The CyberQuest:A Tool to Assess Educational Resources on the Internet

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1) When the Internet explosion occurred in the U.S., I was leading a very low-tech life as a visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, during the 1995-96 academic year. For several months after returning to the States, I avoided the Internet beyond basic e-mail use until I realized my students were using the Web frequently but without a lot of direction or discretion. Helping them provided impetus for me to incorporate the Net into teaching.

2) The WebQuest, developed by Bernie Dodge of San Diego State University, provides a general model for the CyberQuest. As background for understanding the CyberQuest process, a brief review of WebQuests may be useful. WebQuests utilize role-playing and topical curricular issues to examine and evaluate information on the World Wide Web. In a sample WebQuest, for instance, participants might evaluate Web sites carrying information to support drug and alcohol education, evaluating the material within the context of pre-assigned pedagogical roles. One participant might adopt the role of the "Technophile," a computer enthusiast who considers any use of computer-based instruction valuable. By contrast, the "Efficiency Expert" would adopt a pragmatic attitude, advocating any method of presenting material that achieves a teacher's objectives. After viewing different Web sites offering information on the topic considered, participants evaluate the material from their particular critical lenses and then reach a consensus on the most useful sites to use with students. Dodge's WebQuest page can be located at the following URL: http://edweb.sdsu.edu/webquest/webquest.html

3) All CyberQuests can be accessed through the following Web site designed specifically for educators: www. buffalostate.edu/~beaverjf/internet/index.htm

4) The assessment tool asked respondents to rate each stem according to a Likert scale from 1 ("not useful") to 5 ("very useful").

References

Allington, Richard. 1995. "Who Controls the Literature Curriculum?" Literature Update Fall.

Deal, Nancy. 1998. "Getting Teacher Educators Caught in the Web." T.H.E. Journal 26(1).

Kaiser, Marjorie. 1995. "The Young Adult Literature Course: Young Readers Teach Prospective Teachers about Reading Interests and Reader Response." ALAN Review 22(2).

Young, Jean Helen. 1991-92. "Curriculum Integration: Perceptions of Preservice Teachers." Action in Teacher Education 8(4).

Nancy Deal |Assistant Professor
Department of English
SUNY College at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY

A truism about teaching suggests that we tend to teach like we were taught. Even the most enthusiastically radical education students often bear out this truism when faced with actual teaching situations or decisions about what and how to teach. Introducing the complexities of the Internet into preservice teachers' arsenal of resources complicates the paradox between tradition and innovation even more. The potentially overwhelming nature of the Internet may cause some future - and veteran - teachers to avoid the medium, sticking with teaching materials and strategies they know rather than tackling the challenges posed by the Internet for the enhancement of learning.

Although assuming such an "ostrich" attitude toward this dynamic technology may be tempting, the Internet will almost certainly continue to expand its impact on education and society as a whole, at least within the foreseeable future.1 Because the Internet offers so many instructional possibilities, along with potential problems, finding strategies to utilize Web-based instruction meaningfully will be critical for all teachers in the next millennium. This article describes the use of the CyberQuest, an activity I have developed to help focus secondary English education students on productive processes for assessing Web-based educational materials and incorporating them into the classroom.

Getting Caught in the Web

Most Internet users have experienced the phenomenon of "getting caught in the Web" - that is, spending hours exploring all sorts of interesting sites but never addressing the reason they first went online in the first place. Despite the many excellent educational resources available through the Internet, education students still in the process of developing their abilities to make sound curricular decisions are faced with a daunting task when examining Web resources. As one of my students described the Internet, the medium can be simply "a huge collection of stuff" unless we have some guidance for finding, then evaluating, useful links relevant to our disciplines and teaching objectives.

Because "it has been common ... for groups of teachers to work to define a curriculum around a set of core books to be read in a particular course ... or at a particular grade level" (Allington 1995), allowing English education majors to explore text selections within a group of peers from a perspective of creating core reading experiences for students seems a vital exercise to prepare them for their future roles as curriculum innovators and implementers. Teacher education courses can help create collaborative learning situations that encourage students to ask "questions about [teachers'] roles and the value of the content we offer" (Kaiser 1995). At the same time, free-wheeling discussions or unstructured technology explorations may suggest to novices that "such [curricular] choices may be based on individual preferences, commonsense views of what is meaningful and fun, and stereotyped notions of what particular students need or can learn," without emphasizing the importance of the process of curriculum planning (Young 1991).

The problem of text selection alone is challenging. But what happens when we add the expectation that novice teachers infuse technology into their teaching? Students are generally familiar with, if not wholly conscious of, values that frame text selection and literature study, applying a New Critical, reader response or other approach they have been exposed to in the classroom. Helping future English teachers clarify the basis behind their text selections is obviously critical. Technology infusion into the curriculum, however, may need new guidelines.

The CyberQuest was developed to provide a structure for the exploration of English and language arts material on the Web to enhance the teaching of literature. Based on a more generalized Web-based activity for evaluating Internet sites for educators,2 the CyberQuest utilizes "Cyberguides" developed by the SCORE project (Schools of California Online Resources for Educators). Unlike many education-oriented Web sites, Cyberguides focus exclusively on the study of literature and the development of the language arts. SCORE has developed Cyberguides for grades K-12, selecting both classic and contemporary children's and young adult literature texts as topics.

However, Cyberguides extend text-based study to include Web-based activities that enhance users' interaction with literature as well as extend their familiarity with using technology. The high quality of the Cyberguides provides both a significant contribution to any teachers' literature curriculum yet creates an additional dilemma beyond deciding which texts to use. Incorporating Cyberguides in a literature program means the English/language arts teacher must balance text selections along with an assessment of the Internet resources.

Table 1

The Constructivist

  • Is student-centered, not teacher- or text-centered
  • Encourages students to make meaning out of texts and create products illustrating their understanding
  • Believes in knowledge construction and wants students to be active learners
  • Focuses on process and discovery learning

The Technologist

  • Believes that technology applications enrich and enhance the English curriculum
  • Feels students should learn many technology tools and use them in English class when appropriate
  • Endorses technology mastery as a critical lifelong learning skill for all students
  • Suggests that the greater the level of technology infusion, the better the lesson

The Traditionalist

  • Supports historically approved and widely used literary content
  • Believes in Core Knowledge, an accepted body of understanding that all students should learn
  • Feels that the text should remain the foundation of literature study
  • Endorses reading and writing as the fundamental literacy skills

The Expansionist

  • Endorses an inclusive approach that expands the study of literature beyond the text itself
  • Exposes students to a wide range of resources that broaden and deepen their understanding of the text
  • Uses varied resources to help students establish context and extend their appreciation of literature

The CyberQuest: Process & Roles

The CyberQuest is a cooperative learning activity in which participants adopt a role-play scenario with the specific goal of enhancing English teachers' interaction with Web-based instruction. Because of the quality of the Cyberguides, selection becomes difficult - all have potential value, so the evaluator may find it difficult to eliminate any from consideration except on the basis of personal preference. Thus, the CyberQuest roles become particularly important to create a sound pedagogical rationale for selections. Additionally, the roles help focus the group decision-making on intellectual versus personality conflicts.

Working in a computer lab, CyberQuesters collaborate in teams of four and are given the task of reformulating their imaginary school district's literature curriculum to include increased technology infusion. Individually, CyberQuesters examine six Cyberguides; they must eliminate two and rank order the four remaining based on reasons that represent the teaching philosophy of their assigned role. Once participants make individual selections, the team must reach group consensus and articulate the rationale behind their final decisions.

The Cyberguides themselves are created according to a series of activities or tasks that use Internet resources to supplement the study of a particular piece of literature. (For example, one activity in the Cyberguide for Arthur Miller's The Crucible asks students to conduct research into the McCarthy "Red Scare" hearings through a series of links on the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood blacklist, etc.). Because I work with students in secondary English education, we generally focus on Cyberguides appropriate for high school-level literature study, but a colleague and I have created CyberQuests for primary and middle grade literature as well.3

The roles were designed to reflect familiar teaching approaches but also to address attitudes toward technology integration within the English classroom. The "Constructivist" in the CyberQuest, for instance, not only believes that students generate their own meaning but also expects students to create products illustrating their knowledge construction - in other words, utilizing the hands-on nature of computers to achieve a verifiable outcome. The other roles represented in the CyberQuest are the Technologist, the Traditionalist and the Expansionist (characteristics of each role are summarized in Table 1).

Student Responses to the CyberQuest

The CyberQuest has proved beneficial to preservice teachers in several ways. At the most fundamental level, the exercise introduces English and language arts teachers to high quality Internet resources. More importantly, it provides a process for making decisions about infusing Web technology into the literature curriculum as well as modeling a structure for using the Web with students. After completing a CyberQuest, my Methods students have been uniformly enthusiastic - not only about the exercise specifically but about the possibilities offered by Internet-based teaching in general.

A post-CyberQuest assessment tool administered to a pilot group in the fall semester of 1998 provided quantitative data that suggests the value of the CyberQuest to preservice teachers. From this group of CyberQuesters, 93% found the exercise "very useful" in helping to 1) raise awareness of Internet resources relevant to the discipline of English; 2) increase understanding of technology infusion in the English classroom; and 3) heighten appreciation of the importance of pedagogical approaches toward technology infusion. Additionally, 80% of the respondents indicated that, after participating in the CyberQuest, they had gained greater interest in technology infusion as well as greater knowledge about possible implementation strategies.4

Beyond the quantitative results, however, these students' qualitative responses provide insight into the benefits that they received from the activity. The stereotype of "English-types" as technophobes appears to have some validity among this particular population. Several students indicated that the CyberQuest had succeeded in decreasing their fear of technology and had forced them to confront the Internet. As one student remarked, "This Web site helps lessen the fear of technology for me. Now I know there are these Web sites to help learn [about literature] in yet another format. As someone who d'esn't take advantage of the possibilities found in this technology, I was happy to find so much relevant material so readily .... Knowing where to go certainly helps in discovering numerous possibilities."

Even those students who reported familiarity with the Internet suggested that previous uses of the technology had not necessarily garnered similar productive results for their efforts. Student comments included: "I have tried very hard to find useful links. Finally, I have located something I will not get lost in and find completely useless in the end;" "I can't believe I'm almost student teaching and never knew all these resources existed;" "I had no idea this information was on the Internet. The worst part of it all is that I am on the Internet constantly: at home, work, school, etc. This was extremely insightful."

 

Modeling Technology Integration

These comments, although positive, also sketch a troubling outline: students are not receiving enough direction about technology integration in their teacher preparation program. As one student commented, "I haven't really ever been introduced to the Internet at all. I knew information was out there but have never been shown how to access it." In a follow-up to a previous study, students were asked to complete a pre-CyberQuest questionnaire intended to gauge their exposure to technology within their education major (Deal 1998).

As in the earlier study, the results of the most recent survey revealed that despite students' individual use of the Internet and their perception of technology mastery as being critical for teaching, they are not receiving systematic help from teacher education faculty in learning to work with information technology. In this sample of students, two-thirds reported using the Internet "frequently;" all reported at least occasional use of the medium. Although 75% reported accessing teaching ideas from the Internet, two-thirds also indicated that, excluding the CyberQuest session, they had never received modeling of technology infusion by an instructor in any college course. Nevertheless, 100% indicated they expect to use the Internet "frequently" in preparing future lessons; 100% also indicated they expect to model Internet use at least "occasionally" with future students. Preservice teachers seem to recognize that they must be ready to deal with the Internet. Unfortunately, they may not be adequately prepared to do so.

Education faculty need to discover effective methods of integrating the Internet into teacher preparation programs. I am not advocating technology merely for the sake of technology. Faculty already must juggle many demands and scramble to meet course objectives in over-loaded semesters. Spending hours on the Internet searching for relevant material that genuinely enhances teaching, then developing the technology support to deliver that material effectively, may not seem like a valuable use of limited time. As my student suggested, the Internet can be just a "huge collection of stuff." But students apparently are investing significant time surfing through the potpourri - or more likely, getting caught in the Web. School may be the only place in which responsible evaluation of technology is even suggested. As teacher educators, we have an opportunity to model efficient, meaningful and educationally sound use of this powerful medium.

 

From Surfs to Quests

The CyberQuest provides a structured method to extend students' use of technology relevant to the discipline while reinforcing more familiar concepts of teaching literature and the language arts. The process achieves a variety of objectives by addressing concerns of content, methodology and technology infusion. The CyberQuest incorporates principles of effective cooperative learning, reinforces approaches to pedagogy, enhances content and utilizes only high-quality Web materials.

Student responses to the CyberQuest suggest that the activity enriches their understanding in these important areas. One student gained insight into teaching approaches and discovered useful resources. "I learned new things about what type of teacher I may want to be. I discovered that there is so much material and ideas that I can easily access for use as a teacher." Others found the model for technology utilization valuable. "This exercise increased my knowledge and further enhanced my ability to incorporate technology in my units and daily lessons." Such outcomes suggest that the activity represents a positive addition to teacher training beyond the use of technology for its own sake.

The CyberQuest has proved valuable for my students as a method of effective technology integration to support discipline study. Although specifically designed for teacher preparation in literature and language arts, the model is adaptable to other disciplines and even grade levels. By sharing the process, other teacher educators may find a useful tool for helping their students assess Web-based resources and transform their Internet from a surf for information to quest for knowledge.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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