The Rise of SOLEs (Part 1): The Decline of the Webquest

This is part 1 of a three-part series about SOLEs. (see also Part 2 and Part 3)

A few days ago, I was chatting to Anne Fox about webquests and she commented that she felt the webquest was dying. The leading proponents of the model seem to have stopped writing/talking about it and fewer teachers were interested in doing them. So, if not exactly dying, webquests do seem to be fading in popularity, and why has the SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment), which some commentators feel is just a variation of the webquest, become more popular? 

What is a webquest?
The webquest was developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March while they were teaching at San Diego State University in 1995. A webquest is "
is a scaffolded learning structure that uses links to essential resources on the World Wide Web and an authentic task to motivate students’ investigation of an open-ended question" (Tom March).

The webquest model is very structured, with a number of key features for webquest designers to keep in mind and templates for teachers to use. A dedicated site, Questgarden was launched to make it easier for teachers to prepare webquests using this model. 

What a webquest isn't
The term webquest has become much used and abused during the years. I have heard teachers say they are going to do a webquest with their students when it was clear they were simply going to the computer room to ask the students to look for some information about a particular subject. 

Another activity often called a webquest by teachers is the popular Internet treasure hunt (or scavenger hunt) activity, that was popular in ELT when the Internet was first used by teachers. Usually, this consisted of a series of questions that students had to find quickly. They were usually questions that students could find easily (e.g. What is the weather like in Barcelona today?)

Teachers who didn't want the structure imposed by the webquest model have always done their own versions of "webquests". One way of describing these is to use the term used by Tom Walton, 'mini-webquest'. His suggestion involves the students using the Internet to research a topic together (perhaps having a discussion or debate about it beforehand) and then giving a presentation afterwards. This looser form, which uses learner-generated questions, is a move towards the SOLE model, except perhaps that it is aimed at adult learners rather than the younger learners Sugata Mitra has in mind. 

The decline of the webquest
When you go to "the most complete and current source of information about the WebQuest Model" it is telling that the section 'latest news' was last update in 2008. Why is this? Well, the webquest model was very much based on the Web as it was (Web 1.0), when the analogy was often made of the Web as a massive online library of static pages to be consulted, and not the Web as it is (Web 2.0 or the social web), which has seen far more interaction and content creation than was possible before. 

So, with webquests declining in popularity, what is occupying their place? 

Anne feels that webquests are being replaced by teachers conducting enquiry-based learning built around essential questions (very much like the SOLE model promoted by Sugata Mitra), with the teacher acting more as a facilitator/coach than in the standard webquest model. The post-webquest models are similar in some ways, but seem to be less structured and encourage more learner autonomy

ELT Webquests


  1. Hmm... my comment got zapped. Anyway, here goes again...

    There is no real mention anywhere of SOLEs leveraging Web 2.0, unless you include the occasional Skype with a granny. Now on to your two main differences: SOLEs are less structured and more learner-centred...

    Is there any good literature that suggests that less structured is a good thing? Does less-structured ensure that people will be able to get jobs in the future?

    And how do we define 'learner autonomy'? The SOLE that Mitra often talks about involved him selecting websites which had been made by educators. He then gave them something to research - how does this differ from a webquest? Where is the autonomy?

    I always thought webquests had a lot of potential, and have seen them in action and they work. Sometimes people learning something do need a guide - and in this case the guide is the writer - selecting topics which are useful and relevant, websites which are useful and relevant, providing or revising appropriate and useful language. They asked people to understand and take on board ideas and concepts, think about them and transform them into something new, something produced by the participants. Good ones were relevant and engaged HOTS. Conceptually they are no more Web 1.0 than anything else.

    I think this is a false transformation, it's a branding exercise. SOLEs do the same thing as webquests. The big difference is that to date SOLEs are being evaluated on exam results, and webquests were evaluated, generally, on products. Which is the better outcome?


  2. Thanks for dropping by, Gavin. You are, of course, right about SOLEs not being very Web 2.0 - I suppose better to say that SOLEs were born in the Web 2.0 era.

    I didn't mean to infer that more structured is a bad thing, just that less structured does seem to be more fashionable, more 'guide on the side' rather than 'sage on the stage'.

    As for learner autonomy, I don't see how you can say that the webquest promotes learner autonomy more than the SOLE does, however you define it. Asking them a question and leaving them to work on their own, to decide which sources to use, who to work with, etc. is more learner-centred than the webquests I know that usually are, as I said, very structured and teacher-led (i.e. you go to these websites and you find out this information, etc.) I don't know the example you mention that Mitra 'often talks about', but it doesn't sound like any of the SOLEs I've currently been reading about.

    I agree with you about webquests having a lot of potential. I've used them in the past and like them - and I agree that they can work when they are well written - I think the webquests I've taken a look at on the consultants-e page I link to are excellent examples of this. I've also seen badly written webquests elsewhere that were not very well-thought out. I also don't mean to discourage teachers from using webquests with this post - in fact, this is one of the reasons why I link to so many of them, so that teachers can try them out if they want to. I did want to mention something that seems to me to be true - that they are out of fashion. This doesn't of course mean that they are not useful. The same is true of other tools that fall out of fashion. I do think webquests are very 1.0 though - they do seem to treat the Web as a large library for consulting and finding answers to questions. Perhaps, though, as you suggest, this is no different to SOLEs - I'm looking forward to comparing the two in more depth to come to a conclusion myself as to how similar/different SOLES and webquests are. Who knows, I may end up agreeing with you!

  3. The problem with acronyms is that often what the acronym stands for is lost. SOLE stands for Self-Organised Learning Environment. It is a theory of learning in which small groups with no more than one computer work together to solve a problem or answer a question. If the group isn’t working, individual members are free to leave and join another group (as in Open Space technology which was tried out for the first time at IATEFL this year). The teacher in the video explains very well how she restrains herself if a group is going in the wrong direction, waiting until the whole group plenary when each groups findings are scrutinised by their peers. This set-up does not preclude real world exploration and experiments. When you consider how many of us watch TV with a tablet in hand ready to follow up items of interest, then this scenario is not too far-fetched.
    The theory of self-organisation originates in science and what Mitra is investigating is to what extent it also applies to learning. Mitra is not a voice in the wilderness and there are many others supporting self-directed learning. For example the EU’s ‘The Future of Learning’ focuses on the growing importance of self-directed learning across all ages and Grow’s Staged Self-Directed Learning model which dates back to the 1990s proposes a way of moving from a supported to a self-directed learning environment. We have even seen a development in the jargon used to talk about learning processes from pedagogy (for children) to andragogy (for adults) to heutagogy for self-directed learners.
    In the video the teacher clearly shows that SOLE is not the prime teaching approach. She also clearly demonstrates the skills demanded of the teacher, for example in formulating a motivating question that still relates to the prescribed syllabus, noting how the groups are working for later chats with individual students and facilitating the plenaries so that any group that has veered off course learns from their peers. These are highly specific meta-skills and quite different from the traditional teacher role.
    Since this is a research area dating back to at least 1999, the focus has changed over time, from can they learn on their own, to what can they learn, to how best can they learn. It is this last question which seems to have led to the outpouring of opprobrium when Mitra concludes that the children thrive best when the adult in the room offers simply encouragement rather than expert knowledge. I can understand how this threatens the standing of teachers who pride themselves on expert knowledge but surely this points to exercising instead those meta-learning skills? Again Mitra is not a lone voice in this if we look at John Hattie’s meta studies which rank teacher expert knowledge at number 136 out of a possible 150 factors having an effect on learning compared to
    1. Self-evaluation (Ranking 1)
    2. Formative evaluation (4)
    3. Classroom discussion (7)
    4. Feedback (10)
    Where does this leave WebQuests? As a useful tool which demands a great deal of work from the teacher to set up from scratch but not as a useful vehicle for promoting self-directed learning (if that is what you want).
    Self organisation theory
    Grow’s SSDL model
    ‘The Future of Learning’
    Hattie Effect size list
    PS I spent more than the prescribed 45 SOLE minutes composing this!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts/findings about SOLEs, webquests and self-directed learning, Anne - there's lots for me to follow-up on here before I write part 2!

  4. Anne (hello Anne!) says:

    "In the video the teacher clearly shows that SOLE is not the prime teaching approach. She also clearly demonstrates the skills demanded of the teacher, for example in formulating a motivating question that still relates to the prescribed syllabus, noting how the groups are working for later chats with individual students and facilitating the plenaries so that any group that has veered off course learns from their peers. "

    I'd just make a couple of observations...

    Mitra proposes SOLEs (or has done this week on various fora) as 'better than nothing'. This does not fill me or many other teachers with any great degree of enthusiasm or hope for outcomes. If a SOLE is not to be the prime teaching approach, then they are, at best, not totally different to the computer rooms of yore - the sort where I used to take students, where they sat in groups and talked about things as they worked their way around the Internet. Once again I fail to see how interesting all this is.

    As to the rest of that quote above, I return to my other 'great observation' - this is all good task design, good moderation (or 'observation', as it used to be called) and good feedback. we've been doing it for decades. SOLEs don't so much ring the death knell of anything, but confirm something we've know for ages: good materials with good facilitation can allow learners to progress quickly; group work is good... there's great content on the Net; challenging learners to work things out is beneficial....

    Where they fall down is where they become the only thing available, or 'better than nothing'.


  5. Gavin I think we must ultimately be on the same page wanting the best for students. My take on it is that if the hands-off in the classroom approach (but doing a lot of backstage stuff whether that is technical in preparing good accessible materials or social in being a good facilitator) seems to be working then why not let the research take its full course?
    I have been doing a lot about coaching in the last few years and since 2011, coaching of teachers and I am seeing a huge parallel here between SOLE and coaching. Finding a goal, not being judgemental while the goal is being reached and celebration of the end point are all essential parts of the coaching approach. What took me a long time to learn was also the fact that I did not have to be an expert in what my teachers are working towards in order to be their coach. So SOLE represents transferring that coaching approach into the classroom. Surely what matters most is not so much whether it is new but whether it works?
    There are many examples where allowing students more autonomy increases not only engagement but also depth of learning. Autonomy means that the adults have to back-off in the classroom and do other work in the background.
    Contemporary examples of people dabbling in student autonomy include the following:

    These are at the well-financed end of the spectrum so it looks as though the accusation that SOLE is only for the poor is not well-founded.

    1. From what I can tell, Anne, Gavin isn't against the SOLE when it is integrated into a regular school with a teacher facilitating, he is just angry that it is being touted as something new and sees it as a variation of what came before (i.e. the webquest) rather than the novel idea that it is being claimed to be.

      I think Gavin is not in favour of the SOLE being used without a teacher with the attitude that this is 'better than nothing'

      If this is so, I think I agree with Gavin on the first point, although I think the 'enquiry-based' aspect to it, which is emphasised in the SOLE and which was not highlighted with webquests (meaning that many of them were very teacher-driven) is an important difference. I think it has also taken a charismatic figure such as Sugata Mitra to get the support and exposure for a greater emphasis on slef-directed learning than there was before.

      I also disagree with Gavin (if I've read it right) and think that putting a SOLE in a rural area where there is a lack of teachers is a good thing - although, I would hope that this would not be proposed as a long-term solution for not having a teacher.

      Thanks for all of this discussion - I'm going to have to rewrite what I started as the second part of this post because of it - I think I'm getting a much better idea about the SOLE and how it fits into moves towards more self-directed learning...keep it coming, unless we have exhausted the topic here (I suspect we haven't)

  6. I wouldn't describe me as 'angry'' so much as 'confused' as to what all the fuss is about - I am not really that fusses if people think this is new, even if people (myself included) have been doing this kind of stuff for years.

    Yes, I agree learner autonomy is good to an extent, though I'd like to see people defining what they understand by the term. Yes I like the idea of people working together on demanding tasks which give them a chance to 'construct knowledge'. Do I find all this interesting? No, because loads of people have been doing it for years and years.

    I think claiming that webquests were not 'enquiry based' is a large claim which cannot be verified. In fact I'd go so far as to say that I have seen, used and designed many webquests over the years which would fit into this category very well, and so have many people. Not everyone got caught up in Dodge's structure to the detriment of other teaching styles and theories.

    I am wary of charismatic figures who are seen to offer (and seem to be offering) revolutionary changes to systems, or claiming that X, Y or Z are dead and buried. Charismatic figures have bad histories generally - if you look back at most of them....

    The problem, Graham, is that once we adopt the 'better than nothing' approach, the money will have been spent on hardware and then it will be too late to invest it in teachers, training, food.... Because, you see, the investment will have to be paid back. It doesn't have to be 'proposed as a long-term solution for not having a teacher' - the economics will make it so. I'd put money on that.

    So, not so much 'angry', but confused, puzzled, unexcited and worried about the educational future of those who will have to put up with SOLEs - those who will have to put up with something that is better than nothing...


  7. Dear Graham, Anne and Gavin,
    My penny: IMO, it is not so much the formats and models that we should spend our energies on. the WQ concept -when it became popular- is/was relevant for the language teaching community as it clearly related to developing ideas on Task Based Language Learning (TBLT) and helped to raise awareness about the great content/input opportunities Internet offered. That inspired some of us at least to launch the LanguagQuest project with support from the ECML: including criteria for WQ task design specifically for MFL.
    And surely, students' product specification can be defined now also using WEB 2.0 facilities but the core idea 'how to activate the learner' still lives on and has contributed to the task design discussion.

  8. Ooops, forgot to add that -once the WQ was adopted - as a response to observed teacher behaviour (misinterpreting WQ as leaving students completely to their devices) classroom-based research on scaffolding strategies for teachers was initiated resulting in a Dutch publication on the teacher's coaching role.

  9. I'm slightly ashamed, Ton, that I did not give your good work a mention in my earlier comments. I always used to try and remember to give my students a link to your checklist because using WQs with language learners is slightly different than for other subjects. I guess this is something Gaham is going to have to consider as we talk about the more hands-off SOLE approach as the worry there will be whether students revert to L1 while they are doing the WQ. TO me this points to looking at WQs, SOLEs and other approaches in a wider context of the classroom culture. If the classroom culture is one of being an active learner, making learning visible (Richart, Church and Morrison style this time rather than Hattie style) and having some norms in place regarding use of L1 and L2 then a more autonomous SOLE approach could work in the classroom. eg by insisting that the presentation is in L2 and looking on the group work as an opportunity to practice the presentation.

    1. Thank you, Ton - this is very useful, and although I've looked at the language quest project before, I'd forgotten it totally. I'll mention the language quests project in part 3 of this blog post, when I compare webquests with SOLEs. And, thanks, Anne for adding to my reading list!

  10. Hi anne & Graham, good to see that contribution of the LQuest work is still appreciated. In case you need some relevant literature references for your Part 3, let me know Graham.


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