Quick Tips: Guidelines for Inquiry-Based Project Work

Following last week’s post on definitions of inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, and experiential learning, a colleague pointed me to a post from the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List that provides a rubric for team-based, inquiry-based work. The guidelines are taken from the book Teaching in Blended Learning Environments: Creating and Sustaining Communities of Inquiry by Norman D. Vaughan, Martha Cleveland-Innes, and D. Randy Garrison. [2013, Athabasca University Press]. A free PDF of the book is available.

Three students engaging in field work, taking soil measurements in agricultural setting.The display of the table with the rubric on the Tomorrow’s Professor site is difficult to read; a better version can be found here at the University of Regina’s Teaching Resources website.

The rubric covers eight dimensions to consider in inquiry-based project work: authenticity, academic rigor, assessment, beyond the school, use of digital technologies, connecting with experts, and elaborated communication. It provides a sound starting place for guiding your implementation of inquiry-based learning.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay


Recently, in discussion with some colleagues, confusion was expressed about the terms inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, case-based learning, and experiential learning. How are these alike and how are they different? Are there overlaps? What distinguishes one from another? I thought providing some short definitions of these terms, along with a few resources, might be useful to others seeking clarity.

Group of students working togetherInquiry-based learning (IBL) is a term used broadly to include pedagogical approaches that put the students at the center of the learning process, allowing them to undertake investigations by asking questions to solve problems. The University of North Carolina has published an annotated bibliography of resources on IBL.

Problem-based learning (PBL) is described by the Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education site, Problem-Based Learning at University of Delaware: “In a problem-based learning (PBL) model, students engage complex, challenging problems and collaboratively work toward their resolution. PBL is about students connecting disciplinary knowledge to real-world problems—the motivation to solve a problem becomes the motivation to learn.”

And in Why PBL?, “In a problem-based learning (PBL), students work together in small groups to solve real-world problems. PBL is an active and iterative process that engages students to identify what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know. Their motivation to solve a problem becomes their motivation to find and apply knowledge. PBL can be combined with lecture to form a hybrid model of teaching, and it can be implemented in virtually all courses and subjects.”

A widely cited book by Maggi Savin-Baden, Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education: Untold Stories [McGraw-Hill International, 2000], provides an in-depth look at PBL. See an excerpt here.

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University has a teaching guide on team-based learning. “Team-based learning (TBL) is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams of 5-7 students that work together throughout the class.  Before each unit or module of the course, students prepare by reading prior to class.” The guide provides information on theory and structure, as well as a section called Where can I learn more?, which references the Team-Based Learning Collaborative as well as books and articles.

Case-based learning employs the use of discipline-specific, situational narratives as a launch pad for student learning. A case-based learning wiki from the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia tells us that “[c]ase-based learning can cover a wide variety of instructional strategies, including but not limited to, role plays, simulations, debates, analysis and reflection, group projects and problem-solving. It provides a great deal of flexibility at the practical level.” The wiki not only describes the characteristics of case-based learning, but also discusses how to implement it – defining both the instructor’s and the students’ roles, offers some information about developing cases and designing learning activities, gives an overview of assessment, and provides references. See also The Innovative Instructor post Quick Tips: Using Case Studies.

The Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas Austin defines experiential learning as “any learning that supports students in applying their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates learning.” These experiences can take place in a number of settings including classrooms, labs, studios, or through internships, fieldwork, community service, clinical or research projects. The UT Austin webpage on experiential learning discusses the importance of this method, how it works, what it looks like in practice, and describes the forms it can take. A list of reference is provided. See also: Learning by Doing – Case-in-Point, an Innovative Instructor blog post by Adriano Pianesi.

As this compendium demonstrates, these terms are interconnected.  Inquiry-based learning is an umbrella for the pedagogies described. Case-based learning and team-based learning may be used as strategies in implementing IBL or problem-based learning. Experiential learning allows students to engage in authentic experiences with an instructor or facilitator acting as a guide.


Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay

Making Infographics with Easel.ly

Back at the beginning of the year I wrote a post on Scalar (a multi-media authoring tool) that mentioned another application called Easel.ly. I’d first heard about Easel.ly from a colleague last fall and have been wanting to try it out ever since. This week, I got my chance and I am really excited about this application.

Creating an Easel.ly Infographic lists the three steps to creation 1) create an account. 2) select a vheme or blank canvas and drag and drop objects to it 3) share the completed infographic.Anita Say Chan and Harriett Green wrote about Easel.ly in an article published in the Educause Review, Practicing Collaborative Digital Pedagogy to Foster Digital Literacies in Humanities Classrooms (October 13, 2014). Their description captures the essence of the tool: 

Easel.ly is a free, easy-to-use web-hosted platform for creating infographics. Users can insert icons and shapes, change background and orientation, and rearrange the pre-inserted graphics in the pre-set template (called a “vheme”) to create their own vibrant infographics.

We chose this tool because its features let students rapidly build professional, visually captivating infographics in a user-friendly environment without requiring mastery of graphic imaging software (such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator).”

The term infographic has a broad meaning – a visual depiction of information – and the end results of an Easel.ly creation cover a wide range as can be seen from the hundreds of thousands of posted examples. Timelines, annotated maps, flowcharts, posters, public service announcements, instructional guides – if you are thinking in terms of a course assignment that will involve visualization or visual display of data/information – take a look at Easel.ly. Easel.ly also has a feature that allows you to create groups to work collaboratively. See creating groups: http://www.easel.ly/blog/easel-ly-groups-new-feature/. This would be a great way to allow students to work together on a course project.

It’s easy to create an account and start to work. The interface is simple and intuitive. You can start with a blank canvas, pick a template (vheme), or select from thousands of published examples to modify. From there it is a breeze to drag and drop from menus that include backgrounds, objects (images, icons, maps, flags), text boxes, shapes and arrows, and charts. All of these can be easily modified (size, orientation, font, color in some cases). You can also upload your own images, icons, maps, graphs, etc.

Once you have completed your work there are several ways to make it available to others. According to the Easel.ly blog post on sharing options:

Shareable Link: A shareable link allows a user to both See and Reuse your infographic – The only people that can see and reuse the infographic are people who you give the link to.

Embed Code: If you would rather embed your infographic within a blog post and not have to download and upload to your blog, then “Embed Code” is the way to go.

Group Share: Probably our coolest feature. This option allows you to share an infographic that you have created with everyone in your group (see here: Creating a Group) and allow them to reuse your infographic as a template for their work.

If you want more information on using Easel.ly, take a look at the blog. If you’d like more features, there is a paid version available for only $36.00 per year.

I opened a free account on Easel.ly and within an hour had tried out all of the features and created the infographic that accompanies this post. The About Us section of the Easel.ly website summed up my experience:

“…[I]n 2013 Easel.ly was honored to receive the Best Websites for Teaching and Learning Award from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). The AASL commended Easel.ly for being user friendly, intuitive, and simple enough that even a child in the 6th grade could successfully navigate the site and design their infographic without adult assistance.”

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Infographic created by Macie Hall on Easel.ly




Bringing Digital Humanities into the Classroom

I recently attended a professional conference where Digital Humanities (DH) was the hot topic. For those of you in other disciplines, DH is a field of scholarship (and pedagogy) that is often described as being at the intersection of humanities and computing. The idea is that humanities scholars who have traditionally worked alone in the ivory tower, or more accurately, in archives, libraries, museums, and in the field, are now engaging in collaborative, cross-disciplinary research endeavors that involve large data sets, computational analysis, and new methods of visualizing information. Publication for DH scholars had moved from the monograph to open access, web-based, collaborative, and social media outlets. Twitter, in particular, is the social medium of choice for the DH field.  At the conference I attended, everyone seemed to be tweeting.

A wordle created from The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing: An Introduction, Schreibman, S, Siemens, R, and Unsworth, J.If you’d like to learn more about DH, there is concise guide provided by the University of Richmond Boatwright Memorial Library that includes a few seminal texts as well as links to resources, tools, and examples of projects.  A comprehensive bibliography, which can be downloaded as a Word document, has been put together by some of my colleagues in the Visual Resources Association. Two DH organizations to look at are the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory). Beyond the research aspect of DH, I am interested in how one might take DH into the classroom.

A Google search on “digital humanities teaching” yields a lot of results. Two guides to check out are the University of Delaware Library’s Digital Humanities: Teaching Resources, and University of Kansas Libraries guide to Digital Humanities: TEACHING: digital humanities in the classroom. There is a book that includes some case studies, which range from a course at the doctoral level to a freshman writing course, published as open access–Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics (edited by Brett D. Hirsch). You can download it as a PDF. Perhaps most illuminating from my perspective was a blog post by Ryan Cordell, Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts and a Mellon Fellow of Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia. How Not to Teach Digital Humanities (February 1, 2015) chronicles Cordell’s evolution in thinking about and teaching what started out as an introduction to digital humanities course.

My own thinking, which is aligned with Cordell’s, is that in teaching undergraduate humanities courses we need to be most concerned with the essential practices and methods of DH work. I agree with Cordell that our students may be called digital natives, but many of them are not digitally (or visually) literate. They may not be fully comfortable with the intricacies of technology in spite of their abilities to text at astonishing speeds. The DH practices that point to skills that would be useful for students to develop have to do with working collaboratively, thinking critically, understanding the importance of narrative and visual communication, and communicating using new media. Arguably, these are abilities that will be useful to students pursuing any 21st century career path. Many DH practitioners would add coding to the list. I agree that humanities students should be introduced to and encouraged to learn coding of some flavor. Cordell cites TEI (text encoding initiative) as a low-barrier example that allows students to see the power that coding might have in humanities research.

Cordell used non-traditional assignments to introduce students to new media: “Those assignments push them beyond their comfort zone—for English students, their comfort zone is writing a 7 page paper—asking them to consider the medium as well as the message of their own research and arguments.” The Center for Educational Resources, where I work, has been encouraging faculty to explore non-traditional assignments with output in video, blogs, wikis, electronic posters, timelines, visualizations, and applications such as Omeka, WordPress, and a mapping tool developed in house.

Whether or not DH is still a hot topic in the future, Cordell imagines a positive outcome if “…DH methodologies have become widely-accepted as possible ways (among many) to study literature, history, and other humanities subjects….” I see that exposing our students to these ways of thinking and communicating will also have a positive outcome.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer, Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Digital Humanities Wordle created from The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing: An Introduction, Schreibman, S, Siemens, R, and Unsworth, J. [Anonymous] http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/5672950/Digital_Humanities