Why, you ask, did you bother to teach a bunch of undergraduates how to write HTML? in a 2 hour workshop? what could you possibly accomplish?
They are never going to need to build their own site using it- why not teach blogger, tumblr or wordpress instead? This is what they'll actually use- and it will look much better, be more usable, and they'll have something they can be proud of. Not something reminsicent of geocities. or neopets.
So why HTML?
It depends on what you want your students to learn- my students come from many academic discipines - some are computer science majors, others are artists - but most have never built their own page. a few have played with neopets. But they all have grown up using 'digital technologies' - that they haven't really thought about- in terms of how it's made, and what the thought process is behind it.
I want my students to think about 'screens' - what they see in front of them, what they interact with regularly- in terms of how they are made, what they are made of, who is making them, and what it means for that screen to be constructed.
For this, HTML is a good place to start:
HTML is easy to explain - markup language does the same thing that your text editor does - bold, indent, paragraphs, font size and color
HTML is easy to set-up for teaching / learning - free text editor and browser come with the computer - there's not too much to learn before even getting started
HTML gives immediate feedback : make a change like background color, or add music (!) and it's obviously there, or not there.
HTML introduces troubleshooting: it uses simple tags which 'break' as easily as other code; but it's easier to find the errors (why is ALL the text blue and 20 point?)
So why HTML from 1993?
Because it's FUN.
and because most of my students were born that year.
Also though, by teaching early HTML, prior to style sheets, they are exposed to 'code' as related to something 'material' - the text itself. By putting each attribute next to each piece of text, students can really see what they are doing, what is happening and why it is happening.
So, we turned it into a theme party:
We began by creating our own super-ugly website as invitation.
Click here to view our invitation.
Site is best viewed in any Mozilla Firefox browser.
Other browsers do not support blinking text. :)
(make sure to move the mouse around for special glittery results!)
Students were asked to rsvp with their favorite 1990s song, from which we created a Pandora station to listen to during the workshop (from Britney Spears to Metallica). They were also asked to dress up (90's themed t-shirts and suspenders).
We began by teaching them some simple code:
- structure: Head & Body; paragraph, table
- style: font size, color, bold, underline(!), italic
- links, images, sound
Then the fun began. We took them on a quick survey of (mostly) archived goecities sites, a site devoted to ferrets- complete with music, and of course, the hamster dance. This introduced them to blinking text, marquees, animated gifs and midi music...
We tthen asked them (in groups) to create the ugliest functional 1990s site they could possibly muster.
As they began working, we bgan walking around the room to answer questions (how do we make our mouse have a trail of glitter?) and generally just laughing at what they came up with. Meanwhile, one student, who was assisting us with the workshop, sat at the computer/projector and started coding tables and marquees and inserting images and gifs, providing more code examples for everyone else to use.
At the end, groups came up and showed everyone what they had done, and prizes (from the 25 cent machines at the nearby grocery store) were awarded.
I'm sure many of you are thinking that this is crazy - we've just taught them the worst ways of building a site - no css, using tables for design/layout, blinking text, music blaring upon reaching the page... yes, this is true. But, first off, give the students some credit- they know that tiling an image of their cat across the background and adding blinking red text on top is not 'proper' for today's web world. Secondly, as we taught these basic concepts, we explained some of the differences between then and now- and what they could do with CSS and HTML 5, should they decide to continue working in HTML.
But, most important, for me anyway, is that I'm not interested in whether they can make a 'proper' website by today's standards.
The purpose of this exercise was to open up the possibilities of 'web' screens and interfaces - not to lock them down with right and wrong, good and bad. I wanted them to begin thinking of themselves as makers, as doers within 'digital cultures' - not followers of what's already out there. I want them to experiment, create, mess around. By making it purposefully ugly, something from the past, something funny- the pressure is off. Perfection is no longer necessary. It can just be fun.
From the ugliness of 1993 HTML comes the beauty of possibility and play.