Webquests - an experiment by James Frith
Recent years have witnessed an explosion in the use of personal computers in all walks of life, coupled with the almost overnight influence of powerful communication tools in the internet and email. These developments have obviously had a profound effect on mainstream education and I think it is only a matter of time before we experience significant changes in the world of ELT as a whole (1). For this reason, I feel it prudent to try to be prepared.
But why should ICT have such an impact? Computers have the potential to be an extremely learner-centred resource. Firstly there is an unlimited amount of authentic material available on the internet, along with published games and a number of rapidly improving ELT sites, which means that there is something to suit every student’s needs and interests. Because websites are updated daily, the information is also far more topical than a coursebook can ever be. But it is not just the variety that is appealing. In addition, computers combine visual, audio and kinesthetic stimuli. Motivation can also be provided through providing tasks which mirror those performed in the real world. For example, using email and chat and even designing websites provide real purposes to language use. With sufficient training, I believe that computers offer the student a gateway to genuine autonomy in language learning across all four skills.
Exciting though this sounds, my experiences with ICT in the classroom have until now been somewhat limited. I have experimented with research homework in which students have, for example, compared tabloid and broadsheet reporting styles; I have used the ‘BBC Learning English’ site to work on vocabulary from the news; I have worked with pages and texts from the internet in a similar way to which I would work with any other text, but I have always felt I am not doing justice to the vast possibilities available. I have felt in need of guidance as to how to best exploit the medium.
I also feel concern about the possible pitfalls. My knowledge of computers is limited and as such I do not feel confident in overcoming technical difficulties. Whilst on the negative issues, it is important to highlight the practicalities of cost, space, connection speed and software which I imagine will be the most important obstacles, in schools around the world, to the implementation of computer-based teaching in the near future.When I mentioned to a colleague that I was interested in looking into ICT for my experimental practice paper, he thrust an article on ‘webquests’ into my hand. Was this what I had been looking for? In the article, Brabbs (02:39) describes a webquest as: ‘a project which uses the internet as its main source of information’. He goes on to describe the step-by-step process which involves a task modelled on a real life one. Enthused by the fact that I seemed to have found something which brought together the advantages of ICT which I mentioned above, I found an online course being run by Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly called ‘The Internet – Collaborative Tasks and Project Work’ and enrolled.
1. Although my experience has taught me that ICT is already widely used on ESL and EAP courses in the UK, for example.
What is a Webquest?
Bernie Dodge of San Diego State University was one of the first people to attempt to define this kind of activity. According to him, a webquest is “an inquiry-oriented activity in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the internet…” (Dodge 1995).
He identifies two types of webquest;
SHORT TERM WEBQUESTS involve knowledge acquisition and integration.
LONGER TERM WEQUESTS involve extending and refining knowledge through analysis and transformation of that knowledge and demonstrating an understanding of the knowledge by creating something.
Philip Benz (2001) later refined these definitions. He describes webquests as; “a constructivist approach to learning (…). Students not only collate and organize information (…), they orient their activities towards a specific goal (…) often associated with one or more roles modelled on adult professions.”
Why Use Webquests?
Structure of a Webquest
The Introduction introduces the theme, provides background information on the topic and offers key vocabulary and concepts the learners will need to complete the tasks.
The Task should be motivating, interesting and related to real-life situations. There should be clear goals.
The Process stage guides the learners through a set of communicative activities and research tasks, using a set of carefully chosen internet resources. This stage may also introduce or recycle lexical /grammatical areas essential to the task by integrating it into the task. There will usually be a product (e.g. a presentation or report) to be looked at in the evaluation stage.
The Evaluation stage can involve self or peer evaluation (with evaluation criteria), giving feedback on what students have learned as well as teacher evaluation.
After analysing the theory and learning about searching for and selecting appropriate internet materials, the final week of the course involved producing a webquest appropriate to the needs and interests of a group of learners. The group I chose is an intermediate group of students on a summer course where the principal focus is on developing oral communication skills. Using a webquest with this class will conform to this goal and, in this situation, where I am not tied to a coursebook syllabus, I also have the time available to attempt a longer unit of project work such as this.
The group is made up of young Spanish professionals in their twenties and thirties. One of the key issues for the group is that of getting onto and moving up the property ladder and so this is what I chose as the theme for the webquest I was to write. This theme has the additional benefit that it is not too specific to one particular group of learners and can be used with other groups, an important consideration in material writing.
The group had specifically asked for discussion material and so I incorporated joint decision making tasks into the project. I was also careful to maintain a strong visual focus in all stages in order to cater for a tendency within the group toward this style of “intelligence”.
The task in the resulting webquest (see appendix for webquest and lesson plan) is to select a property to “buy” from the internet, furnish it and produce a visual display on card including a plan of the house and a text outlining reasons for the choices made. This is to be followed by a written self-evaluation. The final product mirrors tasks which the students may have to perform in English in their professional lives in that some of the students are required to attend meetings, analyse and transform information and provide a written report for their company.
My objectives for the experiment are to provide a learner-centred approach through interesting and stimulating material, visual and kinesthetic stimuli and tasks modelled on those performed in real life. I also hope to provide opportunities for meaningful communication and co-operation, analysis and transformation of information and self-evaluation as a step towards learner autonomy. I am particularly interested to see how well the students respond to self-evaluation, something which I have never tried before.
In order to assess whether these objectives have been met I will use three main techniques.
I shall divide my analysis of the outcomes into two parts. Firstly I shall evaluate the lesson in terms of effectiveness of procedure and materials and realisation of aims. Then I shall go on to look at the investigation as a whole, focussing on its overall objectives and the implications for the use of technology in the classroom. In both sections I shall also look to the future to suggest how adaptations could be made.
The students and I felt that the key aims were met and that opportunities were provided for reflection through writing and self-evaluation (unfortunately, there was no opportunity for peer evaluation due to the small group size). However, as I set the self-evaluation stage for homework because of time restraints, only one student actually completed it!
After experiencing huge benefits from self-evaluation on the online course I took, I need to consider very carefully how I can encourage it in my students. I will treat this as a priority as, ironically, the realisation of its value was the most profound development I made on the course.
As ever, in addition to the scheduled aims, there were unexpected learning opportunities. I was surprised that upper-intermediate students were not familiar with all of the room names they met, but then again, terms such as ‘utility room’ rarely appear in course books. The main area of vocabulary expansion, however, was in the lexical field of computer terminology. If I were to repeat this class, or indeed any ICT session, I would probably slot a session on this area into the syllabus, with a view to prepare the students.
Other procedural points that I noticed, were that the ‘brainstorming of qualities of your ideal home’ stage could have been spiced up a little by offering more ideas to the students. Jill Hadfield includes a suitable activity in ‘Classroom Dynamics’ (1992).
Part 1 was perhaps not as clear as it could have been. Perhaps the students were not completely aware of what it was they were supposed to be doing. For example, the students could not decide whether they were looking for a holiday home or not. I should look at this section again and refine the instructions.
More focussed criteria all round in fact would enable the teacher to keep the stages brief and the dynamic upbeat. This is particularly true of the ‘choosing property’ stage, where the students were offered property from all around Europe and the world, although they wanted to find something in Spain. A great deal of time was spent looking in vain. Suggestions we came up with afterwards were to include more Spanish property websites in English at this stage, if they exist! A good place to start looking would be amongst the ex-pat community.
The final stage could be livened up by transforming it into show-viewing role-play, perhaps adding a stage to introduce estate agent lexis and/or language of persuasion. The presentation could even take place in the next class, thereby offering an opportunity to ‘space’ the recycling of vocabulary. Through the use of role-play the ‘potential buyers’ would find themselves in a more natural position to ask questions about the displays too.
In fact, talking of displays, it turned out that card was not necessary as the students prepared everything on PowerPoint, which lends itself naturally to being presented to a group.
Another technological opportunity which I had missed was to have offered desktop dictionaries instead.
The most noticeable problem to my colleague was that webquests really lend themselves to project work. I found myself under pressure from the clock and had to omit the ‘furnishing’ stage. I could have speeded up the ‘top 10 ideal property criteria’ by allowing the students to write on paper, but here I really did feel that the use of ICT aided focus on the task. Later, the use of ‘Powerpoint’ meant that the students were focussing on form. This sense of focus which computers lend the learner is something I noticed on my online training course too.
Possibly the strongest argument against the use of ICT in the classroom is that technology can be unreliable. I personally do not think that this is reason enough to abandon it completely, but teachers need to be made aware of the pitfalls, be prepared with alternatives and, where possible, be trained with the necessary computer skills (I intend to enrol on a course) or have recourse to a technician. During the preparation for my class (which took 2 hours longer than envisaged) it turned out that one of the computers was not working and the grouping of students had to be changed, thus changing the dynamic and diminishing the focus, which in turn led to negotiation and co-operation problems. I should have been prepared with ‘language of negotiation’ to help the students surmount these problems.
To round up, lets look back to the objectives I outlined at the start of this paper.
The first benefit I was hoping to achieve through the use of computers was to allow for a learner-centred classroom. I would still argue that computers are a valid resource for such an end, although it was important to note that some students commented that they use computers at work and hope to escape them for a while in English class. Nevertheless, it was agreed that the fact that the session had been ‘a nice change’ compensated. If ICT is not overused (with adults) then, it can provide authentic, topical, challenging, stimulating material. Teachers, however still have the responsibility to take individual students’ needs and interests into account and take the time to select material accordingly. They also need to be aware that websites disappear.
In terms of mirroring real-world tasks, I felt that the experiment had a degree of success. I feel though, that computers, and in particular the internet and email, could offer a great deal more which is a great deal more realistic. I plan for example to move on from here by investigating how to set up and develop a keypal exchange between groups of students in different countries who would need to use English as their common tongue. At the end I have needed to step back and remind myself that webquests are just the tip of the iceberg.
Benz, P. 2001. Webquests, a Constructivist Approach. http://www.ardecol.ac-grenoble.fr/english/tice/enwebquests.htm
Brabbs, P. 2002. ‘Webquests.’ English Teaching Professional, 24: 39-41.
Brett, P. and G. Motteram (eds). 2000. A Special Interest in Computers – Language Teaching with Information and Communication Technologies. Whitstable: IATEFL
Dodge, B. 1995. Some Thoughts about Webquests. http://edweb.sdsu.edu/courses/edtec596/about_webquests.html
Dudeney, G. 2000. The Internet and the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP
Dudeney, G. 2003. Webquests in the Language Classroom. Barcelona: Net Languages
Dudeney, G.and N. Hockly. 2003. The Internet – Collaborative Tasks and Project Work. (online course) Barcelona: consultants-e
Hardisty, D. and S. Windeatt. CALL. Oxford: OUP
Windeatt, S., D. Hardisty and D. Eastment. 2000. The Internet. Oxford: OUP
Lesson Plan - the preliminary information
Time: 60 minutes
Timetable Fit: As part of a summer course with a focus on conversation, this will be free-standing project work.
Assumed Knowledge: I assume that the students have at least basic computer skills, including internet and word processing skills and a familiarity with Windows operating systems or that if not, at least one member of each group will. Groups will be carefully selected taking this into account. Students shouldn’t have problems with creating a floor plan of a house or flat.
Anticipated Problems and Solutions: Students may be reluctant to use language provided in discussion activities. Some ‘thinking time’ may help focus here.
Also, students may find it difficult to agree on criteria or properties. Time limits will have to be set with majority decisions being made if all else fails.
Links to websites will need to be checked before the class to make sure that they are still online and up-to-date.
Computer connections may be slow. Some activities may have to be cut short or limited. In the worst case scenario the lesson may need to be postponed, for which I will need an alternative plan up my sleeve.
Students may well find it unusual and therefore difficult to evaluate each other’s work. Clear criteria need to be set and time needs to be given.
The lesson procedure
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