Action-Oriented eLearning with the Humble WebQuest

Modern, attractive website
Better, no? Click to view the full site.

One challenge about creating reusable eLearning content is that designers often fall back into the banking model of education, creating a passive and dependent learning experience for students. This often looks like packaged PowerPoints or blocks of text readings that students are expected to click through and answer multiple-choice comprehension questions about afterwards.

The opposite of this, of course is active, inquiry-based, student-centered, project-based learning that stimulates critical thinking. It’s challenging to envision a way to create standalone lessons that can be used and reused while preserving the stimulating interaction between students, instructors, and content, but it already exists.

One of the best pieces of Education Technology I know of is not a product, it’s an approach.

The WebQuest is an inquiry-based, standards-aligned online activity that encourages students to engage in Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) by completing relevant and authentic tasks through online research and content creation. There are hundreds of existing webquests for almost any subject in grades K-20, and they’re usually licensed for free and legal reuse and remixing.

Sounds great, right? So why don’t we hear more about them anymore? I think it’s because the design technology used to create them looks dated by 2014 standards, lending an unfair perception that this is not a current approach to online learning. I hope with this article to show how the basic WebQuest approach can be updated to create modern looking online lessons that emphasize active, student-centered, inquiry learning.

What is a Webquest?

Here’s the creator of the WebQuest, Dr. Bernie Dodge, discussing what a WebQuest is.

Essential to the concept of WebQuests is that they’re designed to be aligned to outcomes, independent and inquiry based, asking students to do authentic tasks, and to think about content from multiple perspectives (a practice which promotes critical thinking).

I like working within the simple format because it reminds me to start designing from outcomes, then develop a compelling task for students to complete that shows their mastery of outcomes. The focus on giving students “roles” encourages them to internalize their roles and see the relevance of the activity from multiple perspectives, enhancing critical thinking.

The Steps of a WebQuest

Webquests follow this same basic formula which puts the emphasis on students’ active learning.

  1. Introduction: Where you introduce the project and get students “hooked”.
  2. Task: Explain to students what they’re expected to do and produce.
  3. Process: Step by step instructions, recommended links, and resources.
  4. Evaluation: A rubric outlining how students will be graded.

Following this basic formula is a great way to ensure that the active learning focus of Webquests is preserved in your lesson.

[Learn more about The WebQuest Design Process here.]

Embarrassing Snapshots from an Uglier Web

WebQuests grew up during the web’s awkward adolescence (during the mid ’90s to mid 2000s) and the vast bulk of existing WebQuests look like fugly GeoCities pages — so painful to look at that you forget to notice the quality of the pedagogy at work behind them. Their heyday came before the prevalence of free cloud storage, and consequently many WebQuests are now just dead links pointing to a defunct directory on a school’s forgotten web server.

Still other WebQuests live on at where you can search for quests on any topic and grade level. After reading a few, you will see that (A) they look like refugees from 2002, and (B) they stimulate students to create authentic work products, view situations from multiple perspectives, and use online research to support their learning.

Though the pedagogy behind these assignments is top-notch, they don’t always play nice with modern browsers or look as cool as the newest iPad apps or Material Design goodness we’re used to seeing in the post-Web2.0-era. Let’s see if we can keep what’s great about WebQuests while updating their look for the modern web…

WebQuest FaceLift Experiment

I wanted to see if we could take the essential components of a WebQuest and use them in a modern design tool to make them look more appealing and relevant to modern learners. I used consumer-level tools that let even non-designers create an appealing website, while staying true to the lesson design at the heart of the WebQuest.

Ugly green old website

Yecch. Click to see the full site.

This is an example of a 5th grade WebQuest about the Amazon called The Amazing Amazon Rain Forest by Cherie Skeeter. [Click here to see the full site.] Like many WebQuests, it suffers from outdated web design that make it look old and lame. This 2005 Dreamwoven, table-based layout doesn’t play nice with modern devices and the cheezy clip art is just downright unappetizing to look at. Let’s see what it looks like with a new coat of CSS paint…

Modern, attractive website

Better, no? Click to view the full site.

I’ve taken the content from this WebQuest and copied it into Strikingly, a simple, consumer-level website designer that produces modern, mobile friendly single-page websites. The resulting site The Amazing Amazon Rain Forest,” presents the same content in an updated format that’s more familiar to today’s students, and more compatible with modern devices. The tool makes it easy to search for and add new images, video, social media embeds, and more to make the experience richer. With a little eye-candy added to sweeten the WebQuest formula, this class activity looks modern and relevant to students accustomed to the latest design trends.

Strikingly did a great job for this task, but many other modern site builders like (WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, or Weebly) will let you create distinct pages and fill them with the instructions and pictures for students to work their way through. Within your LMS you can create a series of pages following the basic WebQuest steps. The more adventurous among us could even use a modern HTML template to create a one-page website for their quest. Again, the technology is less important than the approach.

A Challenge

I’d challenge you to familiarize yourself with the pedagogy at the heart of WebQuests and use them as a tool for developing active, independent, inquiry-based online lessons that promote critical thinking in students. Once you’ve got the big idea, try to build your own WebQuest in a web design authoring tool you’re comfortable working with. You may find that this simple formula brings some life to your online lessons.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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6 Responses

  1. Susie Waring says:

    Ted, thank you for this update! I’m a school librarian returning to the ‘information technology lab’ after a 4 year hiatus. I’ll have my kids daily for 9 straight weeks, and I was thinking Webquests could be cool. I was dismayed to see what you describe as ‘fugly’ relics. I have 5 months to prep. Thanks for the new resource links.

    • Ted Curran says:

      Hi Susie,
      Sorry if I came down too hard on the old-school design practices that were common in WebQuests’ heyday.

      I was a web design teacher to high school students and I was always trying to teach them how to make websites that look and work as well as the ones they’re used to consuming. I found there was a huge gulf between the kinds of pages beginners could make with an HTML editor like Dreamweaver and what was becoming common in 2008-09: CMS-driven blogs with modern CSS out-of-the-box. I started teaching WordPress because it gave students a head start — a site that had modern performance and design that they could freely edit and improve upon. It made me a bit of a snob about handmade-looking websites like the ones commonly found in WebQuest repositories.

      It’s enduringly true, though, that web design trends fly by quickly, and you can tell a site’s age by the design choices they exhibit. People judge the quality of the information partially by how modern the website looks, and old design signals content that hasn’t been lovingly maintained. The good news is that most WebQuests carry open copyleft licenses that free us to reuse and build upon both the content of the Quest and the appearance as well.

      Good luck prepping! Let me know if I can point you towards some good design tricks. 🙂

      • Susan S Waring says:

        Oh, no! I agreed with you 100%! They are dated, and very wordy. Your article completely validated everything I’d been thinking over the past few days, which made me feel smart. Our kids are already very used to interacting with a much more visual interface! And when they are reading info on a screen, they aren’t really doing anything they couldn’t do with a textbook and a worksheet.

        I’m going to work for a large charter school company, the tech options are built in and I haven’t been able to explore them all. Student accounts and storage places are all in place on day 1. I’m trying to figure out how to most effectively teach, get everyone logged in, have them do a practice activity or create a product, and wrap it all up in 40 minutes. In a tidy bow so that I can quickly and easily assess and assign a grade.

        I’m thinking I’ll use Google docs/sites to create some tasks with embedded video or images of primary source documents, then have the students do a built in Google form that will compare/contrast, critical eval of a source, something like that. At this point it really is more about my ease in prep and assessment and I want to make sure the learning activity doesn’t get lost.

        • Ted Curran says:

          Hi Susan,
          I hope your lab with your new students was a success. Upon re-reading your comment, it reminded me of HyperDocs, which seems like a modern update to the WebQuest formula that classroom teachers are creating in Google Docs. This makes them easy to author so you can focus on the pedagogy. Also, unlike WebQuests, there seems to be a vibrant community of educators still putting this approach into action so you’ll have people to bounce ideas with. Best of luck-

  1. September 21, 2015

    […] Curran and his fabulous recycling of existing performance tasks in his post Action-Oriented eLearning with the Humble Webquest. He advocates for revamping the visually dated, but rich in authentic and relevant learning […]


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