Promoting Student Inquiry: WebQuests to Web Inquiry Projects
Diego State University
Diego State University
of North Carolina,
Abstract: By the earliest definition
(Dodge, 1995) a WebQuest is “an inquiry-oriented activity in which
most of the information learners work with comes from the web.”
WebQuests are defined first as being “inquiry-oriented,” but are
they truly an example of inquiry or are they something else? The
majority of WebQuests fall under Herron’s (1971) category of structured
inquiry, but there are higher levels of inquiry desired by educators
that are difficult to promote using the WebQuests model. Based
on a spiral path of inquiry, Web Inquiry Projects (WIPs) are designed
to promote such higher levels of inquiry, specifically Herron’s
levels of guided and open inquiry.
In early 1995 the WebQuest
was developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March as a way to help learners
focus on using online information rather than looking for it.
By the earliest definition (Dodge, 1995) a WebQuest is “an inquiry-oriented
activity in which most of the information learners work with comes
from the web.” WebQuests are defined first as being “inquiry-oriented,”
but are they truly an example of inquiry or are they something
The answer to this question
might depend on how you define “inquiry.” It has been said that
if you ask ten different educators to define “inquiry” you are
likely to receive eleven different definitions. In an effort to
produce a definition that represents the needs of every content
area, the Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry (1996) developed
the following definition: “Inquiry is an approach to learning
that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world,
that leads to asking questions and making discoveries in
the search for new understandings.”
An inquiry approach
to learning can look markedly different depending upon content
area. In the social studies, inquiry might require learners to
analyze primary source materials in developing an understanding
of historical events and how they are relevant to today. Inquiry
in science might involve learners in observing and describing
some natural phenomenon that is new to them, or in testing scientific
hypotheses through systematic laboratory investigations. No matter
the content area, regardless of the role inquiry plays in any
given learning situation, it should give learners an opportunity
to solve real-world problems, overcoming authentic obstacles in
solving these problems.
On one extreme, this
process can be significantly scaffolded, requiring learners to
follow a prescribed path toward a preset solution. On the other
extreme, it can be open-ended to the point of being defined and
solved completely within learners’ interests and efforts. Between
these two extremes exists intermediate
levels of inquiry. Accurately determining the level of inquiry
reflected in a particular activity is, therefore, a critical first
step to inquiry instruction. Although not currently in widespread
use, Herron (1971) developed a simple and practical rubric for
assessing the degree to which activities promote student inquiry.
Based partly upon the writings of Schwab (1964), Herron’s Scale
describes four levels of inquiry, each differentiated by the information
and support given to students prior to or as they complete the
Four Levels of Inquiry
Confirmation/Verification – students
confirm a principle through a prescribed activity when the
results are known in advance.
Structured Inquiry – students investigate a teacher-presented question
through a prescribed procedure.
Guided Inquiry – students investigate a teacher-presented
question using student
Open Inquiry – students
investigate topic-related questions that are student formulated
through student designed/selected procedures.
When an activity is evaluated for its level of
inquiry, a simple table establishing what is given to the learner
determines at which level of inquiry the given activity resides—the
less given to the learner the higher the level of inquiry (see
1: What is given to the learner?
Early Internet Inquiry: The WebQuest
While WebQuests are
touted as being “inquiry-oriented” activities, just where in Herron’s
inquiry hierarchy do they fall? Originally WebQuests were intended
to be structured inquiry (Level 1), as students are given a task
(problem) and a process (procedure) to complete the task. Of the
WebQuests produced to date, many do not qualify as “inquiry-oriented.”
In fact, a portion of what creators are labeling as “WebQuests”
can easily be confused with less sophisticated Internet Scavenger
Hunts. In these activities no true problem is presented, and learners
follow the familiar procedure of answering given questions by
going to specific web sites.
The San Diego State
University WebQuest Page includes a database of links to hundreds
of created WebQuests. The WebQuests listed in this database were
pre-screened for quality but were not investigated as to which
level of inquiry each resides. Recently, 75 sampled WebQuests
were investigated, 25 from each major schooling level. From this
sample, zero WebQuests were Level 3, 12 were Level 2, 45 were
Level 1, and 3 were Level 0. Additionally, 15 did not qualify
as being inquiry-oriented, but instead resembled Internet Scavenger
Hunts. Unfortunately the widespread acceptance of WebQuests as
a valuable educational tool has, in some cases, compromised their
2: WebQuest levels of inquiry
WebQuests were developed
as an early step in answering the question, “How can Internet
resources be effectively used in the classroom?” When the WebQuests concept
was created over six years ago, there was no formal method of
using the Internet to support “learners’ thinking levels of analysis,
synthesis and evaluation”—important components of inquiry-based
learning. WebQuests can, if created and used correctly, promote
inquiry-oriented learning, particularly structured inquiry (Level
1). WebQuests will continue to serve as an important component
of web learning, but it is now time to take the training wheels
off and consider where the WebQuest concept can lead, especially
with regard to promoting higher levels of inquiry-oriented learning.
Guided inquiry (Level
2) requires learners to design and select procedures, and open
inquiry (Level 3) also requires that learners formulate their
own topic-related inquiries. With no preset procedures and perhaps
no teacher-defined questions to drive an activity, is it possible
to develop a model similar to WebQuests that is more open-ended?
Some Early Thoughts on Web Inquiry Projects (WIPs)
Web Inquiry Projects
(WIPs) are intended to meet this need. Promoting higher levels
of inquiry in the classroom requires that less specific guidance
be given to students. This fact alone makes it difficult to produce
a model that is used by students in the way that WebQuests are
used. Therefore, WIPs will likely be used primarily as a teacher
resource, providing loose structure and guidance to teachers wishing
to make good use of the wealth of available uninterpreted online
data. Such data can be found at thousands of web sites, an excellent
source being Digital Resource Centers (Center for Technology and
Teacher Education, 2001). Digital Resource Centers “have the potential
of transforming university teaching and learning” and “are relevant
for K-12 education.” Such collections include the Library of Congress’
American Memories, the Virginia
Center for Digital
History’s Valley of the Shadow, the National Climatic
Data Center, and the U.S. Census. Social studies teachers
might use a WIP to help students use primary source materials
to determine what life was like for a southern family during the
Civil War (Mason & Carter, 1999). A science teacher might
use a WIP to help students use historical rainfall data to determine
whether or not El Niño had an affect on their local weather during
the winter of 1997-98 (Bell,
Niess, & Bell,
2001). WIPs created from these examples are available at http://edweb.sdsu.edu/wip.
WIPs are intended to
be used as inquiry roadmaps for teachers desiring to promote higher
levels of student-centered inquiry, specifically by leveraging
uninterpreted online data to answer inquiry-oriented questions.
Unlike WebQuests, which provide students with a procedure and
the online resources needed to complete a predefined task, WIPs
will place more emphasis in having students determine their own
task, define their own procedures, and play a role in finding
the needed online resources. The WIP concept is based upon and
designed to support a spiral path of inquiry (adapted from The
Inquiry Page, 2001). WIPs will provide teachers with six stages
of scaffolding as they lead students in a web-enhanced inquiry
project. While an inquiry-oriented activity might start at any
of these stages, WIPs will be designed to initiate student inquiry
at the Reflect stage.
Figure 1: Teacher
support of spiral path of inquiry
The six stages in this path, including the proposed role of WIPs
in these stages, are as follows:
General description of
stage: Teachers leverage previous activities or start anew
by sparking students’ interest in a topical area. At this stage
teachers are to provide a hook, causing students to reflect upon
Role: Reflect on previous or new material.
Role: Define and make interesting a learning topic by providing
a learning hook.
Role: Provide ideas and resources for topical hook.
General description of
stage: Based in the students’ interests sparked by the hook,
the teacher leads students to ask questions related to the topic.
Student Role: Ask
questions related to topic.
Role: Provide focus by keeping questions on topic.
Role: Provide potential topical inquiry-oriented questions.
General description of
stage: After questions have been asked by the students, the
teacher assists them in defining the procedures for investigation,
including type(s) of data to be used.
Student Role: Define
Teacher Role: Ensure
procedures are rigorous by ensuring that they are consistent with
research methods pertinent to the respective content area.
Role: Define potential procedures, including type(s) of data
General description of
stage: Students seek online data that will be used to answer
their questions, while the teacher provides guidance on the relevancy
and reliability of data.
Student Role: Gather
and investigate data.
Teacher Role: Assist
students in finding and assessing credibility of data. Here also,
the teacher might participate with students in finding resources
or have pre-selected resources in mind related to the topic introduced
in Stage 1.
Role: Provide list of potential resources of online data.
General description of
stage: When data is found the teacher must ensure that students
have facility with the tools needed to manipulate data to aid
in analysis. If numerical data must be manipulated then students
will likely need facility with a spreadsheet application. If data
is non-numerical, then concept mapping or database software might
Student Role: Analyze
and manipulate data.
Teacher Role: Provide
data manipulation tools and training using tools.
Role: Provide an example of manipulated data.
General description of
stage: No conclusion is meaningful unless communicated appropriately.
After students have manipulated the data, they report their findings,
draw conclusions, and support these conclusions with data. Here
the teacher must support students’ efforts in presenting their
results in writing, through graphical presentations, and through
rhetoric. At this point, new inquiry-based questions might be
asked as students reflect upon their results, restarting the process.
Student Role: Report
findings, draw conclusions, support conclusions with data.
Teacher Role: Support
students’ efforts in presenting and defending results.
Role: Provide example of defended results. Provide example
of new inquiry-oriented questions.
In the last five years
WebQuests have proven to be useful in promoting Herron’s Level
1 of structured inquiry. At a time when educators struggled to
provide an effective way to make good use of the Internet, the
WebQuest model supplied the scaffolding needed by both students
and teachers. WebQuests will continue to be an important component
of inquiry-oriented learning.
Being heavily scaffolded,
WebQuests prevent learners from participating in higher-level
inquiry activities. Now that both teachers and students have more
facility with the Internet, scaffolding from the WebQuest model
can be removed, leading us to Web Inquiry Projects. If used appropriately,
WIPs will help educators promote guided and open inquiry, Levels
2 and 3, respectively.
Bell, R. L., Niess, M. L., & Bell, L. L. (2001).
El Niño did it: Using technology to assess and predict climate
trends. Learning and Leading
with Technology, 29(4). 18-23, 26.
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[Online]. Available: http://edweb.sdsu.edu/courses/edtec596/about_webquests.html.
Herron, M.D. (1971). The nature of scientific
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The Inquiry Page. (2001). Available:
Library of Congress: American memories [Online]. Available: (http://memory.loc.gov).
Mason, C. L., & Carter, A. (1999, September/October).
The Garbers: Using digital history to recreate a 19th-century
family. Social Studies and the Young Learner,
National Climatic Data Center [Online].
Schwab, J. J. (1964). Structure of the disciplines: Meanings
and significances. In G. W. Ford & L. Pugno (Eds.), The structure of knowledge and the curriculum (pp. 6-30). Chicago:
U.S. Census. [Online]. Available: (http://www.census.gov).
for Digital History: Valley of the shadow. (http://jefferson.
The WebQuest Page. Available