Tips for WebQuest Designers

Welcome!

Here are design tips I’ve discovered through creation of many WebQuests.  I hope they are helpful. If you’re new to WebQuests, here are three resources that might help:

An Engaging Opening

Like any beginning, you can use things like metaphors, anecdotes, or a scenario to appeal to the students’ innate curiosity. Refrain from making this just another assignment. If you have some killer Web sites in store for the students and a challenging task, get off on the right foot by luring students into what makes the topic fascinating, problematic or controversial. My overarching goal for the introduction is to gently “perturb” students into cognitive dissonance (“Huh?”) so that they are motivated to reach an “Ah-Ha!” 

The Question / Task

The easiest way I’ve found to work this aspect is to think of the Question and the task separately. The Question will tend to emerge from the Internet resources themselves and your critical thinking goals for students. Look for the conflicting viewpoints and gray areas; this is the heart of higher order thinking. You can check yourself quickly at this point by asking, When the students are involved in answering the Question, what kind of thinking are they doing? If the answer is knowledge acquisition, you don’t have a WebQuest yet. As for the Task, think of this as the actual product or outcome of the WebQuest (during the Group Synthesis phase). I tend to draw from an array of software / technologies for these outcomes: blog post, slide presentations, videos, infographics, community outreach, awareness campaigns, etc. This being said, if you have time or technology constraints, you can still have an effective and stimulating WebQuest that ends in a class discussion or a butcher paper mural. Remember, it’s the thinking and learning, not the Web sites and wires.

Background for Everyone

If students are going to engage in constructing new meaning, somewhere along the line they are going to have to start with a fairly robust foundation of knowledge. This background information may come from class activities, textbooks, lectures & discussions, etc. Or it may come from the Web. You may have noticed that I almost invariably have a Background for Everyone phase before students divide into their expert roles. So cultivate the learning in class or include it in your WebQuest page itself, but don’t skip this crucial foundation.

Roles / Expertise / Jobs / Disciplines

As much as possible try to get the roles to emerge from the design process. As you collect resources and Web sites, see if there isn’t a natural division or chunking going on. Finally, the more realistic you make these roles, the more authentic the whole task will appear to the students. Try as hard as you can not to make this a playing school scenario where it’s about pretending to do something. Use the Web to really bring reality into your classroom.

Use of the Web

Can the learning you envision be achieved without the Web? Then why use it? Furthermore, why go to the trouble of creating a WebQuest? However, if you tap into elements of the Web that can’t be accessed elsewhere, bravo! Look for Web sites that provide interactivity to personalize student learning. What about all the hidden and blatant agendas floating behind Web pages? Use these pages to challenge critical thinking, reading, and the synthesis of conflicting opinions. Also look for information that’s so current it will be months before it arrives in the school library. Finally, provide learners with that rich array of information, images, opinion, etc. so that they can pick and choose what bits fit in their present semantic network. These days lots of great, high quality videos can be used (here’s an example of work I’ve posted to Teachers Pay Teachers featuring great YouTube videos).

Transformative Thinking

Ah-ha! Eureka! “I get it!” That’s what we’re after. Yes, students can learn a lot of information from the Web, but it offers so much more. When you think you’ve got your WebQuest shaping up, really look hard and long at what you’re asking students to do. Look at their cognition, not their outputs here. What’s going on in the learners’ brains (and hearts)? The usual place in a WebQuest to engage learners in higher order thinking is during that phase when they come back together from developing expertise in their separate roles. The right way to do this is to give the groups a task that requires them to make new meaning, not just to assemble the separate pieces they have learned about. This is the tough part, but it’s the critical piece.  If it’s hard for us, do we imagine students will automatically synthesize new understandings auto-magically on their own? Good luck, you can do it.

Real World Feedback

This is the final piece of the process that lets students know whether they were doing just one more classroom activity or whether their WebQuest experience was different and authentic. The golden era of the Web has probably faded, that time when people on the Web found it charming and unique to be approached by an eager student via email. If you use this approach, here are a couple tips: 1) don’t send all the students to the same person / Web site. It’s better if students find their own feedback source from the Web community. 2) Students should use experts to test their hypothesis. That is, students have already done the information gathering, the discussing, and problem solving. Now they are approaching a real world expert for their expert opinions. NEVER let students send a tell me all you know about… message. They deserve what they get if they do 😉. Lastly, don’t forget that you have plenty of opportunities for real world feedback right in your own communities. The feedback doesn’t have to be via the Net. Presentations, debates, letters to local papers, feedback from peers or parents all qualify and legitimize the students’ efforts. Also, remember to engage in active citizenships and contact government representatives. All levels post contact links on their Web sites. If possible get both email and snail mail addresses as the latter might get a better response.

Conclusion

The conclusion doesn’t have to be long, but you might look to achieve two or three things in this final short paragraph. First, it’s nice if you return to the opener you used to introduce the WebQuest. There’s nothing like symmetry to help the students’ semantic networks to make a full circuit connection. Second, it’s a good idea to talk about the cognitive skills students used during the WebQuest process. Research has shown that novice learners benefit when the cognitive tasks are made overt. Last, see if you can turn the students’ attention toward how what they learned applies to different topics and situations. If you can help them see how their learning can transfer to a new scenario, you’ve multiplied the learning exponentially. A lot of the WebQuest strategy is about learning to learn. Perhaps after engaging in a few WebQuests, students will have internalized the approach to learning and will not need this scaffolding. Cultivating self-motivated, expert learners is our goal after all.

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