Corinne Pinhorn


Corinne M Pinhorn


Breton Education Centre



Both inquiry-based learning and online learning have become topics at the forefront of education.  Inquiry-based learning places students at the center of their own learning, striving to develop an answer to a guiding question of student interest through interaction with others where students respectively challenge and test one another’s ideas.  Online learning is the facilitating of learning in an online environment.  This paper analyzes the benefits and challenges of both inquiry-based learning and online learning.  It concludes with a discussion on the integration of inquiry-based learning in an online environment and ways to overcome some of the challenges.  Also included are several technological applications that may be used to solve these challenges along with brief explanations of examples of learning management systems, simulation webpages and online conferencing.


Inquiry-based learning, technology, problem solving, project-based curriculum, learning management system, simulations, synchronous, asynchronous


Click the link that follows to access the video resourcesBringing Inquiry-Based Learning Online (05:03)


The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development have adopted an inquiry-based learning approach for the new pilot program for grades seven and eight. Berge & Slotta (2007) describe learning as “an active process rather than a passive assimilation of information” (p328).  Edelson (1999) identifies three benefits of inquiry-based learning: acquiring general inquiry abilities, acquiring specific investigation skills and developing an improved understanding of the concepts.

Quality eLearning experiences for students can help create inquiry-based activities to ensure that they grow as learners to be responsible for their own learning.  Inquiry-based learning shifts the focus from the teacher as a provider of content to a facilitator of the process of learning.  This lends itself to a natural shift to an online learning option.

Online education is growing quickly all over the world.  Most post-secondary institutions offer courses as well as entire programs, workplaces offer training and professional development, and even K-12 students can be educated online.  It is important for teachers to introduce technology and online learning experiences to students to prepare them for the future.  There are many benefits to online education, as well as many challenges.  This paper will highlight benefits and challenges for both inquiry-based learning and online learning in K-12 education for both students and teachers.

Literature Review

What is inquiry-based learning?

“The passive view of teaching views the learner as ‘an empty vessel’ to be filled with knowledge, whereas constructivism states that learners construct meaning only through active engagement with the world (such as experiments or real-world problem solving)” (McLeod, 2019, para 6). According to Barron and Darling-Hammond (2010), “the family of approaches that can be described as “inquiry-based” includes project-based learning, design-based learning, and problem-based learning” (p.201).  “For students, the process often involves open-ended investigations into a question or a problem, requiring them to engage in evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving, as well as “problem finding.” For educators, the process is about being responsive to the students’ learning needs, and most importantly, knowing when and how to introduce students to ideas that will move them forward in their inquiry” (Fielding, 2012).  Berge and Slotta (2007) spotlight some characteristics of inquiry-based learning as: engaging in interactions with others working on similar problems, understanding over memorized procedure, consider student prior knowledge, problems relevant to students own lives, and development of skills to become responsible for their own learning as well as problem solving and critiquing skills.

Benefits of Inquiry-based Learning

Students taught using an inquiry-based learning method acquire a deeper understanding of the concepts studied and develop important skills.  According to Boaler (as cited in Barron and Darling-Hammond, 1997,1998) students who participated in project-based curriculum, achieved higher than their traditionally taught counterparts “on conceptual problems presented on national examinations” (p.203). Also, “students engaged in project-based learning demonstrated a significant increase in scores on a critical-thinking test, as well as increased confidence in their learning” (Barron and Darling-Hammond, 2010, p.203).  According to Boaler (as cited in Barron et al., 1997) some students that do less well in a traditional classroom setting excel in the project-based learning environment as it may better match their learning style or preferences.  Students are more motivated to learn in an inquiry-based learning environment.  Bayram et al (2013) found evidence which inquiry-based learning methods had a positive effect on student motivation and stated that “well-constructed research problems are likely to contribute to students’ meaningful learning”(p.994)  Inquiry-based learning asks questions rather than making statements, encouraging curiosity and strengthening problem solving skills. Finally, since students assist in creating the problem questions, it can create a more interesting learning environment and assist students with setting and achieving goals.

Challenges of Inquiry-based Learning

One of the obvious challenges to inquiry-based learning is the social learning component through cooperative learning.  Barron and darling-Hammond (2010) state, “The classroom teacher plays a critical role in establishing and modeling practices of productive learning conversions” (p.211).  Keeping students on task and productive requires special attention from the teacher regarding unequal participation, work progress and the interaction of the students.  Providing roles to the students may support a positive learning environment. “When inquiry-based learning approaches are misunderstood, teachers often think of inquiry or student-centered approaches as “unstructured” rather than appreciating that they require extensive scaffolding and constant assessment and redirection as they unfold” (Barron et al, 2010, p.212).  Students may also lack the prior knowledge necessary to effectively answer the inquiry question in a meaningful way. When creating questions to explore, Krajcik et al. (1998) found “Students often did not deliberate on the merits of their questions; instead, they tended to decide on a question quickly. Some of the questions stemmed from the personal interest or preferences of one student in the group” (p.329) In their study of students attempted a science inquiry-based learning project for the first time, Krajcik et al. (1998) found students had difficulty with time management, focusing attention on answering the question and completing tasks, organization and students lost interest over time.

Online Learning Opportunities

E-Learning, virtual schooling, blended learning, distance education, etc., are all forms of online education. Fully online courses can by synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of the two.  Synchronous e-learning involves video conferencing, chat, instant messaging, and online classes that meet at a set time (Hrastinski, 2008).  Synchronous learning requires students to interact with the teacher and classmates, be more engaged and motivated, and to communicate (Hrastinski, 2008). Asynchronous e-learning, where students and teachers interact through a web-based medium (likely a learning management system, Google Classroom, for example) at a time of there choice. It is more flexible in nature, and requires more independence (Hrastinski, 2008).  Research has found that in order for online K-12 education to be most successful, teachers must interact frequently with their students (Hawkins, Graham, Sudweeks, & Barbour, 2012).

Key aspects of creating a quality eLearning experience were supported by Wang and Reeves’ (2006) findings that four major motivational strategies help students learn and increase achievement:  challenge (activities that challenge a student’s abilities should keep them engaged), control (students who can direct their own learning may stay motivated), curiosity (students enjoy interaction and discovery), and fantasy (incorporating games into learning).  The key aspects that define a quality eLearning experience for students are very intertwined and should be developed together throughout the eLearning activity. Context provides the framework and conditions that make all things interesting and meaningful, including e-learning. It can make learning content relevant to the learner, it can get learners thinking about the applicability of what they are learning, and it allows you to give learners authentic challenges (Allen, 2007).  When creating an eLearning activity, the students are more likely to learn from that experience if it is meaningful to the student and they can relate it to their own lives.

Benefits of Online E-Learning

Online education has been growing at a rapid rate around the world over the past few years for K-12 students.  Garthwait (2014) believes reasons include, changing demographics; growing and shrinking enrollments, smaller budgets, decaying schools and shortages of teachers.  Online learning or e-learning is one way to solve some of those problems. Hakverdi-Can & Sonmez (2012) summarize a few benefits of integrating technology into inquiry learning environments: giving students the opportunity of experiencing scientific modeling, using dynamic simulations and working with actual scientific data through involvement in scientific experimentation.  According to Weiner (as cited in Appana, 2003), “online learning significantly improved writing and computer skills in Cyber Schools in America. This study revealed that the key to successful online learning for adolescent students lies within motivational issues and highly structured courses.”  An additional benefit for online instruction is the anonymity afforded to the students which can “result in greater participation from all students, including “shy” ones. The lack of visual cues allows the instructor to treat all students in the same manner” (Appana, 2008, p.9).   The use of learning management systems may contribute to an organizational strategy for students.  Many students struggle with organization, the facilitator can provide organization within the learning management system as well as providing a timeline for students to follow to stay on track within the course.  E-learning also allows for adequate differentiation of instruction for various learners.  Differentiation may be achieved by “teaching with podcasts that incorporate the audio with the visual, use of other types of graphics and visuals, hands-on learning and other methods of presenting content that address multiple learning preferences” (Novak,2016, para.1).  E-learning also provides the opportunity to differentiate the content for individualized students if the facilitator is provided with appropriate information regarding each student.

Challenges of Online E-Learning

Garthwait (2014) reports in her study that barriers to online learning include, lack of technology related skills, no hardware, and no internet access.  She also found that online students need to be self-motivated, independent, responsible, organized and persistent in order to be successful.  Garthwait (2014) found “an unexpected result of this research showed a major irritant for the online high school students: filtering (unreasonably censored sites) or link rote (sites not updated by instructors)” (p. 363).  Another common complaint found in her research was the frustration over the online teacher’s delayed and incomplete replies (Garthwait, 2014).  Time required for teachers to implement technology is also an issue.  Instructional designers are usually not available to teachers and the teacher must be not only the subject matter expert, but also the instructional designer.  Hakverdi-Can and Sonmez (2012) state, “Although technology integration into science education benefits student learning, there are challenges and limitations, such as lack of time to design learning environments, and teachers’ proficiency and confidence in using technology for inquiry” (p.339).  In a physical classroom, teachers can be flexible with their lessons and assessment.  Interactions with students take place most often at scheduled times, and teachers can use facial expressions, body language and visual clues to gauge understanding.  Teachers often build a rapport with students and those relationships are important when using observation and student-teacher conferencing during assessment.

Safety is the most important factor in online participation and e-learning experiences for students.  Livingston (2003) noted some dangers of online access for children as targeted marketing, commericalism and deception, but more importantly privacy issues and safety with regards to online exposure to sexualized content and contact by strangers. It is important to consider most school related access has some form of censorship, but many parents may not be as aware of the dangers during at home access.  While the internet provides a vast array of potential sources of both applications and material, it is mixed with potential dangers.

Application – Technology

Each of the following sections briefly discusses various technology applications, programs or websites to help support an inquiry-based learning in an online environment.  The lists are not exhaustive, but suggestions.

Learning Management Systems

Google Classroom

Google Classroom is a free web service, developed by Google for schools, that allows teachers to communicate with their students through comments and announcements.  It allows the user to create and add material, create assignments and more.  Google Classroom also allows for the sharing of files between teachers and students.


Similar to Google Classroom, a little less user-friendly, but does have more options – create forums for discussions.  Moodle allows the teacher to arrange the files in a more organized fashion.


Geared toward younger students, ClassDojo is a communication application intended to create a positive learning environment while informing parents.  The Class Dojo teacher page is broken into three areas: ‘Classroom’, ‘Class Story’, and ‘Messages’. The Class Story tab allows teachers to post photos and messages. The Messages tab gives teachers the opportunity to send direct and whole-class messages to parents. Students receive points depending on their behavior and the chosen class values.


Phet Interactive Simulations

Through the University of Colorado, Boulder, there are 158 science and math interactive simulations and 2119 teacher-submitted lesson plans.  Students do not need to register to use the simulations.  Teachers have access to resources and activities shared by the teacher community.

Science in Action!

Interactive science resources on a wide array of topics for both elementary and secondary school.  This website usually does require a paid subscription but is free during the Covid-19 crisis.

SimBucket Science Simulations

Available through the PBS Learning Media webpage, these are science simulations that are easy to understand for common scientific concepts.  This is a free resource that does not require the student to register. It also has a Google Classroom icon to link a simulation to your Google Classroom.

Online Conferencing

Google Meet

This app is conveniently found in Google Apps for Education and is available through students of Nova Scotia gnspes accounts.  This is a synchronous conferencing tool to meet with students (or colleagues) available for free.  An advantage of Google Meet is the ability to schedule a ‘meeting’ in Google Calendar.


Flipgrid is a video discussion platform where students create customizable video responses after carefully planning an answer to the question posed in the grid.  This app has the advantage of asynchronous conferencing, so students can post their response when they are ready.  Flipgrid also allows the teacher to add attachments, limit recording times of responses, and provide feedback to each student.

Adobe Connect

This application is more than just web conferencing, during the conferencing you can share videos, mp3s, and interactive components that allow students to participate in a poll, quiz, or online game or simulation.  The conference can be recorded and viewed by others at another time while still allowing the second-round viewer to participate in the interactive portion, download files or access videos.  This does not require an app installation download and can be accessed through a browser.  Adobe Connect has a 90-day free trial only.

Copyright and Privacy

Finally, when using online resources, copyright and privacy issues should be considered.  Copyright Matters!, found in all schools or online, is a book that answers some questions for teachers regarding copyright laws.  Provincial School Network Access and Use Policy for Nova Scotia (2016) and the Provincial Privacy of Student Information Policy (2016) should also be considered. Some apps cannot be used in Nova Scotia, as well as other provinces as they require an email login and password and the student information is stored outside of Canada. The access websites for some of the provincial education centres:




The inquiry-based learning approach lends to a natural progression to online learning as integrating technology is almost an expectation when discussing inquiry-based learning.  “Many researchers point out the importance of integrating technology, and recommend technology supported inquiry-based learning environments” Hakverdi-Can and Sonmez (2012).  There are many possible uses for technology in inquiry-based learning.  Saxena (2013) states, “learners can record information, organize ideas, assess, interact and collaborate with peers” (para. 2).  In the world today, now more than ever with the closure of schools due to Covid-19, it is necessary to discover possibilities to overcome the challenges related to online learning.  Learning management systems can be used to bridge the inquiry-based learning experiences with the online world and connect students with each other and their teachers.  Rather than a physical space, the learning management system provides a virtual space for courses to be organized, materials to be distributed, assignments and projects to be posted and even assessments to be performed.   Relationships and rapport can be built through participation in message boards, comments on the learning management system, forum boards, or in a synchronous environment that video-calling and virtual gathering spaces provide.  This supports real-time interaction for real-time communication and feedback for learners with their teachers and the larger community.  For science and mathematics, there are websites that provide simulations for various scientific topics which may also be used when applying math concepts.  Websites for inquiry-based learning lessons can be accessed by students but may require additional resources or supplies.  The ability for students to work both independently and in groups online supports the inquiry-based learning approach.  It creates an environment that provides students with an opportunity to learn to take responsibility for their own learning.  One problem that teachers often have, in a face to face or online environment is one student completing most of the work for a given cooperative learning group.  With the Google Apps for Education, the teacher can go back in the history and to determine each students’ contributions. The best solution for teachers who are not yet comfortable to be working in an online environment, professional development is key.  As for student skills, students would need to be taught basic computer skills.

Regarding access to technology and internet access, short of supplying those students with technological devices, as many schools have for our grade twelve students, this is a challenge with no solution.  Unfortunately, if only 70% of the provinces homes and businesses have access to reliable internet access, it is difficult to resolve that issue.


Adobe. (n.d.) AdobeConnect [Webpage]. Available at:

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Integration of Instructional Design and Technology to Support Rapid Change Copyright © 2020 by Corinne Pinhorn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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