University students as co-designers of inquiry-based learning scenarios: shortening distances between teaching and learning

Iolanda García; Begoña Gros

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Begoña Gros
4 November 2012

The purpose of this paper is to present a research proposal as a response to the need for inquiry on new participatory approaches of learning design in the field of higher education. Learning scenarios are required that better connect with the skills and interests of specific groups of students, both in regard to the methodological strategies and the uses of supporting technological tools proposed. In the next pages we expose the arguments of our research approach, drawing on existing literature and proposing cross-overs among the fields of learning design, participatory design, inquiry-based learning and student participation. Our assumption is that it is necessary to rethink the learning design processes at the university on the basis of the collaboration between teachers and students in the creation of new learning scenarios. These scenarios should empower the student in the learning process, through a personal, deep and transversal use of technology.


The results obtained in various recent studies (Lorenzo, Oblinger y Dziuban, 2006, UCL-Cyber Group, 2008; Duart, Gil, Pujol and Brown, 2008;) show that university students, also called digital natives, do not generally incorporate in their academic practices a mature use of ICT, which improves their learning quality and depth. In general, the uses of technology are rather basic and directed by teachers through knowledge transfer activities. It has also been observed that the preferences and skills for ICT academic and "intellectual" use vary depending on the students characteristics, under the influence of factors such as the area of study, gender, age, etc. The research of Kennedy et al. (2006) for instance showed the lack of homogeneity with respect to ICT use among first year university students.


We have been involved in a R+D national project on the uses of ICT by Spanish university students. Our results confirm those obtained in previous studies conducted in different countries, showing that although university students may have sufficient digital skills to use ICT in their everyday life, they use them to a much lesser extent for academic purposes, and this use is often relegated and restricted to teacher instructions. This fact contradicts the evolution that ICT use is experiencing in other areas, the increasingly complex digital skills that it represents as well as different cognitive and social skills that it puts into play.


Several authors have referred to the gap between the technology potential and its actual exploitation in educational contexts (Conole, Dyke Oliver, Seale, 2004; Strijbos, Kirschner, and Martens, 2004), as well as to the need to provide guidance in the design of learning, the selection of the right tools and how to use them from certain pedagogical approaches (Conole, Oliver, Falconer, Littlejohn and Harvey, 2007; Conole, 2008).


Moreover, the role of university as an enabler agent of future professionals as lifelong learners is socially put into question. In Europe, the changes proposed by the EHEA do not seem to have the desired effect in terms of methodological change, intensive use of ICT and students involvement. Trinder et al. (2008) argue that while formal education persists in the use of pedagogical models based on the transmission of knowledge, the boundaries between formal and informal will persist. Only changes in the pedagogical orientation will be able to bridge both worlds allowing the exploitation of ICT uses and learning processes in everyday situations in academic contexts.


From our perspective, inquiry-based learning can contribute to improving learning through the use of technology enhanced environments, providing a stronger link between the use of technology in informal situations and with learning purposes, either in academic or other contexts. The approach of learning through inquiry is a broad label that covers various pedagogical approaches but all of them have in common the student in the role of the researcher, providing him a greater control and responsibility in the learning process. This way of understanding the academic activity blurs the traditional division between teaching and research. In fact, recent studies have suggested that one of the most powerful ways to promote deep learning is to involve students in research activities as contexts of inquiry-based learning (Brew, 2006).


Learning through inquiry represents a significant contribution to the experience of university students as it provides situations that stimulate their ability to solve problems, require their active role in authentic contexts, involves knowledge construction processes and triggers reflection and deep learning. However, teaching from this approach is not easy. Research on this topic (Ellis. et al, 2005; Ellis and Goodyear, 2010) indicates that teachers need support in the design and implementation of this kind of learning activities.


Several authors (Reigeluth, 1999; Ellis and Goodyear, 2010) have argued that although education has always involved planning and design, the need to invest efforts in the systematic design that clearly and constantly establishes and guides student activity, may be especially high in networked learning situations. On the other hand, Trigwell et al. (2000) state that in order to achieve the implementation of academic knowledge in real practice, teachers need to be informed of the theoretical perspectives of learning and teaching, reflect on their practice through systematic research, present their results to their peers, etc. This will create a breakthrough in understanding how to achieve deep learning (Kreber, 2003; Trigwell and Shale, 2004).


Although the initial focus of “learning design” was on learning objects, in recent years, its attention has shifted to learning activities, their description, parameterization and representation (Conole, 2008). In this sense, the design of the scenarios (including socio-cultural, pedagogical approach and learning objects) in which these activities will be developed allows to elicit learning processes intended to be facilitated and promoted among students. The field of learning design or “design for learning” has developed in recent years and now offers as a good set of tools, systems, patterns and models (McAndrew and Goodyear, 2007; Masterman and Vogel, 2007; Craft, Brock and Mor, 2012) that can empower teachers to design scenarios that provide richer learning experiences.


Participatory design or, also named, co-design methods have been used in the last years in the educational domain learning design purposes. Those experiences have typically involved teachers, researchers and developers as partners in educational innovation processes. Co-design has often implied participation in design and deployment of technological tools aimed at supporting learning processes (Mor and Winters, 2006; Roschelle, Penuel, Schechtman, 2007). In the co-design method the active and joint participation of different actors enables the traceability and the interpretation of the phenomena associated with the use of certain methodologies and technological tools. It is usually based on teachers’ active participation in the process of the innovation design, as well as in its implementation and ongoing evaluation in daily practice. This procedure ensures the connection and orchestration of theory, models of practice, tools and participants perceptions.


Taking as its fundamental point of reference the needs of the stakeholders, the co-design method retains many similarities with the approach of student-centered learning. This approach recognizes the "student voice" to their circumstances, abilities, interests, learning style, etc. as a focus and starting point for the design of learning situations. It proposes further responsibility and active engagement of the student for their own learning.


In recent years, different authors have proposed methodologies in which students and teachers participate in "co-generative" talks, aimed at sharing their perspectives and jointly reflect on how to improve the practice of teaching and learning (Roth, Lawless and Tobin, 2000). More recently, direct involvement of students as learning "co-designers" has started to be explored in different educational contexts (Scanlon et al., 2009; Könings, Brand-Gruwel and van Merriënboer, 2011; Cameron and Gotlieb, 2009; Cameron and Tanti, 2011). Some results show that this approach can promote deeper learning among students and also provide key elements and opportunities to guide teacher intervention. However, there are still few studies addressing the effects of this approach in higher education. Moreover, some of these studies have found different points of tension that may hinder the co-design process (Penuel, Roschelle and Schechtman, 2007; Scanlon et. al, 2009; Brand-Gruwel and van Merriënboer, 2011). On the other hand, students’ involvement is often limited to specific workshops and not allowed along the whole design process.


We believe that co-design processes participated by teachers, students and researchers may have a positive impact both in enhancing student engagement in learning and in improving teachers understanding about learning and teaching processes. The results obtained in research-based teaching and learning activities and projects have been promising (Neary and Winn, 2011; Wieman, 2004 and Brew, 2006). However, although the literature comprises a range of rationales for students’ participation in curriculum design, there is still little systematic evaluation on its real impact and specific dynamics (Bovill, Morss and Bulley, 2009).


The project aims to make progress in the research about methodologies based on inquiry learning processes with technological support in higher education. The purpose of the project is to study the application of a model based on inquiry pedagogy to generate learning scenarios in universities that can be adapted to different training contexts and student profiles. To do this, the elements that configure those contexts and profiles will be identified, such as the area of knowledge, the academic level, and students’ competence in ICT use for learning purposes.


These scenarios, generated from a co-design process involving teachers, students and experts in instructional design, will be based on a more mature, self-managed, and transversal use of technology, in order to allow the intersection among different contexts and activities in which students develop learning processes beyond the university Virtual Campus.


The project intends to contrast the proposed learning scenarios with students’ actual interests and learning perception. It is also the purpose of the research to develop tools and patterns that support the representation and the explanation of the designs. Acting as mediating artifacts among participants those patterns and tools could scaffold the co-design process (Scanlon et al., 2009) and at the same time facilitate the sharing of the design scenarios and its transference to other areas (Mor and Winters, 2006). The specific objectives of the project are formulated as follows:


1)    To study and propose the inquiry based model to inform the design of new learning scenarios in the university, identifying the elements that allow its adaptation to different contexts of practice and student profiles.

2)    To develop and analyze a co-design strategy of learning scenarios involving, as key players, teachers, students and techno-pedagogical design experts.

3)    To design and analyze learning scenarios based on deep, transversal and autonomous ICT use by students from the inquiry model.

4)    To propose and use tools and patterns to represent and explain the co-design process and the resulting scenarios, so that they can be shared, repurposed and reused by other teachers.

5)    To validate and systematize the used inquiry model as well as the instruments and the proposed design strategy.


The study will apply the methodology of design-based research as the most appropriate and consistent with the project theoretical framework and the set research goals. The design of the investigation is iterative, situated, and led to the intervention but underpinned by theory. Research is not defined by the methodology (quantitative or qualitative) but by its object, which is essentially to explain and to support a process of change. The object of study is therefore the very process of designing the learning scenarios, taking as key agents both the teachers and the students to whom those practices are addressed to. A mixed approach (quantitative and qualitative) will be used for data collection, analysis and interpretation.


We believe that this research proposal can contribute in different ways to the field of learning design by providing a new insight on participatory design processes based on teacher and student led inquiry.






Mor and Winters, 2006 Design approaches in technology enhanced learning


Craft, Brock and Mor, 2012 Learning design: reflections on a snapshot of the current landscape


Scanlon, Conole, Littleton, Kerawalla, Gaved, Twiner, Collins, Mulholland, 2009. Personal inquiry (PI) Innovations in participatory design and models for inquiry learning.


Könings, Brand-Gruwel and van Merriënboer, 2011. Participatory instructional redesign by students and teachers in secondary education: effects on perceptions of instruction


Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In: The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London, pp. 192-210. ISBN 1847064728

Wieman, C. (2004), ‘Professors who are scholars: bringing the act of discovery to the classroom’, presentation at The Reinvention Center Conference, November, 2004. Integrating Research into Undergraduate Education: The Value Added.

Brew, A. (2006) Research and teaching: beyond the divide. London: PalgraveMacmillan.


Penuel, Roschelle and Schechtman, 2007 Designing formative assessment software with teachers: an analysis of the co-design process.


Bovill, C and Morss, K and Bulley, Catherine (2009) Should students participate in curriculum design? Discussion arising from a first year curriculum design project and a literature review. Pedagogical Research in Maximising Education, 3 (2). pp. 17-25.

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