‘Productive inquiry [is] that aspect of any activity where we are deliberately seeking what we need in order to do what we want to do (Dewey, 1922 and Cook and Brown, 1999). In the net age we now have at our disposal tools and resources for engaging in productive inquiry – and learning – that we never had before.’ John Seely Brown  

Productive Inquiry is what we do when we leverage the net, Seely Brown tells us.

I think productive inquiry is also what we do when we say ‘ There must be an app for that?’. I am not writing this post to explore the challenges presented by this confirmatory non-evidence based approach to learning, but to look at innovation in online learning as a kind of productive inquiry. In preparation for writing,  I have been tinkering with various innovations and in the process formulating a view of what counts as innovation which will be the subject of my next post. I have been ‘learning to be’ innovative on the web as I ‘learn about’ innovation in the context of education. This is an example of what Seely Brown  calls using the web for ‘purposeful tinkering’ or productive Inquiry. I was curious (and may be a bit doubtful) about how successful I could be at bringing up to date a given innovation using the web. Seely Brown’s paper was written in 2008, there was so much in it I could pursue. Once again blogging for the sake of learning, my assignment this time was to blog about just one innovation, having researched it to bring it up to 2013.

This course I am doing, is passion driven learning so even though my task required only one innovation, I spent the week ‘lost in’ my computer finding out about much more than just my task. The learning point for me here is that the possibility of ‘bringing research up to date’ imbued the task with excitement. One that I do not remember experiencing when I was a researcher years ago. I remember writing a letter (and later framing the response, of course) to a researcher I admired and waiting weeks for a response.

So how did I get on with my investigation?

I could not resist choosing Terra Incognita for my research for a number of reasons, chief amongst which was a long held desire to play with Second Life for the first time! Here is where i started:

‘A current example of an attempt to harness the power of study groups in a virtual environment is the Terra Incognita project of the University of Southern Queensland (Australia), which has built a classroom in Second Life, the online virtual world that has attracted millions of users. [] Terra Incognita includes the capability for small groups of students who want to work together to easily “break off” from the central classroom [].’ (Seely Brown 2008)

I then started my search to answer the following questions:

  • Was this project still running?
  • Have any more papers been written about the project since the Seely Brown and Adler paper was published?
  • Was the project adopted by users other than those in the original institution where it was developed?

My initial stop was the library at my university, I am an academic after all and it seemed the ‘right’ place to start. I learnt about criteria for evaluating searches on the internet, something I already know something about but always helpful to be reminded not to go down any alley without evaluating if it is a blind one first! I was reminded of the hours spent in real life (RL) when I was a researcher searching at the university library. I was a whizz at finding stuff, but the process was never fun. This search was also productive but not fun. I found out that the space in Second Life (SL) called Terra Incognita (TI) was an ‘Action learning Center’. Watch this if you want a summary of action Learning and a treat: a learning presentation in SL given by Decka Mah who created TI for her Phd dissertation.


Now I was hooked as an action learning expert in RL, I just had to see how this model was set up in SL.

Yes, I joined SL for the first time and headed straight for TI. Nothing much happened as nobody was around but I could check out the area, see the action learning model posted at the entrance and a table and chairs set up for an action learning meeting. I was new to SL and had no idea how to navigate myself there. I had to make a call: either I stay here and learn about the environment or I get back to my research. I had achieved the goal of my inquiry in my first visit: Yes, Terra Incognita was alive and well in SL. It was time to go and not to start playing with customising my avatar.

I then started to address the other elements of my quest. I thought I would just do a standard google search to see what I could uncover. I recently discovered a search engine called a Millionshort which helps remove top sites from results – I thought this may give me paths less travelled. I learnt that the research programme was completed in 2007, that Lindy McKeown Orwin (RL) or Decka Mah (SL) had done her Phd on this. There is a Moodle site that just states the programme has ended. So far so good, and much more fun than searching a library catalogue, I have to say. What happened next did astound me but perhaps should not have. I found this and it had all I ever wanted to know about TI.

A blog called Penvirtual and written by one of my fellow students who had chosen Terra Incognita as her subject too! Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine! I was thrilled to have found somebody interested in the same thing as I was, and it took me a while to work out that the author was a fellow student. I immediately sent her a comment saying thanks and got on with the task of exploring all the resources she suggested in her blog. This raised a question for me: had I cheated? Finding the blog certainly made it easier to take my task to the next level and as Patricia Daniels, the blog’s author, was a seasoned SL user she was able to explain much more to me about SL than I could find in my short visit earlier. I then came full circle to the article that started this search. David Willey, who teaches about online interaction, is quoted explaining how blogs can be used to improve writing quality in students:

‘The writing students did in the first few weeks was interesting but average. In the fourth week, however, I posted a list of links to all the student blogs and mentioned the list on my own blog. I also encouraged the students to start reading one another’s writing. The difference in the writing that next week was startling. Each student wrote significantly more than they had previously. Each piece was more thoughtful. Students commented on each other’s writing and interlinked their pieces to show related or contradicting thoughts. Then one of the student assignments was commented on and linked to from a very prominent blogger. Many people read the student blogs and subscribed to some of them. When these outside comments showed up, indicating that the students really were plugging into the international community’s discourse, the quality of the writing improved again. The power of peer review had been brought to bear on the assignments.’

The assignment that this blog attempts to answer has been set in just this way.

We are meant to find and explore each others’ blogs to help each other learn. I just did not expect to have been helped so much so quickly by another student who had delivered her assignment earlier than me. I felt duty bound to take my Terra Incognita quest to the next level. In her blog Patricia says it had been difficult to find out if the ‘University of Southern Queensland is still using this virtual space for experiential learning activities’. I made it my task to find out and what followed astounded me even more than finding Patricia’s blog. I love Scoop it and have my own curated pages on there, I noticed that Lindy Mackewn Orwin has her own Scoop page and headed straight there. It occurred to me the best way to answer Patricia’s question was to ask Lindy! What’s the worse that could happen?

Well, I got all the answers I needed and more. Click here to read Lindy’s responses on Scoop.


I had come to the end of my quest, and now had the possibility to ‘rent’ my own Action Learning Centre in Second Life. No, coffee at the library cafe with a book or ten does not compare with purposeful tinkering in the virtual world. This is not just about the fun, which is extensive – but may be I am just a geek.  It is about being able to genuinely be part of a worldwide network of peers contributing to the expansion of knowledge through live productive Inquiry. I will let you know in a future post if you can find sitting at my new home in Terra Incognita with my group of Brazilian students.

SL’s Decka Mah is in the meantime working in the virtual world of Hypatia – designed to support collaborative learning for girls in Science. A gift for naming, Hypatia was the first notable woman in Mathematics and the last librarian of the library of Alexandria in Roman Egypt. She is quoted in the website as saying “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than to not think at all.”


Seely Brown, John. “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.” http://www.johnseelybrown.com/mindsonfire.pdf