Supported by the European Community under the Information Society Technologies priority of the
6th Framework Programme
Dr Angelique Dimitrakopoulou, Professor of Aegean University (GR), and member of the Coordination group of Computer Supported Inquiry Learning, Special Interest Group, established in Kaleidoscope NoE, speaks on the related domain: what the research has offered and how education should profit from it.
So, what is Computer Supported Inquiry Learning?
Inquiry learning is an active approach to learning that involves exploration, and questioning. In order to answer questions students explore domains, pose questions, design experiments, collect data or build models to test ideas in search of new knowledge and understanding. The importance of self directed inquiry learning was pointed out from the pedagogues decades ago, in the beginning of the previous century. Actually, technology enables us to design learning environments that first of all allow the exploration and modelling of phenomena that are often not immediately visible, or do not have a visible representative. But, what is even more significant for the learning process, these computer supported inquiry learning environments are designed with the purpose of effectively supporting students during the inquiry learning process.
I think that it is mostly about physics science, isn’t it?
I have to say, that learning through well-designed inquiry learning activities and environments can be applied across contexts and disciplines. While it is true that technology based inquiry learning environments were originally designed for sciences with physics being the most traditional domain, but also for chemistry, biology, environmental education, etc, similar processes can be applied to other disciplines too, such as computer science, or even social sciences. Indeed, in the last years we have seen more and more environments designed in ways that support inquiry learning in various domains.
What technological tools are there available?
There are a wide range of available tools. Computer supported inquiry learning already has a long history. The first environments for sciences and especially for physics were developed more than four decades ago. In the early years the number of learning environments and the availability of supportive measures in simulation based inquiry learning software were limited. Nowadays, there is a wide range of technology based learning environments: simulations, remote controlled laboratories, modelling environments, ‘lab’ data acquisition and treatment software, etc. These modern environments often incorporate a variety of tools, including tools for synchronous or asynchronous communication, for the creation of concept maps and argumentation diagrams. Maybe more interesting is the fact that they are based in various technologies, such as mobile technology and robotics, and they require the use of other technological devices such as video and photo cameras, or sound recordings. All these make the environment richer, more flexible and more attractive to the learners.
You mean the benefits for the learners? When students have the means and the conditions to work via an inquiry learning process, the learning output has nothing to do with just memorising facts and figures and laws, or learning to apply standard problem solving procedures. Inquiry learning leads students to be able to pose scientific questions and find appropriate solutions to these questions as well as to more general issues. Students do not just memorize pieces of knowledge, they construct their knowledge, they form new reasoning modes; they reflect on their own learning process, they progressively act and learn as scientists to create new knowledge.
It appears nice, but is the inquiry process easy for students?
No, we can not tell that it is easy. Inquiry learning is a cognitively demanding activity. That’s why during the last years the designers of these technological environments conceived various kinds of internal tools (e.g. for scaffolding processes of hypothesis generation, argumentation, reflection, meta-cognition, self assessment, etc) that support students in their reasoning processes, whether they work in an individual mode or in collaboration with other students.
It seems that it is all about technology. Is technology enough?
No, usually not. First of all, the technology based learning activities may incorporate accompanying educational material of various types. A learning activity designed for Computer Supported Inquiry Learning may require additional resources for the student, such as books, electronic material on Internet websites, videos illustrating the phenomenon under study, but also paper based worksheets for students (very important in order to guide them, but also to incite them to keep track of their scientific observations or reflections), or self- assessments tests and reports, etc.
A recent development in the field of inquiry learning is of rich multidimensional environments. Modern inquiry learning environments involve a wide range of materials and tools, aiming to support high level learning. Not only traditional educational materials are incorporated in inquiry learning environments, also collaboration with other students and the creation of communities of learners enrich the inquiry learning process.
Nowadays, a number of inquiry learning environments based on communication technologies, involve the cooperation or the collaboration of a small or a wider number of learners, of the same school unit or of various schools in the same country or in the world.
What is the current situation in education? Is technology based inquiry learning really implemented in educational systems?
The level of implementation varies in different countries. However, we can say that a lot remains to be done. Regarding the curricula, in most cases, general level objectives relating to inquiry learning are ‘expressed’ in the official national curricula. However, often not enough time within the curriculum is dedicated to these kinds of activities, and especially for those that are project based inquiry learning. In addition, many teachers feel that they lack the competence required to manage inquiry learning activities.
A significant number of well-succeeded pilot programs are applied in European or other countries, and we find that there is an issue on how to scale them up; how to implement projects in various countries and different educational systems and contexts. Personally, I consider that we have to exploit various educational structures, to apply services in a coordinated way and not only support and stimulate the teachers involved, but also the school unit(s) as a whole.
What is the challenge for education?
The challenge is to improve the quality of learning for the young children, the students and the future citizens. In order to meet the needs of the 21st century, we have to progress and go far beyond techniques of sheer memorizing, applying predefined procedures, of just finding and/or managing information. There is a need to stimulate students to ask questions, and develop skills that help them to make sense of information and mass data, and are needed to resolve complex problems.
Even more important, we have to create the conditions to help students become cognitively and socially flexible, adaptive and responsible young persons and future citizens. For all this, it is critical to create the appropriate context, and to develop a culture around inquiry learning.
And what about the scientists, have they fulfilled their research agenda? What about the future in this research domain?
Researchers working on the field have already achieved a lot on the design of mature and rich systems, but also on understanding the difficulties that students may encounter during these processes, on understanding the factors that influence the effective inquiry learning, on investigating appropriate modelling techniques for children, etc. They have also worked to chart curriculum requirements, conceived learning materials and appropriate assessment techniques, etc.
Still, there always are emerging new promising aspects and directions to explore and work on. I believe that currently, the research regarding the design of the technological environment has to focus on how to better exploit the new possibilities offered by mobile and wireless technology, that enables a smooth integration of natural and digital world in authentic social contexts. In parallel, we have to continue studying how to support students’ reasoning in these new conditions, with technology based cognitive tools or with traditional complementary educational material. Another promising trend is the use off data mining techniques to collect process data that can be used to support students and teachers. But maybe, the most critical is to focus on how to influence and support effectively the word of education, providing powerful structures of continuing, long-term support of school units and teachers.