Computer-based toolkit extends inquiry across settings

By Heather King - December 2014


Sharples, M., Scanlon, E., Ainsworth, S., Anastopoulou, S., Collins, T., Crook, C., Jones, A., Kerawalla, L., Littleton, K., Mulholland, P., & O’Malley, C. (2014). Personal inquiry: Orchestrating science investigations within and beyond the classroom. Journal of the Learning Sciences. Doi: 10.1080/10508406.2014.944642

Mobile technology can be used to scaffold inquiry-based learning, enabling learners to work across settings and times, singly or in collaborative groups. It thus expands learners’ opportunities to understand the nature of inquiry whilst they engage with the content of a specific inquiry.

In this paper, researchers report on the application of the mobile computer-based inquiry-focused toolkit nQuire. The toolkit was designed to engage students aged 11 – 16 in investigating their bodies or their local surroundings. Inquiry topics developed to date include healthy eating, diet, exercise, pollution, microclimate, and food packaging.

The toolkit uses “scripted technologies” to scaffold and orchestrate learning. It structures activities in a script based on an eight-step inquiry cycle, displayed as an octagon:

By providing a dynamic visualization of the inquiry learning process, the mobile toolkit enables students to understand how each of these activities shapes a scientific investigation over time. Students are supported not only to do science, but also to understand the iterative nature of scientific inquiry.

Having a framing script on a mobile device allows students to try a range of inquiry approaches, from controlled hypothesis-led experiment to exploratory survey to discussion with an expert. The inquiry can begin in one setting and continue in another. It can also occur over any time period.

Research Design 

To test the toolkit, researchers worked with teachers in two schools to develop, refine, and evaluate both the pedagogy and the technology. Data included videotapes of classroom interactions, interviews with teachers and students, and log files from the digital devices.

For one inquiry, the teachers and researchers developed three curriculum-linked approaches for students to investigate the effect of noise pollution on bird feeding. The students observed birds in a local nature reserve; compared bird feeding at three locations around the school with differing noise levels; and conducted a fair test at two locations in a large garden, with noise artificially generated at one location.


Analysis of the data suggests that the students enjoyed using the technology to “own” their inquiries but that they needed support. The toolkit helped some students to appreciate that hypotheses needed to be revised and to rethink their approaches accordingly.

Teachers, too, reported enjoying using the technology. They changed the toolkit to fit their needs and changed their pedagogy to accommodate the inquiries. However, the teachers reported some difficulty in responding quickly to problems with data collection, in particular when students returned to class with inconsistent or missing data, unexpected findings, or broken equipment. Although these difficulties may be inevitable consequences of both a new approach and the inherent nature of inquiry, they could leave students feeling frustrated and confused, perhaps even confirming prior ideas that science is unclear and unsatisfying.

The research method did not include a detailed focus on student attitudes toward science as result of engaging in the inquiry process, nor did it examine longer-term impact. Nonetheless, the researchers claim that the nQuire toolkit helped students engage in inquiry and make connections between settings.

With its emphasis on personally or locally relevant data collection across settings and over time, the development of nQuire builds on the findings of prior studies. For example, researchers have long noted the difficulty of engaging in inquiry during lessons that last just 40 minutes. In another example, the visualization of the inquiry cycle, designed to scaffold students’ progress, responds to previous findings that teachers have difficulty guiding investigations whilst simultaneously helping students to understand the purpose and nature of the inquiry steps.

Most significantly, the development of nQuire acknowledges that teacher scaffolding of student learning depends on teachers being present at the right time to intervene. Software, by contrast, can inform learners of their process, offer timely hints and reminders, and encourage learners to articulate their thinking—all beyond the confines of the lesson.

Theoretical Basis  

The octagonal cycle of inquiry steps builds on prior representations such as the six-step inquiry cycle proposed by White and Frederiksen (1998): question, hypothesize, investigate, analyze, model, and evaluate. The scripted nature of the tool, meanwhile, acknowledges the challenges faced by teachers as they seek to coordinate students’ understanding both in and out of the classroom.

Implications for Practice 

This study highlights the potential of mobile technologies to support learning across settings, and, in particular, to scaffold student engagement in scientific inquiry. For informal science educators, this study offers a technology-based solution to the challenge of supporting learners to engage in science as they move among free-choice environments outside of school hours.

However, the study also signals a number of issues that remain to be resolved. Of primary concern, perhaps, is the need to adequately train and support educators to orchestrate inquiry across settings. Genuine scientific inquiry is a messy process that sometimes requires prior knowledge in order to make sense of apparently inconsistent data. Research has found that educators find the concept of inquiry difficult. Although a scripted technology may help them to support learners, training in the nature and purpose of inquiry must be a prerequisite.


White, B. Y., & Frederiksen, J. R. (1998). Inquiry, modelling, and metacognition: Making science accessible to all students. Cognition and Instruction, 16(1), 3–118.

Related Briefs:

  • Benally, S., & Wingert, K. (2013). Building student attention to the practice of argumentation: An ISE research brief discussing Sandoval & Reiser, “Explanation-driven inquiry: Integrating conceptual and epistemic scaffolds for scientific inquiry.”
  • King, H. (2011). The nature of collaborative inquiry using computer-based tools: An ISE research brief discussing Bell et al.'s, "Collaborative inquiry learning."
  • Perin, S.M. (2011). Learning benefits of guided and open inquiry methods: An ISE research brief discussing Sadeh & Zion’s, "The development of dynamic inquiry processes within an open inquiry setting: A comparison to guided inquiry setting."