Conversational thinking for online learning

In this article I propose that conversational thinking is an important skill to develop in online learners, to enable richer social learning experiences that move beyond contribution and consumption.

Conversational thinking

“Learning through discussion has value because it provides the motivation for each participant to articulate their concepts and ideas, defend them, reconsider them in the light of challenge, and use them to mount a challenge to someone else’s idea.” (Laurillard, 2012, p.161).

Conversational thinking is the term I am using to represent deliberate thought processes that inform how you will converse and interact with another person. It is a skillset that represents how conscious an individual is of their role to stimulate and sustain a learning conversation. To be clear, I am not describing the acts of thinking out loud or thinking through an idea in conversation with someone else, but an attitude or mindset to learning with others. To help explain, let’s look at what high and low conversational thinking would entail, before exploring the justification of this concept.

High and low conversational thinking skills

An online learner who is high in conversational thinking skills will know how best to utilise the interactive environment, both in drawing upon, and providing insight to, the individuals within that space. They will be aware of how what they write or share online is interpreted by other learners, with a clear purpose of their contribution to respond to or trigger a response from a co-learner. A learner who is actively seeking engagement with other learners by posing questions in direct response to another’s contribution is taking the learning conversation further. Their thought processes involve the supporting of others and developing a rich interaction, building upon and linking ideas in succession.

An online learner who is low in conversational thinking skills is still a participant in the online learning space, but contributes mono-directional. They post what is important to them, by broadcasting rather than inciting response. As they consider what they will share, they are not thinking about how it will be interpreted or understood by others. At the lowest level, they will contentedly post the same comments and ideas as other learners without acknowledgement of similarity or that another individual has the same perspective on an issue.

In essence, a conversational thinker is someone who, in the non-online environment, is able to ‘work the room’. They would engage strangers, make connections and take conversations forward by carefully considering what they do and don’t share. Someone with low conversational thinking skills would, in the non-online environment and in the extreme, simply bark facts about themselves or what they observe, regardless of the other contributions from the room.

A learner with low conversational thinking is not necessarily a ‘bad’ learner. Indeed the act of contributing to an online learning space requires at the minimum level an acknowledgement of the activity or content being presented, if not the time and cognitive effort to consume, internalise, process and form an understanding from course materials. What the development of conversational thinking may bring is the ability to harness the understanding of others effectively, engage in more challenging thinking and become more integrated within an online learning group.

Conversational thinking to advance social constructivist approaches

Selwyn’s summary of constructivist pedagogy is a particularly helpful starting point to consider the role of conversational thinking in learning:

“Constructivist accounts place great importance on individuals’ ability to reflect upon their learning… Attempts to encourage and support constructivist learning seek to provide individuals with opportunities to explore and learn through successful and unsuccessful experiences.” (Selwyn, 2017, p.81)

The ‘opportunities to explore and learn’ come from the ability of learners to provide contributions, but also in the social constructivist domain, through the dialogue of exploration to tease out learning points from both successes and failures. The interplay between internal thought processes in learning and how outputs may be framed within a conversation is discussed by Looi Chng and Coombs (2001). They place conversational learning as a reflective exercise, where the conversation is still largely internalised only to be externalised through a form of artefact, for example a blog post. However, the creation of an artefact, as a record of the learners’ thoughts, adopts a publishing model, to be consumed as part of a sequence of learning activities, rather than flexibly questioned and extended organically. Yet, aside from the structured activity, the designing in of conversation is a clear echo of social constructivist approaches and more commonly evidenced now in online learning with activities on discussion boards, blogs with comment features, and the like.

If social constructivism is a pedagogical approach adopted by course designers, scaffolding in the interactions between ‘novice’ and ‘expert’, conversational thinking is the skill and ability on the part of the learner to advance learning between participants. It should be noted that categorising learners as ‘novices’ underplays the value of all experiences, different perspectives and ways of thinking that learners may bring to a social learning activity. A ‘novice’ with high conversational thinking could, in principle, elicit more effectively new information and opinions from other course participants to support their learning, compared to an ‘expert’ with low conversational thinking who guides without relating to their learners’ context. For social constructivism to be effective, not only do you need the scaffolded learning to prompt activity and the guiding hand of an educator to lead learners forward in their understanding, but conversational thinking skills of all participants in the learning experience. By thinking about how to take the conversation forward, learning is more apparent through the quality and depth of contributions, highlighting what is known, not yet know and what is willing to be understood.

Prior experience of online interaction and learning

It may be argued that social networks and social media have proliferated a lack of conversational thinking, by foregrounding content posting over criticality and dialogue. With the prominence of most recent posts shown first, broadcast-first models of online interaction champion fresh contributions and reacting to the new. Whilst social media is still supported by commenting functionality, re-sharing and ‘liking’ tools, conversations are transient and in many cases may be seen as one-sided. In essence, there isn’t the functionality, or perhaps personal reward, to make connections between new and old ideas, knowledge and experiences. Situating learning within these spaces requires specific skills. In networked and connectivist learning, the foundation of original MOOC designs, learners require “critical literacies” to write, make connections within their personal learning environments (including social media and networks like Twitter), self-motivate and sustain their learning (Kop, 2011). There needs to be consideration then of how learners are best supported to interact.

In MOOCs (massive, open, online courses), there is a general perception that the level of interaction between learners is proportionally low in comparison to closed, more tightly facilitated online distance learning. This is perhaps a reflection of the range of learner intentions on MOOCs (DeBoer et al, 2014) and likely due to lack of appropriate induction to online social learning. That is not to say that the learning through MOOCs is any less valuable to course participants. The sheer potential of many shared perspectives and experiences, and the vicarious learning opportunity that arises from this, is one of the greatest strengths of MOOC design. Indeed, evidence shows that where a learner does comment and interact it is a predictor of high completion rates (Pursel et al., 2016; Swinnerton et al., 2017), and by consequence, completing a course will have higher impact on an individual’s achievement of learning objectives. Therefore, there seems benefit to both learner and course organisers, to encourage richer interaction between learners, rather than just as individual learning endeavours.

Selwyn (2017) argued education as a “shared, collective, mutual and reciprocal endeavor” could be more effective than individualised approaches, with benefits arising from learning with people you normally wouldn’t associate with. However, enabling individuals to learn from diverse backgrounds and contribute from their own context needs to go beyond broadcasting ideas, and towards conversation, questioning and connection. For some, new skills are needed to be able to learn from disparate contexts that may be difficult to relate to, translating commonalities and understanding the differences that apply to their own, personal situation. Simply looking at frequency of contribution, Swinnerton et al. (2017) found that those who commented in MOOCs most prolifically are more likely to have experience of online learning previously. This implies a skills development need that may be somewhat lacking in availability for those who are new to online social learning.

Conversational thinking as an online learning skill

Online learning skills are sometimes limited in description to just information literacy, reflective learning and self-motivation. Skills relating to the capacity of an individual to effectively interact with peers and educators are less well defined, often presumed as equivalent to the functional social skills of the offline world. Simply put, “they need to function in global communities” (Salmon, 2011, p.161). Early guidance for ‘e-learners’ makes a point about group formation, avoiding becoming a lurker and encouraging early participation to become part of the group (Clarke, 2004). However, there are considerable assumptions that a learner knows how to become part of the group and what types of contributions are most useful in the online learning environment for specific activities.

In MOOCs, and even within smaller online learning environments, group formation across the entire cohort is incredibly difficult to achieve. One of the biggest challenges to social learning online is asynchronicity, with flexible engagement that allows learners to start courses and activities sometimes weeks apart. Yet, thinking of the cohort as a whole is not a practical approach to developing interaction for the learning benefit of individuals. As I am arguing, it is not the quantity, but the quality of interaction that is important, and how learners are supported to make ‘better’ contributions. Ferguson and Sharples (2014) outlined the way the FutureLearn platform itself aims to support localised interaction in the form of comments on every page of content, with specific parts of courses for targeted discussion activities on specific questions. The discussion activities aim to bring learning from across the cohort together, for example by drawing upon individual reflections in previous comments. This approach, of focusing on interactions at a level of smaller groups before they bubble up to benefit the whole cohort, is more analogous to real-world conversations. Deeper, more probing understanding can occur with smaller groups, than trying to unpick differences in context across a large cohort.

In the offline environment, Think-Pair-Share (Lyman, 1981 cited by Conole, 2016) is an effective way of ensuring every student in a room has the opportunity to discuss their ideas and understanding of a concept. Conole used this example activity design when discussing the ‘Communicate’ component of the ‘7Cs of Learning Design’ model, with a clear link to social constructivist pedagogy:

“Starting from their own reflection, they then co-construct understanding in pairs and finally in a whole class context.” (Conole, 2016, p.131)

The simplicity of Think-Pair-Share works well in face-to-face or synchronous online contexts, such as webinars, and could be described as an effective scaffold to support development of conversational thinking. Yet, the method of small-group interaction within a larger group space is somewhat more challenging to design in an online, asynchronous discussion forum. Instead, activities often encourage learners to select one or two other posts to target their responses towards. Whilst this aims to drive conversation at the smaller scale, there are clear opportunities missed to link these ‘sharing’ contributions to the wider group discussion. This linking for learning and joining conversations together may be one of the most important roles of facilitators.

Conversation educator-facilitated or self-facilitated

Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (Laurilllard, 2002) represents a learning design model that can be applied to different pedagogies, both online and offline. It represents how educators and learners interact, through different forms of learning processes both externalised and internal to both teacher and student, linking theory and experience through reflection, feedback and questioning. In relation to social learning, Laurillard describes the interaction as:

“The teacher provides some stimulus in the form of a question, or issue, and the learners generate ideas and questions which in turn create demand for each learner to modulate their ideas and generate further ideas and questions.” (Laurillard, 2012, p.98)

In essence, a conversation, which aims to meet a specific learning outcome. Within online courses, such interactions are pre-planned, designed-in by having structured activities for learners to complete. The perpetuation of the learning then falls either to the learners themselves, or those in a facilitator role.

Course facilitation supplements the activity scaffold for social constructivist learning designs. It is no surprise then that educator presence and peer instruction are listed by Hew (2016) as two of five factors that lead to learner engagement in a study of three successful MOOCs. Yet, in the participation and facilitation of MOOCs, it is not feasible to monitor and respond to every contribution, therefore the scope to link ideas, force justification and sustain conversation by direct intervention is limited. Techniques exist for facilitators to hone in on questions, misconceptions and uncertainty expressed by learners. Though, it could be argued, the forms of learner posts that grab facilitators’ attention are only generated by those who have the conversational thinking to reach out and contribute in a way that encourages responses. Those who are in most need of facilitator support, those who either do not contribute, contribute closed statements or repetition of facts, do not provide much information for course facilitators to respond to.

In some online courses, the educator availability and presence is less frequent, mono-directional through course videos, or limited by text-only exchanges. When the role of the educator is removed, for example in MOOCs with little mentor facilitation, or other forms of self-sustaining online learning communities, learners fall into a peer-learning situation. Peer-learning is dependent upon course participation, but again requires specific skills of the learner to enable them to make the most of the activity design.

One form of peer-learning is peer-instruction, which is a specific sequence of interactions between learners. Pertinent to the concept of conversational thinking, a key stage of peer-instruction is described by Laurillard (2012) when applying the Conversational Framework. It involves focusing on the active justification of a position, consciously assessing another’s, leading to a re-evaluation of the learner’s initial position.

“The requirement to defend their first response motivates each learner to generate, and enables them to hear an articulation.” (Laurillard, 2012,  p.158).

The skills required of the learner are not just to create contributions, but to ‘listen’ to responses and encourage new responses. There are clear parallels to what is required of a course facilitator. If the importance of the facilitator role is to link ideas from smaller interactions to group-wide discussions, without the facilitator, the role must be adopted by the learners themselves. The act of assessing other contributions and creating links, not just to others’ contributions but learners’ own understanding of new concepts, is dependent upon inviting this assessment from other learners and being open to justifying perspectives. This leads towards a conclusion that conversational thinking is similar to the types of behaviours exhibited by course facilitators or learners engaged in successful peer-learning.

Learning without contributing

Whilst the focus so far has been on enabling those who do contribute to online learning spaces to contribute in a way that benefits not just their learning, but that of their peers, there is a group of learners that require further attention. Where conversations that operate between two parties give rise to the greatest intensity of interaction, non-participants (lurkers) are still benefiting from the exchange by observing and internalising the ideas. Negative connotations of lurkers may be ill-informed, where lack of contribution may be down to external (beyond course design) factors, the group dynamic and dominance of other learners, deliberate choice to hold back before contributing, lack of learning skills or at worst poor and uninspiring learning design (Salmon, 2011). I would argue the same consideration must be applied also for those without conversational thinking in their contributions.

The fault is not with the learner necessarily, but with how different learners are supported to get the most out of the course through appropriate guidance and activity instruction. Salmon (2011, p.176) suggested that “managing the interface between contributing and browsing [lurking] is a key e-moderation task.” If the role of moderation within a self-sustaining, mentor-less MOOC environment is placed upon learners themselves, this will be a hard skill for the average learner to master. It seems rather unreasonable to expect this tricky negotiation to both create an inclusive group dynamic, welcome in non-participants and sustain the learning conversation, to be achieved by those whose main intentions to be on the course is to fulfil a personal learning goal rather than consider the learning of the group. Therefore there is a distinct requirement on the part of the learning design to empower all learners to develop their conversational thinking approach to course contributions.

How might conversational thinking be developed

In many online learning situations, formal and informal, the development of online learning capabilities is very much dependent on the willingness of the learner to engage with induction or study skills preparatory activities. Salmon’s five-stage model emphasises the need for time and structured activities to ensure learners are comfortable with accessing the learning environment and beginning to socialise within it (Salmon, 2000). However, within learner-directed, self-paced and informal learning, for example MOOCs, the sequence of content and decision over which activity to participate in is very much in the hands of the learner. Therefore, deliberate attempts to instill conversational thinking across all course participants may not be possible. However, raising awareness of expected forms of contribution and through examples provided by learners who show conversational thinking, for example in weekly emails, could demonstrate the types of contribution that support learning. The aim is not to declare some contributions invalid, but to promote contributions that show engagement with other learners and development of understanding. The fourth stage of Salmon’s model of facilitator-led online learning, ‘knowledge construction’, are exactly the sorts of trails that would be evident from an individual, learner or facilitator, with high conversational thinking: “E-moderators may need to ask more questions, seek more discussion, motivate, challenge, compliment and encourage all participants.” (Salmon, 2011, p.45).

To provide structure to learners understanding of conversational thinking approaches, the “types of intervention” a learner may make, as outlined by Laurillard (2012, p.153), could be used as the basis of guidance: “question… explanation… conjecture… comment… critique.” A learner with high conversational thinking will be aware of a bias in their contribution towards one or more of these types of intervention, and would balance their interaction with peers and the educator accordingly. Whilst the evidence is not conclusive on the learning impact of students self-identifying the type of contribution they are making (Laurillard, 2012), it would seem logical that by raising awareness of the different forms of contribution, there could be a more conscious decision in the type of contribution made to an online learning space. By enabling learners to consider their interactions, the hope is that they will be able to both provide to and extract from the social learning experience more effectively.


By developing the conversational thinking of online learners, we move from contribution and consumption, to conversation. In turn, with contributions better focused on creating connections with individuals, there are greater opportunities for both extending the understanding and reflective learning for those directly involved in interactions, and a offering more plentiful and richer experience for non-participants alike. Part of the development of conversational thinking skills involves learners adopting traits of online facilitators, ‘working the digital room’. There are clear challenges to developing such online learning skills within diverse cohorts, particularly in learner-directed social learning designs where conversational thinking may have the most impact. However, course designers should not shy away from explaining the benefits of social learning and building in mechanisms for demonstrating effective conversational learning.


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3 responses to “Conversational thinking for online learning”

  1. […] themselves and seek support when needed? Within online distance settings, learning skills, such as conversational thinking (see this post for justification), need developing within students. These skills are not inherent in all learners, and supporting […]

  2. […] in learning advance, and those who are not are disadvantaged. I’ve explored previously how online text-based discussions require particular learning skills, and these need developing as part of the learning design. The same applies to online learning, […]

  3. […] Cornock, M. (2017). Conversational thinking for online learning. […]

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