Like Catching Waves Upon the Sand: The Challenges of Designing for the Web

by Pamela O'Donnell

[Reprinted, with minor changes and with permission, from Teaching with Technology Today, vol. 9, no. 6 (Feb. 27, 2003), in Feminist Collections v.24, no.2 (Winter 2003). ]

In December 2000, Phyllis Holman Weisbard, the University of Wisconsin System Women's Studies Librarian and Distinguished Academic Librarian, and Helen Klebesadel, Director of the UW System's Women's Studies Consortium, received a grant from the Institute for Global Studies to create self-paced, "point-of-use" tutorials for students in global and/or women's studies, as well as other fields, to learn concepts and strategies for finding quality information in a Web environment. Helen asked me, then her assistant, to work with Phyllis on the project. Over two years later, the process of designing, testing, and implementing four tutorial modules is finally nearing completion. In that time databases have been redesigned, screen captures have become obsolete, and entire examples have disappeared, all of which point to the challenges of trying to pin down an entity as amorphous as the World Wide Web.

Phyllis, who often teaches search strategy concepts when she is invited to make presentations on campuses throughout the UW System, explains the impetus for the project: "Because these occasional sessions only reach a tiny fraction of the potential audience for such instruction, I felt that creating reusable 'learning objects,' which are Web-based and not tied to a specific class or instructor, would give our office the opportunity to reach a much wider group of potential users." From the beginning, one obstacle to creating engaging and interactive web pages was recognized -- the lack of technological expertise by anyone associated with the project. By relying on the computer skills of the Library Technology Group at Memorial Library, Dreamweaver training, and help from consultants with the Learning Technology and Distance Education division of DoIT (the Division of Information Technology) at UW-Madison, we eventually surmounted most, if not all, of the technical challenges.

Currently, the four tutorials cover a range of topics and reinforce a number of concepts central to library instruction. The first module (see introduces users to the logic of Boolean searches and concepts such as proximity, truncation, synonyms, etc. Phyllis chose to analyze LEXIS-NEXIS Academic and Library Solutions, a huge fulltext database of newspapers, magazines, and more, because included within it is material from Contemporary Women's Issues. This international fulltext database contains articles from women-focused magazines, newsletters, and journals, as well as reports and pamphlets from governments and organizations. (Oddly enough, it is accessed via the "Business News" category in LEXIS-NEXIS.) Students using the tutorial find a step-by-step guide to successfully retrieving this material.

The second module ( focuses on Internet search engines such as Yahoo! and Google, which search pages on the Web for specific keywords and return a list of documents in order of relevance determined by factors built into the program's software. The module demonstrates a number of critical tools for examining and evaluating information found on the Internet through the use of the tried-and-true "Who? What? When? Why? How?" approach. Each module has its own graphic design, although specific structural elements (a module navigation bar on the left, a site navigation bar across the top, contact information, etc.) and a color scheme unite all of the tutorials. We designed each module with its own template to ensure consistency and facilitate compliance with ADA mandates.

The third module ( introduces users to GenderWatch, another fulltext database that indexes articles from women or gender-focused newsletters, magazines, and journals. It also includes a selection of conference proceedings, books, and reports from governments and organizations, which are useful to students interested in transnational or global issues. The module helps students identity the type of content retrieved (be it a community newsletter, academic journal, or political manifesto), delineates basic and advanced search strategies, and describes various features unique to GenderWatch.

Also sprinkled throughout the modules are Coursebuilder "interactions." Coursebuilder, a software component designed by Macromedia to complement Dreamweaver, creates multiple choice and true/false quiz questions. We included a number of quiz elements in the tutorials to ensure that students are following the points being made, to reinforce their understanding of the research process, and to maintain their interest. In a number of instances we used humor to strengthen the student's retention of key points.

Here is one example of a quiz question from the "Evaluating Websites" module:

If you discover that a potential source of information on the Internet was produced by a student for a class project, what can you do?

a. Dismiss it entirely.

b. Mine the bibliography for additional primary and secondary sources.

c. Determine if the argument is valid by polling the crowd at Happy Hour.

d. Submit the work as your own.

The answer, of course, is "b," and when the student chooses the correct response, a pop-up window appears saying, "Just because the paper is a student effort doesn't mean that it can't be useful. Be certain to check the footnotes or list of works consulted to see if there are any additional sources that you could use." If the user answers incorrectly, a different pop-up appears, stating emphatically, "No, you can still evaluate the paper and check its sources. What you can NEVER, EVER do is plagiarize someone else's intellectual effort."

The fourth and final tutorial ( concerns metasites, web pages that arrange information and provide links on a specific topic. We encourage students to locate and use metasites since the metasite creators have already done the work of scouring the web, evaluating sites, and providing descriptions and links only to sites that meet the criteria they have established. The tutorial uses the metasite produced by the Office of the Women's Studies Librarian as a springboard to finding web-based information on international women's issues, including material from the "deep" or "invisible" Web not indexed by search engines.

As the project nears completion, we remain convinced that the Internet, as a teaching tool, has unlimited potential, and we hope that students and professors across the UW System will find the tutorials valuable and beneficial resources. The tutorials can be accessed through the homepage of the Women's Studies Librarian or directly at Although creating learning objects for the Internet can be a challenge, particularly when interfaces change overnight and material disappears without a trace, these trials can be successfully met with vigilance, flexibility, and a sense of humor.

[Pamela O'Donnell is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.]



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Mounted July 14, 2003.