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2.2 Ready-made sites

The last few years have seen the mainstream emergence of a few tools that simplify the process of putting text online. Some of these are packages that have to be set up by a system administrator, while others are services running on an external server. Some have to be paid for, but many are open source or otherwise free.

Virtual Learning Environments

A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) gives you an instant Web front-end for all your documents, allowing you to post announcements, share documents, create surveys or moderate online discussions. For much more on VLEs, see the dedicated chapter in this Handbook.

Web logs

A Web log ('blog') is like an online diary. You enter new items (fragments of text, perhaps containing links to other sites) through a form in your Web browser. The software takes care of presenting the entries in an attractive site, as well as archiving them in a date index and/or subject index. Some blogs have a facility for users to comment on new entries. However, if this facility is not protected in some way, it can be abused by spammers. WordPress is a popular piece of blogging software which is free, allows password protected posts, can have one or multiple authors and has a comments facility, in which you can moderate comments left by your readers. Alternatively, you can use an external service such as Blogger.

Blogs have proven popular with young people, with recent research in the USA suggesting that 52 per cent of all blogs are created by young people aged 13-16. They are a medium that many students clearly relate to, and just as importantly, they enable non-technical lecturers to provide an instant response to economic news. Two influential blogs by economics lecturers are Bradford DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal and EconLog by Arnold Kling.

There is a dedicated Guide to Using Blogs in Economics elsewhere on this web site.

Bulletin boards

There are several free bulletin board packages, with names like phpBB and YaBB, that have to be installed by a system administrator. You can create discussion boards or polls, and monitor or edit the contributions of individuals. Each discussion appears as a long list, with no branching. These environments are very familiar to young Web users.

Online groups

Yahoo and MicroSoft Network (MSN) each provide a free 'groups' service (http://groups.yahoo.com/ and http://groups.msn.com/) supported by online advertising. The private site they create for you will include a discussion forum where messages can be received by email or read on the Web, a file-sharing area, a facility to add links and a real-time chat area. These services are designed for online 'clubs' rather than for education, but they are a simple alternative if your institution does not provide a VLE.

Wikis

For the more confident lecturer, and in practice the more advanced students, a wiki may be considered. A wiki is a user-editable Web page. Some allow anyone at all to make edits (for example, the Wikipedia, a collaborative encyclopaedia), whereas some are protected by a password. A group of people can use a wiki to collaborate on authoring a document. Links and formatting can be added to the wiki without any specialist knowledge. For more information see http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiGettingStartedFaq.

The advantage of Web logs and some VLEs is that, due to the friendly interface, these sites are normally in the WYSIWYT category (what you see is what you type - or, indeed, what you upload). They also have the advantage that since the end results are HTML pages (rather than uploaded files), they can be made more accessible by the end user. Most browsers will now allow the person viewing to change the text size, or make it speakable with appropriate software, thus making it more accessible.

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2.3 Creating more ambitious resources