In the scholarship on teaching and learning, it is generally agreed that when an instructor uses a course website, it has several concrete benefits for student learning:
- Accessibility. Students learn in a variety of ways and it is important for instructors to accommodate diverse learners. Making key information, assignments, and readings available via a course website helps students access materials on their own and approach their materials using the tools, technologies, and resources that work well for them.
- Interactivity. Course websites can encourage students to approach their course information actively. In both institutional learning management system and external blogging system, students can contribute blog posts, download course content, and comment on course materials.
- Organization. Most courses involve a complex set of materials that students are required to use. By organizing course materials, activities, discussion forums, and other tools within the space of a course website, students have a “one-stop” website to which they all have complete and immediate access for all of their course activities.
As you build a course website, please consider the following best practices:
- Compare the functionality of Canvas vs. an external course website carefully. An Educause survey found that instructors only use 50% of the tool functionality available within their campus’s learning management system (Dahlstrom et al. 2013). Even before you begin teaching your class, you’ll find it useful to peruse resources like The Canvas Help Center’s Instructor Guide, which includes a comprehensive look at all of the tools within Canvas and offers answers to frequently asked questions about these tools. Further still, you might want to check out our Frequently Asked Questions About Canvas to see what common questions PWR instructors have about using Canvas. If, after doing some research, you find that Canvas still doesn't meet your course's needs, then check out our Frequently Asked Questions about Alternatives to Canvas page.
- Include a section in your syllabus devoted to explaining how you’d like students to use the course website. Create a new (but short) syllabus section on all of the activities you’d like students to do in the course website. Many students need some explicit explanation of what role the course website will serve in your class because they may never have used a course website before. Try to operationalize student activities using action words (e.g. “Respond to in-class reading assignments using the “Discussions” tool” or “Post reading responses in the course website's blog.").
- Use the course website to archive class activities and materials. Passing out materials in class can be one great way to distribute course content, but many students will either need to or prefer to access course materials in alternative ways. Archiving course materials on your course management website will give students options about how they read and engage with your course. If you’re interested in learning more about how to make your course materials accessible, check out these Faculty Frequently Asked Questions from the Office of Accessible Education.
- Offer an introduction to the course website either in-class or in a screen capture video. Students often benefit from an orientation to the course website and, as an instructor, a walkthrough of the major features that you will expect students to use in the course website will be useful for their success. If you're interested in the option of creating a screen capture video, you can use free programs like Screencast-o-matic, Quicktime, or TechSmith Capture.
- Keep the course website updated over the course of the quarter. Make sure that any course materials you use as the quarter progresses get updated. That way, your course site remains a reliable resource for your students.
- Continually encourage student participation on the course website. Course websites can be a great place to archive materials, but their functionality allows you to do so much more than that! There are great ways to bring the best of in-class activities into an online space so that students have a variety of ways to participate in and engage with the course. If you'd like to learn more about how to encourage participate in your course website, set up an appointment with or e-mail the ATS.
Dahlstrom, E., Walker, J.D. and Dziuban, C. (2013). ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2013 (Research Report). Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, September 2013, available from http://www.educause.edu/ecar