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A Season in Cyberspace:
reflecting on web-based resources for French studies

Tony McNeill
University of Sunderland


In the context of the rapid development of communication and information technologies (C&IT), increasing numbers of academics are reflecting on the possibilities of their potential in teaching and learning in higher education. How might C&IT encourage new styles of teaching as well as learning? What kinds of technology and what uses of these technologies are best suited to promoting this? How much real learning goes on in the virtual environment? This paper is an account of my own attempt to engage with these questions through the development of a variety of web-based resources for French studies modules at the University of Sunderland.


When I first came to C&IT, I had two distinct kinds of learning outcomes in mind. The first related to the increasing emphasis, on a national as well as on an institution level, on the development of C&IT skills as one of the main transferable skills. The Dearing Report, published in the summer of 1997, paid special attention to the role C&IT within higher education and confirmed, if further confirmation were needed, its growing importance. (1) The second consideration was subject-specific, and related to the recognition that students on literary or cultural studies modules required a higher level of support than in previous years. Having taught for a number of years on French literary and cultural studies modules, I was aware of the need to improve the quality of student participation in both lectures and seminars, to encourage wider reading of secondary sources, and to develop essay writing skills. Although the French teaching team had reduced the number of literary texts studied on such modules and had moved, broadly speaking, from literary to cultural studies - or from Verlaine to verlan - it was nonetheless clear that more stimulating modes of delivering content and supporting learning were required.

In discussion and collaboration with Charlie Mansfield, the Telematics Development Officer from the University of Sunderland's Learning Development Services, I decided that the World Wide Web offered great potential. It provided a technological platform which allowed cheap and constant access to an extended and searchable resource base. Browsers like Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer offered an accessible user interface, and HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and programming languages like JavaScript and Perl offered a greater range of possibilities (text, colour, image, sound, moving pictures and some degree of interactivity). Web pages, unlike materials stored on CD-ROM, were not fossilized and could be readily updated to take into account recent information that was initially unavailable, or to respond better to students' interests. Moreover, the Web can make possible the creation of composite learning environments that integrate materials produced in house and stored on the local server, with resources produced elsewhere.

Creating digital resources

Although the World Wide Web offered access to a wide range of authentic materials in French useful for a variety of modules, particularly for French language modules, it was disappointing to note that resources on French literature and culture were not always wholly relevant to the content of our modules and were frequently of variable quality. It was easy to find a range of French texts on the Web, particularly by authors out of copyright, but there was relatively little secondary material to guide students in their encounters with those texts or to support their reading with contextual information. Indeed, despite the steady increase in the number of web pages in French or on aspects of French culture, there remain many more web sites on, for example, The X-Files than on Mallarmé's `sonnet en yx'.

To encourage full use of online resources, and to realise just some of the potential of the Web, it was necessary to intervene as a creator of one's own digital resources, even if, in the first instance, those resources were little more than links pages mediating between students and the Web. I decided to address the absence of relevant secondary resources by developing my own web-based materials derived primarily from my existing lecture and seminar notes. These locally produced resources would be integrated with selected resources produced elsewhere and would be accessible to students from a specific University of Sunderland French homepage. (2)

What particularly interested me was the issue of how to exploit web-based resources' difference from print-based hard copy. I began to develop a range of resources and to consider the respective merits of different models of web-based study materials. What were, for example, the advantages and disadvantages of an unstructured, as opposed to structured, presentation of material? What degree of interaction was possible, or indeed, appropriate for resources on literary or cultural studies modules? What implications for teaching and learning styles might such resources have?

The `linear' model

One of the earliest types of web-based resource produced was what I called the `linear' model. Consisting of a lightly modified word-processed lecture marked-up in HTML, this sort of web-based resource was easy to produce and provided the inexperienced web user with a reassuringly uncomplicated text. Although, as the name suggests, these web-based lecture notes were designed to be read in a linear fashion, it was nonetheless necessary to improve ease of reading by making a number of changes. These included using short paragraphs and wider margins, breaking up continuous prose with bullet points, and providing internal hyperlinks allowing users to `jump' to relevant sub-sections.

Annie Ernaux 'la place' - Click to view full page

Fig. 1. Example of linear resource.

The linear module has indeed proved to be popular with novice web users. Such a model of web-based resource has a number of advantages over the print-based equivalent which remains popular with many lecturers. The first is that users can access these resources from any networked computer at any time of the day or night. Many institutions now have open-access computer facilities on a 24 hour a day basis or networked computers available in student halls of residence. Such resources can relieve lecturers of some of the administrative burden of reproducing and distributing lecture handouts and, more importantly, allow students to access materials at their own pace and according to their own specific interests. Another advantage is that web pages can easily contain, or link to, other kinds of materials, such as black-and-white or colour images, which are easily scanned and converted into GIF or JPEG files, or sound which is easily recorded and converted into .wav or RealAudio files. Although these possibilities have so far remained underdeveloped, they offer significant advantages over print-based resources.

women in postwar France

Fig. 2. Example of linear lecture using digitized image.

One final advantage is that with much digitized material, users can copy and paste text such as bibliographical references or quotations from the web pages directly into their own word-processed document. Students can produce their own set of electronic lecture notes with which they can store materials quarried from the various web-based resources. The information which students download becomes an ongoing personal learning resource - a sort of cahier télématique - which they can supplement at any time and which can form the basis of written assignments. This approach would help encourage students to word-process assignments, an activity, it has been claimed, which can help develop 'cognitive skills associated with the general management of ideas in a written form' as well as a 'sensitivity to the written word as a manipulable quantity'.(3)

My observation of how students actually exploited such resources, however, indicated that printing out the page as soon as they had accessed it, and frequently before having read it fully, was the most common use with very few spending much time in front of the machine. This impression was supported by feedback from student questionnaires distributed at the end of the 1997/8 academic year. The technology became a kind of convenient folder for storing lecture notes retrievable by the student at any point in time. This use was predicted and, up to a point, encouraged as an appropriate means of students building up their own set of personalized revision notes on the module. Although students claimed to find this a useful way of obtaining a more accurate set of notes than they might have taken down in a lecture, most expressed little desire to manipulate the resources online, or to engage with the resources in a way that was substantially different from the way in which they might engage with conventional print-based resources. No student, for example, copied and pasted web-based materials into their word-processed essay.

The 'multi-frame' model

I began to consider ways of encouraging online interaction with the resources and of delaying the user's inevitable move from hand, to mouse, to print icon. The extended functionality of HTML3.0 allows the computer screen to be divided into different frames, and this offered a number of possibilities for designing interaction or learner activities into the materials. A main text in one frame could be easily set up with activities, supporting texts, contextual information, vocabulary assistance and the like in the flanking frames. Many of the 'multi-frame' pages I produced attempted to create more complex and interactive variants of the linear model that encouraged users to work online and to reflect on the connections between the main text and the smaller texts to which it linked.

An early example of the multi-frame model was The Zola Pages. In the left-hand frame occupying sixty per cent of the screen, the user finds the main lecture divided into smaller sub-sections. The text of this lecture contains a number of embedded hyperlinks to supporting texts which appear in the smaller right-hand frame occupying forty per cent of the screen. The supporting texts in the introductory section, for example, include a brief biography of Zola, publication details of Les Rougon-Macquart, an extract from Zola's 'Différences entre Balzac et moi' and another from Philippe Hamon's Le Système des Personnages: Les Rougon-Macquart d'Émile Zola. A short activity is found at the end of each section which is meant to encourage the user to think through the relationship between the main lecture and its supporting texts. The discussion activity at the end of the first section involves the user reflecting on the principal similarities between the respective fictional projects of Zola and Balzac and sending their response to their own email account.

The Zola pages - Click to view full page

Fig. 3. Example of multi-frame resource.

One major weakness of the multi-frame model is that it is not truly interactive insofar as it cannot provide meaningful feedback on the students' responses. Given the importance of feedback, discussion and reflection to the learning process, this is a serious disadvantage. Moreover, this lack of meaningful interactivity offers the student little incentive to engage with the online discussion activities. Observation of student use and analysis of feedback from student questionnaires indicate that multi-frame resources are used in much the same way as linear ones.

A potentially more profitable way of exploiting multi-frame materials was to integrate them into seminars rather than deploy them as an additional learning resource supporting conventional lectures. Much of my recent work with the Web has shifted from producing digital lecture notes to producing web-based seminar materials to be used to create what Charles Crook calls 'collaborative interactions around a computer'. (4) Multi-frame materials are particularly well suited to seminars, and especially those kinds of seminar which revolve around a discussion of a common text, a poem or short prose passage. Seminars which involve students working in pairs on 'multi-frame' materials consisting of a key text in one frame and a discussion activity and supporting notes in another, have proved extremely successful in both encouraging discussion and developing students' web skills and confidence in manipulating digital resources.

One example of this type of material is a page on the Front National for a Level 1 module on contemporary France. The computer screen is divided in a roughly 60:40 split with the larger, left-hand frame used as the location for an extract from a text by Bruno Mégret of the Front National. The smaller, right-hand frame was used as the location for a discussion topic and for vocabulary assistance. Students were asked to identify the main themes of the passage and the key metaphors used to express them. To help them think through the discussion activity, certain ideas and metaphors were colour-coded.

The front national - Click to view full page

Fig. 4. Example of 'multi-frame' seminar text using colour.

Another example is a page called Poèmes de la banlieue (en verlan) for the same Level 1 module. Once again, the computer screen was divided in a roughly 60:40 split with the larger, left-hand frame used as a location for two poems written by French suburban youths. The smaller, right-hand frame was used as the location for a discussion topic and, if required, for some supporting text on verlan (the type of French slang used in the poems) and other explanatory notes.

poemes de la banlieue - Click to view full page

Fig. 5. Example of 'multi-frame' seminar text with support texts.

The 'fragment-based' model

My final example of web page design is what I called the 'fragment-based' model. A key point that Charlie Mansfield and I had established early in our collaboration, was that one of the things computers are good at is searching for and organising information. One possible way of making relevant materials available to students, and of encouraging more active engagement on the part of the user, was to get them to search the materials by using a search engine. The fragment-based model, as its name suggests, involves lots of smaller texts arranged in separate web pages and accessible only through a search engine which responds to the inputs of the user.

When the user clicks on the Chemins du savoir web page they first encounter a simple form which enables them to enter their own keyword or else one from our own list for which they wish to search. The search engine scans all the short texts which are located in a sub-directory, finds matches, and then presents the results of the search in the form of a list of clickable hyperlinks. These hyperlinks reference the texts in which the keyword was found and include, in parenthesis, the number of occurrences of the keyword in each. Having read a text, users can return to the list of hyperlinks and select another text to read or else return to the original search form in order to perform another search.

These short texts cover different topics or aspects of the set authors on a nineteenth-century French literature and culture module. The texts have, in the main, been adapted from my own lecture and seminar notes and an essential design feature was to provide a link between topics covered and the secondary materials available. What particularly appealed to Charlie Mansfield and I was the idea of the web-based resource as a kind of signpost that links not just to other web pages but to other kinds of off-line resources: books, articles, videos and so on. To this end, all of the texts include a short bibliography at the end.

les chemins du savoir - Click to view full page

Fig. 6. Example of a 'Chemins du savoir' text.

Another aim of the design of both search engine and texts was to encourage students to see the learning process as being about making connections. When students input a keyword, the search engine brings together a number of these free-standing texts but it is left up to the student to discover the complex relationships between them. To take one example, a text featuring an extract from The Manifesto of the Communist Party and another on 'Baudelaire, Poetry and Social Experience' both occur in the search engine's results for the keyword 'modernity'. Learners must think through and make explicit the connections that otherwise remain unstated. A more dynamic role is created for the user by adopting an unstructured mode of presentation that allows them to construct their own personal understanding of the topic or texts being studied by making their own connections.

The learner environment

All three formats reflect my ongoing effort to create web-based resources that encourage reflection and engagement. It became clear, however, from observation and student feedback that even relevant resources were not consistently used on a regular basis because they had not been satisfactorily embedded into the teaching and learning strategies of the modules to which they contributed. What became obvious was that, despite the appeal of ready-made lecture notes for many students, the web-based resources were rather tacked on to their experience of the module. A few web pages here and there, and a workshop in the computing classroom at the beginning of the module were not enough to either develop students' transferable skills in manipulating C&IT, or properly encourage full online use of the resources. Training, in the form of hands-on workshops and printed guides was an important first step but it is important to note that such skills are only retained when they are used on a regular basis. A workshop in the computing classroom at the beginning of the module was not enough to either develop students' transferable skills or properly encourage full online use of the resources. Students can be shown how to do things but they will forget them unless they are integrated into their daily, or at least, weekly lives. I had to start to think about encouraging students to use the Web on a regular basis and view it as an integral part of their study.

One initiative I began to explore at the beginning of the 1997/8 academic year was to create web-based learning environments that were more fully integrated into the teaching and learning practices of the particular modules they supported. Web-based learning environments make the Web the delivery platform for information on our modules in place of the usual print-based module guides, as well as for relevant subject-specific resources. The screen is divided into two separate frames. In the smaller, left-hand frame, the user finds a set of links to details of the teaching schedule, assignment and oral exposé titles, bibliographies and so on. The larger, right-hand frame is used as the location for more links to resources produced here - including the various models of web-based materials discussed above - as well as elsewhere. No print-based version of the module guide is available and students are therefore obliged to consult the Web on a regular basis or else produce their own printed version. Web-based learning environments perform the role of both module guide and resource book. To encourage more regular use of such learning environments, the first web page of the main frame featured an overview of the module with suggestions on what lectures and seminars to read and prepare for over the course of the semester.

module FRE112 - Click to view full page

Fig. 7. Example of a web-based learning environment.

Students were encouraged to see these pages and the resources they link to as a necessary preparation for and continuation of lectures and seminars. Its value in preparing students for the module ahead is important in the context of the modular structure of most university programmes which allow students very little time to orient themselves to the new modules with which they are faced. In many respects, the design of such web-based learning environments drew on the experience of open and distance learning (ODL) and on the types of support that are frequently offered remote learners.

Implications for teaching and learning strategies

As these last comments indicate, I have begun to move away from the question of the integration of web-based resources and on to the question of its implications for teaching and learning strategies and its possible contribution to new styles of teaching and learning. I think C&IT can make a contribution although, paradoxically, this contribution is most clearly felt in the spaces where technology is not present - in the contact time in lectures and seminars between tutor and students, and between students themselves.

Learning is very much a process of discursive exchange with knowledge produced through negotiation with tutor and with peers. Students have access to resources - and C&IT makes a contribution to expanding and enriching this resource base - but more important still are the opportunities for learners to interact with peers and with their tutors. By making available on the Web so much of the information that would otherwise be imparted in lectures, and making more visible the complex curriculum content of any given module, one creates more space for this kind of productive discursive exchange. Lectures are still important for marking out topics in a controlled way, but can become more like seminars in their responsiveness to students' queries or their willingness to discuss aspects of the subject in which students have shown an interest. This defence of web-based resources is similar, in many respects, to that of resource-based learning in general.

What I am arguing is that the support of web-based resources allows the lecturer to relinquish some of the control of the direction, content, and approach of the lectures and to pass some of that control on to the students without undermining the integrity of the module or reducing coverage. I can allow myself time in a lecture to respond to students' questions in detail without that nagging fear that I am failing to cover all the areas I had set myself. In my observations of and discussions with our first-year students this year, many felt more able to contribute in lectures and seminars for French than for other subjects due to their better common understanding of the content and goals of our modules. Many also claimed to find the modules more enjoyable than equivalent modules without such support and claimed to experience lower levels of stress, particularly around essay deadlines and exams. My own experience with web-based resources would support the argument made by Charles Crook and David Webster that:

'distributed computing offers (in the form of web pages) a vehicle for resourcing a central need within the community of shared learners - the construction of shared understandings. Such a web-based resource serves as one anchor point for that purpose by catalysing learners' informal discussions at some times and by grounding them more firmly at other times. ... Equipped with a stronger sense of that common agenda, it may happen that the institutional context is more effectively used for communication at times and places where computers need not be present as part of the communicative context.' (5)


Creating and integrating web-based resources can contribute to the development of C&IT skills as well as providing a potentially valuable enrichment of the learning environment. My reflection on my season in cyberspace confirms that C&IT may work best when it enhances, rather than replaces, traditional teaching and learning practices. The Web can provide an excellent platform for the delivery of a wide range of resources but my own experience would indicate that what works best is an approach which embeds web-based resources in a student's mode of addressing a module. Using web-based resources, in whatever form students deem appropriate, should become as much a part of the complex activities that constitute addressing a module as visiting the library, reading books and articles, writing essays, and presenting seminar exposés. Such resources need not be sophisticated or 'cutting edge', but thoughtful and relevant resources that encourage student participation and interaction in the social spaces where they are most important - not cyberspace but la vraie vie of real lecture halls and seminar rooms.

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  1. Dearing, R. et al. Higher Education in the Learning Society: Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education. (London: HMSO and NCIHE Publications, 1997).
  2. Crook, C. K. Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning. (London: Routledge, 1995) p.23.
  3. Ibid. p.191.
  4. Crook, C.K. & Webster, D.S. ‘Designing for informal undergraduate computer mediated communication.’ Active Learning 7 (1997) p.51.


Crook, C.K. Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning. (London: Routledge, 1995).

Crook, C.K. & Webster, D.S. ‘Designing for informal undergraduate computer mediated communication.’ Active Learning 7 (1997): 47-51.

Dearing, R.. et al. Higher Education in the Learning Society: Report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education. (London: HMSO and NCIHE Publications, 1997).

Harry, K., John, M. & Keegan, D. (eds). Distance Education: New Perspectives. (London & New York: Routledge, 1993).

Laurillard, D. Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. (London & New York: Routledge, 1993).

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Teaching European Literature and Culture with Communication and Information Technologies
Not to be republished in any form without the author's prior permission.

HTML Authors: Sarah Porter, Stuart Sutherland
Document Created: 25 January 1999
Document Last Modified: 7 June 1999

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