Because of its abstract nature, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity is rarely present in school physics curricula. Although the educational community has started to investigate ways of bringing general relativity to classrooms, field-tested educational material is rare. Employing the model of educational reconstruction, we present a collaborative online learning environment that was introduced to final year students (18–19 years old) in six Norwegian upper secondary physics classrooms. Design-based research methods guided the development of the learning resources, which were based on a sociocultural view of learning and a historical-philosophical approach to teaching general relativity. To characterize students’ learning from and interaction with the learning environment we analyzed focus group interviews and students’ oral and written responses to assigned problems and discussion tasks. Our findings show how design choices on different levels can support or hinder understanding of general relativity, leading to the formulation of design principles that help to foster qualitative understanding and encourage collaborative learning. The results indicate that upper secondary students can obtain a qualitative understanding of general relativity when provided with appropriately designed learning resources and sufficient scaffolding of learning through interaction with teacher and peers.
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