When Did ThinkQuest Entries Get All Hot & Sexy?

thinkquestI heard by way of many tiny tweets that the Thinkquest ’09 winners had been announced, so I decided to give them a peak. To put it simply, I was floored. From the top “19 and under” winner, to the honorable mention for 12 and under, I was amazed at the level of web design and craftsmanship that denote current Thinkquest winners. For those that aren’t aware of the Thinkquest Project, it’s an annual web design competition sponsored by the Oracle Foundation. There are 3 main categories, which focus on creating websites that either (1) present an innovative way of addressing educational material, (2) creating a site of rich content for use in the educational world, or (3) building a website that focuses on local communities.

The Thinkquest project is nothing new to me, but I must have spent too much time away from perusing the entries and winners, because the current crop of 2009 winners display a remarkable feat of both excellent web design and compelling content. The older Thinkquest sites that I have my students use for research and/or exploration of topics look as though they were created with Netscape Composer compared to the new sites. Flash objects, javascript, and CSS are just a few of the web design techniques used in almost all of the winning sites, creating professional looking sites that many professionals could take note from.

For those curious, the rest of this post is written as a formal critique of a website for my graduate course; you may or may not find the following dull, boorish, long-winded, and downright dry. Enjoy! 🙂

leadBy far, the most impressive was the winner of the 19 and under category, not just because of it’s design (which was very well executed), but the content as well. The LEAD Portal is a a full on social network designed to help foster leadership skills among young adults. Having gone through the Boy Scout’s junior leading training program (Brownsea Training),  I thought discussing traits of effective leadership while having to assemble your own campsite and latrine from a pile of canvas and raw materials was an achievement, but the LEAD Portal puts that training to shame.

The navigation on the page is flawless, giving the user simple and clear navigational headings running across the top of the page. Any questions or head scratching you might stumble across on amateur websites when it comes to navigation is non-existent. By using simple headings like Theories, Qualities, and Application of Leadership, it was quite apparent how to find the information needed for learning not just about good leadership theories, but also how to implement best leadership practices. Nice big shiny “clicky buttons” pulled my attention to the most important information about the site; how to get started, activities I could immediately “sink my teeth into”, and what the site was all about. In less than 5 minutes, I had a profile, was playing with some fun flash games (all coded by the student creator of the site), and was already working on memorizing simple leadership mantras and strategies.

The only information required of me was when I first visited the portal. A small pop up asked for a username, no password, no e-mail. After putting in some gibberish, it disappeared, and popped up in the upper right hand corner of the page. A quick click of my username revealed that I could change settings or view my profile. But here’s the kicker! The profile is kept completely by cookies in the browser! There’s no login, no need to enter an e-mail address, and no password to remember. Clicking on my profile showed me the games and activities I had tried, as well as suggestions for assessments or learning pieces I should look at. It was a unique experience to have the website recognize me without having to click a “remember me” button, or “keep me logged in” on the first visit. I assume the design is meant to make teens feel as comfortable as possible using the site, without having to worry about going through the lengthy process of creating yet another online account. Of course, the drawback is, you can’t have multiple people use the site, unless you clear your cookies and cache, or visit the site from multiple user accounts on the computer. Something that makes the site MUCH less practical in a school setting. That, and it tells the user that what you’re doing may be very important to developing your leadership skills, it’s not important enough to warrant being able to access the website and track your development from different computers.

The site is by no means perfect, and excels tremendously at trying to keep the content and layout simple, but at times there’s just too much. While the index page uses just enough white space to comfortably “cushion” the content, and chop the page up into manageble “bite size” pieces, the shear amount of pieces is staggering, and often not well placed. The “quick links” bar is placed at the bottom of the page, instead of the top where it might have been more useful. The 7 step flow chart of understanding and mastering leadership skills is also at the bottom, so while there’s a nice step by step suggestion of how to navigate the site, it’s hidden below the flashy video and tidbits about famous leaders like Bill Gates and past Presidents of the United States. Other small issues, like the inability to use the back button to return to a previous page are annoying (you have to use the HOME button at the top of the site).

toolboxThe designers of the site have implemented some pretty impressive features though, to help make consuming the content of the site easier. The conventional search box and small navigation panel are present in the right hand sidebar of every page on the site, making it easy to find what you’re looking for. It functions much the same way the navigational frame on older frame driven sites worked, only a little smoother; clicking on one of the categories in the navigation panel opens up the small sub-menu in a very “jump menu” like way. However, the toolbox which tops this navigational tower is the most impressive. With four simple icons which were immediately recognizable, I was able to print the content of the page, open up a small flash-based notebook which could save any notations I wanted to make about the site, or even “star” my favorite pages, to make finding them again easier by automatically adding them to my bookmarks (an old convention, but a nice one). A silver sprocket even allowed me to turning highlighting of particularly important phrases and terms on or off, making it easier to scan through and pick out important pieces of information.

With a very nice blend of visual, textual, and interactive media, the LEAD Portal is an amazing site, that catches your attention, and does an effective job of steering you down the path of building leadership; that is once you’ve decided on which of the multiple starting points you want to take. The site is a little “ADHD” as far as providing no fewer than 5 text links, shiny buttons, or menu items that all take you to the same place from the homepage, but once you settle in to the site, it’s easy to appreciate how the activities all pop up as unobtrusive flash-objects, and quickly slide away when needed. The bottom line is, this website is a HUGE design coupe for a group of web designers not yet out of high school. Sure, there’s plenty of things to improve upon, but I never really felt lost while using the site; just a bit scatter-brained.

So I guess it goes without saying that I’ll be definitely looking into more of the winning ThinkQuest sites, as the LEAD Portal has shown me just how amazingly far student designed websites have come since I first started using Dreamweaver a decade ago. The fact that is was created by 6 students who are physcially scattered across Asia and Australia goes to show that this “world is flat” thing can really produce some pretty impressive results.


  1. As a part of LEAD Portal, I would like to say thanks to such a deep review – I truly appreciate it! Next year, when we continue to participate in the ThinkQuest competition, we will surely keep your suggestions in mind.

    Oh, on a side note, the malfunction of the back button was a result due to the whole Ajax framework of the site. It was actually one of our to-do things on the list, but we never had the time to solve it. In fact, we “finished” the website just one hour before the deadline. Phew, now that I look back, I just realized how big of an adventure we were in.

    PetesterZs last blog post..Updates on TechCube

  2. Wow, very insightful comments on web design. Too many web designs make absolutely no sense whatsoever, as if the designer took no time to think about whether or not their site actually made sense to someone who wasn’t familiar with it. Thanks for the article.

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