The Web-and-Flow Activity Formats

Working the Web for Education: Activity Formats


What follows is one fairly comprehensive strategy for integrating the incredible power of the Internet with student learning. The strategy was first developed by Tom March in the summer of 1996 and developed since. Two new formats have been added for Web-and-Flow users.

The strategy offers easy entry points for newcomers to the Net as well as more sophisticated activities for advanced users. The six formats also take into consideration and many of the promising learning practices suggested by a review of the literature.

This article describes each format, suggests a rationale for why you might choose one format over another, and links to examples.


Once you've poked around the Web yourself, and guided students by using a Hotlist, you might want to use the Web to create a goal-based learning activity. Let's say you want to revise a unit because some aspect's not helping students as well as it could. Maybe you now have good access to the Internet and really want to take advantage of this new resource. Or you're just one of those educators who's always trying new things. Good on you.

After all, whenever you develop new curriculum, you have to do some research, brainstorm, locate resources, create handouts, duplicate handouts, stand in line to duplicate handouts, etc. All this could be done using Web-and-Flow to work up an activity. So why not put the whole activity on the Web, not just the links you'll be using (as in a Hotlist).

This way your students can access the complete activity from anywhere, and other teachers and students studying this topic across the world could have access to your learning experience.

The main difference between Hotlists and the other formats is that with Hotlists you send students to Web sites hoping they will find something useful and subsequently create some cognitive sparks. With the other five formats, you choose the format that best meets the needs of the students. In short it works this way:

6 Activity Formats

hotlist   ·   hunt   ·   sampler   ·   reflector   ·   builder   ·   WebQuest

Take a tour through the descriptions and examples by
either clicking on the format that addresses your learning goals
or reading through the text below.

Topic Hotlist - for open research and exploration

Teachers choose to create a Topic Hotlist when...
  1. they are new to the Web
  2. they are in a hurry
  3. they want to save student surf/search time
  4. they want to add Web resources to curriculum they already have

The natural place to begin integrating the Web for learning is collecting sites that you find most useful / interesting / peculiar on your topic. Doing this will save your learners hours of aimless surfing. In the bad old Pre-Web days, people collected Internet locations on index cards, in databases, or on crumpled scraps of paper. With today's Web browsers, this Internet harvesting can be done through bookmarking your favorite sites with a simple pull down on the menu. This is fine for the machine you're using, but it's a bit of a hassle to get those bookmarks transferred to all the computers in a lab. It's a much more efficient process to create a Web page that collects the locations in a Topic Hotlist. This solves the computer-specific nature of bookmarks and also makes your collection available to everyone in your school, district and the world (nothing like maximizing your effort!).

The Scrapbook Variation

Many technology-using teachers help students create multimedia products as part of the learning process. Students create newsletters, desktop slide presentations, HyperStudio stacks, etc. Before the Web, multimedia content was limited to CD-ROM and what could be scanned or digitized. With the Web, many sites allow and encourage people to use their content for non-profit educational purposes (it's best to check the copyright policy or the site and / or make contact via email). A multimedia Hotlist provides links to a variety of content types such as photographs, maps, stories, facts, quotations, sound clips, videos, virtual reality tours, etc. Learners use the Hotlist links to explore aspects of the topic that they feel are important. They then download or copy and paste these scraps using a variety of software programs. The students' creations will now be richer and more sophisticated because of resources that had never been available in their classrooms before. Also, by allowing students to pursue their own interests amid an abundance of choices, the multimedia Hotlist offers a more open, student-centered approach that encourages construction of meaning. Even though Hotlists don't target specific learning goals, the cluey teacher will use Hotlists to promote the constructivist learning that can happen when students synthesize a large and contextually rich selection of data and experiences.

Tips for Using Hotlists

When you create a Topic Hotlist, your learners will be spared hours of fruitless searching. This is analogous to when a diligent librarian gathers key works from the stacks on a topic your classes are studying, then rolls the books into your room for students to explore. Web resources likely differ in quality, currency, and quirkiness, but the learning strategy is similar: give the students a breadth of materials on the topic they are studying. Excellent learning strategies to invoke now come from the work of Jamie McKenzie ( or Mike Eisenberg and Robert E. Berkowitz (Big 6 Skills).

Notice that what's missing is the exact learning you'd like the students to achieve. Those tasks and instructions are probably on the handout they're working from, not the Web page they're using to gain insights, experiences, and information. This is why a Topic Hotlist is an easy strategy to employ; you simply add the Web resources to an activity or unit you already have prepared.

Sometimes you might choose to have learners search their own sites on the Internet. Good examples of this are when students do independent study projects like I-Searches or you have groups studying different aspects of a larger topic (an example would be an interdisciplinary study with student teams each taking a decade in 20th Century American history). In these cases it makes sense to have students search - and post what they have found on the Web via their own hotlist. Whether to prepare a Hotlist for students or let them create their own is probably determined by how many computers you have available to students (in school, in their homes, local libraries, etc.) and available time. Access speed can also cramp student hotlisting if your connection is dial-up, dodgey or molasses.


Topic Hotlist - China on the Net

Multimedia Hotlist - Exploring China - Scrapbook

Knowledge Hunt - for acquiring defined knowledge

Teachers choose to create a Knowledge Hunt when...
  1. students need to acquire a specific body of knowledge
  2. critical thinking is either not a goal is covered using other activities
  3. Web-based resources are more current or reliable than traditional resources


Many teachers and librarians who are new to the Web see it as a huge encyclopedia. Subsequently, their first thought is to use the Web for researching and gathering information. Helping students to acquiring knowledge also tends to be one of the main drives in education. Thus it makes sense to create a Web activity structure to meet these goals. The Knowledge Hunt is designed to help students acquire a body of knowledge via the Web.

This said, the Knowledge Hunt sounds like it should be the most used activity format. However, if you view the Web as an encyclopedia, you're due for a rude awakening. Read 3 Myths about the Net before going any further. Also, knowledge acquisition is just one kind of learning (and a lower level one at that, too). Let's learn more...

Tips for Using Knowledge Hunts

When it's time to develop some solid knowledge on a subject, teachers can create Knowledge Hunts. The basic strategy is to find Web pages that hold information (text, graphic, sound, video, etc.) that you feel is essential to understanding the given topic. Maybe you gather 10 - 15 links (and remember, these are the exact pages you want the students to go to for information, not the top page of a huge Web site). After you've gathered these links, you pose one key question for each Web site you've linked to. In this way, teachers guide students to useful pages and also prompt students to look for information that teachers feel is critical to developing a body of knowledge in the topic.

A smartly designed Knowledge Hunt can go far beyond finding unrelated factoids. By choosing questions that define the scope or parameters of the topic, when the students discover the answers they are tapping into a deeper vein of thought, one that now stakes out the dimensions or schema of the domain being studied. Finally, by including a culminating "Big Question," students can synthesize what they have learned and shape it into a broader understanding of the big picture.

So the Knowledge Hunt is here as one useful strategy to integrate the Web with student learning. However, because of the sketchy verity of very many Web pages (and thus their usefulness for concept development or critical thinking), knowledge acquisition shouldn't be the main use of the Web.

Example Knowledge Hunt - The Treasures of China

Subject Sampler - for connecting emotively / affectively to a topic

Teachers choose to create a Subject Sampler when...
  1. you want students to feel connected to the topic
  2. you want to motivate students to explore the topic further
  3. you have a short period of time and a small number of great sites to share
  4. you or your students are new to the Web and a user-friendly activity makes sense


Part of what makes the Internet so great is the quirky, passionate, real stuff that many people and organizations post there. You'll find things on the Web that you'd never find on TV, the newspapers, or magazines. Subject Samplers tap into this vibrant vein in order to connect students emotionally to the chosen topic. Specifically, Samplers work like those chocolate samplers: you open the box, look things over, think you see something you'd like, then poke your finger into it. If you like it, you eat it. If you don't, you leave it pre-poked for someone else's taste.

Tips for Using Subject Samplers

Specifically, in a Subject Sampler learners are presented with a smaller number (maybe half a dozen) of intriguing Web sites organized around a main topic. What makes this a particularly effective way to engage student buy-in is that first off, you've chosen Web sites themselves that offer something interesting to do, read, or see. Second, students are asked to respond to the Web-based activities from a personal perspective. Rather than uncover hard knowledge (as they do in a Knowledge Hunt), students are asked about their perspectives on topics, comparisons to experiences they have had, personal interpretations of artworks or data, etc. Thus, more important than the right answer is that students are invited to join the community of learners surrounding the topic, for students to see that their views are valued in this context.

Example Subject Sampler - My China

Insight Reflector - for prompting open reflection

Teachers choose to create a Insight Reflector when...
  1. creative thinking is more important than a uniform response
  2. the subject matter benefits from being viewed through new perspectives
  3. you want students to engage their emotions and minds in the topic
  4. reflective writing is a course objective


A higher-level cognitive skill valued by many state curricula and standards is reflective thinking and writing. In brief, this is the kind of creative mental pondering that reveals a mind at work. It's the open processing of an intriguing stimuli through a person's experience, ideas, and emotions. It brings all aspects of the person's nature to the task of making sense of the stimuli. While a highly valued skill, it's also a very difficult thing to teach.

Again, the wealth of the Web can assist us here. The first aspect of reflective writing is an opening occasion, something that sparks an emotion or starts the mental gears to turn. With its abundance of special interests and overt agendas, the Web affords more chances for reflection than are usually found in a classroom. Teachers gather a page or pages from the Web that they feel will perturb learners in such a way as to create a positive dissonance, then prompt students to look at the topic in different ways, to mull things over, to chew their cog(itations).

Tips for Using Insight Reflectors

Insight Reflectors won't be something you'll use as frequently as Subject Samplers or WebQuests, but when encouraging a creative thinking process is more important than prompting one defined and uniform outcome from students, try prompting insights with the Reflector. English and social studies classes as well as ethical approaches to science and technology are typical applications of the format.

Example Insight Reflector - The Otherness of the Past

Concept Builder - for developing and refining new concepts

Teachers choose to create a Concept Builder when...
  1. a simple definition is too abstract
  2. examples of the concept are available on the Web
  3. at least a few critical attributes of the concept are easily perceived
  4. you want to engage students in higher level thinking


Another aspect of the Web that makes it a rich learning resource is the breadth of examples available. On almost any given topic, people have posted either professional or homespun pages sharing their information and perspectives. This maps very well to how we learn concepts: by viewing many examples we can derive the critical attributes or essential elements that define an "Impressionist painting," "cumulonimbus clouds," "social revolutions." Because conceptualizing is a higher level thinking skill that takes root in students' pre-existing schemas and requires an ongoing process of refinement, direct instruction of concepts is often an exercise in frustration for everyone. A better way might be to show students an array of well-selected examples and let them build or construct the concepts for themselves, then subsequent class discussions can help everyone refine their thinking.

Tips for Using Concept Builders

When learning the definition of a class of things (artistic eras, types of clouds, social upheavals, etc.) doesn't fully capture the subtleties you want students to appreciate and distinguish, then you'd better help them move beyond concrete definitions into the fuzzier realm that requires an engaged mind to discern key characteristics and argue interpretations. Gray areas? Yes, but fun as all get-out in the classroom (as long as everyone sees this as a process, not a right answer). So when you have a good supply of Web sites that show examples of a concept that's valuable for students to learn, link to at least three sample sites, then offer a series of short questions that prompt them to look for specific details and comparisons and contrasts. Depending on the concept, the examples, and the learners, you may lead them very far with your prompts or let them do some problem-based learning by not using prompts at all. Furthermore, by linking to additional resources, students could do even more independent research. After the activity, you might test the students concepts as a group with some "non-examples" (expressionist paintings, cumulo-stratus clouds, evolutionary changes in societies). Lastly, because images are good sources of information and are becoming more common and quicker loading all the time on the Web, Concept Builders make a good higher-level thinking activity to support younger or non-reading students.

Example Concept Builder - No Fear o' Eras (from Eyes on Art 2.0)

WebQuest - for engaging in critical thinking

Teachers choose to create a WebQuest when...
  1. you want students to tackle big, complex, or gray questions
  2. students could benefit from cooperative learning
  3. the subject warrants a deeper understanding
  4. students would benefit from a more real world learning experience


When it's time to go beyond learning facts, connecting emotively, or developing concepts, to put all these together and get into the grayer matter, your students are ready for a WebQuest. Basically, a WebQuest is an inquiry activity that presents student groups with a central Question and related Task. Access to the Web (and other resources) provides abundant grist from which collaborative student groups construct meaning. The whole learning process is supported by prompting / scaffolds to promote higher-order thinking. The products of WebQuests are usually then put out to the world for some type of real feedback.

Tips for Using WebQuests
When designing a WebQuest it's best to choose a topic that's either large, complex or in dispute. Current events, social issues, and environmental systems, etc. all work well. Also anything that requires evaluation or scientific hypothesizing will evoke a variety of interpretations. The reason the Web is so critical is because it offers the breadth of perspectives and viewpoints that are usually needed to construct meaning on complex topics. Students benefit from being linked to a wide variety of Web resources so that they can explore and make sense of the issues involved in the challenge.

Logistically, all students begin by learning some common background knowledge, then divide into groups. In the groups each student or pair of students have a particular role, task, or perspective to master. They effectively become experts on one aspect of a topic. When the roles come together, students must synthesize their learning by completing a transformative task such as e-mailing congressional representatives or presenting their interpretation to real world experts on the topic.

You might want to use an WebQuest as a first activity to quickly immerse students in real learning, then go back and fill in the broader picture with a Knowledge Hunt or Subject Sampler.

Example WebQuest - Tuskegee Tragedy


presented: November 20, 1996, Classroom Connect Conference, Anaheim
published: April 20, 1998, Computer-Using Educators Newsletter
revised: October 24, 2001, for Web-and-Flow Interactive

© 1999 - 2008 Web-and-Flow and Tom March