Evaluating Online Learning Activities: Webquests

Here I will evaluate one type of online learning activity, the webquest. Webquests are teacher created activities that require students to navigate to various websites in search of information on a topic.

Webquests have recently been touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread. However, my reaction, thus far, has been…ehh. Nonetheless, my technology hungry students love to kick back and click, and these activities tend to satiate that interest for them.

Recently, while looking for resources to use in our upcoming unit on geology, I found this Rock Cycle and Geologic Time Webquest, which is very similar to other webquests I have viewed in the past. Below I have compiled my general thoughts on webquests, while in the context of using this specific resource.

Generally, and this one is no exception, my greatest complaint about webquests is that they are so often written as low level thinking activities. Webquests take too much time to be spent on low cognitive tasks, which to me equals BUSY WORK. My class time is too short and too precious to have zombified students click, copy and pasting their day away. Further, it’s the internet gosh darn it…with limitless opportunities for critical thinking and creativity in a convenient package. Why are we limiting kids as if they’re still using computers from the 1980s?

Just to get off of the read/regurgitate wheel, I would amend the prescribed tasks with activities requiring some application and analysis of the content. Depending on the breadth of the content, I may use it as a starting point for more evaluative tasks or as a reference for something they’ll need to create. One approach I had attempted in the past (with mixed results, but believe strongly that could be successful with some tweaking) was to have the students themselves create the webquest and then evaluate each others resource by completing them. For the webquest I’ve cited here, I will likely rearrange the order (I don’t want to teach geologic time scale before sedimentary rock layers and the rock cycle…I’m a little linear that way) and chunk the activities, so that I can have students work in groups to ‘share findings’ and ‘make connections’ after completing a section. Rather than having them all follow the same webquest, they’d each work a section and then work together to make relationships between the content they uncovered.

Despite having been found on a blog that appears to have been abandoned early in its establishment several years ago, I was very pleased with the quality of the linked web resources (and the fact that they actually worked!). Often I find webquests that link to poor quality or non-functioning websites, which is absolutely frustrating. This could easily derail an entire class in short order, if a teacher failed to diligently scrutinize every click and scroll before handing it over to their students. Of course, that would never happen in my classroom, less I forgot that the students have stronger content filters when they’re logged in and half the links are blocked because of the banner commercials 😉

All in all, I think webquests are fine…just fine. They can be awesome when manipulated in such a way that leads students to collaborative problem solving or the creation of a product born of critical thinking. However, unless and until then, they make for great substitute plans, if your sub isn’t afraid to let kids touch computers!

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