Engaging students in literature and composition using Web Research & Student Constructed Web projects

Martha Driver, mdriver@pace.edu

Jeanine Meyer , jeanine.meyer@purchase.edu

This paper describes our experiences teaching a content-rich course with students and teachers making use of the Web. Students in this course use technology for research, communication and composition. In place of most of the traditional writing assignments, they produce Web projects, using text, images, image maps, hyperlinks, and sound to present their ideas. The course includes time in a computer classroom and use is made of an on-line conferencing facility to extend the class discussions. We will describe how and why we believe our approach is a success and what is transferable to courses in other disciplines. Visit the course Web site: http://csis.pace.edu/grendel and join our discussion, even if you have never heard of Beowulf or King Lear.


Pace University (http://www.pace.edu/) is a multi-campus university serving a diverse population of students. Many are the first in their family to attend college and many are recent immigrants. Students major in one of several schools including the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences, the Lubin School of Business, the School of Education, the Lienhard School of Nursing and the School of Computer Science and Information Systems (CSIS). All students must take a liberal arts core. This core includes courses in composition and writing on literature and also a course in computer information systems (http://csis.pace.edu/sol/cis101) The latter course includes a brief introduction to doing searches on the Web and producing HTML files. The course Beowulf to Lear: Text, Image and Hypertext satisfies the requirement for writing on pre-modern literature with one additional credit of computer science or information systems elective.

The course was designed and is taught by Dr. Martha Driver in the English department and Dr. Jeanine Meyer , associate professor in Information Systems. Dr. Driver had experimented with stand-alone multimedia by building two projects using Toolbook, one on medieval women and the other on the Arthurian legends. The content and research was her own and graduate students from CSIS assisted her. Dr. Driver’s scholarly background in early books (http://www.radgrafix.com/~ebs) provides a natural basis for interest in new media. Dr. Meyer had developed a strong belief in the benefits to learning when students construct their own multimedia works while she worked as a consultant for research projects in educational technology funded by IBM. She and colleagues wrote a textbook for teachers, Multimedia in the Classroom. (published by Allyn and Bacon) . When she came to Pace, she wanted to incorporate student-constructed multimedia in a college level course with substantial (not necessarily computing) content. Dean Susan Merritt, School of Computer Science and Information Systems, encouraged the collaboration.

Course Structure

The course has a reading list that is more-or-less standard for such courses in medieval and renaissance literature. The students use a standard textbook (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ed. M. H. Abrams, et al. Vol. 1. Sixth ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.) and there are materials on reserve in the library. The method for designing the course was to take the standard course, taught many times by Dr. Driver, and replace or augment some of the work with technology based assignments. At various times, students are asked to find material at Web sites for specific topics.

Students are taught the basic technical skills of Web browsing (Netscape), HTML coding (NotePad and HTML Assistant Pro), using an image (Microsoft Photo Editor) and drawing (Paint Shop Pro), and making a sound file (Sound Recorder). Many students come to the class with experience in these and more powerful tools. Teachers face two challenges. They need to reassure some students that the basics are enough and they do not need to imitate the more showy efforts of some of their classmates. Teachers also need to restrain some students from concentrating on technical wizardry at the expense of content.

The major assignments are four Web projects

  1. Teams of students, grouped by the teachers, are assigned to specific passages of the Beowulf poem. The students are to describe what happens in their passage and also write on important themes and terms. They incorporate appropriate images and include annotated links to helpful Web sites. For all assignments, they make proper citations of all sources. Making the first project a team project helps to ease all students into using the tools.
  2. Individual students are assigned passages from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a passage analysis. Now each student ust do all the writing and coding. In this assignment or the next, students must include exposition on an image using the HTML client side image map construction.
  3. Individual students choose a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or one of the Arthurian works. This assignment must include all the components of a standard character analysis. In addition, students must create an audio clip monologue in the voice of the character. This can be a reading, a translation by the student, or an ‘original’ composition.  An introduction is given in http://csis.pace.edu/grendel/music/introduction.htm.
  4. Self-selected teams or individuals have a choice to construct what we call a virtual museum, building on work they have already done or to do an exposition on a scene from King Lear which, in our words, ‘made use of this medium’. In the first five offerings of the course, few students have chosen to do the scene exposition, but the ones who did respond to this rather nebulous assignment created outstanding work.
The class takes place in a computer classroom
and a regular classroom. The computer classroom has a projection system (brand name Robotel) that allows any screen to be projected on all screens.

The two teachers are looking at the screen of one student.  The white panel is part of the projection system for selecting what image (and/or audio) to be broadcast to all computer stations.

For the last two offerings of the course, we have used a new computer classroom with the computers mounted below the tabletop. This means that we can see the students’ faces and makes the classroom much comfortable than before.

We have made use of an on-line conferencing facility Blackboard at http://blacboard.pace.edu to post announcements, ask specific questions, and record class notes.

The course also includes standard lecture/discussion sessions, in-class quizzes and exams and a final with quotations, term and character identification questions and a choice of essay questions. One choice is to discuss the multimedia aspects of the course. It is from answers to this question as well as an anonymous questionnaire and informal feedback that we learn students’ reactions to the course.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the course is that students do some of their work in class in a workshop format. We have previews of the work in which we can offer praise and constructive criticism. Everyone in the class has many chances to see everyone else’s work. Students also make hardcopy printouts of their work for review by the English professor. Lastly, projects that are rated at the B+ level or better are posted on the Web site.

Experiences teaching the course

Many students come to course with technical knowledge, but need considerable work on composition (grammar and analysis). The course gives them and us a chance to make use of these skills for a defined purpose, discussion of the literature. Glitzy presentation without a sufficient quantity and quality of their own original content is rejected.

We invite your to take a look at student work. We have continued to be surprised at how the work continues at a high level. What is not apparent from the postings is that most students wrote and re-wrote and re-worked their projects so that it would be posted

Course has evolved, with new technical aspects added over time. In the second offering, we added the requirement for a monologue. This fit very well within the traditional character analysis assignment since it requires the student-author to express the voice of the character. The construction of image maps was added initially as an optional way of putting in links, but later as part of a required component to explain a painting. This was motivated by our desire to force students to examine the images closely instead of just selecting the first ones they find. The on-line conferencing serves as an extension of class time. We have not achieved full participation, even though we label it as required, but many students enjoy it and it appears to be a forum for expression. A recent addition to the course was an in-class session of cartoon drawing. Students were asked to draw Dame Ragnall. Our motivation here was to encourage students to do something different, to not accept early self-labeling as being non-artistic, and to do their own translation of graphic language into images. One student (and only one so far) incorporated this into her character analysis project.

It should be noted that whenever the computing teacher suggested a new activity, the English teacher accepted it as an addition, with nothing taken away.

Professional response to the course has been strongly positive both from within Pace and at conferences and workshops.  One particular note:  Leonarda Records agreed to let us post samples from The Medieval Lady CD.

We cannot say that there are no negative aspects to the course. Computers fail. The projection system has cables that get disconnected. Each term some students do not complete the work. We had one instance of plagiarism: copying the work of a previous student (a very foolish thing to try doing). The course also produces considerable demands on the writing teacher, since students produce more iterations of their work than in the traditional classroom.

Indications of success

Many (not all, but many) students work very hard and produce excellent, creative work. The assessment of excellence has been confirmed by other Pace faculty, who are familiar with the typical writing of our students. The work is especially noteworthy given that most of these students are not English majors. Many are non-native speakers of English.

Another notable sign is that the class is filled each term. This by itself may not be a strong indication of academic success, but when we ask students why they are taking the course they report that other students say the course is ‘a lot of work, but worth taking.’ We hold that the confluence of popularity and known challenge is positive.

Because of the publication factor, many of our students remain in contact with us and with others studying classical literature. That is, graduates report to us that people, mainly students at other colleges and high schools, write them as authorities on medieval and renaissance literature. Our students indicate that they enjoy this. Thus, the connection to an intellectual community remains.

Critical success factors transferable to other courses

The success of our approach can be credited to several specific factors, all but the first long lasting and all transferable to other courses.

Immediate appeal of constructing Web pages

Many, probably even all, students are eager to acquire or improve their knowledge and skills in making Web pages. It is trendy, ‘cool’, and something they can put on a resume. A related factor is that the course is popular, resulting in students being turned away. This contributes to the notion that this is an in-thing to do. We cannot deny this aspect of the initial appeal of the course. However, the other factors will last and sustain the success even after other phenomenon supercede the Web as the latest technological craze.

Student Constructed Multimedia

When students construct multimedia, that is, when they orchestrate text, images and hypertext to express their ideas, they must [still] write text. Moreover, the organization of the text is more explicit than the standard essay. Lack of attention or imbalance is noted by visual cues as is something quite basic: lack of text. Student-authors, teachers and other readers can scan the work-product and note deficits.

Choosing images requires the student-authors to visualize the subject matter. Constructing glosses of terms requires students to pick the terms needing explanation and to generate reasonable definitions. Designing backgrounds and overall layout forces the student-authors to think through the message of their writings.   Lastly, after some initial shyness, students appear to enojy creating an audio file of a monologue in the 'voice' of a character and it certainly forces them to think more deeply about the character.

The visual appeal of the work has an effect on the authors as well as the audience. We believe that student-authors re-read their own work more than in the traditional case. This is connected with the next factor.

Authentic Audience

Teachers of composition often describe student-writers as being unaware or indifferent to their readers. The audience is not present in their minds when they compose. When students are writing for one person, the teacher, who is assumed to know more about the topic than the student, and the only reason for the writing is the assignment, it is easy to understand why students are not focused on guiding their readers. In our setting, the opposite is true. Our students do imagine an audience. They do view their work as having readers (viewers, visitors). We have many preview sessions of the work. The work is done partially in the computer classroom in a semi-public situation. When we preview the work, we talk about communication as an actual event. Lastly, students have the possibility of having their work posted on the Web and, therefore, available to the world. At this point, since we have a substantial body of student work posted, we can tell the current students stories of past students’ work being cited. (Go to http://yahoo.com/ and enter ‘Beowulf’, click under the resulting category listing and two of our students’ Web pages are among the first few listings.)  We can report that audiences respond positively to the work produced in the course.

In the preview sessions, many of our comments are practical: "We cannot read your text because there isn’t enough contrast with the background." "This image takes too long to load." "You tell us a lot about X, but not enough about Y."

It is also genuinely easy to make positive comments about the work. "Your choice of background really matches the tone of the work." "You have written so much." "Show everyone how you did that." The possibilities for being positive about something makes it easier to convey suggestions.

Team teaching

The presence of two teachers in the classroom contributes to the sense of audience because each teacher brings her unique background to viewing the work. The interaction between the teachers (we sometimes call it "The Dr. D. and the Dr. J." show) demonstrates excitement at what we are doing and models learning and intellectual pursuits by people outside of school.

Team teaching also decenters the classroom in that without one absolute authority it is easier for students to take on more responsibility for their own learning.

Rigorous standards for tangible reward

Student projects are only posted on the Web if they are at the B+ or higher level in terms of writing. Moreover, the projects must meet additional standards in terms of giving credit to all sources and being sufficiently scholarly work so that ‘fair use’ can be applied. One example of this is one student who included a sound file of a rock song, including citations, because the lyrics reminded him of a scene in King Lear. We told him that he needed to discuss the lyrics in more detail to justify its inclusion in his project. He could have opted to leave the music out, but he went on to write on the lyrics. See King Nothing.


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