ONLINE LEARNING: Four Steps to Preparing an Open Inquiry Course

ONLINE LEARNING: Four Steps to Preparing an Open Inquiry Course

This fall, after years of preparation in the classroom, we have launched our first 100% open inquiry online course. Students in this course chart their own path by asking questions, and they learn to find, read, and summarize content to answer those questions. This process trains key transferable skills in problem-solving, persistence, knowing how you know something, assessing bias and limitations in sources, and even giving and receiving critical feedback, that are seldom explicitly taught. And so far, student engagement is very high, and progress is strong.

We know, we have known for years, that learner-centered and active produce much stronger learning outcomes (e.g. Kenny et al. 1998; Chi and Wylie, 2014). Commonly instructors who have had some time for course prep, and who have support of their colleagues and administration, convert parts or all of their small in-person courses to active learning. But now is the time to learn how to do this online, and at scale.

What are the barriers to changing from passive to active learning, and what can we do about them? Here are a few of the main concerns instructors have voiced:

  • Will the students understand what to do? This class is so strange!
    The key here is to explain right from the beginning that this is a different kind of class, a class where students will learn the skills needed for work and life, along with disciplinary content. You, the instructor, will explain every step of the process, and the student’s job is to move forward with the assurance that what you are looking for is progress. You don’t expect the students to be masters of the process right from the start! In fact, ideally, the scores on early assignments will be low. Low scores give information about how to improve, and what to work on more next time. The most perfect student experience is to start with low scores, learn, and improve. We reward progress.

  • Will the students perform, or will they just sit there and snooze? That’s what usually happens in online classes!
    Students sit passively and snooze when they are disengaged from the learning process. Here, they are leading every step of it. There is actually no opportunity for them to snooze.

  • What if I, the instructor, don’t know the answer to something the student is asking?
    One of the most desired outcomes of inquiry is that the student gain a personal expertise in the content they are studying, and often this means that the instructor has not read all the sources the student has read, and thus knows less than the student on that particular topic. Perfect! Perfect moment for modeling how to find answers to questions. Go for it, together. Embrace the moment that the student and instructor become peers in learning.

Steps to open inquiry learning

Each semester, I run a mixed undergraduate and graduate inquiry course at Arizona State University. This type of open inquiry learning has been run successfully in grades 5 - 12, undergraduate, and graduate-level courses. It works with any subject matter. While this article is on open inquiry learning. I am happy to share examples of other types of inquiry learning (confirmation, structured, guided) that may be a better fit for you. Just shoot me an email here.

The key to running an effective online course of any kind is to get everything ready and fully scheduled ahead of time. Here are the steps I took in getting my online inquiry course ready for this fall.

  1. Write the course objectives. You and the students should know from the outset what they should derive from the course. Here are mine.

    At the completion of this course, students will be able to:

    • Apply the steps of the Inquiry Framework in solving technology- and science-related problems
    • Assess the value and productivity of questions using Natural Next Questions
    • Distinguish primary and secondary sources of existing knowledge relevant to one’s research
    • Evaluate materials for relevance and limitations
    • Apply best practices for giving and receiving feedback from the Question Productivity Index and Product Calibration
    • Demonstrate effective communication skills in written reports, critiques, and distillations
  2. Organize the whole course into modules. Canvas, the LMS I am using, calls these “modules,” and so I will call them that here. You might also call them units. Right-sized modules can help the students feel like they are taking stepping stones, bite-sized pieces. Week-long modules make some kind of organizational and emotional sense.

In my inquiry course, I want the students to have as much practice asking their own questions, finding their own research, and summarizing it, as possible. We achieve that via our Beagle Question Cycle, described in more detail here.

My overall course is organized as follows, for a 7 ½-week online format:

  • First week (really just two days): Introductions, explanation of how the course works, and setting each students’ Goal Question for the course
  • Weeks 2 and 3: Two Question Cycles per week
  • Week 4: A presentation distilling all the students have learned so far
  • Weeks 5, 6, 7: Two Question Cycles per week
  • Week 8: Final presentations of all they have learned, along with challenges and successes of their research process.
An infographic given to students, showing how a week with two Question Cycles is organized.
  1. Organize each module so that it’s simple for the students to follow what they need to do. The inquiry process is so new to most students that you want to leave them as much brain space to think about their work as possible, and that means making the organization of the course as easy to follow as you can.

In your brief introductory module, consider having these components:

  • An video introduction to you, the instructor, and a way for each student to record a video introduction of themselves and share it with the class.
  • Brief videos (no video longer than 5 minutes, ever) on how the class works, introducing the inquiry process, setting a Goal Question, finding content. [Examples Here]
  • Infographics of each step the students will take.
  • A way to sign up for optional Zoom working groups, where students will share what they are learning and support each other in asking better and better questions.

Each Question Cycle module has a similar structure, which includes a brief text overview of the objectives of the week, the infographics and videos that explain how to do the tasks for the week (these repeat, without change, in every Question Cycle week, so the students can refer to them if they get confused), assignments for the summary that results from each Question Cycle, an assignment to arrange their growing mind map of content and questions, and an invitation to working group.

The organization of our Module 2, the first of our Question Cycle weeks, showing student information and support at the top, and all the assignments in order below.

During weeks 4 and 8, the modules consist solely of the student synthesizing all they have learned, making a presentation of it and their learning challenges and successes, and recording and uploading a video of that presentation.

  1. Set up your assessments. This course is not well-suited to exams. Students retain what they learn this way incredibly well, but each student is learning different content. (You can make an inquiry course that has content you deliver interspersed with Question Cycles, of course, and that way deliver required common information along the way.)

    My inquiry course has the following assessments:

    • The one-page summaries students write in each Question Cycle;
    • Starting in Module 3, NNQs are assessed using the Question Productivity Index that we have developed to measure the productivity of questions;
    • Starting in Module 3, the organization and content of a Mind Map of all the content and questions students develop;
    • Mid-term and final presentations of their distilled knowledge;
    • Points awarded for every task in the course, to encourage students always to try, always to produce something, since progress is the key. We call these “completion” scores.
    • Finally, students’ grades can be raised by as much as a full letter grade if their work improved significantly over the course. Progress is what we value.

The assessments in this course are designed to correlate with transferable skills. The table below shows each assessment’s rubric categories and how they correlate with key transferable skills.

Assessments used in Online Inquiry for the Technological Leadership degree at Arizona State University, and the transferable skills each correlates with.

To my great relief, the launch of this 100% online open inquiry course has been a success. All the students followed the materials, understood well enough what was expected of them, and launched into their work. Of course, I got a number of questions that will help me make the introductory and explanatory material even more clear next time. Some of the students’ questions included:

  • How much material should I read for my first summary?
    I encourage students to read any needed background material, for example, from Wikipedia, or online textbooks, or to find definitions from Google, but to find one primary source that is aimed at their NNQ and to summarize just that one source.

  • Was my first summary too short — I was just trying to define this term…
    In this case the student’s first NNQ was just a question about the definition of a term, and thus he had trouble writing a summary. I explained that he needed a substantive primary source. How to get students to read instructions? I have found the infographics make a huge difference in understanding. Instructions written in prose (like this essay!) are seldom read.

  • How much of my question should a source have in it?
    Many students have never read anything for school that was not pre-curated such that it was exactly on-topic and every sentence was expected to be understood and remembered. Searching through material for the relevant bits is an unfamiliar exercise. Finding and summarizing content in an effort to answer one’s own question is therefore a truly valuable exercise. We ask the students to assess how well their source answered their question, and this way, we bring in metacognitive processing that helps them write clearer questions and find better sources.
    And the answer is: Seldom will you find a source that entirely answers your question. Sometimes, you will even find that no one has ever, to the best of your ability to search, addressed your question.

  • How much progress should I be making?
    It’s not 1:1 progress with effort! These courses never progress smoothly with information flowing in and answering questions and adding each week a new measure of knowledge. This is also a lesson for real life: sometimes great effort brings scanty results, and then other times a couple of weeks of effort suddenly results in a burst of new knowledge.

The second half of this brand-new course will bring its own surprises and lessons, I am sure. Every new course is a learning experience and a chance for improvements. But so far, our extensive experience with this technique in the classroom has enabled us to launch open inquiry online with success. Stay tuned!