Apps to Support Inquiry: Connect and Wonder

Lately, I’ve had two things on the brain, competing for space. The first: a deep dive into the Inquiry Cycle, particularly how the librarian-created Empire State Information Fluency Continuum jigsaws with the New York State-endorsed Researching to Deepen Understanding Units. The second: How to wade through the ocean of apps that seems to grow every day to find what I need when I need it, and know it’s the best option. Both concepts are so large, so time consuming, and so important, that I felt they deserved a post. The best way I know how to make sense of large topics is to break them into chunks–divide and conquer, if you will. To that end, I decided to take each step of the inquiry cycle (using a combination of the ESIFC and EngageNY/Odell Education models), and define apps that I believe would meet the objectives of each stage. I used this handy graphic organizer as my guide, which combines the two models into a single cycle.


Although they use different terms, and some would argue that the EngageNY/Odell model is a pale reflection of the more robust ESIFC Cycle, I submit that the intent is the same. Politics and advocacy aside, in the end, it’s about research, and making sure our kiddos know how to do it–and do it well–while fulfilling the charge to infuse technology in a purposeful and seamless way.

I wanted to further break down this examination by grade level: what works for elementary students to curate and create information is unequivocally NOT the same as what works for high school. The easiest piece of the inquiry cycle to populate with apps, at least in my opinion, is the “construct” phase (ESIFC), or “deepening understanding” (EngageNY). So naturally, I didn’t allow myself to start there. Instead, I started with “Construct/Wonder”, or “Initiating Inquiry”. While wading through apps, I asked myself: How can our students find meaningful research topics? What would spark and ignite inquiry?
Here’s a small selection of apps that fit the bill.

Wonderopolis: Wonderopolis presents a “Wonder of the Day”. Previous days are archived and available. The format: an intriguing question is posed, followed by a short explanatory text, vocabulary words, related media, and sources for students that are “Still Wondering”. This could be a great jumping off point for exploring new topics.
Audience: Elementary, Middle School
Cost: Free

VoiceThread:  While this app is multipurpose and can be used for students to demonstrate knowledge, I also think it could be effectively used to generate conversation around a common topic. A teacher could post an image like the one below from Historical Stock Photos, then invite students to brainstorm questions, share background knowledge, and hypothesize/predict what they’ll find out about the topic. A great guide for how to get started with using VoiceThread in the classroom is available here.
Audience: Elementary, Middle School
Cost: Free

TED: Is there anything more interesting to watch than the ubiquitous TED Talks? Maybe that’s the librarian in me, hungry for new and interesting content, but I’m wild for these videos. On the app, you can sort by “Recent” or “Popular”, filter by subject, or search. My favorite inquiry-inspiring tool? The “Inspire Me” button (which acts like Google’ “I’m Feeling Lucky”) that delivers a serendipitous, randomly selected video for you to watch, defined by the emotion you want delivered and your preferred length of time. Longer time = more choices. Perfect for those students that chronically say, “I don’t know what I want to research”.
Audience: High School 

Reading Rainbow: Users can explore different “islands”, from National Geographic Kids, “Awesome People”, “Genius Academy”, “Action Adventures and Magic Tales”,  “Animal Kingdom”, “My Friends, My Family”, and “Happy Birthday, Reading Rainbow”. Each island has books and videos. Not all books are non-fiction. Theoretically, you could pre-select 5 free books, and students could peruse these titles to find a subject that interests them. Subscribers can have up to 5 children per account (on iTunes); the website indicates that pricing for schools and libraries are being worked on for 2014.
Audience: Elementary
Cost: 5 free books per “family”; $9.99/month or $29.99 for 6 months for unlimited access.

Access My Library (Gale): If you are in New York–you have access to a number of Gale databases for FREE through the NOVEL NY program. Outside of NY, you would need to purchase Gale databases for this app to work effectively. With access, this app is incredible! While use of databases is often relegated to the “Investigate” or “Gathering Information” phase of inquiry, this app has some great tools for discovering paths of inquiry. On the Home Page of many of the databases, you can find links to popular articles and searches. On the Opposing Viewpoints database, there are featured videos and news, as well as a set of topics by subject area that are a perfect starting point for defining a topic of interest.
Audience: Middle School, High School (Elementary could use Kids Infobits in a similar way by diving into the visual Subject areas, but this may be too unstructured depending on your individual class)
Cost: Free

BrainPOP/BrainPOP Jr: As an elementary librarian, I love love LOVED using BrainPOP with my students. Something about that robot Moby just grabs kids’ interest like nothing else, and the way the BrainPOP videos can explain complicated content in a simple, accessible way is nothing short of elegant.
Audience: Elementary, Middle School…could be used with High School depending on your audience
Cost: Subscribers to the BrainPop service have access to all content, but both BrainPOP and BrainPOP Jr. feature a free movie of the week. Lucky for those of you in the Broome-Tioga School Library System: if you subscribe to the Media Library, you already have a subscription to BrainPOP/BrainPOP Jr., and BrainPOP ESL.

iTunes U: Holy wow, I can’t believe I’ve missed this resource for so long. Organized like the app store, students and teachers can filter by category/subject area, level, and language. There are “top charts” of courses and collections, as well as standout/new and notable courses. My favorite? The Primary Sources Collection. Gorgeous!
Audience: This one feels pretty-High School leaning. There’s absolutely Elementary and Middle School-appropriate content, but it requires pre-selection/scaffolding as the search tools and sheer volume of content could be overwhelming for younger students.
Cost: Free

I would also suggest looking into newsfeed apps, such as Flipboard, Feedly, NPR for iPad, or BBC News as an exploration tool for students–there’s several good options, so students can benefit from choosing the interface that works best for them. Subject-specific apps, like those selected for AASL’s Best Apps for Teaching and Learning 2013, might also serve well for research inspiration.

While my starting point for this post was the Apple App Store, most of these apps have an accompanying website, and are often available cross-platform. Disclaimer: This is not exhaustive–that’s a job for crowdsourcing (hint, hint). Have you used apps with your students to jump-start inquiry? I’d love to hear your suggestions and add to these recommendations!

Next Up: Apps to Support Inquiry: Investigate


4 thoughts on “Apps to Support Inquiry: Connect and Wonder

  1. I really love your inquiry cycle infographic. Is there any way we can get a pdf or copy of this? (Please and thank you!)

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