Culturally Responsive Webquests: Connecting Technology with Inquiry-Based Learning

Culturally Responsive Webquests: Connecting Technology with Inquiry-Based Learning

Erik J. Byker, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Vicki Thomas, Stephen F. Austin State University

We open with a vignette. The middle school bell rings and fourth period begins. Sixth grade students are paired up on laptop computers working through a webquest on Central America. The webquest’s title is Un Viaje a Centroamérica or A Trip to Central America. The webquest exploration includes investigating Internet websites in order to create a map of Central America on a piece of paper. As the students create their maps, the buzz begins. One student exclaims to his partner, “I never knew Costa Rica was in Central America!” Another student turns to her partner and inquires, “What does the word tarea mean?” The partner replies, “I think it is a Spanish word that means something like homework or task.” The webquest is an interactive way for the middle schoolers in this vignette to engage in an authentic Internet based learning experience by exploring the culture, geography, and language of Central America through the aid of computer technology. As the students explore websites and webpages about Central America, they have the task to create a map of the region as the artifact of the webquest.

What exactly is a webquest? A webquest is an interactive web-based inquiry where learners engage in what Bernie Dodge (1995) explains is an, “inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the Internet” (p. 13). The webquest includes several parts to guide the inquiry: 1) an introduction; 2) a task; 3) a process or procedure to follow, which includes links to websites to explore; 4) a rubric for evaluation; 5) a conclusion of the activity; and 6) a credits page. When designed well, a webquest represents a technological tool that maps on to the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) C3 Framework. The C3 Framework was published in 2018 and describes important role of inquiry—called the inquiry arc—in preparation for college, career, and civic life. Here’s how NCSS (2013) explains how “the inquiry arc emphasizes the disciplinary concepts and practices that support students as they develop the capacity to know, analyze, explain, and argue about interdisciplinary challenges in our social world” (p. 6). A webquest supports the inquiry arc as learners use technology to research a question or issue through an analytical process in order to communicate their findings.

Indeed, the point of the webquest is to guide learners in navigating Internet web pages and links in a constructivist way. The literature reveals how webquests provide a powerful platform for the integration of technology with social studies, language arts, and world languages (Author, 2014; Hung, 2015; Lipscomb, 2003; Simina & Hamel, 2005; Vanguri, Sunal, Wilson & Wright 2004). Researchers have also found how webquests guide learners in developing a wide range of skills including technological skills, literacy skills, and critical thinking skills (Author, 2014). Webquests reflect how educators merge their Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) to design a technology enhanced, inquiry based experience for their students (Author, 2013; 2014).

Conceptual Framework

As the introductory vignette reveals, a webquest can be designed in culturally responsive ways. Geneva Gay (2002) explains that culturally responsive teaching is defined as, “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (p. 106). More recently, Django Paris (2012) introduced the term culturally sustaining pedagogy to expand the notion of culturally relevant teaching. Paris (2012) explains that culturally sustaining pedagogy goes beyond a teaching moment and is a pedagogy that sustain “cultural and linguistic competence of communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence; culturally sustaining pedagogy, then, has as its explicit goal supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism” (p. 95). The Central American webquest in the vignette is an example of how technology can be utilized in culturally sustaining ways through a multilingual platform. While the literature shows that webquests have many advantages, what are learners’ perceptions of webquests? Also, what are culturally responsive and culturally ways to design webquests? The purpose of this article is to address these larger questions. The article has two objectives. First, the article examines middle school students’ (n=33) perceptions of interacting with social studies based webquests. Second, the article describes how to design culturally responsive webquests. To meet these two objectives the article investigates the following three research questions:

  1. What are the participants’ perceptions of using webquests to engage in middle level social studies topics?
  2. What are the effects, if any, of using webquests in teaching middle level social studies?
  3. How can webquests be designed in culturally responsive and sustaining ways?


We used case study research design (Yin, 2008) to investigate the aforementioned research questions. We examined how a middle level social studies teacher implemented webquests as part of the classroom instruction. The case study includes an artifact analysis of the Un Viaje a Centroamérica Webquest as well as the artifacts the participants created from the Webquest. Additionally, the case study data are comprised of the participants’ responses to a Likert-scale style survey, which inquired about their perceptions of using webquests in social studies.

Data Analysis

We analyzed the Likert-scale survey’s quantitative data using descriptive statistics. These statistics provide summations of the participants’ perceptions of the Webquest. Our quantitative analysis also reports on the participants’ demographics. We analyzed the qualitative data—primarily the open-ended responses on the survey—using Miles and Huberman’s (1994) three-step interpretive approach. We first read the data and coded as part of data reduction. We then displayed the data in a visual way to establish categories. Finally, we made conclusions by a process of organizing the categories into larger themes.


The study’s sample size was comprised of 33 sixth grade students (n=33) from a middle school in a rural area of the Southcentral region of the United States. Of the participants, 55% were female and 45% were male. Almost half (48%) were bilingual as 16 students indicated that they speak Spanish at home. About 97% of the participants indicated they had some kind of computer device at home (i.e., a desktop, laptop, or an iPad) and 88% indicated that their families owned a cell phone. Slightly more than half of the participants (51%) indicated that outside of school they use a computer at least four days of the week. In response to that same question, though, 15% of the participants shared that outside of school they do not use a computer at all. When asked about their most important purposes for using the computer, 73% of the participants selected Search for Information and the next highest response was Listening to Music. The participants indicated that social studies was the subject they learned best when using computer technology.


Related to the first research question about participants’ perceptions of using webquests to engage in middle level social studies topics, 90% of the participants indicated they either strongly agreed or agreed that they enjoyed using webquests to engage in social studies. All the participants either strongly agreed (52%) or agreed (48%) that they work better with other classmates when using webquest. Almost 73% of the participants thought they learned more from webquests than from lecture notes and 85% of the participants preferred using webquests in social studies rather than using a social studies textbook.

The second research question inquired about any effects of using webquests in teaching middle level social studies. One effect the participants reported was increased engagement. Almost 88% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed that they were engaged with social studies content when it was delivered via a webquest. Likewise, 95% of the participants indicated that that they understood more about a social studies topic when exploring the topic with a webquest. In the open response sections of the survey, many participants shared how the webquest was meaningful experience. See Table 1 for a description of the open-ended response questions on the survey and examples of participants’ responses.

Table 1

Open Ended Response Question on the Likert Survey

Open-ended Response QuestionsExamples of Participants’
1) In your own words, how would
you explain to a friend what a
webquest is?
A webquest is an educational thing
to do on the computer. You search
information and use it.A site where
it brings you to a webpage and then you do stuff on that page so you
learn stuff.
2) When you think about a
webquest, what other words or
phrases immediately come to mind (try to list, at least, 2 other words or phrases)?
A learning journeyBilingual and funWebsites and social studies
3) What will you remember the
most from the webquest you explored?
The Central America Webquest was something that had a meaning to
me. My family is from Guatemala so reading about it meant a lot to me. Seeing the pictures and looking at
the websites helped me learn more
about Central America because I
was able to interact with websites

As Table 1 shows, the meaningfulness of the Central America Webquest was reflected in the participants’ responses to what they will remember the most from the webquest. For example, one participant identified a familial connection (i.e., family from Guatemala), which made the webquest meaningful. Another participant connected the webquest’s meaningfulness with its interactive design. The inclusion of multimedia helped this participant to better interact with content. A few of the participants also shared how the webquest was meaningful because it was bilingual—written in Spanish and English—which meant everyone could understand the webquest’s content. The participants’ perceptions and open-ended responses capture the possibilities of using webquests to make social studies meaningful. The participants found the webquest to be meaningful vis-à-vis its culturally responsive design and its interactive multimedia that supported their web journey into Central America.

The third research question inquired about how webquests can be designed in culturally responsive and sustaining ways. We focus on three ways in particular. First, webquests are responsive when they are multilingual. Creating multilingual webquests is not as difficult as some may imagine. For example, a webquest generator website called Zunal (Link: also contains a database of already created webquests. Educators can search for webquests on this website, which are in multiple languages. Second, learners can use Google Chrome or FireFox as the web browser for their webquests. Both of these web browsers will provide an option to translate websites written in another language—including websites geared for kids—into English. This option means that students who are bilingual or multilingual are able to access websites in their home language, while the students who speak only English also have access to a translated version of the website. Third, webquests are culturally sustaining when they include multiple representations of culture and people through images and text. The interactive power of webquest technology is represented not just through words, but also through multimedia. This is what makes a webquest like the A Trip to Central America so engaging, because students see themselves and their culture reflected in the websites they are exploring.


Webquests connect technology and social studies in relevant ways to young learners’ culture and history. Webquests also support and engage young learners through a process of inquiry. Furthermore, the inquiry arc within the design of webquest aligns with many of the NCSS (2013) C3 Framework dimensions, including: (a) Dimension 1. Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries; (b) Dimension 2. Applying Disciplinary Concepts and Tools; and (c) Dimension 3. Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence. Through the webquest tool, young learners participate in asking and answering questions about social studies big ideas. Like the Central America maps that the students in this study created, a well-designed webquest includes a creative outcome where learners apply the content knowledge evidence they found in their web investigation.

The C3 Framework vision is to help prepare young learners with the knowledge and skills for college, career, as well as for the “adult responsibilities in participatory democratic cultures” (NCSS, 2013, p. 89). Webquests support this C3 Framework as learners gain inquiry-related knowledge and skills, which can develop and sharpen their critical thinking, cultural competencies, and global competencies. The webquest technology is more dynamic than the traditional social studies textbook, which is too often Eurocentric and dominated by representations of a middle class monoculture. Yet, public school classrooms across the United States are anything but monoculture or monolinguist. The uses for technology have many affordances including for the development of cultural and global competencies (Author, 2012; 2015; 2016a; Harshman, 2016). A well-crafted webquest can guide students through an inquiry-based journey where they explore a topic and at the same gain expanded vision for how the topic relates to them and their classmates. At the same time, webquests can be used to support sheltered instruction of English, which is also known as the SIOP Model (Short, Echevarría, & Richards-Tutor, 2011). The SIOP Model is framed around supporting English Language Learners by making a lesson’s subject matter content and vocabulary accessible. This, in turn, assists English Language Learners in their development of academic language skills through content which can be accessed in multilinguistic and culturally sustaining ways.

Future Research

A future research agenda would include a deeper investigation into the effects of webquest designs based on the SIOP Model pedagogies. What are the benefits and challenges of webquests designed to support English Language Learners? What sheltered instruction features would be included in the webquests? How could such webquests be accessible and adapted for English Language Learners at all levels—including the elementary school level? These types of questions would help to drive future studies. More research is also needed at all school levels. This present study was centered on middle level learners, but what are the effects of using culturally responsive webquests with early childhood learners, elementary school students, and with secondary students? A future research agenda would also include a comparative and international scope. The comparative lens helps shed light on the similarities and differences in the contextualization of culturally responsive webquests based on where a school is situated.

Artifact creation is one of the distinguishing features of webquests. Rather than just consuming media, students are producing an artifact based on the webquest’s directions. Student authorship of media is a way to support students’ creative expression while recognizing the participatory role of learners with the tools of learning (Author, 2017). More research is needed into students’ perceptions of the artifacts they create based on the webquests they explore. Research questions might include: What are the students’ perceptions of media authorship in relation to the artifacts they create during a webquest? How are the artifacts’ culturally responsive? Finally, future research would also examine the relationship between how participants access and navigate webquests. Some participants in this current study indicated that exploring the Internet with a webquest was a fun way to learn social studies. Technological Play Theory (Author, 2016b) is a theoretical framework for examining how the role of play in using a technology. The theory can be instructive for educators in supporting learners’ curiosity and exploration of webquest. Future research can utilize Technological Play Theory as a conceptual lens for examining the degree to which students—at any school level—play with a webquest in order to master the webquest’s content.


We conclude the article by revisiting the culturally sustaining conceptual framework as well as share ways that practitioners and educators can search for already designed webquest or create their own webquests. Culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to be responsive to and sustain the cultural richness of a pluralist society (Paris, 2012). Cultural vibrancy is reflected in a society’s customs, languages, literacies, and traditions. A webquest is a tool that learners can utilize to inquire about their own culture and the cultures that are reflected in a pluralistic place like the United States. Webquests show the flexibility of ways in which technology can be used for the development of cultural and global competencies.

There are many websites available for searching and creating webquests. The Teacher Web (Link: website contains a database of teacher designed webquests. Users of the website can search for webquests by key words or by state and Common Core standards. Another website called Webquest (Link: is both a database and teaching website. The site has webquest design advice and a plethora of resources for the development of webquest. Another site called Questgarden (Link: has webquest tools supported by a “drag and drop” method for building webquests. The site provides a user-friendly template and the option the webquest navigation system being translated to a dozen or so languages. Questgarden also includes a database of searchable webquests. The Questgarden is not a free site, though, and requires a yearly subscription. Whatever ways or subject matter an educator chooses to include in their webquest; it is important to support the design in culturally responsive and sustaining ways.


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