Most academics—students and teachers alike—have become comfortable with using the Internet for at least a part of their research. As I have said in many other places in The Process of Research Writing, you have to be cautious when using many web-based sources because they aren’t necessarily as credible as other popular and academic sources. Nonetheless, the Web still represents a great place to find information on a wide variety of topics, and it is a great place for you to publish research on almost any topic.
The Advantages of the Web-Based Research Project
There are many advantages to creating Web sites that have nothing to do with writing research projects. Making Web pages is fun—the Internet is a great place to post pictures of your friends and pets, and it’s a good way to share your writing with others through blogging or posting your poetry or short stories. But for the purposes of publishing academic research, I believe the Web has three main advantages over more traditional “paper” outlets.
- The Web allows you to present your research with graphics, with multimedia, and/or as a “hypertext.”
While paper-based research projects limit you to black-and-white typed text on a page (with perhaps a few graphic elements here and there), Web-based research projects will almost certainly include colors and graphics to enhance the effectiveness of the site. It’s also possible to include some simple multimedia elements into your research project—sound clips, short video clips, or animation, for example.
The Web also makes it possible to present your research project not as a linear “beginning to end” essay but as a “hypertext,” a type of text that allows for—even encourages—different approaches and readings. I discuss this in a bit more detail later on in this chapter.
- Your research project can become available to a broad, diverse, and international audience.
Traditional paper-based research projects usually only reach a small audience—your classmates, your teacher, and perhaps other friends and colleagues. Web-based research projects are available to any of the tens of millions of people all over the world who spend at least some time surfing the Web.
Now, let’s be realistic: your Web site is not going to have as many readers as popular sites like Yahoo! or the CNN web site. Just as is the case with traditional publishing, simply making your writing available is no guarantee that you will attract a large audience of readers.
However, the potential reach of your Web-based research project is enormous, certainly much larger than the potential audience of a more traditional research project. Further, if you register your site with various search engines and search directories (and most of them provide information on how to do this), your site will eventually show up on the searches that other researchers conduct.
- The Web Facilitates Collaboration
Chances are, you are already familiar with one of the Web’s most powerful features, the “link:” the highlighted element of text that a Web reader clicks on in order to go to another Web page. The ability to link your Web page to just about any other Web page out there allows you to make a lot of very literal connections to other writers and publications, which is in itself a form of collaboration.
But in a more concrete sense, the Web facilitates collaboration with your colleagues since you can build links to each others’ Web sites. This allows writers to work simultaneously on different parts of the same document, and to link to each other when it comes time to put the research project together. In my experiences as writer and a teacher, this approach is an excellent balance between the two extremes of collaboration I describe in Chapter Four “How to Collaborate and Write With Others”.
The Disadvantages of the Web-Based Research Project
While the advantages of creating Web sites for your research are significant, the disadvantages are significant as well. So before you commit yourself and your colleagues to Web-based research project, you need to take a moment to consider some of the challenges you’ll face in making your Web site and your abilities to cope with these potential problems.
- Computer hardware and software access
To make a Web page, you obviously need to have easy access to a personal computer connected to the Internet, either one you own, one where you live, or one at your school that you can use on a fairly regular basis. You will also need to have at least some basic software to create and edit your Web site and to manipulate graphics. Last, and far from least, you need to have access to a server, which is a computer on a network that delivers (or serves) Web pages to users. I discuss all of these issues in more detail later in this chapter.
For some students and teachers, these access issues are very difficult to overcome. For example, at the university where I teach, students don’t have “easy access” to a server where they can publish their Web sites. While this is a state of affairs that is changing, it means that it is quite challenging for my students to publish their Web sites, even though most of them have access to a personal computer.
- Learning about HTML and other computer literacy skills
Making web pages using Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and HTML editing software is actually surprisingly easy. Making a basic Web site—made up of individual Web pages that are just text, links, and simple graphics— is not “computer programming” in the sense that it requires special computer skills or training.
However, making a Web site does require a degree of computer skill and literacy that many of my students and fellow English teachers have not quite achieved. In other words, while you don’t have to be a “computer geek” to make a simple Web site, you do need to be relatively “computer literate” to learn how to make a Web site.
- Time, time, and time!
Creating, uploading, trouble-shooting, and editing Web sites simply takes time, certainly more time than simply typing an essay with a word processor. You are already probably spending a lot of time researching and writing about your research project; given the time it takes to learn how to make Web pages and then to actually make them, it might be logistically impossible for you and your classmates to put together Web-based research projects in an academic term.
But it is also more time consuming because when you create a web site—even a simple one as a class project—you are moving from the role of “academic writer” to “Web publisher.” And as a Web publisher, you need to concern yourself with things like layout, colors, links, and graphics. So if you and your classmates decide to present your research on the Web, you should probably budget more time for completing the final version of your web site than you would if you were writing an essay or creating a research portfolio.