November 26, 2013

Web-Based Projects and Pacing the Semester

This week is a holiday week for me, although I'm doing some schoolwork here and there (just the fun stuff!). So, I thought I would post a note here about something I've naturally been thinking about today: pacing the semester.

Right now, my classes are more or less done... but that is because we have been working hard and steady already beginning in the first week of the semester! In my Myth-Folklore class, 28 of 56 students are completely done, and the rest are very close to being done, and the same in Indian Epics, where 14 of 29 students are done. I am always glad when people can finish up early because I know they are often doing most of the work in their other classes in a big push at the end of the semester - staying up all night to write those final papers, cramming for that final exam, etc.

Well, that "last minute rush" is not how my classes work at all. Just the opposite! Instead, the projects students do in these classes are spread out over time, starting with several weeks of brainstorming, followed by alternating weeks of writing and revision, and then the three final two or three weeks consist of nothing but revision. That's a natural choice when students are publishing a web project (Google Sites is the web publishing tool I now use) instead of printing out a final paper! With a web-based project, of course it makes sense to revise (and revise and revise), to tinker, to evolve, working steadily all semester long. The Internet is a beautifully accommodating space for that!

Here is an overview of the Storybook project process in my class:
  • In Week 1, students browse through past projects to get a sense of the kinds of topics students have worked on in the past, along with the various web design options people have chosen.
  • Then, in Week 2 the students start brainstorming their projects while also learning the basics of how to create a website.
  • Next, in Week 3, they continue brainstorming, and they also experiment with some more website design skills.
  • In Week 4, a plan for the project now in place, they write up an Introduction to their project, while also creating a homepage for their actual project website.
  • In Week 5, they revise their Introduction and add that as a new page at their website. Plus, they now start looking at each other's websites, offering suggestions and feedback.
  • In Week 6, they are adding their first story to the site, and Weeks 6-13 consist of alternating writing and revision as they keep adding new stories. As they write and revise, they are also reading and commenting on each other's stories every week too.
  • Then, at the end, in Week 14 they go back and revise the Introduction one last time, making sure it matches up with the final product. 
  • Week 15 then consists of final revisions: checking on links, images, bibliography, etc., as well as one last good read-through of all the pages.
You can see details of all the assignments at my Storybook project page.

There are three key points I would like to emphasize about this process:

1. No trees were harmed in the making of these Storybooks. Seriously, the kind of revision-intensive process here would be depressing if it involved printing out reams of paper, but with the students creating and updating websites, the revision process is entirely natural.

2. Planning and revision take more time than writing. Notice that in the 15 weeks of this process, there are only 5 weeks which are "original" writing (Week 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12). All the remaining weeks are devoted to planning and revision. This is not the case in most college writing scenarios, sad to say. In most classes, students do no revising of their writing at all, and often the planning process is highly abbreviated or even missing entirely. That is a very unrealistic way to look at what is required for writing to be successful. The actual writing itself is easy! You just... write. What's hard is all the planning and the revision that is required to see a project through to completion.

3. Digital projects lead naturally to the creation of an archive of past student work. I consider the Storybook archives for my classes to be the single most important key to success. There is nothing more inspiring than to see great work by other students! Yet in most courses, what happens? Everything - EVERYTHING - just goes into the trash can at the end of the semester. Think for a while about what kind of message that sends to the students in a class. It is not good. Instead of throwing everything out, we need to send the message that what students are learning is of value, something worth keeping. If it is not worth keeping, then what was the point of doing it in the first place?

O this learning, what a thing it is!
(Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew)


  1. These sound like fun classes! I would have liked to have had you as an instructor. The pacing sounds ideal, especially given that most students have other classes and some kind of life! The only catch... I hate writing! : )

  2. Ha ha, Christina, you are not alone! I would guess that a lot of my students (maybe even a majority of them...?) hate to write - and here they are, stuck in a Gen. Ed. class that requires more writing than any class they have ever had! That's why I switched to writing stories instead of writing essays. That has made a HUGE difference. People often find out they like to write after all. :-)

  3. The fact that we, as teachers, even have the power to throw away student work is ludicrous. Why do we need to control everything? Wouldn't it be simpler and cheaper to let students manage their own content?

    From the #mri13 conference backchannel:

    "Nothing says 'I love you' like deleting all your stuff when you are done" @jimgroom #mri13

    As a bonus, D'Arcy Norman:

  4. SO TRUE!!! Thank you for the tweets - I saw so many great tweets prompted by Jim Groom's presentation (I saw them coming from you first and then with the hashtag found even more) - for sure I am going to write up something separate about the archive I keep later today. My students' stuff is all under their own Google accounts using Google Sites... so they are in control - but oh, I am SO GRATEFUL that almost all of them do leave their projects online (and they know how important that is since of course they got a boost themselves by seeing the projects at the beginning of their own adventure).

  5. Really inspiring work Laura. I hate to see teachers discarding those wonderful works done by kids and agree why do it in the first place. I would like to share your blog with other colleagues and friends of mine. Thank you for sharing.


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