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Everything I Know About HTML I Learned From An 11 Year Old

Later thisweek I’ll be speaking at Oral Roberts University to a student group called Enactus (from their Twitter “Using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better more sustainable world”). I plan to just share my story: how I leveraged my web design skills in various non-technical marketing positions and how it inevitably circled back around to what I do today.

The truth is, while I spent the last two years in a marketing/pr role, I found a way to earn roughly 20% of my annual income doing freelance web design for various local businesses and consultants. This was born out of necessity for my family as we had recently had our first child and were fairly strapped for cash.

Having a newborn meant I had to be incredibly efficient with the little time I had to do freelance work, and this attracted me to solutions like WordPress. I could install the application on a server and identify a suitable theme in minutes, which would usually get me 80% of the way there on the back-end work allowing me to focus my attention on front-end design. Shortly thereafter, my project management and design skills became known more broadly around the University where I work, which landed me projects like designing and managing freedom.ou.edu, a civic education video platform, management.ou.edu, a MOOC from a buddy/professor named Jeremy Short in the Price College of Business, and for presidential campus events like the OU Teach-In. Being given these tasks allowed me to hone and more fully understand my passion the intricacies of web and higher education. I poured much of my free time into reading about different platforms and learning models for online learning.

For this event, I’ll be using pieces of a former talk I gave at a conference called Confluence, but I’ll be re-writing the majority of it since that event was more of TED-style conference for social media professionals. This one will be slightly more technical and contain less “every day tips and tricks” as the conference planner suggested I do.

The thing I didn’t like about the final version of this talk was that the more I attempted to weave in tips and tricks the further I got from my actual story. Stripping away the unnecessary recommendations will allow for a much more fluid narrative and help me focus it. So this time I’m setting out to dig up some of my own history. What was is like to work on the web 15 years ago? What did it feel like to create pages on some of the early personal page providers such as Geocities and Angelfire?

Well, for starters, when I started 15 years ago… I was 12. Soo my interests weren’t incredibly broad. I was interested in building websites dedicated to baseball or WWF. That’s it. I remember the first time I signed up for Geocities and picking my “neighborhood.” I remember printing out the entire terms and conditions[ref]Can you imagine doing that these days? It wears me out just to think about it[/ref] and reading them word for word, asking my dad to clarify any of the questions I had. The very first site I did on Geocities was a click through slide show of different pictures of wrestlers I liked. I remember my first problem was when I realized everything I had coded the image sources to my hard drive’s direct path (i.e. C:\Pictures\etc…) instead of an online source. Thus only I could properly render the images. So I figured out how to upload pictures via Geocities’ FTP web tool which allowed you to do one file at a time. This was about a 90 second process per picture on a 56k modem and felt dreadfully long on 56k.

But where did I first learn how to code rudimentary HTML? All I could remember was this image in my head of a brightly colored site specifically for kids teaching you HTML. So after a little Google hunt, I was actually able to find the site because, as luck would have it, It’s still up. It’s called Lissa Explains:

The layout I remember from 1996. Source: lissaexplains.com

A few years ago, “Lissa” was kind enough to update the website and give a little background information on the site:

I was just 11 years old and in 6th grade when I started Lissa Explains it All… I had kept the fact that I had a Web site from all my friends at school. I didn’t want them to think I was a geek or anything, so I just didn’t tell anyone. At that time I had over 500,000 page views a month. Then, when I was 13, I went to a computer convention with my school, and Sun Microsystems found out about my site, and that I was there at the convention. Sun Microsystems called CNN, and CNN came out to do a story about me and my Web site. Soon my whole school knew about it and I was SO embarrassed. When my friends found out I was making money, they were all impressed and I didn’t feel so embarrassed anymore.

Wait. WHAT?! I was learning from ANOTHER kid?! The website doesn’t mention how up-to-date the About page is (it refers to her as now 21 years old) but I found the site’s Wikipedia article and it turns out Lissa and I were the same year in school! How incredible is it now to think that my 12 year old self was learning how to build webpages from another 12 year old? What a testimony to every good reason why students should be given ample opportunity to create on the open web, right? Students learning from other students’ learning. It’s a wonder (and yet not surprising at all) that another kid was able to build such an informative website (now a living part of history) that successfully connected directly with its intended audience: other kids. Better yet, the impact was most likely MUCH broader given that only 20% of American adults were online in 1996. How many websites were pulling 500k views per month?

On a similar thread, Jim Groom tweeted a link to an archived version of the Geocities FAQ page last week:

The FAQ has this statement:

The Web promotes the free flowing exchange of ideas and information among all citizens on the Internet. The Web has flourished because technology has provided us with a way to link people and their ideas together in a way that was never possible before. We aspire to be positive contributors to this new culture. We’re committed to developing innovative ways to foster the spirit of community that is so vital to the future success of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

I would love to imagine that sounded revolutionary in 1996. Today, the average user would translate it as suspect at best and more than likely assume its Silicon Valley speak for “please contribute via our platform so we can have your data.”

But, further, I grow more concerned that most, unfortunately, value the web based solely on what it can offer to us instead of what we have to offer.. How possible is this sort of mission in this consumer-driven world wide web where most “production” is taking place in walled social media gardens that largely consist of your self-curated friend circles? Further, information has become so easy to access that we take for granted the work that originally went into its creation. And I feel strong in saying that only because I hold myself guilty for these kind of feelings. When it used to take me two to three minutes to upload a small photo–when sharing new knowledge required building the entire page it would exist on–I could appreciate and empathize more with websites like Lissa’s and thus feel more compelled to give back and contribute to those who have came before me.

Ah, but now… Now I can hand you a completely adequate and most definitely technology trendy responsive, parallax, HTML5 site in mere hours. Yet I can’t decide whether I should be in awe or hate that fact.

Friday Web Roundup

I’m going to attempt to leverage my blog as almost a running summary of things I’ve read/watched/consumed over the week. I tend to default to reading articles on my phone or iPad when I have a few minutes, whether that’s waiting for a meeting or at eating a quick lunch. I also tend to do this at home when I finally have a chance to check social media channels like Twitter (and consequently tend to get in trouble for good reason). These lists will rarely have rhyme or reason. I imagine it will be a smorgasbord of articles relating to my occupation in higher education, technology, and pop culture. But we’ll see right?! Without further ado…

1. Favorite article involving a company bent on world domination

“Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” by George Packer, New Yorker

This paints an almost ruleless picture of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. I had similar feelings reading this as I do watching Don Draper on Mad Men. Their shrewdness makes me want to hate them, but I can’t help but see the genius as well and feel even more compelled to root for Amazon. Either way, this article is like mashing up every good article about Amazon I’ve ever read and chronicles its entire history, hitting on everything from the legend of books as a mere customer-acquisiton strategy, to the battle for the ebook with Apple, to relentless tax evasion, to buying the Washington Post, to the (so far) failure of Amazon as a media company. At its core, I think Amazon represents the full spectrum of 21st Century business criticism. History will decide whether society holds them up as heroes or villains.

“You’re not hired to do a particular job—you’re hired to be an Amazonian. Lots of managers had to take the Myers-Briggs personality tests. Eighty per cent of them came in two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. The vast majority fall within the same personality type—people who graduate at the top of their class at M.I.T. and have no idea what to say to a woman in a bar.

 

2. Favorite new event coming to OKC

 

Credit: openstreetsokc.com

Credit: openstreetsokc.com

This idea seems similar to Better Block, but rather than reimagining a distressed/unoccupied block, it’s bringing the walkability conversation to already flourishing.

3. Favorite blog post relevant to what I do on a day-to-day basis

“Building the “new data science of learning” – #eli2014 reflections” by Amy Collier, Stanford

I’ve been impressed by Amy for awhile. Her reflections on digital learning are strong and incredibly learner-focused (as opposed to a lot of criticism that I read which tends to be institution or faculty focused). Her call for more qualitative research on the learning experience in a world where the conversation is dominated by the implications of large big data sets is brilliant.

4. Favorite line from a book I’ve finished reading this week

 

“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.” – Steve Jobs

This is taken from The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus. This “myth” was the “The Originality Myth” and did a great job of walking through the controversy about how Steve Jobs had always remarked that Bill Gates and Windows copied the Mac. When in reality, Jobs had also been inspired by the GUI: Xerox prototype, which had also been inspired by 1950s DARPA technology. The Jobs quote comes from the idea that creativity is not about complete originality, but it’s about being able to connect ideas in ways they have never been connected.

Full disclosure: David Burkus is a friend of mine who spoke last year at TEDxOU and gave me a copy of the book to say “thank you.” The last chapter of the book, “The Mousetrap Myth” is essentially his talk. It’s crazy to think that you can go from one year where all you have is some loose pieces of chapters and no book title to sharing your story of the a fully published book at the next year’s conference. It’s been truly remarkable to watch David Burkus and his drive over the last year.

davidburkus

Unfortunately, after reading the book I now realize that David’s assertion that “This all started at TEDxOU” actually violates “The Eureka Myth” which states that, instead of a quick spark, insights are actually the result of hard work on a problem or project. But nice try, David.

5. Favorite Photo Esssay

buzzfeed

I can’t believe the first time I post a weekly roundup that it includes something from Buzzfeed. What I do like about Buzzfeed is that they don’t do it in a slideshow or carousel. This is a sampling of the “Lean In Collection” on Getty Images. 1.) This is a just an inspiring collection of photography. The photographer in me wanted to go shoot after looking at it. 2.) As both someone who is occasionally looking for stock photography for graphics and someone who teaches a PR design course, this was a sigh of relief as you can feel creatively stifled always looking a photo that appears has a handshake (the stock photo universal symbol for business) of two “diverse” individuals.

Follow Along With My Students’ Work This Semester

This semester I’ve created a web space (http://jmc3433.adamcroom.com) to aggregate all of the student’s blog posts for my PR Publications course (JMC3433 in the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication). The idea is that the students (and really anyone) can follow along as they (for the first time–mind you) begin to understand design technique and execution as it relates to public relations publications highly targeted at specific publics. Students are now required to standup an instance of WordPress on their own server space at the beginning of the semester, and they will use the site to 1.) document their semester progression through blog posts on assigned book reads and completed design assignments and 2.) create a portfolio website that can live on for them well beyond the 16 weeks they’ll spend in my JMC3433 course.

In previous semesters, I’ve had them write one page reflection papers to go along with their design assignments. But in early December, I was fortunate enough to attend the MOOC Research Conference in Arlington, TX and was inspired by what keynote speaker Jim Groom was doing with his DS106 digital storytelling course at the University of Mary Washington and how his students use blogs to not only document their own work but write create new assignments for future students. I wish I had a link to that specific keynote, but just watch his recent TEDx Talk to see how exciting this guy is:

His talk was convincing enough to make me move students off of reflection papers and onto the blogosphere, as well as leverage the blog RSS feeds through a plugin called FeedWordPress to create the aggregated version. The syndicated blog is the first step in moving all content elements of the course into an open, digital environment.

I will admit that this blogging format might not work for every course in every discipline, but I’ve adopted it JMC3433 for a few reasons:

1. Content creation has evolved beyond print.
Previous versions of this course have traditionally focused on print design, which is an excellent starting point for any designer. All design principles were essentially created and are rooted in this medium. But the late 20th century brought the rise of marketing public relations (MPR) and PR practitioners are leveraging online tools like blog and social media channels more and more to become real-time, vocal “brand ambassadors with a real understanding of their brand’s value proposition.” [ref]Apasolomou, I. & Melanthio, Y. (2012). Social Media: Marketing Public Relations’ New Best Friend. Journal of Promotion Management, 18 (3), 319–328.[/ref] I’m not saying anything that is earth shattering, but direct content creation no longer only takes place in a print design realm. But almost all of my students have never touched WordPress before, so the practice of that in and of itself is a valuable experience since it’s the content management system that powers close to 20% of the web and will likely be the platform most will use out of college to management websites.

2. Students get an e-portfolio out of the deal.
The content my students create (newsletters, post cards, business cards, etc.) naturally lend themselves to a blog structure and e-portfolio since they are visually stimulating. Educause has been a huge proponent of e-portolios and says faculty should encourage students to post samples of written work and projects (among other things) as a way to showcase their work for potential employers. I’m all for anything that puts my students ahead, so we make sure everything they produce for this course (and others) has the opportunity to broadly be seen.

3. Part reinforcement. Part self evaluation.
Student’s self reflection blog posts are essentially the students going through the motions of walking others through their thought and creative process. They are also able to tell me what they were attempting to create in the event it didn’t turn out they way they had originally planned (and in turn we can have conversations about what went wrong and how they might have got there).

4. To show that we are all in this together.
Last, I simply want the students to know they aren’t alone in this endeavor. At first, this course puts most of my students in an incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable position since they have little-to-no computer design experience. The aggregated blog allows students to watch everyone else walk through the fire with them.

The first set of student posts are reflections on a book titled “Designing for Emotion” by Aarron Walter, from A Book Apart, a series of short books for web designers. As mentioned above, PR publication design focuses heavily on how to create targeted pieces for publics who share characteristics and interests. Emotional design, a term made popular by Donald Norman‘s book of the same name, speaks to how beautiful design can actually evoke a position emotional response to the brain, which is a response PR tends to constantly trying to elicit. While this book’s focus is primarily web design, we’ll be using the principles to thinking broadly about design beyond web. I picked this book in particular because it has some great modern examples of design application and it’s available in both ebook and paperback form. Students even get a decent discount if they wish to have both to fit multiple learning styles. Through the Gaylord College, several students have been given an iPad mini as part of a small scale tablet initiative, so I’m hopeful the ebook will be a viable option.

In the spirit of the idea, I’ll also be blogging about how the course is going and what the student response to the project is, as well as how the book adoption is going. I’m particularly interested in how many students like the shorter format, how many have opted for the ebook version, and how they are primarily reading the book (tablet, desktop, printed out, or print-on-demand by publisher). Until then, enjoy watching the class at http://jmc3433.adamcroom.com!

You are the programmer. Write the program.

When I was in fifth grade, I decided to run for student council. The deal was that whoever wanted to run could so, then the class vote from this open field and one boy and one girl would be chosen to represent the class. To make this seem like it wasn’t entirely a popularity contest, my teacher told us that we would all have to develop a speech at which we would give at the end of the week right before the class would cast their ballots.

For context, I was the new kid in a fairly smaller school than I was used to. I had taken kindergarten through fourth grade in a different town and was still orienting myself with my new surroundings. Naturally, I had convinced myself that the best way to integrate seamlessly with the students was going to be by representing them. I would be the leader the never knew they needed! OR, for that matter, simply the leader they didn’t really know.

At the time, my brother and I were taking the bus home from school to my grandparents house where my mom or dad would pick us up later. I asked my grandfather if he could give me some help in writing my speech. He agreed to and we went to his office to start working on the first draft. For inspiration, he handed me Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” For a refresher, those habits are:

  • Be Pro-Active
  • Begin with the End in Mind
  • Put First Things First
  • Think Win-Win
  • Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  • Synergize
  • Sharpen the Saw

Per my grandfather’s advice, I literally began to weave the habits word-by-word into my speech. “I will strive for mutually beneficial solutions by thinking win-win. I will listen to your thoughts with an open mind and seek to understand, then to be understood. I will synergize the class.” I remember “synergy” being an incredibly difficult concept to grasp as a 10 year old, but it seemed like an important part to this whole leadership business and I was willing to give it a shot. I remember as I left class that day, my teacher holding me back to tell me how touched she was by my little speech. I told her thanks and that my grandpa helped and then proceeded to leave to catch the bus. I brought my grandfather the good news and told him I had to be a shoe-in if I had the support of the teacher.

The results: No one voted for the new kid and I didn’t win.[ref]Good news though: my teacher was so proud of my speech that she did nominate me for the school’s safety committee.[/ref] Shocker. I tried to run again in sixth grade (and lost) and then again in eighth grade (and lost again). After the third strike, I convinced myself that student body representation wasn’t for me, and that if I wanted to make a difference, it was going to be on the fringes (music, school newspaper, a/v club) where it usually happens anyway. It turned out people who do win that kind of stuff were too bubbly for my taste anyways and didn’t have any really responsibilities other than organizing the school assemblies.

It goes without saying that it’s been awhile since writing that speech, yet I still remember the heart of it to this day. But I’ll confess–I never actually read the book until now. And I as I read it, I’ve noticed it’s dense. It tugs at you. I don’t read more than 20 or 30 pages at a time as I’m trying to digest what it means particularly for me and how to implement the principles into my life. And to think my grandfather had the gumption to drop it in my lap as a boy as if it was something that I could not only understand but could scale to lead my peers effectively.

So as I reading it last night, I came to a section that shook me at my core:

“[Victor] Frankl says we detect rather than invent our missions in life. I like that choice of words. I think each of us has an internal monitor or sense, a conscience, that gives us an awareness of our own uniqueness and the singular contributions that we can make… Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life…

Habit 1 says “You are the programmer. Habit 2, then, says, “Write the program.”

-Stephen Covey

Empowering, yeah? So as everyone prepares for a new year with clean slates, rest, and an overabundance of initiative to make 2014 something that 2013 wasn’t, I ask that we all look at our individual uniquenesses and consider how they can contribute. Let’s write a program rather than think that 2014 has to be about re-writing something we aren’t necessarily proud of. And when the opportunity arises, take a page out of Grandpa’s book. Trust that anyone can rise to the occasion and ignore rules that say things like little kids couldn’t possibly understand our big, adult principles. Then challenge them to up the ante.