unedited thoughts on students knowing (or learning) how to code

I just wrote a fairly lengthy email response on the TECHRHET listserv that starts to get at the response I’ll eventually write to Kirschenbaum’s Chronicle piece from January about humanities students learning to program. This e-mail is just about markup, not programming (and yeah, I totally make that distinction), and is in response to a very specific question. It’s unedited and refers to things not here, but I still think has valuable info. Or thought-provoking info.

The original query (from someone at my own institution) was:

I’m helping a colleague who is teaching a totally online course where students must do basic web design–create pages, link, include photos, text, etc. They must also be able to revise and publish these sites easily. What are your suggestions for an easy-to-use, and probably free/very low cost, web-authoring software?

Other semesters students have used a variety of web-authoring programs, but since there was such a variety of platforms the teacher couldn’t help much. Last semester they only used Google sites and some students felt constrained by that. But some of the people taking the class are very new to computers.

My response:

When I read Patty’s query my first response was “they should learn the basics of coding,” and I’m not backing away from that although I agree with some (if not all) of the points made by Kristin and Steve. I think the missing component from Patty’s query is the TYPE of class being taught.

If this is a multimedia authoring course with a web component, then I stand firm in the position that students must know the basics of hand-coding (X)HTML and CSS as well as the basic processes of transferring files to the server and how pages are linked together. IOW, the absolute basics of web publishing.

If this is a professional & technical writing course that has a web component, I would ask about the goals for that component—is it writing for the web (which would focus on elements of style and content rather than markup) or is creating a web site (which should focus on the writing as well as markup and system processes). If it’s writing for the web rather than web site creation, I could see learning about the interfaces for various content management systems (and here I’ll include a blogging platform like WordPress as a content management system because the interfaces are similar) which may require them to know basic code but more often will include a visual editor that allows them to “mark up” their content without knowing code—and that’s ok as long as students also know what is going on when that happens.

To Patty’s statement that “Last semester they only used Google sites and some students felt constrained by that,” I would say of course they were constrained. That’s the whole point of templatized sites or site builder software—to constrain the user (ok, it’s also to get people up and running with something minimal, sure, but to do that there must be constraints in place). I’m actually thrilled to know that the students realized they were constrained. I think that speaks to the need to actually teach them the basics of (X)HTML and CSS (and the file transfer process) so they can express themselves, not how Google sites or [insert other site builders here] want them to express themselves.

About Kristin’s point that “there is no need for them to know how to ‘build’ a website in order to have an online presence,” that is absolutely true, and the knowledge of “upacking the rhetoric of the post and the template” is very important. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just note that Kristin and I co-taught the Rhetoric of Information course here at WSU last semester and we wrestled with a lot of these very issues. BUT, I disagree that “the homepage is dead.” The static page is dead, sure. But dynamic sites, or “pages” that include embedded aggregated information, or…Waves… those are here, and those still require a knowledge of the underlying code and process that gets the content from file to server to end user’s browser.

In another point of full disclosure, I’ll add that in addition to being a grad student at WSU (and Kristin is on my committee), I’m also a Pearson author. I’m currently involved in two book projects with aggressive timelines wherein my editor specifically wants to address what he sees as a gap in the available, reasonably priced texts for these types of courses — either basic web publishing courses or courses with web components, sometimes taught by people who do not have a strong foundation themselves in this sort of thing. The first project is a revision of Sams Teach Yourself HTML and CSS in 24 Hours (it will be the 8th edition) which has a primary focus on understanding the publishing process (files on server), solid coding, and basic design. The second project is a revision of Laura Lemay’s Sams Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML and CSS in One Hour a Day (it will be the 6th edition) which focuses more on the aspects of planning, publishing, and administering sites although there is a solid chunk on the code as well. Both these books should come in under the $25 price point —at least that’s the goal.

I guess I just always want students to be aware that content creation, markup, stylesheets, static vs dynamic sites, etc. all involve rhetorical choices. I want students to understand that there are plenty of rhetorical choices being made for them when they are locked into a template or a sitebuilder or a WYSIWYG editor, that’s not necessarily a good thing, and it’s not all that difficult to obtain the skills that will allow them more control over the content they produce.

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1 Comment on “unedited thoughts on students knowing (or learning) how to code

  1. This all makes sense to me. As you know, I’m no sort of expert, but it’s interesting to read your views on this since I’m in the midst of learning Java — partly because it’s a prereq for other classes in CSS, but also because it’s fun. What I understand now (in a way that I didn’t understand as clearly before), is that students who are fluent in programming languages have a more sophisticated understanding of structure and organization —

    wait, let me put that differently. They always had that sophisticated understanding, and it was foreign to ME. And I’ve had some interesting conversations with former students who program, where we’ve talked about ways to import that knowledge into their writing. And I find that interesting.

    But I suppose that what I’m making an argument for (in a tentative way) has more to do with professors learning to code instead of students.

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