Inquiry-based connected learning

In this post, I describe the design of a course (unit) that I’ve been teaching online for a number of years. It’s a good time for me to reflect on the course, as here in Australia the semester finished a few weeks ago, and I’m now considering the changes I’m going to make for the next iteration.

My course is unique in my University, as I’ve unofficially designed it as two modules that can potentially be undertaken as self-paced modules (with support). That means that even though the course is officially offered in semester 2 each year, students can actually undertake it at any time in the year. They can dip into, and out of it at will, or they can undertake it in the traditional way in semester 2. I’ve organised the course in this way to allow my students to pace their workload over the year. As such, I have created a learning experience that is personalised.

The two modules are centered around two assignments. All the course content and activities are directed towards the assignments, thus the assignments constitute the course.

Who are my students?

My students are qualified teachers undertaking a Master of Education. Most of them are doing a teacher-librarianship major, and the course is a core teacher-librarianship subject, with the program being accredited by the Australian Library and Information Association.

What is my approach?

The aim of the course is for students to design and implement inquiry learning curricula in their own teaching context. Naturally, I’ve created an inquiry learning course, thus students are engaging in inquiry learning, while learning about inquiry curriculum and pedagogy.

Because the course is part of the teacher-librarianship program, the course also addresses advanced searching techniques using search engines, library databases and social media. Students need to demonstrate application of compound Boolean search strings, natural language and controlled vocabulary, use of thesauri and subject headings, truncation, wildcard and proximity operators.

This course (along with several others in the program) takes a connected learning approach. Apart from weekly tutorials conducted using Blackboard Collaborate, I don’t use the University LMS, rather I use a suite of social media:

  • Class Wordpress site (shortly due to be revamped!) and YouTube as a content management system
  • Closed G+ Community for asynchronous interaction
  • Google Docs for admin

Amy Nelson, who teaches Russian History at Virginia Tech describes her connectivist approach where students ‘make the course, not take the course’. As Stephen Downes and George Siemens explain in their Connectivism and Connective Knowledge MOOC:

CCK11 is an unusual course. It does not consist of a body of content you are supposed to remember. Rather, the learning in the course results from the activities you undertake, and will be different for each person.

In addition, this course is not conducted in a single place or environment. It is distributed across the web. We will provide some facilities. But we expect your activities to take place all over the internet. We will ask you to visit other people’s web pages, and even to create some of your own.

My course takes a similar approach. The course is centred around each student creating a blog that documents their individual inquiry journey, based on the inquiry questions that they pose and explore (assignment 1), and on the design and implementation of inquiry curricula (assignment 2).

The blog is intended to contribute to the students’ professional digital footprint in creating evidence of their learning, but also being a professional resource that can be shared and used by other teachers. There are three types of ‘content’ that students engage with in the course:

  1. the content provided by me: expert searching techniques/strategies and information and pedagogical theories and concepts they need to apply in the assignments
  2. the knowledge, skills and capabilities that students learn as they undertake their individual inquiry journey
  3. the content that students create and share on their blogs as evidence of their learning

There are two assignments: blog part 1 and part 2. The parts are quite different, but fit together to form a whole.

Assignment 1 – Inquiry Re-Search

Assignment  1 requires students to pose questions they have about inquiry learning curriculum and pedagogy, and to search for information to address their questions. I have called this ‘re-search’, i.e. searching for what already exists, as opposed to ‘research’ which is creating new knowledge.

Inquiry Re-search

Assignment 2 (two options)

Assignment 2A – Inquiry in Action (for students who have a group of learners to work with)

Assignment 2A involves gathering data from a group of learners who are undertaking an information seeking task/unit. It comprises the first cycle of an action research project. Students must gather data, analyse the data and present the findings. They need to make recommendations for future practice by analysing the findings and conduct of the inquiry unit using a range of theories and concepts.

Inquiry in Action

Assignment 2B – Inquiry Curriculum (for students who don’t have a group of learners to work with)

Assignment 2B involves choosing an inquiry curriculum document presenting a unit of work at the classroom level (rather than at the national or state curriculum level). Students must analyse and critique the unit for a range of information and pedagogical theories and concepts. They must then either create their own inquiry unit or adapt an existing inquiry unit.

Inquiry Curriculum


The ways that I have personalised the course include:

  • student’s choice of time & pace
  • student’s choice of inquiry questions/topics
  • student’s choice of inquiry teaching context & curriculum design/implementation
  • student’s choice of blog tool and content curation tool
  • student’s choice of assignment due dates (within a range)

Strengths and weaknesses of the course

Learning about inquiry learning through engaging in inquiry is a strength of the course. By necessity I have provided a strong structure which some students think is too prescriptive, while other students think is too loose (!!).

The inquiry-based nature of the course means that students can feel overwhelmed by the pressure of having to pose their own inquiry questions.  Many need an extended period of exploration to be able to frame coherent and targeted questions. Those students undertaking the course within the regular semester period often feel that they don’t have time to undertake an extended exploration.

Many students feel that the workload of the course is too high, especially in relation to more traditional essay-based courses. In particular, the knowledge and skills they need to apply in relation to digital technologies and social media are onerous for students without much ICT experience. Even those with considerable experience have been challenged by my insistence that they only use images that they have permission to use, for instance, those with the relevant Creative Commons licence, public domain images or images they have created themselves.

My original intention with the blog was to have students post continuously throughout the semester. But I’ve found that some students feel paralysed that their work is going on public display, and they hold off until the last minute. This means that the peer feedback process is difficult to manage (students can’t give peer feedback if their colleagues haven’t published their posts). The choice of due date can also muck up the peer feedback process as students are submitting at different times.

Part of the assessment criteria/grading is that their blog reads ‘like a professional conversation’, not like an assignment. Despite this, many students name their blog as if it’s an assignment and they find it very difficult to write their blog with a professional, open audience in mind.

Students who start the course ahead of the official semester timeframe can get a bit insecure about whether they are on the right track. They have support on our class G+Community from me and their colleagues who have also started work early, but they can still feel a bit anxious. By contrast, the students who undertake the course in the official timeframe can feel that the students who started early have an unfair advantage (!!).

Writing this post has helped me start to reflect on ways I can improve the course for the next iteration. My first step will be revamping the course website. I’m thinking of creating a ‘motherblog’ a la Amy Nelson that aggregates students’ blogs. I figure that this might encourage students to post more frequently and engage with each other’s blogs more often.

In the meantime, here are some examples from the latest iteration of the course if you’d like to see examples of student’s work:

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