Using Google Sites for student projects

There’s tremendous value in getting students to create their  own websites. It can be used for them to create either a personal, group or class portfolio showcasing all the work they’ve done.  Alternatively, it can be used for group projects, students are assigned a particular topic area or language point and are then asked to create a website integrated information about that topic.

I’ve done this myself on a few courses I’ve taught in the past, I used a website as a visual representation of all the work we did during the course, embedding documents, audio and video of class content (see pic below).

we used a website to collect all the course materials and projects

A colleague of mine here at the university, Gary Wood, came up with an innovative way to engage and motivate his applied linguistics students by getting them to create a public-facing website aimed at prospective undergraduate students coming to the university, a kind of primer for A Level students. This proved incredibly popular and his innovation won several awards.

Gary Wood’s Linguistic was innovative and outward facing

Now, his students used Google Sites to make their site, this is a relatively simple tool for building a site and with it you have the added advantage of specifying what level of access you want each person to have on each page (e.g. the ability to view or edit). This is particularly useful if you wanted to assign different parts of the same website to different groups but didn’t want them to be able edit each other’s.

But despite that nifty feature, Google Sites could be pretty clunky to use and was frustration inducing when you were trying to work out how to lay something out on the screen or move something from one part of the site to another.

There was also the faint concern that Google might shut it down any minute. They have a history of closing down services they don’t feel it’s worth supporting (presumably for financial reasons) and many of us lament the disappearance of things such as Google Reader, Wave and Notes.

Normally you knew the writing was on the wall for a service when it didn’t receive an update for a long time and it had been ages since Sites had gotten a lick of paint. It felt like it was only a matter of time…

But then suddenly – and very surprisingly – Google announced a brand spanking new version of Sites with lots of drag and drop functionality to create the site you liked. At the same time – and to the annoyance of many – they also removed some of the fine-grained permissions for each page, so you weren’t really able to assign different parts of a website to different groups anymore.  Still the suggestion from Google is that a lot of this functionality will be put back into Sites at some point, but you may have to wait a little. Just be warned though that sites are now either public to everyone or private to you and whoever you invite to edit it. If you work at a university that uses Google for all its services, then you also have the option to share it with everyone in that institution.  Something to think about if you are going to be putting student’s work up there.

What you do get with the new version though is something that superficially looks much better. Just take a look at an old site compared to a new one below and I think you’ll agree there’s a world of difference.

The old is on the left, the new on the right

Also, the editing view pretty much looks the way the site is going to look, on the old version they looked very different and you could never really preview what the page was going to look like while you were editing it.

The other nice thing about the new version of Sites is how it plays so nicely with all the various Google services, such as Docs, Slides, Maps, Photos, YouTube etc. It’s very easy to pull in content from your account and add to the site.

you can add Google services from this menu on the right

Another great benefit is the ease of adding in web content from a variety of sources.  if it’s just a web page, it will try to embed it on the page with a photo from the site and a short extract of the start of the text. This isn’t always possible but it it’s from a reputable source (BBC, Guardian etc) it seems to work very well.  You can see this below with the football match report.

One big issue at the moment is the lack of ability to embed content from other services directly on the page. So, for example, you may want to add a Padlet poster board page or a Quizlet vocabulary list but this functionality – which was available on the old version of Sites – hasn’t been added back in yet.  Again though, expect that to be added fairly soon.

From my experience, getting students to create their own sites either as a summary of their work or as part of a project to explain or research a particular topic can be incredibly motivating. I remember in one class setting up a task to get students to create a website for the students coming the following year, the idea was to give them help and advice about the city, transport, social life, study life etc. They really got into and worked tirelessly both inside and outside class to get it ready and both their language and their digital literacy came on considerably during that time.  You can see an image from the site below giving help on how to find childcare.

Google Sites works best if your institution uses Google internally for its email and other services, but there’s no reason you can’t use it even if they don’t. It’s easy to set up a Google account – most people tend to have one already – and students probably have one as well so they should have no problem setting up their own.

There are other options out there if you don’t want to go down the Google route. Wix is a quick and easy tool for building a website, though it’s more geared towards vocational or commercial websites rather than educational ones. Weebly is another one, but this time it has a specific education focus and is quick and easy to put together (see pic below).

Whichever option you choose, it’s definitely worth giving it a go with your students, you’ll find they really get into the project and it encourages language development, collaboration and digital literacy skills improvement.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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