Should Students Learn to Write HTML Code?

I saw an email from someone today suggesting that they would be starting next term to teach their students to write HTML code from scratch, so the kids could make their own webpages. My initial reaction when I read this message was to ask “Why?” Why would anyone bother to learn HTML coding from scratch when there are so many great editing tools around? Surely, in a WYSIWYG world, learning how to to actually write HTML code is a complete waste of time? With so many great web editing tools around, isn’t learning to write raw HTML code a pointless exercise?

In once sense, these are valid questions. There’s no doubt that the majority of websites these days are created using a templated approach and an “engine” such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Squarespace, etc. It’s also true that for any really customised web work, it would still fall to a workhorse like Adobe Dreamweaver or something else, such as excellent free tools like KompoZer or NVU editor.

However, on reflection, I think there is a great deal to be said for being able to understand basic HTML code. Take using Moodle as an example… as much as I would like to tell my teachers at school that Moodle has a wonderful WYSIWYG editor, and that it will automatically format all the text and images for you just by cllicking on the little buttons in the editing bar, the fact remains that I still find myself hitting the little <> button on the Moodle editor bar to dive into HTML code on an almost daily basis just to fix little quirky things that are going on.

It’s also true that, although you can use the buttons on the editor to align text to the left or right (which in HTML, behaves quite differently to how it behaves in, say, Word) knowing a little bit about what those buttons are actually doing on a code-level makes it much easier to predict how things will actually look. Being able to manually write a link to a URL, being able to strip out some rogue heading level text, fixing paragraphs that have gone askew because of a stray tag, and so on… these are all things that I find myself doing fairly regularly, even WITH access to fancy WYSIWYG editing tools. I taught myself the basics of writing HTML nearly 15 years ago now (well, to be completely honest, one of my students taught me!) and I can’t even begin to tell you how handy it has been and how often I have used that knowledge. Although I would like to think that we are living in a world where it SHOULD be completely unnecessary to know how to write HTML source code, the truth is that over the years it’s proven itself to be a damn handy skill!

Even being able to use the provided code to put an YouTube video or a Google Map into a wiki or blog, for example… sure, you CAN do it without having the slightest idea of how it all works, but if you want to make a minor adjustment such as changing the width or height of the frame, just being unintimidated by the code makes a big difference to your general level of technological fluency.

I’m not saying that everyone should be able to write heavy-duty CSS code or be able to create complicated PHP script, but HTML is dead simple… and for the number of times I find myself rescuing a page because of a relatively simple adjustment to the underlying code… I gotta say, I can’t think of anyone who would not benefit from knowing the basics.

So, should this teacher spend time teaching his kids to code? Some may disagree, but I say yes. My advice would be to teach kids to write a fairly simple webpage. They should know the core structure of html, head and body. They should understand heading levels (and depending on the age of the students, how these can be tied to style sheets). They should know how to manually write (or at least understand) the code for a hyperlink, for an image, and for an embed. It’s good to know these basics. I guarantee you those kids will find them useful at some point in their future.

For the majority of your students, that’s probably all they need to know. Then, once they have a grip on the basics, switch over to a decent visual editor like Dreamweaver or similar… some tool that lets them switch back and forth between code view and output view. Output view will make SO much more sense once they see the relationship between code and output!

And who knows, just that small exposure to the underlying code could make all the difference to that one kid in your class. It could open them up to a whole world of coding and being interested in what really makes a computer tick. In this WYSIWYG world, God knows we need more kids like that!

And if nothing else, you’ll at least understand why the picture that goes with this post is so funny! 🙂

What about you?  Do you think teaching kids to understand HTML is a useful skill, or a waste of time?

Image: ‘html tag italicized
http://www.flickr.com/photos/30127486@N00/346483297

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

I recently wrote about the Apple ITSC events that I was lucky enough to have been a part of.  They’re all over now, and after having participated at ITSCs on the Gold Coast, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne (as well as the one in my home town of Sydney) I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed being involved in them.  One of the best aspects of the way ITSC was run this year was the way they leveraged the unconference concept and tried to break away from the traditional “sit and git” model of learning at conferences.  The unconference model is a good model for learning because it attempts to meet people’s needs for knowledge, allowing those with expertise to share it and those with questions to ask them.  The lack of rigid structure is what makes it work along with the fact that you learn more when you get actively involved in learning about things that are directly relevant to you.

If you ever want to run an unconference, there is plenty of advice online about how you might do it, but when it’s all boiled down, the “rules” for an unconference could be summarised as…

  1. The people who come are the best people who could have come.
  2. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  3. It starts when it starts.
  4. It’s over when it’s over.
  5. The Law of Two Feet (“If you are not learning or contributing to a talk or presentation or discussion it is your responsibility to find somewhere where you can contribute or learn”).

My first real unconference experience happened in Christchurch NZ last year at the ULearn event.  It was organised – or rather, unorganised – by a small group of volunteers, and it’s notable feature was the lack of any rigid structure.  A few tables were set up, people joined in conversations taking place at the tables and then just moved around the room whenever they felt they wanted to move on.  We had some really great conversations about all manner of things that really made a difference to what I took away from the main conference.

MCloser to home, my partner Linda was recently part of an international team of people who planned an unconference event for the IABC World Conference held recently in Toronto, Canada.  So I’ve seen first hand just what’s involved in planned a great unconference event.  While there is definitely a lot of planning involved, on the actual day it works best if there is a great deal of flexibility in how people interact with the event.  People give what they can give, and they take what they can take.  That’s the spirit of an unconference.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. I spent most of today at MoodleCamp Sydney, an unconference-style event for people interested in the open source learning management system called Moodle.  It was organised by Sydney Moodler Jason Hando, a guy I’ve known online for quite a few years, although we only met in person recently for the first time.  I got an email from Jason inviting me to the MoodleCamp event and I signed up right away, with an intention to not only attend but to contribute something from my own school’s journey with Moodle over the last few years.  Jason also emailed me a few days before the event and asked for some extra assistance with the design and creation of some certificates of attendance for the participants, as well as asking if I’d help out with facilitating one of the rooms on the day.  Naturally, wanting to be helpful, I agreed to both.

So today, I turned up at the Sydney Distance Education High School at Wolloomooloo to join my fellow Moodlers to learn lots of cool stuff about Moodle.  For a variety of reasons the event didn’t really hit the mark for me, partly because the organisation of it was not particularly like an unconference, but mostly because of a very public falling out with Jason Hando over an issue in which I thought he was being particularly obnoxious and belligerent, and which escalated into a very ugly situation for everyone.

The first concern was with the way the event was organised.  And ok, maybe I’m being picky, but for an event that was constantly being promoted (positively) as “unorganised”, “unofficial”, “ad-hoc”, etc, right through to the way participants were being referred to as “unparticipants”, when push came to shove it was just as traditional as a normal conference event.  I’m sure Jason had put a lot of time and effort into making the event happen, including providing a rather good looking lunch (I never ate any of it, so I don’t know how it tasted, but it looked good). The venue as very nice, and the potential was there for it to be a really good event.  However, as the day unfolded it turned out to be not so much an unconference, but rather just a series of short traditional presentations, mostly given in a fairly transmissive mode from speaker to audience.

The day was split into 20 minute sessions, and while I understood the reasoning for this, I didn’t think it was really in the spirit of the way an unconference is meant to work… it was simply too structured. Just as I found myself engaging with ideas that were raised, it was time to move on to the next session.  Most of the speakers (including myself) were just trying to get through all they wanted to say in their 20 minute slot, so there wasn’t nearly enough time for questions, conversations and actual sharing.  I felt that just as things got interesting, the “bell would go” and it was time to move to the next lesson. On the flipside, some sessions would drag on past the point at which I was finding them useful, but we kept going anyway because our 20 minutes wasn’t up yet… so much for the Law of Two Feet. For an event that was constantly promoted as being somewhat counter-cultural, it was surprisingly traditional.  Even the layout of the room was surprisingly traditional… the main part of the room was set up with rows of chairs facing the front, where “the front” was a stage with a lectern on it, a projector screen and plenty of PowerPoint/Keynote slides full of bulleted text.  The two breakout rooms were also set up with rows of chairs facing the front, with a screen and a place for “the teacher” to talk to “the students”.  The best parts of the day were the breaks between sessions where the conversation flowed freely and people were sharing ideas and showing each other things on their laptops… but in an unconference, this is what the sessions are supposed to feel like, not just the breaks between the sessions.

The other big issue I had with the day (and which possibly coloured my entire experience of the event) was the very public dressing-down I got from Jason Hando over an issue that he and I did not see eye to eye on.  It’s a long story and I don’t want to embarrass the other person involved, but the belligerence and unreasonableness from Jason was completely over the top.  Another participant arrived at the event – someone I know quite well and whom I consider a friend – and apparently Jason took exception to both his presence at the event and what he planned to present.  This person is extremely active and well known in the Moodle community, and has a reputation for being generous with both his time and his considerable expertise. To contribute to the event, as well as running a very valuable session, he wanted to donate some Moodle books as prizes and also to host a quick Skype call to a surprise guest Moodler. I’m sure that both of these things would have been exceptionally well received by everyone at the event.

Instead of welcoming this person and valuing the great contribution they might be able to make to MoodleCamp, Jason saw this person as a threat and told them to leave and that he was not welcome.  When I found out what happened I tried to act as a voice of reason to settle the disagreement, and I managed to get both parties in the other room to try and sort out what should have been a minor misunderstanding.  Instead, I got a hostile, antagonistic diatribe from Jason about why this person’s motives (which I KNOW were pure) were unacceptable to him. Jason was upset that this person had not contacted him in advance to advise that there would be free books and a Skype call taking place. I explained that I disagreed, that the whole point of an unconference was to be spontaneous, and that no one should have to “clear things” with the organisers if they were obviously in the interests of all participants. Jason expressed concern that this other person would somehow try to commercialise “his” event and he took exception to the fact that this person wore a shirt with a Moodle logo on it… he somehow saw this as a indication that someone from Moodle was “checking up” on him. (For the record, the shirt was one that any active member of the Moodle community is entitled to wear). When I disagreed with Jason’s view, he started ranting about how I was “in bed with” this other person and that I was clearly part of the problem.  The illogical nature of Jason’s reasoning got more and more surreal, and the conversation got more and more heated.  When we were finally joined by Jason’s offsider Danielle, who also spouted the same unreasonable nonsense as Jason, I threw my hands up and exclaimed in absolute frustration “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!”  Jason and Danielle both immediately switched the focus of the issue to the use of the word “fuck” and started carrying on about how offended they were because I swore at them.  Just to be clear, I didn’t swear AT them, I swore NEAR them.  Danielle went off her head about it, and her and Jason started telling me I wasn’t welcome and that I had to leave.

To say I was pissed off is a massive understatement.  I was pissed off at the ludicrous argument that Jason proposed as to why giving away books or wearing a shirt with a particular logo on it was inappropriate at an unconference.  I was pissed off that he had such unfounded, unreasonable suspicions about the motives of one of the most generous people I know. I was pissed off that he was acting like a completely spoiled child who wanted to take an “it’s my unconference and I’ll do whatever I want” attitude to it.  And I was pissed off that he was taking the democratic, free speech ideals of the unconference concept and micromanaging and filtering it in a way that would make even Steve Jobs cringe.

So, having been asked to leave, I left.  But as I walked back to the car, I thought to myself “Hang on, I came here to learn. I’m not going to let some upstart with a bad attitude ruin that”.  So I went back into the room and sat down.  By this point, Jason was standing on the stage, welcoming people and thanking everyone who helped make the day happen.  He then had the audacity to list me as one of his helpers (which, until that point, I was) then he paused, pointed a finger at me from the stage and said “Didn’t I just tell you to leave?”

“Yeah, but I came back.”

“I want you to leave.  You’re not welcome.”  Then he addressed the entire audience who were present and relayed his distorted version of what happened in the back room.  Not the whole story mind you, just the fact that I said “fuck”. In fact, according to Jason I said it 5 or 6 times, which is actually untrue.  He also said that I directed the swearing at Danielle, which was also untrue.

So he then asked me, publicly from the stage, to leave.  I said no. He said he would not continue talking until I left and he walked away from the microphone. I said I was staying. Long pause.  I then suggested that he stop carrying on like a belligerent child and move on, but he refused.  It was embarrassing.  Not for me.  For him.  His puerile behaviour made him look like a complete jackass, but I was certainly not impressed with the very public airing of our dirty laundry.  To have a disagreement with someone is one thing.  To have it escalate into an argument is unfortunate, but we could have dealt with it.  But to air that argument in public, in front of a room full of people, giving only his side of the story, and to make it seem like the core of the issue was because I used a “bad word” is quite another thing.  In the end, I made it clear that I had no intention of leaving, and he eventually continued, but only after demanding a public apology for what he saw as the issue. He was embarrassingly immature in front of the whole room of people.

Let’s be clear. The issue was not the swear word.  The real issue was Jason’s totally unreasonable attitude towards a conference participant who he clearly had a longstanding beef with. The real issue was the fact that, even when he dragged me in as an “adjudicator”, when he didn’t get the agreement from me that he wanted, he turned nasty about it. The real issue was that he acted like this was “his” event, and not the participants’ event. The real issue was the “right of veto” nonsense he tried to pull when he felt that someone else might pick up some consultancy work as a result of the day (something which is very clearly in competition with his own business goals)  The real issue was the massive dummy spit he had when people didn’t share his views, to the point where he felt he could order them to leave.  Jason’s business is doing Moodle consultancy and there’s no doubt in my mind that MoodleCamp was a way of expanding his own customer base.  Reading between the lines, the thought of someone else coming along who might be seen as having more expertise, and therefore being a threat to his business, was too much for him and he snapped.

For the record, I approached Danielle afterwards and offered my apology if I caused her offence, and pointed out that my frustration was not directed at her.  I also, despite the fact that I really didn’t feel much like making any contributions at all after that, still presented a session since that’s part of the reason I came in the first place. And as for the “free lunch”, maybe it’s just cutting off my nose to spite my face, but there was no way I was going to take anything from someone who feels it’s ok to publicly embarrass me like that.

I don’t normally take my disagreements public but since that’s what Jason decided to do from the stage, I’m not going to take it lying down.  As another delegate confided to me later, “I can’t believe what an idiot he was to do that.  Of all the people to do that to, he should know better than to do it to you.”  Publicly embarrassing a blogger?  Bad idea.

The comments are open.  I’m quite happy to get an apology from Jason.  Otherwise, bring it on baby, because I’m filthy dirty about the way I was treated.

A Letter to Teachers about Learning

I’m running a course for our school staff at the moment called 23 Things. I borrowed the idea from the very successful 23 Things program run by the San Jose library, but have adapted it slightly for our particular school situation.

Essentially, the teachers work their way through 23 separate tasks, some as simple as reading a blog post or watching an online video tutorial, while some are a little more complicated such as setting up their own blog, feedreader and delicious accounts. The course runs over 9 weeks in total, and each week they are asked to do 3 or 4 “Things” – 23 in total – that will expose them to a wide range of Web 2.0 tools and ideas by the time it’s over.

I’m running the course internally using our school Moodle, and have set it up in such a way that people must sign up for the course and work their way through it a week at a time.  I thought it sounded like a good idea, and  so did they it seems… 14 teachers signed up for the course very soon after I announced it.

For all the palaver that teachers carry on with to students about the importance of time management, committment, and handing work in on time, it amazes me just how “flexible” a group of teachers expects a course to be. So far I’ve had one official drop-out, and really only 3 or 4 people who appear to be doing much at all. If this was their students that were taking such a relaxed approach to a course of study, I wonder if they would be quite so flexible and understanding.

I can’t write a note home to their parents, so instead I wrote a note to them… here’s what it said.

Some folk feel a little awkward or intimidated when they feel they don’t know how to do something… doing a course like this must feel a bit strange because you’re getting asked to do things that you have no idea how to do.

Let me remind you of something… the reason you are in this course (one can only surmise) is that you DON’T know how to do these things, but that you’d like to learn. So it’s ok not to know how to do them, or to not understand them. Applaud yourself for taking the plunge and signing up for 23 Things in an attempt to learn more about these things you don’t know.

Now, here’s a secret… if you have the Internet, you can learn to do almost anything. Try going to www.youtube.com and in the search box, type the thing you want to learn how to do… so, if you want to know how to set up Google Reader, go to YouTube and type “set up google reader“… you’ll find a bunch of tutorials to show you how. If you want to know how to make a Caesar salad, try typing in “how to make caesar salad” and viola! Dinner is almost served!

One of the unavoidable facts of life in the 21st Century is that Information is Abundant. If simple facts and data is what you need, or you want instructions on how to do something, then there is no shortage of information about it. In a previous age, school was predicated on the notion that Information is Scarce. Thanks to the Internet and tools like Google it no longer is, and this has changed the very nature of education. One of our greatest challenges in education nowadays is to deal with this idea that Information is no longer scarce… our students can (potentially) know as much (or more) than us about a particular topic. It doesn’t matter how much we know, there will always be more we don’t know.

For this reason we have to be continual learners, and we have to learn how to find answers to things that we don’t yet know. If this course was delivered face to face, I’d be able to explain and show you a lot of this stuff… but it’s not. And so you need to figure some things out for yourself and motivate yourself to find answers to problems that crop up.

By all means, I will help you if you get stuck and need a hand. But sometimes working it out for yourself can be the best thing you can do for yourself.

I have no idea whether it will make a difference or not, but I felt better after writing it.

Becoming a Moodle Dude

Julian Ridden training in MoodleSome things make you proud to be Australian.

As a nation with a relatively small population we have achieved some excellent results on the world stage. Sport. Science. The Arts. Even technology.

One of the real success stories of Australia’s technology achievement is Moodle. As an open source eLearning platform, Moodle started its life as a thesis project by a guy named Martin Dougiamas at Western Australia’s Curtin University, and has quickly grown into a major player in the rapidly growing eLearning world. Importantly, Moodle has been designed from day one to support learning using a social constructivist philosophy. Dougiamas belief is that people learn best when they are networked and connected, able to share and communicate ideas, and this belief underpins everything about Moodle’s design.

I am currently half way through a 4 day Moodle workshop and the more I learn, the more amazed I am at the maturity and depth of Moodle. It’s a relatively young piece of software that is growing rapidly thanks to a global community of developers. Although I have dabbled with Moodle a few times in the past, the last two days have really opened my eyes as to the power of what it offers. It is really powerful. And the next two days will focus on the backend administration stuff so I’m sure I’ll be equally as blown away.

Thankfully, we’ve had Julian Ridden as our trainer. Julian is the ICT Integrator at St Ignatius, Riverview and is arguably one of Australia’s (and possibly the world’s) most knowledgable Moodle guys. His explanations, advice and insights into Moodle have been priceless. I’m especially thankful that he is not just a techie (although he’s pretty darn good that that side of things too), but he is also a teacher and everything he’s been sharing about the use of Moodle comes from a really sound pedagogical background that can only come from someone who is still in real classrooms every day.

My new school, PLC Sydney, has a fairly large Moodle installation which aims to manage a lot of our course material and although it’s well developed and quite extensive, I’m realising now that there is lots of room for improving it. Like many tech developments, especially in a school environment, our Moodle has grown in a fairly organic way and probably suffers from a lack of design. I’m realising that, as with all web design projects, thorough planning needs to account for at least half of the time and effort involved in putting it together. As I return to school next week thinking about a complete overhaul of our Moodle server, I’m seeing that we really need to think it through very thoroughly before we start building anything.

One of the things I was most struck by is the modular, extensible nature of Moodle. I thought it could just do the handful of things that a standard Moodle install comes with – forum, wiki, chat, quizzes, surveys, and so on. These activity tools are very useful of course, but Julian has been showing us the huge library of resources at www.moodle.org… literally hundreds of extra modules that can be dropped in to the back end to add more functionality to the standard Moodle installation. Integration with RSS and Web 2.0 tools, podcasting modules, all sort of interesting blocks, activities and filters… I’m just gobsmacked at how hugely flexible this tool is!

Moodle just released version 1.9 a few days ago, and it has quite a few improvements over 1.8. Most notable of these is the integrated teachers markbook, which has been supercharged to now have all the features a teacher could want in a markbook (including support for outcomes!) but there are quite a few other neat new features worth checking out too.

I’ve installed Moodle locally on my MacBook Pro using the MAMP engine, so I now have access to the full Moodle installation, inclucing the backend database, to play with. I’m dabbling away, adding stuff, breaking stuff, learning how it works, before I get focussed on rebuilding the PLC Moodle. If you want to dabble with Moodle too, I recommend installing it on your own computer and playing with it.

I’m looking forward to becoming a much more accomplished Moodler!