Author: Jianwei Zhang

Teachers and students from Slingerlands Elementary School presented their creative classroom work to Bethlehem Board of Education

Over the past two years, we have been collaborating with Slingerlands Elementary School to test technology-supported innovations to engage students in year-long scientific inquiry. This research has led to deep changes in science, which have further spread to ELA, social studies, and even classroom management.

(our presentation starts at 13:00)

A Productive Summer Institute with Collaborating Teachers!

Our lab held a productive summer institute with our collaborating teachers from Guilderland Elementary School and Slingerlands Elementary School on June 28 and 30. The theme of this year is Building Deep Connections for Deep Inquiry across Classrooms. Our collaborating teachers shared their classroom advances achieved in the past year to  implement student-driven collaborative knowledge building over a whole school year in a set of eight Grade 5 classrooms.  Students took on high-level responsibility for structuring the inquiry goals and processes as they pursued deepening questions and ideas in core scientific areas (e.g. human body systems, ecology). They further shared idea progress through writing “Super Notes” that presented their journeys of inquiry. Their knowledge building practices have spread to their ELA and social studies. Two teachers from the knowledge building network of Singapore headed by Dr. Chew Lee Teo presented their innovative classroom work through videoconferencing. Building on the research advances and classroom inventions of the previous years, our collaborative team will further refine and integrate our two key design elements with the support of Idea Thread Mapper in the coming year: (a) co-structuring of deepening inquiry goals and processes for sustained advancement of understanding in each classroom and (b) cross-classroom interaction through “Super Notes” and “Super Talks.” A network of classrooms from multiple nations will work together to investigate core scientific challenges facing the world today.


Our Project Video “Inquiry across Classrooms” Included in the NSF STEM for All 2017 Showcase

In current practices, inquiry learning is often organized as short and scattered activities in individual classrooms. This research explores ways to support sustained inquiry and dialogue across classrooms. We tested a multi-layer interaction design: As students engage in focused inquiry and discourse within their own classroom’s online space, they review productive threads of ideas generated from their work and create “super note” reflection for cross-classroom sharing. The “super notes” serve as “boundary-crossing objects,” which focus on synthesizing the unfolding journey of inquiry using four scaffolds: Our research topic and problem(s)…, We used to think…, now we understand…, We need deeper research…  We upgraded Idea Thread Mapper to include a cross-community interaction space to support  inquiry and discourse across classrooms.

Following the multi-layer interaction design, a set of buddy classrooms from Albany, NY and Toronto, ON participated in collaborative knowledge building in shared scientific areas. Students used the “super notes” from other classroom as a resource to advance their inquiry, including those written by the previous student cohorts. Students found it highly motivating and rewarding to put their ideas in broader and actual use by other classrooms. Comparing the themes and depths of the inquiry work of different classrooms triggered deep reflection on their own inquiry. Students further adopted questions and ideas from other classrooms to develop integrated understanding.

We are developing an international network of inquiry classrooms. Students from Asia, Canada, and the US, will engage in collaborative inquiry of challenging issues facing the world today and accumulate a shared knowledge base over time.

Our research project was spotlighted at the NSF Video Showcase event: “Advancing STEM Learning For All: Sharing Cutting Edge Work and Community Discourse” (May 17-23, 2016)

Connecting Idea Threads for Sustained Inquiry and Discourse:

This project aims to enable student-directed, sustained knowledge building by which ideas are continually developed, built upon, and refined, giving rise to shared goals and structures to guide their deepening work. Current collaborative online environments support interactive discourse, but lack effective means to representing collective landscape and progress in long-term, distributed discourse. The lack of collective structural representations makes it difficult for students to monitor and deepen their collective work over time and share discourse progress with other communities.

This NSF Cyberlearning project created Idea Thread Mapper (ITM) to help students monitor what is going on in extended online discourse in order to share progress and formulate collective directions for deeper inquiry. Interoperating with Knowledge Forum and potentially other platforms, ITM profiles unfolding trajectories of discourse as “idea threads,” each of which includes a series of discourse entries that investigate a shared epistemic object (e.g. batteries).

Supported by automated topic modeling and discourse tagging tools, students create and map out their idea threads to reflect on what their community is investigating, with what progress and gaps. They further selectively share productive idea threads with other classrooms for idea sharing, build-on, and collaboration.

Research suggests that young students (Grades 3, 5 and 6) are able to use the ITM tool to formulate productive lines of inquiry for sustained knowledge building. Our undergoing research tests ITM-enabled designs for students to access and build on the productive idea threads of other communities, including those from the previous school years for sustained build-on.

New NSF Cyberlearning DIP grant: Connect Idea Threads Across Communities for Sustained Knowledge Building

Our Design and Implement proposal (DIP) submitted to NSF’s Cyberlearning program has been funded. This new four-year grant with a total funding of $1.34 million will develop a macro-layer collaborative platform for connecting idea threads across different communities. Drawing on recent advances of learning analytics, we will integrate a set of automated analysis tools to discover productive idea threads based on online discourse data, trace student contributions, and nurture idea connections. These technological innovations will enable new pedagogy to support knowledge-building discourse across communities and across time, connecting communities into a shared field in which shared bases of knowledge co-advance with each other and across communities (e.g., across classes addressing similar issues; across years of school).

See more information: award abstract from NSF; or the project page.

This project was highlighted in UAlbany’s news release , Times Union news, abc News10.

Dr. Jianwei Zhang gave an invited speech at ICCE 2013 about principle-based design for creative knowledge practices


Inquiry-based learning practices to cultivate creative knowledge work currently rely on prescriptive designs that pre-specify a set of procedures to generate preset outcomes, with limited creative engagement of teachers and students in the design process. In his invited speech at the 21st International Conference on Computers in Education (ICCE) held in Bali Indonesia, Dr. Jianwei Zhang presented an adaptive, principle-based approach to learning design to support dynamic group flow that is essential to creative knowledge work. The teacher engages in opportunistic planning of inquiry processes and co-improvise with students as their idea-centered work unfolds in light of a set of primary principles. Structures of activities are not pre-set, but emerge from and  are “materialized” in practice. This principle-based approach sheds light on new designs of technology to leverage idea-centered group flow, feedback on progress, and inform deeper opportunities for sustained knowledge building. 

Idea Thread Mapper (ITM) Released in Both English and Chinese

Funded by a NSF Cyberlearning research grant,  Drs. Jianwei Zhang, Mei-Hwa Chen, and their team recently created a timeline-based collective knowledge mapping tool– Idea Thread Mapper (ITM). It can help members of knowledge building communities to engage in formative  reflection on idea progress in extended online discourse. Each line of inquiry focusing on a shared principal theme is represented as an idea thread, extending from the first to the last discourse entry. Reflecting on the diverse, unfolding idea threads  helps students to understand the conceptual landscape of their collaborative work and envision opportunities for deeper contribution and collaboration. We have been testing ITM-aided collaborative reflection in Grade 3 and 5/6 classrooms in Canada, China, and Albany, NY,  with positive impact on sustained knowledge building.

Users of any Knowledge Forum (KF) database can access ITM from within KF or through the following ITM portal, using their KF username and password.

English version

Chinese version

For more info, see: ITM: Idea Thread Mapper