Barriers to online critical discourse

  • Liam Rourke
  • Heather Kanuka


This qualitative case study illustrates barriers to informal argumentation and reasoned debate, i.e., critical discourse, in online forums. The case is the computer conference of a 15-week, graduate-level humanities course offered entirely at a distance. Twelve students, all with families and careers, were enrolled in the course. We read all messages as they were posted and interviewed five of the students several times during the course. The students provided three insights into our interpretation that the forums contained little critical discourse: (1) The students did not orient to the conference as a forum for critical discourse, and worse, they had competing orientations; (2) they perceived critiques as personal attacks; and (3) they realized early on that critical discourse was a bothersome means to obtain their participation marks. Certain practices may ease some of these difficulties, including (1) well-structured learning activities with clearly defined roles for teachers and students, and (2) a method of assessing students’ participation that reflects the time and effort required to engage in critical discourse.


Critical discourse Higher education Computer support for collaborative learning 


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© International Society of the Learning Sciences, Inc.; Springer Science+ Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Learning Sciences Lab, Learning Sciences and Technology Academic Group, National Institute of EducationNanyang Technological UniversitySingaporeSingapore
  2. 2.Centre for Distance EducationAthabasca UniversityAthabascaCanada

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