Pedagogical implications of using web page construction as a classroom assignment

Marc Becker
Truman State University
Division of Social Science
McClain Hall 214
100 E. Normal
Kirksville, MO 63501-4221

fax 660-785-4181

In my presentation I will discuss my experiences in having students construct web pages as class assignments. I will describe how I have designed this assignment in order to make it a meaningful and valuable educational experience for the students. I will touch on issues of identifying appropriate subject matter for class web pages, types of resources available, providing students with the necessary technical skills, maneuvering issues of plagiarism and copyright, and maximizing the educational value of such an assignment. Students are often intimidated by the prospects of designing web pages, but once they begin they are enthralled by the creative process and empowered by their ability to master new skills. Properly designed and implemented, such assignments facilitate critical and creative thought processes among students. By designing web pages which are available to the broader public, it also leads students to a deeper and more complex understanding of their civic responsibilities.

Roundtable: Using the Internet for Teaching and Research on Latin America
(CLAH 2001, Boston, Mass)

I am currently in my third year of experimenting with having students construct web pages as classroom assignments. The purpose of my talk is to discuss the mechanics and evaluate what I see as the advantages and liabilities of engaging in such an assignment. I would like to stress that this is still very much in the experimental stage; I am playing with the assignment to see how I can make it better meet the students’ needs. I welcome feedback and suggestions as to how to improve this project.

Briefly, let me touch on two reasons why I think students should be encouraged to design web pages as classroom assignments:

1. I think building web pages can be an empowering experience–teaching students how to communicate their ideas clearly and strongly to a broad public. In an era in which free speech is extended only to those wealthy enough to afford a medium of communication, the Internet has become a powerful tool for reinforcing egalitarian notions of democracy.

2. A much more pragmatic consideration in having students construct web pages involves economic issues. Given the nature of our high-tech world, bringing these skills to the work place will make students much more employable. In relation to the first consideration, I hope that the training in my class will make the students more careful and conscious as to how they exercise the power of technology.


Let me begin by discussing some of the mechanics of having students build web pages. At first, I naively assumed that I would have a very computer literate student population–after all, I took my first computer classes before most of my students were born & they have grown up during the Internet “revolution.” I have almost universally found that my students are quite ignorant of how to use computers. I don’t know if this is because of the demographics of the students who attend my institution or because historians by their very nature tend to be luddites. I suspect that a large part of the problem is that the Internet has become like TV–it is a passive form of entertainment and your average Joe & Jane knows how to turn it on but has no idea how it works.

The point here is that the students need a lot of hand-holding & encouragement in this assignment. They are intimidated by the prospect of making a web page.

Perhaps it goes without saying that before engaging students in web page construction an instructor should either have a very strong grasp of HTML or access to an assistant who can work with technical aspects of building web sites.

The class will need access to a computer lab. Due to learning curves and assimilation of new knowledge, it is not enough to spend just one class in the lab. It is best to break the project into small steps. Appendix I includes a copy of my assignment with the project broken into steps. You have to be flexible in how you proceed through this material, and some students will be ready to fly much more quickly than others.

So far, I have always used Netscape Composer for this project because of its universal availability. I’m sometimes tempted to start the students by coding a basic web page:

<title>This is my web page</title>
<p>This is the web page</p>

on the principle that people are better drivers if they start with driving a car with a manual transmission, but I fear that this would cause too much confusion and panic attacks among the students. To do effective HTML coding, however, you still need to know how to do raw code and on my own web projects I prefer to work with the code directly. A student could argue that one does not need to know how to write code to use a word processor effectively, and maybe the same is true here. Given that this is a history class & not a computer class, how proficient do the students have to be with HTML? Is this like training the students with technical skills–like using a periodical index or how to navigate archives? These are open questions with which I continue to struggle.

Our campus is moving to a universal reliance on M$ Front Page, and I’m contemplating doing that for future classes.

The assignment

The first time I undertook this assignment, I told students to select a topic of their choice relating to the course material–much like I would let students select their own research paper topics. Some of the topics which they selected, however, were not the best and so I have moved toward limiting their options. I also initially encouraged students to construct socially useful pages (like building a web page for an Indigenous organization for my class on Race and Ethnicity in Latin America), but so far I have not found any students with an interest in such a project. I suspect the gap between my own political interests and those of the students is just too great. Now I limit students to selecting topics that we cover in class, so far with good success and I probably will continue to do so for the immediate future.

I am still working with models that I can use to explain to the students how they should conceptualize this project. I start with what they are familiar–the infamous term paper. We discuss how a web page is different from a research paper. Differences include:

$ publically accessible web page vs. private paper
$ general vs. academic audience
$ visual vs. text-based presentation
$ non-linear format of the web vs. paper
$ short attention span of Internet audience

What makes a good web page? How can we best communicate ideas through this medium? Are there ideas that are better communicated on the Internet, and others that are better treated in the standard paper format? In general, we discuss the benefits and liabilities of this medium. I think a fringe benefit of this assignment is training apprentice historians to consider how they can communicate historical knowledge to the general public, something that has become of interest to the profession as a whole.

Documentation on web pages can also be a complicated issue. Not only are there potential problems of plagiarism, but there are also legal copyright issues. Documenting textual sources of information either with parenthetical citations or endnotes (footnotes become impossible on a web page) can be rather straightforward. A constant problem, however, is that for a web page to work by today’s standards it needs graphical elements. Where, for example, are suburban St. Louis students working on a Paraguay web page going to get pictures of Guaraní Indians? The Napster-influenced Internet has a culture of “borrowing” items, but if a student is not careful they can quickly become subjects of lawsuits over “illegal” use of copyrighted material. The same is true for scanning material from printed sources for use on the web page. Students who wouldn’t think twice about including a map or photograph from a published source in a research paper are suddenly in a different ballpark when that item’s author might find it on their web page. These issues of “fair-use” in an academic setting are something that still needs to be navigated.

In my experience, having students work on this project in groups of 3-4 people work best. In a class of 20 students, then, there are about six collaborate projects. I insist on this being a collaborate project, and I encourage the students to work with others who can complement their strengths and balance out their weaknesses. I let students select their own groups, partially to avoid personality conflicts. I give the students a good deal of leeway in distributing the work among the group. In fact, I encourage them to divide up the work according to their strengths. For example, one person might be particularly good with visual aspects, another with technical aspects, a third with research skills, and the fourth with coordinating everything so it happens. Team work does not mean that everyone has to engage in each part of the project. This relates to a broader pedagogical philosophy of designing assignments with real-world application.

An unfortunate corollary to group projects is inevitably a slacker does not carry his or her weight on the project. Initially I planned to give one grade to the entire group for the project, but then decided that this is not fair. Now I have students email me privately and individually with what grade they think the web page as a whole should receive and what grade they think each member of their group should have. Often students recommend a higher grade for the entire project than they do for themselves (someone can probably analyze the psychology of students grading themselves). Despite my fears of grade inflation, so far I have given a lot of As for this project. Almost universally, after a lot of initial complaining students perform above and beyond the call of duty on this project. It engages their creative potential in ways few other assignments can.


In May of 1995, I attended a community networking conference that Apple Computer sponsored. A major theme at this conference was using the Internet and computer technology in general to democratize society. The Internet at that point was the great equalizer–on the Internet, nobody knew if you were a dog. In the days of the text-based Lynx browser, everyone’s site looked the same. At that point we feared that we would lose the fight–and we have. Commercial interests have turned the Internet into a passive playground that caters to the financial concerns of MNCs rather than extending its original educational mission. Today, there is no way I can construct a web page that competes with top-dollar commercial sites. I miss the good old days when there was no way to be passive on the Internet, and participating led to activism and empowerment.

Nevertheless, I continue to be amazed at students’ responses to this project. Initially students will whine and groan about having to build a web page. After all, many of these left-brained students became history majors because of their lack of creative abilities. Some of the students amaze themselves in their abilities to excel at this type of assignment. Students tell me that initially they were intimidated by building a web page, but it became their favorite activity in the class. They are enthralled by the creative process and empowered by their ability to master new skills. There are glimmers of the democratizing nature of the Internet which was once so fundamental to cyberspace which play out in this assignment. It is because of this positive feedback that I continue to include web page construction projects in my history classes.

Appendix I: Internet research assignment

Design a web page for the Internet on one of the weekly topics we discuss in class. You may also want to include links to other sites, maps, graphics, and photos (but be careful not to break any copyright laws). This will be a collaborative project which you will develop with several other students. Think of this assignment as the extension of a research paper; conduct the proper amount of investigation and include all the appropriate items therein (footnotes, bibliography, etc.). Your audience, however, will be the general public who will access your web page over the Internet. This project is a chance for you to let your creative juices flow. Don’t worry about not being able to create a web page; we will provide the appropriate training in class. At the end of the semester, we will review and critique the style and content of each other’s web pages in class and make suggestions for improvements.

As you design the page, keep the following issues in mind:

$ Name the main page of the site “index.html.” Use all lower case letters in the names of files, and leave no spaces in the names of the files.
$ Indicate the source of information on the web page with parenthetical citations or footnotes, much as you would on a regular paper.
$ Indicate the source of photos and graphics either through placing citation information below the image, or by placing the information in the “alt tag” for the image.
$ Use relative, not absolute, links on the site. The site should be able to be copied to another location and still work perfectly.
$ Double check to make sure that all external links work.
$ Include a link back to the home page for the class.

These are the important deadlines for this project:

Week 4: Form a group with which you will work on the web page and select a topic for the web page.
Week 5: Write an abstract describing what you plan to include in your web site, and what you seek to accomplish with this site. Create a main page for the site which includes the abstract and the names and email addresses of the authors of the site. Post this to your designated web site directory in HTML format.
Week 7: Locate and annotate library sources (books and articles) and Internet sites related to the topic of the web page. Use proper citations, including the author, title, URL, and date for each Internet site. Write an introduction to this annotated list describing how your proposed site will complement and contribute to existing information on the Internet. Post this annotated list of links to your designated web site directory in HTML format.
Week 9: Outline the topics you will cover on your web page; begin filling out the web page.
Last week: Present your web site to the class. We will evaluate the web sites based on the criteria listed below.
Last day of class: final web site due.

Web page evaluation criteria

Content: Does this site contain original information and ideas? Is the theme and purpose of the page immediately obvious? Does the site contain research equivalent of that which would be evident in a research paper? Is the information substantive, useful, factual, reliable, and error-free? Are the ideas presented in this site sophisticated and analytical? Is the text clear, concise, and well-written? Are there spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors?

Functionality: Is the organization of the site clear and consistent? Does the page load quickly? Is it easy to navigate around the site? Can you easily return to the site’s home page? Do the links work, and do the graphics properly display? Does the site work in multiple browsers, and is it still functional if you turn off the graphics? Are there any technical problems with the site?

Appearance/design: Is the page visually appealing? Is there a good and consistent selection of colors? Do graphics contribute to the usefulness and appealing nature of the site? Can you easily read the text?

Creativity: Is the site original and stimulating? Is there evidence of effective and advanced HTML capabilities? Does the site hold your attention, or is it boring?

Citations: Are there sources provided for the information (both text and graphics) used in the site? Is there any evidence of plagiarism or copyright violations? Is there a bibliography page? Is there evidence of use of multiple scholarly sources of information which enhance the value and authority of the site?

Links: Does the site contain links to other pages? Are these links relevant? Are they appropriately placed in the site? Do they enhance the value of the page?

Overall value: How would you rate the overall value of this site? What is its intrinsic value? What does this page offer that is not found elsewhere? Is this web site a resource that other people would book-mark and frequently use?

Appendix II: Web site evaluation form

Web Site: _________________________________ Your Name: ___________________

How would you rank this site on:

Awful Average Awesome

Content 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Functionality 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Appearance/design 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Creativity 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Citations 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Links 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Overall value 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


What did you like best about this site?

What could be improved?
Appendix III: Designing a basic web page using Netscape Composer

1. Open Netscape Composer (from Netscape, Communicator –> Composer)
a. Save file as index.html

2. Format –> Page colors & properties

3. Insert –> Table (or click on Table Icon)
a. Number of rows: 1
b. Number of columns: 2
c. Unclick “Border Line Width” (or set to 0)
d. Table width = 100%

4. Place mouse in 1st table cell
a. Format –> Table Properties
i. Cell tab
ii. Vertical alignment = top
iii. Cell width = 20%

b. Insert –> Table (or click on Table Icon)
i. Number of rows: 8
ii. Number of columns: 1
iii. Unclick “Border Line Width” (or set to 0)
iv. Table width = 100%
v. Use color

5. Place cursor in 1st cell of menu
a. Type “Home”
b. Highlight word
i. Insert –> link (or click on link icon)
ii. Link to page: index.html

c. Type 1 – 5 in cells 2-6

d. Click on 7th cell & type “Bibliography”
i. Link to biblio.html
e. Click on last cell & type in the name of the class
i. Link to class web page

6. Place cursor in 2nd table cell
a. Format –> Table Properties
i. Cell tab
ii. Vertical alignment = top

7. Place cursor in 2nd table cell
a. Type name of web page
i. Highlight word
ii. Center align (format –> align –> center)
iii. Set style –> Heading 1 (format –> heading –> 1)
b. Put in abstract
i. Set align left

8. Place cursor under table
a. Type “Page created by ”
i. Set align center
ii. Highlight name
(1) insert link
(2) link:

9. File –> save –> index.html
a. Save this file w/ new names for other pages.