Sunday, August 2, 2009

Inquiry-based learning and webquests

Best technology-in-education practices direct students to problem-based / project-based / inquiry-based student-centered learning models that are the hallmark of progressive and constructivist education. The student is pushed to exercise and build higher order thinking skills through the problem-solving process. Ideally, computers and other digital technologies just provide additional means of investigation and reporting.

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is a method of learning where students pursue an interesting open-ended question (that's my working definition of IBL). The student is the subject of that definition, the main actor. The object of their pursuit needs to be interesting to the student, to ensure the pursuit takes place. The object of the pursuit is an open-ended question: the question may lead the student in many possible directions as part of a process of discovery. Ideally, through IBL, students develop stronger transferable knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world than through traditional educational methods of fact-delivery and regurgitation. Inquiry-based learning works especially well for developing concrete concepts as a result of direct observation. Hands-on exploration is an important component of the best IBL. Also important is allowing students enough time and space and encouragement to formulate their own questions and conjectures. I see five important categories in the measurement of the "inquiry quotient" of a lesson. The best IBL:

  1. Allows student to generate own question
  2. Uses open-ended question
  3. Relies on direct observation
  4. Has as a goal the acquisition of concrete concepts
  5. Maintains student interest

Inquiry-based learning and other student-centered approaches to learning are subtly inverted when technology takes center-stage, and the inquiry becomes centered around and dependent on the technology being used.

Educators have developed different genres of applications to try to implement technology-based student-centered models. "Webquests" are one popular example. Webquests are structured investigations oriented around a given task. Students work in teams using well-defined roles towards accomplishing the given task. Students are often expected to produce a report or deliver a presentation arguing for a position or solution that they have developed. Webquests support student collaboration, typically require the students to make their own assessments about a topic, and defend conclusions they have reached.

As an IBL application, though, webquests cannot help but fall short. First, by design they provide an already-constructed question (the task). Maybe students have a choice of possible solutions, but a webquest (in Bernie Dodge's original definition) cannot provide a truly open-ended question. Webquests are really a "quided inquiry" structure (see, e.g. QuestGarden, the site for a webquest creation tool developed by Dodge, where it is described as "guided inquiry made easy"). In Alan Coburn's spectrum of inquiry models, "guided inquiry" falls in the middle between "structured inquiry" and "open inquiry". Students are provided the problem and materials, but they must devise their own procedure. Second, as the name "webquest" suggests, webquest observations are usually observations web page content. (One can view video of phenomena, but this is a weak second-best to direct observation. Math explorations can be done using virtual manipulatives, which might come the closest to working with their real world counterparts, although something still is lost when the physical activity is sacrificed.)

This is not to say that webquests can't be valuable learning activities. Good webquests require students to be creative in assembling and combining data, and reflect and build on what they find. Students can build their collaboration skills and skills using computer applications. But as inquiry-based learning, webquests miss the important elements of student-formulated problems and direct observation.

I developed a rubric for assessing the "inquiry quotient" of webquests, and then tested it out on ten middle-school math related webquests. (You can view the rubric as well as links to the webquests and how I scored the webquests by clicking here.) The highest score I gave any of the webquests was a 14 out of 20. That particular webquest, The Dilemma of the Dangerous Meat Loaf, did use some direct observation that was brought back to the webquest, and, with a little tweaking, allowed for a high degree of open-endedness. [I should note that I developed the rubric as part of an "inquiry quotient" webquest developed by Craig Cunningham at National-Louis University, and in this case, my direct observations were observations of webquests.]

As guided inquiry lessons, webquests can be useful. A potential danger in their use is to think that they can replace direct observation. An exercise that pushes the student beyond "guided" and into "open" inquiry would push beyond the boundaries of the webquest format. Possible features of such an exercise might include heavier reliance on student collection of data via direct observations, and perhaps a relaxation of the task directive -- this is something to explore.



Anonymous said...

Hi Jim!

Your rubric for assessing WebQuests is spot on and I think I will share this with my teachers at Dumas if you don't mind.

I totally agree with your paragraph about how WebQuests fall short by designing a task and really becoming "guided inquiry." This reminds me of Jason's comment during the research portion of our PD week, when we were shown the graphic of gradual release of responsibility of students finding the sites on their own. Jason defined WebQuests as glorified bookmarking (ouch!) and not the be-all end-all of research. Eventually we do need to have students using mainstream search engines and thinking critically about the sites they find to determine what is a truly reliable resource.

tracey howse-lee said...

Im not sure if I would describe it as glorified bookmarking, because many of our students dont use the computer for real purposes. I think if teachers use WebQuests that are inquiry based, then it allows students to think through a problem, and use the internet with a purpose. I do agree that students should be taught to use mainstream search engines and think critically about the information they find. However there is only so much time and soooo much to teach. Also Jim as usual has done a great job with his rubric and it is definitely something to share with all of our teachers.

Ms. Allen said...

I think Inquiry Based Learning has a stronger backbone for learning, but WebQuests are beneficial as well. It allows for students to learn about a variety of topics, it caters to different learning styles, which is something we all experience when working with children. And as you stated a good WebQuest requires students to use creativity, work with organizing data, allows for reflection and growing from those thoughts and wonderings and provides opportunity to collaborate with peers. Jim you made very powerful points when comparing inquiry based learning and Webquest. They both have their perks and GLOWS. I also agree that your rubric is awesome.