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Teaching Web Composition: Logistics and Design

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HTML prewriting

Web Pages for Absolute Beginners

The Cern Guide

Before teaching the nuts and bolts of HTML composition, you may want to check our HTML prewriting information. We have found that the actual skills of composing with HTML come fairly quickly to students, so rather than explicating commands, this page focuses more on teaching strategies. It offers advice about file management, presents models for potential assignments and provides information about Web style and design.

File Management

For the HTML author, getting comfortable saving files with the proper names and formats is an important first step. But before you can demonstrate the appropriate formats and the best way to handle the Web files, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the logistics of your own system. Generally, Web files will be distributed by UNIX based servers. These servers demand that file names be written with all lower case characters and that they contain no spaces or nonstandard symbols. We recommend that students use lower-case characters and simple conventions. Whatever the demands of your system, establishing standards for file naming and management and drilling students about them will save a number of headaches in the long run.

Once students are clear on how to handle their files make sure they know how to display their work in a browser window and that they get comfortable switching between composition and view mode. Each step along the way provides an opportunity for students to see their work in progress. As students test their work in a browser, prompt them to articulate their goals at any given stage of the composition process and to assess how well their work is fulfilling them. It is also important that you build a draft and revision stage into your HTML assignments. Students should draft their projects and include a "mailto" option on their pages so that you and peers can offer feedback about the projects.

Models for Assignments
Selecting an appropriate Web composition assignment raises a number of issues. It may be that replicating print-based assignments ignores many of the opportunities that the Web offers. There are arguments in favor of placing traditional papers on the Web, but since the process of posting mostly linear papers is more straightforward, we will focus on assignments that are more native to the Web. Rather than try to anticipate assignments that fulfill every teaching goal, we'll present two organizational models that might be adapted to a number of projects.

A Flat Assignment An assignment which uses a single page as the focus for construction can provide an easy entry into HTML composition. Personal pages, an informative research project or an evaluation assignment that looks at materials on the Web might lend themselves to this model. If students are constructing such a flat project, they'll need to have a clear sense of how to link to remote files. Additionally, they should discuss the relevancy and provide some sense of what a reader might find as part of their incorporation of these remote links into their pages. Annotated or contextualized links can offer a reader more insight and help authors situate the materials they are linking to.

Deep Assignment
In an assignment that uses multiple files authors should make relative links. By simply using the file name (if files that exist in the same directory or folder) students can connect a number of different documents. When using subdirectories, however, authors will need to include a path into the subdirectory. For instance, in the design project shown above, in order to link from the file 'index.html' to the file 'blue.html' an author would first specify that 'blue.html' resides in the directory 'colors'. The link information would look like this: 'colors/blue.html'. In order to go up a level in the directory structure, authors can use the '../' command. So, to link back from the file 'blue.html' to the file 'index.html' an author would use '../index.html'.

Composing with relative links allows students to construct multiple page projects by linking files that reside on their own diskettes or a drive somewhere. Working on a project with multiple pages injects many hypertext composition concerns into the writing process. For instance, writers will need to learn the importance of clearly articulating the purpose of each page and placing it in context with other pages in the project. Writers can't assume that readers have taken in information on one of the other pages. Additionally, students will need to compose with a navigational awareness. Providing links to relevant pages in logical ways takes on a new importance and constructing projects that provide a sense of coherency from one page to another becomes an important focus.

Assignments that might benefit from a deeper or multiple page approach include collaborative projects. A group may want to have a central page which organizes and links to the pages constructed by individual members. A single author might use this kind of model for a project that explores a number of topics at the same time. For instance, a project about feminist poetry might have pages or directories devoted to Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and Emily Dickinson.

Web Style and Design
Finally, once you've stressed the best ways of handling files and working with HTML at your school, as well as come up with an assignment, you'll want to provide information about HTML design. Rather than make blanket recommendations about HTML style or design, we think it is important that you consider designing Web pages in light of sound rhetorical strategies, most of which will advocate adjusting the implementation of a project to correspond with its goals, genre, audience, etc.. There are a number of constants on the web (for instance, keep file sizes small and text legible) but where most Web design guides are shortsighted is in their assumption that there is a single Web style or that any formula can be applied to all projects.

Additionally, the best way to understand successful design may be by looking at the many models that are out there as pages on the Web and by experimenting with different approaches as we build our own pages. As you look at the style sites listed below, be sure to read their recommendations with an eye toward your own assignments and goals and ask students to do the same.

Web Pages for Absolute Beginners
Thoughtful and flexible guidelines for Web-based publishing and advice on using graphics, imagemaps and other Web elements.

The Cern Guide for Online Hypertext
An established site offering advice on a number of Web composition elements.
The Yale Web Style Guide
A site devoted to web page design and implementation. Though the conception of style, for me, can be too homogenous, this is a nice resource for thinking about web design issues.

Tonya Browning's HTML Design Handout
A lengthy handout meant to give students some guidance about design issues like color and project structure.

Author: Daniel Anderson
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