Great Ideas: Collaborative Web Assignment

Billie J. Jones


Assignment Materials

Student Examples

Reflection on Assignment



Reflections on Assignment
Web Page design in a writing class: In the huge, multi-campus university for which I teach, very few composition courses are offered with any sort of electronic components.  Computer labs are in much too short a supply to be used regularly for composition courses, although some sections do have occasional computer lab privileges.  As a result of limited access as well as the traditional view that writing courses are supposed to produce print-based texts, Web pages aren’t standard assignments in these classes.  I am fortunate to teach at a campus where computer lab access is better; in fact, I teach all of my classes in computer classrooms.  I have sought such an environment because I feel that it’s important for several pedagogical reasons.  Students see much greater value in attending classes in which what they perceive to be "real work" (writing in final product form) can be produced. And I believe that their work is better when produced in a surrounded by their peers and me rather than in isolation. As a result, community building and collaboration are facilitated in a computer-enhanced environment. Also enhanced are students' technological literacy skills, every bit as necessary as reading and writing skills.  Because I believe strongly in facilitating students’ developing technological literacy, I believe that they need to see writing as a broadly defined form of communication, which includes Web-based texts.  To reinforce this broad definition of writing, it seems only natural to have students write a Web-based text.

Thematic Connection: I also decided to assign a Web document because the World Wide Web, a quintessential example of the convergence of technology and popular culture, seemed like an ideal forum for these statements.  And because the role of the individual in a community had been one of our overall themes, it seemed only fitting that this last project be steeped in multiplicity—created in collaborative groups, with a myriad of voices designing a multi-layered document. 

Method: Furthermore, I believe Web design is an excellent project for collaborative work because, used at its best, collaboration allows students to pool their individual experiences and skills to complete a project.  Groups can even be structured with varying levels of prior web expertise to maximize the possibility of learning-through-sharing. 

Technical Instruction: Writing classes are supposed to be for writing instruction, so even if one accepts the supposition that Web pages are writing, the time and expertise needed to teach even the most basic Web page design may be difficult to muster.  When I first designed this assignment in Spring 1998, I hadn’t even constructed a Web page myself.  In that instance, I enlisted a technologically savvy colleague’s help to work with my class, as she worked with me, to help us all learn how to create Web pages.  I worked, struggled, and became occasionally triumphant along side my students.  We worked some during my class, but more often than not, we met outside of class to work on those Web pages.  A funny thing happens when students become engaged—they don’t mind working on their own time: late nights and weekends—because they’re doing something they WANT to do.

Evaluation: Of course, this assignment posed several special considerations in evaluation.  Early in the planning stage, I decided that while I would evaluate the page’s message, I would valorize technological risk-taking over technical expertise.  I encouraged students to optimize the medium’s qualities and their abilities in order to convey their message.  Additionally, I was concerned about the problem of assigning a group grade to individuals who likely participated to varying degrees, so I used a system in which a small portion (20%) of the individual’s score was actually decided by the group members themselves.  This process, described more fully on the assignment sheet, has alleviated most of the complaints about collaboration in my classes.

Strengths of the Assignment: The production tools and the medium for the product of this assignment—hypertextual, hypermedia writing and the World Wide Web—fit particularly well with the subject of this assignment—making a commentary of some aspect of technology in our culture.  Using technology to praise technology, and sometimes even to bash technology, is a good fit between means and end.  Learning the technical aspects of production actually made students more acutely aware of the effects of this one technology in a way that merely writing a print-text could not have done.  Of course, another topic could have worked as well; I just particularly liked the fit of topic and medium in this one.

In general, this assignment fosters technological literacy—not only making students better producers of Web-based writing, but also making them more effective consumers of Web sites as well.  In constructing Web sites, students began to consider what makes “good” and “bad” Web sites, and in what ways credibility is evidenced in Web sites.  For example, as we talked about applying citation systems to their own Web sites, students recognized how seldom they have seen any sort of documentation on the Web.  We discussed the differences between popular, commercial Web sites and scholarly ones, and then compared those differences to the differences between the same sorts of print-based publications.  From there, we began to see other connections between and differences in the discourse conventions of print-based texts and Web-based ones.  By studying and practicing Web-based writing, I believe that students actually learned more about print-based writing than they would have otherwise. 

Another strength I see in this assignment is that it was a particularly effective use of collaboration—one that actually well demonstrates to students the benefits of collaboration.  Many of us include collaborative activities in our classes because we believe in the social construction of knowledge and because we want to emulate learning and working situations from the “real world”—where work is done by groups of people, rather than a lone individual toiling away in isolation.  We see the potential value of collaboration—where everyone contributes his or her strength(s) toward a common goal.  Too often, unfortunately, students see collaboration as an additional burden on an assignment rather than for the benefit it could provide.  Because I grouped students with varying technological experiences/ability levels, less experienced students were almost forced to rely on the strength of their more Web-experienced partners.  And because everyone was being scored on the basis of his or her contributions to the group, each student was forced to contribute his or her own strength(s).  In the end, everyone learned something about Web site construction—they learned from each other and from their own trial-and-error.  I have seen more active collaboration and have heard much less grumbling over “who contributed what” in this assignment than other collaborative assignments I’ve used—I believe because they simply needed each other more.

Weaknesses of the Assignment: Imagine teaching kindergartners to write a story.  Because so much emphasis must be placed on the techniques of transcription—actually forming the block print letters into words—little attention can or should be paid to the stylistic concerns and mechanics of storytelling.  This lopsided teaching moment is reversed is a writing classroom where unsuspecting, Web-writing novitiates are asked to work on their writing, using the broadly defined language of hypertextuality.  Instead of forming words with familiar symbols, we ask students to think and write in new and sophisticated ways, while “writing” using images, fonts, organization and arrangement, to convey their thoughts.  Teaching students to design Web pages as part of a writing course is something like teaching students to write, while at the same time teaching them to use a new transcription process.  No matter how I use computer technology in my classes, I constantly wonder if I’m asking too much of my students to learn both the necessary technical aspects of a transcription process—word processing or hypertextual writing (I don’t ask students to write in HTML code, although this is an issue for debate)—as well as critical reading, writing, and thinking—the stated objective(s) of the course.  I think that before using an assignment such as this, one must determine how much class time can realistically be spent on teaching the Web site construction.  I found that insufficient time spent dealing with the technical aspects, resulted in a high level of student frustration.  Many students noted that while they were proud of the end result, they hated the struggle.  Furthermore, while I enjoy learning with my students, I think my own inexperience with Web site construction made this a daunting assignment to undertake.  Although my colleagues’ help was invaluable, I do think that the assignment was much stronger when I used it for a second time—after I had gained my own Web construction experience. 

Another weakness of this assignment can be in the rather undefined nature of what the finished product should look like.  Most students are eager to meet assignment requirements—either due to a desire to please the instructor or simply to earn a good grade—so they want to be told specifically what they need to do.  For some students, the more formulaic the assignment is, the happier they are.  This assignment, because of the newness of the medium for some students, as well as the fact that I valorized creativity and risk-taking, was unsettling for some students because they wanted a template to follow.  In all of my teaching, I resist models, at least until students have had a chance to come up with their own conception of the project, and this seems particularly important in Web site construction.  Furthermore, when I first used this assignment, I had no samples from which to draw.  While we learned together, sharing sites that seemed to work, and others that didn’t, students expressed a high frustration level at times.  In final course evaluations, I’ve had students reveal that while they were proudest of their Web sites, that was also the assignment that most placed them in their discomfort zones.  Stretching oneself always has the potential to be uncomfortable, and causing excessive discomfort is one of the potential weaknesses for this assignment.