A Proper Web Standards Education: Part 3

By Chris Mills

Education

From reading the previous parts of my article series, you are probably starting to get an appreciation of web standards and why they are a good thing. You are probably also thinking that the majority of web developers out there are therefore following standards, and the web is a nicer, more fluffy place as a result.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. As a measure of how widespread web standards adoption is, Opera’s MAMA project trawled over 3.5 million web sites and collected various types of data about them, one of which being whether the page’s HTML validated or not. The rather worrying result was that 4.13% of sites surveyed actually validated. Why is this figure so bad? There are many reasons why people are not creating valid code and following standards:

  • They’ve been paid to create sites this way for years – why should they bother to take time out to learn new skills?
  • They’ve never been taught the importance of standards, and don’t really know they exist. Their course at uni or school didn’t contain anything about web standards
  • They are developing sites for a company or university Intranet, and they can guarantee that their users are being forced to use Internet Explorer, therefore they don’t need to bother with worrying about cross-browser compatibility, and can use Internet Explorer-only technologies such as ActiveX.
  • They are inexperienced hobbyists, and don’t want to know about the underlying technology and how it works; they just want to get their “look at my kittens” page up on the Web as easily as possible, either by copying and pasting code off a tutorial site, or using a template from an authoring tool such as Dreamweaver or Frontpage.

Whatever the background, I think education is the common thing lacking in all the above cases.

The education deficit

People think that web standards are too hard to learn, or it is too hard to find decent training material, or too expensive to buy books or go on courses.

University courses that touch on web development are usually hopelessly behind the times, and students are rarely taught about web standards. they are usually taught about the Web from the programming direction (“this web thing isn’t like real programming; it’s a bit fiddly and annoying, but I guess you’d better know about it”) or the graphics/multimedia direction (“this web thing is heavily related to graphic design, but it’s a bit complicated and requires code and stuff – let’s see how you go”). There are few courses that teach web development or design as the central focus, and fewer that teach web standards. I’ve even heard stores of students being marked down on their course work for using CSS rather than HTML tables for layout and <font> elements for styling, because that is what the curriculum still says to use.

Secondary schools seem to have it even harder. When I was talking to Anna about writing this article, I commented than when I was at school, IT courses sucked because they were nothing more than Word and Excel courses. She commented that basically nothing has changed (in the last thirteen years!) I found this really worrying – “the younger generation” is a lot more IT-literate these days, and from my experience kids already know how to do Word documents and Excel spreadsheets before they get to secondary school. By that point, they are customizing their own pages on social networking sites, and even putting up their own web pages. But courses at secondary school don’t teach them what they want to learn, so the courses tend to be really poorly subscribed.

I’ve also heard a lot of my friends at professional companies comment that when recruiting new employees, it is hard to find graduates that possess the basic web standards skills, even though these skills are becoming increasingly more sought after.

DISCLAIMER: Note than in the above points, I am stating the general pattern I have experienced over the years; I am certainly not trying to say that these points ring true in all cases. If you are, for example, a school or university teacher that does teach web standards effectively, don’t feel offended. In fact, get in touch with me so you can share your experiences!

Making a difference – the web standards curriculum

WAIIIIIIT A GODDAMN MINUTE!! I said one day (If I remember rightly, it was at about 9.43 one evening, and I was in the bath. It caused quite a stir).

These kinds things were worrying me, so I decided to do something about the situation. I decided to get together with some of my friends and create a definitive course to teach how to do client-side web development properly, using web standards, and make it available online for free:

  • It would dispel complaints that teaching material was hard to find, or expensive.
  • It would make it easier to get web standards introduced in school and university courses, if ready-made teaching material was available.
  • It would also give existing web developers a useful resource to learn from, teach others from, or use to justify investment in web standards to their bosses.

My employers – Opera Software – are passionate about web standards too, so they agreed to fund the project. After many months of hard work, the Web Standards Curriculum was released upon the world. It is completely free for you to use, and released under a creative commons license, so you can feel free to distribute and republish it, as long as you give the original source a credit, and don’t try to sell it for money. The granular nature of the course is very useful, as it is easy to chop articles out, change the order, etc, to suit your particular educational needs. There is also another curriculum available called WaSP InterAct that works in tandem with my course. Opera provides the raw tutorials, and InterAct provides course structures, teaching resources, etc.

Let’s all work together

So how can you make a difference? I think my course could really make a difference to web design and development education, and web standards adoption. I’d like to recommend that you all check out my course, and pass it around to any of your friends that are interested in making their own web pages; I’d also like to suggest that you give me any feedback that you have on the course, good and bad – what have we done well, and what could we improve on? What bits of it are hard to understand?

We can go further than this as well – I’d like you to help me by evangelising web standards at your school, university or workplace. Share my course with your teacher or boss, and we can try to get them to understand the importance of web standards more.

I’d also like to start work on introducing some pilot education schemes at universities and secondary schools. I’d like you to introduce me to your teacher, send me their e-mail address (asking their permission first is a good idea) perhaps, so I can talk to them and see if they are interested in helping to create some kind of scheme, or at least evaluate my course for use at their school.

It isn’t gonna be easy – we can’t hope to effect big changes overnight – but I believe that if we work together, we can start to make a difference.

Summary

And so concludes my overview of web standards, with a small education rant tagged on the end. I hope you found it useful. You can get in touch with me on Twitter, Facebook, and My Opera.

Chris Mills

A Proper Web Standards Education: Part 3

He is a self-confessed web geek and English language geek, having worked in various geek education roles for the last 8 or 9 years. Outside of work, Chris is a heavy metal warrior, playing really fast drums for many bands, including the mighty Conquest of Steel. He lives in grimy Oldham with his lovely girlfriend Kirsty, son Gabriel, baby daughter Elva, and 3 Macs. Feel free to contact him about Opera, or anything else mentioned in this article at the following e-mail address: cmills [at] opera [dot] com.

Chris Mills works for Opera (the Viking web browser vendor), splitting his time between evangelising Opera's software and web standards, and heading up Opera's developer education activities. This last part includes speaking at conferences, publishing regular web design and development articles on dev.opera.com, and being the creator of the Opera Web Standards Curriculum.