An increasing number of teachers are becoming web-savvy and are looking for ways to efficiently organize their course information for students through communication technology.
I’m one of them.
For many years now I’ve created a public course website for each course I teach. Essentially, I have created an area within my own site, an area with 8-20 pages of material: a course home page with subpages for assignment descriptions, a schedule, links, and course-specific research or writing advice.
I’ve done this in combination with the “Blackboard” course management technology that has been adopted at my university, preferring the ability to craft the site the way I want, and display the non-confidential information publicly.
This blog post uses my own course website to explore the benefits and limitations of using Google Sites technology, especially in combination with Blackboard, a technology used for course management at many universities.
Table of Contents for this post
- My course technology journey
- Why supplement Blackboard?
- each of 7 benefits outlined
- Limitations of Google Sites
- Combining the 2 Technologies
My course technology journey
Making one’s own website is not that important for every teacher. But nowadays it is becoming more of a standard for teachers to use some degree of online communication with their students through online course outlines and schedules.
I also think it is important for a teacher of Rhetoric and Professional and Technical Communication to be actively involved in crafting websites and learning how to structure information for their audiences. It’s one of my beliefs that I should be a good example of a learner of communication technologies, not just a theorist and critic of the way they are used. If you don’t understand the challenges of the process yourself, how can you guide your students through it?
Over the past nine years I have gradually learned the basic technological skills needed to create and manage a website.
Using the server space provided by my university, I’ve used a website management software product, Dreamweaver, to create a site whose visual style and colors are similar to our university’s template.
But my Dreamweaver software version is becoming out of date, and buggy, and I just don’t have time and money to fix that. The university’s preferred content management system, Drupal, is not very user-friendly, as I have discovered from taking a workshop and supervising students who have learned to use it.
Another issue makes it even more awkward to craft my own site from the ground up and then maintain it. Now my university’s server requires an additional layer of security software to update pages, so I first have to update page content in Dreamweaver and then upload my files through their secure interface.
SO — This month, I’ve decided to move my future course websites to Google Sites.
At first I was dubious about the usefulness and flexibility of using a pre-made website template. I thought it might be useful for my students, but not for me. But I’ve actually found it quite satisfying to put together my Google Site for a course starting next month.
So far, so good. I’m liking it.
I can make it look jazzy in a way that I can’t with my own site because I’m merely a competent user of technology, not a trained professional web designer or programmer. It’s also accessible from any computer without having to use special web editing or file transfer software on my own computer.
I’m using its strengths in combination with aspects of Blackboard technology that are too useful and important to give up, as described below.
Why supplement Blackboard?
- Format more usable and visually accessible
- Layout and template can be customized
- Menu can include sub-categories
- Useful Google tools like Documents, Groups and Calendar can be linked and embedded; a multitude of information gadgets can be added to pages
- Pages can have images, attachments, and comments, as well as sub-pages
- A table of contents for pages can be easily created at the top of a page
- Calendars for several courses can be seen in “combined” view for easy time management
Google Sites not only allows for a menu that has sub-categories, but it also does a better job of putting the information together beside the menu bar in an accessible, at-a-glance fashion, in ways that internet users are now accustomed to.
Here’s a screen shot of the site as of the time of writing.
Click here for a close up view for the current COMS 605 Google site (NOTE: it may be changed by the time you view this)
Scrolling down… see the layout features and tools I’ve chosen below.
Customized layout in Google Sites allows you to choose single column, double, sidebars, etc.
It also allows you to choose a color and font style.
Of course, you can upload your own images.
In some ways the functions of the Google Site mimic that of the Blackboard platform. As you can see, the menu items I have chosen are somewhat similar to those provided on Blackboard.
I can customize my menu bar. I have created a single column table with 4 rows to add links to the left menu bar.
In the right-hand content pane, I can add a variety of content types, like summaries of recent discussion messages, recent files posted, recent to-do list entries. It allows me to rename the tools and place them generally where I want.
Google Sites has a built in template for a To Do List or task list, which Blackboard does not have. This is great for courses involving group work, or courses taught by teams of instructors and teaching assistants.
In addition, a person can search from an enormous library of free gadgets created by Google and various other companies and individuals. Clocks, Post-it notes, Games, forms to fill in, etc.
Now my assignment description pages can have attachments and comments and images.
Here is my subpage for the Draft assignment. Can you see how useful this is to have the Attachments and Comments listed below it?
All the information updates and assistance I’d like to provide, and help that students would like to provide each other regarding that assignment, can be found in one place, rather than having to go to different areas of the site to find them.
6. TABLES OF CONTENTS
You can add to each page a Table of Contents that populates itself automatically based on the headings and subheadings within your page.
Notice the Contents block in the right-hand upper corner.
You can left-justify, center, or right-justify the Contents block and wrap text around it, as shown.
I’ve used Google Calendar for several years now. It works great for time management and project management.
I even have it set up to synchronize to Outlook on my desktop, for safekeeping of appointments and records on my own hard drive in case the server goes down (which is extremely rare but happened once or twice).
I have chosen to make my appointment book publicly available so that students and I don’t have to play email-tag just to set up an appointment. I ask students to view my calendar before emailing me to suggest a time. Saves at least 2 emails.
But the real treasure is that not only can you create a course calendar that can be displayed on your Google Site, but you can also view calendars through Google Calendar and combine two or more calendars at once.
Here’s what the Google Calendar main view looks like: you can select which calendars to view, and the colors that they display in.
Look at this detail: Two courses’ calendars displayed within the same grid. Two colors.
Limitations of Google Sites
The world is not perfect. Use what is useful.
Learning and using their templates.
Every new technology you learn will make it easier to learn the next, because the good ones tend to follow a general pattern and they are becoming more and more user-friendly.
Every template is limited in some way. Google sites won’t let you customize down to an eighth of an inch or make it look absolutely perfect or artistic.
Privacy. Like Blackboard, Google Sites provides a privacy setting, so you can make a site completely public, or limit it to a set of collaborators and viewers.
- However, in order to make your site private, people have to access it through a Google account. Not every student or instructor wants to have a Google account. Therefore, Google sites is mainly useful for setting up your public site for the course if you have a Google account.
- Yet — if you suggest it to students and show them how, they may want to use a private Google Site to manage their group projects within your course. They could invite you as a teacher as “viewer,” if you monitor group work to give participation scores.
Storage space. Only 100MB per site. I know, it’s kind of shocking given the huge space in the Gmail area of Google.
- But you can create many Google Sites within each account. So 100MB per course home page.
- I will continue to use Blackboard’s Course Documents area for online required readings because of storage space, and copyright issues regarding course texts.
Combining the 2 Technologies
Google Sites can be viewed within Blackboard’s frame. This enables the users to access both platforms simultaneously.
In the image below, notice the two menu columns to the left: the outer, black frame is Blackboard.
How to do this:
- Add your Google Site as an external link to the Blackboard menu.
- Make it the “entry point” for the Blackboard course (instead of the default Announcements page)
I will eliminate redundant menu items shown once I test the technology this term. The tools that work better with Google Sites will be found only on the Google Sites page, and those that I use through blackboard will only be shown on the Blackboard menu.
Discussion is a feature that I might use in both places. In Blackboard we can keep class-wide discussion confidential more easily (not everyone wants to be enrolled as a Google user on a private Google site).