It can be challenging to design module projects that will engage students while also permitting them to develop writing, digital media, and critical thinking skills helpful beyond the classroom.
In my experience, students are not often all that excited about traditional essays, especially since they do not always feel that they are useful after the completion of the module. In addition, without a fair amount of feedback and one-on-one guidance—which can be difficult or even impossible for lecturers to give, particularly with large modules—students sometimes finish essay assignments with little practical experience in how to write clearly and directly for a non-academic audience. One option, then, is to have students build websites based on module content and their own research. In a module entitled “Music Making and the Middle Classes in Nineteenth-Century Europe” that I taught for 2nd– and 3rd-year Music/Arts undergraduates in Fall Semester 2016 here at UCC, I asked students to develop group Public Learning Projects that would build on the research that they were doing for their individual essay projects. Designed with an eye towards presenting their work to a broad audience, these Public Learning Projects could take a number of forms, including podcasts, documentary videos, public concerts, lessons, or websites.
The Public Learning Projects fulfilled several pedagogical aims. First, I hoped that these projects would enable my students to see the broader implications and appeal not only of the music and socio-historical phenomena that we were studying during the term, but also of the research skills that they were developing. Second, as the large majority of the students in this module were interested in becoming primary and secondary school teachers after university, these projects allowed them to practice how to present complex topics to broader audiences. In addition, many of these project options permitted them to familiarize themselves with digital media skills, while also giving them opportunities to hone strong writing skills and discover the benefits of working collaboratively. Finally, these projects provided students with opportunities to have something lasting that they could put on a CV or résumé.
In addition to seminar-style class meetings in which we discussed assigned reading and listening, throughout the module I brought in numerous folks throughout UCC to hold practicum sessions that would assist students in the creation of their individual and group projects. Claire O’Brien and Elaine Harrington in the UCC Library spoke with students about research skills, Peter Finnegan from Blackstone Launchpad spoke with them about the importance of “thinking big” regarding the large-scale implications of their projects, John Hough in the Music Department gave a workshop on audiovisual recording and editing, and Sarah Thelen and Claire Fennell from Instructional Design conducted a workshop on designing and building websites. Sarah’s and Claire’s workshop taught students the importance of considering audience, aims, and consistency when designing a website, while also introducing them to the pros and cons of different kinds of website-building software. Claire demonstrated the features of WordPress, Wix, SquareSpace, and Weebly through sample websites that she had created, which was really helpful in preparing students to work on their own websites in groups during the workshop.
Two out of three of the Public Learning Project groups decided to design websites, and the results were outstanding. Both groups continued to meet with Claire throughout the semester, and were very grateful for the skills that they learned through the website practicum and the project. Several of these students even came to realize that they enjoy creating websites enough to consider website-building as a career possibility. Both of the websites that emerged from this module were quite good, although I would like to focus briefly on one of these to provide a concrete example of some of the advantages of having students build websites as module projects.
Four of this module’s students—all of whom were working on European art music composers or practices—designed a website using Wix entitled The Hopeless Romantics. The goal of their site was to provide secondary school students preparing for the Leaving Certificate in music with additional information about music and music-making in the nineteenth century. A reflection of their individual research projects and what they learned throughout the module in readings and lectures, the website is visually stunning, well-organized, and informative. In addition, it showcases the writing and creative thinking skills that these students brought to and developed through this project, especially in their use straightforward and yet colloquial and often slang-ridden writing style that they feel has the potential to draw in secondary school students.
For this group of students, this project has had a greater impact that they or I had initially imagined. Through their work on this website, these students have decided to create a web-based platform for publishing interdisciplinary, but music-focused research and creative projects from undergraduates that they are calling The UCC Vine. They are also starting to be given opportunities to share their expertise in website-building with other UCC students, for instance for Dr. Melanie Marshall’s 1st-year music module, “Studying Music at University,” in which students have also been tasked with building websites as final projects.
As I hope I have demonstrated, website building can be a really effective project for student learning. Designing and creating websites as part of a term-long module project not only offers students a means to develop writing and digital skills, and to learn how to present information in a clear and concise manner to a broad audience, but also has the potential to empower students, giving them opportunities to share what they’ve learned with other students. One final note: don’t let your own inexperience with building websites prevent you from developing or implementing a project that involves creating websites. Although I designed the Public Learning Project assignment knowing very little about how to build a website, bringing in folks from UCC’s Instructional Design team, such as Sarah and Claire, made incorporating a project like this one easy, informative, and enjoyable.