Why a Course Website

I just got through prepping for my fall courses—the syllabi, the course calendars, copies of readings over to e-reserves, and the course websites. (If you're interested, you can see the sites here and here.

I've made a website for every class I've taught since 2002, which comes to something like a dozen websites, give or take a few class-blogging-hubs, wikis, and moodleized content management pages. This time around, though, I asked myself why?

Why build a course website when some students never seen to go there and others seem to see it as a substitute for going to class? Why build a course website when it can mean writing an entire shadow set of documentation composed for the web (shorter, more visual, differently designed)? And why build a course website when it may do nothing to help students learn (in my courses)?

Even with these questions in mind, I built the sites. I'll list the reasons I built them in a sec, but before doing so I should say that I partly put the websites together because this is what I do before I teach a class. Some people bake cookies at the end of the semester, others cancel the final exam, I make course websites. Part of it, for me, is habitual, routine, and uncritical. But on to the reasons:

Why a Course Website?
  • websites are an easy way to distribute information: I put the syllabus up there, the calendar indicating what we're doing, links, readings, and sometimes a course.blog with notes and reflections on how the semester is going. This means that, since the site is always up before the first class meeting, students are sometimes able to decide if they want to enroll without having to sit through the first meeting. It also means that, when things change (due dates, readings, links) the site can be easily updated and everyone can be brought up to speed. I don't think this is much different from passing around revisions printed on paper, but in some instances it can be.

  • the archival feature: One of the tricks of teaching is keeping track of what you teach, often for purposes of teaching it again in the same way, differently, or more effectively. Also, this meticulous keeping-track is helpful when it comes time to represent one's teaching to get a job, keep a job, or get promoted. Class websites are excellent in this way, as they archive all course materials in one easy-to-find place that remains accessible, clean, never involves a creaky file cabinet, and in some ways is perpetually current-seeming even if the class is long gone.

  • websites are fancy, and fancy things are good, right?: This reason both points to my skepticism about course websites and my recognition of their virtues. A few times I've had students tell me they marveled at the course website, knowing "it was the class for me" before ever setting foot in the classroom. As many times, I've received email or comments from other teachers and students not in one of my classes reporting that they checked out one of my course websites and was all "wow, that looks like a great class." The course may have been great, or it may not have been, but course websites present a course with polish and electronic flair. This is course website as instructional packaging. In this way, the course website is DIY courseware, fancying up what might otherwise be "just another class."

  • if you teach about new media and see yourself as a "new media person," like, how could you not have a course website?

  • websites help students learn: I know, you were wondering when I was going to get to this one. No kidding, when I first started teaching and building companion websites for my courses, I believed this to be true. I considered the course website a place where students could access materials in ways they couldn't in print (images, video, sound, text)—and then I learned, after spending hours on those early websites, that few students ever went to the site. Now, I soon learned that there are ways to compel students to visit a course website, and there are also ways to make such a visit not only compulsory but in their best interest, fun, and even enjoyable—but I'm still skeptical of the assumption behind the course website that websites help students learn. Good content can be easier to learn from than poor content, but I no longer think a course website is any better than a print assignment sheet, say, or worksheet. Many more reasons justify a course website than teaching-and-learning, at least given what I teach, but this does not make a course website unjustifiable.

  • the course website can be part of a paperless classroom: Yes. This is cool. I have been doing this lately and am totally for this.

  • course website as hub: For the last year or so, I've been trying to think of (and design) my course websites as hubs more than focal points. This means that the site is a place to branch off to content from rather than a content-destination. So the message board can be linked to (or syndicated through an iframe) on the course website, as can readings organized on del.icio.us, as can an array of online texts and, ultimately, course projects. If the students are blogging for the class, aggregate links to the blogs through the site or, better yet, link to bloglines where students consume the blogs of their classmates through rss. In this way, the course website is more a tool and less a text, and I'm increasingly comfortable with this formulation.

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