Supporting Community Inquiry with Digital Resources

Ann Peterson Bishop, Bertram C. Bruce, Karen J. Lunsford*, M. Cameron Jones, Muzhgan Nazarova, David Linderman, Mihye Won, P. Bryan Heidorn, Rajeev Ramprakash and André Brock
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
501 E. Daniel St. Champaign, IL 61801, USA
Email:; Web: Inquiry Page project
*Writing Program, South Hall 1520 University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3010, USA


Today there are a number of fields that address the need to develop better means of employing information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help communities achieve their goals. Digital infrastructure and repositories are widely created to support the activities of educational, workplace, and scientific communities, as well as virtual communities of interest that may center on topics as diverse as entertainment, crisis management, and health. However, the research and development of ICTs faces numerous challenges. Community inquiry theory can help address some of these challenges. The Inquiry Page project supports a set of ICTs that have been developed by a community of inquiry in order to support communities of inquiry. The paper presents the theory of community inquiry and illustrates how inquiry theory can influence the research and development of ICTs and their adoption and use within real communities.

1 Introduction

Today there are a number of fields that address the need to develop better means of employing information and communication technologies (ICTs) to help communities achieve their goals. Digital infrastructure and repositories are widely created to support the activities of educational, workplace, and scientific communities, as well as virtual communities of interest that may center on topics as diverse as entertainment, crisis management, and health. Such work draws from fields that include computer-supported cooperative work and digital libraries. Community networking (Schuler 1996) and community informatics (Bieber et al. 2002) are devoted to the application of ICTs to the social, economic, and cultural goals of geographic or place-based communities, whether urban neighborhoods or rural villages or something in between.

Looking holistically at the intersection of communities with ICTs, the primary challenges faced are:

Meeting these challenges is crucial as we work to address community aspirations, capabilities, and problems. We are contributing to this effort through the Inquiry Page project. Our work is rooted in the conceptual framework of inquiry, which views knowledge as communally constructed, connected with everyday experience, and melding creativity and critical thinking in a cycle of active learning (Kennedy 1996).

This paper illustrates how inquiry can help shape ICT research and practice within communities, offering one approach to the four challenges of theory, tools, open process, and reflective action.

2 Community inquiry theory

Community inquiry theory is rooted in pragmatism, a tradition of philosophy and social action that rose to prominence at the turn of the century in the work of Charles S. Peirce, William James, John Dewey and Jane Addams. Peirce (1868) argued that human inquiry requires a cooperative community of minds and has a public character (Shields 1999). Dewey wrote extensively about the way knowledge is shaped through the active engagement of diverse perspectives within a community: "Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common" (Dewey 1916). As Glassman (2001) notes, the "disturbed equilibrium" that occurs when knowledge held by diverse individuals comes into contact--and conflicts--is the necessary grounding for true learning and change in a democratic society.

In his voluminous writings, John Dewey developed and applied his theory of inquiry in a wide range of arenas, including aesthetics, public policy, psychology, and education. There is a social context to inquiry learning in that students need opportunities to share new ideas (Pappas 2000). In his discussion of the relation between the learner and the curriculum, Dewey (1902) describes a learner's four primary interests:

Thus, inquiry-based learning is often described as a cycle or spiral, involving the formulation of a question, investigation, creation of an appropriate solution or answer, discussion, and reflection on the outcome.

A community of inquiry helps each of its members think critically, creatively, compassionately, and effectively, which often leads to both individual and collective action, discussion, and further analysis of puzzling questions and phenomena (Turgeon 1998). Communities of inquiry are characterized by mutual cooperation, open-ended questions, building upon a range of viewpoints in an environment where all ideas are respected, and taking responsibility to think for oneself (Splitter 1997).

A contemporary and friend of Dewey, Jane Addams gave full expression to inquiry as democratic social action. She moved democracy beyond a narrow political interpretation to an all-encompassing way of life in which participation was the right and duty of all members of society. Hull-House, the settlement house Addams founded in Chicago in 1889, provided a living example of how recent immigrants, academics, and well-educated citizens could learn and live together. Addams unleashed a moral vision of inquiry in which peace and justice were admitted to the realm of research (Elshtain 2002). With ameliorization of critical social problems as their ultimate aim, Hull-House residents collaborated with people from all walks of life in conducting studies that gathered and reported data on child labor, the spread of disease in tenement housing, and other issues of the day. Study results were used to influence policy and develop programs and services to address entrenched problems in urban life.

Community inquiry theory encompasses the creation of knowledge in all its guises, including activities that we often conceptualize as separate processes, and typically call "research", "learning", "science", and "study". Greenwood and Levin (1998) portray Dewey's conception of inquiry as the belief that "scientific research is not a process separate from democratic social action" and that all knowledge is a product of "continuous cycles of action and reflection" whose "center of gravity is always the learner's active pursuit of puzzle solving activity with the materials at hand". Dewey, according to Greenwood and Levin (p. 74), believed that "all humans are scientists, that thought must not be separated from action, that the diversity of human communities is one of their most powerful features (if harnessed to democratic processes), and that academic institutions in general and academic social research in particular promotes neither science nor democratic social action".

Extending the tradition of pragmatist theory, we are striving to develop ICTs to support community inquiry. Our ICT research aims to produce outcomes relevant to diverse participants across a variety of learning situations. We are especially concerned with engaging in collaborative inquiry with those who live on the economic, cultural, or linguistic margins of mainstream ICT development processes. Drawing on the tenets and concepts of community inquiry, we conceive of the design of digital infrastructure to be itself a democratic and mutually supportive process in which all stakeholders can learn from one another in a respectful environment. If digital repositories truly represent inquiry communities, they must span boundaries and build capacities for integrating digital resources into active learning, and facilitate communication among all inquiry participants.

How can inquiry form a conceptual and practical framework for the design and evaluation of ICTs to achieve a community's goals? In fostering shared inquiry that tears down traditional boundaries of race, class, gender, economic privilege, and institutional power bases, community inquiry provides us with the opportunity to pursue new questions about digital repositories and infrastructure. For example, how can we craft ICTs that promote the establishment and maintenance of vibrant inquiry around a community's (interest- or place-based) assets and problems? How can ICTs help build relationships based on equitable participation and trust among all members of a community? How can we support collaborative research on community informatics that will lead to more accurate findings and theories because they are inclusive of the situations, experiences, and perspectives of the full range of society? How can we provide for mutual learning in the realm of digital repositories, giving researchers the opportunity to inform their work by collaborating with people from all walks of life in developing theories and experimenting with practice?

3 Creating digital tools for community inquiry

The Inquiry Page project is simultaneously a Web site, a community of learners, and a locus for collaborative knowledge construction (Bruce and Bishop 2002). We are building an array of tools, including digital resources (e.g. curriculum and action plans) and infrastructure (e.g. Web-based discussion forums), collaborative structures (e.g. workshops and partnerships with other groups and projects), and ideas about how ICTs can support inquiry-based learning and action. These tools aid the processes of inquiry, but also represent the outcome of collaborative work. Participants find solutions that work in one setting, and then adapt them to other situations. In this way, people become active agents in creating their own technologies. Thus, the conception of technology within the Inquiry Page project is not of a finished tool to be delivered to users, with training in its components and guidelines for its application, but rather, of an environment in which users create the technologies appropriate to their situations and their needs. This exemplifies what has been called "pragmatic technology" (Hickman 1990), a term we use to capture several notions. One is the common language notion of technology that works to meet real human needs, accommodates to users, and is situated in time, place, and setting. The second is a conception of technology from pragmatist theory, in which technology is the means for resolving a problematic situation. The latter sees technologies as both means of action and forms of understanding, drawing on philosophical and historical work such as that of Dewey and Addams, as well as more recent research on the social uses and implications of technologies.

Currently the Inquiry Page Web site serves approximately one million page views per year. There are no fees or requirements associated with use, beyond completing a simple user registration form by entering, at minimum, your name and email address. At the Web site, in addition to finding articles, presentations, bibliographies and other content related to inquiry, anyone can access and use a variety of ICT applications, each of which has grown out of users solving problems within their own domains. These include:

Users create Inquiry Units, quotes and calendar entries, and member profiles by filling out simple forms on the Inquiry Page Web site. No knowledge of HTML coding is needed, nor do users have to install any software on their own computers. Whatever digital resources people create reside on the Inquiry Page, so users do not have to acquire or maintain their own server space. This allows users with limited computing resources and expertise to create Web-based environments to support the activities of their inquiry communities.

Thus, the Inquiry Page Web site provides a digital infrastructure and repository that has been built by and for the activities of many different inquiry communities. By integrating the Inquiry Units, member profiles, etc., the Inquiry Page serves as an information repository and a central collaboration space where inquiry communities gather and share their ideas and expertise. People use the infrastructure to create content and foster communication and collaboration for their own particular inquiry community. In the process, what they create becomes part of the Web site and, if the original creators choose, visible to other Inquiry Page Web site users. In effect, each user contributes to the growth of the larger community of inquiry, and to the development of understanding about inquiry and how it works, by sharing their inquiry experiences with others.

Our pragmatic technology approach to developing ICTs for community inquiry has led to a second stage of digital tool development within the Inquiry Page project, called "community inquiry laboratories", or simply "iLabs". Community iLabs provide a more flexible way to incorporate digital inquiry infrastructure and repositories within the context and practices of individual communities. They also represent a significant expansion of ICT applications from those previously available at the Inquiry Page Web site. For this new initiative, we chose the word "Community" to emphasize support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge that is connected to people's values, history, and lived experiences. "Inquiry" points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement; and "Laboratory" points to learning that brings theory and action together in an experimental and critical manner. iLabs are a Web-based suite of open source software tools that one can draw from to construct an interactive Web site, the type of "community, content, and collaboration management system" described by Schneider et al. (2002). People create iLabs on-the-fly and on their own, to support inquiry activities within and among groups. In other words, iLabs provide people with the means to bring Inquiry Page resources into individual, distributed, customized Web sites that they design and control themselves.

Following the same basic principles associated with use of the Inquiry Page Web site, any user can create an iLab--at no cost and without HTML coding, software installation or owning or maintaining server space--by filling out a Web form that includes checking-off which iLab "bricks" or tools to include in their Web site. Currently available iLab bricks include:

Other bricks are under development, including a calendar, lab notebook, wiki (an application that allows a group of users to collaboratively and directly edit Web site content using a regular Web browser) and a catalog tool. iLabs have been adapted by people from all walks of life, to support different kinds of inquiry activities, including: neighborhood activism, university courses, research projects, committee work, K-12 education, conference presentations, developing international professional associations, and art projects.

For example, iLab technology is currently being used to construct the online collaboratory for the NSF-funded Center for Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems (CAMPWS). The CAMPWS collaboratory will link researchers, teachers, students, community members, government, and industry in learning about the science, technology, and policy of water purification. It will emphasize active involvement, communication across groups, and building on the diversity of backgrounds and interests of all participants. One of the most critical needs for collaborative inquiry around water quality is to engage researchers and citizens in investigations devoted to improving water quality in those places where the environment and health of living beings are in extreme danger. Water quality problems must be articulated, and solutions made workable, in the local communities where they play out. For instance, a recent news report on a research project carried out in rural villages around Bangladesh related the finding that material from well-worn saris (women's dresses) supplied a filtering material that worked better in reducing cholera than the nylon mesh that microbiologists had developed (Recer 2003). Another key need in the CAMPWS project is to develop a more diverse base of university students who will become the next generation of water researchers. To help address this need, iLabs are being created to support engaging summer educational camps for underserved high school students.

Each inquiry community adopts and adapts iLab software to suit its own needs and activities. A county-wide blue ribbon environmental panel employed the iLab bulletin board brick to survey residents regarding several proposed environmental plans. A cross-campus initiative is using the Inquiry Unit brick for undergraduates to conduct and report ethnographic studies of the university itself. A doctoral student is using the iLab document center to organize and share with his committee various drafts and instruments associated with his dissertation work. An artist is experimenting with an iLab to create an international gallery of children's art and poetry around the theme of seeds. In addition to collecting such scenarios of iLab use, we have gathered basic usage data on the Inquiry Page and iLabs. Between 2001 and May 2004, over 3,300 individuals registered as members of the Inquiry Page, representing 50 different countries. As of May 2004, 490 (about 15%) of the Inquiry Page members are using iLabs. About 330 iLabs are actively used, representing about 50 iLab sessions a day on average and serving groups ranging in size from a single individual to 68 registered members. Over 400 iLabs have been created since November 2003.

4 Open process for ICT capacity development

The Inquiry Page project supports engagement in inquiry processes around ICTs by defining learning not as training but as participation. Newcomers to a field of inquiry--whether history, agriculture, urban development, art, or computing--are often frustrated by the gap between their ordinary experience and the codified knowledge of a discipline of study. Dewey (1938) argued that this gap widens when people reify disciplinary knowledge, viewing it as static and different from the knowledge gained through daily living. If, instead, we could see a discipline as representing the ongoing processes of a community of inquiry, then the conflict between personal, situated knowledge and historically-constituted, communal knowledge would become a matter of integrating perspectives and not of choosing one over the other.

Participation in the Inquiry Page project is itself a form of learning, where democratic knowledge sharing among diverse participants is crucial and everyone simultaneously learns and shares their expertise. We have found that by framing our collective work in developing the Inquiry Page as a process of mutual learning, we are able to make more productive use of the diverse and sometimes conflicting knowledge held by the teachers, students, university researchers, librarians, parents, and community activists who are both creators and users of Inquiry Page infrastructure and resources.

An important aspect of democratic knowledge sharing is that diverse stakeholders work together to explore the possibilities and limits of technologies, in an atmosphere in which the expertise of each contributor, from a university student paid as an Inquiry Page programmer, to a teen who is posting her poetry to an iLab set up in her high school, is recognized. The Inquiry Page project promotes the idea that even its own structures and beliefs need continual reexamination. Inquiry "bricks", the software applications created to support communities of inquiry, are themselves developed through a process of participative inquiry and peer production, in which users collaborate with developers in an iterative cycle of questioning, investigating, creating, discussing, and reflecting. Instead of the more traditional sequence of design, then build, then use, we reverse the process. While it sounds counterintuitive, we have found the "use, build, design" approach to be highly effective. People are welcome to use whatever versions of whatever bricks are currently available. Through utilizing Inquiry Page tools and resources in the context of their actual communities and situations, users are then able to provide well-grounded design insights that are employed to build new versions of bricks and brand new bricks. Also crucial to the open process is that users and designers are not really separated into two distinct classes; rather, all are participants in an active community of inquiry around the creation of ICTs to support community, collaboration, and content management. Each participant has unique perspectives to contribute; each participant also learns and benefits in a unique way.

Specific mechanisms that we use to support participative inquiry in system design, development, deployment, and assessment include weekly meetings that are open to all, and include project management activities, technical discussion, and open lab time. Meetings can be attended in person or via a voice conference call or video conferencing. We have also developed a standard format for hands-on Inquiry Page workshops. These begin with an overview of inquiry theory and a demonstration of the Inquiry Page tools. The next segment guides participants through experimentation with the creation of their own iLabs. Finally, workshop participants come together to share and reflect on what they have constructed and learned. Another important strategy we employ involves identifying activities and situations of iLab use (such as classroom teaching, neighborhood activism, and research projects) that are open to participation from members of the Inquiry Page project. Through creating iLabs as open source software products, we also invite worldwide collaboration in their development.

Participation in developing ICTs for community inquiry is further fostered through the malleability of Inquiry Page bricks, which users can customize in variety of ways. An Inquiry Unit that represents a history lesson plan created by a third grade teacher, for example, could be "spun off" and revised by a high school teacher to make it more appropriate for older students. The variety of genres of Inquiry Units that people have created, such as lesson plans, community action plans, meeting minutes, research reports, recipes, journal entries, and policy statements, also reflect the malleability of the basic template and the creativity of users who continually expand upon the genres they find in the existing database of Units in order to suit their own inquiries.

5 Reflective action

The open process that girds the development of Inquiry Page tools and resources demands the establishment of productive relationships among its diverse participants. These relationships range from episodic encounters, such as a single workshop or classroom visit, to more enduring collaborations. We especially seek out collaborations with groups that share our ethos of action and critical reflection, providing a fertile ground for inquiry-based ICT development. For example, SisterNet is a network of African American women based in Champaign-Urbana, IL, that is committed to nurturing healthy lifestyles and community activism. SisterNet women, led by Imani Bazzell, have envisioned a new model for Black women's organizing in which action, learning, and support circles are dedicated to creating wholeness and balance through physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual health. SisterNet also sees its efforts as an essential part of a political strategy to resist oppression and shape livable communities. For the past several years, SisterNet has been a key participant in the collaborative effort to build iLabs software. Through the Afya project (Bishop et al. 2001, Bishop et al. 2003), SisterNet members were responsible for co-designing the very first iLab, which helped them, in turn, increase their ability to harness ICTs for their local learning and action projects.

The collaborative development process began when a small group of women (SisterNet members, university faculty and students who were familiar with the Inquiry Page project, and librarians) gathered to plan a workshop for the SisterNet Spiritual Health Conference that would promote learning about both computers and spiritual health. The women created an Inquiry Unit which SisterNet women could modify to create personal spiritual health plans. Participants in the planning session found Web resources related to Black women's spiritual health for the "investigate" section of the Inquiry Unit, and together they crafted the Unit's instructions for creating, discussing, and reflecting on a personal health plan. Afya participants worked together in this case to design how existing Inquiry Page bricks could be used to support the type of action and change important to SisterNet women: creating health plans that included their commitments to small everyday activities that would improve their spiritual health.

It was the critical reflection on the limitations of the Inquiry Page for SisterNet women, however, that helped spur the creation of the iLab concept. After trying out the use of Inquiry Units in their Spiritual Health Conference, SisterNet women noted the academic terminology of the Inquiry Units and indeed, the entire Inquiry Page Web site (e.g. language about grade levels and school subjects) was not appropriate for their community-action project. SisterNet proposed integrating Inquiry Page modules, like the events calendar and Inquiry Unit generator, directly into their own Web site, so that SisterNet women could work from within a single environment that would bear the stamp of their preferences and practices. This environment would use their favorite color (purple), include elements of African design, present instructions written in their own voice, allow them to view either content they create or content created by all Inquiry Page members, and describe the process of inquiry with examples drawn from community action and personal development, rather than classroom education. Sustained experimentation and reflection on the fit between the Inquiry Page Web site and the inquiry activities of SisterNet helped us convert a loosely scaffolded Web space into a Web place--a site that acquires the distinctive characteristics that best accommodate a specific group's needs (Burbules 2002).

One of the iLab bricks currently under development, the catalog tool, provides another illustration of the role of reflective action with actual communities in creating ICTs. The catalog tool arises from our collaboration with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) in Chicago's Humboldt Park. The PRCC is guided by a philosophy of self-actualization and critical thought, self-determination, and self-reliance. It has served for 30 years as a galvanizing force in this low-resource neighborhood, supporting residents' action around local issues such as cultural preservation, economic development, gang violence, AIDS, teen pregnancy, racism, and lack of educational opportunities. Beginning in 2003, Inquiry Page project members joined forces with neighborhood activists in the PRCC to create the Paseo Boricua Community Library Project. The project represents an active community of inquiry that is experimenting with a "street academy" where at-risk youth are learning librarianship and computing, including how to catalog the PRCC's collections of books, art and artifacts, and human rights network archives, in order to make them available to the public for the first time.

Street academy participants are collaborating with Inquiry Page programmers to develop a Web-based catalog application that will be added to the suite of iLab tools for others to use. The NSF CAMPWS project intends to adapt the catalog tool to suit its own need to disseminate structured information about its affiliates' scientific instruments and engineering equipment. Work on the catalog tool contributes to community inquiry and informatics theory and practice by providing new understandings of how people from all walks of life can work together across distance, time, and radically different institutions to learn together and achieve shared goals.

6 Conclusion

The Inquiry Page project offers one approach to the four challenges of theory, tools, open process, and reflective action as we work toward developing digital infrastructure and repositories to support communities. While we have much to learn about how ICTs can foster meaningful knowledge creation and sharing within diverse communities, an approach that positions people as active participants in collaborative inquiry, rather than as makers and recipients of tools and knowledge constructed outside authentic situations of use, is one path for developing productive and democratic relationships around digital resources.


Community Inquiry Lab development is supported in part by the National Science Foundation Center for Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems (WaterCAMPWS), under agreement #CTS-0120978.


Bieber, M., Civille, R., Gurstein, M. and White, N.

(2002) "A White Paper Exploring Research Trends and Issues in the Emerging Field of Community Informatics", November

Bishop, A. P., Bazzell, I., Mehra, B. and Smith, C. (2001) "Afya: Social and Digital Technologies That Reach Across the Digital Divide". First Monday, Vol. 6, No. 4

Bishop, A. P., Mehra, B., Bazzell, I. and Smith, C. (2003) "Participatory Action Research and Digital Libraries: Reframing Evaluation". In Digital Library Use: Social Practice in Design and Evaluation, edited by Ann Peterson Bishop, Nancy A. Van House, and Barbara P. Buttenfield (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), pp. 161-189

Bruce, B. C. and Bishop, A. P. (2002) "Using the Web to Support Inquiry-based Literacy Development". Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Vol. 45, No.8, 706-714

Burbules, N. C. (2002) "The Web as a Rhetorical Place". In Silicon Literacies: Communication, Innovation and Education in the Electronic Age, edited by I. Snyder (London: Routledge), pp. 75-84

Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and Education (New York: Macmillan)

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: MacMillan), pp. 4f

Dewey, J. (1902) The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Elshtain, J. B. (ed.) (2002) The Jane Addams Reader (New York: Basic Books)

Glassman, M. (2001) "Dewey and Vygotsky: Society, Experience, and Inquiry in Educational Practice". Educational Researcher, Vol. 30, No. 4, 3-14

Greenwood, D. J. and Levin, M. (1998) Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage)

Hickman, L. A. (1990) John Dewey's Pragmatic Technology (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press)

Kennedy, D. (1996) "Forming Communities of Inquiry in Early Childhood Classrooms". Early Child Development and Care, Vol. 120, No. 1, 1-15

Pappas, M. (2000) "Managing the Inquiry Learning Environment". School Library Media Activities Monthly, Vol. 16, No. 7, 27-30

Peirce, C. S. (1868) "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities Claimed for Man". Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Vol. 2, 140-157

Recer, P. (2003) "Filtering Water Through Old Saris Can Halve Cholera Cases: Study". C-Health News, January 13 

Schneider, D., Frété, C., and Synteta, P. (2002) "Community, Content and Collaboration Management Systems: Socio-constructivist Scenarios for the Masses?" Ed Media 2002

Schuler, D. (1996) New Community Networks: Wired for Change (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley)

Shields, P. (1999) "The Community of Inquiry: Insights for Public Administration from Jane Addams, John Dewey and Charles S. Peirce". Presented at the Public Administration Theory Network, Portland Oregon, March 23-25

Splitter, L. (1997) "Some Reflections on Inquiry, Community and Philosophy". Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Vol. 17, No. 1, 29-39

Turgeon, W. C. (1998) "Metaphysical Horizons of Philosophy for Children". Presented at the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, MA, August 10-15


Center for Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems (CAMPWS)

iLabs home page, lists inquiry activities

Inquiry Page project