Facilitating online research

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Facilitating online research has been on my mind as students work through their ‘Dereliction’ enquiry project.  Reading books such as David Price’s ‘Open’ or Will Richardson’s ‘Why School’ are hugely influential to my role as an educator.  I agree that the role of technology, in particular the ‘Google search’, means we can find out pretty much anything we want with a fair amount of immediacy, depending on the question.  I am in no doubt that students need to develop the skills surrounding enquiry based learning, that allow them to access online resources.  Sugata Mitra, whom I hugely admire, has his ‘School in the Cloud’ which subscribes to this approach.  However, the idea of Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLE’s) are a fanciful idea where students can learn answers to abstract questions independently.  Students do need to be facilitated through a process of master-classes, critique and reflections to ensure they can rapidly understand the minefield of online enquiry.

False dichotomies are regularly made between the importance for students to acquire knowledge (and the best means to do so are via direct instruction) versus a need to acquire ‘21st century’ skills such as problem solving.  This dichotomy was falsely raised in this article here.  Ken Robinson coming in for some unnecessary criticism from this blogger, although his book is nothing revolutionary or different to his previous books, i’m not sure he makes the point for knowledge-light and skills heavy lessons in his recent book ‘Creative Schools’.  Indeed, i’m not convinced this blogger has a full insight into project work and thematic learning and would say it is unfair and an insult to call these appraoches a germ movement.    Some of us use these approaches with the aim to enhance students knowledge of the world, but in a more authentic format.

I believe, that with the revolution that is online learning, students should be taught and facilitated through online research.  But, alongside traditional approaches such as testing, the online world can also be used to enhance students knowledge of the world.  Online research can give students choice and authenticity to their learning, above and beyond the traditional approach to teaching students what educators perceive that students should know.

Sometimes as a teacher you worry that you can become redundant in a situation where students have access to technology such as ipads and laptops.  The traditional role of teacher is obviously changing, however, I personally feel that I need to let go even more than I do.  Sometimes, it is appropriate to simply let students explore and see what they come up with in the same way Sugatra Mitra suggests with his SOLE’s.  We need to facilitate students through their own research design.  Larissa Pahomov suggests we facilitate research that allows for autonomy, activity and metacognition.  The wide range of content that is available online means that research is fresh and they can learn beyond the boundaries of a traditional lesson.  We as teachers need to help them develop the skills that allow them to access and interpret information effectively.

Sometimes, its appropriate to allow ‘passive’ research if we want students to know something quickly, or indeed just tell them some new content.  In the enquiry based classroom, students must work harder to find answers to questions especially for specialised subject content.  In our ‘Dereliction’ project, students were directed towards specific information and websites using a QR code.  They were also further supported by enquiry questions given to them.  They were researching topics as varied as The Berlin Wall to Detroit and to Tah Prohm in Cambodia, with the overarching enquiry question related to the social, economic, environmental and political factors that lead to their dereliction.

However, the real challenge and ultimate goal is for students to have this scaffolding removed and be truly independent with online enquiry.  Ideally, we would like students carrying out research that generates its own content.  Where students are collecting their own data and producing something that is unique.  I guess, the Dereliction enquiry project, there are not many people asking the same questions about these locations.   However, our next steps should be for students to move towards surveys, personal interviews and case studies.  We want students to be using the greatest amount of skill to ‘actively’ research the world around them.

So as facilitators during the Dereliction enquiry, we had to have a hands-off role at times.  However, to aid the facilitation and develop students as active researchers we intervened in a variety of ways.  The metacognitive processes students are using must be made explicit to them.  We had to ensure that students are evaluating the process throughout.  Several lessons were spent researching and improving their research before they could embark on a final art and written piece.  Students were given a huge choice of research topics to ensure the project was relevant and interesting to them.  This was done in one way by having a cross-discipline geography, RE and history lessons integrated.  In future we could go further by students conducting personal enquiries about their local community.

However, we facilitated online enquiry firstly by developing students questioning.  We wanted to ensure that students had ‘un googleable’ questions that are open ended and allows for a large scope of investigation.  We modelled good research by delivering a master-class where teachers teach taught their own research enquiry.  Students were shown what the teachers would do on a google search and were asked to feedback how to search effectively using un-googleable questions.  Through linking to historical source analysis, students were taught how to look for credibility in online sources.  We had a constant focus and relentlessness on students recording the sources they were using and using triangulation to look for accuracy within sources.  Lazy students who quoted the first source they could find i.e. wikipedia were few because of the modelling that had gone on beforehand.  Students who struggled with the complexity of certain websites were encouraged to work with other students and to do a spot check with adults in the classroom.  By not giving these students this opportunity and instead over differentiating and providing a passive simplified form of research is ultimately doing more harm.

It takes students time to find information online that is relevant to their enquiry.  It is important to hand over a chunk of curriculum time to do this, hence our approach to do this over several subjects.  Students need the time to find websites and extrapolate information and above all else to make mistakes.  How these mistakes are noticed by the teacher is crucial.  Its the reflection of the enquiry and students asking questions of each other’s research that is key in this process.  When projects can have such different outcomes, the teacher actually needs to be more skilled at spotting nuances and knowing the progress being made by individual students and sometimes jumping in and teaching just in time for particular skills and knowledge that may be required to make that next step.


Pahomov, Larissa. Authentic Learning in the Digital Age: Engaging Students through Inquiry. Print.

Price, David. Open: How We’Ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. England: Crux, 2013. Print.

Robinson, Ken, and Lou Aronica. Creative Schools: the Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. Print.

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