Friday, August 7, 2009

An open-ended inquiry webquest

Webquests are typically examples of guided inquiry. The webquest defines a task for the student, and takes the student step-by-step through the quest. In the better webquests, students have some leeway in terms of outcomes and procedures. Even better webquests rely on student direct observation, perhaps through hands-on experiments or observing artifacts available on the web (e.g., investigating movies, animation, old radio programs, or even webquests).

In an earlier post, I looked at the relationship of webquests and open-ended inquiry. Open-ended inquiry looks more like real science-in-practice. It requires the student to develop their own questions and methods of investigation. It also requires a more delicate role for the teacher -- guiding the student, but not telling or directing too much. The student is on his or her own path of discovery.

The assumption then is that, all things being equal, open-ended inquiry is better than guided inquiry. With that in mind, I put together a rubric for assessing the "inquiry quotient" of a webquest. I identified five parameters to assess:

  1. Allows student to generate own question
  2. Uses open-ended question
  3. Relies on direct observation
  4. Goal is to acquire concrete concepts
  5. Capable of maintaining student interest

Most webquests that I have looked at score rather low: they generally don't provide questions that aren't open-ended questions, and they often don't rely on direct observation.

Given the nature the webquest format, is an open-ended inquiry webquest possible? What would it look like?

Here is a link to my effort, called Knowledge Explorer. You also need to look at the accompanying Teaching Guide, and in particular the "Important note" to make sense of what the webquest does.

The subject matter is not so important, I don't think, as long as it is capable of attracting the interest of students. Social justice pedagogy suggests that you start with something from student popular culture (see earlier blog posting). Since the world is interconnected, the in-depth investigation of any social phenomenon will provide insight to the whole if the various connections are pursued critically. So in general terms, Knowledge Explorer is about exploring a commodity of interest to the student. In my specific case, it is a snack food of the students' choice, but I suppose this could easily be opened up to starting with any commodity of the student's choosing.

The quest begins with a focused examination of the physical commodity, allowing questions to arise from that. (This is one part of the direct observation.) This part of the investigation relates to the methods of qualitative science; you can read more about this if you want in a piece I did called Talking with History.

The student then develops his or her own questions out of the direct observation and designs a research strategy to investigate the questions. At this point the teacher must intervene in the webquest to support the student's investigation. The teacher can (and thinking about it, should) support the investigation face-to-face by asking probing questions, how-type questions and so on (see the Teaching Guide for examples taken from An Inquiry Primer by Alan Coburn).

The new part in this webquest is that support and scaffolding can also be done via the webquest. Technically this is done using a dynamic web page (specifically, some trivial PHP code). The teacher places files of HTML code snippets in folders assigned to each student group. Students select the Process page for their group; as the page loads the web server scans the group's folder for any snippet files, and displays the contents of the group-specific snippets on the group's page. Rather simple, and should not be too difficult for a teacher with moderate web page design skills. I realize that that might be too much of an assumption -- the code skills might automatically exclude most teachers from using such a webquest.

At this point, the Knowledge Explorer webquest is a hypothetical, and needs to be shaken out in the classroom. Let me know if you are interested.

I have no idea how this will go over in practice. One issue I see is true of all open-ended inquiry. Open-ended inquiry requires more effort on the part of the teacher, because it requires closer work with the students, monitoring their progress, anticipating their needs, getting into their thinking deeply enough to plant suggested avenues of investigation without explicitly telling the students. Which sounds like the way things should be. But it is a labor-intensive, time-consuming process. Time which teachers rarely, in my experience, feel like they have. The attraction, I think, of traditional guided-inquiry webquests is that they allow some measure of higher order thinking exercises with little or no extra work on the part of the teacher. Even better, teachers can use existing webquests developed by other teachers, too often I expect, with no modifications. The webquests succeed, in some little way, of automating the teaching process. To bring the teacher back to the center of the webquest in the spirit of open-ended inquiry means giving up the time-saving, automated benefit of the webquest.

This is one of the knotty dilemmas of digital technology-supported pedagogy. Digital technology offers the possibility of extending the teacher's reach (e.g., via automations like webquests), but to be used with optimal effectiveness, the wits and insights of the teacher must be brought back to the center of the teaching process.

There is no royal road -- or automated one -- to education.



Mrs. Zumpano said...


Nice, concise definition of a webquest in your first paragraph. I like that you questioned what an open ended inquiry should look like, then went ahead to create an actual example. Too often we are willing to judge other people’s work without making an attempt to provide a replacement that backs up our belief.

Given the population of students that we serve do you think that many of them would easily be able to participate in a webquest of this sort? I admired that you gave voice to the fact that an inquiry project like this would take more work and discipline on the teacher’s part. We are such a test driven society that often times “inquiry” takes a back seat to covering test material. I agree with you that even though this is the way it should be, it is not the reality. My hope is that this year you will find a classroom willing to pursue this endeavor and that you’ll blog on the results.

P. Grissett said...

You said, "Digital technology offers the possibility of extending the teacher's reach (e.g., via automations like webquests), but to be used with optimal effectiveness, the wits and insights of the teacher must be brought back to the center of the teaching process." And as usual, you hit the nail on the head. Technology does not exclude the teacher from teaching, it becomes a conduit to teaching and the teacher is needed more than ever in order for the technology to be effective. The webquest is not going to have the discussion that needs to accompany the tasks. The computer cannot and will not redirect students who go astray from the instructional goal. These are some of the most important jobs of the teacher when using technology in the classroom.