Beyond the Book

A Course-Specific Web Page

by Loretta F. Kasper

 

In Fall 2003, I was given the task of creating a Web site for Kingsborough’s College Now basic writing course, “Foundations of College-Level Reading and Writing.” I had been incorporating Web pages into my own community college classes for almost eight years, so I had a good deal of experience using and designing online activities. In spite of this experience, designing activities for the College Now course presented some distinct challenges.

First, I needed to familiarize myself with the curriculum. The two-semester course, known as English BW, is designed to develop the critical thinking skills required for reading and writing competency in both the high school and college English classroom; one goal of the course is to prepare students to take Regents and CUNY entrance exams. Its core text, Studs Terkels’ American Dreams: Lost and Found, is a collection of interviews in which people from diverse walks of life tell their version of the American Dream. The College Now students focus on four interviews in BW1 and four others in BW2. The English course coordinators, Dr. Robert Singer and Dr. Gene McQuillan, had already developed a body of print activities that expanded upon each of the eight chapters chosen for study. My task was to design complementary online activities that would hone students’ reading, writing, and critical thinking skills beyond the print texts; moreover, the site would teach them how to use Internet resources to build these skills.

 

Setting up the Assignments

I based my design of the English BW Web site, on sites I had created for my own courses and produced the pages by writing HTML in Notepad, the text editor bundled with Microsoft Windows. Because students may take either BW1, BW2, or both, I designed separate Assignment sections for each semester. The sections share several common activities. The first of these, “Searching for and Evaluating Online Resources,” was adapted from an activity that I regularly use in my own courses. The assignment begins by directing students to a list of online texts that provide suggestions for how to conduct an effective online search. After they read these texts, students are given several keyword phrases and asked to complete an online search for each using different search engines. They tabulate their results for each search engine and then are directed to an Evaluation Criteria Chart which provides them with five criteria that they should apply to determine the reliability and validity of online materials.

 

The second activity common to both assignment sections is designed to introduce students to Studs Terkel and provide them with information on the methodology he used in conducting the interviews and gathering the information for the book.

 

Most of the remaining assignments are specific to either BW1 or BW2. These build upon the themes of the particular interviews covered in each course section and introduce students to additional philosophical, psychological, and/or sociological interpretations of the issues presented. Students are asked to engage in independent research by searching for related information online. They are also directed to read additional online texts related to the overall theme of the original interview. Students then use their research and readings to respond in writing to various questions and prompts. This writing takes several forms: a few paragraphs in answer to a question, a summary of the issues presented, or a full essay presenting a critical analysis and application of the themes covered in the Terkel interview.

 

Finally, like the first two assignments, the last two online assignments are the same for both BW1 and BW2. The first of these asks students to think about the issues by applying what they have learned to an additional (linked) interview not found in the book. The last online activity of the semester was designed to provide students with practice for their upcoming exams. This activity directs students to a variety of Web sites where they can practice writing skills.

 

Thus, these online assignments:

  • provide students with the opportunity to gather additional information through their own online research and through linked texts,
  • teach how to conduct an effective Internet search and then how to evaluate the information found online,
  • give students an opportunity to apply what they have learned, and
  • introduce them to a body of resources to help prepare for final assessments in the course.

 

The Importance of Feedback

Over the course of an academic year, I worked closely with Jane Pers, a teacher from Madison High School in Brooklyn. As I developed the materials, Jane piloted them with her students and provided me with ongoing feedback — hers and the students’. This feedback has been overwhelmingly positive in both cases. Jane stated that both she and the students used the Web site and its resources on a daily basis. Specifically, Jane noted that she is no longer limited to books and printed resources; the Internet has enabled her to expand the possibilities of the course. She stated that the online course is much more of a college course than the classroom course. She can challenge students to “dig deeper” through Internet research to develop their essays. The resources and assignments available on the English BW Web site have made lesson planning easier.

 

Having a close and consistent relationship with the high school teacher proved critical. Jane’s interest and enthusiasm in using the materials I developed and in contributing some of her own was invaluable in enabling me to design a site that would be as useful as possible to the students.

 

At the end of the semester, with their permission, we published some of the student work to the Web site. This work demonstrates the achievements of these high school students in articulating their views on some very complex social and psychological issues. We hope to continue to add student work to this section of the Web site every semester.

 

I will continue to revise and expand the materials on the English BW site in future semesters. Everyone involved in this project, students and faculty alike, has found that the online materials have enhanced the courses. Students benefit from multiple opportunities to develop and practice critical thinking and online literacy skills that will not only be useful but required for their future success in academic and workforce environments. Teachers benefit by having a wider range of materials to use, helping them to create a more diverse and challenging learning experience for their students. Creating the Web site has required many hours of hard work, but the benefits gained have been well worth the effort.

 

Loretta F. Kasper is professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, where she regularly teaches sustained content courses with an Internet component. Formerly the chair of a departmental committee on computers in the curriculum and the Kingsborough liaison to the CUNY Online program, Dr. Kasper presently serves as the coordinator of online English courses for the KCC College Now program. Her article, “Technology as a Tool for Literacy in the Age of Information: Implications for the ESL Classroom,” [PDF] (free Adobe Reader plug-in required) was named Best Article of the Year 2002 in the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year CollegeVisit her website.