The nature of collaborative inquiry using computer-based tools

By Heather King - March 2011


Bell, T., Urhahne, D., Schanze, S., & Ploetzner, R. (2010). Collaborative inquiry learning: Models, tools, and challenges. International Journal of Science Education32(3), 349–377.

This article provides a summary of computer tools and environments designed to support collaborative inquiry learning. It offers ISE practitioners an informative introduction to computer-based tools and activities currently available in classrooms and, by identifying the ways in which such tools support inquiry, may help readers to reflect on how their own activities support inquiry.

The article describes computer-based learning environments developed by members of the scientific network NetCoIL consisting of researchers from Canada, the United States, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Germany. The authors focus on the ways in which such environments support the understanding and application of scientific concepts and methods, and also how they promote collaboration amongst students. The focus on collaboration is important because, according to socio-constructivist theories of learning, information is distributed among members of a community and knowledge emerges as that community collaboratively searches for a solution to a problem. In addition, according to Piaget, collaboration and social interaction can lead to "cognitive conflict"—that is, the explicit realization that a particular meaning may be debated—resulting in cognitive development. Finally, collaboration amongst peers helps individuals to move forward in their own understanding, across what Vygotsky termed as their "zone of proximal development" (see Glossary).

To identify the key components of inquiry, the authors compared recent approaches of science education experts and synthesised nine categories of activity:

They then analysed a range of computer tools and described the ways in which a particular tool supports one or more of the above areas of activity/skill.

From the review, it would appear that particular tools support particular skills more than others and indeed it is not clear whether one tool or environment can support all nine skills equally. However, this may be too much to expect. Few if any non-computer-based activities are able to address all aspects of the inquiry process given constraints of time, equipment, expertise of learners (and educators), and so on.

The tools and environments reviewed include WISE, BGuILE, ThinkerTools, Co-Lab, and Explanation Constructor, among others. Many of these have been the subject of other studies reported elsewhere in the literature.

In conclusion, the authors note that a wealth of computerised tools exist to support learners' acquisition of the skills of inquiry. However, they also acknowledge that, in order to provide learners with the exact support they need, such tools should provide open-ended exploration and guidance for individual learners. While intelligent design tools are being developed to address this need, the creation of even more opportunities for collaboration within the tool may also provide a solution, in that students are able to support each other.