On becoming a Web site
First Monday

On becoming a Web site by Punya Mishra



Abstract
The course Web site is a critical mediator between the instructor and students in online classes. This requires a shift in how instructors think of their presence and influence on the classroom. This essay, based on the author’s personal experience in designing and teaching online, argues that the design of the course Web site needs to carefully reflect the passions and pedagogical philosophy that drive the instructor. It is also an argument against one–size–fits–all approaches to online course design as instantiated in most course management systems.

 

Contents

Introduction
My design course
Moving the course online
On being
On becoming
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism — a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. It has been argued that we are all cyborgs now (Haraway, 1991). Be it a pacemaker installed in our hearts or a pair of contact lenses in our eyes, technologies are now an integral part of our bodies and our consciousness. Our identities are tied up with the cars we drive and we spend hours matching the desktop interfaces on our computers to our personalities. Of course these socially (and increasingly biologically) embedded technologies often become transparent and, in some sense, so deeply intertwined with our existence that we don’t even realize they exist (Brooks, 2002). We are often most revealed by what we take for granted, what we don’t scrutinize.

This is the story of how I became a cyborg. How I took a part of me and tried to convert it into a Web site. This did not happen inadvertently. Not at all. It was a conscious, deliberate effort to distill myself into a bunch of electrons residing on a server somewhere on the World Wide Web. And why was I, a faculty member at a respected College of Education doing this? Was I driven by some glorious dreams of artificial intelligence? Was I funded by some top–secret defense agency to develop the new breed of bloodless, soulless faculty members? I must admit it was nothing that glamorous or provocative. In fact, my explorations with transforming myself were all driven by something that has increasingly become another mundane aspect of our lives in the early twenty–first century. It all began, when, in the fall of 2000, I agreed to teach an online course.

There are many people who teach online, however most of them don’t feel the need to actually become a Web site! So what was motivating me? Understanding this requires some background, about myself, my teaching philosophy, and about the course I was planning to teach. I am an assistant professor of educational technology and apart from my research duties I also teach masters’ and doctoral courses in that area. My signature course is one called Learning Technology by Design. Students (mostly practicing teachers) come to me hoping to learn the secrets of applying technology in their classroom. More often than not students expect to learn the ins and outs of particular technologies, such as digital video or Web design, they can then apply in their teaching. However, for various reasons, I don’t teach particular software or hardware. I view such an approach as being extremely limiting. If there is one thing the rapid rate of technological change guarantees, it is that whatever my students learn about specific technologies will become obsolete in six months (if not less). Rather than focus on a technology or a tool, I structure this course around understanding the idea and process of Design: Design as a way of thinking, working and learning about technology.

 

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My design course

Design, of course, is an interesting word, used both as a noun and a verb — a product as well as a process. I conceptualize the idea of design quite broadly in my classes. I see design as being involved in the construction of any artifact, be it a poem or a door knob, a Web site or a scientific theory (or even this essay). Design lies in an area touching upon a range of disciplines — science, technology, psychology, art to name just a few. It is this multidimensionality that makes the act and process of design so important and so complex. The idea of design is particularly important in the arena of educational technology, where we try to bring the logic of technology to the world of learners and their minds. The ultimate goal of my course is to change the way teachers view themselves with respect to technology. I want them to see themselves not as passive users of technology developed by other people, but rather as active designers of technology, who creatively re–purpose tools, technologies, and artifacts to meet their own goals and desires.

Clearly these ambitious goals cannot be easily achieved by lecturing at my students. As Donald Schön has argued, design cannot be taught, though it can be learned (Schön, 1987). The best way (and the only way, in so far as I know) to teach design is by having students actually do design. So my students, over the course of the semester, work on design problems, seeking technological solutions to open–ended problems. They work collaboratively on a wide range of design problems: some small (create a PowerPoint presentation to teach how to throw a frisbee), and some large (redesign a Web site on astronomy to make it appropriate for fifth graders). They also work with a range of technologies and tools: some low–tech (use Playdoh to represent your love for knowledge), and some high–tech (use digital video to create a short film to express some powerful educational idea). As can be imagined, some of these projects take just an hour or two while some take almost the entire semester’s worth of work. What is common to all these activities is that they force students to look at the tools they have in terms of their inherent constraints and affordances and to think carefully and creatively about how to leverage these to meet their design goals.

As in any graduate level course I also assign readings we then discuss in (and outside of) class. The readings for the course often go far beyond the realm of the purely technical. On the other hand we plunder ideas from domains as diverse as literature and aesthetics, graphic design and film criticism; poetry and critical theory. We read and discuss chapters from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (Pirsig, 1984), Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life (Dillard, 1990), John Dewey’s Art as experience (Dewey, 1934), and Scott McCloud’s Understanding comics (McCloud, 1994). Moving away from the realm of the purely technical forces students to tie what they are doing in their projects to broader humanistic concerns.

This emphasis on looking broadly at design as being a part of our lives is also inherent in another activity I do with my students. Every class meeting begins with us (myself included) sharing with each other examples of good and bad design we have found in our lives. Students take to this enthusiastically, looking for and finding examples from the world around them. They bring in staplers and photographs of their cars, lesson plans and bicycle pumps — uses of technology they liked or hated. We discuss why the bad design of technology often frustrates us and what was it about good design that prevents such frustrations from happening, and in ways, both little and big, they improved the quality of our lives.

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The idea of quality is a recurring theme in my class. We spend a lot of time talking about it, what it means, how we can learn to appreciate it, and whether it can be objectively measured and evaluated. Discussions about quality often bring in the issue of aesthetics. Though ideas of beauty and aesthetics, are often considered as being subjective in nature, they can often determine the success and failure of a design solution. As the course progresses, we realize, techne and poesies often go hand in hand and design is the lens that allows us to see the relationship between the two. We end the semester with a formal and public presentation of the student projects to the entire college. This is often a fun event attended by graduate students and faculty members and provides the participants of the seminar with an opportunity to share their work and ideas with a larger audience.

I had taught this course (or variations thereof) for over four years and I loved it. And so it seemed, did my students. I could see it in the end of semester evaluations, in the projects they developed, and in the final reflection papers they wrote. More significantly, I saw it in the enthusiasm they brought to the task and the pride they took in their work when they presented it at the end of the semester. And finally, I saw it in e–mails they wrote to me long after they had graduated and moved on, e–mails in which they shared their latest accomplishments in teaching with technology. Clearly this course meant a lot to them. And it meant a lot to me as well. Teaching this course always reinvigorated and rejuvenated me. This was the course I was born to teach.

Then I was asked to move this course online!

 

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Moving the course online

I took on this task with few worries or concerns, after all how difficult could it be? Clearly I was not the first person teaching an online course. A Google search revealed just how many institutions are now offering such courses (quite a few) and how many instructors are learning the ins and outs of this new medium (a lot). All I had to do, as others had done before me, was transfer my tried and tested instructional moves to the Web. I would create/modify my syllabi, and my assignments, and post them online. My students would log on and do what they would be asked to. I would interact with them through bulletin boards, chatrooms or e–mail. Students would turn in their projects and would be graded at the end of the semester. Of course, some things would have to be changed, but again, I did not envisage any significant modifications. The biggest problem most faculty members face has to do with learning a new technology. But here I was on relatively solid ground. I had years of experience with technology. I knew my HTML from my Javascript and my jpegs from my URLs. I had designed Web sites in the past and had also spent a great deal of time and effort thinking, conducting research and writing about issues of technology and learning. And what I didn’t know I could easily learn. There is a lot of information available today on the dynamics of online teaching and learning — about how online courses work, how to design and teach such courses, and the trials and travails of doing so. There are many self–help books — along the lines of Web design for dummies (Lopuck, 2001) — and Web sites offering advice about everything from general issues of human–computer interaction and usability to specific recommendations about font and color choices.

The more I thought about teaching online, and the more research I did, I felt I was missing something important. Most of what these books and Web sites told me seemed trivial and obvious (keep it simple and easy to navigate, don’t use garish tiling backgrounds or clashing colors). But identifying just what it was that was missing was more difficult. All I could think of, as I started reading these books and visiting these Web sites was, in T. S. Eliot’s words, "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all" (Eliot, 1917/1996). These books and Web sites talked about things definable, measurable, replicable and neutral — the standard quartet that frame most academic discourse. But I was after bigger game — something harder to put into words. I felt there was more to teaching (online or off) than just these elements. Was there not more to teaching than cognitive, procedural and technical issues?

As I explored and pondered this issue I came to realize that my single biggest concern was regarding my role in the online classroom. Where did I, as an instructor, fit into the process of teaching? I knew who I was in a face–to–face classroom (at least I thought I did). I could not say the same for the online classroom. There is a famous New Yorker cartoon of a dog sitting at a computer, saying to another dog, "On the Internet, no one knows you are a dog." This was true. In an online classroom, there was no significant way of distinguishing the instructor from the other students. All the participants were equal — we were all disembodied beings typing into a void, unsure if there was anybody out there, listening. And there was this flip side (the dark underbelly) of the New Yorker cartoon. Because we could never be sure whether someone on the other end was not a dog, we assumed the worst. So, in my mind, the tag line morphed and became, "On the Internet, everyone assumes you ARE a dog!" This erasure of my existence (of becoming just another dog), the lack of "real" contact bothered me. I would exist just as a little picture in some corner of the Web site with a few lines of descriptive text about my interests. That’s it. I was getting lost in the technology (and so were my students) and I hated that. How could I set the right mood for the class? How could I convey and model a passion and engagement with ideas? I saw this as being integral to my teaching yet felt intensely handicapped when I tried to visualize how I could incorporate these ideas in an online setting. I joked, half seriously, that teaching online was equivalent to cooking with my hands tied behind my back.

The main bottleneck preventing me from being "present" in the online classroom was this thing called the course Web site. The orthodoxy of online course Web design did not have much place for the instructor. Influenced no doubt by corporate discourse about standardization was the idea that Web sites needed to be consistent in look and feel. What this meant is that all online courses offered at my university (or at other universities for that matter) had to look the same. It didn’t matter whether it was a course on criminal justice or biomechanics. Imagine having all the professors in a university being clones of each other. How bland and stultifying that would be. Contrast this to the variation we have in courses today. In today’s universities, one would be hard pressed to find two professors who take identical approaches to teaching the same content. There is a great value in this variation in how each of us approaches our subject matter and our pedagogy. It offers students (as well as us) some insight into the many approaches there are to scholarship and teaching and to developing a personal relationship with subject matter. Isn’t that what teaching was all about?

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As I thought about these matters I realized that no two classes I have ever taught were identical, even if I was covering the same content. I was even different in successive class meetings over the same semester. At a superficial level, I was different because I wore different clothes, cracked different jokes, interacted with students differently. However, at a deeper level, I was different because I came to class with a growing understanding of the content, and the group. However, this variation and richness was anathema to the standard instructional design model in online settings, dominated as they are by corporate discourse about standards and uniformity of experience. This uniformity is further reflected in the fact that the front pages of most online courses often remained unchanged over the period of the semester. This page usually had some introductory text, describing the course and the instructor, and irrespective of whether you were visiting the site for the first time or the fiftieth, this content stayed the same. It was as if you were given the introductory spiel every time you went to a class meeting. Imagine beginning each and every class with "Welcome to CRS568: Learning Technology by Design. I look forward to an exciting semester as we play and learn together." Imagine how horribly boring that would be, ignoring the shared experience we were building up together.

As I pondered over my concerns with the missing instructor in online settings I began to think about a parallel problem — what exactly was it that was missing? In other words, what did I (or any other instructor) bring to the face–to–face class that I did not (or could not) bring to an online class? Or more dangerously, was an instructor even needed? In fact, there are those who argue that the absence of the instructor may actually be a good thing. It makes the classroom more learner centered, the agenda of the class driven more by the interests of the students than the instructor. And my classes were as student centered and constructivist as you could get. So maybe my classes did not really need me? My classes had few lectures, being mostly discussion–based. My students worked collaboratively with each other in solving authentic technology–based design problems. They found this extremely motivating and often surpassed me in their knowledge of technology by the end of the semester. In fact, there was no way I could even have a passing knowledge of all the different technologies they were working with. If they came to me with a problem, all I could do, most of the time, was sit with them and model strategies for finding the solution. More often than not they figured out the solutions by themselves. In fact, I had even joked that my classes did not even really need me. The irony of it all was that my joke could actually be coming true!

It seemed to me that most descriptions of student–centered, constructivist classrooms had underemphasized the crucial role played by the instructor. In some sense, I realized, lecture–based classrooms, though they place the instructor center stage, may actually have less of a need for an instructor. This is why lecture–based classrooms are relatively easy to shift online. The parameters of such classrooms are pretty well understood and all we have to do is record the lecture and move it online. But the kind of class I taught seemed to need me — my input, my way of thinking, my way of doing things.

 

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On being

Teaching, I realized, could not be divorced from who I was. I was reminded of something I had read in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (Pirsig. 1984). A character in the book, discussing how to write a perfect novel, says, writing a perfect novel is easy, first become perfect and then just write. Teaching I began to realize was similar. Though becoming perfect was an impossible goal, (could I, or anyone, ever become perfect?) what this story conveyed was that being a good teacher (or a writer) was much more than how we behaved when we were practicing our craft, standing in front of a class or sitting in front of a typewriter. Being a good teacher was somewhat like being a good parent. Being a good parent means becoming a better person overall not just when you are in front of your kids. (Isn’t it surprising how your language improves once you have children, even in situations when your kids are not around!). This is because we know the futility of putting on an act: the truth has a habit of coming out.

So despite the fact that my students did most of the work, the setting of the stage, the tone and mood of the class was something I created. I composed the structure and the environment that made the class and the course possible. Over the years I had developed strategies, both direct and subtle, to make this classroom work. I did this from the way the syllabus was structured to the way I interacted with the students. I saw myself as an actor on a stage, manipulating props and ideas, taking advantage of "teachable moments." I played the fool and the professor, played up my eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, joked and made references to movies and told stories of my children and my experiences with technology. I tried anything I could to get them to engage with the ideas underlying design, technology and education. I saw this class as being a large design experiment that involved juggling and balancing multiple issues and ideas, driven more by instinct than by conscious thought, to make the class come together as a whole. A large part of my pedagogy was based on implicit and tacit understandings, which I would find difficult to put into words.

And online, all I had were words. But these were just words on a screen, missing inflection and emphasis, personality and individuality. As Oliver Sacks said, "speech — natural speech — does not consist of words alone. It consists of utterance — an uttering–forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being — the understanding of which involves infinitely more than word recognition ... spoken language is normally suffused with ‘tone’, embedded in an expressiveness which transcends the verbal" [1]. And it is precisely this expressiveness, so deep, so various, so complex, so subtle that I was worried I was losing in moving my teaching online.

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And this is when the radical idea struck me. Could I make the Web site (this bottleneck that so constrained me) convey this complex, subtle tone? Since the students could not see me, could I manipulate what they could see to convey some of the meanings I tried to do in my face–to–face class? In other words, could I replace my face with the interface? Could I make the course Web site such that it represented, through words and images and whatever else the technology allowed me, my philosophy of design and technology? Could I become a Web site?

But who was I? Or maybe a better question was who did I want my students to think I was? My needs were often contradictory. I wanted my students to see me as being wise and funny, benevolent and yet firm, knowledgeable yet accessible, cerebral but warm. How could a Web site represent these contradictory impulses? And as important, how could I do this using clumsy Web design tools and arcane language of HTML?

 

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On becoming

Despite these concerns, I found the analogy between my presence in the face–to–face classroom and the Web site’s presence in the online course as being extremely liberating. Though it was not clear just what the next steps ought to be, I felt I now had a set of ideas to work with, and a goal to work towards. I formulated a simple rule: I would use myself (and my actions) as a guide to designing the Web site. For instance, I wanted my students to see the site as being complex yet fun, someone (or something) they would like to learn more about. The site would encourage playfulness and curiosity even while being serious and professional. It would convey a deep and abiding concern for the value of design, not just because it was as Web site for a design–related course but rather because it was an integral and important part of its being. The site would also represent the eclectic nature of design, offering connections to psychological, technological and humanistic aspects of the design approach. The site should encourage experimentation, exploration and learning. The site would be accessible, indicating to students that they didn’t have to jump through too many hoops to reach what they wanted. Most importantly I wanted them to think of this Web site as not being a mere collection of Web pages and links but rather as being a living growing organism, that changed with experience and time. I wanted people to expect something new every time they came to the Web site and I wanted students to want to visit the site — not because they had to but because they wanted to.

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This was not an easy task I had set myself and I will spare you the details of the various designs and redesigns and re–re–designs the site went through. At one point, doubting my expertise, I even had some layouts created by a professional graphic designer though I finally rejected them since they were not "me." Though most of the work on the site happened prior to starting the class, I was tweaking the design even as the course progressed, as I received feedback from the students, or as I realized some things were missing or needed improvement. I must add, the course Web site is just one part of the larger set of issues relevant to online learning. The manner in which the course syllabus and assignments were structured, the strategies used to generate and establish student discussions, the development and evaluation of the student projects, are all integral to understanding how the online version of the learning by design course fared. In focusing this essay on just the design of the Web site I certainly do not want to give the impression that these issues are not important. However, the nature and dynamics of online pedagogy has received a great deal of research and scholarly attention. I am not sure a similar level of attention has been paid to the design of online Web sites — particularly the idea of seeing them as being a proxy for the instructor — and that is the focus of this essay.

There are two key decisions I took early on. First I decided to conduct all the class business through the Web site. Everything that happened in the course, all discussions and communications with my students would happen through the site (through bulletin boards, and chatrooms) rather than through e–mail. This ensured the Web site would be the central location, the hub as it were, of all course–related activity. Another important decision I made was to make the site be as information accessible as possible. This meant multiple things. First, I could not use oversized, gratuitous graphics and animations since they would take forever to download. Second, information within the site (sub–pages) should not be too many mouse clicks away. And finally, students would be able to conduct Web searches right from the main page. Accessibility was important because that something I tried hard to achieve in my face–to–face classes and by my new rules, that was something the Web site had to have as well. Each of these decisions had serious consequences for the design of the site. The relative paucity of images or animations meant that the mood or tone of the site would have to be constructed mostly through the use of text and color. Having sub–pages be just one mouse click away multiplied the number of options available to students on the front page. Incorporating a Google search engine in the main site went against established Web design wisdom since most designers do not recommend giving visitors to your site options to leave your site.

These decisions made the design of the front page, the first page students see when they log on to the course, key to the success of the site. It had to be dynamic and rich (both visually and conceptually) yet not be disorienting or confusing, complex but not complicated. It had to look professional and sophisticated yet accessible. The final site was almost completely text based with a sensitive use of color and white space to structure the information available. The most important dynamic element on the main page was an "Announcement Blog." Blogs are online software tools that let you maintain complex Web pages that can be updated without specialized design software. The blog made it easy for me to share my thoughts with my students on a continual basis — putting me back at the center of the discussion. Thus the main page would change and reflect the immediate issues being discussed while older messages would still be available in the archives.

The site also had a couple of features (what I called treasures) that were never explicitly described. In that sense, the site rewarded exploration and experimentation without drawing attention to itself. These features (which often took hours of programming work to implement) were not essential for the working of the course but played an important role in evoking the right tone or mood. The first feature had to do with tackling the sense of isolation faced by students (and instructors) in online settings (the idea that on the Internet no one knows, everyone assumes, you are a dog). For a course that values developing a community of learners, this lack of contact would not do. I wanted my students to learn the names of their colleagues in class and recognize each other by face — and I wanted it to happen naturally, as it does in face–to–face classrooms. My solution was to have a random picture of a class participant show up whenever a student logged on to the course Web site. This picture would appear at the upper right hand corner of the page with the legend "Who am I, Click to find out." Clicking on the picture would popup a new window giving more information about the student, their name, background and a brief personal write–up. This idea of using pictures as a way of getting to know each other as being "real" people was also used in the discussion board for the course. Each posting on the discussion board was accompanied by a picture of the person who had sent the message. This made the discussion less disembodied and I hoped this would help enhance the quality and quantity of online discussion.

The second dynamic feature was similar to the random photo feature but had a slightly different goal. I wanted students to conceptualize design broadly and think about how it plays out in our lives. I attempted to tackle this issue by creating a javascript that would display a random funny, pithy quotation on design every time the first page was loaded. These quotes were culled from a large database on design, art, science and life I had been maintaining for many years now. These continually changing quotes revealed new aspects about design broadening the concept beyond merely educational technology.

The front page of the site also included a picture of me. Choosing the right picture was not an easy decision. In a face–to–face classroom students could see me in many different moods and guises, something not possible in a Web site. After a great deal of thought I chose to include a digitally modified picture of me that showed me smiling into the camera, with a smaller version of my head held in my hand. This picture indicated that I was familiar with technology, was fun loving and evoked the sense of fun and play I wanted in this course.

This idea of fun was supported by having a link to a database of educational technology definitions I had created. Titled "Daffynitions: Demystifying educational psychology and technology one word at a time," this database allowed students to add their own definitions of standard educational psychology and educational technology terms. This was a chance for the students to poke fun at academic jargon and to play with ideas (which often requires a deep understanding of ideas in the first place). Though this was not a course requirement, any of the students could add their daffynitions to the list.

After the course began I spent less and less time working on the design of the site and more and more time on the actual teaching of the class. However, as the course progressed I often wondered how my students were interacting with my course site, my proxy as it were? Did they read the quotes, reloading the page over and over to see what comes up next? Did they click on the "Who am I?" button to find out the names of the other students in the class? Did they enjoy the daffynitions? How often did they conduct Google searches? Did they even look at my digitally enhanced photograph? And if they did, did they see in it what I had wanted to convey? Did all the effort I put in even matter? I had not explicitly drawn attention to these elements of the Web site (just as I would never draw attention to what I wore to a face–to–face class); these were just elements making up the class environment.

To find out how the students responded to the design of the site I had to wait until the end–of–the–semester student feedback. I wondered whether they would mention the site in their responses. The short answer is that they did. Limitations of space prevent me from sharing all that students had to say but what was clear is that they had noticed the design of the site had and had spent time interpreting it and thinking about. It also became clear that the design of the site did evoke feelings and meanings that would have been hard to create or evoke otherwise. For instance here is one of the students describing her response to the design of the site,

"Speaking of design, I have loved the design of the homepage. The ever–changing photographs on the main page were a very nice touch. And also a great way to know each other. Some other highlights were the Daffynitons. Going over them took the stress off the work. It made delightful reading. I think its little things like these that I will surely remember about the class in years to come."

Students also felt the design of the site emphasized the themes discussed in the class. One student said, "We could not have taken the class seriously had the site been otherwise." Most students appreciated the treasures on the site. Here is a student talking of the random pictures and the quotes, "The little extras make a big difference as well ... Web sites need to be predictable yet fresh, mission accomplished." Accessibility was also appreciated and the site was variously described as being "easy to use," "functional", and "helped me navigate quickly." Students were also sensitive to the paradoxical demands of a course Web site. As one student said in her feedback, "The class Web site design was slick and functional and organized and sophisticated and simple all in one shot!"

There were also some idiosyncratic responses indicating that students often went to great lengths to interpret and construct meaning from everything on the site. For instance, here is one student’s response to the instructor’s picture on the Web site:

"Hey, right from the first day, I knew I’d love this class, just by seeing the instructor’s photo — quite clever, and of course, much context for ‘musing’ about the possible connotations or allusions [or puns] he might have given. Could that be his muse? Is that his ‘mini–me?’ Does he feel like a dichotomy? Does his higher self teach the class?"

Another student was somewhat annoyed by the random quotes on design since "they changed every time I accessed the home page. Sometimes I was in a hurry and skipped by the quote, only to realize that it was a good quote as I went to the discussion page, and then it was gone when I went back." But isn’t the real classroom somewhat like that? Things students or professors say do not wait around. Either you catch it or else it is gone.

 

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Conclusion

A year or so ago becoming a cyborg was the stuff of science fiction. Today as I sit writing this essay it is intriguing to consider the idea that a part of me is encapsulated in the information structure of a Web site somewhere. Marshall McLuhan argued that all media are just extensions of man (McLuhan, 1964). For instance the wheel is an extension of the foot, the television of the eye, and the computer of the brain. It is interesting, in this light, to see the course Web site as being an extension of me — of my personality and quirks and idiosyncrasies. However, one question remains, was all time and effort I put into this design task worth it? Did I (or a part of me) really become a Web site or is this just so much rhetorical flair?

One thing is clear, as the title of this piece indicates, becoming is never an end in itself. It is a process of unfolding and exploration. Identities are fluid constructs anyway, as much real as fantasy, as much inherent in us as socially constructed by others, a dizzying whirl of reflections on reflections, all tied up in a complex web of recursive, self–referential feedback loops. Is it all that surprising that teaching a course online can lead to significant changes in how we think of ourselves as educators? Is it so surprising that our identities can also be in some metaphorical yet truthful way become part of our technologies of teaching?

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Our goals as teachers is to make the life of the mind come alive for our students and we do it any and which way we can, with every tool in our arsenal. I am reminded of what Stephen King said about the art of making choices while writing: "You should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it" [2]. Teachers understand this. They know that teaching is a lot about trying "any goddam" thing that can improve what we do. As new domains of inquiry and new technologies appear on the horizon the range of outrageous things we are willing to try can only increase. Maybe becoming a Web site is one of them.

If there is any one lesson to be learned from my experience, it is this. It is time we as teachers and educators reclaimed the power to teach our classes the way we know to be right — be it online or face–to–face. Too often the imperatives of technology, the narrow thinking of administrators and the power of the corporate world, prevent us from being ourselves. Too often we are dictated to by these forces who try to fit us in one box, to one kind of Web site design. I have learned we can be ourselves, both because of and despite the technology. And it is only by being ourselves that we can best serve our students. End of article

 

About the author

Punya Mishra is assistant professor of Learning, Technology, and Culture in the College of Education at Michigan State University. His research has focused on the psychological and social aspects of the design and use of computer–based learning environments. He has also worked extensively in the area of teacher preparation around educational technology. His other research interests include online learning, visual literacy and creativity. He is currently editing a book on faculty development in educational technology. You can find out more about him by going to http://punya.educ.msu.edu/

 

Notes

1. Sacks (1998), p. 81.

2. King (2000), p. 195.

 

References

R.A. Brooks, 2002. Flesh and machines: How robots will change us. New York: Pantheon.

J. Dewey, 1934. Art as experience. New York: Berkley.

A. Dillard, 1990. The Writing life. New York: Perennial.

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Editorial history

Paper received 27 April 2004; accepted 15 March 2005.
HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.


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On becoming a Web site by Punya Mishra
First Monday, volume 10, number 4 (April 2005),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_4/mishra/index.html





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