Why WebQuests?

by Tom March

circa Web 1998

Introduction to the Web

The impact of the Internet and the World Wide Web on popular culture is not hard to measure. Tally the jargon that’s made it into our everyday language: ‘Net-surfing, info superhighway, Web site, chat room, cyber, browser, online, homepage, HTML and @. If the Web has reached such broad public awareness, how do you think it’s touched the lives of our trend-tracking students? In fact, people have begun referring to today’s students as Generation Dot Com. So even if the Web bore no educational value, we as teachers would need to come to terms with it to understand our students’ world and frame of reference. The good news is that the Web is not just helpful to education, but, used effectively, it can revolutionize student learning.

Back in the early days of the Web (was it really only 1995?), Professor Bernie Dodge began developing the WebQuest strategy at San Diego State University to help teachers integrate the power of the Web with student learning. I was fortunate to count Bernie as a mentor and colleague, so we began creating sample WebQuests and putting them online for teachers and students around the world to use. Three years of working in offices across the hall from each other, occasionally teaching together and frequently ruminating over drafts of chapters and online WebQuests, Bernie created The WebQuest Page and I contributed a handful of WebQuests to Pacific Bell’s Knowledge Network Explorer. What follows is an introduction to some key ideas behind WebQuests. But before jumping into the whys and hows of WebQuests, it’s important to make sure you have a good conceptual understanding of the World Wide Web and its aspects that support student learning.

Myth #1 – The Web is the World’s Biggest Encyclopedia

This is the first misconception many newcomers bring to the Web. Yes, both offer lots of information on lots of topics, but the similarities tend to end there. Whereas an encyclopedia is organized and cross-referenced, the Web is amorphous and chaotic. Whereas the content of an encyclopedia is carefully researched and striving for bias-free presentation, the Web is passionately posted and full of opinions and rarely hidden agendas. Finally, whereas an encyclopedia is written by professionals, anyone can write a Web page. Oh yeah, one’s sort of dead and the other pretty lively. Which do you think students would be more likely to respond to and use? Better yet, which one do you think more accurately represents the reality around us? So rather than being the world’s biggest encyclopedia, the Web is more like inviting the world itself into your classroom.

Myth #2 – The Web is an Information Superhighway

Although the Web is like a superhighway of information when seen as a source of data, facts, and figures, this misses more powerful aspects. More than information, the Web is about people, ideas, and sharing. Evidence for this can be seen in the Web’s ancestry. Long before the Web, and even the Internet, something called ARPAnet connected researchers via a communications network (the name denoted its funding source: the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency). Yes, the researchers posted information, but more important than the information was the act itself: people across the country were sharing ideas and working together. When the Internet came online, this sharing and collegiality carried on from the military sphere to higher education. With the birth of the Web’s friendly user interface, the world has joined in, with everyone from primary school classrooms to rock bands and law firms wanting to connect with their communities. A sure sign of the learning / sharing / community-building aspect of the Web is evident in our best Web sites: companies who spend millions on television advertising whose only purpose is to sell, know that their Web site must offer more (games, fun facts, “insider” information, online tools etc.). In other worlds, they must play by the rules of the Web and contribute something to the online community. If not, a few thousand similar Web sites exist that will lure users away by offering something valuable.

Myth #3 – The Web is Full of Useless Junk

This isn’t actually a myth. It’s true; the Web is full of useless junk. What’s makes the statement less than the whole truth, however, is the Web’s size. Because of its incomprehensible hugeness, something of everything is on the Web: undesirable junk, indecipherable university research, incomplete arguments, yesterday’s forgotten and rotting postings. But, hovering side-by-side with these in cyberspace are also desirable gems like the Library of Congress, up-to-the-minute reporting like that on CNN Interactive, and the persuasive Web sites created by students in the ThinkQuest project. This is not to say that it’s all there. For example, the number of links on the subject of Ancient Greece will be more limited than the topic of Oceans. But give us a little time to make the Web what we want and need it to be. It’s barely out of toddlerhood and yet it’s shown a terrific responsiveness. Search engines have become more powerful and easier to use, many meta sites filter through the millions of Web pages and link to those of value to a particular community, and more schools, teacher and students are coming online daily which will help shape the direction of our Web and post the pages we seek.

A Final Thought

Viewed through the eyes of traditional education, who would want a learning resource that presents the world in all its chaos, offers more opinions than facts, and requires a subtle intelligence to sort the gems from the junk? Viewed from a more student-centered, active-learning perspective, what better resource could you imagine! With the Web, students must take charge of their learning and scrutinize everything. WebQuests can help you facilitate this shift and provide students with the skills they need to navigate, rather than surf, the Web. Shouldn’t we empower students to reach their destinations, not flounder in the surf of each shifting wave?

Why WebQuests?

If you’ve attended any professional growth in-services or college of education courses in the past ten years you’ll be familiar with the following phrases of teacher-speak: critical thinking, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, and technology integration. You may even have bumped into cognitive psychology with its schema theory, scaffolding, and novice/expert models. How about constructivism? If you’re like most educators, you get excited about new ideas for helping students learn and grow, but then feel your chest tighten or your spirits sink when you remember your already bursting curriculum requirements and the logistical demands of classroom teaching. With everything else that must be taught, how can we add these new and important strategies? WebQuests were designed to address this dilemma by bringing together the most effective instructional practices into one integrated student activity.

Let’s move through the WebQuest strategy, highlighting its features and the rationale behind them.

Student Motivation & Authenticity

When students are motivated they not only put in more effort, but their minds are more alert and ready to make connections. WebQuests use several strategies to increase student motivation. First, WebQuests use a central question that honestly needs answering. When students are asked to understand, hypothesize or problem-solve an issue that confronts the real world, they face an authentic task, not something that only carries meaning in a school classroom. Although you can’t count on getting a response, when students do receive feedback from someone they didn’t previously know, they join a community of learners and have their presence, if not their contribution, validated. When teachers choose a topic they know their students would respond to, they add to the relevance.

The second feature of WebQuests that increase student motivation is that students are given real resources to work with. Rather than turn to a dated textbook, filtered encyclopedias or middle-of-the-road magazines, with the Web students can directly access individual experts, searchable databases, current reporting, and even fringe groups to gather their insights.

When students take on roles within a cooperative group, they must develop expertise on a particular aspect or perspective of the topic. That their teammates count on them to bring back real expertise should inspire and motivate learning.

Lastly, the answer or solution the student teams develop can be posted, emailed or presented to real people for feedback and evaluation. This authentic assessment also motivates students to do their best and come up with a real group answer, not simply something to fulfill an assignment.

Developing Thinking Skills

One of the main (and often neglected) features of any WebQuest is that students tackle questions that prompt higher level thinking. Certainly, the Web can be used as a source for simple information retrieval, but this misses its power and short-changes students. Built into the WebQuest process are the strategies of cognitive psychology and constructivism. First, the question posed to students can not be answered simply by collecting and spitting back information. A WebQuest forces students to transform information into something else: a cluster that maps out the main issues, a comparison, a hypothesis, a solution, etc.

In order to engage students in higher level cognition, WebQuests use scaffolding or prompting which has been shown to facilitate more advanced thinking. In other words, by breaking the task into meaningful “chunks” and asking students to undertake specific sub-tasks, a WebQuest can step them through the kind of thinking process that more expert learners would typically use.

Lastly, constructivism suggests that when students need to understand a more complex or sophisticated topic like those that comprise WebQuests, it doesn’t help to serve them simplified truths, boiled down examples, or step-by-step formulas. What they need are many examples with lots of information and opinions on the topic through which they will sift until they have constructed an understanding that not only connects to their own individual prior knowledge, but also builds new schema that will be refined when students encounter the topic again in the future. Until the Web, this kind of activity was very difficult for the average teacher to create because collecting such a breadth of resources was next to impossible.

Cooperative Learning

As has already been mentioned, in WebQuests students take on roles within a small student group and this tends to promote motivation. In addition, because the WebQuest targets learning about large, complex or controversial topics, it’s probably not realistic to expect each student to master all of its aspects. Thus learners divide to conquer. This is not to say that students don’t gain the overall understanding, because this happens in a later stage of the process, but it does suggest to learners the reality that not everyone knows everything. In fact, this is one of the great messages that students invariably bring back from interactions with experts whose works focus on very thin slivers of the knowledge pie. Having students develop expertise and be appreciated for it by their peers is built into each WebQuest. Cooperative learning strategies are then applied to necessitate each student’s input. By running several WebQuest groups in the same class, students will also see that different solutions were chosen by each team because of the quality of the group members’ research and argumentation skills. As students complete more WebQuests they will become increasingly aware that their individual work has a direct impact of the intelligence of their group’s final product.

Process & Access

Research has shown that the most important factor related to student learning and technology use is how teachers relate the technology-based activity to other learning activities. Therefore, it’s important to clearly link your WebQuest to previous and subsequent activities, so that the WebQuest is not an isolated experience disconnected from the rest of your curriculum. Relatedly, WebQuests aren’t the endpoint, but the beginning of student use of the Web for learning. Ideally, in the not so distant future, students will have internalized many of the cognitve strategies built into WebQuests, so that students direct and guide their own studies and findings. You might call this idea “WebQuests as training wheels.”

Perhaps the greatest hurdle some teachers will face in implementing WebQuests relates to technology access. No one’s situation epitomizes the perfect technology set-up, and the exact details of implementing your WebQuest will vary depending on the kind of Web access you have and the number of computers available. Still, feel comforted by the fact that no classroom or school is free from dealing with the constraints imposed by limitations in technology. Even schools with lots of computers may not have adequate bandwidth to access the Internet quickly. Or, perhaps access is fine, but the computers don’t have enough RAM and therefore have to run older versions of Web browsers. Or, maybe your school doesn’t even have an Internet connection and you’re doing all your Web navigation from home. The varieties are infinite, but this is a misery we all share. It might help to view these constraints as Robert Frost viewed writing poetry in meter. He said to not do so was like “playing tennis without a net.” See if you can’t turn your limitation into a spur for creativity.

This said, here are a few scenarios to consider as you face your own “net.”

No computers

Teachers with no computers available in their schools are hard pressed to do a WebQuest, but the intrepid can print out the Web pages for their students to use in class. The fun of computers and Web work can be lost, but perhaps other aspects of the learning experience can be used to increase student motivation. 
One computer with Net Access
Teachers in a one-computer classroom can pair students up and create a modular classroom for working on their WebQuests. One rotating station could be the online computer, one could use print-outs from Web pages, another group could use library books, magazines, videotapes, CD-ROMs, etc. Students in this scenario would be in a good position to evaluate whether Web access made a difference. 
One Computer no Net Access
Teachers with Web access at home but non-networked computers in school can use a program like Web Buddy or Web Whacker to download the Web pages from home and then copy them from disk onto computers at school. This creates a virtual Web where the pages look identical to the pages on the Web, but they are running from the computers’ hard drives. Some schools carry this notion one step father by loading the pages onto their proxy server / intranet. 
Few Computers
If you have Internet access in your schools, but perhaps lack a sufficient number of computers, you might also try pairing students up for each role (therefore five roles could support ten students). You might also look for access to an online computer lab that might be available for a few class sessions. Also use a combination of the above bulleted strategies to ease the crunch.

Choosing a WebQuest

As stated, the most successful WebQuests have little to do with bandwidth or the excellence of the Web sites we link to. The most important factor is you, the teacher. You know your students, their prior experiences and knowledge, the things that tend to interest them, and the goals you hope to achieve while studying a topic. Successful WebQuests will act as one more learning strategy to achieve these goals. Thus the best place to look to help you decide which WebQuest(s) to choose is at your current curriculum on the related topic. Ask yourself, “What has been successful and what has seemed lacking?” If you’re happy with the way you introduce the topic, great! If you feel the students get adequate and accurate basic information from a text and your handouts, terrific! If they engage in higher-level thinking and develop authentic learning products they already share with the real world, you’re doing an outstanding job! If you see a gap in any of these aspects, think about choosing a WebQuest to fill that need.

 

written: April 20, 1998

posted: September 10, 1998

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