Today’s students have many strengths. They are great at collaboration, introspection, and remixing. While my students are very familiar with phone apps, even the English majors who want to be professional writers are not very familiar with the conventions of writing for the World Wide Web. Because their sense of “being online” mostly entails interacting with algorithms designed by TikTok or Snapchat in order to capture eyeballs to sell to advertisers, they are dimly if at all aware of how an author’s careful choices of hyperlinks creates and sustains the distributed information exchange network that revolutionized society — in part by suddenly handing writers so much power — a generation ago.
I used to teach the basics of HTML and CSS in courses like “Writing for the Internet” or “New Media Projects,” but with the proliferation of page-authoring-services like Weebly or Google Sites, my students seem to expect praise for their ability to select and tweak templates, and don’t seem to be curious about learning about the fundamental differences between the way they are already comfortable writing, and the constraints and affordances of the medium of hypertext.
When it comes to content-creation tasks, my students encounter so many templates to sample, YouTube tutorials to follow, “homework help” services to consult, skilled friends to call upon, and now AI bots to do the sorting and the organizing and the masticating, that they think something is deeply wrong if they aren’t instantly aware of what exactly they need to do next.
School children who are good at following instructions can become college students who expect to be told exactly what to do and to be praised for doing it, which prepares them to be cogs in a corporate machine designed to extract labor from employees and generate profits for shareholders.
Students who have no trouble stalking their favorite celebrities online or scrounging for free PDFs to avoid paying for their textbooks look at me helplessly and say, “My video file was too big so I couldn’t upload the homework.”
I create troubleshooting tech support workshops during class a few days before a media project is due, but the students who need the help the most usually don’t start their projects that far in advance.
It’s no surprise that today’s college students grew up spending a lot of time online, but being an experienced consumer of digital media is not the same thing as being a thoughtful critic and an informed creator of digital media.
It’s not just a metaphor. If you have the skills to create your own menu options, you aren’t stuck with the options and the values and the injustices and the inequities that the powers-that-be decide to put on the menu.
Every “Which breed of cat are you” quiz we take and every “like” we click on a social media influencer’s feed contributes to a corporate shareholder’s wealth, and doesn’t help us practice skills that will help us to tell our own stories.
Early in my career, I remember students who had grown up in a mostly analog/paper world literally squirming with joy the first time they clicked a hyperlink that they created. They often printed out web pages and marked them up by hand, too — a reading strategy that invites a different kind of critical thinking than what happens when are mostly choosing whether to like a post or keep scrolling.
The open-source, non-profit, socially-minded use of the Internet as a collaborative collective — an idea that excited me when I discovered it in my 20s — is just not part of the air my students breathe. I’m blogging about this, not to complain, but in oder to remind myself I need to take time to teach the importance of things like “the dot-com meltdown” or “going to the library to do research” or the tedium of analog “cutting and pasting” to finalize a page layout — things that inform my understanding of what is praiseworthy and what is lamentable about today’s digital cultural landscape.
Here’s an NPR story on the 30-year anniversary of World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee’s successful request that his employer, CERN, release his invention for free.
The World Wide Web was the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee, a 37-year-old researcher at a physics lab in Switzerland called CERN. The institution is known today for its massive particle accelerators
“Almost everything which you needed to know in your daily life was written down somewhere,” Berners-Lee told NPR’s Fresh Air in 1996. “And at the time, in the 1980s, it was almost certainly written down on a computer somewhere. It was very frustrating that people’s effort in typing it in was not being used when, in fact, if it could only be tied together and made accessible, everything would be so much easier for everybody.”
CERN owned Berners-Lee’s invention, and the lab had the option to license out the World Wide Web for profit. But Berners-Lee believed that keeping the web as open as possible would help it grow.
“The web setting out as something which was universal, something which anybody could use, I felt was very important,” he said. “It’s no good having something which will run on any platform if, in fact, there is a proprietary hold on it.”
Berners-Lee eventually convinced CERN to release the World Wide Web into the public domain without any patents or fees. He has since attributed the runaway success of the web to that single decision.