From the Teaching Trenches: Hardcoding is Harder, but Results are Worth It

Most instructors of USC’s online editing and design courses rely on Dreamweaver for Web page production in their classes, as do most other online instructors I’ve met at industry conferences and in online discussions.

Instead, my students create their Web pages by hardcoding HTML and style sheets using nothing more than a basic text editor like Notepad. Yes, it’s difficult. Creating Web sites takes more time without Dreamweaver, and students often get frustrated when a single keystroke renders their work unintelligible.

But the extra effort earns rewards. —Robert NilesFrom the Teaching Trenches: Hardcoding is Harder, but Results are Worth It (Online Journalism Review)

I’ve been mulling over this possibility…

When I teach writing for the Internet, I teach blogging first, which I find gets students writing faster. When I then moved to HTML authoring, there was a terrible backsliding… that is, students who were initially nervous about the course’s technical requirements were put at ease by the simplicity of blogging.

But when it came time to move to the next step, teaching them to make web pages with FrontPage Express, several students were very frustrated by some very basic things. I chose FrontPage Express because it’s free, and also because it doesn’t offer many of the distracting, non-standard bells-and-whistles that used to distract my technical writing students when they used Front Page 2000 or 2002.

But even using the simpler version of the program, some students couldn’t find the folder in which the program had saved their files, or when they accidentally downloaded a file from “subdirectory/index.html” over top of their root directory “index.html”, they didn’t think of recovering the “missing” page by downloading a copy of the version they had most recently uploaded.

While saving frequently, working on one thing at a time, and working backwards to recover from a mistake are second nature to hackers, even they had to learn the importance of those techniques the hard way. Add to that the fact that some students in “Writing for the Internet” are also learning the basics of how to write, and suddenly the course content becomes overwhelming.

I started out giving them two weeks to publish a simple website, with plenty of in-class workshop time. As the semester progressed, I gave them shorter timeframes — one week, then two or three days, and then finally the end of the class period. Most of this work was ungraded – that is, they got credit for doing their best and showing progress. But there was a long period when I felt some students simply weren’t putting in the effort to learn these details.

Once it became clear the final exam would require them to use these skills on their own, that caused a few students to perk up. But there was still a lot of what I felt should have been unnecessary stress during the final, as students struggled with a skill for which I had spent months preparing them.

Of course, my class was mostly first-semester freshmen, who are generally not used to being responsible for their own learning.

Since Niles can be confident that his students will have plenty of opportunity in other classes to learn the stylistic and cultural details of writing for the web, perhaps he can better afford to spend more time on teaching raw HTML.

I do teach the basics of interactive fiction programming, using a set of example games that I’ve tweaked over the years… those classes are more like fill-in-the-blank exercises than programming, but the process does introduce students to the gory details that go into writing an interactive fiction game, which makes them more informed critics (and more helpful peer evaluators for those students who choose an IF term project).

When I next teach “Writing for the Internet” (in the fall of 2006) I’ll have to think about all this.