Q. & A.: Learning from the NewbiesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Building a major Web information site can tax any seasoned veteran. Planning, coordination, testing and so many more details demand near-constant attention. When no one on the entire team has ever worked on a Web site before, the challenges increase exponentially. That's what happened when two Towson University colleagues and I decided to combine our classes to create a Web site. Our observations of the process should offer online publishers some insights into what areas new hires need the most help with.
The project began over lunch with David Wizer, an assistant professor in Instructional Technology, and Robyn Quick, an assistant professor in Theatre. The three of us were interested in using technology in our classes, and we were hoping to share ideas so that none of us had to reinvent the wheel.
We decided to collaborate on a project based upon a theatre student's M.F.A. project. The student, Kate Chisholm, was to stage the premiere production of "Heartfield," a musical about John Heartfield, the German artist who waged a "one-man war against Hitler" through his photomontage posters. The production was scheduled to open in late April 2000, so the students in the three classes could develop the site during the spring semester as the theatre production progressed from auditions to rehearsals to performance.
"Everyone agreed the panic attacks and long hours of revisions had been well worth the effort"
We would teach our classes separately and bring them [the classes] together at various times throughout the semester. We each developed specific goals based on our disciplines. Quick's focus was the use of the site to document the process of moving from script to stage, publish critical reviews, and offer a detailed script analysis. My focus was primarily on gathering information about the cast and crew as well as on Heartfield's life and world events while he was alive and presenting it on the site. Wizer's focus was on creating lesson plans and other educational resources connected to the production, all of which would be featured on the site. Rather than having our students work in their regular class settings, however, we decided to mix them up in interdisciplinary groups.
The plan evolved over a year and a half, and by the time the classes began at the end of January, we were ready to build one of the most ambitious sites ever to grace the Web. We envisioned streaming video of the musical and selected scenes from rehearsals; a rich tour of the script; interactive quizzes for students; and much more.
But as we soon found out, there was one small problem: Not only were our students virtually all new to the world of Web-site building, many of them also had panic attacks when we asked them to create a basic home page (using a whopping five HTML tags) as a warm-up exercise. This was, we agreed after the first class, going to be a long semester.
After a flurry of dropouts, we decided to proceed cautiously. We focused largely on the theory of Web development, introducing the technology in small doses, from basic HTML to simple image editing to streaming audio and video. We also identified the more adventurous students in the class who were willing to learn more about multimedia and gave them personalized advanced instruction.
While all of that helped, it was still rough going on occasion. The initial launch of the site — which coincided with the debut of the musical — was plagued with broken links, problems with permissions in our shared Web account, and pages that rendered horribly or not at all in one browser or another. But when we finally got the site up and running after several weeks of frantic recoding and fiddling and saw what we had created, everyone agreed the panic attacks and long hours of revisions had been well worth the effort.
There was little question that our students learned a tremendous amount from the project. Their critiques of the project almost unanimously emphasized the tremendous amount of theoretical and practical knowledge they had gathered about Web development.
We three professors also learned a lot, and several of our observations would benefit anyone in the online-publishing business who has to work with newbies. Herewith, some of the key lessons we learned.
Lesson One: Beginners need more time than you can imagine
Lesson Two: Work within your limits
Early on, we realized that no matter how hard our students worked on the site, we had one problem: None of them was a designer. So all their hard work could end up looking pathetic if we asked them to actually design the look and feel of the site. With that in mind, we hired a designer (Anne Martens) to create a "shell" for the site so that students could simply drop their content into the pages without mucking around with too much code. Such a plan makes sense for many publishers, as well, who can save money and maintain more control of their work if they pay a designer to create a template, then have their staffs use it to create the publication.
Lesson Three: One of the best ways of learning is through teaching
As an educator, I know that there is often no better way to master a subject than by teaching it. My colleagues and I tried to push this model in the construction of the Heartfield project. As I mentioned before, several students in the class showed interest in various aspects of technology. They were given the opportunity to obtain more personalized instruction in their areas of interest. Those students then tutored members of other groups who were interested in using the same technology. For instance, one student focused on learning how to capture video and stream it for Web delivery. He then held structured training sessions for other students and met informally with individuals and groups for tutoring. Other students covered other areas: HTML, audio, graphics, etc. In each case, the students got to practice their newfound skills and learned more in the process as they sought answers for questions their charges came up with. In short, they learned much more by teaching others. It's not hard to imagine this scenario working for the staff of an online publication.
Lesson Four: It's impossible to overemphasize the importance of testing
Students and recent grads are accustomed to a work process in which all effort is focused on the creation of a product: term paper, presentation, etc. Because most students do virtually all their work at the last minute, that process typically ends with the creation of a first draft of the product. It's obviously important that they break out of that mindset if they are developing online content, since first drafts of Web pages often overflow with bad code, broken links, browser-dependent features, and so on. So rather than patting our students on the back when they shipped us the first wave of files, we turned around and said, "Good start — now go check them all." Not a single page out of the hundred or so they produced survived untouched for the final launch. While the students were not initially wild about testing their work, they ultimately came to realize that failing to do so could undermine all their hard work. Testing can take as much time as initial design and programming, and needs to be built into any schedule.
Two additional lessons apply not only to Web projects but also to a wide range of work situations:
Lesson Five: For many newbies, teamwork is a frightening prospect
In the world of online publishing, teamwork is a way of life. In fact, the teamwork aspect was what particularly interested me in this project, since I wanted my journalism students to have the experience of working in mixed teams — as they are likely to if they pursue careers in online publishing. That aspect was undoubtedly terrifying for many of our students, however, as it would be for many recent college graduates. That's because in college, "teamwork" is a word that carries memories of trying to coordinate a group of people with wildly different schedules, and then getting everyone to pull his or her weight. Making the teamwork issue more terrifying was the fact that we were also asking our students to work with students from two other disciplines. We had to educate our students to the necessity of teamwork to our project, letting them see how it was impossible to accomplish our goal without it. We had to provide a clear vision of why teamwork was necessary and what it would yield. We also did our best to create an interdependence among the students. For instance, once the first iteration of the site had gone live, each group created a testing plan for its part of the site — and then handed it off to another group for actual testing. As a result, the students generally found the experience to be positive. As one class member noted: "We all seemed to have a lot to offer to each other. That made the end product very strong."
Lesson Six: No single style of leadership is the best one
In order to help the teams accomplish their goals, we assigned a project manager for each of eight major sections of the site. Project managers were selected based on their stated preferences to hold the position and the faculty members' previous classroom experiences with those who had volunteered. What was interesting to watch was the different means with which the project managers got the job done. One set rigid tasks and deadlines for her staff, and was not hesitant to show up at their homes early on weekend mornings to collect materials. Others were less willing to delegate responsibility and kept the most important tasks for themselves. In one group, the official project manager realized he had a de facto co-project manager — a strong-willed individual who had her own ideas on how best to handle the job — and he made the best of it. As he wrote in an evaluation while we were wrapping up the project:
It has been extraordinary observing and participating in natural hierarchies that form despite the intended structure of a group. Groups that have more than one natural leader tend to have disagreements from time to time. Fortunately for us, we use those challenges in a check-and-balance system; we're never short of creative ideas and easily overcome any disagreements.
In each case, what was most important was a commitment to get the job done, which should be reassuring to those who have trouble identifying the traits of good leaders for Web projects.
When we began this project, we had high hopes but little idea of what was possible. Fortunately, we were able to deal with most of the challenges that popped up along the way. Now that we have been through the experience and have a clearer sense of what issues we need to address with students, we're confident the next time we collaborate will be much easier and the final project even more ambitious. We hope that the lessons we learned can also help you ease newbies into the world of online publishing.
Work on the Heartfield project was supported by grants from Towson University's Center for Instructional Advancement and Technology as well as the university's Faculty Development and Research Committee.
Thom Lieb is an associate professor of journalism and new media at Towson University in Baltimore. Among his courses is Writing for the Web. He is the author of Editing for Clear Communication and has written and edited for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and online publication. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Communication from the University of Maryland at College Park and a master's of science in Magazine Journalism from Syracuse University. You may contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Links from this article:
eGroups: Writing for New Media, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/writing-for-new-media/
The Heartfield Web site, http://www.towson.edu/heartfield/