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Seeking Awards for Your Online Course?
You Should Be: Here is What You Can Expect!

By Dr. W. David Currie, Jef Peace, & Laraine Powers -- July 15, 2000
Introduction

The term instructor, here, is used to include everyone in the teaching profession, regardless of the level of students taught, regardless of academic rank and regardless of degrees and titles held!  One of the most common mistakes that instructors make when developing online courses is to simply transfer the text-based portion of a traditional lecture course to a website.

In truth, text-based web sites are every bit as dull as their "chalk-talk" counterpart, the didactic lecture in the traditional classroom.  When making the transition from traditional classroom to online classroom, instructors should not forget that most students will not read textbooks.  

After the initial novelty of internet access to course material wears off (probably within hours), students who do not read textbooks are unlikely to read text-only websites.

Dr. W. David Currie (Dave)
David Currie

Jef Peace
Jef Peace
Laraine Powers
Laraine Powers

TOWARDS BETTER COURSE PAGES - from Laraine (the professor)

The web is all about marketing, and the best course pages market the discipline, the instructor and the institution.  Unfortunately, marketing is not a term that higher education folks use very often, and perhaps this is why the survival of traditional institutions is threatened.  Anyway, if you think of marketing as selling, or as influencing people to think very positively about something, what is wrong with marketing a course?  Don’t we want students to know about our courses and to like our courses?  Don’t we know that students learn more about what they like?  Of course, we do!

When designing a course website, it is important to consider who will be using the pages and what you want them to learn from the pages.  In this case, the target audience is usually students or prospective students, but instructors and students at universities all over the world will access the material if it is really good (an example of that which is "extraordinarily good" can be found by examining DM Sander's "All the Virology on the WWW" at Tulane).  Ideally, your website should take advantage of the unique capabilities of the internet and get your students to learn more material than they would from simply reading a book or by attending lectures.  To accomplish this, students will need to return to your course pages almost daily and spend a lot of time there.  The following are a few ideas to make your course pages far superior to text-only lecture notes posted online!

Course websites need to be engaging.  Today’s students are accustomed to entertainment and will not tolerate boredom.

  • Use an overall graphic theme that is relevant to the course and appealing to your students.  Different content units can have different graphic sub-themes but they should be related  to the major graphic theme.
  • Include lots and lots of cool pictures, especially animations and the occasional sound when appropriate.
  • Use recurring characters to add continuity and integrate material.
  • Use images, sounds and examples from current popular movies and TV shows.  Of course, these will have to be updated frequently.
  • Include a page that humanizes the instructor.  You might include a picture of yourself enjoying a hobby or your cute kids or pets, whatever makes it seem like you have a life and do more than teach the class.
  • Include interactive quizzes over small and large amounts of material to make sure that students are "getting it."  Students like feedback.

Course websites need to be easy to navigate.  Modern students can be impatient and easily frustrated.

  • Make sure your pages load quickly.
  • Put everything students need to know about the course in very clear terms, including a syllabus with timeline, policies and assignments (if you get lots of questions regarding an issue, rewrite that section to make it more understandable).
  • Put a HOME link on every page.
  • Put your email link on every page.

Course websites need to be dynamic and updated frequently.  Here, change must be the rule and not the exception!

  • Include lots of links to other cool sites and make sure you keep these updated.  You, personally, do not have to do everything, there is already a great deal of excellent material posted on the web.  Help students find the best sites.
  • Use examples and analogies that your students can relate to, no 8-track tape stuff.
  • Constantly add new things so that students get into the habit of visiting your course pages frequently.

Remember a great website is like any great communication; it is targeted to its audience!

WHY SEEK AWARDS AND EXTERNAL REVIEW?

We strongly recommend that faculty seeking to develop better websites take part in award application and review procedures.  The following are just a few of the reasons that instructors and their students benefit from external review:

  • a means of judging web design skills and employability of instructors

  • helps gauge the contribution a site makes to education or to the internet community; contributing to the overall improvement of internet resources

  • a means of learning improved web design strategies, enhancements and technical skills

  • indicates to visitors that you are trying to develop and maintain a quality resource on the internet

  • instructors seeking external review can reasonably suggest that their students build quality pages and also seek review

  • opens opportunities to develop contacts with persons with technical expertise in a variety of areas

  • improved site quality makes it easier for students to navigate, increases visitor numbers to your site and, possibly, opens your site to a much greater audience than just your students

A NOTE TO AWARD APPLICANTS - from Jef the "Reviewer"

The first thing you need to do to prepare for the application process is put on a "duck's back."  Assume that you will not win and do not expect a response.  This is not a defeatist attitude, but rather an acceptance of the reality of the Internet Awards Community.  One thing that needs to be understood about awards programs is that the majority have bitten off more than they can chew and they do not always respond simply because they do not have the time to do so.  You will quite often come across disclaimers such as "due to the large number of submissions, we will only respond to winners" and "if you do not receive a reply, you didn't win."  If blunt statements like the preceding are in place, please respect them and quietly move on.  If you really want the award anyway, make your request for feedback up front, in the submission.

The only sure way to receive a review from more than one in ten submissions is to do the research and only apply for awards that promise feedback.  This is not realistic, so we're back to "the donning of down."  It is advisable to apply for any award that you happen across, increasing your chances with persistence.  It is even advisable to seek out sites which offer awards using one of the award galleries or rating services.  The more awards you apply for, the better your chances of receiving that elusive tidbit of information that will help improve your site.

You also need to know and understand that it will do you little good to complain about poor treatment at the hands of a rude or arrogant award giver.  Indeed, complaining about an awards program may even hurt your chances with other award programs; it is a surprisingly small world at times.  The old adage "It's easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar," applies here.  A simple "thank you for your time" with a humble request for an explanation for any denials, losses, or low-level awards will get you a critique much faster than an irate demand for justice.

If you happen to run across an extreme situation of unfairness or harassment, there are a few ethics groups whose mediation services can be acquired with a simple e-mail explaining the facts.

Evaluator's Code of Ethics Membership (CEM/CEMA)
Association for Promotion of Ethical eXchange (APEX)

Let's move on to the good news.

Another thing that needs to be understood about awards programs is that most of them are run by individuals who have a great deal of Internet experience and web design knowledge.  Even the busiest of these folks can, if the right buttons are pushed, be persuaded to share that expertise with you.  As an educator, you carry a lot of clout.  If you begin your request for a critique with "As an Educator, it is important to me that..." or something along those lines, your success ratio in receiving the desired critiques will be quite high.

It takes an incredible amount of knowledge and talent to even begin an awards program.  One must have intimate knowledge of HTML, ftp protocol, graphic design programs, and the workings of the Internet in general.  Once the program is started, it takes no small amount of dedication to keep it running.  A fair estimate of the amount of time required to evaluate a site is twenty minutes.  Multiply that by anywhere from a dozen applications a week to a hundred or more a day and you will begin to see just what is involved.

Award givers are people whose opinions concerning your site are far more than opinions.  These are the people from whom you need to receive advice if an interesting site which keeps visitors returning is your end goal.  These people are also people, just like you.  They do not reside in ivory towers; they are approachable.  I know, because I am one of them.

A NOTE TO WEBSITE REVIEWERS - from Dave, the "Applicant"

There are at least three potential sources of frustration for serious "award seekers" that are easily remedied.  Website reviewers should consider making the following steps an integral part of their review process:

  1. give applicants your best estimate of the time frame in which their site will be reviewed (obviously, this estimate may have to be updated from time to time)

  2. let applicants know that their site has been reviewed, win or lose (a reviewer who does not do this is trying to review too many sites)

  3. provide a legitimate reason when a site does not win an award (see examples of good and bad feedback below), and consider making at least one suggestion to help the webmaster improve their site

Serious web developers do not expect their site to win every award for which they apply.  Most of us are just in search of a valuable critique; a critique in which a reviewer clearly identifies at least one specific area in which they feel a website can be improved.  Some "site reviewers" have complained of “retaliation tactics” by those who do not receive their award.  While we make no excuses for inexcusable behavior by disgruntled individuals (such persons are certainly not seeking to make a valuable contribution to the Internet), we would suggest that reviews can easily be made more palatable in order to defray potential hard feelings.  All that is needed is a "valuable critique" and even the simplest "message of encouragement."

Examples of valuable review comments . . . David Currie has received from serious site reviewers (each from a separate reviewer) include:

  • the navigation links on your pages are not uniform (specific examples were given and the suggestion was followed)

  • some of your links open new windows while other links direct visitors to new pages; why not have all links direct visitors to new pages (specific examples were given and the suggestion was followed)

  • you need to add some type of logo or background design that ties all of your site pages together into a package (the suggestion was followed)

  • add a major graphic design to your pages and re-apply for our award (ah, a ray of hope! - now I just have to work on my artistic talents)

  • we would like to see you add a little more information about the author of the site and re-apply for our award (ah, another ray of hope!)

  • I would like you to add some information about my favorite client-side search program, WebFerret, although I am sending you my award in advance (the suggestion was followed!)

Examples of review comments with no value . . . that David Currie has received from site reviewers (each comment from a separate reviewer) who are probably reviewing more sites than they can handle.

  • we are sorry to say that your site did not receive our award, do not apply again within 90 days (no scores or reasons provided)

  • though attractive, your site did not meet the caliber that I expect from award winners (no scores or reasons provided)

  • you did not win my award because there are better sites than yours (well, I cannot deny that there are, indeed, better sites than mine!)

Once again, while we make no excuses for any form of “retaliatory” behavior whatever towards reviewers, comments such as the latter three are bound to evoke frustration.  Why?  First, the comments provide no quantitative information to help a webmaster improve their site; as the award applicant has not actually received a review, no meaningful review process has taken place.  Second, the comments make absolutely no specific references to site content, raising the possibility that the site has not actually been reviewed.  While we hope it never happens, an unscrupulous reviewer could reject sites without actually reviewing them in order to increase award stature by increasing the proportion of sites rejected.  To prevent such questions, award reviewers should try to send a brief e-mail to webmasters who have failed to receive an award, specifically identifying at least one shortcoming of the site reviewed.  As failure to provide any useful information defeats the purpose of the review, particularly in cases where applicants have met the posted criteria for an award, serious site reviewers are unlikely to make a case against such a procedure.

Here is an important reminder to anyone applying for an award.  Despite everything stated above, the person to whom you are applying for an award owns that award!  The owner of an award is not under any obligation to give you their award and they are not required to explain themselves when they choose not to give you their award.  That means that we, as award applicants, should make a special effort to send an extra thanks when we get that valuable critique!  Whether or not it is accompanied by an award; a real critique may help push your site to the very edge of cyberspace!

SUMMARY/CONCLUSION

The best course pages market the discipline, the instructor and the institution.  Course pages need to be targeted to the audience (students), include cool things students really like and be easy to use.  Pages need to be continuously improved, based on student feedback (direct and indirect) and updated frequently to include the next new thing.  The more students like the pages, the more they will use them and presumably the more they will learn.  After all, learning is the goal here! - Laraine

Award applicants and site reviewers have common goals, improving internet content and raising web design standards.  Ask reviewers to critique your site.  Never respond to a review or rejection, no matter how harsh, with anything other than a polite e-mail requesting clarification.  When receiving awards, always send thanks and post the award with a link back to the award site.  If you choose to reject an award, promptly and politely inform the award owner, giving a clear, concise and specific reason.  With kindness and understanding on both sides, award applicants and site reviewers can develop mutually beneficial working relationships that will effectively lead to an improved internet, which is the true goal of the awards process. - David

As my esteemed co-authors have pointed out, a visually pleasing and interesting website will attract more visitors and help retain the interest of those people for which the site exists.  There is no better source for information on how to create a good website than the ones who evaluate those sites with a critical eye on the very elements which dictate their appeal and value to the Internet Citizenry.  That information is available for nothing more than your time, respectful inquiry and perhaps a little flattery.  As long as you approach award seeking with open eyes and no expectations, you have little to lose and immeasurably valuable insight to gain. - Jef

Copyright © 2000
All Rights Reserved
Dr. W. David Currie,
Jef Peace, and Laraine Powers

 
About the Authors
Dr. W. David Currie (Dave) is a professor of anatomy and physiology in the Health Sciences Department of the College of Public and Allied Health.  He lives in a small rural community in southwest Virginia with his wife, Stephanie, and raises beef cattle. The proud couple are expecting their first child, a daughter, in October (2000).
Jef Peace is the web designer and owner / founder of  for PeaceWork Music.  He is the former C.E.O. of APEX (Association for Positive Ethical eXchange) and was the founder / owner of the retired 5.0+ PeaceWork Certified Sites®.

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