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Courses on the Web
The past decade has seen an Internet explosion, with new sites coming online for almost every product and service imaginable. You can catch up on the latest movies, shop for cars, or cruise to Antarctica, all via the World Wide Web. Educational institutions, from grammar schools to universities, have joined in with a variety of Web offerings from the straightforward to the sublime.
The rush to the Web has left many educators asking, "How can I start using the web in the classes I currently teach?" Like most questions involving technology, there are no simple answers. However, the following suggestions from web developers can aid teachers in incorporating existing material into web sites as well as in developing new methods of instruction using this technology.
The wonderful thing about web sites is that they can change from day to day. If there is one guarantee it is that sites grow in complexity over time. Starting out with a simple structure and only a few menu choices on the initial page will help both you and your students deal with this new medium of communication.
The web is one of the best places to look for information on making web sites and the Yale C/AIM Web Style Guide is an excellent resource. Essentially, the "simple" in "Keep it Simple" refers to clean and simple graphics and text, an intuitive structure that makes it easy to navigate the site’s information, and color and design choices that do not decrease legibility. Your web site should be a joy to discover ? not a challenge to read. An example of this philosophy is the Effective Design web site at the University of Idaho.
It is sometimes difficult to figure out why something looks good. Most people just know what they like. Books such as The Non-Designers Design Book by Robin Williams, the Graphic Design Cookbook by Koren & Meckler, Web Concept and Design by Crystal Waters, and Creating Killer Web Sites by David Siegel are great resources for beginning web site designers. These texts stress clean and simple designs, which will be greatly appreciated by visitors to your web site.
Planning is essential. One does not start building a bridge without first answering central questions such as "Who will use the bridge?" "How much traffic will it need to carry?" and "Why do people need to go where the bridge will take them?" Some of the same questions apply for creating an instructional web site. Determining which students will use the site and how they will connect to it will help ensure the creation of a useful resource and valuable addition to a current class. Moving a syllabus and class notes to a web site is helpful, but only a first step toward creating a dynamic resource that will assist students in grasping materials presented in class. Putting down on paper the things you want to include in a class web site is a good first step towards building it. Common elements include:
- Online discussion groups (asynchronous)
- Chat groups (synchronous)
- Hyperlinks to relevant web based materials
- Relevant textual information
- Email links
Once you have a list of what you want to include on your web site you should talk over your options for creating the site with people at your school who can help. This may take some detective work on your part. Contacting the computer science department and the computer service organization at your institution are good initial steps. There may be a web server that you can use, as well as software programs to help you develop web pages. Many educational institutions have departments devoted to educational technology and there may be a staffed computer lab available just for teachers. Another good idea is to talk with the Art and Communication departments at your institution to see if they offer computer interface design or web site design classes. Perhaps students working in these areas can help you with your web site as part of a class project. In this age of information technology it may be hard to imagine that these resources exist at your school without your knowledge. They can.
While doing this research ask about software tools that may be available. There are programs on the market available to schools that allow teachers to make web pages very easily. One of these programs (Blackboard CE8, for example) may be available for your use through the school’s web server. While these programs make web page creation easy for educators they must be installed on servers and maintained by knowledgeable computer administrators. Other options include web page editing programs that run on personal computers such as FrontPage, PageMill and Netscape Communicator. These programs take time to master but are extremely flexible. The best part is that these solutions do not require you to write Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), the programming language of the World Wide Web. Just a few short years ago people had no choice but to learn HTML to create web pages. Today most web page creation programs will allow you to build an attractive and useful web site without ever looking at this computer code.
For most people, the creation of one’s first web page is a mixed experience. Perhaps you have bought a program, installed it on your office computer, made your first web page. You have used an FTP program to move it to your newly created directory on the server and looked at with a web browser. Your web page is live to the world. You feel giddy at first. Then you start wondering what are you going to do with this "thing" you have created. Once the mechanics of creating web pages is sorted out the real work begins.
Promote Information Exchange
A web site is a great tool for exchanging information between teachers and students. Suppose the assignment is to use a spreadsheet program to do calculations for homework problems. The instructor can provide the answers to the homework as a working spreadsheet file right on a web site. Students can download the file and see the right answers as well as how they were calculated.
Many instructors already use programs like PowerPoint to create presentations for class. A web site can provide a place to distribute in-class lectures. Students who need to review can look at past lessons via the class web site.
Perhaps the most exciting and useful exchanges of information and files happen between students. Web sites can serve as transfer points for students to swap word processor, spreadsheet, database and graphics files, allowing them to work collaboratively using the site as a meeting location. Teaching is all about exchanging information and the web gives both students and teachers a way to keep that exchange going long after the traditional class has been dismissed.
Keep Students Informed
How many times a week do teachers hear the question, "So how am I doing in this class?" A web site can be used to keep students informed of their grades as well as their overall rank in class. One simple way involves having each student choose an alias known only to the instructor. Posting a list of the aliases and current grades on a web page is a snap. "Badger" can look at the page and see she got a 97 on the last test and "armadillo" can find out that he needs to work harder to keep up with his peers.
The World Wide Web, as the name implies, is worldwide in scope. Students and professionals from all around the globe have access, making a class web site a great place to post student work. Student’s journalism, fiction and poetry writings can be placed on a class web site. Art students can take pride in the fact that images of their painting or sculptures will be on exhibit to the world. Even if no one outside the school sees the work they can at least keep up with what their classmates are doing. Teachers should see building web sites as building libraries of information.
Actively Involve Students
Getting students talking and asking questions is a challenge in every class. An online web based discussion group can provide a forum for students to discuss class issues. Students can state their opinions and ask questions online in an environment that does not favor the loudest and most outgoing students. Many web site creation programs let you add discussion groups without requiring you to do computer programming so adding this to your own site may be easier than you think.
Discussion groups are asynchronous, meaning the do not occur in real time. A student can post a question at 10PM and another student (or the instructor) can reply at 8AM the next day. Real time chatting online is also a possibility for class web pages, making them perfect places for students to work in groups without having to meet physically. Companies such as ParaLogic provide web based chat rooms at no cost.
Finally, another way to involve students using a web site is to developing a network of email mentors. Chances are you know other instructors and professionals working in your discipline who would agree to answer questions from students. By posting these email address on your web site and inviting your students to tap these resources you give them access to a whole new universe of information. University of Idaho professor Greg Möller has used this approach in his Hazardous Waste Management Class to put students in direct contact with people at the EPA.
Help Students Visualize Information
There are many situations where pictures work better than words. Web sites are wonderful locations for storing visual information for students to access. It makes little sense to put 100 slides in a slide box outside an office for students to crowd around and squint at when the same information can be put online – letting students see it from home if they can.
Many classes are build around showing slides to students. In a biology class for example, a slide lecture explaining how different parts of the brain work is one way of providing information to students. Allowing students to view images of the brain on a web site and click on different brain areas to find out what they do can greatly reinforce the classroom experience.
Other, more complex ways of describing space can also be incorporated into web sites. Professor Ann Marshall of the University of Idaho is using QuickTime VR to give her landscape architecture students a feel for the southwest and the Anasazi structures near Chaco Canyon. This is just one example of an advanced visualization technique being used on the World Wide Web.
Start Small And Start Soon
Many teachers have been creating web sites for years. Looking at the sites of these special few can be overwhelming for the beginner. Don’t be discouraged. There are even more people out there that have just started making web sites for classes. Take your cues from these folks and get started today.
Using the World Wide Web to add a dimension of interactivity to an existing class is exciting for both teachers and students. However, using technology to deliver instructional information does require time and effort on the part of educators who must develop or convert materials to web formats. It also requires dedication and effort on the part of students who must adapt to new ways of acquiring and processing information. Still, if the preliminary web sites of educators are a glimpse of what is to come, the hard work and effort will pay off.