Working the Web for Education
The 3 R’s of WebQuests
Let’s keep them Real, Rich, and Relevant
by Tom March
Web-based Educator and Director of Pty Ltd. • Southern Highlands, Australia
MultiMedia Schools • November/December 2000

Why the 3 R’s?
Ernest Hemingway said that he was gifted with something every true writer needs: a built-in “BS detector.” Pardoning his confronting vernacular, Hemingway identified a talent I’ve seen in most students: They can detect fake challenges and busy work whether it speaks from the front of the classroom, an animated Web page, or still-damp ditto sheets. To write WebQuests that engender a spirit of true learning and avoid what an astute colleague calls “playing school,” I apply a filter of “The New 3 R’s.” If a WebQuest-in-the-making isn’t Real, Rich, and Relevant, I work hard to make sure it is. In the following column we’ll reflect on several WebQuests to see how they could be improved by accenting the 3 R’s. I have to admit trepidation at critiquing activities into which educators have invested heaps of time and energy. I’m a firm believer in two things: one—the journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, and that’s terrific, and two—once we start posting things on the Web, we leave snapshots of where we were at that moment, not masterpieces to stand the test of time. No one is immune from the cringe of seeing our outdated efforts still floating around in cyberspace, and few of us have the time to make sure everything we’ve ever posted reflects our current level of sophistication. So let’s look with learning eyes that appreciate our colleagues’ contributions.
Right from the Introduction and Question/Task sections, it’s clear whether a WebQuest is Real. Are students looking at an issue or topic that concerns people in the real world? Are they asked to consider the issue in all its fullness or to discover a “right answer”? Is the task that students are to complete something that people really do in jobs and careers or an artificial activity that only carries meaning in a classroom setting? Let’s look at some examples. First, it’s common to see  WebQuests that direct students toward a politically correct answer. This situation is so rampant that we don’t need to mention any specific WebQuests, but simply reflect on many that we’ve seen. Questions/Tasks abound, such as: “What should be done to save the wetlands?” and “Create a poster that persuades all students to appreciate diversity.” Although my views would often see me branded with the “L word,” the point of a WebQuest is not to transmit codified knowledge, but for students to critically investigate an issue from many sides. Personally, I hope that open exploration leads students to discover the wisdom of conservancy and diversity, but to presume that this is so undermines the authenticity of their efforts and ignores that one of the most valuable aspects of the Internet is learning from people whose opinions may not represent mainstream views.

Besides making sure that we treat the topic in a Real way, we have to look at the task we prompt students to undertake. Although it can be fun, having students create a poem/play/presentation/etc., out of the information they have learned misses its potential if the product isn’t reviewed by a real audience. One of the great lessons of the Writing Process is the powerful effect that comes when students write to be read by real people. We should validate student effort by arranging for their work to receive some form of real-world feedback. E-mail, videoconferencing, and in-person interactions will motivate students and let them know their work is real and matters.

In addition to easily accessing non-mainstream perspectives, another positive aspect of the Web is that it provides the context that’s often missing in traditional school lessons and texts. Thus we can introduce students to interesting thematic relationships and juxtapositions that create a richness and complexity that should be the goal of every top-notch WebQuest. As an example, imagine a WebQuest where students investigate African American history and then design a wax museum to celebrate its most important aspects. Roles are chosen that encourage students to problem-solve the best way to arrive at their design. Although this works as a WebQuest, great potential exists to engage students in a richer discussion. Consider who’s developing the museum and who will profit from its patronage. Think about whether the most economically successful destination will pander to comfortable stereotypes or expose disturbing assumptions. What about the suggestion that white Americans prefer appreciating African Americans when made of wax, not when being challenged for equal opportunities? As educators writing or facilitating WebQuests, our main contribution is searching out and contextualizing such richness. Similarly, when learners study the arts, literature, or social events, it’s our wealth of experience that might relate Picasso’s “Guernica” to inner-city graffiti, The Lord of the Flies to street children in Angola, the Olympics to playground politics. By seeking the richness within the context of a topic, we’re not identifying what our students should learn, but providing a broader panorama that allows them to connect what they recognize in the landscape.

Additionally, if the activity could be accomplished as easily without the Web, why bother making it into a WebQuest? Examples exist online where students are asked to do something like write a fable or short story. Clearly the task requires higher-order thinking and can be structured to make the final product the honest synthesis of a group process. So far, so good. But sometimes the activities fail to take advantage of benefits afforded by the Internet such as added information, unusual perspectives, easy collaboration, and challenging contextualization. If these aspects aren’t used to make the students’ experience richer, we’re really using the Web as a means to publish instructions, not to leverage learning.

Finally, even when we’re confident we’ve chosen a topic that reverberates with the Real and includes elements that make it a Rich learning space, we’re still not finished. Students have to be able to find themselves, their concerns, or their interests in the scenarios we spin. I’ve had personal experience with a WebQuest I wrote called Searching for China that could be more relevant to students. Although many people view this as a successful WebQuest, creating relevance for students largely rests with the classroom teacher facilitating the WebQuest. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, high school students aren’t inherently interested in solving the riddle of international relations between the U.S. and China. I’ve seen the gamut of student responses from “F-You for giving me a D in social studies” to duly submitted Group Reports, sent to me as if I’m the teacher who will check that students got it right. My approach to remedy this situation has been to use a Subject Sampler like My China to create a buzz of interest in Chinese issues or an introductory WebQuest such as Does the Tiger Eat Her Cubs? to draw attention to the treatment of children as an attempt to make the topic more relevant to students. Using other activities as icebreakers before launching into a WebQuest can work well. Good teachers have always used motivating introductions to begin their units.

Another approach that works well with the conservation/science/controversial issue kinds of WebQuests is to use the wealth of the Web’s resources to “learn globally,” but ask students to “decide locally” when it comes to the Task. For example, students can learn globally about such issues as development’s impact on the environment or limiting freedom of expression, then recommend guidelines to the local board of education for choosing new school sites or supporting student-made Web sites. Not only does this strategy make use of the breadth of information available on the Web, but because students apply their newly acquired expertise from one situation to another posing different variables, this global-to-local shift can prompt the transformation of information into new knowledge.

Admittedly, in the harried world of K-12 schools, curriculum development is rarely a perfect art. I wholeheartedly encourage educators to attempt WebQuests as part of an ongoing process that involves healthy portions of professional reflection and student feedback. Remember the wisdom of a “Ready, Fire! Aim” approach. It’s far better to have a go at any integration of the Web than to sit on the sidelines and leave students to drift amidst the surf at home. And our contribution to the Web-integration endeavor highlights, finally, why good WebQuests take advantage of the 3 R’s. When everyone can publish on the Web, it smacks of reality in all its uneven glory. To quote Joseph Campbell, “If you really want to help the world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it.” Good WebQuests are one way to help students grapple with age-appropriate doses of what’s real. Next, in our age of explosive information growth, the Web demands a learning-to-learn approach over the transmission of pre-digested knowledge. Textbooks and other reductive bodies of knowledge ill-prepare students to make the cognitive connections that lead to understanding a world defined by rapid changes. Consciously increasing the richness of students’ learning experiences through Web access turns potential confusion into an opportunity to construct more complex mental schema. Finally, motivation theories argue that increased relevance can lead to better achievement. So tap the Web’s vast content to relate topics so that they poignantly touch your students’ lives.

It’s been my experience as both designer and coach that constructing WebQuests that are Real, Rich, and Relevant engages us in a creative process that is both simulating and professionally rewarding. When we stretch ourselves to design WebQuests that make the most of what the medium provides, we are truly working the Web for education.

Tom March develops Web-based activities, tools and strategies for teachers integrating the Net into classroom learning. Pty Ltd. ( designs Web sites for clients in the U.S. and Australia. To contact the author, call, fax or e-mail  him; phone: 612 4872 321; fax: 612 4872 321; e-mail:

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