Last spring I posted briefly about a new multimedia assignment in which students create their own websites that I used with my students in “The Making of California” at UC Santa Cruz. This fall, I tried it again with my “Environmental Inequality” students here at Howard University. I was, for the second time, happy with how the assignment turned out. Since several people have asked for details, I’m posting my assignment prompts and other reflections here. I will also be presenting this assignment at Howard’s first “Teaching With Technology” conference this Friday.
First, let me acknowledge how important it is to have colleagues with whom to discuss these kinds of projects! Rachel Deblinger joined UC Santa Cruz last year as a Postdoctoral Fellow through the Council on Library and Information Resources. Her presence on campus brought those of us doing work in the digital humanities and digital social sciences together for a rich exchange of ideas that prompted me to create this assignment. Rachel also made herself available for one-on-one brainstorming sessions. As a result, I abandoned an overly ambitious assignment idea that used a different website platform and ended up with this one instead, which sets students up for a successful first experience creating a website on which to post their own original research and writing. So, thank you, Rachel!
Here’s the gist of it. The assignment asks students to research and write a multimedia essay on a subject of their choice that is featured on a website of their own design. The purpose is to improve students’ content knowledge, research and writing skills while also teaching the following: 1) how to write for a public audience, 2) media literacy, and 3) basic web design. Students do not need any prior technical skills in order to successfully complete the assignment, and are given detailed prompts for small assignments throughout the semester that support step-by-step development of their projects. They also complete in-class activities designed to help them think about how to write for different audiences.
By the end of the course, the students each create a website that includes the following:
- An original essay informed by their research that incorporates relevant YouTube videos
- A curator’s statement that describes why the student chose the YouTube videos that they chose
- An annotated bibliography
- An author’s biography
- A copyright statement
- One other section of content of their own choice
Here are some of my supporting documents that you may find useful as you adapt this assignment to your own purposes:
- Sample syllabi for classes that use the assignment
- Assignment Prompts
- Why did you use Google Sites? I used Google Sites because it was the easiest website creation tool that I could find, and because at both institutions where I tried this assignment, Google already provides the student’s campus e-mail service. So, they all already have Google accounts. For my own websites, I use WordPress. It is free, open-source, and more sophisticated. However, I quickly decided that WordPress was too technically complex for what I had in mind for my students. The point of the assignment isn’t to teach technical skills so much as it is to have students practice all the usual stuff (research and writing), while also having a successful first experience sharing their writing in a website of their own creation. For those who take a liking to the experience, it may serve as a gateway into more complex website creation tools. After conversation with my tech mentor Allen Gunn at Aspiration, I also plan to incorporate a conversation with my students about the risks of relying on for-profit web infrastructure such as Google Sites next time I do this assignment, even while I plan to still use Google Sites.
- This sounds like a lot of work. How many students did you have? I used this assignment for one class of 30 and one class of 6. Though to be fair, when I taught the class of 30 I was teaching a new course for the first time, on the academic job market for the first time, and finishing my dissertation (for the first time). I taught the class of 6 was while teaching two classes (one for the first time), and getting oriented at a new academic institution. If my class size went much over 30, I would probably start requiring this project be done in pairs or small groups to cut down on the time spent grading. You could also try cutting some of the mini-assignments, such as the list of sources or the draft website with written content, though the final projects would be of lesser quality as a result.
- I don’t know anything about creating websites. Can I still use this assignment with my students? Yes, Google Sites are fairly straightforward to create, and my assignment prompts provide step-by-step instructions for how to create them. Literally, the prompts say things like “click the button shaped like a pencil in the upper-right corner of your screen.” However, you do need to be able to do the assignment yourself before you give it to your students, and to be willing to help them with any technical problems they may encounter (in my experience so far, they haven’t had many). It is also worth asking the tech support at your institution if they provide technical support to students with Google Sites, in which case you can hand off all technical questions to someone else. This has not been an option at either of the campuses where I have done the assignment.
- How do you make sure this assignment still works even as Google Sites changes? You need to set aside a half hour to an hour to do the assignment again yourself before the semester starts every time you teach the class, especially when you are teaching it in a new institution. This ensures that the instructions on your assignment prompt are up-to-date even as the technological infrastructure inevitably changes over time (think of all of Facebook’s changes on how to manage your privacy settings). Do not just take my assignment prompts and use them without test-driving them yourself and making corrections! I did almost all of the assignment with my Howard e-mail address before classes began this fall. I found out later that I had neglected one of the steps, the copyright statement, which includes directions for how to import the symbol representing the level of copyright protection the student chooses for their work. It turns out that doing this task through Howard’s Google-provided student e-mail accounts was mysteriously complicated in ways that my UC Santa Cruz students did not experience. If I had known, I would have told them to skip importing the symbol, and just to use the appropriate language without the visual cue. Oh well. I also learned through this process that Howard automatically adds the campus name and logo to Google Sites created by students with their campus e-mail addresses, whereas UC Santa Cruz did not.
- Can I see your students’ final websites? An important part of the assignment, to me, is that it prompts students to set their websites to “private” at the beginning of the class. Some of you may wonder why I do this. After all, isn’t the purpose to get students to practice writing for a public audience, and not just writing for their professor? Well, yes and no. That is the ultimate goal, but the key is that students are practicing this skill, in many cases for the first time. Setting the website visibility to “private” at the beginning of the course means that they can practice this new skill safely in private without any potential negative ramifications from the (sometimes nasty) blogosphere. It also means that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you are running afoul of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. All that said, an important part of the assignment is that it is, or at least can be, “real” beyond the classroom. So, I tell students that while the class is in session their websites need to be “private” for all the reasons above, and then after the class ends, it is their decision whether or not to change their work’s status to fully “public” or to limit access to people of their choice. Of the 36 students who have done this assignment with me to date, to my knowledge only one student has made his or her website public. You can see it here. Thanks, Jesse!
- What would you do differently next time? I’ll likely increase the length of the essay that forms the core content of each student’s site. I made it short to begin with, since I was thinking of it as a blog post. But now I might reframe it into something in between a blog post and a digital “long-form essay” instead. Will need to think about that. I also notice that students have a hard time integrating their YouTube videos into their essays – many simply plunk them in the middle of their text with no introduction or analysis. So, I might introduce a lesson in class that addresses this problem, while emphasizing the ability to segway between ideas and content as a transferable skill important to many different kinds of writing. Also, Google Sites makes formatting the annotated bibliographies and citations list difficult, so I’d like to spend some time figuring out how to make them look better and then add those directions to the relevant assignment prompt. Also, I’ll probably have students switch from using parenthetical citations in their essays (standard in my field) to endnotes (visually cleaner for public-facing work).
That’s all for now. I will undoubtedly think of more things that belong here over the next few days, as well as after Friday’s presentation at Howard’s “Teaching With Technology” Conference. I may cheat and add these things to this post later, so check back next week.