How Technical To Get When Teaching Digital History

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

I decided early on that I would not be teaching HTML, CSS, PHP or JavaScript in my digital history seminar. While I know this kind of technical competency is valuable, the course was not intended to be about technical training. I think that was the right decision.  I also decided I would not require students to buy a domain name and hosting. I wanted student’s projects to lead them to what they would need to do. If a hosted option like or suited their needs they could go ahead and do that. I feel less confident about that decision.

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 or 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.

I wanted to shy away from spending time on training when the goal of this course was still to serve as part of a liberal education. With that said, I have come around to  Jim Groom’s insistence that students buy hosting and at least one domain of one’s own. In this case, the education part comes from understanding how web hosting works.  In future versions of this course I will require students to buy a year of hosting on a shared host and at least one domain name. In lab sessions I would then require students to install WordPress and Omeka. I still don’t think it makes sense for a course like this to start with first principles and teach HTML, CSS, PHP and JavaScript. I would instead encourage them to play with available themes and show them how to use Firebug to pick out elements in those themes to tweak to bend them to their whims.

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?

5 Replies to “How Technical To Get When Teaching Digital History”

  1. For me, teaching students HTML is a basic part of teaching them to write structured documents – it is all about using H1, H2. H3 properly in your wordprocessor, webpage and your TEI marked up texts. That not only allows clean reuse of text and automatic generation of TOC, but also introduces thinking about how your knowledge is structured. I don't see that as "techy", I see it as proper writing.

    I have some slides I use for it, but mostly I start with lump of text in a wordprocessor and step through the process of using styles, to looking at cssZenGarden, to talking about ontologies. There is a small (4mb) and a large (19 mb) screen cap of this in called WSDsmall and WSDlarge which I'm happy for use and improve on.

  2. Hey Trevor,
    As a student from your class, permit me to be so bold as to give a suggestion. I think it's a great idea for students to create their own websites and even to learn some html. Given the high cost of hosting, however, I think there's one way of making website creation a requirement without bogging students down with more money to spend. I actually thought of doing this myself. As you know, I decided to create my own website and hosted it on Dreamhost (I've since created two more just for fun). I wondered though, why didn't I just offer to host other students' websites on a single Dreamhost account, since it doesn't cost anything to host additional websites? All they would be required to pay would be the $10 for registering the domain.
    Basically, I think it would best, if you do require each student to create their own website, to host them all on a single plan, like Dreamhost, and have everyone share the cost.

    Thanks again for an enjoyable class!

    1. Thanks Dennis! I see where you are coming from on this. Having everyone share one hosting account might make a lot of sense. There are very real concerns about costs and history students are not known for their wealth.

      With that said, there is something about having "ownership" of the hosting and domain that in my experience can be quite empowering. In particular, when you take into account that something like hostgator sells single site hosting at $4 a month, there are plenty of text books I have bought for courses that cost more than that.

      With that said, I am definitively going to think about this a bit more before I give this another go and I want to thank you for reminding me to make keeping things cheep a priority. I will take a look and see if I can get something put together for a pooled hosting account that would still have that same kind of in charge feeling to it.

    2. When I taught the course, I made this very suggestion, and several students ended up going in together on hosting.

      There are also pretty good free hosts, like Oatbox, that I've used with some success, though there are more limitations with free hosts.

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