WordPress for happy campers

Friday, 22 January 2010 — 3:59am | Computing

Sometime ago I worked at a rather well-regarded summer camp for children interested in science, technology, and engineering. It was by and large a positive experience, and none of what I am about to raise pertains to that programme alone. Any camp run by university students will undergo a lot of staff turnover year to year, with comparably less turnover in the boys and girls who show up every summer because (as their parents attest) they don’t want to go outside. At DiscoverE, the instructors had an instrumental role in planning the day camps on offer, but broadly speaking the schemes were adapted from the successes of previous years with minor modifications.

For computer camps, that sense of inherited continuity can be crippling in ways that aren’t obvious at first sight. Consider a standard offering of computer instruction today: an introduction to building websites. When kids look at websites, they dream about making their own—and they pattern their imaginations after what they see, not what is practical. The instructors have to teach them how to do this, in a rudimentary sense, in a severely limited timeframe with a minimum of confusion and drudgery.

Most quick-and-dirty website instruction, right up to the community-college level, will adopt one of two solutions. Both of them are holdovers from a decade ago. On one hand you can teach hand-coded HTML, which is how we grizzled warriors learned the ropes when we braved the jungles of GeoCities to hang our(selves on) <marquee> lights. But you don’t do that to kids today, certainly not within a week; it’s demoralizing to start with an empty canvas, teaching it ends up in a mire of copy-and-paste, and the youngsters don’t value minimalism like we do. Besides, you’ll only end up showing them how to write bad code that doesn’t validate, since there’s no way in holy hell you’re covering CSS.

Introductory website courses thus swing to the other extreme: proprietary WYSIWYG site-builders like Dreamweaver. This is a terrible idea, for two major reasons (among others):

  • Campers want to take their work home with them when the week is through and continue chipping away. To do this, they have to pressure their parents to obtain a product that isn’t priced for individual amateurs and certainly not for kids, a fraction of which will ever see use. As much as I love Adobe, I have an ethical problem with this, especially as I do not consider piracy a legitimate workaround to the high cost of software licenses. It ends up being either a de facto endorsement of a commercial product or a de facto endorsement of piracy.

  • These tools are not for beginner sites. Years ago, nobody serious about websites used WYSIWYG editors; they had a dreadful reputation for generating messy code, non-compliant with standards and a pain to fine-tune. Dreamweaver has improved considerably, but it is a professional tool for business purposes more than personal use, best left to the people who know the nuts and bolts of web design and use it for mock-ups or speeding up their workflow. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the interface is bewildering and problems are hard to spot and fix—and children break things in the most fascinating and creative ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Dreamweaver wrecked my camp. The kids had fun, the parents offered their compliments, the instructors didn’t go too crazy, and whoever planned the course that year did an admirable job considering how they stuck to what I think is a fundamentally broken orthodoxy of how to introduce 9-to-11-year-olds to making websites. I’m saying computer camps can do better.

I propose that crash courses in website building teach WordPress. Here’s why.

  • The skills are immediately useful. People use blog publishing platforms to build most personal websites today. This, not pure coding or proprietary software, is the reality of site-building for professionals and hobbyists alike.

  • Editing a site is easy and graphical, but also modular: users can focus on tasks like adding text, links, pictures, plug-ins, and widgets without the risk of breaking everything else. And if they do break something, it should be relatively easy to fix.

  • You can make static webpages with a consistent look, starting with a wide selection of themes. Beginner projects can look great. Students can tweak things in the layout that apply to the whole site without fussing with things like Dreamweaver’s templates and demarcated no-editing zones, features they won’t get around to learning anyway.

  • There is a lot of depth on offer for advanced students that attend the same camp year after year, easily get bored with simple tasks, and like to forge ahead on their own. And from an instructor’s viewpoint, diving into the guts of a WordPress theme, or swapping between the WYSIWYG and code-based editors, is a far better introduction to HTML and CSS than writing it from scratch.

  • If WordPress ever becomes defunct or otherwise undesirable, the same skills carry over to other publishing platforms like TypePad; the principles are similar enough that you’re not tethered to one product by your familiarity with its toolbar bloat. The idea of web-based publishing isn’t going away anytime soon.

  • It’s free from start to finish. Students don’t need to purchase anything to continue working on their projects at home, nor do they need to find their own web host.

Publishing tools like WordPress are not some trendy, ephemeral Web 2.0 offshoot of the old techniques; they are a third stream of website development entirely, no longer limited to blogs and not nearly as rigid as they used to be. They have been around for long enough that we can spot them now as a revolution in web publishing, not merely a passing fad. If computer camps for children want to live up to their promises of relevance and fun, blogging tools are the way to go.

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5 rejoinders to “WordPress for happy campers”

  1. Ellison

    Oh man. A long time ago I wrote the manual for the City of Edmonton’s equivalent to DiscoverE. I insisted they learn real HTML and CSS. A year later they tried to run a camp with more advanced software (one week with Photoshop, Flash, and, um, other things that I forget). It was a disaster and after running the camp for just 2 weeks I suggest they not try again….

    Anyway. I guess it was a few ago, but I managed to get kids to actually enjoy working out of Notepad, if you can believe it.

    Monday, 25 January 2010 at 5:28am

  2. Rachelle

    We did this last year, kind of. It tended to be good enough for most campers to simply introduce the wonders of blogger, but expanding to wordpress is kind of a neat idea…

    Thursday, 28 January 2010 at 3:22am

  3. Andy

    I’m teaching Flash to kids in grades 4-6 right now, 2.5 hours a week for eight weeks. It’s not anywhere near being a disaster – in fact, by week 5 we have games with player movement and collision detection, and we’ll be carrying on with that for the rest of the program.

    It’s not the material, it’s the way it’s taught. End of story.

    Now, that brings up your first point with Discover E – the instructor turnover. Precisely because of the types of people who’re hired (students, and not nearly enough Education students), the programs are developed and delivered largely by people who have at most one year of experience. Most of the time, they have none at all. The workshop presentations are the first presentations they put together in their lives, and it usually shows. Planning a week’s worth of camp projects isn’t only a challenge, it sometimes doesn’t even happen. Obviously you’re going to have these issues with any student-operated (and thankfully Discover E is no longer student-run…the lack of consistent directorship was a problem) organization, but Discover E in particular would have benefited greatly from more instructor training.

    Anyhow, that was a bit of a tangent. My point is that thinking the material and the kids are the problem is entirely wrong. Not to mention that we had no problem teaching CSS along with HTML with Discover E in ’06.

    Tuesday, 2 February 2010 at 6:03am

  4. Hey Andy, thanks for coming by. My memory escapes me, but in my year we were still using a lot of what you developed for various workshops and camps.

    Short version: I agree with you, and by and large I believe certain tools to be ill-suited platforms with constant instructor turnover in mind. That probably didn’t come out clearly at all (and looking at it afterwards, my proposal here was bad for a number of other reasons that haven’t been raised).

    But were we to whittle it down to tools, the usability, reward, and fun of Dreamweaver is a long, long way from Flash.

    Tuesday, 2 February 2010 at 6:43am

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