September 1996

Root Page of Article: Scenarios for Computers in Composition , by Maureen Burgess and Lori Mathis

Web Writing Section

by Lori Mathis

Teaching teachers, on a local level, how to write in HTML and how to design and post Web pages is crucial to developing instructional materials for the World Wide Web. Many educators across the country have been working on this development project, as evidenced by the World Lecture Hall's bank of syllabi and course materials (as well as many and other excellent instructional resource sites). The benefits of posting instructional materials on the Web are, on one level, obvious--by posting Web pages that describe teachers' curriculum and deliver course materials, teachers can reach their own students and others outside their classrooms; they can also use other teachers' instructional Web pages as resources. Moreover, if a particular course's site is interactive, students and teachers across the country can participate in and add to the course's materials and knowledge generation. Hence, teachers and classes across the country can share a common syllabus and benefit from the different experiences generated at their different universities. Finally, if students post materials to the course Web site, they can engage in an editorial process in which they prepare their documents for public reading on the Web.

But there are also benefits for writing instructors actually learning about HTML rather than just posting translated text files to the Web or having someone else code their pages:

If teachers learn about and experience writing in HTML, they can see and understand traditional print writing, academic essays, and word processing in a new light. The visible strangeness of HTML, as compared to WYSIWYG Web editors, challenges teachers to think about the relationship among a writer, writing materials or tools, and the written product. By comparing traditional writing with writing in HTML, they can more easily examine and discuss their own assumptions about what makes an excellent, written text.

Because English instructors usually don't have experience with programming or coding, writing in HTML code and posting a page to the Web increases confidence and ability to create innovative uses for computers in writing classrooms, and to be innovative in designing with HTML itself.

For all of these reasons, we are committed to meeting the demand for Web writing instruction. In general, we provide a variety of methods for training: self-guided instruction and reference guides, group workshops, and individual consultations. (See CCL's support and service page for more information.) At present, however, we periodically offer a two and a half hour Web writing workshop, for faculty and graduate students. This workshop method allows us to meet a large demand for basic Web writing instruction. In our department, numbers of people want to post pages for committees and programs, write Web page assignments for students, and incorporate writing Web pages into their professional writing, but most of these people have no prior experience with Web writing and therefore need a basic introduction to Web writing.

Holding a general workshop helps us practice teaching methods that we can eventually translate into self-guided instructions tailored to English instructors. These large-group workshops also give participants a base of knowledge from which they feel comfortable scheduling individual consultations with us. For instance, after our winter workshop, an English professor could imagine graduate students developing bibliographic pages on selected literary figures or topics, so he worked with me in the spring to design a Web writing assignment and specialized in-class Web instruction for his graduate course in bibliography.

Finally, though we recognize that on-line Web writing guides and other self-guided tutorials are quite good, many of our teachers need an active and real-time introduction to effectively begin this learning process, especially since HTML and the Web still represent a relatively new and strange world.

Because of our decision to use training workshops, we have had to work hard to overcome two main difficulties. One, our teachers have a wide range of skill and comfort-level with computers. Some have dabbled in Web writing before and others have never viewed the source tags behind the Web page that they are viewing on their screens. Two, since we believe it's important for people to learn HTML code, we always use either a Web editor such as World Wide Web Weaver or a word processor-with codes exposed-in an introductory workshop. The first sight of raw HTML is intimidating to many--as the sight of a different language is to most people. Revealing the source code of a page and projecting it on a screen initially causes a few wide-eyed stares and murmurs. So we have to devise a flexible workshop that could address a variety of needs and introduce HTML in a constructive, non-threatening way. The two keys to this kind of introduction to Web writing, for us, are 1) teaching essential Web writing strategies, and 2) associating Web writing with familiar occasions for writing.

Essential Web Writing Strategies

Since our workshops are only two hours long (any more would probably send us and our participants over the hypertextual edge), we cannot hope to thoroughly teach HTML, a specific Web editing program, or a complete Web project like creating an on-line syllabus. So instead, we hope that participants learn

  1. how HTML codes are interpreted by a browser such as Netscape and then presented to the user;
  2. what design elements constitute a basic Web page;
  3. how writers can choose from an array of working environments, including a word processor, an HTML editor, or a translation program) in order to write HTML code; and
  4. how writers can learn HTML codes and page design by viewing an HTML page's source file.

    With these tools in hand, as well as the knowledge that printed reference manuals and our staff resources are close by in our office, many participants leave our workshops with confidence that they can write in HTML and use it to write an on-line syllabus, a writing program Web site, or a professional home page

    Placing These Strategies in Familiar Context

    --Workshop Lecture--

    To make these strategies work for our workshop participants, we place their introduction to HTML in familiar contexts. For our audience of English faculty and graduate students, a familiar context is teaching and studying texts--the written word.

    Therefore, at the beginning of a Web writing workshop, CCL Director Professor H. Lewis Ulman uses a common acronym for word processors-WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get)-to place HTML within the history of writing. As the lights dim and the workshop starts, he begins with an overhead of a Sumerian clay writing tablet with words cut into the clay by a stylus. This tablet provides an ancient example of a WYSIWIG form of writing; what you see is what you get because that's all there is. No codes or programs lie beneath the etched letters. Prof. Ulman then jumps forward in history to word processing programs, like WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, that show users the coding that dictates the presentation of words. These are two items our participants can identify with-old writing systems where the hand makes marks on clay or paper and word processors that show both coding that designates the appearance of the printed text and the words themselves.

    The next step in Professor Ulman's narrative is HTML, which he compares to programs like Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS, because HTML is often viewed with its codes visible to the writer, codes that a Web browser interprets and presents to a reader. ( Web editors such as Adobe's SiteMill, like most current word processors, do offer WYSIWIG environments for text production.) Different browsers interpret a single HTML page differently. So, participants in our workshop, who study how readers interpret the words on a page differently depending on their backgrounds and experiences, can now imagine programs that interpret differently as well. Thus, participants have two ways to relate to HTML: first by imagining word processors that show their coding and second by considering the idea of "readers," including Web browsing programs, interpreting Web pages in different ways.

    At the end of this introduction, Prof. Ulman quickly goes over basic HTML principles, an introduction to HTML elements like page structuring elements, and an introduction to designing Web pages. For more information about the material he covers, see the handout we use during Web writing workshops.

    --Hands-on Workshop--

    To make Web writing familiar in the hands-on portion of the workshop, we use templates, constructed either in a word processor or an HTML editor. These templates are similar to those available for downloading from an HTML instructional Web site such as the templates available from the Computers and Writing Resource Lab (CWRL) at the University of Texas at Austin. Like these templates, our templates include HTML tags between which writers can insert their own content, explanation about the HTML tags, and the opportunity to save the template as text to their own disks. Though similar, ours are less generic than CWRL's because we have created them to accompany our workshop focusing on syllabus and curriculum vitae construction. So, they include more commentary about the HTML tags and design of these kinds of documents.

    We give at least an hour for hands-on work with HTML, and our templates are central to this work. For our Web workshop in the spring, we created two templates: one for a syllabus and one for a curriculum vita. Participants could choose which template to work with for the hour, and two CCL staff members were available for consultation. Participants practiced deleting the sample content and inserting their own content, viewing their pages through Netscape to see the effects of the HTML code, and changing the HTML code to generate a different effect. This method of teaching allows participants to go at their own pace, learn the basic strategies for moving between an HTML document and a browser to view their progress, and leave with the beginning of their own customized syllabus or professional home page, as well as the original templates. They can continue to work with these templates long after the workshop is over. In this way they can get a syllabus up on the Web without much trouble by following a template, or they can learn more HTML and embellish the syllabus, or maybe they will eventually want to completely change it.

    This ability to save the template became extremely important in a more specialized workshop I ran in the graduate course on bibliography I mentioned earlier. In this course, none of the students had ever created a Web page, and they were required to produce one by the end of the term. The time we had to work on learning how to design and produce a Web page was limited because of the important content material of the course. Therefore, as the CCL consultant working with the professor, I found it crucial to make the students' introduction to HTML non-threatening, effective, and especially tailored to their assignment for the end of the term. So I designed a template that modeled one way to write a bibliographic Web page that relied on description lists to present resources about a certain literary figure or issue. Though I ran into a few glitches when presenting this template, I believe it was a successful strategy. A participant later explained that she couldn't have written a Web page for her course requirement without the template; it was tool she could keep returning to, even if she made mistakes. --

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