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Website Creation and Student Engagement

February 20, 2015

Technology, an idea both welcomed and feared by teachers, has transformed the way we teach and, more importantly, how students learn.  Just six years ago, during my student teaching experience, I was using an overhead projector to give lecture notes. Today, my students are watching video lectures, interacting regularly through email, and creating their own websites.  While technology can help teachers teach, it’s even more powerful when students can use it to demonstrate their understanding.

One recent project truly has made technology more than just a resource, but an integral part of student engagement. National History Day (NHD), a competition students can take part in across the country, was first created by a team of history professors who were interested in changing the way history was taught. They wanted students to move beyond lecture notes and memorization, to research, evaluation of primary and secondary sources, and critical thinking. Technology, specifically computers with reliable Internet connectivity, has made this project come alive for my classes.  However, the most beneficial use of technology for this project was not for research, but in the creation of a final product- a student designed website.

NHD works with a website creator “Weebly” to allow students to create a website on their topic, as one possible alternative to more traditional options like papers or exhibit boards.  While many of my students were drawn to the exhibit board at first (out of comfort from past projects), about half my students eventually decided upon the website option after exploring Weebly and the various tools we had to assist them.

A day of NHD work in my classroom begins with students taking a laptop from the classroom cart and logging in to the Weebly site.  On the computer, students traverse between tabs that hold their primary sources, annotated bibliography, search engine, instructional videos, and their Weebly site.  The instructional videos, created by my team with Screencast-O-Matic, walk the students through the steps to create their website by recording the teacher’s steps on the screen.   We can show students how to add titles, video and audio content, alter the design, and publish their site, all at their own pace.  While students are watching the videos, pausing to create and edit their own site, I am free to conference with students, check the validity of their sources, answer their questions, and question them to strengthen their understanding.  Without the technology of the Screencast-o-matic videos, which ultimately allows my instruction to be in 25 different places at once, student engagement would be diminished and the website creation process would be next to impossible. Normally, I would have to instruct all students how to create the website at one pace, leaving students behind my pace plagued with frustration for lack of understanding and students ahead of my pace plagued with boredom, causing them to check out.  The self-paced video instruction allows student engagement to remain high.

  As a teacher, I often use technology to help students access the information, but engagement has increased since giving them the tools to create themselves.  Not only does technology give students the power to research their topic and become an expert, but it gives them the opportunity to share their expertise with their school, the competition judges, and beyond!  I love seeing my students engage in this challenging task, which gives them a sense of empowerment when they succeed.  Along with the content knowledge and research skills they are learning through NHD, they are also learning how to format a website, a skill sure to be desired when they enter the workforce in just a few short years.

Long gone are the days of lectures, frivolous note taking, and endless fact memorization (or at least they are in my history classroom).  National History Day is an opportunity for students to take ownership of their own learning. Technology adds to this experience by allowing them to access to a wider variety of material, learn valuable skills along the way, and share their knowledge with the world.

Sam Sosey teaches high school history in Washington, DC