The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

Student-Constructed Web Sites for
Research Projects: Is It Worth It?
Early Cadillac, from Mark Chan's website.

Adrienne Hood
Jacqueline Spafford
Anais Anais perfume ad from Agnes Gomes' website.


Thanks to the students of History 476/1543 of the University of Toronto
who participated in 1996-97 and 1997-98 in a time-consuming experiment.

A straight, or 'cut-throat,' razor from Bruce Retallack's Web site:
A straight, or 'cut-throat,' razor from
Bruce Retallack's Web site.
Adrienne Hood teaches a two-semester, upper division/graduate course through the University of Toronto (UofT) History Department entitled "Topics in Material Culture." This course attracts participants from several disciplines, including history, art history, museum atudies, 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 (historians are notoriously dependent on text), Hood assigned Web sites as part of the course requirements for the first time in 1996-97. She wanted the students to design and create individual sites that incorporated their research in a non-traditional format. Other objectives were:
  • to encourage the use of the Internet as a research tool
  • to add a new dimension to the exploration and use of objects and images
  • to stimulate thinking about design and organization elements
  • to explore the presentation of information in a non-linear format
  • to encourage the incorporation of illustrations, photos, and graphics into text
  • to provide practical computer skills that participants could take with them into other courses, the workplace, and ongoing individual Web projects
  • We should point out here that we are aware that many people are working with instructional and research Web-based projects that far exceed this one in sophistication. There are even more people, however, who are beginning to see the advantage of integrating Web sites into their curriculum but have not yet taken the first step, due to such factors as technophobia, lack of facilities, lack of time, or lack of departmental support. We encountered all of these in varying degrees and will address them here. Our hope is that by discussing the problems we overcame, the difficulties we are still encountering, and, more importantly, the successes we achieved, that other people might consider taking the first step towards working with this important new communication technology.

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    THE FIRST YEAR - 1996/97

    Computer Literacy
    The largest problem we initially encountered was the unevenness of the participants' computer abilities, including the instructor's. They ranged from a level of comfort with a variety of computer applications (two to three students out of a class of sixteen) to near computer illiteracy (surprisingly, the majority). This was magnified by the near-terror on the part of those students with little computer experience—some contemplated dropping the course when they considered the overwhelming project that lay ahead. In addition, while Hood appreciated the possibilities of the Internet for creating exciting new ways to communicate history, she soon discovered that she had no idea how to create a Web site of her own, let alone how to teach this to others. One of the university's academic computer facilities, Information Commons, was very enthusiastic about the project and had promised assistance, thus she proceeded, thinking it couldn't be too difficult. She soon found out otherwise.

    Equipment and University Support
    Outdoor wall graffiti, from Erica Phillips' Web site.
    Outdoor wall graffiti, from
    Erica Phillips' Web site.
    In addition to the problems created by the uneven levels of computer literacy was the lack of facilities available to all students, since many did not otherwise have access to an adequate computer. The problem was exacerbated in 1996-97 because the course combined undergraduates and graduates; while the university had computer labs that were available exclusively to one or the other, none accommodated both. A related barrier was the fact that students had their e-mail accounts on different servers, and therefore not all could mount their finished sites on a common server.

    Unfortunately, it only became clear that the university was not yet equipped to deal with a project like this, with all of its difficulties, after Hood had built it into her syllabus. Furthermore, the computer administration at UofT was complicated, as there were two facilities with which we had to deal. The "Centre for Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences"—now "Computing in the Humanitites and Social Sciences" or CHASS—supplies support for graduate students and faculty, and provides the server for graduate e-mail accounts and personal Web sites. "Information Commons" sets up e-mail accounts for everyone, especially undergraduates, and is responsible for listservs, another electronic component of the course Hood had established as a forum for discussion and problem solving. This latter group does not, however, provide space for personal Web sites. We were obliged, therefore, to deal with both facilities, confusing to a neophyte since it wasn't always clear who did what. At a time when the technical support for the entire university was in transition, politically it was important to deal with each sensitively.

    Tackling the Problems - Funding
    Around this time Hood met with Jacqueline Spafford, and together they began to tackle some of the problems. Spafford was auditing "Topics in Material Culture" out of interest in 1996. While working toward her M.A. (Art History), she had taken a course in Computing in the Humanities at UofT, and attended the CETH (Centre for Electronic Texts in the Humanities) summer session at Princeton University. These helped her develop a solid grounding in various computer and Internet applications. She had also worked on numerous Internet projects, designing Web sites for several university departments and conducting Internet training for small groups. When Hood told her of the problems she was encountering, Spafford suggested they try to get funding to allow her to teach some computer sessions for the course. Since Spafford had done freelance work with CHASS, she approached them first. We submitted a proposal which included an outline of the course and the objectives for including the website component. Our estimate was eleven hours to get the class up and running on HTML (HyperText Markup Language), to help Hood get up to speed on Web basics, and to create a course homepage. CHASS agreed to provide funding for the specified hours; surprisingly this turned out to be the easiest part of the organization.

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    Finding a Computer-Equipped Classroom
    Next we needed to find a classroom equipped with computers. Ideally this would have an adequate number of well-equipped computers, would be available on the evenings that Hood's course was offered, and would be located within easy walking distance from the class as several sessions would be held during the second half of the class. There are a few appropriate computer labs on campus, but obtaining the permission to use them is time-consuming as they are often fully booked, making advanced planning essential. Several weeks and phone calls later, we found a classroom (operated by Information Commons) that we could use for training sessions. It was located nearby in the main UofT library building, and was equipped with thirty high-speed PCs, and an instructor's computer with an LCD projector that permitted the projection of the computer screen.

    HTML Instruction
    Hood initially donated two three-hour sessions of class time. Spafford began each with a brief introduction to the concept of the World Wide Web, and the mechanics of browsers. She then distributed handouts on basic HTML coding, and used an enlarged projected image to analyze a few fairly basic Web sites by contrasting the browser view with a view of the same file as encoded text, using two open windows.

    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 on 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 in a diskette with the word-processed document file of whatever research they had completed. Spafford showed them how to convert it to ASCII (non-formatted text) and then how to add HTML coding. The computers were unfortunately not outfitted with HTML editors, so students had to use Notepad, which required them to type in the HTML, rather than using software which would add the coding at the click of a button. 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 Web sites with archived gifs (digitized pictures which can be easily copied into one's own site), icons, and background patterns. By the end of this session, they each had a simple page which incorporated a variety of fonts, display variations, colors, images and hypertext links. This was a powerful way for them to see the possibilities opening up; they were subsequently less daunted by the whole enterprise, and showed new enthusiasm about continuing.

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    The Course Homepage
    In the meantime, we worked together on a very basic homepage for the course, which was linked to the history department's Web site, and in turn would have links to each student's homepage. With time this page became more informative and sophisticated, with links to related sites, electronic journals, resources for Web site design, and, eventually, students' Web pages. 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 Web sites. There was certainly more which could have been done to it at each stage, but Hood found it to be very time-consuming. It remained, for this initial year, a joint project, with Spafford assisting with updates.

    Enhancing the Sites
    A gabbeh from Iran, from Robin Linley's website.
    A gabbeh from iran, from
    Robin Linley's Web site.
    Once the students began to mount their first attempts and realized they could be seen by "the world," they began to put more effort into both the look and content. Spafford gave two more training sessions. In the first, students continued to work on the encoded text they had started in the previous session—they were shown how to add links to external sites, how to add files and link them, and how to add basic navigational aids. They worked on their own for the most part, while Hood and Spafford moved around the class providing individual help.
    Image of Toronto City Hall, found on the Internet, from Jane Griffith's Web site.
    Toronto City Hall, image from
    Jane Griffith's Web site.
    For the last part of the class, students with advanced skills sat with the students who were having the most trouble and provided some one-on-one help which greatly eased frustrations.

    In the second of these two sessions, the focus was on adding images to the sites. In another part of the library building CHASS had a room equipped with a scanner which could be booked by the hour. It was made available to us and we initially reserved it for a two-hour session. We told students to bring some images to enhance the research included in their sites. Spafford scanned these, saving them as fairly low-resolution gifs (left). She made minor corrections and alterations in Photoshop 3.0, an image manipulation program that was loaded on the same computer. Several students found and incorporated related images on the Internet, which Spafford had shown them how to copy and transfer (right).

    Uploading the Sites
    All but one student managed to have their pages finished by the deadline, although not all hurdles were overcome. There was a further problem with the graduate/undergraduate split when students began to transfer their sites to the server. Graduate students could set up their own homepages using their e-mail accounts on the CHASS server, but undergraduates did not have this option with their accounts, which were mainly on the Information Commons server. Numerous phone calls and e-mails did not lead us to a solution, so as a last resort we decided to have undergraduates hand in their completed Web pages and accompanying images on a diskette and we loaded them into a subdirectory on Hood's account.

    Graduates, meanwhile, needed to be shown how to upload their work to the CHASS server, using an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) program. Since there was neither a computer classroom free at this time nor money available to hold another session, we put this together rather informally. Spafford posted detailed instructions on the class listserv on how to access and use the FTP program included in their e-mail software package, and a step-by-step lesson on how to create a directory and then upload their work. Some required several attempts, and assistance from one of us, but eventually all the sites were up and running.

    Despite all the problems, the students came away feeling they had gained a useful skill and had successfully entered the world of the Internet. Hood 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, she assigned a similar project for her 1997-98 class. Hood felt that all her goals had not yet been attained, due mainly to the technical and logistical problems we encountered, and she hoped that this could change next time. (See: Menu of all 1996-97 student Web sites.)

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    THE SECOND YEAR - 1997/98

    A Kennaway cabin, from Christopher Martinello's Web site.
    A Kennaway cabin, from
    Christopher Martinello's Web site.
    This year, things were immediately easier as (a) the class was confined to graduates, eliminating some of the administrative problems and facilitating the mounting of Web sites on the server, and (b) over the course of the initial experiment Hood got to know how to find instructional support for the computer and Internet component. In addition, she took a course during the first semester on "Instructional Design for Electronic Media" which not only gave her a much stronger sense of the communication potential (and pitfalls) of Web design, but strengthened her belief that it was a valuable enough exercise to pursue during a second year.

    Lynn Holden, 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 Web site creation and found the concepts hard to grasp. While design is an integral component of Web construction, in future years this session will be much more valuable given later in the course, once students have a better understanding of this new area and of their individual research projects.

    Spafford donated her time early in the semester to give two sessions on Internet basics, HTML, setting up a Web site 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 session each student had a preliminary site mounted on the Internet.

    There were many more options offered the second year through CHASS and Information Commons. Several of Hood's students took free sign-up courses on basic to advanced Web site design; these helped them to learn more quickly and systematically. Also, CHASS provided the time of their Information Officer, Claire Smith, to teach two three-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. (See: Menu of all 1997-98 student Web sites)

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    A 1913 Longines wristwatch, from Lisa Fox's Web site.
    A 1913 Longines wristwatch, from
    Lisa Fox's Web site.
    A big problem is the amount of time which is still required for this undertaking by both instructor and students. Although Hood expected there would be time demands the first year, she was not prepared for the number of hours she had to invest outside of regular class preparation and teaching for this project. Things improved the second year, but there were still many new bugs to work out and new time requirements. Several students who kept track of their hours estimated they spent fifty to sixty hours on the Web sites outside of the other course requirements (presenting a seminar; completing weekly readings with written summaries and two major papers).

    Can one justify this extra load on very busy people? It does seem worth it based on one student's comment: "I believe that the inclusion of the Web site component of the course was one of the most valuable experiences of the entire M.A. program." In reality, however, most of the class agreed that the course requirements were too heavy with the Web page construction demands included. So far content has not been sacrificed, but for the price of student overload. This will necessitate rethinking the course structure to keep the basic curriculum intact while still doing the Web assignment.

    Hood simply added Web page construction to the regular course assignments without realizing how much extra time the students would have to devote to it. In the first year, when a less complex Web site was expected of the students, time was not too problematic. In the second year, when each person was required to have a fully functioning site of their own design and construction, time became a major factor. Although the seminar is a full year long, it originally met only two hours per week. The addition of a third hour in the second year permitted some Web site instruction to be built into class time without sacrificing content.

    As a theory course that introduces students to the use of objects as historical sources, all class members are required to produce an original piece of research on a topic of their choice. Beginning with the material evidence, students then move outward to include as many different types of data as possible. The first-term assignment is an introduction to the research, including artifact analysis, annotated bibliography, and a strategy of work to be completed in the following term. Having built what she considered to be an appropriate amount of time into the second year of the project to teach the basics of Web site construction and image scanning, Hood required all students to present their first assignment as a Web site. She stressed, however, that content was more important than form at this point so that those too challenged by the Web page requirement could hand in a traditional paper. This did not excuse them from creating a Web site, it just gave them more time to tackle it.

    Almost all of the students rose to the challenge and presented their first assignment—very credible Web sites they had created themselves, with images and basic navigational tools. Content difficulties seemed to rest more with the student's lack of familiarity with material culture methodology than with the mode of presentation. What is difficult to assess, however, is the extent to which some students were so intrigued and/or frustrated with the mechanics of Web site building that they sacrificed time they might otherwise have spent researching their topics. It is likely that some of this did occur.

    During the second term, the students were expected to update their sites, but they were on their own in terms of scanning extra images, or adding finer points of design such as tables or frames. Although Hood had initially intended to evaluate the sites periodically throughout the term, she found that it was most realistic (both in terms of her time and the students') to do a concluding assessment at the end of the year about a week after the deadline for term work. The final project was to be a traditional paper in the hope that working back and forth between the two mediums would further enhance the students' awareness that there are important differences in communicating in these different formats.

    One area which continues to be problematic is the grading of the Web sites. Not only did Hood have to evaluate the content, she also had to comment on and assess the design and construction of the Web site. Moreover, it is difficult to provide commentary, to make suggestions, and to correct grammar without a hard copy. Thus, every Web site had to be printed out in its entirety to permit the addition of written comments for all the linked sections before it was handed back. This two-pronged grading was incredibly time consuming, not to mention paper- and toner-intensive. In the future, each student will be required to hand in printed versions of their sites.

    Lobster on hooked rug, from Sandra Shaw's Web site.
    Lobster on hooked rug, from
    Sandra Shaw's Web site.
    Written comments only benefitted individuals and Hood realized that the entire class would profit from her Web critique to each of them. As a result, she set up a collective commentary in 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 input from the class. Everyone willingly attended these extra sessions and seemed to learn from them.

    A related issue has been determining the percentage of the course grade to be devoted to the website. In the first year it was fifteen percent and the students got a good grade for just doing a basic site. Things had been so difficult, it didn't seem fair to critique them too closely. In 1997-98, because the Web site design was integrated more thoroughly with the research projects, the first-term assignment presented as a Web site was worth thirty-five percent of the grade. In reality, content was weighted over Web page construction, but this was counterbalanced by giving a separate Web grade at the end of the year. It became clear over the course of the project, however, that some students put a lot of extra time and energy into learning more than just the basics and into thinking about how to design a good site. These students should be rewarded for the extra effort, while those who are not so inclined should not be penalized unduly. As a result, next year will probably see a return to the assignment of separate grades for each component.

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    An issue yet to be resolved by us (and by the rest of the academic world) is copyright on some of the images the students are using in their Web sites. They copied some images from the Internet, but scanned most of them from books. Some students used their own photographs—the best way when possible—to circumvent copyright issues. One possible solution to justify legitimate educational usage would be to add password protection. The problem with this, though, is the severely limited access to the site by Net surfers whose potential "visits" had proved to be a source of encouragement and excitement to the students. Another possibility might be to incorporate an abstract of each person's project on the course page with a link to their e-mail address. Interested browsers could then make direct contact with the student. This seems less than satisfactory; hopefully as more academics grapple with electronic publishing we will work out other solutions.

    Somewhat related is the issue of crediting references and of "footnoting." The students are still working out the most effective way to do this on their sites. So far hyperlinks to a list of anchored references in a separate file has been most popular. By the end of the course, I found the students getting more creative with this in a way that permitted appropriate academic citations while not interfering with the layout of the site.

    Although this seminar has the luxury of a full year in which to incorporate the Web building project, it could be accomplished in a semester. Realistically, regardless of the course length, it will always take some extra work on the part of the students over and above the regular academic requirements. Perhaps the only way around this is to subordinate content in a course that would be designed first and foremost to teach Web construction skills. This may be more feasible down the road as universities and faculty become more broadly convinced of the advantage of acquiring and teaching such expertise. Well-constructed syllabi, with judiciously placed Web training classes and carefully conceived assignments, could be incorporated into a single-semester class without sacrificing content. A caveat is in order here, though. Not all courses (or their instructors) are suited for this type of exercise. One of the most important lessons we are learning from early applications of hypermedia is that the worst thing one can do is to use it just because it is seems new and trendy. It is essential to work out in advance whether or not the extra time and effort it will take will truly enhance the academic and pedagogical goals.

    We would say yes, it is worth it, but would qualify our answer. Except in the case of instructors who have extensive computer and Internet experience and the time to put into teaching those basics, it definitely needs to be a collaborative effort. In this case, Hood was not prepared for the many technical and logistical demands she encountered, and was fortunate in the first year that Spafford introduced her to the world of HTML and had a paid connection with one of the university computing facilities. These facilities have subsequently expanded their resources, and, perhaps more important, Hood is learning how to navigate around them. Both CHASS and Information Commons have supported, and have indicated they will continue to support, the project in various ways.

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    In order to obtain a sense of the value of the Web exercise, Hood asked the students to provide feedback through questionnaires administered about half-way through the course and close to the end.

    Early evaluation
    Gibson House hatbox from Kelly Wilhelm's Web site.
    Gibson House hatbox from
    Kelly Wilhelm's Web site.
    About two-thirds of the class thought that it was appropriate to teach Web site 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. All but one student responded that the Web site 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 Hood's original goal).

    Final Evaluation
    By end of the course every student thought it was a useful exercise. Time was a major factor, as was the need to do the coding manually. All are happy to have the acquired the skill and think it will help on the job market, and most felt it made them think about their research and how to communicate it in different ways. (See Comments from the Class of 1997-1998.).

    Working on this paper has made us take stock and re-examine the value of our pedagogical experiment. There seem to be several questions that anyone contemplating a similar undertaking should ask. They are posed below with some of the solutions that have occurred to us—there may be many more:

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    Having read through the final evaluations there is no doubt that the Web site project was worth it, although this was less clear several months earlier. Adrienne Hood will continue to refine the ways in which she integrates this component into her "Topics in Material Culture" course so that less time needs to be spent on the mechanics of Web construction and more can be spent on the conceptual and design aspects of it. She will continue the liaison with the computer support departments that was initiated, so fortuitously, with Jackie Spafford. As long as the course continues, it will be, as it began, a collaborative effort.

    We would like to thank the University of Toronto computer support groups, CHASS (Computing in the Humanities and Social Sciences), especially Chris Leowski and Claire Smith, and Information Commons, particularly John Bradley and Lynn Holden.

    The coding for this article was done by Jacqueline Spafford.

    About the authors:

    After ten years as a curator of textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum, Adrienne Hood moved to the University of Toronto, where she is an assistant professor of early American history and material culture. Her interest in the student Web project developed from her museum experiences of communicating information in an exhibit format combined with thinking about how historians can communicate to a wider audience.

    Jacqueline Spafford is a graduate of the M.A. program in art history at the University of Toronto. She is interested in combining art history with the Internet and other multimedia applications. She currently works at the Royal Ontario Museum, and beginning Fall '98 will be the Visual Resources Curator at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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    ~ End ~

    Student-Constructed Web Sites For Research Projects: Is It Worth It?
    Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History

    Comments to: [email protected]

    Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998