Sunday, July 27, 2008

Math & Website Design: Reflections and Best Practices

If you read my last post, about my final week of summer school, you might have noticed that we didn't get a whole lot done over the course of the week. I briefly mentioned some "complications" that made my straightforward plans into a fiasco. I am writing about these separately from my recap of the week that was, both to help me sort out my thoughts on the course and serve as a guide to other teachers who may want to do something similar.

The first problem was that on Tuesday and Thursday, Mystudiyo was working only sporadically or not at all for several hours both days. Even when it was working, a major user interface flaw made sure that more than one student lost all of their work from Friday and Monday: if you don't type in something in the "question" field, everything else you type is lost when you click "Submit Question". Since most students were writing long word problems, they used the optional, supplemental text box instead. No one, myself included, knew what was going on until it was too late, because there is no error message to alert students that the questions weren't saved! On most websites, when you fail to fill in a form correctly, you are immediately brought back to the form and alerted as to what you failed to fill out correctly (believe me, my students are now well aware of that truth).

In addition, students started to forget usernames and passwords. Some had forgotten even the email addresses we had created back in the first week. I spent entire periods walking students through the "Forgot Password?" process on Synthasite, MyStudiyo, and their email accounts. Of course, the fact that the websites were buggy or not functioning didn't help matters.

There was one last problem, one that made sure nothing would go to plan last week, and that was poor attendance. Almost every student missed at least one day last week, compounding the above problems. As a result, I pushed the individualized math problems to the bottom of the agenda, and didn't hold it against students if they didn't have the time to get to them. I suppose I lowered my standards and perhaps that's why I feel so guilty.

I didn't anticipate or plan for any of this--indeed, if for some reason we weren't able to get online at all, I wouldn't have been ready. I am happy with the websites that the students produced, but I'm nonetheless disappointed in myself and wondering whether my course was a failure in both design and execution.

As per usual, I gave my students an end-of-course survey on the last day of class. Most of the responses leaned positive, but this student's concerns are the one that has resonated with me:
He tought us how to build a website so that it can help us with our own math...but he could have gave us math problems to figure out and the questions that we didnt know...thats what our website could have been based on

I liked being able to use the computer to make a website...But i didnt like the lack of math that we got to do...or learn...maybe next time the same amount of time that we spend on the computer we can spend doing math...but this was just summer academy so overall it was the subjsct of this math class was to mak a websitebut still a little math wont hurt

I might have a trouble in his math class...because its hard for me to understand they way he teaches
I can't remember any student telling me at the end of the year that they didn't understand the way I taught. That's arguably the most important skill I bring to the table: the ability to break down concepts in a way students can relate to and understand. The fact that this very bright student feels they were let down is extremely troubling.

Best Practices
If you want to try website design as a course or perhaps a project, this is what I've learned from the process:
  1. Know exactly what you want them to do. Figure out what online resources they'll use well ahead of time, decide what the final website should include, and provide clear, concise steps for them to follow. You can do this either by publishing it online, as I did with my class blog, or by providing printed directions and rubrics.
  2. Tie in your subject matter from the beginning. You could easily build a web design course where students make a site about whatever they want, but there's so much potential for long term learning if they create a thorough subject-area resource that can be used in class. I waited too long to refocus on math, and my students suffered.
  3. Differentiate. This might mean that every student works on a different topic but follows the same basic outline for their website. It might also mean that the website can be one option from a list of possible products for a end-of-unit, semester or year project. As much as students should have some scaffolding to follow, you must allow some flexibility within the structure to let student creativity and brilliance shine through. For example, I required at least one video on their website, but gave students the option of finding an appropriate video online or creating one themselves.
  4. Don't get sidetracked. There's no shortage of great web resources that students could use to create amazing content for their websites, but there's only so much time available for any such project. I spent days having students play around with Dvolver Moviemaker, Bubblr!, Make Believe Comix and Sketchcast; meanwhile, they couldn't navigate their new email accounts or the sites that we actually did use on our websites. Decide what kind of creative content would be most appropriate and meaningful for your goals and spend most of your time on those.
  5. Plan for worst case scenario. Be prepared for Internet outages and non-functional computers. There should be a strong "offline" component for any project like this. Also, remembering multiple usernames and passwords is difficult, so you must decide if that is absolutely necessary for your purposes. In my case, I wanted to use multiple websites that required registration, so having permanent email accounts was necessary. Based on the nature of your prospective project, you might choose disposable email or a teacher-controlled system.
If you have designed or plan to design a course like this, I'd like to share your insights as well. Please email me (teachforeverATgmailDOTcom) or leave a comment. Thanks!