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From the Teaching column in the November 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Student-Created Websites as Useful Forums for Reporting on Historical Research

Gleb Tsipursky, November 2012

To help students learn history while developing skills relevant to the job market and public life, I created an assignment where I asked student teams to create research-based websites. This involved conducting original primary source research, reading relevant secondary sources, providing their own interpretation, and deciding how to communicate the information to audiences effectively. They also located and integrated images, videos, and links, worked in teams, and gave a class presentation. Students found this exercise engaging and helpful, and I plan to assign it in all of my advanced classes.

Why a Website Instead of a Research Paper?

Like a research paper, creating a website strengthens research, analysis, and critical thinking skills. Organizing and communicating the information improves writing, and close examination of a historical topic offers an in-depth understanding of a historical case study and its broader context.

However, the website assignment develops additional abilities in digital literacy, such as locating, evaluating, and integrating images, videos, and links; presenting information in an online format; and building and editing a website. The teamwork component improves the ability to collaborate.1 Presenting the website to the class helps build public speaking skills. The website assignment, therefore, positions students well for the job market, which values technological, teamwork, and presentation abilities highly. These also apply well to civic life, assisting students in advancing social causes and engaging in community activism through digital means. Teaching digital literacy skills in history classes makes students and those who meet them in professional and educational environments more appreciative of historical education, as they see the tangible benefits brought by such learning.

I had several other goals. Through the innovative nature of this task, I hoped to engage students, motivating their learning. I also wanted students who planned to work in fields relating to teaching, history, or digital technology to be able to use the website in their employment portfolios. Finally, I planned to use the websites as teaching tools in my subsequent classes.

Preparation

To prepare, I devised a prompt that contained clear guidelines and a grading rubric.2 On their website's home page, students had to create a 550–600 word analytical statement about their chosen topic. The several subordinate pages had to contain a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, embedded images and videos, and links to relevant websites. The grading rubric assigned a value to each of these components, with the analytical statement weighted most heavily. This resulted in a team grade for each group. Further, I instructed all group members to evaluate each other anonymously, and assigned an overall grade to each person that combined their team grade, weighted at 80 percent, with their teammates' assessments, 20 percent.

Home page of a student-created website on the history of the KGB.The assignment got started about halfway through my Soviet history course. I created teams of four to five students, with each group choosing one member as the website coordinator, responsible for managing the project. The teams discussed possible website topics, and with some guidance chose ones appropriate for meaningful undergraduate research projects. These included, for example, "The KGB," "Soviet Space Propaganda," "Thaw-Era Films," and "The Gulag under Stalin." Next, the teams planned out the individual responsibilities of each member and decided on their work plans and timeline.

We then discussed Google Sites, the user-friendly website creation platform that I chose for its simplicity. The website assignment prompt included additional tutorials on Google Sites. I helped teams set up their websites and also provided access for myself to each, to observe student progress and intervene in case of problems.

Implementation

By this stage, each team had a blank website, a topic, a timeline, and a plan. To make sure the groups stayed on track, I had each team's website coordinator report weekly to the class. Doing so helped ensure that groups generally made sufficient headway to keep to their timelines.

Naturally, some challenges arose. Many resembled the issues typical for a traditional undergraduate research project, like students needing guidance locating appropriate primary and secondary sources. Other issues proved unique to the website assignment, such as advice on locating online content. Copyright questions came up with images and videos, but The Ohio State University's copyright specialist determined that the "fair use" doctrine generally protects such limited use of copyrighted materials for pedagogical purposes. I also helped one group work through some challenging team dynamics.

However, despite these minor challenges, all the teams successfully carried through their projects. They launched their websites in a timely manner by the deadline I set, the day before their in-class presentation. This gave the class and me a chance to examine all four websites and come up with a variety of questions. After each team gave a presentation about their website to the class, they answered inquiries from me and their classmates. Finally, the class members voted on the best website, with "The KGB" project winning. Each member of that team received bonus points.

I then evaluated the websites following the rubric. Its clarity helped ensure that students had no complaints about the grading. The anonymous peer evaluation worked well for assigning individual grades, with students giving both a quantitative and a qualitative evaluation of the performance of their teammates.

Student Feedback

From the first, students had a positive reaction to the assignment. Some expressed excitement over the innovative nature of the website project. Others most appreciated learning novel skills, and saw them as highly applicable to their post-graduate lives and careers. A third cohort felt proud of creating a digital artifact that will have a lasting presence, something they could reference in their future internship and job applications, and that I would use to teach future students. Some acknowledged that they had mixed feelings at first about this project and felt intimidated by the unfamiliar technology. However, with assistance from me and from their classmates, they proved capable of engaging fully in the assignment. Students also valued the ability to rate their team members, feeling that this helped ensure mutual dedication to the project. Overall, the teams impressed me with their commitment and enthusiasm. Furthermore, the quality of the final product significantly exceeded my expectations.

Thus, I will continue to assign similar website projects in future classes. One thing I plan to do differently is to start discussing the outlines of the website project early in the course, to help reduce student anxiety related to this activity. I anticipate using many of the student-created websites from this and subsequent assignments as a tool for teaching my future students about the history of "The KGB" and other topics. The website project should also be easy to adapt to online teaching. Moreover, if other faculty adopt widely the student-created website as a class assignment, it should be possible to create a conglomerate of the best student-produced websites to serve both as a teaching tool and as a reference guide for students and the general public. Overall, student-created websites offer an excellent teaching tool as an alternative or addition to a research paper, motivating student learning and building valuable skills for future careers and civic life.

Gleb Tsipursky is an assistant professor of history at The Ohio State University. He is completing a book project entitled Socialist Fun: Youth, Consumption, and State-Sponsored Popular Culture in the Cold War Soviet Union, 1945–1970.

Notes

1. On collaboration, see Elizabeth F. Barkley, K. Patricia Cross and Claire Howell Major, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2005), 3–26.

2.www.glebtsipursky.com/teaching/website-project/website-project-guidelines [Accessed 7/21/12].