Virtual and authentic web-based ecological inquiries and their impact on student learning
Inquiry-based learning can improve student learning and deepen their understanding of science and may be especially beneficial in the context of ecological education given the field-observational and experimental orientations of the discipline. Field-based inquiries are often not feasible in large introductory ecology courses or classes with limited access to suitable field sites. Both virtual learning environments and web-based inquiry settings can help overcome this difficulty. Virtual inquiries based on simulations can be attractive to today’s students who are used to video gaming. Web-based inquiries based on remote observations can also be engaging, especially with interesting ecological phenomena or charismatic organisms.
A virtual learning environment, Virtual Ecological Inquiry (VEI), in Second Life based on the ecology of Wolong Nature Reserve and a web-based authentic inquiry based on observations of bear behavior using remotely controlled cameras (BearCam) were developed. They were implemented in a large introductory ecology course for individual inquiry projects over a 4-week period coupled with online group discussions and Calibrated Peer Review and revision of the reports. Pre-test and post-test using Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning (Lawson 2000) and Test of Science-Related Attitudes (TOSRA; Fraser 1981) were conducted to assess the effects of the inquiry project experience on student learning and attitudes toward science. A post-project survey was also conducted for student self-assessment of their learning and feedback for the projects.
Students reported significant learning gains in interest in ecology, ability to formulate testable hypothesis, understanding how ecologists conduct research, and ability to evaluate quality of scientific report in both VEI and BearCam, except for interest in ecology for VEI. Students appeared to like BearCam project more than VEI project and gave the former significantly higher ratings on their learning and interests with the project as well as the overall rating of their experiences. However, no overall significant differences from pre to post on the Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning or the Test of Science-Related Attitudes in either VEI or BearCam. We suspect that the experience of one inquiry project might not be sufficient to result in significant change in scientific reasoning or attitude toward science for many students and the length of the tests might have caused test fatigue for some students. More in-depth analysis of the data and possible contributing factors are being conducted to explore possible explanations for the lack of significance in TOSRA and SR.