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Knowledge Building Framework for Enhancing Online Discussions Among In-Service Teachers

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Roundtable presentation

Thursday, December 3, 1:45–2:30 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 3 of 3
Other presentations:
Online Graduate Student Surveys: Engagement, Technology and Instructor Behaviors
English Learners and Technology: What We Know, and How to Do Better

Dr. Vicky Cai  
Using the knowledge building framework, we designed and implemented a strategy called "learning journals" to enhance online discussions among K-12 teachers. We will share the theoretical foundation and features of learning journals, present findings about participants' experiences with learning journals, and summarize our design principles.

Audience: Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Windows, Android, iOS
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
Topic: Innovation in higher education
Grade level: Community college/university
Subject area: Higher education, Inservice teacher education
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Use collaborative tools to expand students' authentic, real-world learning experiences by engaging virtually with experts, teams and students, locally and globally.
  • Explore and apply instructional design principles to create innovative digital learning environments that engage and support learning.
  • Foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in both independent and group settings.
Additional detail: Session recorded for video-on-demand

Proposal summary


We adopted van Aalst’s (2009) three levels of discourse to guide this research: knowledge sharing, knowledge construction, and knowledge creation. Knowledge sharing refers to the transmission of information and ideas among participants. For example, group members provide descriptive information or share an initial idea or a resource with other students. The ideas shared are not modified during the sharing activity (Pea, 1994). Knowledge construction is about how learners make sense of information and construct meanings of concepts and phenomena. It requires higher levels of cognitive process, including summarizing, synthesizing, critiquing, etc. (van Aalst, 2009). Knowledge creation requires members think and act like scholars to advance their collective knowledge by continuously developing and improving ideas (Bereiter, 2002). To achieve knowledge creation, students need to focus their efforts on providing explanations, identifying causal mechanisms, and coordinating claims and evidence (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2003). Most importantly, students are expected to identify gaps in their groups’ collective knowledge and be able to fill those gaps (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).

Applying the above framework, we designed Learning Journals to guide students through the three levels of online discussions. Each Learning Journal was structured to have three levels. We developed specific tasks to be aligned with each level of the framework. For example, at Level 1 Knowledge Sharing, students are asked to share quotes or resources about the course content. At Level 2 Knowledge Construction, students will need to perform tasks like explaining, contrasting, or synthesizing. At Level 3 Knowledge Creation, learners will cite evidence or use logical reasoning to identify a gap or a need for generating new knowledge around the discussion topic. They will be demonstrating knowledge creation by developing original research questions and justifying the importance of the questions.


In this exploratory study, Learning Journals were implemented in the two iterations of a course through the Education Technology program at a public, comprehensive university. The 3-credit course, Instructional Games and Simulations, is a 6-week long, graduate course taught each summer. It is delivered online through the university’s learning management system. Students are required to complete at least 135 hours of study for the course, which translates to at least 22.5 study hours per week. During this study, the first iteration of the course was offered in Summer 2017 with 17 students enrolled, the second in Summer 2018 with 19 students. About 80% of the learners were full-time, k12 teachers. Students were divided into groups when participating in Learning Journals. In Summer 2017, there were three groups each of which had 5-6 students. In 2018, four groups were formed, with 4-5 students each. There are three sets of learning goals students are expected to achieve in this course:

1. to understand the elements and features of instructional games and simulations, as well as the underlying theories and relevant research,
2. to analyze and evaluate specific learning games and simulations so as to integrate games into teaching and learning effectively,
3. to design research studies to investigate the effects of learning games and simulations.

Various learning activities were designed to facilitate student learning and help them achieve the course goals. Particularly, the students participated in weekly online discussions, called Learning Journals, to share, construct and create knowledge about the course content aligned with the learning goals.

Instructional Design for Learning Journals

Each week in the course (except the last week), students were required to read the materials provided by the instructor and to have group discussions to demonstrate and further their understanding of what they read. These group discussion activities are called Learning Journals (LJ) in this course. Below is a summary of how LJs were designed:

- The instructor set up LJs on Google Docs for each group of students and invited them to edit the Google Docs so that they could have asynchronous discussions.
- On the first page of the LJ Google Doc, the instructor presented the knowledge sharing (Level 1), knowledge construction (Level 2), and knowledge creation (Level 3) framework, and listed two different tasks for each of the categories of the framework.
- The students were asked to use the above framework to monitor their discussions and complete at least two of the tasks during their group discussions. Students made their own decisions about which two tasks they would complete. For example, the could choose one task from Level 1 and one from Level 3, or choose two Level 2 tasks.
- On the second page of LJ, more specific expectations and instructions were listed, such as the deadline, the format requirements and the netiquette.
- Starting from the third page, a discussion guide was created for students, on which the instructor summarized the key takeaways for the readings, highlighted the important concepts, and posted initial questions. Students were reminded that when they respond to the instructor’s questions, they would possibly perform Level 1 or Level 2 tasks listed above. For example, they may need to cite and explain a quote from the reading (a Level 1 task) in order to answer the instructor’s question. However, they must develop and address their own original research questions in order to demonstrate Level 3 learning.
- LJs were designed to be flexible and open-ended. Taking advantage of the features of Google Doc, students could construct or edit their discussion content anywhere in the LJ document. They could insert hyperlinks and images to enrich their discussion and use the “comment” function to interact with each other.
- At the end of the LJ assignment, each group submit their LJ Google Doc. Additionally, every individual student filled out a self-assessment form where they checked which two learning tasks they had completed and provided evidence from their LJs (text responses) to explain why they believed they had performed the tasks successfully.

Data Collection and Analysis

All data for this study were collected from the two iterations of the course, including the LJ Google Doc from each group and the self-assessment forms of each student. Fifteen LJ Google Docs and 85 self-assessment forms were collected from Summer 2017. Twenty LJ Google Docs and 95 self-assessment forms were collected from Summer 2018. The quantitative and qualitative data will be analyzed using IBM SPSS Statistics Version 22 and Transana Professional 3.1, respectively.


Findings show that among all tasks completed by students, 56.5% were Level 1 tasks, 23.1% Level 2, and 20.4% Level 3. Students seemed to concentrated most of their effort to Level 1 (knowledge sharing) tasks, rather than Level 2 and Level 3 tasks. However, between Week 3 and Week 5, students slightly increased their effort to attempt Level 2 and Level 3 tasks. During the presentation, we will show a table summarizing the frequency and percentage of the learning tasks students completed under each category.

Students’ self-assessment forms suggest that they have grasped the concepts of knowledge sharing and knowledge construction quite accurately. The evidence they submitted to justify their self-assessment represents the appropriate level of learning tasks. Below are a few examples. In the Level 1 example, students cited a quote from the reading materials and shared why the quote stood out to him/her. In the Level 2 example, the student made a connection between the reading materials and his/her own teaching practice, clearly demonstrating increasing understanding of learning games and their impact on thinking skills.

- Level 1 task demonstration: “When discussing Schema Theory, Mayer cautions, ‘...’ (p. 66). This stood out to me as a good reminder that games are not a substitution for teaching, but rather a supplement to aid in learning. He supports this claim later in the chapter when he talks about the importance of feedback and modeling.”

- Leve 2 task demonstration: “I found the idea of ‘... helping to develop a holistic understanding of the way components of a city interact; helping develop strategic knowledge so that students understand how their decisions may have both immediate and long term effects; and reinforcing adaptive critical reasoning, so that students can use critical thinking skills to solve problems’ particularly impactful. As a math teacher, I will sometimes say things like ‘it’s not so much the specific math skills you learn that are important, but math also teaches you how to think systematically to be a general problem solver.’ I think this approach to using a game like SimCity can overlap, if not completely exemplify, that type of approach to the math curriculum. Sometimes it is not so much the specific skills that are important, but an overall context of problem solving that can be the most practical and useful for learners.”

However, students seem to need more support for understanding the essential goal of Level 3 tasks and generating more relevant, robust evidence. For example, the quote below indicates that the student attempted to ask new questions that can potentially lead to the creation of new knowledge. It is clear that the student’s role as a knowledge creator was emerging. The questions involved several factors, such as “socioeconomic status”, “digital divide” “copy-protection features” and educational values of games. The student made effort to articulate the potential relationships among these factors, but the questions and ideas demonstrated are not very coherent. In order to thoroughly achieve Level 3, the student needs to first review literature in order to develop substantial understanding of the topic she/he likes to investigate, and then develop a central argument and cite evidence from scholarly literature to explain and elaborate the questions and the argument.

- Level 3 task demonstration: “Part of the key findings was that many of the case studies encountered technical problems with copy-protection features. This led me to consider fair use and if a game is meant to be educational, should educators get a discount? How much does socioeconomic status play into the whole idea of games and simulations for education? Is there a large gap of availability of games and simulations between low and high socioeconomic school districts? Then I read our chapters for this week after writing this question. The whole idea of the Digital Divide would be applied here. What is the digital divide of games and simulations?”


This research helps fill the gap in literature through the design and the implementation of a pedagogical intervention in an online graduate course. The findings will help us better understand the process of learners’ online discussion and how they interact with the content to achieve knowledge sharing, knowledge construction, and/or knowledge creation, as well as how they evaluate and interpret their own performance. This research also identifies strategies for designing online discussions. The results indicate that learners need resources and support that are explicitly developed to facilitate online discussions with the goal of building knowledge and advancing conceptual understanding. Particularly, learners need additional support for how to move from the knowledge sharing level to knowledge construction, or knowledge creation to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills. Another unique contribution of this study is that the implementation of Learning Journals is supported by a set of design principles (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2006) and a widely accessible technology, Google Doc, instead of specific software programs; therefore, the findings of the study could be more transferrable to other learning environments where the specialized software is not available.


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Dr. Vicky Cai, Towson University

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