Why I Create Pretty Course Sites (It’s Not What You Think)

— Jeanne M. Slattery

I spend a fair amount of time and thought on my course sites. My course sites are, as a result, “purty,” but I don’t create attractive course sites just to create attractive course sites. There’s method to my madness. What am I trying to do? See Figure 1.

Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 4.18.38 PM

Figure 1. Home page for PSY 110.

Creating an attractive course site makes it easier for me to maintain a positive attitude about the course and my class while grading — which I don’t enjoy as much as teaching. (Why do you clean before you work on a big project?)

Nonetheless, I work on my course sites largely for my students. The course I am describing here is an inquiry seminar that I will be teaching for the first time to first-time-in-college students. Relative to my other courses, these students may be more confused about college and will often have fewer skills in using course and university resources. As a result, in this course I am especially trying to:

  1. Engage my students in the course. I want to engage my students with the course material, and use quotes, photos, and articles posted in the News Feed to do so. I create and use a banner that creates a course-consistent tone.
  2. Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 8.31.32 AM

    Figure 2. First post in News Feed for PSY 110.

    Build my relationship with my students. I refer to students by name at several points in the course site to communicate my genuine interest in them. See Figure 2. I believe this helps them see me as a real person committed to their success. Your interventions should reflect your genuine feelings, though. (Want to include your students’ name in a News post? When I wrote my header it read “Welcome, {firstname}.” Of course, drop the quotation marks when you type yours. Your students will see their name when they read your header.)

    Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 8.47.11 AM

    Figure 3. The “Contact Me” widget on my home page.

  3. Communicate well with my students. I want my students to be able find me easily, so link to my email address in my widget and include other ways of contacting me. See Figure 3. I hate talking on the phone, so did not include my phone number. (To make your email address a hot link, simply type your email address. D2L will recognize this as an email address and will make it “live.” It will do the same when you insert a url. Widgets and banners are created in similar ways, so rereading the banner blog can get you up to speed here.)
  4. Orient students to my course. My first post to my News Feed orients students to our course, helping them identify early assignments and understand how to navigate the course. I want them to be successful. See Figure 2. I include this information on the home page, but some colleagues accomplish the same goal by posting a Getting Started module on the Content tab.
  5. Help students find, access, and use resources well. In each module on my Content tab I organize my resources, link to them, andidentify assignment deadlines. See Figure 4. I organize information in several manners, not just presenting it organized by unit but also by type of content (e.g., assignments, readings, etc.). See Figure 5. My goal is toprovide a series of access points, some strategies will work well for some students, but others are moreappropriate for others.

    Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 8.33.20 AM

    Figure 4. Module for Unit 4, posted on Content page.

  6. Build motivation to engage with the course. I clearly describe why I have assigned particular assignments. See figure 4. Understanding why they are completing a task may make the task easier — and students may not understand my goals unless I tell them.

    Figure 5. Modules on Content tab.

    Figure 5. Modules on Content tab.

  7. Help students stay on track. I use the Calendar widget, which helps students recognize and respond to course deadlines. See the far right on figure 1. Dates can be easily added to the Calendar by clicking a checkbox in the Dropbox, Discussion Board, Surveys, etc. Colleagues accomplish a similar goal using the Checklist (accessed from the Edit Course tab).

My goal with each of these strategies is to level the playing field for my students. I don’t want my students to struggle with my course because I have (unintentionally) included “invisible” course goals, goals other than those on my syllabus but required to be successful (e.g., their ability to recognize and find assignments on my course site). By creating a clear, easily navigated course site, I hope to increase the success of all my students — and decrease potential barriers to success.

Are these the only ways of meeting these goals? No. If you do something else to help orient students to your course, leave a comment below. And, have a great semester!

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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