It just sits there...

For those of us who design software to support open-ended classroom inquiry, the big challenge is bootstrapping novice users. In other words, when they launch this type software, it just sits there. No dancing animals to drag them down a garden path, or whiz-bang animations akin to watching T.V. Inquiry tools require the user to initiate action, and for novices, this can be a challenge.

There’s educational software that leads learners through a learning activity and there’s educational software that requires learners to initiate the activity. The first type includes page turners (“do ‘x’, then click next…”), scenarios (“you have been asked to help Joe solve his problem”), or games (“help the bunny find his way home by solving the following problems”). This type of software requires learners to react to on-screen stimuli that guide or motivate them through the steps of a learning activity, or that offer “hints” intended to direct their actions.

The second type— what I’ll call educational tools— just sit there. They require the learner to engage the tool in some meaningful way. This type of software is a tool in the same way that a hammer is a tool— in the hands of a skilled practitioner, it can be used to build a magnificent house. In the hands of a novice, it makes a good doorstop. Traditional classroom examples of such tools are microscopes and calculators, both of which can be used for a host of exciting learning activities, but neither of which reveal to novices an obvious way to get started.

Those of us who design educational software “tools”— for instance, tools for visualizing data or for supporting open-ended inquiry— face a continual challenge in finding ways to bootstrap novice users as they learn to use the tool (check out some examples of Inquirium’s inquiry tools. As learners begin to use these tools, they quickly get their gist and are soon able to initiate their own increasingly sophisticated uses and activities. The challenge is supporting users along this trajectory. Here are a some approaches for supporting new users as they engage with open-ended tools for educational inquiry. Each has its uses, and none along does the trick.

One of my favorite refrains is that open-ended inquiry tools are about as educationally useful as the activities with which they’re packaged. In this sense, curriculum provides a vehicle for scaffolding learners as they become aquainted with the features and processes involved in open-ended inquiry tools.  And it’s much easier to customize curriculum activities to different domains and age levels— convenient when you have a tool that can be used in a host of different settings.

This is not to say we should abandon good interface design, intuitive functionality, etc. and instead just focus on curriculum development. But it does point to the value of good activities in supporting the use of otherwise inert tools that support classroom inquiry.  In other words, when considering the critical issues in the successful classroom implementation of inquiry-oriented technology tools, don’t forget that ultimately… it’s the curriculum, stupid!

posted November 07, 2005 by matt

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