Chapter 5: Developing Higher-Order Thinking Through Asynchronous Forums in a Blended Language Learning program: Action Research at a Public High School in Japan

Hiroshi Miyashita and Tyler Barrett

Abstract

One of the major challenges in the field of teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in high schools in Japan is that English classrooms tend to lack learning activities to develop higher-order thinking due to the test-oriented practices. The purpose of this action research was to explore an extracurricular blended language learning (BLL) program that was created as an intervention to develop the higher-order thinking of EFL learners at a public high school in Japan, drawing on the construct of mediation from sociocultural theory (SCT) and using the Interaction Analysis Model (IAM) for the transcript analysis. In this BLL program, the participants engaged in online synchronous and asynchronous activities with English as a medium of instruction and communication while being supported by face-to-face sessions conducted in Japanese. The focus of this study was on the asynchronous forums. Data were collected through three methods: asynchronous forums to obtain written texts from participants, pre- and post-surveys, and the researchers’ observations. The results show that participants found collaborative constructivist learning meaningful and exhibited higher-order thinking development to varying degrees. However, there are some implications that learner-learner interaction was not sufficiently activated. In the conclusion section, this research presents suggestions for educators and policymakers to make use of affordances that both the online and face-to-face components in BLL systems provide to support K-12 students in developing higher-order thinking through constructivist learning.

Keywords: asynchronous forums, blended language learning, content analysis, dynamic assessment, higher-order thinking, Interaction Analysis Model, sociocultural theory

Introduction

One of the major challenges in the field of teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) at high schools in Japan is that English classrooms tend to lack learning activities to develop higher-order thinking due to the test-oriented and cognitive-behavioral theory-based practices. The purpose of the reported action research was to explore an extracurricular blended language learning (BLL) program created as an intervention to develop the higher-order thinking of EFL learners at a public high school in Japan. This study was guided by two research questions: (1) to what extent can higher-order thinking be improved among EFL learners at a high school in Japan by engaging in online asynchronous forums embedded in the BLL program?; and (2) what factors of the BLL program facilitated or inhibited the presence of higher-order thinking? Instructors’ facilitation in asynchronous forums drew on the construct of mediation from sociocultural theory. For content analysis, the Interaction Analysis Model (IAM) was used to measure higher-order thinking development in the asynchronous forums.

In the presented BLL program, the participants engage in online synchronous and asynchronous activities with English as a medium of instruction and communication while being supported by face-to-face (F2F) sessions conducted in Japanese. The program was implemented in July-August 2020. Data were collected through three methods: (1) asynchronous forums to obtain participants’ written text, (2) pre- and post-surveys with open-ended questions, and (3) researchers’ observations recorded in a research journal. Suggestions derived from this research are expected to enable educators and policymakers to make informed decisions to help K-12 students develop their higher-order thinking through constructivist learning by making use of affordances that both the online and F2F components in the BLL systems provide.

Background

Technologies can be a catalyst for educational transformation to increase the quality of learning experiences (Garrison & Anderson, 2003). While we have to be careful about the non-neutrality that technologies might entail in and of themselves, the rationale underpinning the belief rests on the assumption that technologies provide the inherent potential to facilitate higher levels of learning (Kanuka, 2008). In that sense, technology is only a tool, and what matters is what we can do with the tool. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we are still encountering online learning programs that seem to be little more than a direct translation of traditional correspondence courses or traditional F2F classes on lecture formats. Yet, online learning has developed in the past few decades as a new method of technology-mediated learning to replace the concept of self-study in traditional distance education and knowledge transmission common to F2F institutions with the concept of knowledge construction through interaction in collaborative communities of learners.

We should be careful not to overreact to the dependence on self-study in distance education or the excess of teacher-centered approaches that often draw on cognitive-behavioral theory at F2F institutions. What works is highly context-dependent because teaching and learning occur in various settings for various goals; however, there is a growing consensus that we must provide active, engaged, and collaborative learning experiences if our educational goals are to develop critical and creative thinkers and learners (Garrison, 2016). Bozkurt et al. (2015) explored trends in the field of distance education research during the period of 2009-2013 to find that the top four frequently used theories were all related to collaborative constructivist learning: community of inquiry, collaborative learning, constructivism, and connectivism, respectively. Theories that explain how learning occurs in networks through collaboration in a community are favored by online learning researchers.

The focus on collaborative constructivist approaches in online learning in the past few decades rests on the belief that these approaches can lead learners to higher-order thinking. It is said that the educational systems concentrated on providing students with the basic skills for working in an industrial economy in the past and that now the focus has shifted to higher-order thinking skills that are needed in the knowledge-based economy (Morrison, 2007). The implication here is that educational institutions have critical responsibilities to provide learning environments conducive to the development of capable and creative minds ready for the challenges of this complex world. Higher-order thinking is defined in this study as cognitive mental functions of understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating knowledge that is voluntarily controlled and facilitated through interaction. More details are provided in the literature review section.

The Problem

In high school settings (10th to 12th grade in the K-12 system) in Japan, EFL classrooms tend to lack learning activities to develop higher-order thinking due to test-oriented practices that are based on cognitive-behavioral theory (Nishino & Watanabe, 2008). Despite initiatives led by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) to promote instructional reform, including its decision to include the goal of realizing proactive, interactive, and authentic learning in the new government course guidelines revised in 2018 (MEXT, 2018), the change on the ground in that direction has been slow and sporadic. Related to this problem, in Japan, where technological advancement has been at the forefront of the world, the infrastructure and use of technology in both secondary and post-secondary education is far behind, as has been revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (Aoki, 2010; Kittaka, 2020).

To better understand the reasons why EFL classrooms in Japan tend to lack learning activities to develop higher-order thinking, we need to explore the social and political background of the country. When described in the field of Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Japan is categorized not as an English-as-an-additional-language (EAL) setting but as an English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) setting. EFL settings are those where students living in a non-English speaking country learn English as a school subject. In other words, most people in Japan do not have to use English in their everyday lives and do not have opportunities to apply English in real-life situations outside the classroom.

English as a school subject is a crucial part of university entrance examinations in Japan. English is part of almost all university entrance examinations including the largest-scale national test, which is administered by an independent administrative institution called the National Center for University Entrance Examinations (National Center for University Entrance Examinations, 2020). Striving to succeed in examinations under pressure might generate positive effects, but too much focus on getting high scores on tests might also produce side effects. The English portion of university entrance examinations in Japan tends to require students to answer questions as fast as possible only by using decoding skills. In this reality, it might be more accurate to suggest that the focus only be on test-solving skills in classrooms.

Another reason for EFL classrooms being dominated by test-oriented practices is related to English education policies driven by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is generally defined as a revisionist approach to transforming the welfare state into a post-welfare state that relegates every aspect of society to the wisdom of the market. Neoliberalism has permeated into the area of education, especially English education, in the past few decades. Some researchers call English education driven by neoliberalism linguistic instrumentalism (Barrett & Miyashita, 2015; Guo, 2012; Kubota, 2011; Wee, 2010). Linguistic instrumentalism can be defined as an ideology that emphasizes the utilitarianism of learning English for sustaining economic development as a society and for mobility obtained by an individual. Linguistic instrumentalism tends to promote competition rather than cooperation. The discourse of developing human resources, which is often observed in English education policies in Japan, emphasizes fierce competition on the global stage and implies that students should serve the nation as a resource. This discourse tends to encourage students to study English harder to enter prestigious universities.

So far, we have suggested that Japan is an EFL setting and that university entrance examination systems and linguistic instrumentalism are reasons why EFL classrooms at high schools in Japan tend to lack learning activities to develop higher-order thinking. Closer examination of the reasons might be necessary and profitable, but such an examination is out of the scope of this study. This study is intended to be action research to solve or mitigate problems observed on the ground practically.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to investigate a BLL program created as an intervention to improve the higher-order thinking of EFL learners at a public high school in Japan. By adopting an action research approach with a pragmatic paradigm, the intervention was designed to solve or mitigate problems observed in the classroom while drawing on the concept of praxis, a dialectical unity of theory and practice with reflective thought (Lantolf & Poehner, 2011). This study was guided by two research questions: (1) to what extent can higher-order thinking be improved among EFL learners at a high school in Japan by engaging in online asynchronous forums embedded in the BLL program?; (2) what factors of the BLL program facilitated or inhibited the presence of higher-order thinking?

Delimitations and Limitations

This study describes qualitative and quantitative dimensions of the presence or absence of higher-order thinking development only in asynchronous forums embedded in the BLL program and analyzes what factors are responsible for the development, if any. This BLL program is focused on EFL learners, but this study did not examine whether or how participants’ EFL proficiency was improved. The research site and the intervention are described in the intervention section.

Four main limitations are identified. First, this study used an action research approach in a particular context with a limited number of participants; thus, the conclusions derived are not generalizable. However, efforts are made to make the conclusions transferable by providing a thick description of the research site, course design, and procedures. Second, while the content analysis instrument that was adopted in this study is widely recognized, what can be captured by any instrument is only a part of the participants’ actual thoughts. We use observational data and data taken from surveys in addition to the transcript analysis to describe a more nuanced picture of the participants’ higher-order thinking development. Third, while the focus of this study was on the development of higher-order thinking, the language used in the online components of the intervention was English, which is the target language for the participants. Participants’ development of higher-order thinking might be restricted by the language in use. Finally, the BLL program was designed and implemented targeting advanced EFL students, who have already acquired the basics of English grammar and vocabulary; thus, for students struggling with learning EFL, another type of intervention will have to be considered.

Literature Review

This literature review is an analysis of the empirical and theoretical research that bears directly on the purposes of this study.

Higher-Order Thinking

Despite the popularity and importance of the concept of higher-order thinking in education, there is no clear definition of the term. A framework that is often mentioned when higher-order thinking is defined or considered is Bloom’s taxonomy (1956). Forty-five years after Bloom’s taxonomy was published, Anderson et al. (2001) introduced the revision of the original framework. Anderson et al. tried to revise the original taxonomy to respond to the criticisms and incorporate new findings without changing the aim of the original taxonomy, i.e., classifying educational goals. There were two explicit changes in the revision. First, the new knowledge dimension contains four subcategories instead of three in the original scheme. The one added to the new framework is Metacognitive Knowledge, which was not widely recognized at the time the original version was developed. The other explicit change is in the overall structure of the cognitive process dimension. The six major categories in the new scheme are: (1) Remember, (2) Understand, (3) Apply, (4) Analyze, (5), Evaluate, and (6) Create.

The Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky (1978) introduced the concept of lower mental functions (LMFs) and higher mental functions (HMFs) to reconcile his claim that human mental functions are social in origin with the other contradicting fact that newborn infants already possess certain mental functions. Vygotsky viewed the development of human mental functions as their transition from the original LMFs into HMFs. LMFs are genetically inherited in terms of origins, unmediated in terms of structure, involuntary in terms of the way of functioning, and isolated in terms of the relation to other mental functioning. HMFs are socially acquired, mediated, voluntarily controlled, and linked to a broader system of other functions.

In this study, higher-order thinking is defined using Anderson et al.’s (2001) revised taxonomy of educational objectives and Vygotsky’s (1978) concept of LMFs and HMFs; Higher-order thinking represents the cognitive mental functions of understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating knowledge that is voluntarily controlled and facilitated through interaction. Recently, developing students’ higher-order thinking has been a widely shared goal in both secondary and post-secondary education. In the next section, we explore how higher-order thinking can be developed in formal education.

Online Asynchronous Forums

Now, the question is: How can higher-order thinking be developed in formal education? One of the ways that have been adopted in many institutions is online learning, or to be more specific, asynchronous forums. The term asynchronous forums, which is sometimes referred to as computer-mediated conferencing, is defined in this study as a learning activity where participants interact with written language asynchronously.

The focus on collaborative constructivist approaches in online learning in the past few decades rests on the belief that these educational approaches can lead learners to higher-order thinking (Morrison, 2007). Constructivism is not monolithic. Different scholars have introduced different perspectives on constructivism. Two major strands are cognitive constructivism and social constructivism (Powell & Kalina, 2009). Others include radical constructivism (Glasersfeld, 1995), holistic constructivism (Scheer et al., 2012), and ecological constructivism (Hoven & Palalas, 2016; Palalas, 2012, 2013, 2015). In asynchronous forums, which is one major form of collaborative constructivist approach, the act of writing leads students to deeper thinking (Conrad & Openo, 2018; Garrison, 2016). Reflection is another practice that can be incorporated in asynchronous forums to develop higher-order thinking (Conrad & Openo, 2018; Garrison, 2016; Hoven, 2019; Rose, 2013). Time available in engaging in asynchronous forums enables participants to think more deeply while in F2F or synchronous communication, participants are usually forced to respond immediately with no time available for deeper thinking.

A theoretical basis is needed for teachers’ effective facilitation in constructivist-based asynchronous forums to develop students’ higher-order thinking. In the next section, we examine how sociocultural theory and dynamic assessment, an assessment and teaching approach derived from sociocultural theory, can be applied to asynchronous forums for more effective facilitation.

Dynamic Assessment as a Pedagogical Approach

In this study, sociocultural theory (SCT) refers to a Vygotsky-inspired theory. The central tenet of the theory is that human thinking is symbolically mediated (Lantolf, 2013). Sociocultural in this context means that language, by which thinking is mediated, is a social, cultural, and historical artifact. A method that is emerging in SCT, especially in SCT-based second-language research, is dynamic assessment (DA). DA, where mediation is given intentionally, is a procedure that unites the goals of better understanding a learner’s potential through structured sets of interactions and fostering development through those interactions (Lantolf, 2011).

DA is an approach to assessment as the name shows, but it is also an approach to teaching. In DA, teachers are expected to provide learners with ongoing intervention attuned to learner development based on Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Rather than waiting for individuals to become developmentally ready to learn, in DA, instructions are given intentionally to prepare learners for more complex concepts (Lantolf, 2013). DA links ongoing assessment to the provision of instructions that are appropriate mediation for development. Lantolf (2011) noted that research on DA within group-wide ZPDs is an important area for future research. As a group develops, the individuals comprising the group also develop, which is an important notion with regard to ZPDs in education (Lantolf & Poehner, 2011).

DA or any other form of formative assessment tends to be intuitive on the part of teachers rather than guided by principles of learning theories (Lantolf & Poehner, 2004). Principles for attuned instruction and instruments to measure the effects are required for DA to be a robust framework. In the next section, we review the literature on content analysis, which is expected to measure the effects produced by asynchronous forums with DA-based mediation.

The Interaction Analysis Model: An Instrument for Content Analysis

Content analysis has been established as an effective method for analyzing asynchronous communication and is widely used in the field of online and blended learning (De Wever et al., 2006; Hall, 2014; Lucas et al., 2013). In general, the goal of content analysis is to reveal information that is not observed at the surface level of the transcripts. Among many content analysis instruments, the Interaction Analysis Model (IAM), which was developed by Gunawardena et al. (1997), was chosen for this study (see Table 5.1). The IAM is an established instrument (Lucas et al., 2013; Hall, 2014) and it is an instrument that fits to the purposes of this action research. Jonassen et al. (1994) stated that constructivist learning outcomes should be evaluated using evaluation methods that are sensitive to the goals of constructivist learning. Gunawardena et al. (1997) noted that knowledge construction necessitates higher-order thinking and that the IAM begins with what could be described as lower mental functions to higher mental functions in Vygotsky’s terms.

Research that used the IAM to examine the knowledge construction in asynchronous forums revealed several challenges that this learning activity often entails. Wang et al. (2009) reported that many students did not know how to behave in the environment, which suggests that participants need a phase where they practice the unfamiliar way of learning before entering the program. Hou et al. (2009) reported that knowledge construction was inhibited due to participants’ lack of skills to use the technology adopted in the program and that interaction among participants was not activated when they had no obligation to participate. Some of these challenges might be addressed by adopting a blended learning (BL) approach. BL environments can offer different affordances that allow for meaningful learning experiences to take place. In the next section, the authors will explore blended learning systems.

Table 5.1

Interaction Analysis Model for Examining Social Construction of Knowledge in Computer Conferencing

Phase I: Sharing/comparing of information

A.    Statement of observation or opinion

B.    Statement of agreement from one or more other participants

C.    Corroborating examples provided by one or more participants

D.    Asking and answering questions to clarify details of statements

E.    Definition, description, or identification of a problem

Phase II: The discovery and exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concepts or statements

A.    Identifying and stating areas of disagreement

B.    Asking and answering questions to clarify the source and extent of disagreement

C.    Restating the participant’s position, and possibly advancing arguments or considerations in its support by references to the participant’s experience, literature, formal data collected, or proposal of relevant metaphor or analogy to illustrate point of view

Phase III: Negotiation of meaning/co-construction of knowledge

A.    Negotiation or clarification of the meaning of terms

B.    Negotiation of the relative weight to be assigned to types of arguments

C.    Identification of areas of agreement or overlap among conflicting concepts

D.    Proposal and negotiation of new statements embodying compromise, co-construction

E.    Proposal of integrating or accommodating metaphors or analogies

Phase IV: Testing and modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction

A.    Testing the proposed synthesis against ‘received fact’ as shared by the participants and/or their culture

B.    Testing against existing cognitive schema

C.    Testing against personal experience

D.    Testing against formal data collected

E.    Testing against contradictory testimony in the literature

Phase V: Agreement statements(s)/application of newly-constructed meaning

A.    Summarization of agreement(s)

B.    Applications of new knowledge

C.    Metacognitive statements by the participants illustrating their understanding that their knowledge or ways of thinking (cognitive schema) have changed as a result of the conference interaction

Blended Learning Systems

BL is expected to emerge as a predominant system and become more common in secondary and post-secondary education than either fully online or fully F2F instruction in brick and mortar institutions (Graham, 2019; Halverson et al., 2017; Watson, 2008). Despite the increasing popularity, theories that are specific to BL have not yet developed (Graham, 2019; Halverson, 2017). While the definition of BL is not fixed, we define BL in this study as the integration of classroom F2F learning experiences and online learning experiences within a thoughtful course design.

Improved pedagogy is one of the most prominent benefits of BL. BL has been helping the shift from transmissive to interactive strategies on the ground (Staker & Horn, 2014). Cleveland-Innes and Wilton (2018) identified five benefits of BL: (1) opportunity for collaboration at a distance, (2) increased flexibility, (3) increased interaction, (4) enhanced learning, and (5) learning to be virtual citizens. Solutions to challenges in BL systems are highly context-dependent; thus, it is important to identify successful models of BL that suit the particular context while flexibly capitalizing on the unique affordances available in both the F2F and the online environments in each individual setting (Graham, 2006).

Compared to BL research in higher education, BL research in K-12 settings is scarce. Drysdale et al. (2013) reported after reviewing more than 200 theses and dissertations on BL that K-12 environments were only studied in 8% of them. Learners in secondary education often need direct instruction and careful scaffolding. Considering increasing BL practice and the difficulty of implementing learner-centered activities in secondary education, more BL research focusing on secondary education is expected. BL design might be a possible solution to make learner-centered online learning more effective in K-12 settings.

Methodological Approach

This research project used an action research approach. Action research can take many forms, but typically it is “a small-scale intervention in the functioning of the ‘real’ world and a systematic, close examination, monitoring and review of the effects of such an intervention, combining action and reflection to improve practice” (Cohen et al., 2018, p. 441). According to Kemmis (1997), there are two camps in the field of action research: the reflective practitioners and the critical theorists. These two camps are two ends of a continuum with no clear distinction, but for the former, action research is an improvement in professional practice at the local level, and for the latter, action research is part of a broader agenda of changing education and changing society. In this study, the authors took elements from both sides. As reflective practitioners, we designed the BLL program as an alternative or a supplemental way of teaching to the current test-oriented practices. As critical theorists, we designed a BLL program that can be inspirational to our colleagues and try to disseminate the findings to encourage instructional diversification in society.

While different scholars have introduced different sets of principles, the consensus is that action research is a cyclical process (Bargal, 2006; Kemmis & McTaggart, 2014). Different scholars have also developed distinct sets of cyclical procedures (Cohen et al., 2018; Stringer, 2014). In each cyclical procedure, the link between action and reflection on action is readily apparent. At the same time, throughout the procedure, theories are an essential tool to provide teachers and researchers with the understanding necessary to take effective action.

Intervention

Overview

The BLL program created as an intervention for this action research is an extracurricular program, which means that the program is not part of regular classes that require official grading needed for participants’ graduation but is rather a supplemental course in which students participated voluntarily. In the BLL program, fifteen EFL students engaged in online synchronous and asynchronous activities with English as a medium of instruction and communication while being supported by face-to-face sessions conducted in Japanese. The online component of the program consists of two five-day asynchronous forums and two ninety-minute synchronous meetings. Concerning the F2F component, two ninety-minute meetings are placed: at the beginning and at the end of the program. This study focused on online asynchronous forums, where instructors drew on the construct of mediation from SCT, or especially from DA, to lead the participants to higher-order thinking by engaging them in student-teacher and student-student interaction in the content-based EFL learning program.

Goals of Online and F2F Components

Both synchronous and asynchronous activities in the online component were designed to be spaces where students engage in constructivist learning. Two meetings in the F2F component were opportunities to provide students with direct instructions about the procedure, contents, and technologies in use. K-12 students tend to need direct instruction due to a lack of independent learning abilities. That is why a BL design was adopted in this study so that the instructor could provide participants with the needed direct instruction in the F2F component to guide them in the online component.

Roles of Researchers

Two researchers were involved in this study: a full-time EFL teacher working at the site and an adjunct professor working at a university in the United States of America. Both researchers took on the roles of researcher, program designer, and instructor in the BLL program. The F2F meetings were led only by the former.

Description of the Teaching Context

The site of this study, S High School, is one of 186 public senior high schools in Tokyo. S High School is designated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education as an “Advanced School,” which is expected to show high achievement in university entrance examinations. S High School is also designated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education as a “School to Promote English Education.” Schools in this category are given some advantages including having two native English-speaking teachers while the other schools have one. S High School has about 960 students, with approximately 320 students in each grade.

Participants

Student participation in the BLL program was totally voluntary. The program was advertised to all the students at the school. Students who were interested in the program applied to the program. The number of participants was limited to a maximum of fifteen to ensure the quality of the program. Eleven students first applied, and later four more students were recruited.

Instructional Design

This program took inquiry-based instruction as the main instructional method. Laurillard (2012) noted that inquiry “is a term that expresses the value to the learner of being in control of their own knowledge and skills development, in contrast with the teacher-led form of learning through acquisition” (p. 140). Seen from the perspective of TESOL, the teaching method used in this program is categorized as content-based instruction and cooperative language learning (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). Another TESOL-related instructional strategy utilized in asynchronous forums in this study is modeled writing. Essentially, modeled writing is a process in which students are encouraged to write independently upon being presented with teacher demonstrations of writing (Graves et al., 1994). Mohr (2017) suggests that instructors can decrease the cognitive demand of writing by modeling forms of linguistic competence. Forms of linguistic competence may refer to the ability to understand grammar and vocabulary well enough to identify the main idea and supporting details of a text and the ability to make inferences and interpret vocabulary (Celce-Murcia et al., 1995). In the asynchronous forums in this study, instructors’ posts were intended to facilitate discussion, and at the same time, to be modeled writing. Instructors refrained from giving immediate grammatical feedback due to their focus on facilitating students’ thinking.

Design of the Program

The BLL program consisted of six phases described below.

  1. Face-to-Face Meeting I (1.5 hours)

The aims of the program and how to operate technology in use were explained in Japanese emphasizing how and why student-student interaction can be a meaningful educational experience. Also, participants were asked to submit a pre-survey by the following day.

  1. Asynchronous Forum I (5 days)

This was one of two main asynchronous forums in this program. Participants read materials and discussed a given theme, which was chosen to build a foundation for the next asynchronous forum.

  1. Synchronous Meeting I (1.5 hours)

Two synchronous meetings were prepared so that the four skills for English proficiency (i.e., reading, writing, listening, and speaking) are integrated. The main goal of the Synchronous Meeting was to break the ice with no cognitively demanding topics.

  1. Asynchronous Forum II (5 days)

In Asynchronous Forum II, participants read materials, watched two short video clips, and discussed more complicated issues on a given theme based on the foundation that they built in the previous forum.

  1. Synchronous Meeting II (1.5 hours)

In Synchronous Meeting II, participants were required to give a three-minute individual presentation on a given topic. The topic was related to what they discussed in the previous two asynchronous forums.

  1. Face-to-face Meeting II (1.5 hours)

Participants shared what they learned in the whole process of the program. Also, participants were asked to submit a post-survey within five days.

Course Topic

In the individual presentation required in Synchronous Meeting II, participants tried to answer this question: How can learning English be meaningful to me and to the world? Two asynchronous forums were designed for participants to deepen their thought to answer this question. Many Japanese students are made to believe that English is necessary for their future success under the social and political climate; thus, the topic was chosen to lead the participants to think about why they learn English from broader perspectives in a metacognitive way.

Data Collection

In this study, qualitative data were gathered through three methods: (1) asynchronous forums to obtain textual data, (2) researchers’ observation during the whole process of the program recorded in a research journal, and (3) pre- and post-surveys to obtain qualitative data through the open-ended questions. Hendricks (2013) classifies data collection strategies in action research into three categories: artifacts, observational data, and inquiry data. In this study, data were collected from all three of these categories that Hendricks identified. Participants’ transcripts stored in asynchronous forums were converted into quantitative data through the IAM. Below are the questions included in the pre- and post-surveys.

Questions in the pre-survey

  • What do you expect to learn in this BLL program?
  • What do you think about learning in a virtual classroom?
  • Why do people learn English?
  • Why do you learn English?
  • What are positive and negative aspects of English as a global language?

Questions in the post-survey

  • What did you learn in this BLL program?
  • How was the virtual classroom experience?
  • Why do people learn English?
  • Why do you learn English?
  • What are positive and negative aspects of English as a global language?

Findings and Discussions

Findings from the IAM

The authors used the IAM to explore the first research question: to what extent can higher-order thinking be improved among EFL learners at a high school in Japan by engaging in online asynchronous forums embedded in the BLL program? We carefully read the transcript, divided the transcript into messages, and assigned each message to one or multiple phases according to the phases described in the IAM.

Table 5.2

The Number of Posts, Messages, and Total Words in Asynchronous Forums

S1 S2 S3 S4 S5 S6 S7 S8 S9 S10 S11 S12 S13 Totals
Forum I
Posts 3 3 2 1 4 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 0 45
Messages 6 5 3 3 7 1 2 3 3 4 3 3 0 43
Total Words 341 328 228 200 442 96 110 168 90 222 143 94 0 2462
Forum II
Posts 3 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 1 1 1 0 1 43
Messages 3 2 3 2 4 1 1 2 1 2 2 0 1 24
Total Words 262 212 192 105 340 74 54 187 109 220 145 0 77 1977

Table 5.2 provides the number of posts, messages, and total words that each student submitted. In this table, posts mean task-oriented posts. Among all the posts that the participants submitted, only one post was counted as non-task-oriented, which was a post to indicate that the student made a mistake in the previous post. The total number of task-oriented posts was 45 in Forum I and 43 in Forum II. Comparing Asynchronous Forum I and II, while the number of posts is close, the number of messages in Forum I is larger than in Forum II. The reason is that in Forum I participants were asked to answer three questions listed in the Prompt I that the authors created; thus, most of the students’ first responses were divided into three messages.

Table 5.3

IAM Coding Results for Asynchronous Forums

IAM Phase Phase I Phase II Phase III Phase IV Phase V Totals
Forum I 91 (85.0%) 5 (4.7%) 11 (10.3%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 107 (100%)
Forum II 22 (56.4%) 0 (0%) 16 (41.0%) 0 (0%) 1 (2.6%) 39 (100%)

Table 5.3 provides the total numbers of messages coded at each phase in the IAM. According to Gunawardena et al. (1997), Phases I and II are considered to represent the lower mental functions while Phase III to V represent the higher mental functions. Comparing Forums I and II, the ratio of Phase III in Forum II is larger than in Forum I, and this is because the question in Prompt II that the authors created was the one that encouraged participants to think about both advantages and disadvantages of English as a global language. In the pre-survey, no student identified negative aspects of English as a global language; thus, many of the students had to interact with the reading material and video clips provided by the instructors before presenting their statements, many of which were products derived from negotiation with these materials. This increase suggests that course designers and instructors should choose materials and tasks carefully to facilitate students’ thoughts. No message was coded as Phase IV in both forums. Only one message was coded as Phase V, which was in Forum II. S3 wrote:

You can also grow by discussing in English with people who you would not normally have been involved with, like our current courses. [Phase V/C]

Although it is a simple message, while thinking about the advantages of learning English, S3 found that constructivist learning can be a meaningful way of learning by observing herself from a metacognitive perspective. Findings from the IAM provide evidence to suggest that the participants were capable of the co-construction of knowledge although to a limited extent.

Closer Examination of Knowledge Co-Construction in Asynchronous Forum I

While almost all the participants replied to questions described in the prompts and instructors’ postings in both forums, learner-learner interactions were scarce. The number of posts that were directed to other participants was 1 in Forum I and 4 in Forum II. Table 5.4 provides a string that draws learner-learner interaction at the end (Turn 6) in Forum I, which also illustrates the instructors’ DA-based mediation.

Table 5.4

An Example of Knowledge Co-Construction in Asynchronous Forum I

Turn Post
1 S2 … Certainly, English is necessary to make connections with people and countries. But, we must not forget “respect of native languages” which is one of the great features of each country. People also should use native language positively … [Phase III/D]
2 T1 [To S2] You have brought up a very important topic: our mother tongue. Our mother tongue is important in many way … First, our mother tongue is important to develop our thinking system … Second, language is a culture as you wrote. This is a popular example, but other languages do not have a word for mottainai in Japanese. Japanese have the word mottainai, so Japanese people have the feeling.
3 S2 … But I now find it is only “feeling” and also that I have the feeling when I speak Japanese. “Feeling” is so vague thing and words are so clear thing. However I think they have deep relations. What do you think about this, everybody? [Phase III/D]
4 T2 [To S2] Yes language allows us to experience ‘deep’ feelings and it is part of our personal ‘existential’ experience. On one hand, my language, the words I speak are mine from my soul, and on the other hand, my words are the words I learned from others because they shared their language with me and language was given to me … Bakhtin suggested, language is half mine and half yours and when we communicate we meet in the middle.
5 S2 … Needless to say, culture and language vary from country to country. I think it is better than not. If countries all over the world had the same culture and language, we would not have Interests each other. Not knowing each other, we will mutually try to know. So, these differences are what we should focus every time … [Phase III/D]
6 S5 [To S2] I agree with you. They will have deep relation. I think that it’s our experience, nare in Japanese. At first, our feeling for a language is almost nothing because we don’t have any experiences. However, If we get many experiences by talking with foreigner or writing sentence, we will be able to get the feeling and English skills, too. Certainly, the feeling is vague. However, our experience can improve it … [Phase I/B and III/D]

Turn 1 is part of S2’s first post in this forum. S2 negotiated with the reading material in Prompt I and presented an idea of “respect of [sic] native languages” while thinking about why people learn English. Turn 2 is Instructor 1’s response to Turn 1. Complimenting S2’s statement, Instructor 1 provided two specific reasons why our mother tongue is important. Throughout the forums, the instructors refrained from pushing participants to reply to instructors; thus, Instructor 1 ended the post without adding further questions. Turn 3 is S2’s reply to Turn 2. S2 presented his thought about relationships or differences between feelings and words. S2 is thought to have further considered why our mother tongue is important after reading Turn 2. Turn 4 is Instructor 2’s response to Turn 3. Instructor 2 extended the discussion about relationships or differences between feelings and words by providing a philosophical discourse, which was intended to further stretch S2’s thought. Turn 5 is S2’s reply to Turn 4. This message is close to Phase V of the IAM in that S2 pondered not only about himself but about relationships among different cultures from a broader perspective. In the end, however, the authors coded this message as Phase III/D because the metacognitive aspect is not so explicit in this message. Nevertheless, it is evident throughout this string that S2’s cognitive functions developed from Turn 1 to Turn 3 and 5. Turn 6 is the sole post in this forum that is categorized as learner-learner interaction. S5 replied to Turn 3, S2’s post. After showing her agreement to S2’s statement, S5 presented a related concept, experience, through which she thinks feelings can be connected to words.

Challenges Identified

We triangulated data derived from the IAM with observational data and qualitative data derived from pre- and post-surveys to answer the second research question: what factors of the BLL program facilitated or inhibited the presence of higher-order thinking? While almost every participant found collaborative constructivist learning to be meaningful, the most explicit challenge was the lack of learner-learner interaction. Interaction is divided into three categories: learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner, each of which should be facilitated for effective knowledge co-construction (Anderson, 2003; Moore, 1989). The authors identified four reasons why learner-learner interaction was not activated. First, to students who are usually given direct face-to-face instruction, online instruction might have been unclear. Although instructors provided guidance for participants’ online participation, it might not have been enough. One participant wrote in the post-survey that he did not realize that participants were expected to respond to other participants. Second, the participants needed more time to get accustomed to the new learning environment. Several students wrote in the post-survey that they had to hesitate to express their own opinions and reply to other participants. Third, some participants had difficulty using the online platform adopted for the asynchronous forums. Most of them found no technical problems, but the instructors should have provided more guidance especially to those who were not familiar with technology. Finally, English proficiency was a factor to inhibit interaction for some participants. Although all the participants were thought to be advanced EFL students, some of them wrote in the post-survey that they needed more time to interpret messages from other students and the instructors and to write their own posts in English.

Another challenge that the authors identified in this BLL program was the lack of messages coded as Phase III to V in the IAM, which are thought to represent higher mental functions (Gunawardena et al., 1997). Four reasons for the lack of learner-learner interaction identified above might also be applied to this deficiency. In addition, the small ratio of Phase III to V, especially Phase IV and V, could be attributed to the materials and tasks that the authors provided. As stated in the IAM analysis section, messages coded as Phase III were larger in Forum II than in Forum I due to the task that facilitated participants to negotiate with the materials that the authors provided in Forum II. Tasks that led participants to Phase IV and V could have been prepared in this BLL program. On the other hand, according to Kosiak (2004), an explanation for the large percentage of Phase I and II may be a result of the assumption that co-construction of knowledge may not always be an observable phenomenon. This perspective might be applied to the BLL program in this study.

Conclusion and Suggestions for Future Practice and Research

The results show that the participants found collaborative constructivist learning meaningful and exhibited higher-order thinking development to varying degrees. However, learner-learner interaction in asynchronous forums was not activated to the same extent, which might have contributed to the limited development of higher-order thinking among participants. Triangulating the data derived from the IAM with qualitative data derived from surveys and observational data, the authors identified several possible ways to overcome the challenges. To increase learner-learner interaction in asynchronous forums, the authors suggest that course designers and instructors should make use of affordances that the face-to-face component of the BLL programs provide. In the case of the intervention in this study, the participants were high school students who were not familiar with computer-mediated collaborative constructivist learning; thus, face-to-face meetings could have been used to give more careful direct instruction. In this way, the students could understand the purposes and procedures of collaborative constructivist learning more clearly. Also, the authors suggest that the participants should be given more opportunities to practice this new way of learning with easier tasks in order to get accustomed to the new approach and technology employed in the program.

While there are certainly various ways to increase the presence of higher-order thinking in asynchronous forums, and the need to carefully design materials to fit the program may seem obvious, the data underscore the importance of carefully designing materials and tasks that are given to students. Finally, many participants illustrated metacognitive aspects in their responses to two questions listed in the post-survey: what did you learn in this BLL program?; and how was the virtual classroom experience? These responses could be coded as Phase V of the IAM if they were statements submitted in asynchronous forums. Instructors can lead the students to exercise their metacognition not only through tasks but also through facilitation during the asynchronous discussion, which is recognized as one of the best ways to lead students into deeper reflection (Conrad & Openo, 2018; Garrison, 2016). Educators are encouraged to create and implement BLL programs that suit the particular setting making use of affordances that both the online and face-to-face components provide to make the program a meaningful one. At the same time, the field of blended language learning is expected to further develop to be a place where educators and researchers can share their practices and findings.

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