Web-based class project reports using templates

Students spend more time on assignments when they know that their assignments are going to be published. Although it is impractical to produce paper publications for all the work done in a single class, it is quite practical for instructors to produce "online publications" using a system of HTML templates that students can build on to create their own project reports.

There are actually many reasons why you might want to consider using online publications for your classroom.
  1. Students spend more time on assignments when they know that the assignments are going to be published.
  2. Creating online publications saves paper.
  3. Once the assignments are online, it is easy to organize them into an "electronic journal" that would feature the work of Cornell's best students. Showcasing the talents of our best students would also help to further motivate other students (both current and prospective Cornell students).

I have used HTML project reports for several years as part of my PHY-312 advanced lab class. The student project reports from this class can be viewed online at


Fortunately, learning how to create HTML documents is not at all difficult because there is a vast array of software that can be used to edit HTML files. The HTML software is virtually identical to word processing software, such as Microsoft Word, but it contains other features that are exclusive to HTML and web-based documents.

The key to making web-based project reports feasible is to use templates to structure the format of the report. If you seat a student in front of an HTML editor, they are likely to spend a fair amount of time learning how to create exotic backgrounds, insert colored text, and so on, rather than concentrating on producing substantive text.

Here's a simple template to teach students how to use HTML templates


and here's a simple template that students can use to generate a science lab report:


Note that the template contains instructions on how to edit the template to create a viable report. In more advanced classes, students will completely re-structure the report such that it does not conform to the original template, but the underlying structure is often maintained.

Since one of my primary goals is for students to produce substantive text, I prefer that they use a simple HTML editor that concentrates on generating substantive text, rather than producing special effects. One possible editor is OpenOffice which is a free application that will read/write standard Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel documents as well as creating HTML documents from Word Documents. Because OpenOffice is free, and because it can run on both PC and Macintosh platforms, students will be more willing to use this editor as they will be able to run the software on their own computers. Because OpenOffice is designed to primarily function as a word processor, students will be more inclined to use it as a word processor rather than an HTML special-effects generator.

The idea of using templates originates from this site constructed by Tom O'Haver at the University of Maryland


Tom O'Haver eloquently points out the advantages of using a template based approach. To quote from his web site:
The advantages of using a template, rather than designing a Web site from scratch using a Web editor program, are three-fold: (1) the template approach uses only generic tools such as a text editor and a Web browser; it works equally well on PC or Mac platforms and does not depend on any specific commercial Web editor which would have to be learned and which might become obsolete; (2) the emphasis remains on the content, not on the decorative design of the site; using a Web editor encourages students to focus too much on the cosmetic aspects; (3) if you create several such class projects using these templates, the structure and navigation of the sites will be consistent from project to project, making it easier for you, your students, and your site visitors (parents, other teachers and students, etc) to use your class sites.
Tom and his wife Mary have used this system to help middle school teachers and students create their own web-based class projects. Here is a 5th grade "Beanie Baby" ABC book. Please note that each 5th grade student in the class created their own web page for each of the letters in the book:


If 5th grade students and teachers can create classroom web projects, then college instructors and students should be able to do the same, albeit at a more advanced level than "Beanie Baby ABCs."