Community Inquiry and Informatics: Collaborative Learning through ICT
Ann Peterson Bishop
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign < email@example.com >
Bertram C. Bruce
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign < firstname.lastname@example.org >
M. Cameron Jones
Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign < email@example.com >
This paper presents the integration of community informatics with the theory and practice of community inquiry, describing community-based projects in which people simultaneously learn about their community and the production and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).
Studies of learning and human-computer interaction have often focused on settings and practices that are relatively fixed and well-defined, such as a college-level course, a workgroup in a company, or a museum exploration. These studies have contributed much to our understanding of the potential and the problems associated with incorporating computers into collaborative practice. They have also contributed to the analysis of how learning happens in a wide range of settings. However, such well-defined situations represent but a small portion of realities that are relevant to the field of community informatics (CI),which aims to understand how information and communication technologies (ICTs) are employed to help communities achieve their goals (Gurstein, 2004; Keeble & Loader, 2001). When viewed from the perspective of learning in communities, we see the challenge facing CI in the form of four research questions:
- How do people learn within communities?
- How do communities themselves learn?
- What tools facilitate learning within communities?
- How can communities develop shared capacity in the form of knowledge, skills, and tools?
Our work is grounded in the philosophy of American pragmatism, which rose to prominence at the end of the 19th century and introduced the theory and practice of what we call community inquiry into a range of fields, including aesthetics, education, social work, law and public citizenship (Menand, 2001). Developed most fully in the work of John Dewey, community inquiry is based on the premise that if individuals are to understand and create solutions for problems in complex systems, they need opportunities to engage with challenging questions, to learn through participative investigations situated in everyday experiences, to articulate their ideas to others, and to make use of a variety of resources in multiple media. These processes of inquiry form an attitude toward work and life that consists of eager and alert observations, a constant questioning of old procedure in light of new observations, and a use of grounded experience as well as recorded knowledge. The ultimate aim of community inquiry is to develop a ¬°¬∞critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good¬°¬± (John Dewey Project on Progressive Education, 2002).
Community inquiry and informatics combine in the ¬°¬∞pragmatic technology¬°¬± (Hickman, 1990) approach to community-based ICT creation and use. Pragmatic technology encompasses the common language notion of how to design tools to meet real human needs and accommodate to users in their lived situations. It also sees ICTs as developed within a community of inquiry and embodying both means of action and forms of understanding; ICTs are an end result of, as well as a means to accomplish, community learning. Schuler and Day (2004) clearly resonate with the ideas and practice of pragmatic technology in declaring the ¬°¬∞subordination of ICTs to building healthy, empowered, active communities¬°¬± (p. 15) and noting simply that ¬°¬∞researchers are part of the world in which they live¬°¬± (p. 219).
Our Community Informatics Initiative (http://www.cii.uiuc.edu) is an effort to learn how pragmatic, community-based technology can support learning across institutional and social boundaries. The CII provides training and education, consulting, and action research in community inquiry and informatics in collaboration with non-profit organizations and individuals worldwide. It has produced Community Inquiry Laboratories (iLabs) (http://ilabs.inquiry.uiuc.edu), a suite of free, open-source, web-based software that is developed in an open and ongoing fashion by people from all walks of life who represent different countries and a wide range of ages. iLabs have been used to create hundreds of interactive websites that support the communication and collaboration needed to pursue inquiry in classrooms, community centers, libraries, professional associations, research groups, and other settings‚Äîwithout having to download and install software or have your own server (Bishop, et. al, 2004). iLabs includes software for producing library catalogs, syllabi, document sharing, online inquiry units, discussion forums, blogs, calendars, and image galleries.
iLabs represents experimentation in the integration of community inquiry and informatics. Through collaborative effort (both implicit and explicit, purposive and unknowing) in the creation of content, contribution to interactive elements, incorporation into practice, suggestions and questions, reports of what works and what doesn¬°¬Øt, and ongoing discussion, community members are not merely recipients of these technologies, but participate actively in their ongoing development, yielding enhancements which are then available to all users while, at the same time, they learn more about ICT. We have referred to his process of end user software development as ¬°¬∞design through use¬°¬± or ¬°¬∞participatory inquiry.¬°¬± To cite just a few examples:
- Members of SisterNet (a local grassroots organization of Black women devoted to nurturing a healthier lifestyle and community activism) created new templates for web-based Inquiry Units that were better suited for the personal health plans they wanted to make;
- Youth in the Paseo Boricua community in Chicago helped develop a web-based catalog for the library in the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, a tool that other iLab users can now adapt for their own purposes;
- A doctoral student in Finland, high school students in France, and others helped develop a system for translating the iLabs interface into multiple languages;
- A local environmental group figured out a way to use iLabs for polling citizens.
Collaborative inquiry has helped us investigate community interactions in many ways, come to a better understanding of ¬°¬∞community¬°¬± as a unit of analysis in multiple endeavors, and experiment with modes of open and mutual learning as a primary process for a range of disparate activities, from software development to the installation of art exhibits.
We wish to thank the Institute for Museum and Library Services and National Science Foundation, whose support helped create the iLabs software. We are grateful for the creativity and hard work of all members of the iLabs collaborative, who have contributed their considerable energy and expertise to community learning.
Bishop, A. P., Bruce, B. C., Lunsford, K. J., Jones, M. C., Nazarova, M., Linderman, D., Won, M., Heidorn, P. B., Ramprakash, R., & Brock, A. (2004). Supporting community inquiry with digital resources. Journal of Digital Information, 5(3), Article No. 308. Available at:
Gurstein, M. B. (2004). Editorial: Welcome to the Journal of Community Informatics. Journal of Community Informatics, 1(1). Available at: http://ci-journal.net/viewarticle.php?id=29&layout=html
Hickman, L. A. (1990). John Dewey's pragmatic technology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
John Dewey Project on Progressive Education (2002). A brief overview of progressive education. Available at:
Keeble, L., & Loader, B. D. (Eds.). (2001). Community informatics: Shaping computer-mediated social relations. London: Routledge.
Menand, L. (2001). The metaphysical club. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Schuler, D., & Day, P. (2004). Community practice in the network society: Local action/global interaction. London: Routledge.