INTRODUCTION:   Having tired, long ago, of reading and grading academic papers and research projects in which the students’ primary goal was to finesse a good grade from their instructor, I have been taking a very different approach to the end product of the research and writing process. At my college, we have, for a long time, used portfolios in various disciplines as successful, comprehensive means of assessing semester-long progress, so it was a natural process for me to teach students how to convert their paper portfolios into Internet-based electronic portfolios, which I call “webfolios.”

I have seen that almost any major student assignment, particularly a researched assignment, can be presented more successfully as a web-based project rather than the traditional academic research paper.  While it is impossible, in a traditional academic paper, to present more than text and two-dimensional graphics, in a web page it is easy to incorporate not only graphics, but sound and animation; it is exceedingly easy to link bibliographies to one’s primary research sites if those sources are online; and, in general, it is less of a chore to read and evaluate because of the interactive nature of web-based delivery.  By utilizing a free webpage hosting service and user-friendly, on-line webpage building software, it has been remarkably easy to teach students how to make interactive, Internet-linked web sites in which to publish their projects for the semester. Additionally, because the students are posting their work on off-campus servers, the college has no liability for any content of the student sites or for any activities that students may conduct through their web presence.  If you require research papers or major writing assignments, have an interest in helping students become more computer savvy, and would like a means for motivating students to write more effectively, you would do well to consider using webfolios.

PURPOSE 

  • To encourage students to take more pride in their work by writing for a mass audience and not just for the instructor to read and grade

  • To provide students with a tangible product to show for their efforts at the end of the semester, something more than just a grade

  • To illustrate the shift in contemporary academic discourse toward “enhanced text”

  • To prepare them for the roles they will play in their professional discourse communities   

SUPPLIES/SET UP

  • Internet-accessible computers–on campus, at home, at their places of work, or in local libraries

DIRECTIONS

1.  Students sign up for a free website hosting service. I recommend Geocities.com, a “free” hosting service that places an advertising banner on clients’ pages (only a minor annoyance). Its Web Page Builder software is a very easy-to-use, drag-and-drop style application.  I have posted instructions on my class web site, on how to register, how to upload a document file and how to upload image files, and those instructions stay on the class site throughout the semester.  These instructions are at http://www.geocities.com/coachrick_ycll/geocitiesreg.html

2.  Using the “save as” feature of their word processor, students save the revised papers in html format, and then they upload the html documents into their Geocities accounts, which is a process similar to the “save as” functions of most word processing systems. Instructions for uploading a document file to Geocities Web Page Builder are at http://www.geocities.com/coachrick_ycll/ieupload.html

3.  Since their text can be enhanced by photographs, animations, other graphics, or audio, I show students how to upload the enhancements into their Geocities account so that they can be used on their web pages. Instructions for uploading pictures or other .jpg images are at http://www.geocities.com/coachrick_ycll/pictureupload.html

4.  Webfolios are developed throughout the semester.  I collect hard copies of writing assignments, evaluate them, and provide suggestions for improvement of content and correction of editing errors.  One of the reasons students like the webfolios is that the individual projects are graded a second time, following revision and editing, when the webfolio is evaluated at the end of the semester.   

5.  While webfolios are under development, students are assigned to provide feedback to each other via email, so I set up feedback teams by making an index of names and URLs.  These are the “success teams.”  I don’t formally grade their feedback, but they earn credit for doing it or lose credit for not providing feedback.  They look for obvious problems, typos for instance, but they also critique the design of the pages, commenting on such things as clutter, readability, use of color, appropriateness of animations, etc.

EXPERIENCES

The students become enthusiastic about their webfolios even while they are being developed.  Usually after making the home page and posting their first project in the webfolio, they start asking their colleagues and me to look at their sites.  They talk about what far-flung friends and relatives have said to them about their projects.  When they get that kind of response for course work from someone other than their teacher their enthusiasm for the projects grows.  They actually develop pride in the work they have produced for a college class.

Following are comments that students have made and recorded during class discussions of why we might be developing Internet-published, multi-media projects rather than the traditional academic papers.  The comments focus on the possible professional, academic and personal uses that the students might have for their webfolios, and any reservations they voiced.

PROFESSIONAL

  • Every business or service agency seems to have its own web site these days.

  • In a portfolio for job applications, it’s a good way to show what communication skills I have developed as well as my computer skills.

  • It’s a good way to market or promote a business.

  • I could post an on-line resume to reach more employers.  It is quick and easy to make updates and revisions, and cost-effective because it could save on postage and paper costs.

  • Today, you have to know how to communicate electronically in order to survive in the job market.

  • It’s a very inexpensive way to communicate with the rest of the world.

  • A good way to demonstrate that I am computer literate.

ACADEMIC

  • It forces me to think differently about the subject matter.

  • It’s a good way to develop experience using, and publishing on, the Internet.

  • Writing for a broader audience (a “real” audience) provides motivation to be more careful in the ways that we communicate.

  • I will challenge myself to do a good job even though I have some reservations about using the computer to this extent.

  • It’s easy to distribute to potential readers.

  • Don’t have to worry about losing your information.

PERSONAL

  • It is a means of personal expression.

  • It’s fun to do.

  • It’s a good means for self expression and can include music, graphics, counters, chat and email.

  • It’s simply very satisfying.

  • Can show family and friends what I have accomplished. 

  • I can show my family and friends how they can make a family web site, or just have fun by publishing themselves on the Internet.

  • It’s a fun way to communicate with friends and family. 

RESERVATIONS

  • I don’t like working at the computer “all day.”

  • I’m not too keen on working on computers in general.

I can’t count how many typed, double-spaced, twelve-point-fonted, black-text-on-a-white-background papers I have read in twenty five years of teaching college students.  While I love to read, I do not look forward to those huge folders of student papers that seem to pour in faster than I can shovel them back out.  However, when I look at them as a phase in a process of creating something expressive and meaningful to the students, when they are a part of the process rather than the product itself, they are much more palatable, a means to an end rather than the end itself. 

How many sentences does it take for the nursing student to describe the difference in heart sounds depending upon placement of the stethoscope?  How successfully can she do it?  Can you hear the odd heart beat from her description?  If she puts it on line and makes a hot link to the sound, I know what it sounds like: http://sln2.fi.edu/biosci/monitor/heartbeat.html.

Do I feel a writer’s excitement at experiencing the Trevi Fountain for the first time when he writes about his most memorable vacation?  Maybe I can feel his excitement, but can I picture the fountain?  I can if his web page includes a picture of it and I can share his awe when he hot links to an article on its history: http://www.romeguide.it/MONUM/STORICI/trevi/trevi.htm

More importantly, the students care about the final product because they see the power they have when they can bring anything on the Internet into a simple, ordinary academic “paper.” 

OUTCOMES

The great majority keep their web sites active after the semester ends.  They have other uses for them.  Many students have further developed their webfolios after the semester has ended. 

Because of the research that they do during the regular fall and spring semesters, students become familiar with web sites related to their academic majors and professional goals.  In addition to exposing students to the discourse communities of their professional fields, creating their own web sites replicates the processes by which academics and professionals publish and reach a mass audience; in a very real sense, they become part of that vast discourse community that is the Internet.

Most students take pride in their webfolios. Following are some quotes from course evaluations regarding the requirement to develop a webfolio and publish it on the Internet.

  • I enjoyed volunteering and creating my own webfolio. (Note: “volunteering” is a reference to a service learning option in this class.  Those who have chosen service learning have chronicled their experiences in their webfolios, as in the following samples: http://community.tncc.edu/faculty/dollieslager/slsamples.html.)

  • We actually got to put a lot of ourselves into our work and be expressive.

  • I learned a lot about myself and working with the computer.  I enjoyed creating my own webfolio.

  • I enjoyed building a website on the Internet, and, therefore, attended class regularly.

  • I really liked the webfolios—it’s a nice alternative to boring essays.

  • Doing the website was cool.

Not all of the work in the webfolios is perfect.  The projects were completed for a first-semester college course; as such, it is obvious that these projects were not published by professionals.  Many contain the sorts of oversights and detail errors that college students are prone to exhibit, even when they are taking care to make their work good.  Nonetheless, the students themselves perceive their work to be exemplary because very few ever dismantle their web sites or let them die a natural death from non-use.  (The Geocities.com service will deactivate a web site if it has not had a hit in 90 days.)

Are the resulting student projects really better than the traditional academic paper?  Look at the students’ work, and decide for yourself.  See links in the appendix below.

LESSONS LEARNED

It is important to start early if these are to be semester-long projects, to develop them gradually, and to check on progress on a regular schedule.

I am fortunate to teach my communication classes in a computer classroom.  Would I have students publish web-based projects on the Internet if I did not teach in a computer classroom?  Yes.  The basics of web site development using a free webpage hosting service are easy enough to teach that scheduling a few one-hour sessions in a computer lab would suffice for most students, and brief one-on-one sessions with those who might find themselves struggling a bit is productive.  The projects almost naturally lead to collaboration and interdependence among the students.

APPENDIX: Student Webfolios

Linked below are some examples of the webfolios students developed in the Summer 2006 session.  Because the summer semester is so short and leaves little time for doing much that is not academic, the theme I adopt for summer class projects is “Have fun and then write about it.”  Copy and paste the URLs if the links do not work in your email reader.   When navigating the webfolios, the advertisements will disappear if you click the arrowed tab at the top right side of the page.

Nathalie:  http://www.geocities.com/opticiang8/

Joanne:  http://www.geocities.com/joanne23606/

Diana:  http://www.geocities.com/dfannin86/

Katie:  http://www.geocities.com/katie_jacob757/

Josh:  http://www.geocities.com/death_by_film/

Stephen:  http://www.geocities.com/betrthnezra13/

Dairy:  http://www.geocities.com/gotdairy87/index.html

Rick Dollieslager, Faculty, English, Thomas Nelson Community College, VA, DollieslagerR@TNCC.EDU

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