The Technology Components of the Web Project

The Digital Narratives course has an online presence in the form of its own web site, which was built in WebCT Version 4.0. WebCT is a proprietary Learning Management System (LMS) that has been used at the University of Canterbury (UC) since 2000. In 2006, WebCT was bought by its competitor, Blackboard, and now carries that name. This system is the recommended platform for UC courses that wish to have an online presence and is integrated with the enrolment system at the university as well. The Digital Narratives course was migrated, more or less smoothly, to the Blackboard system in early 2007.

The familiar issues with regard to commercially produced and centrally managed software versus a personalized open source solution apply here, but there were several reasons why it was adopted for the course. The WebCT system means less flexibility but more support for technical, administrative, and pedagogical issues. For students, the benefit of having a university-wide system is a dramatic one because they are able to use the same digital tools, such as threaded discussion boards, assignment dropboxes, or even the navigational interface of the system itself, without having to learn new functions or reacquaint themselves with new interfaces as they move from course to course. The interface itself is for the most part intuitive, and there is a wide array of functions that can facilitate not only the manner in which material is presented to the students but also the steps they take to synthesize and respond critically to it.

For instance, an article from the required reading list may trigger a response on the online class discussion board where another student may post the Web address of another related article and, in turn, a third student, who might have read the material posted online but not contributed to it, may relate to the ideas expressed in the exchange and incorporate them in some form in his or her own assessment writing. Similar student exchanges, which can be the seeds for a fully developed essay when it comes time for assessment, transpire in the weekly workshops held in a computer lab. The workshops involve tasks that are based in WebCT and completed with students working in pairs. The learning management system offers a reliable and uniform platform in this regard.

For the instructor, the availability of functions, such as the online discussion board, make WebCT an obvious choice as far as learning management software because he determined that he did not have adequate expertise or time resources to recreate these functions efficiently in another form. More pragmatic affordances (such as online delivery of lecture notes and reading sources, course news postings, and the grade book with current student lists) also make this software the best tool for the job at hand.

A particular function of WebCT, called the Student Presentations Tool, was used to construct the Final Web Project. This tool accomplishes two things: it (1) sorts students into groups and (2) allows students to directly upload files to the WebCT site, which are stored according to those groups. For the purposes of this course, the tool was used to simply place all students in one group, which enabled them all to access and contribute to the same project files.

The project consisted of a series of HTML files, including one index page, created by the teacher, and the pages contributed by the individual students (three pages each). Specific templates for these pages were built for students beforehand using HTML-authoring software. All students submitted plain text files by email before the due date. An in-class workshop followed this submission date where the students added the text files to the HTML templates and uploaded them to the WebCT site (with help from the teacher and the teaching assistant if necessary).

The students were instructed to adhere to the form and layout set by the templates and to include a title at the top of each node. Because most students were not versed in composing or designing web pages, the templates were necessary from the point of view of the instructor and a welcome framework for the students. In the several years since the course has been offered, there have been only two objections voiced with regard to the proscribed form of the site. In one, the student wanted to somehow differentiate the appearance of her text with either a different font size or type. She used bold-face type in the end without incident. The other complaint involved the color of one of the predetermined sections, which appeared somewhat pink on some browsers. The color was promptly changed to an agreed-upon tone.

As in any creative work, and probably even more so in one with multiple authors, there is a tension between open collaboration and closed constraint. In order for the project to retain a higher (macro) level of coherence, all of the nodes needed to be related in some way. At the same time, the students needed to be able to creatively differentiate their submissions. This was accomplished in several ways with the templates with regard to basic font and layout as well color-coding of the nodes according to their type, a simple but incredibly effective visual cue for design. The overall appearance of the site, then, remained structurally closed whereas the substance (for lack of a better word) and connectivity of that substance remained open.

After the submissions are in place, the result is a navigational structure that moves from the index page to a selected student's Annotation node, which is linked to that student's Argument node, which is linked to the Reflection node. The Reflection then links back to the index. But this ordered path is only one way to explore the space. During the Final Project workshop, after all of the contributions have been added to the web site, the students are asked to read through the site to identify and write at least two links that tether a word or phrase in one node to another node. The students are told that the links can be:

The teacher and teaching assistant are on hand to assist the students in adding these links, which is accomplished using the HTML editor that is part of the WebCT interface (commonly called a WYSIWYG editor, for "What You See Is What You Get").

In addition to creating the link, the students were asked to compose a very short textual gloss that appears when the text of the link is rolled-over in the live site. Its purpose is to signal the function of the link to readers and give them some indication of what to expect if they choose it. Anchoring this gloss (in addition to the linked text) is a small icon, an image of a box of colored thread (see Fig. 1), which serves as an indication of an active element in the text and reinforces the metaphor of a textual fabric in the process.

An image of the thread icon.

Figure 1. Thread icon.

Another metaphor at work is in the title of the project, "Textual Collage," which refers to George Landow's (1999) discussion of "hypertext as collage writing" in an article of the same name (and is part of the course reading), and follows Ulmer's (1989) notion that "[i]n critical theory as in literature collage takes the form of citation" (p. 147).

The project does not strictly evoke the collage-like effect of multiple windows arranged on a computer screen or the more generic effect of collage wherein disparate elements are arranged and juxtaposed on the same pictorial surface. But the concept of selecting and arranging contributions from different students then juxtaposing them via links is a productive conception, especially in pedagogical terms. It is after all quite rare for students to read each other's final assessment work let alone draw connections to it, literally, through links and glosses. Finally, before the end of the workshop, the students are required to submit a "Link Rationale" that records the links they created (using the title of the origin and destination node) and briefly justifies their choices.

Mel - class of 06 Joe - class of 05 Todd - class of 07 Llew - class of 06


You Can Start Here
On the Digital
Threat / Salvation
On English Pedagogy & Contemporary Contexts
On the Course:
Motivation & Inception
Nothing Too New


On the Literary
On the Technical


Students as DesignWriters
Examples and Analysis