicitly acknowledging points in the dialogue where differences result in more complex
understandings reminds participants that difference is both desired and useful, and that agreement is
not a requirement for success.
As students become more comfortable and skilled in identifying hegemonic discourses, locating missing
perspectives and offering alternatives, they should become the primary providers/creators of new texts
for the dialogue. To further create space for difference within the dialogue process, the instructor takes
on the responsibility of bringing supplementary texts to the discussion that challenge notions around
which students may be too easily uniting or highlighting alternative perspectives participants may be
missing. Because this dialogue is taking place in a more permanent, digital space, not only does it
become much easier to locate and present a wider variety of texts to the members of the dialogue, but it
makes returning to these texts for new analysis far easier. Additionally, students should be encouraged
to start new discussion threads focused on their interests, as well as create, join and/or leave sub-
groups with the purpose of testing/refining interpretations with smaller audiences before bringing them to
the larger public forum (Hodgson & Reynolds, 2005; Oztok, 2013).
Throughout the critical dialogue process, though participants will be examining larger social-historical
perspectives, participants need to be reminded to remain conscious of change at the most local of
levelsthe self. Members ought to indicate their own new understandings and previously unseen
perspectives explicitly in the dialogue process, highlighting their own identity (re)construction as more
critically aware and engaged members of both the learning community and the larger society (Hughes,
2007; Oztok, 2013). By making use of the technological affordances of the discussion forum in this
processsuch as referencing and directly quoting past posts/textsit becomes easier to trace
connections between dialogue interaction and identity formation allowing aspects of identity to become
visible that may not have been apparent in face-to-face interactions. By asking that members stay
cognizant of changein encountered texts, personal identity, and the identities of othersthe critical
dialogue works to position learners as integral actors in the meaning-making and future-making process
(Giroux, 2011), with a raised consciousness of the ways in which digital communication serves in the
construction of new identities and subjectivities (Gomez, 2006). Equipping students and instructors with
the ability to recognize signs of successful implementation of a critical dialogue process can allow all
participants to evaluate the progress of the course along the way.
What are signs of successful implementation of an online critical dialogue?
Critical dialogue represents a change from a way of educating in which students are seen as passive,
unknowing recipients of knowledge to one in which students participate in the active creation and
transformation of knowledge and themselves. Signs that a critical dialogue process has been
successfully implemented are rooted in this active engagement and should be perceptible by all
members of the critical dialogue process. When assessing virtual learning space design, determining
success involves examining how the learning space facilitated or inhibited student identity creation and
interaction, as well as whether or not learners were able to use the learning space to effectively locate,
question and propose alternatives to socio-historical power imbalances (Hunley & Schaller, 2006).
However, it is important to realize that while flexibility provides more opportunities for student
engagement, there are also more opportunities for students to disengage (Hughes, 2007), and while it is
important to create opportunities for all students to participate, one should not expect participation to be
While not all participants experience critical dialogue equally, successful implementation of such a
process allows each participant to gain the opportunity to benefit from the consciousness raising efforts
of the group. To that end, while the goal of critical pedagogues is to empower students to bring about
future social change, for participants in this digital critical dialogue, successful praxis involves increases
in self-awareness and the recognition of social change as both possible and a worthwhile goal.
Therefore, successful implementation is demonstrated when participants begin to self-reflect on their
biases, recognize multiple perspectives, question the claims of others and become more comfortable
MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching Vol. 9, No. 4, December 2013
with disagreement as a locus for understanding rather than marginalization (Burbules & Callister, 2000;
Griffin, et al., 2012; Hodgson & Reynolds, 2005; Kauffman, 2010; Lewison, et al., 2002). Additionally,
participants should develop critical stance (Scherff, 2012), make use of a more active voice that calls for
social justice (Habermas, 1979; Laman, et al., 2012; Rheingold, 2008), and communicate a sense of
responsibility for bringing about future change (Giroux, 2011). This vision of praxis answers a call from
critical digital literacies researchers “that digital citizens should be reflective practitioners who must
possess awareness of social, cultural, and historical contexts and functional skills, but also should reflect
on their position and practices within these contexts and the outcomes of the uses of their functional
skills” (Watulak & Kinzer, 2013, p. 135).
Online courses in higher education present opportunities for students and instructors to engage in
powerful and transformative learning experiences. As Freire (1970, p. 92) reminds us, “only dialogue,
which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking.” This critical thinking, as a
consciousness-raising endeavor, allows participants to see the connections between people and ideas,
stimulating new interpretations of socially-constructed knowledge and new possibilities for action meant
to bring about a more just future (Freire, 1970). As Gomez (2006, p. 54) exclaims, “Thus, independent
from the education or basic preparation of a person, a critical understanding of the knowledge
embedded in the digital world is indispensible.” Through the use of critical dialogue within a virtual
learning space, built following human-centered design principles, students can practice essential critical
digital literacies, become more aware of hidden forms of inequality, and learn to value the opinions and
perspectives of others. By fostering critical dialogue within online courses, students have an opportunity
to make use of advances in digital communications to move beyond passive consumption of digital
content to become active agents for future transformation within a society that is increasingly digitally-
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... In recent years, several scholars have discussed the advantages and challenges of promoting critical dialogue in online education (Boyd 2016;Hilton 2013;Rudick 2016). In our review of this literature, we identified seven characteristics that scholars argue support critical dialogue online: equitable access, embodiment, critical engagement, challenging social and cultural contexts, collaborative exploration and active listening of lived experiences, awareness of various perspectives, and promoting action toward social justice. ...
... The course was structured around discussions of readings and videos on contemporary and critical issues in education. Students completed these readings/videos, wrote reflections, and participated in weekly discussions in one of three discussion formats: asynchronous discussion boards, asynchronous video discussions, or a combination of small-group (Hilton 2013) The digital divide might inhibit access for some (Boyd 2016 Might provide opportunity for more diversity in learners, such as students living in different countries (Hudson 2002) Action promoting Movement from discussion to social action Because students are physically separate, collective action might be limited; however, broad individual action might be possible (Hilton 2013;Rudick 2016) synchronous video and discussion board responses. The asynchronous discussion boards followed a traditional online discussion format: students wrote an original post and then responded to at least one other student's post. ...
... In particular, the asynchronous formats promoted reflection, but dialogue across students was limited by lack of responses and follow-up. As Hilton (2013), Boyd (2016), and Hudson (2002) predicted, students indicated that asynchronous discussions promoted deep reflection, suggesting increased cognitive presence (Garrison et al. 2010a, b). However, the flexibility of the asynchronous format came at a cost: students reported less dialogue occurring in the asynchronous formats. ...
Critical pedagogy employs dialogue that is embodied, reflective, and authentic with aims to promote action toward social justice. Although online learning is well suited to support several characteristics of critical dialogue (i.e., participant diversity, student discussions, emphasis on reflection), it can also be impersonal and disembodied. The purpose of this paper is to explore the experiences and perceptions of online doctoral students in a course designed to facilitate critical dialogue about education. The course experimented with three discussion formats aimed at achieving critical dialogue: (a) traditional, text-based discussion board; (b) asynchronous video (voice thread), and (c) recorded small-group, synchronous video discussions followed by asynchronous discussion board interactions. In this paper, we share results from student surveys of three semesters of the course (n = 22 of 46 students enrolled). The findings suggest that students preferred synchronous video chats and perceived this format as most supportive of critical dialogue. Students, on average, rated the discussion board format as the least enjoyable, least engaging, and least supportive of critical dialogue. Students’ open-ended comments emphasized that the discussion board and voice thread formats promoted reflection but were less supportive of interactive dialogue. We conclude by discussing implications regarding course design and student support for online instructors who aim to promote critical dialogue in online courses.
... Therefore, in the literature, contemporary approaches are emphasized and highly recommended to be integrated into the classrooms. Additionally, online support in education has been widely discussed (Beach, 2017;Hilton, 2013). As it is almost impossible to discuss any aspect of today's society disregarding the Internet. ...
... Another finding in this research is that there has been a significant increase in the prospective teachers' professional beliefs and this indicates that transformative learning supported by technological tools affects belief factors positively. A number of studies have stated that transformative learning increases learners' motivation and beliefs (Beauchamp, Barling & Morton, 2011;Morton, Keith & Beauchamp, 2010;Hilton, 2013;Meyers, 2008). In their study in 2013, Glas and Cardenas-Carlos found that blogs increased learners' motivation. ...
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This chapter proposes the key elements of research, useful for innovating a learning environment: the need for a fourth element in the PST framework, i.e., the user, to better connect the other three elements; the central role of space as a place of reference for the complex and specific interactions of the design discipline; the new opportunities offered by technologies, especially within the context of an emergency and enforced distance learning; the need for new forms of hybrid learning processes that can be built on the experience gained during health emergencies and create new forms of hybrid learning contexts; the need for tools and rules to systematise all the elements being considered (technological, spatial and pedagogical), and the needs of the actors involved (teachers and students).
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When digital technologies become a part of everyday life in most parts of society, it changes the way we work, organize, communicate, and make relations. It also changes the relationship between the state and its citizens – a relationship usually conceptualized as citizenship. To capture this transformation, a new concept of digital citizenship has emerged. The overall purpose of this paper is to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge about how citizenship is transformed into digital citizenship through a systematic review of the academic literature on the concept of digital citizenship. The literature review identifies four streams of literature in the academic landscape of digital citizenship, and by a content analysis, it outlines the many dimensions and facets of digital citizenship. In this way, the literature review offers a comprehensive picture of both the impacts of the digital transformation on citizenship and the concept within the academic debate.
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Estruturadas no modelo Humboldtiano do início do século 19, as universidades iniciam a terceira década do século 21 enfrentando novos e complexos desafios na sociedade digital contemporânea. Para a Educação Superior, de um lado, a transformação digital apresenta intensa demanda por modificações estruturais nas formas de ensino e aprendizagem (Educação Digital Modo 1) e, de outro, oferece uma gama de mecanismos para modificação das estruturas organizacionais das instituições de ensino (Educação Digital Modo 2). Neste artigo, analisamos os fatores e atores que caracterizam esses dois modos de educação digital e apresentamos mapa estratégico de possibilidades de projetos de transformação digital universitária, com abrangência nos dois modos de educação digital. Tratam-se de mudanças organizacionais culturais e estruturais, entre as quais destacam-se as capacidades relacionais de coprodução com os demais atores do ecossistema socio-econômico (i.e., na sociedade digital a publicação acadêmica valiosa revela conhecimento coproduzido).
This chapter explores how social media can be used to address some of the challenges to facilitating critical dialogue in a traditional classroom setting. Additional benefits include allowing time for reflection and access to multiple viewpoints, forms of expression and ways of seeing the world. In addition to its capacity for mobilization, using social media to discuss social issues facilitates understanding through digital imagery, storytelling, as well as wikis that can be used to visualize conflicting narratives and understandings of history. Without a solid critical pedagogy strengthened by critical digital literacy training, however, the integration of social media in peace education programs may only serve to exacerbate the inequalities such a curriculum would aspire to overcome.
This article discusses the possibilities that tacit knowledge could provide for social constructivist pedagogies; in particular, pedagogies for online learning. Arguing that the tacit dimension of knowledge is critical for meaning making in situated learning practices and for a community of practice to function, the article considers whether individuals’ online identities can be employed as a way to reveal their tacit knowledge. Furthering the discussion, the article analyses tacit knowledge within a community and suggests that social capital theory could productively be employed for utilising tacit knowledge within any given online learning community.
Blended learning approaches often make use of asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) to enhance face-to-face learning, collaboration and co-construction. One aspect of research for such online tools focuses on the development of critical thinking. But what, specifically, is the role of such technology in such efforts? Over a semester, we collected data through classroom observations, semi-structured interviews and online postings. In our cyclical thematic analyses, we identified virtual presence, timing, display presentation, and skill development as influential factors regarding the development of collaborative critical thinking. Students, nonetheless, were often very frustrated with the tool. Improvements to the actual use of the tool, combined with greater guidance, may yield stronger results.
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This paper presents an exemplification and discussion of the contemporaneity of Erving Goffman’s work and of its applicability to the analysis of identity and presentation of self in the blogging and Second Life (SL) contexts. An analysis of online identity and interaction practices in 10 different cases of bloggers and SL inhabitants and of their online spaces is presented in terms of: expressions given; embellishment as a minor form of persona adoption; dividing the self; conforming and ‘fitting in’; and masking, anonymity and pseudonimity. The key finding of the research is that, contrary to engaging with the process of whole persona adoption, participants were keen to re-create their offline self online, but engaged in editing facets of self. This emphasizes the key premise in Goffman’s work that, when in ‘front stage’, people deliberately chose to project a given identity. It is concluded that Goffman’s original framework is of great usefulness as an explanatory framework for understanding identity through interaction and the presentation of self in the online world. Equally, the online environment, with its enhanced potential for editing the self, can offer opportunities to contribute to the further development of the Goffman framework.
Identity became apparent as an important theme while investigating the role of interaction in the asynchronous discussion forums of an online post-graduate TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) education subject. Identity emerged through dialogic choices as students projected an impression of themselves, negotiated their positioning within the group, and established what was valued in this context. Without usual face-to-face meaning making cues, what students post to the forums carry the load of what they mean. Discourse analysis of the initial forums using systemic functional linguistics, provided insights into how identity was being constructed concurrently through interpersonal manoeuvring. This reveals a process of multiple identity construction, with the effect of perceived negative identity discussed. The impact of different tasks on identity formation is also considered. (Open Access: )