Online course and blended learning help students develop critical thinking skills

Based on her presentation at the recent eLearning Africa conference in Rwanda, Veronika Schaeffler shares reflections from INASP’s experiences of developing and piloting an online course to help students improve their critical thinking skills

Is it possible to use technology to train soft skills for the workplace?

This was the guiding question of a session I spoke at in the recent eLearning Africa conference in Rwanda.

Working with higher education institutions in several African countries, we don’t yet have a full answer to this question but we do have some sound indicators that our e-learning approach can help to develop students’ critical thinking skills, which are part of the soft skills that are often asked for by employers and academia.

Our work in this area came about in response to wider trends and also partners who approached INASP with the request to help with a problem they encountered in higher education. The problem, they explained, was that employers ask for improved critical thinking skills of graduates, but often university curricula don’t give enough space for including soft skills teaching and lecturers often don’t have the training to help students develop soft skills.

How we approached the challenge

During our early thinking phase about tackling this challenge, we developed a Theory of Change and broke down the problem in smaller obstacles to find solutions for support, considering the higher education context in the countries we are working with.

While developing our Theory of Change, we identified, based on research evidence, that students need to develop critical thinking skills to be able to evaluate information – a necessary skill for their success in higher education and academia -, to increase their employability and also strengthen their responsibility as citizens. We identified the inputs and methods we wanted to use for solving the problem, the expected outputs, outcomes and long-term impact of our project, while considering assumptions and risks we had to monitor and possibly to respond to.

One of our assumptions is that a learner-centred pedagogical approach supports the development of soft skills.

Online and blended learning

We decided to develop an online course with a blended learning approach. This approach adds flexibility to lecturers. By offering a self-study course, the students can gain a basic understanding of how to think critically. It can also enable them to practice some skills such as questioning, purposeful reading, distinguishing good from bad arguments, and analysing information, for example in terms of perspective and bias.

The learning through the online course can be consolidated through face-to-face lessons with a lecturer or tutor. The students can discuss their learning, ask questions and start to apply their learning in their discipline.

The blended learning approach takes into account that lecturers’ and students’ time for soft skills development is limited, while providing sufficient human interaction for consolidating and applying the learning.

Developing the online course

To use existing expertise in the best way, we brought together an international learning designer team. INASP contributed our own expertise in learning design, content development for online learning and learner-centred teaching approaches; lecturers from Tanzania contributed their context knowledge and teaching expertise to review the contents and specify the supportive environment; and a content expert in critical thinking from Romania led on the content writing.

Our design focused on the students and their learning outcomes. It was based on existing pedagogical models and we used the Learning Designer tool as a software that supports explicit, collaborative and iterative learning design. Each learning outcome is acquired through teaching and learning activities (TLA), which could take the form of, for example collaboration, investigation, practice or “read, watch, listen”. Engaging students in a variety of activities helps them to practice different skills, while acknowledging diverse learning preferences. Activities also give lecturers – and students – the opportunity to assess the learning progress.

When planning the activities, conditions such as the number of students or the available time were considered. For example, although collaboration is often a very valuable TLA type that supports peer-to-peer learning in an online environment, we have not used it for this online course as it requires significant facilitation capacity and our faculty partners warned us that facilitation capacity may be a problem. Originally, we also avoided ‘discussion’, but students testing the first version asked us to add a discussion forum to keep in touch with fellow students. The discussion activities that we introduced in response only require minor moderation capacity so are more appropriate for the faculty capacity available to support the course. In addition, the classroom sessions can enrich the learning with collaborative activities.

Our learning

Our work on developing and piloting the critical thinking course has shown us some key factors for a successful e-learning project:

  • The project draws on local context knowledge, learning design methodology, and pedagogical expertise
  • One piece of feedback from the lecturers was that they want more training in learner-centred teaching methods
  • The early involvement of students who tested a first version of the online course helped us to improve the course and collect ideas for the face-to-face lessons. For example, we sorted out some technical problems, adjusted the scheduled time students need to complete activities, and added a discussion forum.

INASP’s introductory course on Critical Thinking aims to help students learn how to evaluate the literature available and determine sources of evidence. This will enable students to make the most of their time at university by giving them tools to question as they learn, helping prepare them to become effective employees in a range of work situations and successful contributors to national development. The course is made up or six modules and is intended for use in higher education as a standalone course or as part of a mixed teaching programme. We have released a sample version of the course for educators who are considering using it with their students.

For more information, contact Veronika Schaeffler (VSchaeffler@inasp.info).

Veronika Schaeffler
Veronika Schaeffler is a Programme Coordinator at INASP.

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