Vol 7|No 1|September|1997

Making the Net Work for Schools:
Online Research Modules

by Jamie McKenzie

Online research modules make the Net work. They structure student activities efficiently and effectively. They protect teachers from unreasonable demands. They deliver the goods.

"It's like a huge landfill!"

Flushed from hours of mining the 10,299 Web pages dredged up by consulting AltaVista or one of the other leading search engines, the Net Savvy teacher throws hands toward the sky.

"I don't have time for this nonsense. I just wanted good information on acid rain."

Surfing is not a practical or appealing option for those teachers who find there is already too little time to cover the curriculum while meeting the expanded testing demands of most states.

Online research modules provide a path which even the most technophobic teacher can follow with a class of students. They offer clear instructions as well as daily activities which focus on higher level thinking and electronic resources which have been tested for quality.

I. What are Online Research Modules?

The best way to learn about online research modules is to explore some examples. The following units were developed by teams of middle school teachers in Bellingham, Washington, in June of 1997. When you visit, identify the characteristics they all hold in common.

For an example of more recently developed modules, go to the Grand Prairie ISD Research Modules

Each team of teachers began construction by spending a morning enjoying a series of online learning modules designed to show how to build unit based upon The Research Cycle. These modules clarified the structures and elements required to invent a unit which would engage students at a high level of decision-making or problem-solving in line with the AASL Information Standards.

According to these guidelines, online research modules have the following characteristics:

  1. Students are responsible for their own learning.
  2. Students are energized by the question and the task.
  3. Students act strategically.
  4. Students work in teams
  • They have a clear focus upon a single essential question which calls for problem solving or decision-making.
  • They include assessment throughout the entire process, not just at the end.
  • They explore information from pay-for-service sources such as the Electric Library as well as the "free Internet."
  • They follow the phases of The Research Cycle:

 Question  - identifying and listing the questions you need to explore
 Plan  - developing a strategy to find pertinent information rapidly
 Gather  - harvesting information which casts light on the key questions
 Sort, Sift and Analyze  - rearranging the puzzle pieces, looking for patterns
 Synthesize  - making sense of the puzzle pieces - getting the picture
 Evaluate  - figuring out what's missing, what else is needed
 Report  - sharing insights persuasively

For an article which outlines the Research Cycle in more detail, click here. (http://fno.org/ascd.html#cycle)


II. How are Online Research Modules Built?

The teachers in Bellingham were able to follow a carefully structured invention process which included all of the scaffolding required to produce a high quality unit. They supplied the curriculum know-how, the great questions and the activities which make each unit engaging, intriguing and worth pursuing.

Click here if you wish to go to the Bellingham site and spend time working your way through the training modules which will show you how to build a unit. (http://www.bham.wednet.edu/quest.htm)

Make sure you have bookmarked this page before you leave here so you can easily return to finish the article.

The goal is to build lesson plans for 6-8 visits to a computer lab which will take students through the entire Research Cycle.

Module One - Questioning and Planning

Student research teams spend this first session writing as many subsidiary questions as possible to help structure the information gathering which will occur in the next session. If fortunate enough to have software to support cluster diagraming, such as Inspiration, (http://www.engagingminds.com/inspiration/) they employ that tool to support their planning. Click here to see an example. (http://fno.org/sept97/example.gif)

One of the most powerful tools to teach students is the "telling question" - a question which is so precisely targeted (like a smart bomb) that it delivers a huge amount of insight with great efficiency and dispatch. Information gathering is greatly expedited if telling questions are formed ahead of time. Rather than gathering everything we can find about crime in the cities we are comparing, we look for the FBI violent crime rate per 100,000.

Go here for more on telling questions. (http://fno.org/sept97/telling.html)

Module Two - Gathering/Sorting/Sifting 1

Teams make use of First Source - EBSCO (http://www.ebsco.com/Main.asp) - to start collecting pertinent information, carefully noting their findings (culled) in their word processing files under the appropriate questions.

This is not surfing. It is carefully structured, thoughtful gathering.

Module Three - Gathering/Sorting/Sifting 2

Teams continue seeking good information with Second Source - Electric Library (www.highbeam.com)

Module Four - Synthesis?

Time to stop and "take inventory." Which questions are well answered? Which ones require further investigation? Any new questions?

Module Five - Gathering/Sorting/Sifting 3

Teams explore "free Internet" information resources listed on a Web page.

Module Six - Gathering/Sorting/Sifting 4

Teams explore "free Internet" information resources listed on a Web page.

Module Seven - Synthesis

The students enter the final phase of making sense from all the information gathered, starting to put their presentation and paper together.

Module Eight - Presentation

Students share their findings persuasively. This is an opportunity to put multimedia and presentation software such as HyperStudio or Powerpoint to work.



Rather than building each lesson plan from scratch, the teachers are encouraged to save and then work from templates (on this page http://www.bham.wednet.edu/quest8.htm) which provide much of the structure, suggest activities and supply some of the directions.

Bringing Home the Templates

Teachers from other district could quite easily modify these same modules to match their own district by substituting a different district logo, for example. The HTML is already written and much of the work is already done. The job of the teacher is to supply the solid curriculum question and content.

Time Required

In the case of Bellingham in June, most of the units were built by teams of 2-6 teachers working a total of 24 hours each. While this is an enormous amount of effort, the finished product can support hundreds of teachers across a district, a state or an entire country.

Skills Required

These were talented teachers, most of whom had already spent more than a year working with electronic information and the Net.While most were not skilled users of HTML code, there was always one person present to assist with the entry of text and instructions.

One of the most time consuming aspects of this project was the "information harvesting" required to identify worthwhile "free Internet" resources. The team which created the volcano unit reported that it took them four hours to find two sound sites. The justification for this searching is, of course, the protection it provides for other teachers and their students who will be able to go right to the heart of the matter without wandering about.

III. Why do Online Research Modules Work?


As long as research modules are built upon essential questions, students are likely to find them highly engaging. Presented with authentic decisions, problems and choices from contemporary society or the past, students will usually approach the research task with energy and commitment.

Authentic research involves students in issues from what is often called "the real world," a phrase which is almost surprising because we must add the word "real" to "world" or risk someone thinking we meant some "virtual world." All too often, unfortunately, school research has drawn its material from virtual worlds.



Research modules communicate expectations and describe activities in clear, precise language which should eliminate confusion and minimize wasted time. These instructions (written by technologically confident teachers) are built into each day's activities so that students are likely to experience success even if they are visiting the computer lab or working in a classroom with a teacher who is uncertain or anxious about the use of technology. In some respects, these modules offer the same advantages as a guided tour.


The research modules offer an antidote to the Web's lack of focus. While the distractions of a vast information landscape may make for great home entertainment and support valid "divergent exploration" for the skilled researcher, students probably need to learn how to work within such a landscape in a more focused manner to begin with or risk dozens of hours of inconsequential meandering. Those schools who set their students free to "surf the Web" without first equipping students with a toolkit of search skills and information literacy skills are taking a risky path.


The educational landscape is littered with the wreckage of (well intended) progressive experiments in student research which foundered because students were set free to wander about with too little structure. The Open Classroom movement of the late 1960s is a case in point. There was a tendency to trust students' native abilities to find their way toward Truth and Insight without providing the scaffolding which would have helped them find their way and use their time productively. While some students managed to thrive in such unstructured environments, many students floundered and frittered. Eventually the parents demanded that we put walls back into open spaces and go "back to the basics."

Today we see a return to the progressive agenda in the form of constructivist initiatives which hold more promise that the Open Classroom and Inquiry approaches of the 1960s because there is a growing respect for the structures which guide students through the research experience with some efficiency and productivity.

While our ultimate goal may be to set students free to make their own way independently as lifelong learners who require no scaffolding, achievement of that goal probably requires a developmental process which begins with generous structuring and moves toward increasing levels of autonomy. Seen in this context, then, research modules are an introductory experience meant to provide students with success and a toolkit of research skills which will serve them well as they move toward independence.

It may be worthwhile to explore the metaphor of a cathedral. If we forget the foundations and the flying buttresses, the stained glass windows and soaring spires will have no enduring value.


Essential Questions
(This section is reprinted from a series of articles first published in Technology Connection in 1995.)

We are fighting a long school history of topical research. For decades students have been sent to the library to "find out about" some topic. This tradition has led to information gathering but little analysis or thought.

Essential questions set students and staff free from this tedious and wasteful ritual. Research becomes motivating and meaningful. An essential question has the following attributes:

  • Essential questions reside at the top of Bloom's Taxonomy (Bloom, 1954). They require students to EVALUATE (make a thoughtful choice between options, with the choice based upon clearly stated criteria), to SYNTHESIZE (invent a new or different version) or to ANALYZE (develop a thorough and complex understanding through skillful questioning).
  • Essential questions spark our curiosity and sense of wonder. They derive from some deep wish to understand some thing which matters to us.
  • Answers to essential questions cannot be found. They must be invented. It is something like cooking a great meal. The researcher goes out on a shopping expedition for the raw ingredients, but "the proof is in the pudding." Students must construct their own answers and make their own meaning from the information they have gathered. They create insight.
  • Answering such questions may take a life time, and even then, the answers may only be tentative ones. This kind of research, like good writing, should proceed over the course of several weeks, with much of the information gathering taking place outside of formally scheduled class hours.
  • Essential questions engage students in the kinds of real life applied problem-solving suggested by nearly every new curriculum report or outline curriculum standards such as the NCTM and the Science Standards.
  • Essential questions usually lend themselves well to multidisciplinary investigations, requiring that students apply the skills and perspectives of math and language arts while wrestling with content from social studies or science.

It would be best if students could learn to frame their own essential questions, but in most cases they will require several experiences with teacher generated questions before they can shed years of practice with trivial information-gathering questions.

Here are three middle school examples:


"With the economy shifting and changing, families are sometimes forced to move to entirely different regions in order to find jobs. Imagine that the families in your team are all moving from the West Coast to New England. Create a multimedia presentation which you might share with your parents recommending the best New England city to move to from the following list of cities. Your choice must be based upon the availability of jobs your parents can fill and other criteria identified and listed by your team related to categories such as recreation, education, entertainment, climate, etc."


"There is much disagreement among people who plan for student use of the Internet regarding what kinds of access should be permitted. Some people are afraid that students will come into contact with offensive materials. Others are afraid that limitations will limit student's freedoms. Imagine that your team has been assigned the task of revising the attached sample policy from School District X. Compare this policy with others from around the nation and then produce a clear list of recommended amendments, explaining your reasons for each of your suggestions. You will prepare a persuasive multimedia presentation as if speaking before the district's board of education."


"Some people think that CD-ROM edutainment products may do damage to young people. What seem to be the biggest risks people see connected with such products and what evidence can you find to dispute or substantiate their fears? Create a persuasive multimedia report which might appear on the evening news as a consumer advisory for parents."

When teams are engaged in responding to questions which require this kind of thinking, there is little danger that they will be satisfied with "surfing" the Net. After an hour of surfing they are likely to start complaining. "This isn't getting us anywhere!"


Characteristics of Engaged Learners*
  • Responsible for their own learning

They invest personally in the quest for knowledge and understanding, in part because the questions or issues being investigated are drawn from their own curiosity about the world. Projects are pertinent and questions are essential.

  • Energized by learning

They feel excited, intrigued and motivated to solve the puzzles, make new answers and reach insight. Their work feels both important and worthwhile.

  • Strategic

They make thoughtful choices from a toolkit of strategies, considering carefully which approach, which source and which technique may work best to resolve a particular information challenge.

  • Collaborative

They work with others in a coordinated, planful manner, splitting up the work according to a plan and sharing good ideas during the search for understanding.


*These concepts are based upon the work of Barbara Means quoted in Plugging In.