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Transforming Familiar Assignments for the Web, or Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

Wendy (Gwen) Robertson

Department of Art History
Humboldt State University


I get the same question all the time: "Can I use a Website in my bibliography?" If I say yes, I may inadvertently be endorsing unusual, un-juried, and unreliable Websites as "sources." If I say no, I restrict my students from maximizing the most powerful research tool ever created.

Where is the middle ground? As a teacher in the digital age, how do I responsibly incorporate Web research? Is it possible that the Web might inspire and facilitate creative critical thinking on the part of my students? The relatively limited Web-based curriculum at the university level led me to start thinking about how I could, and should, rethink my teaching strategies.

The rapid blossoming of the Web has highlighted the need for institutions of higher education to formally address just what "basic research" and "evaluation skills" are. It is no coincidence that interest in programs of "information competency" coincides with the rise of the Web in the 1990s. From the sweeping 1998 Boyer Commission Report to the program-specific guidelines of the American Research and College Libraries (ARCL) to the more case-specific and ongoing work of the CSU Information Competency Work Group, educators nationwide have been seeking curricular structures that institutionalize the education of the "information literate." All these groups identified as their primary goal the education of individuals who can "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information" (see CSU ICWG 2000 Information Literacy Fact Sheet). Similarly, all share the realization that today's student cannot hope to know everything but instead must learn how to access changing information through a variety of sources.

Anyone who has sought to integrate Web-based assignments into the traditional classroom knows how challenging this can be. Not only are the majority of my students more fluent with the computer than I am, but also they seem on the surface to know more about what is available on the Internet. Many times I have introduced a Website into a classroom discussion only to find that not only do they know it, they know five others that address the information better. Yet I also know from years of teaching that this competency can be deceptive. Knowing something is out there and actually being able to evaluate it critically are two very different things. What I needed was an assignment that maximized their computer-culture literacy while also teaching them basic research and evaluation skills.

This was when I realized that I did not need entirely new assignments. The basis of my curriculum had always been to teach students to evaluate material critically and to use information to develop their own thoughts. What we need to do as educators is not to throw out the old tools but rather to adapt them to the new conditions. I believe that in every field there are simple changes that can be made to existing assignments to shift them from print-based to Web-based parameters.

This is not a revolutionary finding, but I think that for many of us this obvious adaptation has seemed challenging. As noted above, the Web requires a change in information competency from, "Here are the facts you need to know" to, "Here are some key guidelines for identifying useful and relevant information, go find some." Allowing the Web equal status with books, journals, and videos is essentially embracing a tool that cannot be contained. But did we ever actually contain the print tools in the library? I think not. The challenge, it seems, is one of pedagogical confidence. If a student said, "Can I use books and journals in my bibliography?" I would scoff since of course carefully chosen books and journals are what a bibliography is. What we must realize is that the Web is just another type of information storage. The trick is teaching the student what they already (mostly) know about books--you have to find quality materials and use them wisely.

Toward that end, the first assignment I adapted is one of the basic research tools of my field of art history: the annotated bibliography. For years I've been teaching students to evaluate books and articles by having them locate relevant materials in the library and write brief, critical annotations that could then be shared with the class. Now entitled "Webliography," I adapted the assignment to focus on Web sources. (I do still use a short version for print materials--no sense in throwing the baby out with the bath water.) It is ultimately the same assignment but now instead of the library as research location, they use their computers.

The biggest challenge is to teach my students to think critically about Web content. While most students would not attempt to use, say, TV Guide as the primary resource for a research paper (except in very specific media-type cases), many will use unedited, unreviewed, personal chat pages as "references" in their research. The Webliography assignment asks them actually to think about what they are reading and why. Let me be more specific.

As with the traditional annotated bibliography, I begin with the topic of the class, such as "Art of the 1990s" and ask each student to form a sub-theme within that topic (recent themes include "1990s Blockbuster Exhibitions," "NEA reform," "Multi-cultural Art," "Charles Saachi Collection," etc.). Next every one hits the Web. The assignment asks them to select ten Websites that they believe offer the best information about their theme. Learning to qualify what "best" means is the heart of the task.

The guidelines to the annotation component ask them to put into writing what they would otherwise absorb passively: What kind of information is on the site? Who is the author of the site? What kinds of credentials are offered to legitimize the content? Who is the target audience? Why was the site created? Students quickly recognize that in order to judge the content of a site they must know something about the topic and that though it is tempting to be seduced by fine graphics, good-looking sites are not automatically the most reliable (this consistently surprises them!). They are frequently frustrated by how difficult this information is to find and are indignant at the lack of supporting references once they actually look for them. When they sit down to write paragraph-length entries about these questions, they discover how difficult it is to substantiate the content of the large majority of sites.

The fun thing for me has been not only that I have learned about lots of incredible sites, but also that I have come to realize there are elements of Websites that are not shared with print material in the same way. Things like "searchability" or "navigation control" or "site architecture," which I had not initially asked my students to evaluate but which we decided as a class were significant elements in the evaluation of Web information, had to be added to the annotations. In most cases students conclude that, if a site has strong information but it cannot be found easily (or repeatedly), it is not as valuable as a site where it can.

With the "traditional" annotated bibliography assignment, I would copy each one and distribute them to the class, a time-consuming and increasingly costly exercise. The Webliography, by contrast, is easily turned in on-line and mounted on a class Website for everyone to access. I then ask the entire class to look at all the entries in all the themes, explore the Websites, and select what they believe are the five best sites. In class, we take these lists, look at the sites together and battle it out in discussion as to exactly which criteria are the most significant in Website evaluation. These chosen sites are then listed at the top of the page as "The Top Five" sites for the class topic (complete with class-composed annotations). It is always a great discussion with passionate defenses of sites--which, romantic as it sounds, restores my faith in the value of research, Web or otherwise.

In terms of evaluating the projects, I use the basic rubric that I used before, now with only slight modification in terms of the Web-specific elements discussed above. Superior assignments demonstrate extensive research (evidence of diverse sites, something beyond a preliminary Google search, etc.), thoughtful analysis (especially in the synthesis of the various elements from content through design), and polish of presentation (strong grammar, clear layout, etc.). In the large majority of cases, my students have far exceeded my expectations. They have turned in fantastic custom-made Websites, laminated presentation boards that detail the "flow" of information across the sites (with one particularly fine project visually charting how the student found each example), and snazzy Flash animation graphics that literally illustrate their findings. It has not been unusual for the final projects to run more than 25 pages! All of which has confirmed that my students are very interested in working and thinking in this media and are willing to go the proverbial extra mile. ("Traditional" bibliography assignments of essentially equal scope are rarely more than 8-10 pages.) Colleagues of mine who have tried versions of this assignment in their own classes have also found this exceptional kind of final product so it seems to be a part of the assignment rather than a fluke!

I began by looking for a "new" pedagogical way into the Web to gain confidence in the media. What I learned was that I didn't have to start over to be technologically relevant but that there were wonderful, surprising elements in Internet media that have energized my teaching. I encourage others out there who are dragging their feet to take the risk, but to take it with assignments you already know well. My Webliography assignment is simple (an old friend with a new twist), but armed with the list of topic-relevant urls annotated and vetted on the class Website, I feel very confident answering the question, "Can I use Websites?" with a resounding "Yes!"


Grading Rubric

Posted February 10, 2005.

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Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2005 by Wendy (Gwen) Robertson.

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