Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer  2003:  Volume 7, Issue 2 

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Using the WWW for Classroom-Based Literature Seminars


Peter Yang, Case Western Reserve University


Peter Yang is Associate Professor of Humanities and LRC Director at Case Western Reserve University. His publications include books, book chapters, articles, and reviews. Most recent books are Theater ist Theater [Peter Lang 1998] and Play is Play [UP America 2000].




This is a review of the use of the WWW for classroom-based literature seminars. Due to the complexity of those seminars, both teaching and learning are challenging tasks. Can dedicated Web sites help meet those challenges? What can they do beyond meeting the basic need for course management? How effective are the literature information pages, links to online full texts, Web tutorials, literature forums, online quizzes and exams, search capabilities, and digital media?


Analysis of Literature Seminar Web Sites


This article focuses on the pedagogical considerations of the use of the WWW for classroom-based literature seminars. It is based on an experience with the Web projects I designed to enhance those seminars. I will review the functions and limitations of various components of the Web sites.


The initial need for my literature seminar Web sites was to improve seminar management. Later, I found it beneficial to maintain links to outside Web sites with related literary texts. I realized that I needed to create more valuable Web sites to meet those seminars’ pedagogical requirements and started to create my own Web materials by using such Web features as hyper-linking, interactivity, and cross-platform performance (Agnew & Kellerman; Wang).


Seminar Management Pages


Like thousands of other literature Web sites around the world, my initial Web sites were to post general seminar information such as a syllabus, class schedule, attendance and grading policy, and seminar updates. The immediate results were that once objectives, grading policies, and a class schedule were made readily available online, students no longer had to worry about misplacing their hard copies.


In addition, seminar information, such as class schedule and reading assignments, was directly linked to content pages on authors, works, terms, themes, background materials, and other seminar pages such as forum, tutorials, and quiz center. The direct linking gave students convenient access to content pages, management pages, and seminar activities. The Web sites became more dynamic, accessible, and user-friendly.


However, these advantages did not come automatically with the Web sites. I had to verify and update seminar information and links to content pages and external pages on a regular basis to avoid confusion and to secure access.


Literature Information Pages


My first seminar Web site was dedicated to a “20th Century Literature” seminar that dealt with fast changing literary movements, authors of each movement, and works of each author around the turn of the century. This period was associated with too much literary and nonliterary background information and too many literary movements, experiments, authors, works, ideologies, events, aspects and terms to be covered all in class. However, this information was too crucial for the seminar to be treated casually.


The Web turned out to be an excellent platform to present all this information because everything can be cross-referenced and hyper-linked (Harris). I linked the years and places that were relevant to the individual authors to resourceful external Web pages. Students could find from the index of authors the biographical and bibliographical information of an author, and his related works and interpretations. This cross-referencing and hyper-linking feature made literature seminar information so contextualized and meaningful that students could easily get more background information by following the links. As a result, they displayed a more in-depth understanding of the authors and works in class. The literature information pages were also linked to pages such as Class Schedule, Literature Forum, Interactive Literature Tutorial, and even Quizzes. When certain information was relevant to the understanding of particular questions, the cross-links substantially eased the students’ access to literary information and helped them understand literary texts.


There was a concern about the potential for student plagiarism because literary interpretations and analyses were readily available in electronic forms, and students could be easily tempted to use them as their own contributions—piracies, which were sometimes difficult to detect. The content portion of the Web site was most tempting because it directly dealt with materials covered in the seminar. However, the real problem was not in the media but rather in the academic code of honor, the education of academic ethics, and the university’s rules in preventing the academic plagiarism. Students determined to steal intellectual properties would do so in many other ways; stealing the electronic texts was just a more convenient way.


Another copyright and intellectual property related concern was theft by colleagues. Therefore, some teachers were reluctant to post materials other than syllabi. To protect my intellectual properties, I locked up sensitive materials in a password-protected Web directory, which could only be accessed by those who have express permission.


I debated with myself on what language (English or the target language) should be used for seminar Web sites and decided to utilize the target language because it was also the language used in the seminar. An additional English version would be certainly an excellent add-on if there were students struggling with the original texts.


Links to Online Full Texts


The rapidly increasing availability and the hypertext feature are often seen as advantages of online literary texts over printed ones for reading in foreign languages (Schmidt), especially for extensive reading (Bamford; Day).


Searchability can be considered another advantage. Quoting exact passages and referencing exact page numbers is crucial to a good research paper. The literature book is often too thick and the search for “hidden” passages often takes much time during the busy student’s overloaded schedule. With Web-based literary texts, my students just had to run a keyword search to locate the chapters containing the wanted passages. This significantly saved them time in writing papers and strengthened their textual support of papers.


However, some students preferred reading books to online texts because of the lack of tangibility in an online environment. Similar situations had been observed and documented (Grossman). Therefore, I avoided assigning long online texts for initial reading, but recommended them for research purpose. In addition, because external Web pages with literary texts were often of a transient nature, I regularly checked links to external Web pages to maintain accessibility and avoid confusion.


Web Tutorials


Since my literature seminars dealt with complicated contents, Web tutorials were needed in addition to class activities such as lectures, presentations, and class/group discussions. Web tutorials were designed to interactively combine online exercises with related information, hints and clues. They proved to be effective in helping students understand literary works because interactive hypertext, automatic-check features (Woodlief, Paradigm) were included. With materials organized in different ways, students often considered interactive exercises fun games and liked them much more than regular workbook exercises.


The “response-based” (Meskill and Swan) Web tutorials challenged students to think about various literary themes. I avoided exposing students to too many difficult questions at once. One way to both challenge and encourage them was to provide them with more information in questions and choices and with instant interactive feedback.


For example: With a problem consisting of a statement and four choices, the student should make a choice to single out the exception in the statement. A blank field labeled “Feedback” immediately follows the initial question. Information and interaction are so integrated that the information does not take additional room on the question sheet. The student can click any keywords in the problem either before or after making a choice. Whenever a wrong choice is made, the tutorial gives instant feedback on the problem, such as a link so that the student can review related materials.


It was convenient to accomplish this pedagogical goal by using JavaScript, which allowed me to put together different learning activities or components at one place to enhance the students’ interest in the literature study.


Literature Forum


The Web sites of “Comparative Drama” and “20th Century German Drama” were designed both for the classroom-based seminars and for future distance-learning seminars. This means that the Web sites must also allow distance-learning students to complete the seminar requirements largely online. To reach this goal, these Web sites had to offer a classroom-like learning environment (Sala), in which a “community of learners” could not only have detailed explanations of literary works, but also participate “collaboratively” (Grigar; Holeton; Wang; Woodlief) in communication in “real time” or “on demand.”


The forum of my Web sites were virtual meeting places for students to discuss questions related to literature seminars. They were organized by author and then by his or her works. The teacher and students posted questions and answered questions from other students. The forum had its own merits. First, not every student was brave enough to ask questions in class. Some chose not to ask questions in class and some preferred to raise questions anonymously. The discussion online was more provocative than that in class. The forum was separated into discussion panels. Students could easily locate and respond to messages. This convenient platform allowed me to receive more feedback from students and to incorporate questions posted in the forum into class activities. Students were more involved in the critical thinking process. Password protection was necessary to prevent intruders from interruption and allowed students to use their real names if desired.


Another convenient feature of the forum was that students could include links to relevant Web resources in their messages. I encouraged those who had written excellent papers to post their papers in the forum. These activities significantly electrified students’ enthusiasm and involvement in literature seminars and enriched their learning experience.


Online Quizzes and Exams


The relatively large size of “Masterpieces of Modern Fiction” seminar I taught together with another professor made us experiment with some timesaving and more efficient solutions. We set up a CGI-based quiz center with quizzes of open-book test nature and allowed students to reread literary texts when they took the quizzes. CGI and ASP were used, not Javascript, because the Web browser’s View Page Source feature would reveal results in the Javascript. Java applets with built-in security features could also be used for this purpose. All these server-side scripts can prevent students from deciphering test results.


The pedagogical rationale of the open-book quiz center was to encourage students to read texts more closely and to think about the contents and facts of the texts. Since the quiz center allowed students to take the quiz online, the limited class time was freed for class and class discussion. At the top of each quiz, there are instructions that acquaint students with the number of allowed attempts, dates of the quizzes, and quiz rules.


The automatic correcting and grading function of the Web-based quizzes allowed students to check mistakes on the spot. They could take quizzes a second time and, if they did not have an answer at the end, the correct answer would be displayed. The grading function freed the teachers of tedious correcting and grading, and the multiple-choice format of Web-based quizzes allowed them to incorporate more pedagogical aspects into quizzes. Students took the quizzes as an additional opportunity to study related issues.


Online quizzes could be reused with some adaptation, revision, and enhancement for future classes. The initial investment of more time and energy in creating Web-based quizzes paid off. According to my survey, the students preferred online quizzes to traditional in-class quizzes because they could take them at their convenience. They also appreciated the possibility to check the answers online.


However, since the Web-based quizzes depended on the network, technical problems of the quiz server and the network forced me to postpone deadlines. The “soft” deadlines, in turn, invited students to delay the completion of their reading assignments of literary works, which again had a negative impact on class activities that relied on their reading preparation.


Another problem was that it gave the students an opportunity to find out answers by communication. Poor students sometimes “performed” much better on Web-based quizzes than in class. This “problem” caused me to reevaluate the objective set for quizzes and tests. The online tests were used as an assessment tool. Therefore, they were administered in a relatively closed, monitored physical environment to insure the reliability of testing outcomes. The purpose of quizzes was redefined as to help students learn. When students achieved better results in online quizzes through communicating with others, the intended objective was considered accomplished. When there was a doubt about some students’ class preparation, smaller class assignments (pop quizzes or question sheets) were given. Because literature seminars deal with a much more complex mix, literature quizzes are often different from straightforward science and math quizzes that can be easily converted to Web-based quizzes. While literary concepts, biographical facts, and historical facts can well be contents of quizzes and be further converted to Web-based quizzes, it would be controversial to do so with literary interpretation, especially if the tests were automatically graded.




My drama seminar Web site has a vocabulary list for each work covered. Whenever available, easier German words are used to explain difficult ones. An advantage of online vocabulary lists is that words in these lists are also linked to other related Web pages and vice versa. This back and forward linking or “word webs” (Barton) allows students to reflect on the use of the words in literary texts. An alternative is the annotation of literary texts. The vocabulary lists and text annotations save students a great deal of time for reading and thus more effectively prepare them for class activities.


Search Capability


Another Web feature—search engine—made the literature seminar Web sites pedagogically more attractive than literature textbooks alone. Unfamiliar words or terms often obstruct students’ text comprehension. In a book, it is difficult to get explanations despite the existence of indexes. The Web search engine, which is put on a separate search page and on each seminar page, allowed students to search for explanations despite the enormous amount of Web pages on a literature Web site. The search function, in conjunction with indexes of the literature Web site, saved students much time on research.


Use of the Web in Conjunction with Multimedia


I used audiovisual materials to enhance presentations, interactive tutorials and quizzes. Student response was overwhelmingly positive. They considered this combined use of the Web and multimedia a convenient and powerful learning tool that visualizes, illuminates, highlights, and accentuates learning materials.


Digitized video clips were used for classroom presentations to enhance lectures and for Web tutorials. In class, I used a frame-based presentation page with a menu and a video player on the same screen. It allowed me to continuously present the video clips of various plays by clicking items on the menu.    For a drama seminar, I assigned the viewing of clips of videotaped plays. The screening was accompanied by discussion of various topics, such as: 1) how the stage interacts with the audience; 2) how the plays can be staged theatrically; and 3) how differently the three adaptations of Dürrenmatt’s Der Besuch treat the rich lady and the themes of revenge or mercy. In tutorials, video clips were combined with JavaScript-based multiple-choice forms, which allowed students to view video clips and then to answer related comprehension questions.


Digitizing audiovisual materials has become relatively easy and inexpensive. Digitized audiovisual materials have a potential to serve as a more interactive and learner-friendly learning tool than original audiovisual materials (Sammons). However, the use of video materials for Web tutorials must be dealt with great caution because this involves more sensitive copyright issues than that of photocopied print materials. It is highly recommended to use these materials either in a face-to-face classroom setting or in a password-protected Web site.




As analyzed above, dedicated Web sites can contribute to enhancing literature seminars through course management, literature information pages, links to online full texts, Web tutorials, literature forums, online quizzes and exams, search capabilities, and digital media if they are designed and used in a pedagogical way. The limitations of those functions should, however, be carefully avoided.





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