January 05, 2007

What features are useful in a module web site?

During last summer I helped an Italian Department lecturer (Annunziata Videtta) to redevelop her module web site. We included many of the features available in the Warwick web architecture, as well as some experimental features from the ELAT R&D programme. After running for a term and gathering feedback from the students, we have reviewed this and selected a subset of the features as useful and appropriate in this case. I expect that this model will transfer more widely.

Here is a map of the features that we have selected as useful…

There is a Captivate presentation about the site online. You can also view the module web site ( now updated for this term ).

The site has moved away from being an online replication of the module handbook. It’s primary functions are now:

  1. Keeping the students focussed, up to date and guided in their work.
  2. Hosting discursive responses to pre-seminar and post-seminar questions posed by the tutor.
  3. Distributing links, bibliography and files.
  4. Hosting interactive online activities.

The home page (1) retains a list of module topics (1.2) alongside essential information (1.3). These are presented in an efficient at a glance structure. A series of images is used to give a sense of the identity of the module. Links (1.4) are provided to the other key aspects of the site. This term I hope to add some code that will highlight the current topic in the list of topics.

Complimenting the ‘at a glance’ overview, this week (2.1) and next week (2.2) pages efficiently convey the most essential and relevant information to the students in a timely manner. The content of these pages is updated throughout the term. Importantly, old content from these pages must be archived (2.3). The weekly content is in fact stored in a blog. The latest entry in the blog (tagged appropriately) is shown via RSS and an XSL conversion on the ‘next week’ page, using some custom code that I wrote for the job. Such feeds are now standard in Sitebuilder 2, so I will soon switch to the standard supported feature. The ‘this week’ page gets its content from the second newest blog entry. Blog entries can be written in advance and scheduled to appear at a certain date and time. This will allow us to write the weekly entries in advance.

Each week the students are provided with important information, links to resources, and links to online activities (we have in this case written some interactive exercises). There is a resources section of the site in which these are organised. One activity last term involved the use of a podcast recorded with one of our MP3 recorders. There will be more podcasts used this term.

The most succesful and common of the weekly activities are forums based. The student is given an activity to do or some thing to consider. They are then aksed to respond to a pre-entered forum message (4.1). The students responses each week build up as a thread responding to the message. In each case I link directly to the Forums reply form for the message. This is setup to redirect the student back to the ‘this week’ page.

The responses are listed on the right hand side of the page ( To do this I again use RSS and cusotm XSL to dynamically display the latest messages. The forum is also embedded in the web site as a single page on its own, allowing students to review past discussions (4). We have also allowed students to start their own threads in the forum on any topic connected to the module (4.2). Students receive notification of new postings automatically through Warwick Forums.

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