The Course Webpage
What problem does the tip address?
There are both practical and pedagogical problems with teaching courses dealing with contemporary issues and current research. Practically, it is simply difficult to disseminate a large amount of background information on new works, and even more difficult to have it be accessible to a large number of students at all times. Pedagogically, it can be difficult to teach topics which have not yet been summarized well in review articles or covered in textbooks, as teaching materials must be gathered from many sources.
What is the tip?
Creating a webpage for a course which serves as more than an electronic copy of the syllabus allows for an amazing way to organize and distribute information to students from a number of disparate sources.
How is the tip implemented?
Start off right: use a standard software package such as Dreamweaver to create the page, instead of laboriously coding the HTML by hand. Identify the areas in which a class will require extensive outside sources, and assemble resources to supplement the main texts in those areas. Make sure to think about what you want your page to communicate, and how you want to communicate it. Different goals require different designs, and its a lot easier to set up an easy to use page if you've already done a lot of thinking about the format of your information. Although this does take more effort than making up handouts would throughout the term, you'll make it up in the time you save not needing to make copies and do the other busy work that distributing handouts and seperate chunks of information can require.
Remember to take advantage of the wide range of information available on the internet: I've used sources from NPR news broadcasts and press conferences archived on internet sites to set up case studies for class discussions. A web page also also allows me to strengthen the visual background of ecology, so finding and displaying pictures to reinforce the concepts presented in the text.
For my classes, I've tried to make a study guide for each day's class. For each class, I present the reading assignment, explain the main terms students should be able to explain to a friend, outline the material, explain its significance, and present a bibliography for further study.
Be sure to plan ahead, as amassing a large amount of information and presenting it on one website in a cohesive manner is going to take a considerable amount of effort: in many ways, you are writing your own web-based textbook.
As well, make sure to walk your class through the page in class, making sure they know where to find the various elements. Describe the ways you do expect them to use it, as well as which parts of the page contain extra information to satisfy curiosities, but are not required reading.
Student response seems to be positive. As well, having a course webpage also allows for another line of information flow between the instructor and the students, as you can set up a secure, anonymous form for student comments. If students have a comment they don't feel comfortable talking about, they can simply go to the webpage, type it in, and it will show up in your mailbox without any identifying information.
If you have any more questions, or would just like to talk this idea over, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org or call at x5643.