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Building the Inquiryweb-a way to bring questions to the center of the classroom

January 15, 2012

Throughout last semester, I truly enjoyed reading Brian Frank and Mylene discuss their approaches to teaching full on inquiry based science classes. Unlike the small forays my classes make into inquiry, Brian and Mylene embrace inquiry as an almost extended science safari, with very little initial idea of where it might take the class. Students drive the class with their questions and investigations.

Some of the more inspiring posts I’ve read from their blogs include:

From Shifting Phases

From Teach Brian Teach

As I think of it, short of a true research class for advanced undergraduates, Brian and Mylene’s inquiry classes are mimicking the modern research group, where a community of scientists (at many different levels of experience and understanding) set out to investigate a particular phenomenon (light or electricity) and then work together to devise the questions, experiments and models they will use to increase their understanding of this topic.

I find these courses fascinating. The one year I did try this, devoting a full year to teaching only a couple of units in Physics by Inquiry, I found great value in what we were doing, but was somewhat disappointed by the lack of transfer to other skills, and of course, was a bit embarrassed to admit to other physics teachers I’d spent an entire year studying balancing, sinking/floating, and Newton’s laws.

Another time when I told myself we’d devote more class time to students answering their own questions, I had every student write down a question they had about science on a piece of paper, and I then typed those up and put them on a bulletin board with the intention of regularly revisiting the board to think of ways we could answer these questions, but my good intentions got lost in the grind of trying to work through 20 chapters of the textbook. All I ended up doing was some “project” in the spring semester where students had to write short papers answering their own questions.

But I would love to get back bringing inquiry fully into my classroom. At the same time, Brian Frank’s recent visit to my class has left me wanting to do much more to honor student questions in our classroom, and help students to see how they are central to our understanding.

That’s when I started thinking about how one could really keep track of all the questions that pop un in class discussion in a way that would encourage students to revisit them and devise ways to answer them on their own.

Then Mylene wrote this post:Inquiry: keeping track of who’s curious about what, which got me thinking and led to me writing this comment, which I want to elaborate on here.

Mylene presents the great idea that she often finds herself acting as the class secretary, recording the questions and ideas raised in class discussions, and tracking them in an excel spreadsheet. I like this idea, because I too often find myself over-interjecting myself into conversation, and it would often be far more productive for me to focus on writing down the key points of the conversation rather than jumping on every misconception that gets presented.

Then, as I often do, I thought how could technology enhance this, and then I thought of Inquiryweb, an application that would simplify the process of tracking and following up on student generation questions and at the same time help students to see the links between individual questions and develop a better picture of the complete framework of understanding the class is constructing.

Inquiryweb—an app to see the manage the process of authentic science inquiry in the classroom

Here’s what I envision. Inquiryweb is a web-based application that at its most basic level, keeps track of questions asked in class. Questions can be categorized with tags,and linked to other questions as possible follow ups. Inquiryweb would also track who asked the question and tracks questions by date. In addition to questions, the program would allow you to track observations—any student could add an observation, and categorize it with tags. Observations could be as simple as “I noticed that I have to keep pushing on the desk to keep it moving,” or more complex—a collection of data and graphs. The application would also keep track of answers, in the form of explanations and models, which could bring together multiple observations and evidence. The application should allow for photos, videos, and web resources to easily be added via web link. Finally, the application should allow students to vote of questions, observation and answers so that the most important questions are voted up for greater class attention. As answers get voted up on a particular question, it should also be possible for the class to decide a question is has been sufficiently answered to be marked as closed.

This application would always be accessible to students as a sort of classroom encyclopedia, searchable by date, topic, author or question status, and browse-able as a knowledge map. As long as I’m writing out the design doc for the crack software design team in my head, I’d love for an tablet/smartphone version to allow the capture of questions and evidence from the field, a screensaver mode to simply cycle through questions and bits of evidence on the smartboard when it is idle, and a notetaking mode that would make is quick and easy to generate questions and evidence from my a set of typewritten notes.

So what do you think? I’ve got to say I’m in love with the idea primarily because it fits with my weakness for thinking that there’s a technological answer to every problem, and some overly romantic ideas of wanting to spend my free time as running the next great education startup. In reality, I have nowhere near the skill necessary to pull something like this off.

This makes me wish that somehow teachers everywhere had access to great coders who could build custom apps like this on demand, which is why I think every school IT department should employ at least one individual who has at least a decent knowledge of how to write software (a fantasy, I know). Education Hack Day, a very cool collaboration between teachers and coders in Baltimore is a very cool step in this direction. It would be better if there were enough students studying computer science in schools to serve an in-house design team for projects like this. It would be best of all if everyone, including teachers, had the understanding and software development were at a stage to make something like this easy to do.

I’d love to know what you think of this idea. I’ve worked my way through two lessons on Django, a very interesting web-framwork for designing apps that seems to make all the PHP I had been playing with seem clunky, and with enough encouragement and help, I may try to make this brainstorm a reality.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2012 7:31 pm

    I love it, but I wonder if you get could off the ground faster with a multi-user blog. Use the categories for the type of entry: Question, Follow-up Question?, Observation, Explanation, Model, and then you can tag them all. The new entry could hyperlink the referent entry, which would show up in the referent entry’s Track Back links. True, it wouldn’t consolidate the connection between a Question and the eventual Model if the students linked Question <- Observation <- Explanation <- Observation <- Explanation <- Model, but the original question could be edited to refer to it. The benefit of going this route is that all you need with multimedia and video will be built-in. Looking at entries by user and by tag/category would also come free.

    • January 16, 2012 8:02 pm

      A blog is a neat idea—I hadn’t thought of the ideas you mentioned for categories. I think it might be a great prototype. But ultimately, I don’t think it will be flexible enough or fast enough for how I envision this working—I also find the search functionality in most blogs to be severely lacking.

      • January 16, 2012 10:06 pm

        True. I can imagine there’s a lot you could do with AJAX methods and visualization that would make for a fun interface. I used Django for a personal project a few years ago and enjoyed it. I’m sure that you can find already created components to deal with multimedia content, and the Models involved aren’t all that complicated. You might also consider allowing students to create analogies/connections between questions, between explanations, and between models. These can be some of the most valuable observations, since an analogy is the connective phrasing, like “[Constant Velocity Particle Model] is a type of [Constant Acceleration Particle Model] in which the acceleration is zero.”

        BTW: I’d love to help in any way I can. It’s the kind of web application I’d love to use in the classroom.

  2. January 16, 2012 11:37 am

    Wow! This is a really ambitious idea!

    Are you picturing yourself taking notes with this, or are you picturing all of the students using the program directly? In either case, using the program in real-time means it has to be ULTRA-easy to enter information, and you listed a lot of information: user, category, data, links to other questions.

    Paring it down, what’s the most important aspect of this? Are you hoping it can help you, the teacher, manage all of the questions you want each student to answer? Or is it more of a tool for students to explore their own questions? I’d pick one very specific goal and design everything around that – one trouble we had early on with ActiveGrade was the solve-everything problem… you’ll notice that now our website is aimed very specifically at teachers (instead of students / parents / teachers / admins / school districts ;)). Screen saver mode, for example, would be neat for reminding students of data entered earlier, but wouldn’t help you, the teacher, direct the class.

    Django and python in general are supposed to be the bees knees. Run it for free on Google’s AppEngine and get great free support at stackoverflow .

    In general I think it sounds like it could be great! You have a lot of deciding to do before you get started. Keep us updated! 🙂 I can’t give you any development time, but I’d be happy to give you advice / perspective as a recent edu-tech starter up.

    • January 16, 2012 8:06 pm

      Thanks so much for the incredible feedback—your comment has had me thinking all day about where I want to take this idea and how I could do it. I’ll keep you posted.

  3. January 16, 2012 5:46 pm

    Wow — I love where you’re going with this. It’s dawning on me that my class is developing their own textbook as well as documenting their own thinking, and we need a way to share, give feedback, refer to it, manage its updates.

    Riley’s advice is spot on for a development project. I’m going to ignore it (sorry Riley!!) and do some ideal-world brainstorming here, on the assumption that this is nowhere near the production phase, not even ready for the prototype phase, so we might as well push the limits of the dream-big phase.

    In response to John’s comment on my blog suggesting collaborative editing, my second thought was “great idea!” But my first thought was “oh crap, that would be a lot of work.” Getting students to the point where they could self-manage this data (say, in a wiki) would require data management, markup, and librarianship skills that my students are nowhere near. There would be endless accidental deletions and accusations that “someone changed my stuff” and “it was there yesterday!”

    But the idea is really tempting anyway. I love the image of questions popping up all over the map, Twitter-style, while class is going on. I also like the idea of comments, tagging, and searchability.

    A shared blog would definitely do a lot of this. Or, a blog per student would be fine too (which I think is what Brian is doing.) I’m pretty tempted by this but it has some disadvantages:
    – comments are not searchable on the blog platforms I have tried. This irritates me endlessly.
    – comments are not taggable. If you want to tag something, it has to be the whole post.
    – it lacks the visual organization that makes the whole schema visible at once. Yes, I can search by tag, but then I have to page through posts.
    – I can’t filter it the way I want: there’s no quick way to find all posts tagged “capacitors” and “AC” (for ex.).
    – I can’t sort it the way I want (say, by author, then by tag).

    Mindomo‘s “Team” package does a lot of what I’m envisioning. (For those who might not have seen Mindomo before, here‘s an example). It allows multiple people to contribute to a map; it supports commenting (blog style), tasks and timelines (exportable to MS Project), and exposes an RSS feed (status updates for your map… ideal for projecting onto the side of the classroom to see new questions pop up as they are added).

    VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) is an open-source concept-mapping project that also looks very promising (examples). They have started integration with Zotero (bibliographic info tracking tool), which I love, and allow for “playback pathways” (Prezi-style presentation paths, except that you can have any number of them). Unfortunately I don’t think they support multi-user editing.

    Ideally I want all of those features, plus a LOT of web storage (PDFs of student work take up a lot of space). Also, I want it to support Bret Victor’s “Explorable Explanations.”

    Obviously this is ridiculously out of proportion as a sensible project but I hope it puts some interesting ideas on the table, and that other will continue the brainstorm…

    • January 16, 2012 8:12 pm

      Whoa—thanks for leaving the mother of all comments. Here are a few of my thoughts. I generally hate wikis for the point you mention, so I don’t think I want to create anything as open as that. Honestly, I’m thinking of something more along the lines of Quora/stack exchange, where students don’t have to make every design decision from scratch, and the Question/Observation/Answer structure gives enough structure so that students can use it without having to spend an endless amount of time doing housekeeping.

      I think what I’m going for is a twitter style interface for asking questions and adding evidence—I’d want both of these operations to be fast, and generally not overload the user with a ton of options. Later, I’d want some more flexible tools for assembling evidence and observations into answers and models, searching, and browsing the web of connections between ideas.

      Now if I could only have a couple of months vacation to start really exploring these ideas.

  4. January 17, 2012 6:31 pm

    Sounds really cool John. Like you, I tend to lean towards technology making our lives easier but as a programmer/engineer I also want to use existing technology where I can to minimize redundancy and time wasted.

    The stack exchange option sounds great for this topic, I think it has a great tagging system for showing related topics/questions which in my mind would be the tricky part of this project.

    If you used this, then your time might be better spent developing a easy and quick posting app (of course you’ll need to wait until the API allows for write access

    I am always in favor of starting out with a super easy implementation and seeing how it goes. For that you might try a Google Form and then have a color coding on the results spreadsheet. It wouldn’t have any of the meta data you want but you would be up and running tomorrow.

    I wish you the best as I think this could be really fun to use in the classroom as I get so much from the SO community.

    • January 17, 2012 6:45 pm

      This is a great point—but the source code to SE isn’t open source, as far as I know, right? If I wanted to use SE for this, I’d have to go through their entire application/community building process, and I don’t think I could get enough traction to pull this off.

      • January 17, 2012 6:52 pm

        True, they have an API but the code is not open source. As far as traction, you never know until you try 🙂

        Even if it doesn’t get approved, it will unite the community of modelers and interested educators. It may even draw in interested and able parties that can lend support.

  5. Alex Silverman permalink
    January 23, 2012 12:37 am

    This comment is a bit late, but I like you find myself wanting to be part of the next big education start-up. I love the idea here. The reason an app like this would be so great is not just how it helps students ask questions, but the data that comes with it. In any subject a teacher could know the most common questions students ask and teach the answers to those without being asked. The most common misconceptions students have could be addressed because teachers would know what they are in advance. Right now teachers can observe this stuff from years of teaching, but this would provide hard data on the information.

    • January 23, 2012 12:41 am

      You’re totally right, and I never realized this. This really could be an incredible resource for both teachers and education research. Must find more time to learn Django…

      • Alex Silverman permalink
        January 23, 2012 12:50 am

        I’m obsessed with data on education. All the data we currently have access to is for the most part useless. It’s apps like this that can provide the useful data we need. I think I’m gonna add Django to the list of programming languages I want to learn.


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