Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

A Web Paper about Web Papers

fawei's picture

Grading Web Papers

Throughout the duration of this course, we have been encouraged to make ‘webpapers’ that deviate from the traditional essays that are expected in college classes. I’ll admit this has been a challenge at times. The three papers that I have done so far are of varying forms – one is fairly traditional, one incorporates a lot of videos, the last one was very interpretive – but I have been skeptical about their effectiveness and tentative to try to pass off any one of them without some kind of text attachment that meets the recommended page count. However, a lot of other projects in this course have met positive results from the professors that I would not have expected. Since then I have been constantly questioning how exactly a movement towards how these papers of alternative forms would take off in academia.

It would be difficult to use the same grading systems that are used with papers in a typical English class, there are differences in formatting due to how sourcing works on the Internet. When we consider that in this course the audience was supposed to extend further than the classroom, it is unfair to assume that the tone appropriate for a formal paper is always going to be appropriate for a successful web paper. There are numerous other problems, which I will address here, along with some possible solutions. However, if the implementation of these kinds of papers were to be seriously considered, it would require input from more than just one student’s experiences, so doubts and criticism are both welcome and expected at this point.


This is a good place to start, because it is one place in which web based papers surpass the traditional form in many ways. Many student papers are now written on the computer before touching print, so publishing them online as attachments in their original format (i.e. attatching a .doc file) makes it less likely for printer/page order/stapling/viewing errors. Creating a paper digitally also has added practicality, as many college students can tell you. Word processors allow the writer to backtrack and delete without physically ruining the appearance of the essay. As many allowances as there are for cross-outs and additions to a handwritten paper, presentation has long been part of the marking criteria of essays, and using a computer can alleviate some of the concern there is for this, and allow for some more creatively formatted papers with knowledge of the correct programs.

Another thing that is important is the ease of citation when it comes to web sources. These can simply be linked and in that way are more easily accessible to the reader. Most citation styles do not seem to have been created with web sources in mind, take for example the hilariously complex full MLA format for a website:

Editor, author, or compiler name (if available). Name of Site. Version number. Name of institution/organization affiliated with the site (sponsor or publisher), date of resource creation (if available). Medium of publication. Date of access. <url>

This kind of citation seems to have been made specifically to only be applicable to websites of extreme transparency since the dates of publication, creator and creator’s affiliation need to be credited. I can see how this format might be useful for weeding out some illegitimate/non-academic sources but today, there are many web sources that may have ideas that can be utilized in a paper without specifically naming the person who created it.

There are also a large number of media sharing sites that may contain useful material that is not formally published in a way that citations generally demand. For example, social networking sites, video diaries and independent projects on Youtube would be hard to force into this format even though they are technically on ‘websites.’

One unfortunate(?) side effects of accepting digital papers of creative formats is that it’s hard to  judge the effort in comparison to a normal typed and printed essay. When you remove limitations such as specific font sizes, number of images or page count, the variation might go beyond the typical teacher’s scope of training. And if things go as far as to be done without the use of words at all, it may require another method of viewing to grasp the intended message.


In one text we looked at in this class, Katherine Hayles suggests reformatting peer review as it is used in academia today. This is in some ways linked to our current view of citations and its push for strictly scholarly references. Hayles suggests broadening the critiquing audience by putting things online, as we did, which would help receive a broader range of views that just restricting the audience to scholars. Reaching out in this fashion can expose the writer’s ideas to more people and revise them for more effective use outside the insular academic circle. Hayles could have been implying that this ‘open network’ just means ‘scholars worldwide,’ but in our class we took it a step further and released papers for the general public to see.

This change does require a change of the language used in the paper. ‘Formal Tone’ is another common criterion for essay grading, however many of our papers that were published for all to see took on more informal tones because certain complex academic language may not be known to all.

In addition to revising criteria for an essay that is going to be peer reviewed by the web, it would be useful or even necessary to make some sort of criteria for grading the usefulness of the peers. As much as it seems like this defeats the point of opening up the circle of critics, the nature of the internet dictates that not all of these peer views are going to be useful.

I like to use comments of popular YouTube videos to sample the typical Internet community:


It may not be fair to say all responses will be like the typical YouTube commenter but it may be worth not completely removing prejudices against critics. A community that is slightly larger than the writer’s immediate surroundings can be useful for the extra viewpoints. How large exactly the community needs to be expanded needs assessment, if this were to really be put into practice. Admin-controlled community sides such as Serendip is a generally good start since it can restrict pages to certain groups while still allowing guests to comment. Barring faked identities, people can be assessed before being accepted into the group which opens it up at least partially to new voices that may be useful.

Sometimes, though, you’ll get a mix that shows the system as it stands now is not quite perfect…

Comments to a fairly formal web paper (/exchange/node/1880)





Translating ideas from how they would appear on paper to a different format has looked pretty risky to me throughout this course. Rather than saying it’s easier or harder, I would say that it is an entirely different skill to portray an idea in pictures or videos than it is to portray it in text. I have sort of made the assumption that each project will be attempting to prove something, either proof of something already proposed or a thesis statement the write formulated themselves.  But when you are not doing the standard paragraph essay, it’s tough say where or where you should not put your ‘thesis statement’ or ‘evidence.’ It’s becoming slightly clearer that the ‘paper’ itself can sometimes serve as an experiment or its own material without a real directive or coming to an actual conclusion. Topic clarity and originality does not always apply.

I’m not the only one who did some small program or used a tool such as WordCloud or Prezi as the basis for at least part of their papers, but some papers came in completely different formats. Here are a couple of alternative formats we’ve tried.

Interactive – I did not do any like this -even my’ performance’ was painfully closed off- but there were several papers that were performances of their point, such as the projects that took place on Facebook. I do like this kind of format because it shows physical or ‘real’ demonstrations of concepts that are left ambiguous by writers. The lack of practical evidence and solutions was something I wrote about in my first paper regarding Haraway. However, unless the way things were used was radically different from the norm, some additional information was probably needed. Running a facebook page or conversation as normal did not always make it clear how it applied to the course.

Video – I did one web paper that involved a lot of video, mostly as ‘evidence’ for the thesis, but others did projects where the equivalent of text in an essay was encompassed in the video. I think that videos make certain text/audio points more clearly as opposed to how words blend together in an essay, while making visual points more easily missed because even the strongest of images can only appear for a limited amount of time. This may be subjective to the ways people read essays or view videos, though.

Picture – Somehow receiving some of the best responses, I feel the number of these increased slightly over time. Some ideas are portrayed more powerfully in terms of visuals, but I am still reluctant to do this kind of thing as I will explain in the next section.


How many papers sent in with this one are going to actually be the equivalent of the recommended 12 pages of work? (This one is actually not 12 pages at all)

A lot of classes at all levels judge work based on effort and improvement rather than natural or starting skill. But with the addition of unfamiliar digital skills, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether there was really a lot of effort involved, or if one digital format is really an improvement over another.


So here is a picture that probably looks deeper than most of my essays:


It also looks better than anything I can draw in any amount of time. The sad truth is that it took me about ten minutes to make. Even the worst of my regular five page papers takes at least an hour. My roommate has looked over the papers we have done and egged me to just ‘photoshop Frankenstein in a dress’ to pass off as a low-effort excuse for a  4 page paper... I think, with perhaps a page of explanation, it would work. Effort is not always required to make something look decent in an alternative format.

Sources: (,,

 Personally, it does not involve a lot of time to slap together a few pictures and crop some things out. With the advent of copy pasting, grabbing a few Google image results under ‘gender,’ ‘cyborg’ or ‘frankenstein’ and making something more visually appealing than a block of text is not difficult for somebody familiar with Photoshop. It is, however, difficult for someone who has never used an image editor and borderline impossible for somebody with less powerful programs such as Microsoft Paint. This is where effort becomes a concern.

Although multimedia skills are required in some of the most basic jobs, they are rarely part of a formal curriculum and regarded as an extra. However, via the Internet, many kids today are learning these skills on their own without much effort at all in spite of how impressive results may seem to the generations above who did not have ready access to such tools.

If we are to formally grade or judge papers that use alternatives to the traditional text essay, we would probably have to rethink what the basic standards are to even partially be able to compare the two forms. But what does a ‘C’ in Photoshop usage look like? Not everyone has the same amount of experience and accessibility.



One way to judge a tool in academic context is to actually bring it into academia. We would be able to assume a certain level of adeptness if these things were actually widely taught in schools. As ridiculous as that sounds in concept, the way we standardize the things that are currently tested in schools is by having them taught there to a certain level and calling that level the bench line. Calculus is hardly considered as much of a self-developed hobby as image manipulation. Graphics classes are offered in some schools, enough so that even clerical jobs can require knowledge of Photoshop and Indesign, but the way graphics are graded in the classroom setting is not quite up to acknowledging this.  


And so...

The points mentioned above were most of my more thought-out concerns but there are undoubtedly others. Grading group work, implementing web papers in other fields which don’t typically write thesis papers, the cost of training current teachers and graders... In addition, although there is a lot of positive response towards multimedia courses, how would attitudes change if we were conditioned to see them as 'schoolwork' instead? Turning school papers digital would require a lot of thought, experimentation and revision.

It would be very difficult to uproot the current system and value of text based papers and peer review, but with increasingly powerful yet accessible technology available to students, certain alternative features are already making their way into academic papers.