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Christopher Douce

Inquiry, Independence and Information (Computing) Using IBL to Encourage Independent Learning in IT Students

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 1 Feb 2015, 13:04

This might sound like a confession, but when I was living the life of a computer scientist (and being a programmer in industry) the term 'pedagogy' remained puzzling for me for quite some time.  Of course, I understood the terms 'teaching' and had an interest in the cognitive psychology of learning, but it took me some time to see what became obvious: that pedagogy is all about choosing and making effective use of appropriate teaching techniques (given the tools at your disposal and those who you are teaching).  I then realised that in science, you might share results from experiments.  In education, on the other hand, you might share practice (or stories) from teaching experiences.

This HEA workshop, held at the Salford University Business School on 19 April 2012, was all about pedagogy and a particular pedagogic approach named, inquiry based learning (Wikipedia), a subject that has been explored within the Personal Inquiry (PI) project carried out within the Open University's Institute of Educational Technology.

This blog post represents my own take on the event and includes a number of highlights.  I began the day by knowing only a tiny amount about what inquiry based learning was, and ended the day knowing a lot more (whilst at the same time beginning to appreciate a lot more about the different contexts in which I might be able to use such an approach).


We (the workshop delegates) were immediately presented with a number of questions, which were:

  • What are the challenges of engaging independent learning?
  • How do we foster independent learning?
  • Information overload: what skills do students require to navigate the labyrinth of on-line information sources?

Assigned to small groups, we collectively came up with a set of answers.  The challenges were considered to be stimulating engagement, developing motivation and dealing with group dynamics.  Fostering independent learning is achieved by exposure to different examples, facilitating access to technology and encouraging reflection.  Finally, handling information overload is achieved be helping students to evaluate (the validity and usefulness of) source materials.

An interesting point that was raised was that students are increasingly equipped with their own technology, such as laptops and smart phones.  The challenge might no longer be the access to technology, but instead how to get the best out of what they have at their disposal.  This connects to the notion of pedagogy and also to the subject of classroom response systems, which has been discussed in earlier HEA STEM conferences and workshops.

The talk bit

Before we moved into the main section of the workshop, Jamie Wood from the University of Manchester gave a short presentation about what Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) is all about.  IBL is a pedagogic approach that emphasises and draws upon students' capacity to construct knowledge.  It is about investigating authentic open-ended questions (and knowledge construction) and helping to adopt practices of scholarship and research to actively explore and develop a knowledge base.  It also encourages peer-to-peer (student and staff) collaborations and creates opportunities to share results with others.  (Jamie references the work of Phillipa Levy, from the University of Sheffield as well as a HEA report entitled Developing undergraduate research and inquiry).

IBL isn't just about the gathering of facts.  It is also about developing and acquiring a philosophy of knowledge and helping learners to ask the fundamental question of 'what' and 'why'.  There are, of course, strong links to employability skills.  Whenever employees start in a new role or job, new territories and domains have to be negotiated and mastered.  IBL also emphasises collaboration and working with others.  Again, this links back to central ideas of scholarship and knowledge construction: discovering new knowledge is more often than not considered to be a 'team' sport.   IBL is also an approach that can help to develop confidence amongst learners and their problem solving abilities.

IBL was compared to another approach, which is known as Problem Based Learning (PBL).  PBL is considered to be more focussed, and had less of the open-ended character.  PBL could be considered as a subset of IBL, it was argued.

Setting context

In computing, what kind of inquiries might we be able to carry out with our students?  Maria Kutar, from the University of Salford Business School gave one example.  Maria's students are faced with the challenge of understanding the data protection act.  One approach is to read through a text book and perhaps have a group discussion about what is known about the legislation and how it might work.  Another approach is to attempt to explore how the legislation can be used to acquire real information.

Maria's students are encouraged to go out and be filmed on CCTV and then explore (or inquire) about how to view the data (or video) that has been captured (Information Commissioner's Office) .  Such an activity firmly 'situates' the legislation in the context of use, making it more tangible (and therefore understandable).  The activity is also about learning about how the legislation works in practice.  In doing so, students can understand more about what is and is not possible and gain a further understanding of the responsibilities of public authorities.

One might be tempted to argue that such an inquiry might place a burden on those who are asked for the CCTV footage, and this might be a fair point.  However, users of CCTV are compelled to adhere to the law.  Furthermore, the challenges of extracting information from an authority can lead to many interesting debates.

Our Inquiry

When we had been questioned, talked to and given some background information by way of Maria's example, it was our turn to participate in an inquiry (this bit was a total surprise to me!)  Our brief was to go out into the surrounding environment of Salford Quays and MediaCityUK (Wikipedia) and answer to the question, 'how do you find out things that you don't already know?'  (a meta-inquiry)  It didn't take long until the true significance of what was being asked of us began to sink in and I began to myself, 'so, does this mean we've got to go outside and ask people who we've never met this question (whilst wearing a badge)?'  I rapidly acquired feeling of dread, mixed with a touch of despair.

With three competitive teams set, the team that I belonged to rapidly devised a research strategy and swiftly dealt with the issue of socioeconomic and geographical sampling.  We then split into two sub-teams and rapidly began to explore the environs beyond the classroom, armed with a notepad, some charm, a mobile phone (with embedded camera) and a small block of post-it notes.

Our learning visit

We set off across Salford and headed towards the Imperial War Museum North, situated on the other side of the Manchester ship canal.  En route we gently asked our first set of subjects: a set of day trippers who were more than happy to help out.  We then went inside the museum and spoke to some of the people at the reception.  This led to a 'snowball effect'; one participant led to another.  Speaking with some of the newer volunteers led us to speak to some of the more experienced volunteers. 

We quickly realised that we were being exposed to some of the techniques the museum used to help its visitors to 'find things out'.  We discovered display exhibits with gas masks, spaces where films could be shown and found opportunities to share experiences and stories with those who volunteer for the museum.

During our inquiry journey, we made notes and took some photographs, documenting our journey and capturing evidence as we went about our exploration.  Our reflection on our data gathering techniques (and whether they worked) was an integral part of our inquiry too.

Our presentation

After returning from our expedition, each group was told to create something, a PowerPoint presentation or some other artefact to represent the discoveries that we had made.  Our group (along with the others) chose to create a 'post-it note' centric PowerPoint presentation, which summarised our key findings.

In our presentation we just didn't concentrate on presenting our findings on how people find things out (the internet is used a lot, and people ask other people), we also considered what we had learnt from the whole experience of 'going out there' and attempting to discover new things.  We discovered that our inquiry was immersive, sensory, simulating and provoking.  By its nature it was non-linear; we used opportunity to uncover new ideas and followed new directions.   Our inquiry took place over a number of different episodes, where the episodes took upon their own character and had their own themes.

We discovered that an inquiry could be social, but also make use of artefacts.  We had been shown physical objects during our visit to the museum and had heard some interesting stories.  On the subject of stories, people who visited the museum (those conducting an inquiry) might be able to help those who worked at the museum new things.

In some respects there was a blurring of distinction between those who set then inquiry (those who were the teachers), and those who returned with results (the students).  All should be considered to be co-investigators and those who set the inquiry should be prepared to be surprised by the new knowledge that is found and the variety of the findings that are uncovered. 

Our presentation ended with a quote from one of our team members (but it can also be attributed to Confucious) which seemed to echo what we took to be an important essence of inquiry based learning: 'Tell me something, I shall forget.  Show me something, I shall remember.  Involve me, I will understand'.


Attendance at the workshop made me ask the question, 'is there a set of inquiry-based learning exercises that will work well within IT, computing or computer science?'

I sense that it really comes into play when we are exploring the intersection between people, technology and society (which is an important aspect of Maria's earlier example).  Perhaps IBL might be used to explore the attitudes that people have towards technology and its impact on the lives of the users.  The environment that we may wish to study may be wider than just the immediate vicinity or campus.

There is also a link between IBL and the pedagogic philosophy of constructivism.  Constructivism, as I understand it, is all about creating an environment (this might be physical or virtual) to enable learners to discover facts for themselves (as opposed to them just being passed on).  Through IBL, the facts that are discovered (and then debated afterwards) are 'owned' by those who discovered them.

IBL, however, is a tool and it should be situated alongside other types of pedagogic activity.  The choice of whether to use IBL in a particular learning programme (or learning design) may be dictated by a combination of the needs of a particular subject area or discipline, human and financial resources (which might also include access to a physical environment), as well as pedagogic expertise within a particular institution or community.   I sense that a change to any of these dimensions may necessitate a change to an overall design (including a change of focus in a particular subject area).

Before this event I hadn't given much thought to Inquiry-based learning, even though I have been aware of the term for a number of years.  My own teaching practice is mostly centred upon a small number of face to face sessions and how best to offer support and guidance to students at a distance.

For me, this workshop has achieved two things.  Firstly, it has increased my awareness of what IBL is (although I've still got some figuring out to do about how to best use it in my own subject), and secondly, it pushed me a little bit outside of my comfort zone.  That, I believe, was entirely the point.


Our inquiry team comprised of Mik, Henry and Phillip, all from the University of Salford.

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You've covered all the bases and discovered how complex we humans are which is how the same learning is understood and interpretted in so many different ways, which permits difference, creates challenges and results in change and progress.  A timely read on Inquiry Based Learning for me as I practice creating mobile learning using a platform called GoMo from Epic Ltd, and toy with the OU's new 'Social Learn' platform and consider what to make my final module of the MA in Open & Distance Education. (Perhaps H810 as I have H807, H800 and H808 in the bag). I've just completed B822 as a permitted elective, the appropriate and complementary 'Creativity, Innovation and Change' fromthe OU Business School). I may also do another elective on the pscychology of teaching young adults, though booth H809 and H809 would bring me back to the faculty. (Do offer a point of view, I have a couple of months to make up my mind). I've just created some trial mobile–learning from an HE Geography Course used in the UAE that offers a smorgasbord of approaches for the student to take; too many some suggest, as it covers so much from the essay, to a debate, to a critique of a video, to editting and analysis of text, narrative and multichoice responses as well as giving a presentation. Applied, engaging and online ripe for conversion into 'e–tivities’. (Salmon, 2002). My feeling is that reading, sharing and doing covers a good deal, doing as you did by learning vicariously then making tentative steps from the periphery towards the experts in the centre. And I am reminded of the thought 'research in a subject until the narrative reveals itself' which rather sounds like EHCarr on history, 'read in a subject until you can hear its people talk'. Your blog is a story, a narrative of the day, a learning journey that is as easy to read as it is to recall for this reason; all that it might require are a picture at the top of the page and perhaps a diagram (even more links and a dozen tags too for online presentation). Had I come along I would have done a video journal, though the moment might have a photojournal pinned on Pinterest, blogged in Tumblr or offered to Flickr and created by others in a FlickrStream. As a blog it is far more contained than my own 'stream of consciousness'. There is reflection, and there is 'mind dump', there are notes that are evidence (are these) and others personal and private (as mine often are) or open to comment. Though for comment a synchronous or asynchronous forum is better than this, in which case I head to Linkedin groups on E-learning or pull likeminds together to discuss in a Google 'Hang–ou'. Motivation, personalisation and collaboration are the key to my independent learning: if the first is powerful enough it can overcome all manner of problems; personalisation not only means the choice of devices (desktop laptop, smartphone or tablet, but even the mix of devices encountered during the day with people holding content in blogs, in dropboxes in 'the cloud' orientated around their own personal learning environment (PLE) but also the person's circumstances, personality and context; while collaboration, as you experienced can be happenchance or developed from encounters and includes face–to–face, blended and online where the novice or expert may inform or influence the learning process. My late father studied in isolation, meticulously going through the reading with his mind set only on the assignment or exam. Talking of which, whilst intrinsic motivation has to be the most vital driver the end of module or end of year or end of course exam has to be a motivating 'stick' that I miss from the MAODE modules having just had a taste of one on the MBA programme. In relation to information overload there are many controls on this (for me, word count), but also the module that packs in the activites, offers reading lists from which to select papers, and offers optional further activities that some feel they must do, while other courses keep the parameters tight, expecting perhaps a more concerted effort to stick to the indicated resources rather than gathering your own. However, as we know, 'overload' is the pereception of the web, the less informed, naive or enquiring mind (or they are simply in a hurry) will do a Google search and no doubt go for whatever Wikipedia offers. I might add that in the 16th century a visitor to the Bodleain Library with its then 500 books was considered to contain everything that could ever be known. Information overload is relevant: given the complete Shakespeare to read over the weekend I might struggle, but for my desert island read I may find I would have so much time that I'd quickly feel it was inadequate. Often I wonder if sometimes 'freedom is lack of choice'. Do you place someone in a library and so go search, or sit them at a desk on a desert island with a box of resources, a pad of paper and and handfullof pencils? In terms of their being inquiry-based learning exercises suited to IT I rather think that you have to consider the many different ways that might suit the learner and what choices you permit, the parameters you set and the learning objectives. There is a smorgasbord of choices too, I am currently 'playing' with GoMo that generates content across all mobile platforms but feels prescriptive, while at the other end of the scale 'social learn' is something of a DIY approach. Do students 'reflect' much at all? If so where and how and why? Informally online, formally in a tutor group or less often (whatever its value) in a 'learning journal' that had might as well be a blog shared than a paper journal or something locked on a harddrive. There are a handful of authors I would turn to: Vygotsky Engestrom Richardson Moon Cox John Seely Brown Jonathan Swift