This is the second in multi post series reflecting on the digital history course I taught this Semester at American University. For more on this you can read initial post about the course, the course syllabus and my first post in the series on the value of a group public blog.
Technical Skills: Training vs. Education
There were several points in course discussions when my decision to not require students to have their own hosting and domain would hit me in waves. For example, when we talked about Omeka and WordPress I explained that these were both software that anyone could run on their own, and further edit and tweak to their hearts content. To demonstrate I downloaded them and opened up the files in a text editor. But I realized that many of the students had never clicked view source on a page before, and thus had no idea what even the HTML in the files meant. I was able to give a quick high level overview of what was going on in the files, but I felt like I really was not doing this justice.
Still, the projects are better because of this lack of a technical focus
With this said, I have no doubt that my students took on more sophisticated projects because they were not focused on developing technical competencies. Students were able to jump right into making some solid historical web projects. That is to say, the students who pick up wordpress.com or omeka.net for their projects did not get bogged down in learning how to use floats in their design, they were not fighting with the projects respective codexes to get a handle on what kinds of calls they can make to the database to display the total number of items or posts. Instead, for the most part, they made decisions about the technologies that were available to them and decided how they could bend those technologies to their purpose. The result is that they spent much more of their time thinking about audience, doing an environmental scan, developing content, and thinking about how they should evaluate their work. This resulted in much more polished, and as far as I am concerned more thoughtful projects than those I have seen come out of courses that started from first principles with HTML, CSS, PHP, etc.
So how do we teach things like HTML, CSS, and PHP when the real answer at this point is to decide on a content management system and bend it to your will?
I am largely happy with how this turned out, but I am concerned about what I have lost by taking out some of that technical focus. While the projects may be better, and frankly the intellectual work I am most interested in having my students engage in (thinking about audience, content, evaluation, and design) I am concerned that my students are not going to take courses that get them to develop deeper core competencies for working on the web. To this end, if/when I teach this course again I am going to require students to get into this at least as deep as cPanel.
What I like about the idea of requiring students to use a shared host is that they get the simplicity of working with any of the hosted services (at this point many shared hosts have one click installs for WordPress and Omeka) but at the same time we can spend a bit of lab time poking around under the hood. We can take a look at the database, and we can make some tweaks to theme HTML, CSS, and PHP. I can take a little bit of time with them to get a working understanding of HTML and CSS in the context of working with these systems. I feel like this strikes a better balance of still letting us, jump right into work with all the benefits these systems provide but still having both the full range of possibilities that working with your own copy of the software provides and also getting a deeper sense of how the web and databases work.
So how technical is technical enough? I think I have a better sense of how I think the balance can work in this course in the future, but how do you think one should try to strike this balance? Further, where do we see the lines between training people to use particular tools and providing an education?