Whether or not you need a classroom website depends upon how much technology exists in your community. If you’re serving a population affluent enough that most of your students and their parents will have Internet access at home, then a classroom website can definitely be beneficial. Below I’ve listed some of the ways in which such a website can be used:
File repository. Even if you still like to give out paper handouts to all your students, it’s useful to have an online place from which to make digital copies available. Ever have a student lose a handout? Yes, I know, they should be more responsible than that, but let’s face it, they aren’t always. It’s a lot easier to refer students to an online resource than have to shuffle paper with them all the time.When I was teaching, I had a considerable number of handouts that I distributed at the beginning of the year. Having learned from experience that it’s a good idea to have information you want the students to rely on all year written down, I put out both practical handouts (classroom policies, for examples), and educational handouts (basic characteristics of a good essay, for example). Then, to save time, I started creating folders for each student, so that I could just hand the students a folder on Day 1 instead of spending half the class period passing everything out. The problem was that I had to spend long hours hunched over a photocopier, use a huge amount of paper, and then spend a lot of time collating all the documents into folders.In an effort to save time, I invested in rewritable CDs and tried to issue documents that way. Each opening day CD came in a little hole-punched plastic sleeve that students could put in their notebooks. This method of distribution did require my having something to display documents we were talking about in class. Over the years that morphed from an overhead projector to a document camera to an LCD projector attached to a laptop. The biggest obstacle, though, wasn’t the technology. It was the fact that, despite all my precautions, students sometimes lost the CDs, and even more often they managed to scratch them up, defeating my efforts to reuse the media.Finally, I realized that having the students download documents from an online source was the least expensive and most time-efficient solution. I needed a few paper copies in case a student had no online access, but I hardly ever had to use them. Nor did I need to waste time finding copies to give to students who had lost them. (One can lose Internet access, but, in contrast to pile of papers or CD, it’s hard to lose the whole Internet–try as some of them might!)If your school has a good student information system and/or learning management system, you probably already had the capability. If not, it’s easy to set up for free using something like Google Drive or Dropbox. If your school uses something like Google Apps for Schools, you probably already have relatively effortless access to Google Drive. I notice some ambiguity now on the Dropbox site about whether a free plan is still available, but be aware that, if you use something like Dropbox to backup critical files at home and have a paid plan, it’s easy to set up individual folders as shared folders (enabling you to share with students without compromising the security of your other folders). To avoid technical glitches (and the accompanying parade of excuses), it is best to have multiple sites with the documents. The last year I was teaching, I had all the documents I shared with students up on Jupiter Grades, Google Drive, Dropbox, this site (which, in its earlier incarnation, was my classroom website), and Screencast, where my videos lived. Yes, that’s overkill, but I never had one problem with a student saying they couldn’t access a handout. If you keep the documents you intend to share in a single folder, it’s easy to replicate that collection on any online repository to which you and the students have access. Once the documents are up, you only need to worry about the ones you revise. Everything else just sits there and is ready for the next year.
Message center. If you have the capability of easily emailing all your students as a group, then this is somewhat redundant. However, redundancy can be good way to ensure that everyone gets the word. Ever have a student claim not to have gotten an email? In some cases, that might even be true. For that reason, I’d recommend asking students to check the website once a day in the early evening. If I had any urgent messages, I could put them up, and students should theoretically have seen them, even if an email didn’t go through.
Easy way for parents and tutors to access information. Particularly if you teach adolescents, you will know that they often don’t communicate what is happening at school to their parents. If you have the capability of emailing parents as a group, that can help get general announcements out there, but it’s still nice to enable a parent to browse, see what you’re doing in class, or peek at your bio–mine always got a lot of hits, especially at the beginning of the year. Anyway, some parents like to able to answer their own questions. Even if you have a good email system in place, you probably have no way of mass emailing tutors, and in a more affluent community, you may have several students with tutors in your subject. It’s nice for them to be able to double-check what their student is telling them about assignments. Of course, if you’d like to get lots of unnecessary phone calls (or have some questions go unanswered), be my guest.
Possible display area for student work. Keep in mind that confidentiality and security issues make this one tricky. Chances are your school or district is probably going to want student work to be displayed only on a school or district-provided website. Usually, such display also requires parent permission. In a subsequent post on WordPress, I’ll talk about one way to satisfy security concerns and still give students a place to share their work with each other. We know it’s better for students to have the feeling they’re writing for a real audience, at least some of the time, and publishing online is part of what Common Core wants students to know how to do. True, they don’t actually have to do it to know how to do it, but it’s nice to at least be able to simulate the experience. After all, publishing something like a substantive essay is a little more involved and posting something ephemeral on social media.
Work area for students. It’s nice to have a spot for students to practice working with digital media. Even creating something like a simple blog post (much less a whole website) is a different experience from creating an essay in a Word or some other word processor. I found a number of students who at first didn’t have any idea of what they were doing. One of the purposes of the Introducing Yourself project was to give students some experience in working in a different environment. A good LMS may give you this capability, but if your school doesn’t have one that provides student digital workspace, there are free ways to provide that experience, such as a free account on RCampus, which provides students with a digital workspace and the ability to publish just for their instructor (which means, however, that you need a free account yourself). Students are often resistant to learning to work in a different way, but by the end of the year, most of them agreed that the experience had been beneficial.
I would mention online grading in this context, but hopefully your district has provided a way for you to record and display grades online. If not, and if your district has the money, lobby it incessantly until it gives you that capability. Any LMS will probably include that feature, as well many SISs. My personal preference for online grading is the system provided by Jupiter Ed, though there are many alternatives. Decent features are also included in products where you might not expect them, like Turnitin. I’m old enough to remember when calculating grades by hand took hours, when the only way to communicate detailed grade information to parents involved phone calls, and when the only way to let students see their own grades was to let them paw through the gradebook or find some labor-intensive way to duplicate the information. If you’re still working that way, it’s time for your district to let you move into this millennium. (If worse comes to worse, you can get some online grading features free with RCampus. They would be a lot better than nothing. If I had no choice, I’d pay for Jupiter One myself, but teachers shouldn’t be asked to fund basic parts of the infrastructure in that way. In any case, it can be hard to get parents to develop the habit of checking online grades. It’s much easier to do that if the whole school is involved.
If you have the capability of using a class website but haven’t yet, hopefully this post will give you a little food for thought. One last piece of advice before you take the plunge: if you decide to use a website that isn’t school or district-provided with students, it’s a good idea to check with the relevant administrator first. Typically, that kind of thing isn’t a problem, but it never hurts to be sure. My former district, for example, asked that all administrators on campus be informed of any websites being used for instructional purposes. To the best of my knowledge, no one was ever told he or she couldn’t use something. The district just wanted to enable administrators to do a quick check, probably mostly to avoid any possible liability.
(Images are licensed from http://www.shutterstock.com and copyrighted as follows, from top to bottom: Nirax.pix, Julie Shepeleva, Alexander Raths, Andrey_Popov)