Inquiry-based learning concepts

We talked in my class Monday about the terms that help us describe inquiry-based learning, or that derive from thinking about it. Students made their individual lists, then shared those with a partner, then in the group as a whole. There was to me a surprising diversity of responses, but with a sense that the different clusters of words were mutually reinforcing.

Below is a tag cloud we made of the terms. We could have added “fallibilism,” “adventure,” “moral,” “trust,” “dialogue,” “reciprocity,” and others. We also agreed that it’s the connections among the terms that really matter. Nevertheless, it was interesting to turn this mirror on our class dialogue over the semester.

Inquiring and acting

John Dewey makes an interesting distinction between understanding and information:

An individual may know all about the structure of an automobile, may be able to name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for. But he does not understand the machine unless he knows how it works and how to work it; and, if it doesn’t work right, what to do in order to make it work right…Understanding has to be in terms of how things work and how to do things. Understanding, by its very nature, is related to action; just as information, by its very nature, is isolated from action or connected with it only here and there by accident. (Dewey, 1937, p. 184)

If we line up “how things work” with inquiry and “how to do things” with action, we have a good summary of the Youth Community Informatics activity guide, Community as Curriculum. It’s set up with units on Youth as Inquirer and Youth as Activist.

An example might be to study the problem of alcoholism in your community (Inquirer), then make a book about it, such as This is the Real Me (Activist). Several thoughts occur to me:

  • The inquire/act distinction is not absolute; it’s hard to come up with a good example in which the two roles are not blended and mutually supportive. But it can still be useful for reflecting on our work, and thinking about future directions for community informatics.
  • The Inquirer part goes well beyond what usually happens in school in terms of relevance, connectedness, community base, and so on. But the Activist part rarely happens at all.
  • Much of the research in social informatics, and even community informatics, which studies community use of ICTs, digital divide, or demographic patterns, tends to “name all the parts of the machine and tell what they are there for.” That can be useful, just as it would be for an automobile.
  • But, if we seek understanding in Dewey’s sense, we need more of a community inquiry approach.


Dewey, John (1937). The challenge of democracy to education. In The collected works of John Dewey, 1882-1953. Electronic edition. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953. Volume 11: 1935-1937, Essays, Liberalism and Social Action. [First published (February 1937) in Progressive Education 14, 79-85, from a transcript of an address on November 13, 1936 at the Eastern States Regional Cnference of the Progressive Education Association in New York City.]

Open world learning

People often talk of the Internet as a venue for open learning. But this openness often means simply that students can explore a vast array of resources, perhaps coming across sources that neither they nor their teacher expected.

It’s useful to think about the various ways that new information and communication technologies (ICTs) create additional possibilities for open learning, including both its benefits and costs. Several years ago, Umesh Thakkar, Eric Jakobsson, and I along with others developed such an analysis for the case of Biology Workbench (see Molecular Science Student workbench and Swami). The general idea is that Biology Workbench could facilitate open world learning.

Biology Workbench is a suite of computational tools and data sources, which is used by scientists across a wide range of disciplines to explore and analyze protein and nucleic acid sequence databases. There is a wide variety of analysis and modeling tools, within a point and click interface that ensures file format compatibility.

Thus, Biology Workbench is not an alternative tool for teaching biological concepts, although students who work within it can expand their understanding of biology significantly. Rather, it is an exemplar of a venue for learning, one in which students explore genetics, protein structure and function, physics, chemistry, and other domains of inquiry, invoking processes of pattern-matching, probabilistic reasoning, and both inductive and deductive analysis. Its potential significance for learning relates to three major ways in which it is an open system.

Open Data and Problems

The Workbench architecture provides the potential for using information technology to provide an open world of learning and exploration. Previous approaches to using computers in education have focused on the creation of closed worlds in which students could navigate and explore. Many of these computational environments are excellent and useful, but they are limited. Students are not encouraged to investigate the unknown. In general, students cannot investigate phenomena that the creators of the environment themselves do not know.

The open environment of the Biology Workbench is fundamentally different. By providing access to essentially all that is known about biomolecular sequences and structures, together with powerful analysis and visualization tools, the Workbench makes it possible for students to learn more than what their mentors and teachers know, and even to generate new basic knowledge. The key idea here is not only that there is a large amount of material, but that the data are constantly changing as a result of scientific work. This is true of course for the Web in general, but appears more striking in the case of rapidly changing molecular data (see point #2 below).

This aspect of the Workbench was exemplified by one instructor who was using the Workbench in a university class. She commented that once the students went beyond working through specified exercises, they were essentially doing original biological research, doing analyses that perhaps had not been done before, and she was hard pressed to know how to grade their work.

Open Computational Environment

In addition to providing a window to the entire world of molecular biology, the Biology Workbench is open in a second sense. It is continually growing, adding new features that extend its capabilities and domain of applicability. New domains of applicability include the ability to reconstruct metabolic pathways by utilizing data from newly developed microarrays (gene chips and metabolic flux chips) and the ability to do molecular simulations. The Workbench continues to grow as the whole field of computational molecular biology grows, because it is more than a computer program. It is a computational environment that integrates tools for exploring and learning about all aspects of molecular biology. This dynamic growth is both a plus and a challenge for teachers or curriculum designers who might reasonably seek consistency in their curricula.

Open Community

The Biology Workbench exists within a community of investigators working across a variety of areas within molecular biology. These investigators are not only users, but creators of the system, as they add their research results to the available corpus of articles or their findings result in additions or other modifications of the databases. This community is a powerful resource for education, but it does not exist to meet educational needs per se.

Students who attempt to learn through the Workbench are able to enter into that community of investigators. In so doing, they have stepped outside of the protected world of the classroom. Their learning becomes much less structured, even potentially hazardous without the assurance of carefully vetted curricula, but it can also be far more engaging and applicable to learning beyond the classroom.

Inquiry Page and Community Inquiry Labs

inquiry_pageIn a previous post, I described the latest version of Community Inquiry Labs (CILabs). I’d like to add to that, based on some questions.

A precursor of CILabs, is the Inquiry Page. This site is still very active, open, and free. It offers an easy way to learn about inquiry-based teaching and learning, to search a large database of Inquiry Units, and to create your own, either de novo or a spin-offs of existing units. There are other features, including help with evaluation and quotes about learning.

CILabs just offers another way to do Inquiry Units, but in the context of the group support functions (blog, document center, group email, web pages, etc.). The two sites were developed at very different times, using different software (Perl vs. Drupal). A current effort is to make the connections between them more evident and to enable them to work synergistically.

Community Inquiry Labs

Inquiry cycle

Inquiry cycle

Community Inquiry Labs (aka CIL’s or CILabs) is rising again!

What is CILabs?

Drawing from the work of John Dewey and others, showing that education begins with the curiosity of the learner, CILabs promotes an iterative process of inquiry: asking questions, investigating solutions, creating new knowledge, discussing experiences, and reflecting on new-found knowledge, in a way that leads to new questions.

In addition to the standard features found on group support sites, such as Ning, Google, Yahoo, and Moodle, CILabs offers a means for building Inquiry Units based on the Inquiry Cycle. Also, unlike most university-supported software there is a secure means for users without university netid’s to participate. This is crucial for university-community collaborations.

CILabs (aka iLabs) are being used currently in courses such as Will Patterson’s Hip Hop as Community Informatics and Martin Wolske’s Intro to Network Systems. Projects such as Youth Community Informatics use it as do a variety of  other projects and organizations.

The redesign

Despite filling a need for many individuals and groups since 2003, use of CILabs fell off after a security hole was discovered in CILabs 3. That led to a temporary shutdown and a major redesign on the Drupal platform.

Thanks to the support of Robert Baird at CITES EdTech, a project to rebuild CILabs was led by Alan Bilansky with Julieanne Chapman as lead programmer. Claudia Serbanuta represented GSLIS and the CILabs user base. The new CILabs is now hosted by the University of Illinois College of Education, thanks to Ryan Thomas and John Barclay. This represents an unusual and successful collaboration across two colleges and CITES, with support from the Center for Global Studies, Community Informatics Initiative and the Illinois Informatics Institute.

I encourage you to give it a try now, and to let us know how to improve

Visualize your inquiry unit

radar_plotThe Youth Community Informatics project now offers a free tool to create a radar plot for visualizing the strengths of an inquiry unit. The basic version is built on the Inquiry Cycle.

There are a variety of possible uses:

  • to show how different inquiry units emphasize different aspects of the Cycle. For example, an otherwise good unit might offer little in the way of Discuss (or collaboration). That might be fine if other units do emphasize collaboration, or it might indicate that some modification is needed to include that.
  • to compare across sites or projects.
  • to portray the development of a single site over time.
  • to support development of inquiry units.

The scoring of units could be done by researchers, teachers or youth leaders, community leaders, or community members.

None of these uses are a substitute for detailed analysis, but they can help start an investigation of the units.

The basic version of the tool, shown here, simply provides a single radar plot, with a logarithmic scale of arbitrary magnitude. Other versions might support overlays, color-coding, additional axes, or other features.

Mapping cemeteries

Several of our Youth Community Informatics sites are mapping cemeteries. What sounds like small project, or even a gloomy one, soon opens up into far-reaching explorations of history, geography, health, families, technology, mathematics, literacy, and more.

At Iroquois West Middle School, youth started with a story about a primary school’s project to study cemeteries: Learning from graveyards. The “Map Masters” soon expanded this by incorporating technologies of GPS and GIS into their mapping project of the Onarga Cemetery. They have already made many discoveries and are continuing to do more. They’ll also connect with cemetery mapping projects in Cass County and East St. Louis.

One interesting tombstone that we found at the Onarga Cemetery was in the shape of a tree trunk. The name of the person buried there was Emory Gish. According to our reseach on symbolism the tree trunk showed a life cut short. The number of broken branches might symbolize the number of deceased family members buried nearby.

What is community informatics?

Community informatics has been given various definitions, such as this one from the Community Informatics Research Network:

…brings together people concerned with electronically enabling local (and virtual) communities; and structuring collaborations between researchers, practitioners (including industry) and policy makers to support community ICT implementation and effective use.

Definitions such as the one above appropriately name various constituencies, thus serving organizational needs. But for me they are oddly both too narrow, excluding legitimate elements and activities, and too broad, lacking a principled organization or rationale.

Inquiry cycle

Inquiry cycle

The Inquiry Cycle

I’d like to suggest an alternative, drawing from the experience of the Community informatics Initiative (CII) at the University of Illinois, as well as helpful discussion with CII staff and students. The organizational principle that I’d like to suggest is that community informatics is a form of disciplined inquiry, with central questions, methods of investigation, actions, collaborations, and theories. I’d like to present that here using the the Inquiry Cycle as a framework and CII activities as concrete examples.

The Inquiry Cycle (Bruce, 2009) characterizes inquiry as involving five major aspects: a guiding question (Ask), methods of investigation (Investigate), active participation (Create), collaboration and dialogue (DIscuss), and reflection (Reflect). These aspects don’t necessarily proceed in a prescribed order; inquiry may involve any of the aspects in varying degrees and orders. For example, Reflect is often the beginning point of inquiry, leading to the formulation of the Ask. The idea of cycle (or better, spiral) suggests that inquiry does not complete, but generates further inquiries.

Community Informatics as a Type of Inquiry

The definition below is rather lengthy. Think of the Ask as the core question that defines community inquiry. The other elements then elaborate on that, emphasizing the variety of approaches needed to address the core question.

Ask: How can we work with communities to learn about democratic participation in the digital age, and to promote engagement with information and communication technologies for both individual and community growth?

Investigate: CII investigates the ways that people in communities create and share knowledge, how social networks operate and evolve, how access to technologies is differentially distributed, especially along lines of race and class, and the development of policy regarding information and communication technologies. These communities may be large or small, geographically-based or online. The goal of these investigations is to learn more about the dynamics of communities, their capacities and challenges, and how they make use, or not, of various tools. Basic research such as this is necessary for informed and meaningful action with communities.

Create: CII builds tools, such as Prairienet, Community Inquiry Labs, geographic information systems, media archives, and computer technology centers. It works with organizations such as Books to Prisoners, S.O.A.R. [after-school program]@ B.T. Washington Elementary, Paseo Boricua, and others to expand opportunities for learning and to support social justice. Building as well as using tools in a critical manner not only addresses immediate needs; it’s a key aspect of learning about community informatics.

Discuss: CII provides forums for interaction and collaboration, such as the Journal of Community Informatics, CI Reflections blog, and the CI Research Series. A diversity of theories and methods are not only welcomed, but seen as necessary for understanding diverse and changing social and technological realities.

Reflect: CII helps make sense of experiences of communities as they use information and communication to address their needs. It also critically analyzes its own inquiries, its tools, and its modes of interaction and collaboration. These reflections help build stronger accounts of community informatics, including extensions of critical race theory, political economy, critical literacy, as well as the development of new frameworks, such as the theory of community inquiry, and generate new questions for further inquiry.


Bruce, Bertram C. (2009, April). “Building an airplane in the air”: The life of the inquiry group. In Joni Falk & Brian Drayton (eds.), Creating and sustaining online professional learning communities. New York: Teachers College Press. [ISBN: 0-807749-40-0]

Cross-posted on CI Reflections

Digital literacy, what is it?

When in Dublin last year, Leo Casey, Abi Reynolds, and I led a little exercise on the question, “Digital literacy, what is it?” This simple activity led to surprisingly fruitful discussions, often extending more than an hour, although it never produced a consensus answer to the question.

We had found six definitions of digital literacy from leading organizations and then modified each of them a little so their source wasn’t easily identifiable. We then printed the modified definitions on A3 paper and hung them around the room. We asked participants to read them all, stand next to the one they agreed with the most, then discuss.

Every time we tried this, every definition had several strong advocates. One interesting phenomenon was that the Microsoft definition often drew the most supporters, which dismayed those who’d selected it. I don’t want to say more here, because I’d like people to experience the activity as our participants did. If you try it on your own, please cast your vote and justification through the comments (link above).

Here are the modified definitions we used:

  • the term multiliteracies highlights two related aspects of the increasing complexity of texts: (a) the proliferation of multimodal ways of making meaning where the written word is increasingly part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns; (b) the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity characterized by local diversity and global connectedness 

  • basic computer concepts and skills so that people can use computer technology in everyday life to develop new social and economic opportunities for themselves, their families, and their communities
development of critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good 

  • the knowledge and ability to use computers and technology efficiently
  • the ability to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information
  • a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself its technical infrastructure and its social, cultural, and philosophical context and impact

With coaxing, I’m willing to reveal the original definitions and sources.