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What are the Features of a Good Syllaweb?

Although a syllaweb should include all of the same sorts of information that would typically be included in an effective syllabus, there are some additional considerations concerning both design and interactivity.  Consider the following as you design your syllaweb:

Ease of Navigation:   Each page of a syllaweb should include navigational tools that are clearly identified as such and easy to use.  Bars, buttons, and tables are all good for navigation as long as they include textual cues as well as graphical ones.  For instance, an arrow all by itself isn't nearly as effective as an arrow combined with a "Back to Top" or "Home" label.  Further, each major section of a syllaweb should be reachable from every other major section.  Because hypertexts aren't linear, we can never be certain which page a reader will elect to visit first, or where she will choose to go from there.  While a literary hypertext might deliberately employ this nonlinearity to create confusion or defer satisfaction in its readers, a syllaweb is meant to support learning, and therefore should be designed so that students can quickly locate relevant information.  "Orphan pages," or pages that include no apparent links to other pages in the web, should be avoided because they create navigational "dead ends."

Sparing Use of Graphics and Multimedia Elements:  The web is a "multimedium," after all, so it wouldn't do to avoid multimedia elements entirely as we create our syllawebs, but overkill should certainly be avoided. Too many photographs, bits of clip art, or animations can prove distracting, as can overuse of such things as background music, especially if it can't be turned off!  Also keep in mind that graphics, music, and the like can take awhile to download, especially if students don't have access to the latest, fastest computers and connections.  Used sparingly, on the other hand, multimedia elements can enrich a page's content, contribute to its overall appeal, and even offer students a glimpse of their instructor's personality.  You might consider, for instance, including a single photograph of yourself on the index page, and then reserving a separate page for photographs of  your pets, your family, or some of your former students.  That way, students can have the fun of seeing another side of you, but can also avoid the download time when they want to focus on class content.  Note:  Many teachers prefer not to include photographs or other sorts of  personal information in their webs, which is certainly a valid stance.  One of my favorite online teachers, Janice Walker of Georgia Southern University, neatly manages to personalize her web without revealing too much by including a caricature of herself (she's known as "Kiwi" in academic MOO communities) at the top of  her opening page.

Effective Use of Color and Space:  In some ways, this is a really a matter of personal taste, but, as with multimedia elements, it's probably best to err on the side of underkill rather than overkill. Some web designers insist that no single page in a web should take up more than one or two screens, while others comment that they prefer not to have to load many pages to read a single unified section.  Similarly, some designers and readers prefer unifying frames that keep readers always on site, while others (like me!) aren't fond of frames, either because they can't think in them (ahem!) or because frames make it harder to explore and bookmark offsite links.  Although color and space considerations provoke the same kinds of irresolvable disagreements,  all can agree to a few basic guidelines:

  1. font colors should be easy to read against the background color or pattern.

  2. text should be broken up with blank spaces or graphical elements for balance, emphasis, and ease of reading.

  3. the colors of a page or section should complement each other and suit the overall tone and theme of the web.

  4. the colors and placement of navigational tools should be consistent throughout to promote clarity and ease of use.

Probably your sense of taste in color, space, and other design considerations will evolve with experience, which as it should be.  Meanwhile, it's probably best to preview your pages in a browser before you publish them; to explore them with a visitor's eye now and then, looking for ways to make them visually more effective and appealing; and to invite colleagues and students to offer feedback for you to consider in future revisions.  Also keep in mind that many web editing tools include prefabricated "themes" with matching sets of buttons, backgrounds, and fonts, which can make initial forays into syllaweb creation easier. 

Dialogic Qualities:   Does your syllaweb invite conversation and feedback?  Does it differ in tone and intent from you paper syllabi?  Do you want it to?  What kinds of learning, activities, and relationships do you want your site to foster?  Since a syllaweb is interactive by nature, composing an effective one will entail reinventing your approach.  How, for instance, will you handle policies on attendance or participation in this environment?  Will you require students to contribute to threaded forums, or to attend synchronous sessions?  Will you allow assignments to be emailed to you or the group for feedback and commentary? Will you invite students to contribute relevant links, perhaps even links to web projects of their own, to the page?  Your answers to such questions will help guide you as you compose both the content and the "look" of your online class space and materials.

Accessibility:   The accessibility of web pages to the disabled is of growing concern to online teachers, students, and web designers. 

Evolution:  Syllawebs can and should evolve.  My own first attempts--little more, really, than replications of the paper syllabus with a few links and (far too many!) animations thrown in for good measure--certainly wouldn't meet anyone's criteria for  "good" syllawebs.   Still, those experiments were good, both for me and for my students.  After all, they represented the very first steps in my exploration of the syllaweb as a teaching and learning tool, and they provided me with invaluable feedback from the students who interacted (or chose not to interact) with them.  In short, don't feel that your first syllaweb must be an award winning endeavor.  Instead, start slowly, build and revise gradually as you go, and consider the creation of a syllaweb both an ongoing adventure and a worthwhile investment in your continuing evolution as a teacher.

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Copyright 2000-2001,  Kathy A. Fitch
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