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My inquiry eFolio for ETEC 533

  • Writer's pictureDr. Sarah McLean

Does technology help the building of learning communities?

This week, we learned about knowledge diffusion, or rather, how we can help support STEM education through using virtual technologies in both formal and informal learning experiences. I was excited to explore different options for science "extracurricular" activities such as the Exploratorium (see link: and learn about ZipTrips- a way to connect middle-school students with "real" scientists through virtual field trips.


According to Bielaczyc and Collins (1999): "The defining quality of a learning community is that there is a culture of learning in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding. There are four characteristics that such a culture must have: (1) diversity of expertise among its members who are valued for their contributions and given support to develop, (2) a shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills, (3) an emphasis on learning how to learn, and (4) mechanisms for sharing what is learned." 1 In what ways do the networked communities you examined represent this characterization of learning communities? What implications does this have for your practice and the design of learning activities?

I began my exploration of knowledge diffusion by reading the paper from Driver et al., (1994). Having taken a previous MET course that focused solely on constructivism, it was interesting to see the authors’ point of view about personal and social constructivism. In some of my previous course readings, constructivism was thought about from a strictly Piaget point-of-view, in that students construct their own mental models and this is learning. However, in this paper, Driver et al., noted something that I think is so important (and often over-looked) in higher education: “We argue that it is important in science education to appreciate that scientific knowledge is both symbolic in nature and also socially negotiated” (Driver et al., 1994); they further note that enculturation is an important part of science education, in that “learners need to be given access not only to physical experiences, but also to the concepts and models of conventional science” (Driver et al., 1994). In this way, this paper argued that we need to be working through a Vygotskian social constructivism framework to fully develop students’ scientific understanding. Based on my experiences as a professor in a physiology department, I would have to agree. Many of my students can appreciate the “hard facts” aspect of science (in fact, I have even had students go so far as to say that they like science because it removes the emotional, personal aspect from their study), when this is in fact, not the case at all! This shows how much works needs to be done to humanize science (and scientists), and that was the focus of my reading this week.

I began by looking at the Exploratorium website and was really impressed with the quality of the resources. I thought that the way that the content for educators was presented as “pathways” with actual educators contributing to the resource illustrated how Exploratorium is effectively using networked communities to act as a learning community. For example, I looked at “Homeostasis and the Characteristics of Life Teaching Box” by Daisy Yeung and noted that the author made a lot of personal recommendations based on experience and the teaching box was very conversational in tone. Another interesting way in that the Exploratorium is using networked communities as learning communities is through their categorization of different opportunities. For example, Hsih noted “A recent shift in the creation of digital collections is marked by social networking in which, rather than cataloging by professional librarians and archivist, distributed users not only annotate and tag items in the collection, but use folksonomies to browse personal collections in websites using Web services tools (Hsih, 2008). Though this article was written in 2008, I imagine that the “tagging” of different educational tools by learners and non-scientists has increased.

One question that I had regarding the Exploratorium was its use and expansion during Covid. I wonder if the Exploratorium and other IT-mediated museum and science related resources have seen a huge surge since Covid. Are there aspects of their practice that they are going to keep in a post-covid era?

I also was interested in looking at the live cams and virtual websites, and although these were interesting to view, I had trouble connecting them to my practice. However, the article by Adedokun et al. on ziptrips was a fascinating exploration of digital networks that can be used to support learning communities. In this article, Adedokun and colleagues explored the use of ziptrips, that allow students (usually in middle school) to interact directly with real scientists in many different fields and domains. One of the key aspects of ziptrips, was the diversity in scientists represented: “Each zipTrips program strives to include scientists that represent a broad spectrum of life science careers, age, gender, and physical abilities with the goal of presenting science as a career option available to a wide range of individuals”(Adedokun et al., 2012). The authors substantiated the value of this approach by showing that students that participated in a ziptrips field trip created more diverse and gender-balanced representations of scientists when they were asked to draw a scientist.

In terms of my own practice, I found the ziptrips article to be the most impactful on my learning. I am currently re-creating a third year laboratory course, and one idea that my colleague and I had was to “interview” current faculty about how the particular technique that is being studied in the wet lab relates to their own “real” world work. These readings reminded me to ensure that I am including a diverse group of scientists in this work; since science knowledge is socially constructed, students need to feel that they can participate in those studies and conversations. If they do not see someone that they can identify with as a scientist, it might impede their ability to engage.

Adedokun, O. A., Hetzel, K., Parker, L. C., Loizzo, J., Burgess, W. D., & Paul Robinson, J. (2012). Using Virtual Field Trips to Connect Students with University Scientists: Core Elements and Evaluation of zipTrips™. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 21(5), 1-12. Available in Course Readings.

Driver, R., Asoko, H., Leach, J., Scott, P., & Mortimer, E. (1994). Constructing scientific knowledge in the classroom. Educational researcher, 23(7), 5-12. Available in Course Readings

Hsi, S. (2008). Information technologies for informal learning in museums and out-of-school settings. International handbook of information technology in primary and secondary education, 20(9), 891-899.

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