Monday, August 24, 2009

Creating a Website

A number of us here at Palmer College maintain our own websites, upon which we place information about the courses we teach, provide links to information, and update so that our students can obtain course syllabi, and so on. The quality of these sites ranges from relatively modest to good, but more importantly we are taking advantage of this technology, of which most of us are regular users, to become creators in an attempt to enhance student learning. But in saying this, I also must note that most of us have done this on our own, perhaps with help from the CTL, but often without a real understanding of how best to accomplish the creation of a meaningful site. Let me offer here some thoughts on this.

Creating a website is really a 5-step process. I think that it is important to site and first plan out the site, then design it, build it, test it and finally publish it and maintain it. Planning is critically important. Questions you might ask yourself are: What are the site’s functions? What are its goals? Will people be expected to use the site regularly or come to it only infrequently? Sit down and consider what you want to offer on the site, and then map it out on paper. On my site, I provide links to syllabi and other course material, as well as information about myself, and links to papers and other sites I wish to share.

Design is not something most of us are trained to consider. And note that design is more than simply how the website looks; it takes into account how you organize each page, how you link those pages and whether or not you use programming language or a WYSIWYG web developer. You should consider looking at other sites to get ideas for the design elements you want to see in your own. Design is important, too, in terms of making the site visually appealing, which helps make it easier to read and to navigate around. We have all visited sites that are hard to understand when we first open them up; we should not create sites that do the same to others.

Often, people actually begin to build their site before they properly plan it out or consider the best design. Building the site includes creating pages, editing graphics and making links, creating scripts where necessary or desirable, and including other elements you wish to see. Fortunately, building the site has become much easier today. If you know html, you can write in that format, but it is not necessary to know html (hypertext markup language) to develop and build a site. Programs such as FrontPage allow you to build the site without the need to write in code.

Testing is often overlooked. What this means is that before you go live, you work your way through the site, making sure that all your links are active and take the reader to the correct location, that your graphics load quickly and properly and are placed on the screen appropriately (have you ever opened a site that loads up and is printed with some text on top of other text? That site was not tested properly). You can make sure that your navigation links are set up properly, so that a reader does not have to use the back button to maneuver back to a page that allows him or her to access other pages. This frustrates the user and often leads them to not come to your page again.

Finally, you can publish the site, and make it “go live.” But this is not the end of the story; you need to constantly update the site and maintain it. For example, I test links on the CTL on a fairly regular basis (though often, not regularly enough). It is frustrating to look up something, find the link, click on it, and then find out the page no longer exists. I have to remove these links and find new ones. I also have to change out course syllabi every term, to make sure my students get the correct dates for their class work. And I constantly read about web design issues in order to take advantage of the findings as I update my site, which I am never quite happy with.

For those of you without a website, you should consider creating one. They can ease your teaching burden in significant ways, and can provide an efficient means to communicate with our class. It takes just planning and consideration to do it right, and the CTL can always help if you wish it. An excellent book you may consider using is: Bell M. Build a website for free. Indianapolis, IN; Que Books, 2009.

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