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HTML like it's 1993

HTML like it's 1993

Last night, I, (@jarahmoesch) along with my co-worker (@lflake), ran a 2 hour workshop on HTML - titled "HTML like it's 1993"

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?

crazy. 

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.

Pedagogy

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.

 

 

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6 comments

This is fantastic. For many years (from the late 90's to the early 00's) I taught HTML to nonprofits, for the very same reason. You inspired me to dig up my old class site in the wayback machine: http://web.archive.org/web/20020609120831/http://www.lotusmedia.org/html...

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I know I'm a bit late, but thanks for sharing this experience! This sounds like it was a great way to re-think digital text presentation, how it affects meaning, how you can create meaning through code, etc....

You reminded me of one of my favorite learning tools: http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/

Its also interesting to look at the CSS Zen Garden and the CSS Zen Garden rejects.

I can never look at the first or last link too long before my eyes begin to hurt.

Knowing HTML I think will continue to be a good starting place for a few more years at least. If nothing else, knowing HTML allows you to join all the tables-bashing conversations.

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One of the problems facing humanities scholars right now is the lack of useful, workable platforms for publishing our work. We need programmers who understand the unique needs and critical approaches of the humanities.  We're not biologists publishing raw data, we're humanists publishing analytical and creative work that is often nuanced, abstract, and intentionally full of contradictions. We need ways to seamlessly interface words, multimedia, and citations. We need compatible databases. Lots of our resources are still not digitized.

"HTML Like It's 1993" might be a way to encourage some future humanists to be humanist programmers.

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I'm curious about your students' experiences with this project. It sounds like the students had a blast (and the prizes you selected for "winners" were terrific). I wonder though if your students, having been born in the early 90s remember these types of bad websites? Did you have any student resistance (or merely intellectual roadblocks of "but won't flashing text at that interval send us into seizures?") to designing a terrible page?

Probably most critically, I wonder if you plan to have any follow-up with the students about how the class affected their thinking in the weeks to come. Does it encourage them to dabble in more programming (I'm under the assumption that very few had programming experience before the class)? Do they start thinking about other visual and creative processes differently?

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Hi Danielle-

thanks for your questions! I still love this workshop, and am about to run it again with a new cohort of students, so I've just been thinking about this quite recently.

I found that some of my students had spent time looking at geocities archives or had some other experience with sites from the 1990s, so relevance wasn't an issue. Examples of sites were also useful in illustrating what the different elements were. There were no roadblocks or resistance- it was a fun night, which students self-selected into- and was meant to be about exploration and play, not about becoming experts, so they took to it quite readily.  I have some students that still talk about it as being one of their most enjoyable events in their entire 2 years of the program.

You asked: "Does it encourage them to dabble in more programming (I'm under the assumption that very few had programming experience before the class)? Do they start thinking about other visual and creative processes differently?" 

so, it is a bit more complicated than that- mainly because of who our students are, what our program looks like and why I run workshops like these in the first place.

first- some students were computer science and engineering students while others were journalism, PR, biology, etc. Most of them, even if they had programming experience, had never built/scripted a website before. And, many of them went on to learn programming/scripting as part of their degree programs.

second- the intent of the workshop was not to teach them how to be skilled web designers, it was to get them thinking about the web in a multitude of ways- which tied in with the rest of our 2 year program. We encourage/teach visual and creative processes alongside experimentation, collaboration and co-learning. As such, it is impossible to separate out this workshop from everything else we do.

I realize this doesn't answer your questions in the ways which you were probably hoping I could- but I do think that there are ways of quantifying the learning in a more targeted fashion. I'd love to hear more about where your questions come from- do you teach HTML to students?

Jarah

 

47

Hi Danielle-

thanks for your questions! I still love this workshop, and am about to run it again with a new cohort of students, so I've just been thinking about this quite recently.

I found that some of my students had spent time looking at geocities archives or had some other experience with sites from the 1990s, so relevance wasn't an issue. Examples of sites were also useful in illustrating what the different elements were. There were no roadblocks or resistance- it was a fun night, which students self-selected into- and was meant to be about exploration and play, not about becoming experts, so they took to it quite readily.  I have some students that still talk about it as being one of their most enjoyable events in their entire 2 years of the program.

You asked: "Does it encourage them to dabble in more programming (I'm under the assumption that very few had programming experience before the class)? Do they start thinking about other visual and creative processes differently?" 

so, it is a bit more complicated than that- mainly because of who our students are, what our program looks like and why I run workshops like these in the first place.

first- some students were computer science and engineering students while others were journalism, PR, biology, etc. Most of them, even if they had programming experience, had never built/scripted a website before. And, many of them went on to learn programming/scripting as part of their degree programs.

second- the intent of the workshop was not to teach them how to be skilled web designers, it was to get them thinking about the web in a multitude of ways- which tied in with the rest of our 2 year program. We encourage/teach visual and creative processes alongside experimentation, collaboration and co-learning. As such, it is impossible to separate out this workshop from everything else we do.

I realize this doesn't answer your questions in the ways which you were probably hoping I could- but I do think that there are ways of quantifying the learning in a more targeted fashion. I'd love to hear more about where your questions come from- do you teach HTML to students?

Jarah

 

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