July 21, 2024

Understanding HTML Is Critical to Web Literacy, Especially for Young Creators | Opinion

By Paul Oh

How do we continue to build a world of creators and not just consumers?

That’s a question we at the National Writing Project, along with our friends at the Mozilla Foundation, repeatedly ask ourselves and our networks of co-conspirators.

One way is to learn to be a maker of the web, through a lived understanding of the building blocks of websites: Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Some argue, like Roy Tennant did recently in a Digital Shift blog post, that there’s no need to learn HTML. That these days you can use rich-text editors and website-building programs that require no knowledge of code or coding to create something functional as well as beautiful, living your life in ignorant bliss.

I, on the other hand, maintain that knowing HTML—even just knowing how to find the HTML on a webpage or knowing just a few of the tags that comprise the language—makes us increasingly Web literate and gives us critical knowledge in relation to the most important writing production engine of our lifetime, the Internet.

Being literate has always meant not only being a reader, but also being a writer, a creator of text. Over time, that notion of agency has expanded into the realm of publishing for an ever-increasing audience. In today’s digital world, the writable web allows us to publish our own blogs and ebooks to a network of billions. We “write” in words, images, videos, trans-media stories, game narratives, the list goes on.

Yet we also find ourselves bombarded with mobile ads and product placements in our Web-based email. We discover that our Facebook status updates do not actually belong to us. Search engines use our online patterns of clicking and sell that to retailers, who turn around and remind us of the shoes we browsed recently or the car we priced. How did they know?, we ask ourselves. It feels like magic.

And that’s the problem. It feels like magic. When really, all the tricky so-very-clickable ads have been designed and programmed by people who understand the tools of the Web and how the manifestation of those tools affect consumers like you and me. That’s why it’s critical that we all—librarians, educators, youth, the public at large—understand how the Web works. So we understand that the Web not only isn’t the result of magic, but that it’s, in fact, built on a system of code—HTML—which we, too, can manipulate, so that we can better see what is being done to us as well as make decisions about what we want to do and have done.

And never has this idea of Web agency been more important.

As Douglas Rushkoff writes in the introduction to his book, Program or Be Programmed:

In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.

Based on an idea to build a world of informed online creators, the Mozilla Foundation has launched its Webmaker Initiative, where anyone can use tools such as Thimble to make dynamic, remixable content using both HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), the usually invisible text-based commands that direct the rendering of a webpage. As you build in Thimble, often from already-existing templates as guides, you see the HTML alongside the webpage you’re creating. Once done, your Thimble Web project— including the code you used—is published for everyone to see.

We at the National Writing Project have grabbed hold of these Webmaker tools. Teachers in our network lead Hack Jams where they use X-Ray Goggles to examine and then remix the HTML at websites, adding their own photo and caption to a dummy version of The New York Times, for instance. And then, most importantly, they consider the literacy implications of that work—for themselves as educators and users of the web, and for the youth with whom they work.

At this week’s Make-To-Learn Symposium, we’ll be leading a group in creating their own Six-Word Memoirs using a Thimble template we co-designed with Laura Hilliger of the Mozilla Foundation. By helping participants construct a Web-based six-word memoir using HTML and CSS, we’re also facilitating questions about design, visual rhetoric, and the connection between making and literacy—skills, competencies, and knowledge that all of us need to be critical consumers as well as informed creators in our increasingly digital world.

I invite you to try out Thimble or another Webmaker tool, to learn HTML. Build something out of that knowledge and help the youth you work with do the same.

Access the control panel.

About the author: Paul Oh is Senior Program Associate at the National Writing Project