Threading Knowledge

When  elementary school students in Guilderland, N.Y., and Toronto,  Canada, studied human body systems, they took a new tack.

Hear More From Jianwei ZhangInstead of each class following its own traditional curriculum, the students conducted collaborative inquiries across classrooms and borders to learn about the brain, heart, muscles, nutrition, allergies and more.

“They were almost like a research network, with individuals specializing in certain body systems but all contributing their knowledge to the entire group,” said University at Albany researcher Jianwei Zhang, associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice.

In their collaborations, the students and their teachers used a tool, Idea Thread Mapper (ITM), created by Zhang and Mei-Hwa Chen of UAlbany’s Department of Computer Science. ITM traces and visualizes threads of ideas growing in extended online discussions.

The ITM tool expands students’ awareness of their community’s knowledge and idea connections, said Zhang, adding that students taking part in ITM-assisted collaborations also demonstrate a shared desire to “continually go deeper.”

Now Zhang is leading a team of researchers in a new project that is building on the ITM technology to create an even stronger infrastructure for online knowledge-building activities and extend it to an international network of classrooms.

Drawing on recent advances in learning analytics, the research team is working to integrate a set of automated analysis tools to discover productive idea threads based on online discourse data, trace student contributions, and nurture idea connections across classrooms. Elementary school teachers and students from Albany, Toronto and Singapore are participating in the project, which is being funded through a $1.34 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project’s research team includes Zhang’s UAlbany departmental colleagues and co-principal investigators Mei-Hwa Chen and Feng Chen; renowned learning scientists and co-principal investigators Carolyn Rosé of Carnegie Mellon University and Marlene Scardamalia of the University of Toronto; and UAlbany’s Siwei Lyu of Computer Science and Alan Oliveira and Yang Sun of Educational Theory and Practice.

“To prepare students for careers in the 21st century, it is critical to cultivate collaborative inquiry-based practices in our classrooms,” said Zhang.

Typically, collaborative classroom-learning activities are relatively short-term — a few hours or days — and are carried out by small groups, Zhang noted. The ITM tool and the new project are designed to support and foster knowledge-building interactions over multiple months or years and across larger groups of students.

“When we enable students to sustain and expand their collective inquiry month after month, we enhance their ability to build deep understanding of complex topics,” said Zhang. “And when we also enable students to engage in live interactions with partner classrooms around the globe, we further enrich and catalyze their knowledge-building conversations.”