Collective Inquiry and Knowledge Building

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Contributors: Jim Slotta, Dan Suthers, Jeremy Roschelle
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Technology can enhance how students learn when they work with all the students in their classroom to investigate a topic. In commonplace use of web technology, teachers and students share information and may respond to requests for help. However, generic use of everyday social technologies rarely leads to deeper learning; more commonly, use of social technologies only makes familiar learning activities somewhat more convenient. In contrast, cyberlearning researchers have found that specific classroom practices and social technologies can be transformative. Instead of using technology to complete a classroom assignment (such as homework or a quiz), a classroom can use social technologies to undertake an open-ended investigation together, to improve each other’s ideas, and to emulate how scientists or scholars work together on an investigation.

Thus, in collective inquiry, students participate in a classroom community that builds knowledge and develops shared practices (Brown & Campione, 1996; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006; Bielczyc & Collins, 2005). Advances in web technology (e.g., discussion forums, wikis, blogs, social networks) enable dynamic, socially-oriented designs where groups of students work together to improve their knowledge, and use the groups’ emerging knowledge to advance their investigations (Slotta & Najafi, 2012). When students feel that their work is contributing to the progress of a larger community, they can become more motivated and engaged in learning, and their progress can accelerate (Brown & Campione, 1996; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006).

In classroom activities for collective inquiry, students are given a high level of agency and responsibility for developing their own questions, exchanging and developing ideas with peers, and even assessing their progress. Teachers are members of this community, with a primary goal of enabling pathways for students to articulate and advance their ideas and to elaborate and critique ideas of their peers. Working as a knowledge community, students cooperatively and collaboratively develop a “knowledge base” of resources that are accessed, negotiated, revised and applied over several weeks or months.

In technology designs for collective inquiry, students generate digital notes, drawings, or other artifacts and share these within a technology environment. The technology environment provides structures for organizing and interconnecting students’ contributions in a format that supports the inquiry process (Stahl, 2000; Hoadley & Pea, 2002). In knowledge building, for example, a technology known as the Knowledge Forum supports students to add new ideas, revise materials, synthesize arguments or inform their designs (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). Knowledge Forum allows tagging and linking of notes, as well as inclusion in higher-level concepts or groups — allowing students to “rise above” detailed notes to a more general theory or explanation, corresponding to an important step in developing a theory. However, Knowledge Forum does not provide tutorials or hints specific to a topic, as it aims to support a wide array of student-defined inquiry questions and methods.

Other approaches have included carefully designed sequences of collaborative, cooperative and collective inquiry activities. For example, in the Fostering Communities of Learners (FCL) project, Brown and Campione (1996) choreographed the distribution of expertise within a community, cycling students through specialist groups, with opportunities for “cross talk” along the way toward the completion of “consequential tasks” (Bielaczyc & Collins, 2005).


Because it is challenging to design a sequence, or “script” (Fischer et al., 2013) of activities where students work as an inquiry community to collectively build a knowledge base, design of structures for collectivity inquiry is an important area of research and development. Research and development projects can be organized to address required or specified learning outcomes (i.e., content goals and inquiry practices). Once an overarching curricular topic and approach is articulated (e.g., observing insects and birds on the playground and using the observations as a basis for inquiry about habitat and biodiversity), the design of the environment within which students represent and share their knowledge presents an opportunity for productively constraining this design space. The structure can suggest potential actions, make certain elements of students’ ideas more salient for subsequent discussion, and support mutual awareness of students’ activities (Suthers, 2006).

A second issue is scaling up collective inquiry activities and knowledge building technologies so that more teachers and students can use them as intended. Since this style of classroom activity is different from conventional pedagogy, substantial teacher professional development is often needed. Further, more research is needed on how to automatically analyze progress and give the participants constructive feedback. Technology designs can provide opportunities for real-time learning analytics (e.g., data mining of messages and identifying peer networks). These affordances can support the design of smarter and more social tools, materials, activity sequences, and pedagogical logic (e.g., for assignment to groups or distribution of materials) – and smarter materials can enable more classrooms to succeed in implementing these designs.


Examples of NSF Cyberlearning projects that overlap with topics discussed in this primer (see project tag map).

Peer production

More posts: peer-production

Communities for learning

More posts: communities-for-learning

Instruction delivery platforms

More posts: instruction-delivery-platforms


References and key readings documenting the thinking behind the concept, important milestones in the work, foundational examples to build from, and summaries along the way.

See also: publications from NSF-funded cyberlearning projects.

Key Readings

Bielaczyc, K. & Collins, A. (2005). Technology as a catalyst for fostering knowledge-creating communities. A. M. O’Donnell, C. E. Hmelo-Silver, & J. van der Linden (Eds.): Using technology to enhance learning. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bryant, S., Forte, A. & Bruckman, A. (2005). “Becoming Wikipedian: Transformation of Participation in a Collaborative Online Encyclopedia.” Proceedings of GROUP: International Conference on Supporting Group Work, Sanibel Island, FL. pp 1-10.

Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. (1996). Psychological theory and the design of innovative learning environments: On procedures, principles, and systems. In L. Schauble & R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in learning: New environments for education (pp. 289–325). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Fischer, F., Slotta, J.D., Tchounikine, P., Kollar, I., Wecker, C., Stegmann, C., & Chinn, C. (2013). Scripting and Orchestration: Recent Theoretical Advances. Proceedings of the Tenth Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Conference, Madison. Volume 1. 564-571. International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS).

Hoadley, C. M., & Pea, R. D. (2002). Finding the ties that bind: Tools in support of a knowledge-building community. Building virtual communities: Learning and change in cyberspace, 321-353.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 97-118). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stahl, G. (2000). Collaborative information environments to support knowledge construction by communities. AI & Society. 14, 1-27.

Suthers, D. D. (2006). Technology affordances for intersubjective meaning-making: A research agenda for CSCL. International Journal of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning, 1(3), 315-337.

Publications from NSF-funded Cyberlearning Projects

Hazzard, E. (March 2014). A new take on student lab reports. The Science Teacher, Vol. 81(3), pp. 57 – 61.

Hui, J. S., Gerber, E. M., & Dow, S. P. (2014, June). Crowd-based design activities: helping students connect with users online. Proceedings of Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 875-884). Vancouver, Canada: Designing Interactive Systems.

Yuan, A., Luther, K., Krause, M., Vennix, S. I., Dow, S. P., & Hartmann, B. (Februray 2016). Almost an expert: The effects of rubrics and expertise on perceived value of crowdsourced design critiques. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 1005-1017). New York, New York: Computer-Supported Cooperative Work.

Ellis, J., Ault, M., Bulgren, J., & Rowland, A. (2016, June). Enhancing teaching and learning with social media: Supporting teacher professional learning and student scientific argumentation. Poster session presented to the University of Kansas Center for Research, Lawrence, KS.

Brady, C., Weintrop, D., Anton, G., & Wilensky, U. (2016). Constructionist Learning at the Group Level with Programmable Badges. In Proceedings of Constructionism 2016. Bangkok, Thailand: Constructionism.

Zhang, J., Chen, M. H., Tao, D., Sun, Y., Lee, J., & Judson, D. (2015). Fostering sustained knowledge building through metadiscourse aided by the Idea Thread Mapper. In O. Lindwall, P. Ha´ kkinen, T. Koschmann, P. Tchounikine, & S. Ludvigsen (Eds.), In Proceedings of Exploring the Material Conditions of Learning: The Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) Conference (pp. 166-173). Gothenburg, Sweden: Computer Supported Collaborative Learning.

Chen, M. H., Zhang, J., & Lee, J. (2013). Making collective progress visible for sustained knowledge building. In N. Rummel, M., Kapur, M. Nathan, & S. Puntambekar (Eds.), To see the world and a grain of sand: Learning across levels of space, time, and scale: CSCL 2013 Conference Proceedings (pp. 81-88). Madison, WI: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Chen, J., Zhang, J. (2016). Design Collaborative Formative Assessment for Sustained Knowledge Building Using Idea Thread Mapper. In Proceedings of The International Conference of the Learning Sciences. Singapore: International Society of the Learning Sciences.


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