Technologies

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How can digital technologies support inquiry-based learning? This was the question I hoped to answer with my 2006 e-fellows research into ways teachers and students used digital technologies to facilitate inquiry learning in ICT-rich environments.  Information from my participation in the Kopu Digital Opportunities project  and working with numerous teachers and students has also informed my conclusions. This page contains references to my 2006 research but has been reviewed recently to take into account the many changes in digital technology that have occurred since then.

For updated information see my Apps for Inquiry and Web Resources for inquiry sites.

When deciding what an ICT-rich environment should look like we need to ask ourselves what tools we need to facilitate inquiry-based learning. We need to ask what tasks students need to complete, what kinds of thinking they need to do, what strategies they need to employ and how technology can help.

"The technology is not the focus of the learning, but it provides an essential vehicle for getting to the destination ...The inquiry - what the student wants to learn - provides the fuel for the vehicle. Without fuel the vehicle is useless."

Owens, Hester & Teale, 2002 

Internet

Computer/Device Ratios

Access to Devices

Which Device?

Internet
These days the internet is almost a given.
When my research was completed in 2006 internet-capable devices were a lot less common than they are today, they were limited to basically laptops or desktops and the internet was slow and not always reliable. However, having reviewed my findings in light of the current situation where fast, reliable internet is available in most schools, I believe those findings still apply today. Where possible schools should be looking at wireless internet throughout the school so mobile devices can access the internet wherever they may be at school. Guest access can easily be set up so students can access the internet without having to access the school network.

Some of my key findings were that while working on inquiry-based topics the internet aided the students in:

  • understanding complex concepts - a combination of internet tutorials such as the one at http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/basics/, information from websites,  information in books and good old-fashioned discussions led to the year 6 & 7 students developing an understanding of the complex concepts surrounding the topic of cloning (a topic of their choosing).

  • decision-making - information from books, websites, discussions and e-mailing people involved, aided the students in making decisions about questions they had asked.

  • providing prompt access to primary sources of information eg. by e-mailing the people involved (a lot quicker than snail mail). Websites also were a major source of information (which was cross-checked) and often were primary sources of information with sites developed by the people involved.

  • providing information on current topics about which books have not yet been written. Access to sites such as NZ Herald, TVNZ On Demand (then called NZoom) and Stuff provided newspaper articles and video news clips, and a large number of other sites provided access to current information that simply wasn’t available any other easily accessible way.

  • developing a home-school partnership when they used an LMS (KnowledgeNet) to access resources (weblinks and information) and tasks at home (parents loved this aspect) and could give & receive feedback via their online journals. These days schools tend to use a variety of tools such as Google Apps For Education (GAFE), websites, blogs etc. to provide the same functions.

  • Digital technologies provided a medium for students to communicate their findings to an audience far wider than their classroom.

For a discussion on student web searches see the Guided Inquiry page.

Computer/Device Ratios

If the internet is the most useful item of ICT for teachers and students when implementing inquiry then it follows that devices are needed in order to access the internet.

Based on the results of my experience and research on this topic, I have come to the conclusion that a ratio of 1:1 device to students is now the ideal ratio to aim for in the classroom. I also believe that 1:5 should be the absolute minimum ratio if there is to be any significant effect on student learning. There are two main reasons for  for the latter conclusion. Research (Becker, 2000) has shown that at least five computers are needed in classrooms before there is significant use by teachers and at least four computers are needed before there is high student use for research purposes (Ravitz, Wong and Becker,1998). I believe this research to still be relevant today although the computers could be any internet-capable device and the rise of cloud-based options make the need for more devices even greater.

Even in 1:1 classrooms I believe that in primary schools co-operative pairs are the most effective grouping for inquiry-based learning for most activities. This is backed by Gary Falloon's (2004) findings. For more detailed information on the research behind my conclusion see What Other Research Says.

This is not to say that inquiry learning cannot be implemented using fewer devices, there are many teachers doing so with only one or two computers in their classrooms, but it requires a lot more effort and careful timetabling. Some of the ways teachers have dealt with the problem of low computer numbers are discussed on the Solutions page. However this situation is far from ideal and anything less than a 1:5 ratio will impact on the learning process.

 Access to Devices

Imagine saying to your students, ‘Okay class, now we’re all going to get up and go down the hall to the room where the pens are.”

Mary Cuillane (Microsoft)

When I undertook my research in 2006 computer labs were common. Today they are rare in primary schools although a few still remain in secondary schools. My personal belief is that computer labs are not the answer to improving computer ratios. The research (Becker, 2000; Norris, Sullivan, Poirot & Soloway, 2003;  Ravitz, Wong and Becker,1998) supports computers being located in classrooms if they are going to be used by teachers and students. Additionally, having computers in labs means it is not as easy to integrate computers into the classroom programme or for teachers and students to use them as they would any other classroom tool for inquiry.

Many schools are moving towards Bring Your Own Device (BYoD) either voluntary or compulsory. Some prescribe the device, usually laptops or Chromebooks, others like Albany High leave the decision to the students and others such as Mercury Bay Area School allow student choice within set criteria. There are many factors schools need to consider before implementing BYoD and some guidance and resources can be found on my BYoD page.

Some schools use pods, carts or cows (computers on wheels) of devices that are shared between classes and provided classrooms have a minimum of a 1:5 ratio within the classroom this can be useful. However there are a number of drawbacks which mean that this option should be a stepping stone on the way to having a better ratio within the classroom at all times. Keeping the number of classes that share a pod or cow low (two or three at the most) and at a similar class level can help eliminate some of the issues. Sharing iPads can have issues as they are really designed for single user use but it seems some solutions for this are coming soon.

Which device?

These days there are a large variety of internet capable devices available such as laptops, netbooks, Chromebooks, desktops, tablets (Android, iPad, Windows), phones and phablets. So what should schools be using? The answer may not be limited to just one type of device and very much depends on what schools want to do with them. In many cases a combination of devices may be needed to meet all needs.


Mobile Phones and iPods
For simple research any internet-capable device will do and if looking to increase the number of devices for research then allowing students to use their phones or ipods may be an easy solution provided some BYoD policies are in place and students are clear on how they may be used within the classroom. In addition to being internet-capable phones and man ipods also contain a camera which can be very useful. Many schools ban the use of mobile phones in the classroom but in doing so are eliminating a very powerful tool. They are not a good solution if a lot of writing needs to be done. Even with a wireless keyboard writing large amounts on these devices is not easy.

 

Laptops

Laptops have the big advantage of being portable and not taking up a lot of space. Battery life continues to improve making it easier to use them in a variety of settings. They are good for research, word-processing, accessing GAFE etc. If used for multi-media work the cheaper laptops will often struggle and are not really suitable. They have a life of around 3 years before needing to be replaced. They are less robust than desktops and repairs can be expensive.

 

Desktops

These have the advantage of being ready to go, they can be switched on in the morning and are ready to use when needed. Desktops tend to offer more powerful and faster processing speeds than their laptop counterparts. They are good for multi-media work, research, word-processing, accessing GAFE etc. Their main disadvantages are their lack of portability and their size. A classroom full of desktops is not a good option but a few that are available for multi-media work or for students whose BYoD is unusable or for those without one they can be a good choice. They have a life of 3 - 5 years before replacement needs to be considered. They are generally more robust than laptops and replacing a faulty screen or keyboard is relatively easy.

Chromebooks
Many schools are opting for Chromebooks instead of laptops. Thy have two main advantages - speed and cost. They are basically a Chrome browser and little else, so are mainly useful if the work will be done in the cloud. Some offline work is possible. They are very good for research and accessing GAFE. There are also a number of education apps available from the Chrome store. They can also be used to work on Microsoft 365 documents but are designed to work best with GAFE. They have a very good battery life but in regard to robustness etc are similar to laptops. For more information see my Chromebooks Weebly site.

Netbooks

An alternative to Chromebooks or laptops, these are similar to a laptop but smaller in size and with less processing speed and capability. They operate like a laptop so some software such as Microsoft Office can be used, but they don't have the processing capability for much multi-media work. They aren't as fast as Chromebooks and may not have the same battery life, but otherwise are similar.

 

Tablets

Tablets are very portable and have a good battery life. The price varies with iPads being more expensive than Android and Windows tablets. Although they can be used for GAFE and Office (preferably with a wireless keyboard) they would not be my device of choice for these tasks, although improvements are being made in this areas. Their browser-capability makes them suitable for research work and there are many great education apps available, more so for iPads than the other tablets. They have camera and video capabilities that add to their usefulness.

For more on the uses of these devices have a look at my Apps4Inquiry site, my iPads for Education site and my Android Apps for Education site. A good case is essential to protect the tablet when used in the classroom. Very cheap tablets should be avoided as they are usually slow and not responsive. I recommend at least 32GB devices as anything smaller than this gets filled very quickly with apps.

 

Other Technologies
IWBs TVs and Projectors
Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) such as Activboards are not as popular as they were 10 years ago. If you are interested in using them check out my IWB page. Ten years ago I was advocating that all classrooms have a data projector, now I would modify that to say either a data projector or large screen tv with the latter being preferable. Most classrooms now seem to have one or the other. The disadvantages of data projectors are that the image can be difficult to see in some lights and the bulbs are expensive to replace. The technology for tvs has improved now to the stage where they make a great alternative.

 

Apple TV and Chromecast

If you want to project onto your screen or tv then an Apple TV (for ipads and apple devices) or a Chromecast (for casting your browser and many apps eg Netflix or Youtube) may be the answer. Make sure they are on the same wireless network as you device.

Jan-Marie Kellow 2016
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Photos must only be used for educational purposes and must be attributed. Photos of children may only be used with my permission.