Doug Woods looks at how technology can help learners ask questions.
Asking questions is very much a part of the learning process and there are ways in which we can use educational technology to support this. It is surprising therefore to see that the way questioning is handled in schools and colleges seems to have changed little in the last fifty years. Up and down the country, you will still see learners asking questions by first raising their hand and waiting for the teacher to acknowledge them. Is this the best way?
The first problem with having to raise your hand to ask a question is that you have to be physically present and make yourself visible to the professional (teacher, lecturer, etc.) leading the session. So what happens if the question occurs to you when doing homework or revising? What happens if you are absent and/or accessing the session remotely? In such circumstances, simply raising your hand is not an option and the ability to ask your question could be lost.
Then there are some sessions or lessons where you feel you can only ask questions at a certain time; usually at the end. A question may occur to you during a session but, when the lecturer finishes by asking ‘does anyone have any questions?' you find you've forgotten what it was! Or maybe you can remember it but there are so many other people asking questions that you do not get time to ask yours. Then, of course, there are those times when you want to ask your question at the end but you know that you, and everyone else, are simply dying to get away, so you stay quiet.
There are also times when a question occurs to you after the session. Perhaps you've been thinking about the session afterwards and something occurs to you, or maybe you read something elsewhere, which leads you to question something you heard, or thought you heard, during the session. How then could you ask your question? Maybe you experience something, perhaps from some practical work related to the session, which doesn't quite fit with what was mentioned in the session, how can you raise this?
Then there are those times when you want to ask a question of one of your fellow learners. How can you do that in a session if all your attention is directed toward the teacher/lecturer?
I daresay we can all relate to instances such as these, or we can recall times when we were dying to ask a question and, for some reason, didn't. Speaking for myself, I know that I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that every question I didn't ask would have been a serious one. Furthermore, I cannot be certain that, by not asking the question, I missed out on some new information or level of understanding. There is always the possibility, though, that had I asked the question(s) I wanted to, my level of attainment could have been better.
Having established the importance of asking questions and set out some of the traditional difficulties of doing so, we have to ask ‘how can educational technology help learners ask their questions?'
Ideally, I suppose we could be looking for a piece of technology, which could be used during a session and afterwards, for a piece of technology that can be used equally by those attending the session as well as those absent or accessing the session remotely. This piece of technology would need to be accessible and available to all, so that questions and answers can be shared and so that no advantage is given to certain users but not others.
There could be several possible solutions but one which I'd like to put forward is the use of online discussion forums. What I'd like to suggest is that every subject, every project or topic, should have a forum associated with it. I'd like to think that this could work at Higher, Further and Secondary school level (Key stage 3 onwards, ie 11 years old +) and increasingly also at Key stage two (7 to 11 years of age).
So, what advantages would having an online discussion forum bring? First of all, the discussion forum would be open to all learners, including those who might be absent at the time of the actual session and any who needed to access the session remotely. This would mean that all learners could pose their questions on the forum and feel disadvantaged because they might have been unable to attend the session.
Questions can be posted to the forum at any time, so learners doing homework, coursework or revision could pose questions as and when they occur.
Questions and answers can be shared among all learners. In a lesson, a teacher might respond to an inbridual learner's question singly (i.e. giving only that learner a response) not knowing that others may also require the same answer, on a discussion board the response is available for all who need it.
A question need not be only asked of the teacher/lecturer but can also be asked of other learners. Other learners can also give their response to questions; this might have some appeal as it could mean that the teacher does not always have to be on hand to supply the answers. It also affords an opportunity for other learners to demonstrate their learning.
There is an added bonus in that each time the forum is added to; it becomes a resource which can be used in follow up sessions this year or in subsequent years.
We have to acknowledge that discussion forums are not perfect. They can be abused, some people may tend to dominate discussions and some are reluctant to make posts. However with only a simple level of monitoring, moderation and encouragement, an online forum can become a very effective tool and future learning resource.
Doug Woods http://dougwoods.co.uk/blog says:
I'm a former teacher who's always been passionate and enthusiastic about ICT in education. I now style myself as an ICT in Education Consultant and Trainer, a role has afforded me opportunities to work in new areas of educational ICT for both public and commercial sectors. I have a keen interest in ICT for SEN learning, inclusion and for transforming learning.
This article first appeared in Computers in Classrooms, the free e-newsletter for ICT/ed tech teachers and subject leaders. Please see this article for details of three great prizes to be given away to subscribers. The next issue will be a games-based learning special.