Websites for Student Research Projects: Is It Worth It?

Websites for Student Research Projects: Is It Worth It?

Adrienne Hood, Department of History, University of Toronto
Jackie Spafford, History of Art Department, University of Toronto

Background
Adrienne Hood teaches a two-semester course through the University of Toronto History Department entitled "Topics in Material Culture". This course attracts participants from several disciplines, including History, Art History, Museum Studies, Anthropology, Journalism, as well as students working full-time in various professions. The content deals with both the abstract (theory) and the concrete (objects), but as a history course it is aimed at people with little or no visual training. For their main project, students conduct original research on a topic of their choice, that must stem from artifact analysis and be backed up by the material culture theory covered in the course.

In order to stretch the participants' capacities to work with the visual and the abstract, Adrienne assigned websites as part of the course requirements for the first time in 1996-97. Students were asked to design and create individual homepages which incorporated this research in a non-traditional format. In the process of this undertaking, she hoped to put more emphasis on visual material culture and less on text. She had several other objectives as well:

We should point out here that we are aware of the fact that many people are working with instructional and research web-based projects that far exceed this one in sophistication. There are far more people, however, who are beginning to see the advantage of integrating websites into their curriculum but have not yet taken the first step. This could be due to technophobia, lack of facilities, lack of departmental support, or other causes. We encountered all of these in varying amounts, and will address them here. Our hope is that by discussing the problems we overcame, the problems we are still encountering, and, more importantly, the successes we achieved, that other people might consider taking the first step.

The First Year - 1996-97

The largest problem we encountered the first time out was the unevenness of the participants' computer abilities. They ranged from a level of comfort with a variety of computer applications (2-3 students out of a class of 16) to near computer illiteracy (surprisingly, the majority). This was magnified by the near-terror on the part of students with little computer experience - some contemplated dropping the course when they considered the overwhelming project that lay ahead.

The second problem was Adrienne's discovery that she had no idea how to create a website of her own, let alone teach this to others. She had been promised assistance from the University's academic computer facility, Information Commons, (which turned out to be non-existent when she needed it) so, she proceeded, thinking it couldn't be too difficult. She found out otherwise.

The third problem was a lack of facilities available to all students, since many did not otherwise have access to an adequate computer. While the course is now offered only to graduate students, in 1996-97 it was also open to undergraduates. The university had computer labs that were available exclusively to graduates or undergraduates, but none for both. A related barrier was caused by the fact that students had their email accounts on different servers, and could therefore not all mount their finished sites on a common server.

The university was simply not yet equipped to deal with a project like this with all of its difficulties. Furthermore, the administration was complicated, as there were two computing facilities we had to deal with. The Centre for Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences, or CHASS, is the facility that provides a server for graduate email accounts and personal websites. The other centre, Information Commons, provides email accounts for undergraduates and is responsible for listservs (Adrienne had established one for the course as a forum for discussion and problem solving); it does not, however, provide space for personal websites. So, we were obliged to deal with both facilities. It wasn't always clear who did what and university politics made it necessary to deal with them with sensitivity.

Around this time Adrienne linked up with Jackie Spafford, and together they began to tackle some of the problems. Jackie had completed her MA in Art History in 1996, and Adrienne had been the supervisor of her final paper. During her graduate studies she took a course in Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto which helped her develop a solid grounding in various computer and internet applications. In 1995 she attended the CETH summer session at Princeton University which built on this foundation further. Before and after graduation she worked on numerous internet projects, designing websites for several university departments and conducting internet training for small groups. Jackie was auditing "Topics in Material Culture" out of interest in 1996. When Adrienne told her of the problems she was encountering, Jackie suggested they try to get funding to allow her to teach some computer sessions for the course. Funding came from CHASS, the computing centre mentioned earlier.

After making several enquiries, we found a classroom (operated by Information Commons, the "other" facility) that we could use for training sessions. It was equipped with 30 high-speed PC's, and an instructor's computer with an LCD projector. Adrienne initially donated two 3-hour nights of classtime. Jackie began the sessions by distributing handouts on basic HTML coding, and analyzing a few fairly basic websites by contrasting the browser view with the view of the encoded text.

The first session was fairly disastrous as it was next to impossible to find the appropriate level at which to instruct. The participants who had no computer experience beyond word processing (many still with DOS-run systems) felt discouraged by the bombardment of new information, while those who were capable of moving more quickly were frustrated by the attention paid to basics.

The second session went much more smoothly. Students were instructed to bring the text of whatever research they had completed at that point in word-processed form on a diskette. Jackie showed them how to convert it to ASCII and then how to begin to add HTML coding. The computers were unfortunately not outfitted with HTML editors, so we used Notepad and typed in the HTML. Although somewhat inefficient, this proved to be beneficial as it forced the students to think about the coding logically and thoroughly, and they quickly learned from their mistakes. We also took advantage of various websites with archived gifs, icons and background patterns. By the end of this session they each had a simple page which incorporated a variety of fonts, display variations, colours and hypertext links. This was a powerful way for them to see the possiblities opening up - they were subsequently less daunted by the whole enterprise, and showed new enthusiasm about continuing.

In the meantime, we worked together on a very basic homepage for the course, which was linked to the History Department's website, and in turn would have links to each students' homepage. With time this page became more informative and sophisticated, with links to related sites, electronic journals, resources for website design, and, eventually, students' webpages. When the homepage became too long for one "page", it was reorganized. A menu was added with links to each of these groupings as well as to the student websites. There was certainly more which could have been done to it at each stage, but Adrienne found it to be very time-consuming. It remained, for this initial year, a joint project with Jackie assisting with updates.

Once the students began to mount their first attempts and they realized they could be seen by "the world", they began to put more effort into both the look and content. Two more training sessions were held with Jackie, the latter focussing on scanning and adding images, and on providing individual assistance. (One thing which came through without extensive searching was the use of a scanner, courtesy of CHASS.) All but one student managed to have his/her page finished by the deadline, although the hurdles weren't all crossed.

A further problem with the graduate/undergraduate split was met when students began to mount their sites. Grads could set up their own homepages using their email accounts on the CHASS server, but undergrads did not have this option with their accounts. Numerous phone calls and emails led to nothing, so we decided to have undergrads hand in their completed webpages and accompanying images on a diskette and we loaded them into a subdirectory on Adrienne's account.

Despite all the problems, the students came away feeling they had gained a useful skill and had successfully entered the world of the Internet. Adrienne had also learned many new things and had managed to survive all of the demands of this undertaking. Based on the high level of student enthusiasm resulting from the first attempt, Adrienne assigned a similar project for the class this year. In addition, she felt that all her goals had not yet been attained, due mainly to the technical and logistical problems we encountered, and hoped that this could change in the second attempt.

The Second Time - 1997-98

Things were immediately easier as (a) the class was confined to graduates this year, so mounting websites on the server was much easier, and (b) it was much easier to find instructional support for the computer and internet component. In addition, Adrienne took a course during the first semester on "Instructional Design for Electronic Media" which gave her a much stronger starting point to work with.

Lynn Holden, the Academic Technology Liaison at Information Commons, came in during the second class meeting to give a session on design from a fairly conceptual viewpoint. This proved to be somewhat premature as the students had not even gone over the basics of website creation. In future years, this session will be much more valuable given in the second semester, once students have a better grasp of this new area, and of their individual research projects.

Jackie donated her time to come in again early on to give two sessions on internet basics, HTML, setting up a website account and FTPing. After the previous year's experiments, things went much more quickly and smoothly in these two sessions, and by the end of the second one each student had a preliminary site mounted on the internet.

There have been many more options offered this year through CHASS and Information Commons. There are free sign-up courses on basic to advanced website design which several of Adrienne's students have taken and which have helped them learn much more quickly and systematically. Also, CHASS provided the time of Claire Smith to teach two 3-hour sessions, which consolidated much of the earlier information and also gave students the option to develop more advanced design strategies, such as the incorporation of tables and frames.

Varying student interest in the project was evident at this point. Some of the sites remained basic but functional, while other students developed fairly sophisticated layouts and continued work on them after the deadline.

One area which continues to be problematic is how to grade student websites. Not only did Adrienne have to evaluate the content, she also had to comment on and assess the design and construction of the website. Moreover, it is difficult to provide commentary, to make suggestions, and to correct grammar without a hard copy to write on. She found herself printing out every website in its entirety at one point so she could write specific comments for all the linked sections and hand them back. This two-pronged grading was incredibly time consuming, not to mention paper and toner-intensive. Adrienne soon realized that the students would benefit from her web critique to each of them so she augmented the individual comments by post-class sessions in a "smart classroom." Here she projected each site onto a large screen, making comments on the visual and organizational aspects and inviting further comments from the class. Everyone willingly attended these extra sessions and seemed to learn from them.

A related issue has been what percentage of the course mark should be devoted to the website. In the first year it was 15% of the total grade - and the students got a good grade for just doing a basic site. Things had been so difficult, she didn't critique the sites. To try to integrate website design more thoroughly with the research projects, she insisted this year that the first term assignment - an annotated bibliography and research strategy for the following term - be presented as a website, not a paper. This combined enterprise was worth 35% of the grade.

Another problem is the amount of time which is still required for this undertaking. Adrienne expected there would be time demands the first year, but was not prepared for the number of hours she had to put in outside of regular class preparation and teaching for this project. Things improved the second year, but there were still many new bugs to iron out and new time requirements.

An issue yet to be resolved is copyright on the images the students are using in their websites. Some have been copied from other websites, but most have been scanned from books. At this point we're still grappling with it, and feeling somewhat protected by the fact that this site is embedded within the U of T and History Department sites, but realize that password protection may be required in the future.

Finally, students are still working out the most effective way to include reference citations in their sites. So far hyperlinks to a list of references in a separate file has been the most popular.

Conclusions

To answer the question, "Is it worth it?", we would say yes, but would qualify that answer somewhat. Except in the case of instructors who have extensive computer and internet experience and the time to put into teaching those basics, it is definitely a collaborative effort. Adrienne was not prepared for the many technical and logistical demands she encountered, and was fortunate the first year that she was able to work with Jackie. The university now has more resources, and, perhaps more important, Adrienne is learning how to navigate around the various computer facilities.

Working on this paper has made us examine the value of this exercise. We arrived at several questions that anyone contemplating a similar undertaking should ask:

Adrienne recently distributed a questionnaire to this year's participants, asking them for their feedback on this aspect of the course. About two thirds of the class thought that it was appropriate to teach website design in a course like this. All appreciated the training provided in one of its forms, but all felt that improvements could be made. Answering whether they would be willing to gain the skills outside of class time if it had been necessary, they were evenly divided - half would and the other half wouldn't. All but one student responded that the website exercise helped them think differently about the nature of their research, especially how they communicate it, and almost half the class felt that the exercise of incorporating visuals helped them think differently about material culture (which was Adrienne's original goal).

By spring 1998, the project is beginning to meet Adrienne's original goal, but all the students have had the same difficulty as their instructor - how to reconcile the large amount of extra time involved in addition to very heavy course or teaching requirements. Adrienne is still thinking about whether or not to do it again next year. The student response at the end of the course this year will be a large factor in Adrienne's decision to assign this project next year, but probably she will.

Adrienne Hood
Assistant Professor, History Department
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5S 1K7
a.hood@utoronto.ca

Jackie Spafford
History of Art Department
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5S 1K7
spafford@chass.utoronto.ca

Course website for "Topics in Material Culture" (with links to students' web projects)

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