Anatomy of a Great Class Website

A website is a great way to communicate outside of class with your students, as long as it's easy to maintain.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Most students, especially at the secondary level, will respond well to a class website. These are, after all, members of the ipod generation, so if it's online, it must be good, right? The ability to communicate asynchronously with students and provide them with access to class materials when and where they need it is a very important part of reaching out to this group in an effective and efficient way.  Marc Wagner has repeatedly touched on the potential cost savings associated with online distribution of materials, as well (Podcasting, PDAs, and Paradigms and Strategies for reducing printing costs) and I have certainly realized these cost savings in my own classroom.  I haven't handed out a piece of paper (except as needed for the rare students who don't have Net access or for the occasional test that really begs to have students sitting at a desk) in over two years.

However, by far the most challenging thing about using a class website is maintaining it.  The minute it becomes out of date, students will stop checking it and will plug back in the earbuds.  With the collective attention span of a jar of fruitflies, this generation has no tolerance (for better or worse) for a lack of current information immediately at their fingertips. This begs a couple of questions: Where do I start? and How do I keep it up to date?

The first question is pretty easy.  Many of us are familiar with the Golden Rule of Technology: Keep it Simple, Stupid (or KISS for short).  A class website doesn't need to be fancy or flashy.  Most of the sites I set up for my classes are just text and headings with some type of simple navigation.  In fact, a blog format lends itself quite well to a simple class site.  If your school lacks the facilities to host a blog, there are a number of free blogging sites (just Google "free blog sites") that allow you to post files, solicit comments and feedback from students, and quickly and easily set up a "class website."  Some even allow you to email new posts, answering the second question.  A quick email before each class can keep a running log (or blog, if you will) of your course content and will be a simple, quick reference for you and your students.

If you would prefer a more static site, one over which you have more design control, or one that allows less interactivity, then a traditional website is almost as easy to create.  Although the sophistication of your site is limited only by your web design prowess, KISS should really still apply.  I can crank out fancy sites all day long, but the flash makes no contribution to the course and just makes the sites harder to maintain.  A simple WYSIWYG editor like Mozilla Composer (http://www.mozilla.org/products/mozilla1.x/) makes generating HTML as easy as using Word.  If your school hosts its own website, your IT representative should be able to help you post your pages.  If not, again, just Google "free web sites" and take your pick of free places to park your pages for your class.

Want to make your life really easy?  Find a motivated student (or students) who knows his/her way around a website (you probably have a few in every class) and offer them extra credit to develop and maintain the site for you.  It's great experience for the students, easy for you, addresses both questions above, and makes the technology even more relevant and useful for the kids.  Our school actually made a student internship out of the webmaster position, allowing students to earn academic credit and learn in-depth about web design while providing a really valuable service to teachers and students.

If you keep it simple and up-to-date, a class website will quickly become an indispensible tool for you and your students.  Just don't make your students print out everything on the website...Students can smell newbies and that's a dead giveaway. 

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