Sprucing Up Course Websites

Faculty should make more course materials available during and after shopping period

Frustrated students attempting to find course syllabi and lecture videos online may have brighter days on the horizon. A new measure from the Presidential Technology Initiative aims to give professors the tools they need to improve the often inadequate course websites. The support will come in the form of grants between $2,000 and $10,000 to professors, as well as stipends for undergraduates and teaching fellows who help Faculty develop and implement technological tools. While it remains to be seen how effective or worthwhile this new spending will be, it is nonetheless encouraging that Harvard has recognized the problem and seems willing to make a concerted effort to remedy it.

Accurate, up-to-date and useful course websites are especially important just prior to and during shopping period. The College should work toward helping Faculty post the most relevant course materials, such as syllabi, past exams and other assignments, as early as possible, thus helping students narrow their shopping lists. Some of the overcrowding of lecture halls during that week could be alleviated if students were better informed about their choices in advance of attending class. Improving and streamlining the distribution of this information—while not a substitute for giving students the opportunity to experience professors’ lecturing styles firsthand—will better educate student shoppers about the difficulty and content of courses, which in turn will improve the overall efficiency of shopping period.

But in addition to making course websites more useful for students before study card day, many College courses could make more effective use of the Internet during the term as well. Where applicable, lecture videos, lecture audio and at the very least, lecture notes, ought to be more readily available online. As there is no substitute for attending a professor’s lecture, in the event of the occasional absence or for the purpose of reviewing for exams, these course materials are invaluable for students. In addition, courseheads ought to provide students with online readings and supplementary links whenever possible.

To be sure, professors should not attempt to overextend the pedagogical potential of course websites. Online discussion boards, a pet of some professors, rarely generate worthwhile reflection on the course content—and even less frequently do they even generate discussion. Instead the boards are often forgotten after a brief flurry of compulsory activity at the start of the semester. Mandatory virtual discussions are frequently perceived as chores; professors would be better served by focusing on improving real life interactions between students. If they do that, and improve websites in the areas we listed above, College professors will make the most effective use of the new technology grants.