Course web page

Of course it is useful, why would people do it otherwise ?

Since 1996, when I taught my first course at the college level, I have always set up a web page for the courses I taught. It has never really been an issue to me, whether I should do it or not — it seemed like a no-brainer. I mean, really, why would anyone not take advantage of a technology that allows a teacher to provide quickly and efficiently updated course information to all enrolled student ?

Why would an instructor not want to post, among other things, the syllabus, a course calendar with pointers to lecture notes or homework assignments, information on midterm and final exams, solutions to assigned problems, as well as all sort of course announcements ? It would seem a great way to save time, preempting a lot of the questions that students ask most frequently…
I have to admit that I am not so sure anymore. Universities certainly expect their instructors to utilize web technology as a teaching aid, and will generally provide them with technical support. The fact is, however, that even with all the technical support and the best software, maintaining a course web page is a lot of work for the instructor — updating its content daily, posting class notes, solutions are time consuming tasks, and I am not sure that the payoff is so clear. Indeed, sometimes I even wonder whether it may not be doing more harm than good.

First of all, it has been consistently my experience that most students simply do not bother to check the course web page regularly, which defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. I am routinely asked questions in the course of the term, for which explicit answers are provided on the course web page. I can also look at the hits that the page receives, and it is clear that most of the student do not read it. I observe a definite increase in the number of visits a few days before the midterm exam and the final, but it is my sense that the course web page just sits there ignored most of the time.
I have often sought the feedback of colleagues and students, thinking that maybe my pages are not user-friendly or clear enough, but invariably I have been told that it seems acceptable, and colleagues have reported similar experiences.

Secondly, I am afraid that having access to course information such as, for example, what material was covered on that day, may actually turn out to be a perverse incentive for student not to attend classes. If students feel that by not going to class they may miss crucial course information, they may make an effort to be there (I know, ideally they should want to be there for better reasons than that, but, we all know how it is these days…) — otherwise they will just assume that they can get everything they need when they need it (i.e., a few days before the exam) from the course web page and will not bother to come to class.

So, in conclusion, would it be better to go back to the good old days and just distribute a syllabus on the first day of classes, and then simply expect that students will come to class ? Would the time that I invest trying to design and update a web page be better spent providing extended office hours instead, for example, or simply putting more time on my class notes ?
I am curious to hear the opinion and experience of others.

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17 Responses to “Course web page”

  1. Cherish Says:

    Personally, I really like blackboard. It doesn’t seem like a hassle to maintain, you can email students very easily because of the automatic entry of enrolled students (if your school does that), and it’s a great way for them to submit assignments.

    As far as posting notes, goes, a lot of people will post ones with various critical things missing so that students have the notes to follow along but will also need to be in class to get some of the critical info.

    As a student, once I got a laptop, I’ve slowly become a fan of following online notes using my laptop. Surprisingly, that has worked just as well for me as taking notes, and once I learned LaTex, I began typing out my notes in that if there was anything additional to notes.

    Of course, all along, I have been one of the oddballs that will access notes and other critical information from the website or other references. I also like the concept of universal design/accessibility. These have made me a big fan of such items, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask.

  2. Mad Hatter Says:

    I have to admit if I knew I could get identical information from a webpage or a class/meeting, I would either attend the class/meeting or access the webpage, but not both. Then again, none of the college courses I took had webpages, so this was never an issue for me.

    Can you get a departmental administrative assistant to update the webpage for you with information/documents you provide, or simply email the info to the class? That might take less of your time and accomplish the same thing in terms of dissemination of information.

    • Massimo Says:

      Can you get a departmental administrative assistant to update the webpage for you with information/documents you provide, or simply email the info to the class?

      ROTFL — Yes, MH, that will so happen…

  3. transientreporter Says:

    College students are lazy. L-A-Z-Y! They skip class, they don’t read ahead, they don’t do assignments until the last minute, they cram before exams. Why would you expect that they would be poring over your website day and night?

    I agree with Cherish in that Blackboard is a pretty good alternative, although it does have its limitations. But if your aim is to get material out to students, it’s (probably) a better choice than maintaining a webpage.

    This leads to another question – if you have all your lectures on powerpoint, do you distribute the files to your students? Again, this could (and in my experience, does) serve as a disincentive from coming to class.

    Finally – ever thought about starting a Facebook page? Consider: it’s more interactive than a static webpage, students can interact with each other online, there’s built-in IM and email. It’s a ready-made online education system. You could probably dispense with office hours. I thought about doing such a thing, but decided against it. Why? Because when I polled my students, I discovered that more than half of the class don’t use Facebook!. I found that very surprising, but there it is…

    • Massimo Says:

      I don’t know if I would be so hard on them. They take five courses per term, homework assignments every week, midterms, finals… it is brutal, I don’t think I would have been able to do it that way. I thought the European system was much more relaxed (at least in those days…)

  4. JF Says:

    Well, I do not see much of a problem on either count. Sure, very few students will read the web page; it may even have, as you say, perverse effects (although I doubt it, I would imagine that a student who is going to skip your course does not need an excuse to do so anyway). So what ? Ultimately, our goal as teachers (university teachers, things are probably different at pre-univ level) is to offer our skills and knowledge to willing students. On the other hand, I have no concern for un-willing students. They are not interested in my course ? Fair enough. Their problem, not mine. Their time, and their money. If they are prepared to pay a sizeable sum of (their dad’s) money and not get anything out of that, because they do not show up in the classroom … well, who am I to question their choice, especially if it pays my salary at the end of the month ?

    On the other hand, for the willing few (and the larger majority who are willing to put some effort, part of the time — in their good days), I’m prepared to do my best to offer them as much as I can, as many different learning avenues as possible. Lectures are one, so are office hours or a course web page. Or even a library, come to think of it; after all there are other ways to learn than my own course. Each of these tools will be used by a small proportion of the class. At the end of the day, each of the willing student will have used his(her) own combination of tools and approaches to learn what is important for the course, and this is as it should be !

    So – a course web page is just that, one more possibility offered to the students. You would not suggest to get rid of a library because it’s so expensive and anyway only 15 % of the students ever walk in the lib, would you ?

    Besides, a course web page is extremely useful for your fellow teachers trying to prepare a series of lecture on same or similar subject — especially if they are not completely familiar woth the topic…

    • Massimo Says:

      So – a course web page is just that, one more possibility offered to the students. You would not suggest to get rid of a library because it’s so expensive and anyway only 15 % of the students ever walk in the lib, would you ?

      I quote from my post:
      “Would the time that I invest trying to design and update a web page be better spent providing extended office hours instead, for example, or simply putting more time on my class notes ?”

      • JF Says:

        But it hardly works like this, does it? If you “saved” that time, would you really put it into providing better learning opportunities to the students — as opposed to, say, write one more abstract, meet your graduate students or go and have a beer with a few pals ?

      • Massimo Says:

        Oh, I see, so I should keep spending an ungodly amount of time on a course web page that nobody reads in order to limit my beer consumption… yeah, makes sense.

      • Schlupp Says:

        No, it is far better if you spend an ungodly amount of time discussing with us in what way you should tweak a course page that nobody reads, and how exactly you should handle any and all communications arising in those cases where someone, who was not the intended audience, actually does read it. Beer optional but helpful. Obvious, no?

        (Selfish as I am, I have to admit some thoughts like Charro’s: Your course webpages are likely to be useful to me. Now, convenience to ME should certainly justify spending any amount of YOUR time, but I am not entirely sure how to convince you of this fact.)

  5. Aurora Says:

    It’s quite time consuming to maintain a webpage, but it can be reused easily semester after semester. As you point out there’s pluses and minuses and some courses need them more than others. I try to put up at least a short webpage.

  6. ScientistMother Says:

    I loved having lecture note prior to class. I still attended class, but with pre-printed notes I was able to better focus on what the prof was saying vs trying to madly copy notes and understand the details. Mind you I was one of those keener types that would re-listen to lecture tapes to ensure I had all the information correctly…..

    • Massimo Says:

      I have mixed feelings about that… I used to upload my class notes before class, and some people literally read them while I was teaching, paying little or no attention to what I was saying… plus while I teach it is often the case that I realize that a particular way of presenting a certain topic, that seemed brilliant when I first thought of it (and is reflected in my notes) actually does not work in practice, hence I want to change my notes after class before posting them online.

  7. Charro Says:

    If I am taking a class, I actually look for websites other than the one from my professor, the reason being that if I attended lecture and I got a particular way of presenting a topic which might be good to the professor but wasn’t entirely clear to me, I want a second opinion.

    Of course, this doesn’t help your point because you are concern about helping your students, not (necessarily) the ones from another university.

    I haven’t had a class that you also teach recently, but some time ago I remember visiting your website for info.

    Can’t remember if it helped or not though because I was so distracted with your self-promotion of your handsomeness. =P

    • Massimo Says:

      Of course, this doesn’t help your point because you are concern about helping your students, not (necessarily) the ones from another university.

      Yes, that reminds me of the first time I put my notes on the web and students from other universities were complaining because I was not uploading them fast enough. Once I taught a computational physics course and handed students codes to play with. Someone from another university got it and wrote me telling me that it was too slow, and that I should re-write it using a better class structure. :-)

      I remember visiting your website for info [...] I was so distracted with your self-promotion of your handsomeness. =P

      You found it distracting, eh ?

      • Charro Says:

        Someone from another university got it and wrote me telling me that it was too slow, and that I should re-write it using a better class structure.

        haha, that I call having balls. If s/he was a grad student, maybe you can find out what this person is doing now. Maybe s/he has a website with some codes uploaded that need reviewing…

  8. Schlupp Says:

    “and wrote me telling me that it was too slow, and that I should re-write it using a better class structure”

    Impressive. What did you reply? “We thank the referee for the carefull reading of our code and for the extremely helpful comments. However, we feel that the proposed changes are beyond the scope of the present course webpage and invite the referee to select a sample of physioproffian epithets for themselves.” ?

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