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Authors : Jeffrey W. McClurken, Jerry Slezak
Title: Research-Based Web Sites: Students Creating Online Scholarship
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
October 2006
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Source: Research-Based Web Sites: Students Creating Online Scholarship
Jeffrey W. McClurken, Jerry Slezak


vol. 9, no. 2, October 2006
Article Type: Article
URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.3310410.0009.203

Research-Based Web Sites: Students Creating Online Scholarship

Jeffrey W. McClurken

Assistant Professor, Department of History and American Studies

Jerry Slezak

Instructional Technology Specialist, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies
University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA

Abstract

Starting in 2002 the authors integrated scholarly web site design projects into an upper-level history course, the History of American Technology and Culture, at the University of Mary Washington. Students were mostly sophomore and junior history majors and their skills in working with computers varied widely. This article explores the goals which shaped the project, the methods used to train students in both the web skills needed to build online sites and the research required to produce scholarly content, and the ultimate problems and successes of the project. It also discusses ways by which the project's methods and resources can be applied to other classes in the humanities and social sciences.

Introduction

One of the advantages of the rise and spread of the World Wide Web is in the opportunities that it offers students, teachers and researchers for presenting information, even scholarship, in new and innovative ways.  [1] Yet the process of creating material on the web requires new skills for students and new pedagogical approaches for teachers. The purpose of this article is to discuss the process by which the authors (the collaborative team) integrated scholarly web site design projects into an upper-level course, the History of American Technology and Culture, at the University of Mary Washington in three iterations of that class over the last four years.

Each class averaged twenty-six students, most of whom were sophomore and junior history majors, but included freshmen and seniors, as well as a number of majors from other fields. Their skills in working with computers varied widely, from those who were very familiar with almost all aspects of computer use and had previously created a web page (if not a web site) to people who barely used computers at all. Only about one fourth of the students had ever built a web page before. Some history majors, in fact, reported that they chose that major in part to avoid the use of technology.

This article explores the goals which shaped the project, the methods used to train students in both the web skills needed to build online sites and the research required to produce scholarly content, and the ultimate problems and successes of the project. Last, the article discusses ways in which the project's methods and resources can be applied to other classes in the humanities and social sciences.

Goals

Ever since working on UVA's Valley of the Shadow project in the mid-1990s, Jeffrey McClurken had been interested in the possibilities that the web offered for creating and presenting scholarly student projects.  [2] In the 2002 spring semester he went to Jerry Slezak, the history building's Instructional Technology Specialist, to discuss the possibility of incorporating such a project into his American Technology and Culture class.  [3] This particular course seemed a good choice in that history students who chose to take this class (which counts toward the major, but is an elective) would be more disposed to the use of new technology than the average history major. Specifically, the collaborative project between history professor and technology specialist intended for students to produce a scholarly, well-researched, fully cited web site on a particular piece of American technology and its place in American society and culture.

The web site project assignment had a number of pedagogical goals. First, students had a chance to present their ideas and work in new ways. Hypertext and the medium of the Internet allow for new opportunities to present research and to reach a wider audience. The web is one area in which historians need to be significantly more active, especially as a way to bridge the gap between scholarly and popular history. Yet such online work requires historians to be careful and rigorous in their approach.  [4] Second, history majors would leave the course with a new skill set that they were not getting within the current curriculum. Ideally this skill set would make them more marketable when looking for jobs or applying to graduate schools. Third, as part of the process of creating their own online projects, students would learn what constitutes a reliable, academic web resource. Fourth, students would produce original, available online works of scholarly research that would be intellectually accessible and interesting to other students and web surfers. Ideally these projects would improve-one web site at a time-the quality of information available on the web. This focus on a scholarly approach was essential to the value of this assignment. Fifth, students would think about what it would mean to write and create for a larger audience than just their instructor. Sixth, the assignment would be a part of the class's focus on American technology and its interactions with U.S. society and culture. Finally, the collaborating team sought to produce a pedagogical process that might be useable in other classes, in history and in other disciplines.

There were several course management goals for the project as well. First, the technical aspects of web-site building should not take over the class meetings, especially if those class-time discussions or questions took away substantively from time spent on course content. Closely related to that goal, each time the course was taught, the teaching team looked for ways to reduce the amount of time spent answering technical questions via email or during office hours. (The first several semesters there was an overwhelming number of emails and office visits that drained much of the instructors' time.) The desire to reduce the need for meetings in and out of class led to the other management goal, namely to tailor student skills instruction to the assignment as designed, and to the particular needs of the students (few of whom had web building experience).

Structure and Content of the Web Site Assignments

The project that the collaborative team finally worked out was to have students create a "research-based web site about the history of a piece of technology that they found interesting." Each site would need to explain the history of a particular piece of technology (such as the polygraph, the polio vaccine, or voting machines), as well as examine its impact on American society and culture. Students were told that their web sites would be evaluated on both presentation and content. Students needed to do more than just write a research paper and dump it onto a web page, but they also needed to produce more than a flashy, pretty site, with little substance. Their web sites' "bells and whistles" should not overwhelm the information covered. They were told repeatedly, "Presentation is not an acceptable substitute for content."

One key early decision was to provide students with a clear, fairly structured, content outline for their web sites. One of the strengths of the web and web creation tools is their remarkable malleability. Ultimately, however, the potential formlessness of the web can actually paralyze student activity. Instruct most college students to write a research paper, and they have some idea of what that assignment is supposed to look like. Most students, however, have little-to-no idea of how an online research-based web site might be structured. Given that, providing a clear outline of content for the site meant that students were not bogged down by having too many choices.

Although it varied somewhat depending on the particular piece of technology, students were told that each web site needed to include these key areas:

  1. Background of their piece of technology including any antecedents
  2. Its invention
  3. Adoption of the technology and any alternatives to it
  4. Impact of the technology on the American economy, military, society, and/or culture
  5. Endnotes, image citations and bibliography

This structure was familiar to the students because the course covered a different artifact of technology each week, using this same basic outline.  [5]

This fixed structure did shape the kinds of projects that students created, preventing the free range of creative formats that the web allows, but the benefits outweighed that limitation. Another positive result of the use of this structured format was that students' focus as they created their sites was more on the content than on the presentation. Finally, the clear content outline also provided a basic structure for evaluation of their work.  [6]

Deadlines and Assignments

Given the size of the project, the unfamiliar nature of it, and the skills they needed to learn to build their site, the assignments were spread throughout the semester. This is not the kind of project that students can complete the night before it is due. The assignments were laid out (for a Tuesday/Thursday class during a fourteen-week semester) as follows:

  1. Class meeting with information technologist for web site design overview: Tuesday, Week 2
  2. Web site topics due: Thursday, Week 2
  3. Web skills assignments due: Thursdays in Weeks 2-5, discussed in more detail below.
  4. Hands-on web skills session in computer lab: Tuesday, Week 3
  5. Proposal web site (with bibliography) due: Tuesday, Week 6 - A culmination of their web skills training combined with a typical research project proposal.  [7]
  6. Home page of final research web site due: Thursday, Week 9 - The idea here was to get them to start building the site well before the deadline.
  7. Completed research web site due: Thursday, Week 11
  8. Peer reviews of two classmates' web sites due: Thursday, Week 12 - Each student then had a week to review two classmates' web sites for clarity, presentation, content, accuracy (of text and citations), proofreading, site design, usability, and adherence to the assignment. The course instructor (McClurken) also reviewed all student web sites, looking for the same issues.  [8]
  9. Final revised web site due: Thursday, Week 13

Methods of Web Skills Training

McClurken and Slezak began by deciding to use Netscape Composer as web creation software. Although there are more user-friendly and more powerful web creation tools out there, this one was free. Plus, Composer's limited tool set actually was an asset at times because it was less complicated to use than some of the other alternatives. Composer's cross-platform compatibility and its presence on all the computers in UMW's computer labs also were factors in this decision. For the sake of simplifying the web skills teaching, students were effectively required to use Composer. Students could use other software if they wanted, but the instructors would not be able to offer support for the problems they faced.  [9]

In terms of the method for teaching the students web skills, the first two iterations of this class (Spring 2002 and 2003) used Web Page Design, by Herbert Brown, a workbook intended to help teach students how to build a web site for an online business.  [10] Although aimed at students, Brown's specific assignments often focused on business concepts-such as asking students to figure out what items they were going to sell-that were at best distracting for people working on a scholarly web site. Still, by picking and choosing particular assignments, and modifying others, Brown's book was fairly effectively during those semesters, especially given the lack of alternative texts.

Ultimately, however, the course needed something more tailored to building a scholarly web site.  [11] So, after much discussion, the teaching/technology collaborators decided that before the next iteration in the spring of 2005 they would create their own web skills program, based in Blackboard, the school's course management software. The project began with a list of all the pedagogical goals and web skills students needed to successfully create a scholarly web project.  [12] Based on this list of needed skills, the program included an increasingly complex series of web projects and training modules based in Blackboard.

Web Skills Modules

Beginning with the list of pedagogical goals, the authors set out to design a series of assignments that would take students from a starting place that assumed no web-creation skills through the successful completion of a research-based web site, yet would still keep the focus on the content of the course. Four online modules were created to help the students understand the design process of creating a web site, and to develop the skills needed to produce one. The online modules contain presentations on specific topics, links to online resources, web skills assignments, and online quizzes. Each module was designed to take around two hours to complete, although students had one week to complete each module and assignment.  [13] (Links to the modules themselves can be found in the endnotes.)

The first online module was an "Introduction to the World Wide Web and Web Site Design." This module outlined the basics of how web sites work, along with an overview of the design process. The ADDIE model of design (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate) served as a strategy for designing a web site.  [14]

At the end of this module, students tackled the first web skills assignment-the creation of a single-page web site. This assignment led the students step-by-step through the process of downloading and installing Netscape Composer, creating a page, and publishing the page to the web. The assignment was designed to provide an early taste of success. Indeed, most students were able to complete it with minimal technical assistance. (They were also quite proud of the fact that they produced a page that could be seen by anyone on the web.) Another goal of this assignment was to get the students to set up the software and hardware tools they would be using to build their web projects. This exercise also identified any technical problems students might have before continuing to the next module.

The second online module, "Analyzing and Designing a Web Site," got the students started with their own design process. Students analyzed what they wanted to achieve, defined a mission and audience, and learned how to organize the site, structure the files, storyboard the site, and set up a navigation system.  [15]

For this module, and the rest that followed, the web skills assignments focused on designing a practice web site that would also serve as an online proposal for the research-based web site project the students were to complete later in the course. The proposal included a discussion of the major topics the research-based web site would cover, a description of the layout of the web site, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources from print and the web.  [16]

So, in essence, students created a web site about another web site, a choice which kept the focus on the content of the course, not just on the technology involved in producing a web site. This project maximized the students' effort in two ways. The process of creating the online proposal web site gave students a hands-on opportunity to learn the technical skills, while the content that they produced for the pages of the proposal site focused on the research they needed to produce their final web project, namely the research-based web site. The online proposal web site also maximized instructor effort-evaluating the web production skills of students as well as the progress that students were making in the research process for their final project.

In Module Three, "Building a Site with Netscape Composer," students began constructing the structure of the site they designed in Module Two. This module also repeated the content that was covered in the hands-on lab exercise they completed during class in week three. During this module, students used Composer to build blank template pages for a site, and learned how to create a navigation system to allow users to move from page to page. Students also learned the process of inserting the content they had been developing into the blank template pages. Once a site was built, students uploaded it to the web server and tested the pages using various web browsers.  [17]

The web skills assignment after Module Three was to have the students build a "skeleton" site for the online proposal web site they designed in Module Two. This site included the pages for the site with headings, and the navigation system needed to move through the content on the site. Content for the pages was added later. Students then posted this site online and emailed the URL for the site to the instructor for review.

Module Four, "Testing, Modifying and Improving Your Site," led students through the process of testing the proposal site for technical and content organization problems. Students proofread and reviewed the sites, making use of special tools like spell checkers to fix errors. Students also learned about different types of multimedia, and how to maintain the information in a web site over the life of the site.  [18]

After completing Module Four, students took on the final web skills assignment-completing the online proposal web site. This included adding all the content to the site, correcting any technical or content errors, and performing some basic usability testing in various browsers. Once this site was complete and posted to the web, the collaborators reviewed it for technical completion (e.g., links work, images appear) and for quality of content (e.g., content complete and correct, research progress sufficient, free of grammatical errors).

Once the students had completed this series of online modules and web skills assignments, they had experienced the entire process of designing and building a web site. The challenge for the students for the remainder of the course was to take these new skills and apply them to their research-based web site.

The Instructional Technology Specialist proved an essential part of this process. In addition to the two in-class workshops he ran (in weeks two and three), he was available outside of class for any questions students had about scanning, specific technological issues, particular modules, or their own web sites. Perhaps even more important is the way he was careful to tell students that he was not going to do it for them, but rather, showed them how to fix it themselves.

Successful Student Sites

One of the signs of success for this project and the assignment is the growing number of scholarly, well-written, well-designed web sites that have been developed by students. The best of these sites are on creative and fascinating topics (for example, Noah Cincinnati's exploration of "The Sterilization Procedure" in America or Kati Singel's discussion of the history of "The Polygraph"); they are thoroughly documented (e.g., Amy Miller's "History of the X-Ray"); they take advantage of the visual opportunities the web offers-through a variety of illustrations, political cartoons, and photographs-to make their points effectively (see Rachael Deane's "Voting Technology"); and they exploit the resources and multimedia applications available on the web (as John Paul Liebertz's "Video Games: A Look Into The Past" does). Ultimately, sites such as Benjamin Franklin's "The Potency of the Pill," Lauren McCreedy's study of "The Polio Vaccine," and Kristen Smith's account of the history of "Electronic Pocket Calculators" succeeded in combining the attractive possibilities of hypertext and the Internet with good research and scholarship.  [19]

Evaluation

How, then, does one assess the overall success of the scholarly web project and the new Blackboard-based program for teaching students the necessary web skills?

Problems

Of course, the sites mentioned above were among the best, and even these students had some problems along the way. The main problem areas in student sites included issues that might be directly or indirectly attributed to the online nature of these assignments. Gaps in basic computer knowledge were surprising. (The instructor spent twenty minutes on the phone with one student explaining how to move files from one folder to another.) Linking issues were the cause of problems with a number of "finished" sites and were the subject of numerous student emails or panicked office visits. In fact, the vast majority of the technical difficulties were with hyperlinks or images, almost all of which were easily fixed. These problems were almost always related to where students had put their files (or how they had told the browser to point to them).

Yet many of these issues were problems that professors see in most student research papers. Numerous sites suffered from worse-than-typical typos and misspellings-all things that could have been fixed by a thorough proofreading. For a few sites, citations of content and image sources were haphazardly done, despite many warnings. A few others had little-to-no content in their sites, or worse, inaccurate material. Several of the worst-offending students later linked these problems to the online aspects of the assignment, claiming that they had been so caught up in designing and building the site that they had not had time to pay as much attention to these other issues. (This excuse arose despite repeated warnings about the necessity for starting early.)

Successes

Ultimately the Blackboard-based program for teaching students web skills implanted this last semester succeeded. Students became more independent in learning skills with modules than with the previous web training based in the business book. The technical aspects of the project did not take over the course as it has in previous years. The explicit emphasis on the research character of the project also worked as more students produced scholarly research sites.

Future Changes

Although both instructor and technical advisor were pleased with the progress made this semester, they continue to be interested in improving the quality of the experience for all involved. A debriefing session with students at the end of the semester after the projects were done gave many students a chance to express satisfaction with the skills they had learned. But when pressed, students also had suggestions for improvement. Interestingly, some students asked for even more deadlines to make them get started earlier. Others asked that skills and content work be more spread out through the semester, in part so that they did not forget the skills learned in the web modules by the time they were building their research web sites. Still others wanted more training in how to include audio, video, or more sophisticated methods of linking on their site.

In future iterations of the course, the authors plan on incorporating many of these suggestions. The four weeks of skills assignments will be spread out to eight weeks and will add more repetition of skills. The Blackboard modules will be tailored for students by adding a FAQ page for widespread problems (among them common linking errors). An online discussion board will help students to compare notes and to help each other out with technical problems. The discussion board will also help build community in the class and provide an environment for peer-to-peer teaching and learning opportunities.  [20]

Suggestions for those Who Would Follow

For those who want to try a website project in classes, the first step is prepare, prepare, prepare. The next suggestion is to be flexible when finding out what students need. Third, web skills assignments must be mandatory. In this experience, some students just did not do the assignments. Not surprisingly, when they tried to build the web site, they ran into a number of problems. Fourth, peer reviews are a critical component of the process. Although student peer reviews of papers do not always work as well as hoped, these peer reviews have proven to be an essential part of the web site construction process. They can be extremely helpful in catching problems, especially with links and questions of usability. Fifth, more structure is probably better than less, especially as the instructor(s) and the students are learning what to expect. More structure makes it easier for grading, but it also makes it easier for students to conceptualize a project that goes far beyond what most (history) students are asked to do in their assignments. Sixth, instructors need to acknowledge the time commitment involved for students to succeed in these projects, perhaps reducing other writing and reading assignments in the course. Seventh, the instructors also need to understand the time commitment for themselves. At times, projects can take over the class and seemingly all of the instructors' time in the semester. Technology can take the focus away from the class content itself. Formalizing the process of learning those basic web site creation skills can work, even when instructors still spent some class time on it. Nonetheless, this kind of project still means a great deal of work for the professor, especially if a college or university does not have an information technology expert to help.

Conclusion

Although complicated and time-consuming for instructors and the students, it was ultimately worthwhile. Students have, as a class, created some constructive new informational resources for the web and learned some valuable new skills. Also, with the addition of the tailored Blackboard web skills tutorials, more students produced impressive projects this year. The number of truly all-around successful sites has jumped from three or four two years ago to seven or eight this year. Perhaps more significantly, students appreciated the skills learned and the work they had done. Several students indicated they were proud of what they had accomplished. One reported that her father had sent out the web address to their family and friends. How many research papers are shown to friends and families? As several students said at the end of the class: "It was hard and a lot of work, but I'm glad I did it." Students see the long-term benefits as well. As one recently emailed, "I want to use this site in the future as a point of reference for potential employers in terms of denoting technological and research skills." As teachers, one could not ask for anything more.

Notes

1. See, for example, Edward Ayers and Will Thomas, "An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities," American Historical Review (December 2003) http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.5/thomas.html and http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/AHR/; and "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution," http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/.

2. "The Valley of the Shadow Project," http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu/.

3. See a description of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at Mary Washington at http://www.umw.edu/doit/dtlt/about_dtlt/mission_statement.php.

4. Others have expressed similar claims and concerns: For example, Roy Rosenzweig and Michael O'Malley, "Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web," Journal of American History 84, no. 3 (June 1997): 132-55. Rosenzweig has also recently written about the continued promise, opportunities and problems of online work, in this case focusing on the need for careful use of online archives. See Roy Rosenzweig, "Digital Archives Are a Gift of Wisdom to Be Used Wisely," Chronicle of Higher Education, June 24, 2005 http://chnm.gmu.edu/news/archives/chronicle_20050624.pdf accessed July 19, 2005.

5. The complete assignment can be seen here: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/projects.htm.

6. Despite the structured format, there are still a few students each semester who ask for much more specific instructions: "But what do you want me to say?" This need from some students for incredibly detailed instructions on assignments is sometimes called the "checklist phenomenon". In most instances, even these students have found their own voice in these web sites.

7. The complete assignment can be seen here: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/projects.htm.

8. The student peer reviewers and McClurken used a form that he modified from one used several years ago by the University of Maryland's HiLS Program, http://www.clis.umd.edu/programs/hils_program.html. The adapted form can be seen here: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/module2_06_peer.htm.

9. Most recently in Spring 2005, students downloaded the full Netscape 7.2 of which Composer is part, http://www.netscape.com or http://browser.netscape.com/ns8/download/archive72x.jsp.

10. Herbert Brown, Web Page Design ([Cincinnati, Ohio]: South-Western Educational Publishing, 2001). The book has sample files and step-by-step instructions for Netscape Composer, Microsoft FrontPage Express and FrontPage 2000.

11. Plus, Brown's book was becoming fairly outdated, given the numerous newer versions of web publishing software.

12. The full list of goals and web skills can be seen here: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/goals.htm.

13. The modules, transferred from the class's Blackboard course site: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/index.htm.

14. Module #1: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/module1.htm.

15. Module #2: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/module2.htm.

16. http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/projects.htm.

17. Module #3: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/module3.htm.

18. Module #4: http://people.umw.edu/~jmcclurk/jahc/module4.htm.

19. See http://www.umw.edu/cas/history/links__related_programs/student_projects/default.php for a list of the most successful student web projects over the last four years. Specific projects mentioned are at: Noah Cincinnati, "The Sterilization Procedure," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Cincinnati/...; Kati Singel, "The Polygraph: The Modern Lie Detector," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Singel/...; Amy Miller, "The History of the X-Ray," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Amy%20Miller%20...; Rachael Deane, "Voting Technology: An Examination of the History and Impact of Mechanized Elections in the United States," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Rachael%20Deane%20...; John Paul Liebertz, "Video Games: A Look Into The Past," http://students.umw.edu/~jlieb7gq/; Benjamin Franklin, "The Potency of the Pill," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/Ben%20Franklin%20—%20The%20Pill/...; Lauren McCreedy, "The Polio Vaccine: Freedom from Fear," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/McCreedy/...; Kristen Smith, "Electronic Pocket Calculators," http://www.umw.edu/hisa/resources/Student%20Projects/KSmith/....

20. The notion of peer-to-peer teaching has been discussed by Diana Oblinger, "Teaching and Learning Technologies: From A Different Perspective," University of Mary Washington Faculty Academy, May 10, 2005, Fredericksburg, VA; and in more detail in Diana Oblinger and James Oblinger, "Is It Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation," in Educating the Net Generation, 2005, http://www.educause.edu/EducatingtheNetGeneration/5989 (accessed July 19, 2005).