Manfred Kuechler
(Last update: November 17, 1999)

How to start (and further develop) your web course page: A primer

 
Preface
I developed my first web course pages for the fall semester of 1995 and I brought the ERes course web page management system to Hunter in the summer of 1996. I passed on the day-to-day duties of ERes management to OICIT in the summer of 1998, after I had written an extensive local help system in Q+A format to supplement the online ERes manual. Unfortunately, OICIT support for ERes (or any other course management system) is still limited though the "Zabar" program is a start.
As I have taken a strong professional interest in the uses of the Internet for both teaching and research, I like to share my knowledge and experience in this area as a matter of collegial courtesy -- in return for other people's kindness in sharing their special knowledge with me. It may be rather old-fashioned, but I still believe in the academy as a place to exchange knowledge freely (and not charging my academic colleagues as it is done in Hunter's Continuing Ed program).
Anyway, this brief primer is meant for all faculty who still contemplate whether they should do a course web page, but it also contains pointers for those who want to develop a still rather basic web course page a bit further. I will focus on the more practical aspects; the larger pedagogical, organizational, and institutional issues are addressed in a special issue (Vol.17, No.2, spring 1999) of the Social Science Computer Review (SSCORE) for which I served as a guest editor. A preview version of my own article is available in both WordPerfect8 (clickable links) and Acrobat (pdf) format from a local server. 

Also, consider joining a special e-mail list for faculty (at Hunter) interested in using course web pages. This list was started in August 1999 and is called coursepage-l. Unlike other lists (like hunter-l) the list has an archive that can be easily searched via a web interface. This web interface can also be used to enter a subscription and/or to change subscription options. Another attractive feature is that you can set your subscription to "nomail" (to keep your mail inbox uncluttered) and simply visit the archive when you are looking for information on a spceific topic. So visit the web site for coursepage-l.

Shall I wait till Hunter gets a New Web Course Management System (CMS)?

You may have heard that Hunter is contemplating the acquisition and installation of a more comprehensive web course management system. In January and February 1999, a special task force spent considerable time in reviewing the leading products and documented this review process in much detail. While the task force reached a preliminary recommendation, the final decision has been postponed till after the appointment of a new OICIT director (which makes very good sense). This appointment, unfortunately, is not likely to happen before the year 2000, and I doubt that we will have a new OICIT director in place even for the start of the spring semester 2000. However, the college is finally ready to obtain a license for the new version 4 of ERes. But, as the vendor is slow in getting the final release ready (not the worst policy given how much software is released prematurely these days), so it remains to be seen when a new ERes version will become available at Hunter.

Hence, this is no reason to wait. Whatever the final CMS will be, you will be able to transfer your course web pages to the new system with little effort. The new CMS will include a "student management module" (something that the current ERes does not offer) -- which is absolutely essential for distance learning courses and which can be of good value for web enhanced traditional classroom based courses as well, but which is not crucial for the latter.

Using any CMS, however, is a good idea, because it provides a gateway, a common entry point, for all courses with a web page. So, while current students in your course simply can be told where exactly your course pages are located, prospective students (who may take your course in coming semesters) and fellow faculty (looking for ideas how to maximize the value of a course web page) may have a hard time finding your particular course pages unless they can be found via a common gateway. With a CMS all courses all web pages are listed in one obvious location; and -- in the future -- we may even have links to them in the web version of the "Schedule of Classes" produced by the registrar's office (but this being a major project, I doubt this will be done in the very near future).

ERes vs. non-ERes Start Page

Many departments and other units at Hunter have their own web servers and their faculty members have access to these servers for hosting their course web pages. However, all faculty at Hunter (part time and full time) have access to the ERes web course page management system which is installed on the "maxweber" server. All it takes is a short note to the ERes manager -- or, if this does not generate a timely response, a brief e-mail message to me -- and an ERes account is generated. It takes about 2 minutes to generate a new account.

Faculty more comfortable with computers and used to follow written instructions can simply go ahead after their ERes account is generated, others may need a bit more assistance which is available in basically three ways:

In this document, I will discuss the general options available and the basic choices to be made that are somewhat technical in nature but do not require any specific technical expertise, just sound common sense. The first decision is whether to make full use of the ERes system or whether to use it as a "gateway" only. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but of specific circumstance and -- to some degree -- of just personal taste. Keep in mind, that this decision concerns the start page only, typically a fully developed web course site will contain many other documents (syllabus, assignments, lecture notes, etc., etc.) and these will have to be produced outside the ERes (or any other CMS) system anyway and these are not subject to any design restrictions (imposed by ERes or any other CMS).
ERes start page
This means that your course home (starting) page follows a standard and rather simple (plain vanilla) design. Example.
Advantages: Disadvantages:
non-ERes start page
Here you design your own course home page with all the bells and whistles you like. Then, you can either have the ERes manager add a link to this course web page (which may reside on any server anywhere) to the listing of all courses, or you can generate an ERes course page for your class and put a single link on this page which leads to your real course start (home) page. Example. The latter variant has two advantages: So, I will assume the second variant for the following discussion.
Advantages: Disadvantages:


Finally, keep in mind, that a "web course page" is more like a "web course site" that contains many documents and we are simply talking about the start page here  -- or a table of contents. However, first impressions count; so, I understand the desire for a snazzy start page. On the other hand, if a course web page has a major pedagogical function, then function (allowing quick and efficient access to documents and links on the course web site) is much more important than appearance. A student may access this start page 2-3 times per week (or some 50 times over the course of a semester), and the cute animated gifs that were great fun the first three times become nothing but a nuisance. -- But there are very good non-Eres web course pages (example); it just takes more planning, consideration, and technical skills to avoid the disadvantages described above.
 

Copyright Considerations

This is a very tricky issue as there are few clear cut court rulings what constitutes "fair use" and what not with respect to electronically stored documents. Here are a few considerations to will help to minimize the risk of running into legal problems if you are using copyrighted material on your web course site (without obtaining a specific permission to do so):


More generally, look for material that may be copyrighted (and almost everything is in the legal sense -- even this document is copyrighted irrespective of whether I put a copyright notice on this page or not) but where a general permission is given to use the material (if the source is properly identified). Documents from government sites typically fall into this category, but there are many private citizens out there who believe in the Internet as a forum where information should flow freely. In particular, many academic teachers generously share what they have developed for their local classes and simply take pride in the fact that colleagues around the nation (or the world) like what they have been doing and use their material -- without looking for monetary rewards (copyright fees). But this maybe changing quickly, as publishers are developing web-based textbooks and other instructional material.

As an example, I had not taught the "Social Statistics" class since 1996 and was quite overwhelmed by what people around the country had developed in terms of teaching resources freely available to anyone willing to look for those on the web. See the links in the the "tutorials" and the "statistical texts -- online" folders of my Soc241 course page. Now, the situation may not be as fortunate in other areas/fields, but it is always worthwhile to look. A great help in searching for such material (which will not create copyright problems) is the NSF-funded Scout Project at the University of Wisconsin.

So, copyright issues need to be taken seriously, but with some imagination and some precaution these problems can be overcome. To look into more details, visit the "Fair Use" site at Stanford University or the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress. The recently (May 25, 1999) issued report on copyright and distance learning (some 350 pages in pdf format) can also be accessed from a local Hunter server.
 

Contents Organization and Form

Whether you decide on an ERes or a non-ERes start page, the more important issue is contents organization and structure. It does not matter much if your course web site does not contain much more than a syllabus and a few extra items, but if you use the course web page extensively, structure is all important. For ERes start pages, folders provide an excellent way of keeping the clutter down. The contents of a folder remains hidden until the students clicks on the (closed) folder icon, then the icon changes to an open folder and a list of the available documents and links is displayed. The folder structure on an ERes page can easily be changed -- as over the course of a semester there is often a need for adding or reorganizing folders. Of course, something similar can be done with a non-ERes start page, though reorganization is more cumbersome (as I know from own experience with the maintenance of sociology's departmental web page).

Form should follow function, this is a thesis I strongly believe in -- especially when it comes to web pages. Their primary function is to serve the students in our course and we should anticipate that quite a few of them do not have the fanciest hardware around. Course pages should be designed with a user in mind that has just an old 486 computer, not a lot of memory, just a 28.8K modem, and a slow video card. So, graphics, javascript, java applets, and the like should be used only where they serve an essential didactic function to keep download time as low as possible. Frames can make quite a mess when the page is displayed on simpler or older systems and should be avoided altogether. Animated graphics, blinking text, and similar should be used very sparingly. Background images almost never serve a real function, and, e.g., a dark blue background with black text may seem cool, but it is a eye strain to most people. In short, in designing pages for a course web site it is important to resist the temptation to play with all the new toys: in general, simpler is better.
 

Document Types and Formats

ERes is a very flexible system so that virtually documents of all types or formats can be made part of a course web site. I use "document" in a very wide sense here -- including audio/video clips and multimedia presentations. Everything goes -- but some formats do work better than others. "Bandwidth" comes into play, or to put it in more common terms, how long it takes to download and display a page (document/file).

Web (HTML) format

The fastest way to get documents to the user (student) is to use documents in "html" format (which can have embedded graphics, video clips, etc.). These get displayed directly by the web browser (like Netscape, MS Internet Explorer). Html documents do not necessarily have to be created from scratch. Recent versions of MS Word and WP have built-in html conversion routines which work reasonable well though they are not perfect. But they provide great opportunities to use existing materials (lecture notes, assignments, handouts) for a web course site without much additional work. In addition, there are now quite a few very user-friendly html editors around, so that you don't need to know much about "html tags" (though some knowledge of these does not hurt). The free Netscape Communicator contains such an html editor ("Netscape Composer") along with the browser ("Netscape Navigator"). This is my favorite tool to generate new html documents, and OICIT offers startup workshops on this product.

PDF format for complex layout

For material with complex layout (e.g., complicated tables) and/or foreign characters, special symbols, sub/supercripts, and charts, another and usually better option is to use Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat converts output from virtually any application to "pdf" format. It's kind of sending the output from the application (be it WP, SPSS, Stata, or what have you) to a fancy laser printer, but intercepting it, and producing electronic copies of the printed pages. These pdf documents are very compact (they download easily) and therefore much more suitable for web delivery than original WP or MS Word documents. There are two drawbacks, though, one slight, the other more significant. The slight drawback is that current web browsers cannot display such documents directly, rather they need an "Acrobat reader" in addition. However, the Acrobat reader can be downloaded free of charge and since this format is widely used, most labs will have it installed as part of their standard setup. The more significant drawback is that Hunter has a very limited site license for the full product (the one needed to produce these files) only. One copy of Acrobat is available in the faculty lab, but you need to use a specific station (ask the lab manager/assistant). The actual conversion is very simple: you prepare the output in the specific application and simply select the (virtual) "Acrobat printer" to print. But instead of getting paper output a file in pdf format is written. Clearly, expanding the Acrobat site license and making at least one copy available to each department on campus should have high priority.

Graphics formats and input types

Still images (photos, drawings, charts) are best put into either "gif" or "jpeg" (also "jpg") format both of which can be interpreted and displayed directly by better web browsers. Virtually all decent graphics/photo editing software allows output in these formats. Especially the jpeg format, however, offers quite a range of compression choices and the differences in resulting file size can be enormous while the quality stays pretty much the same. There are a number of specialized programs to get the best possible compromise between file size (=download time) and display quality -- like the jpeg optimizer which sells for just $29 with a free evaluation copy available. A highly recommended investment to increase the use value of your course web site. As to choosing between .gif and .jpeg format, the former typically works better with simpler structure and larger areas of identical color (most charts), the latter usually produces better results with color photos.

Graphical input can come from a number of sources:


Screen shots go way beyond classes that are per se computer-oriented. Anything that you, the instructor, may see on the Internet and that you may want to share with your students, you can share by taking a screen shot, embed it into a web document, and put the document on your course web page. For some strange reason, I long overlooked this very useful method. Maybe, people overlook it because of its simplicity. In addition, screen shots are a tremendous help in writing guides/tutorials to help students with any computer-related task, like how to use a specific data base (like Lexis-Nexis or "Books in Print") or an online library catalog (see also section on tutorials below). There are also special "screen capture" programs available that integrate the two steps described above, like HyperSnap or Parsons' Screen Shot. I have bought and installed the latter, and it make the whole process really simple. Worth the $30.

Scanners have come down in price tremendously, and, for occasional use, there are well working scanners for under $100 (I have an Agfa SnapScan EZ at home for which I paid about $90 all included). So, a scanner is not major investment anymore, though installing a scanner can be quite a hassle at times. The OICIT training lab offers a scanner for those who don't have access elsewhere. Getting exactly the result you want, however, can require quite a bit of experimentation and different scanners (plus associated scanning software, e.g., scanner drivers) work differently. So, it is best to get familiar with one specific scanning setup and use this all the time. But be prepared for some frustration when you start out.

I have seen very good use of hand written text on course web pages, so do consider this option. In the sciences, many instructors use hand written lecture notes (formulas, diagrams are much quicker written by hand than with even fancy software like Mathematica); in all fields, example of students' essay exams (in anonymous form) could be posted to provide concrete illustration of good (and bad) writing. Originally developed by a physicist, ERes offers a particularly convenient way of putting such handwritten documents on a course web page -- once you have done your scanning appropriately (for on screen display you want to scan with a relatively low resolution).
 

Powerpoint presentations

As part of the MS Office suit, Powerpoint has become a multimedia tool of choice. Though many people only know Powerpoint presentations as "animated" (text moving in and out) slide shows, recent versions allow to add an audio track very easily. As sound cards have become pretty cheap and newer computer are rarely sold without one anymore, you should consider adding sound (your narrative) to a Powerpoint presentation. The various options of serving Powerpoint presentations via the web are discussed in a separate document.
 

Other special software output

Depending on field, there may be a need to display output from special software like the statistics program SPSS or Mathematica -- a powerful software product for mathematics and the sciences. Both products have built-in html conversion routines, but in both cases a lot is lost in the conversion especially in term of complex layout, formulas, graphics. Despite some disadvantages in terms of file size, it is usually better to put the original output files (in .spo format for SPSS, in .nb format for Mathematica) on a course web page. This requires a small, one-time adjustment on part of the web server administrator and it requires that students have either the full product or a corresponding reader installed on their station. For Mathematica a free reader is available, for SPSS there is no free reader, but there are student versions of the full product at good prices. (There actually is a SPSS viewer, but the company has made a site license rather unattractive and tries to push its special SPSS server which Hunter bought for $5000 just to have it sit on some shelf. It really does not meet our needs.)
If faculty use other special software with output in specific formats, additional adjustments on the web server (adding matching "mime types") can be easily made. I maintain a test page with links to documents in non-standard formats which can be used to check the setup of a computer. Hopefully, all Hunter lab managers use this page to make sure that students can view any web course document in any of the Hunter labs -- or to alert students to limitations in a specific lab.
 

Producing tutorials

The static screen shot approach described above can be extended. Rather than using single still images of the screen, a movie can be made capturing all screen actions. This movie can be further enhanced by adding text bullets (example) or a sound track (example). To do this, special software is needed, Lotus Screencam, which sells for under $100. The movie is in a special format which requires the use of a special viewer on the student end (which can be downloaded for free).

Streaming video/audio clips

Video and audio clips easily get quite large which made it impractical to serve them via the web. With the advent of "streaming" technology, this has changed. In a nutshell, streaming means that the display (playback) on the user's computer starts as soon as a small portion (buffer) of the file has been downloaded. Download and playback run parallel, not consecutively as in the old days. Major media sites (e.g., CNN)  have extensive offerings of such video clips, but this is not out of reach for faculty at Hunter. See a more detailed description of what can be done -- with modest means -- at Hunter now.

Dynamic pages

In courses with multiple sections, in team-taught courses, or courses with a lab segment, it may be advantageous to have additional people (teaching assistants, fellow instructors) contribute to the contents of a specific page. While only one person should be in charge of any web page, it is possible to designate certain areas of a page for specific purposes (like announcements about the lab segment) and use a "dynamic" web page where the contents of this specific area is taken from an underlying data file (to which the designated contributor, lab assistant has access). More details in a separate document.

Further Readings

I have tried to be brief and -- consequently -- you may want to get more specifics on any given aspect. There is always the web itself as a source of information. A particular good starting point for technical questions is the PC Webopaedia. Just type in any term or acronym and you get a brief explanation -- typically along with a select and annotated list of sites to provide further details. One of the best information sources on the whole Internet.

And for those old-fashioned among you (those who still read printed books), I just came across a great desktop quick reference titled "Web Design in a Nutshell" by Jennifer Niederst (O'Reilly 1999). Maybe not the ideal book for someone who is not quite sure what exactly "html tags" are, but a great resource for people with a medium (or higher) level of computer savvy. List price is $24.95, but it's 20% off at the local B&N stores -- if you just can't wait to get it.

Final Note

Much of the contents of this document grew out of contacts with faculty at Hunter developing their web pages -- either as recipients of a Zabar fellowship or independently. Often, I did not have an immediate answer, but I usually take questions as a challenge to broaden my own knowledge and experience. I do welcome such challenges. I was also stimulated by being back in the classroom (after a sabbatical in the 1998 calendar year) and by working actively on my own course web page again. I had hoped to do more (like to produce more screencam tutorials), but it is tough to stay abreast with all new developments and options and to develop practical routines at the same time. I think, we as faculty can learn a lot from each other and I would like to thank all my colleagues who have contributed to this document by their ideas and practices, and by their questions. I was particularly stimulated by the "best practice" session at the ITG meeting on May 19, 1999, and I just hope that we find an even more effective way to organize the exchange of ideas and experiences in the future.

Several colleagues (including Diane Bowstead (English) and Peter Parisi (Film & Media)) had suggested to create an e-mail list or discussion group for faculty interested in course web pages. After some negotiation, such a list was finally approved by the Hunter administration and was launched in early August 1999. It is called "coursepage-l" and resides on the Hunter LISTSERV server. This list works like any other e-mail list, but in addition it also has a web interface that makes it very easy to search for past postings -- and to manage one's subscription. The web archive is essential, as faculty become interested in enriching their courses with web pages at different times and with varying speed. A posting, then, that may appear as of no interest or relevance today, may contain just the information the same faculty member is looking for three months down the road.
All ERes account holders with a valid e-mail address on record (as of late July 99) were made subscribers of this list. As such, they can access the web archive and they can post to the list, but -- in order to respect their privacy -- they do not receive postings automatically via e-mail. Their subscriptions have been set to "nomail" and it is up to them to select another option.

For the time being, I have volunteered to serve as "list owner" (taking care of some administrative chores, helping people with subscription problems, etc). However, whether this list will become an active forum on web course page related issues will depend on the Hunter faculty (of course, anybody interested in these issues is welcome to join).