Learning Without Context Isn't Learning: My Interview with Julie Meloni

Julie Meloni and I go way back, back to the early days of academic blogging. We were humanities grad students then, back in the dangerous days of Ivan Tribbles when you could be harshly judged by having a blog. My, how academia has changed in the last decade. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Although working on a PhD in English when we first met, Julie was (still is) also a programmer -- something was (and still is) rather anomalous and quite awesome among comp/lit folks. Alongside the dissertating and teaching we grad students/comp instructors were all supposed to be doing, many of us were also learning how to build course websites, maintain a blog, and hack together our own digital tools. Julie's knowledge and her guidance in matters of HTML and CSS and PHP and the like were incredibly helpful to me and tons of others. I mean, she wrote the book on it.

Not surprising then, one of the first people I wanted to talk to for the research I'm doing for Mozilla ("Do we need a "Scratch for HTML5"?) is the person who taught me a lot not just about Web mark-up but about how the Web actually works. Actually this isn't an entirely new conversation for the two of us to have. See: "Thoughts on Code Year, Codecademy, and Learning to Code" (2012) and "Unedited Thoughts on Students Knowing How to Code" (2009). Note also: neither of us are in academia any longer.

A brain dump of from our chat today.

Of the idea of a Scratch for HTML5: "Conceptually, maybe a fan. Technically, not a fan," Julie said at the outset. The danger, she asserted, is "teaching people to build something outside the context where you will ever build it again." What happens when you step outside your protective learning environment? If you can't take what you've learned elsewhere, what have you actually learned? Just memorization and following directions?

HTML versus HTML5: Markup versus programming. "HTML5 is different." It's "markup with more meaning plus storage and audio-visual and drawing -- things we were never able to do before." Creating websites and Web apps with HTML5 is really different than creating websites with HTML.

Teaching HTML versus Teaching HTML5: As she updates her HTML and CSS book, she's not diving into HTML5 per se. Rather it's "teaching the foundation" of HTML, but in terms of HTML5. Still the basics: how do we put stuff on the Web? How do we structure a Web page? What is DNS? You can't introduce folks to the skills needed building on the Web by jumping in to the complexities of HTML5 (neither as an introductory textbook author, nor as a teacher). It's still necessary to get people up to speed on HTML, something that's quite different than teaching novices to program.

Thoughts on "Scratch for HTML5": "Do you create an environment in which you can noodle around with questions and answers and ways to enhance your computational thinking -- setting up those logical constructs... "if this then that," -- using the tools to place things on the canvas and so on and so forth...something that takes you through the steps to do all that, and then the end result is an HTML5 app… If so, then you've not learned HTML5, you've learned Scratch. Or something that's beginning to sound a helluva lot like Flash." "Could you take that environment away and have you write something similar out in a text editor?" "And then what? Is it intended for them to then use that tool to build, or to move beyond it?"

What Need Is This Filling?: What do learners actually want? What isn't working for them now when it comes to available classes, books, tools? Is there a demand for better introductory tools for learning HTML5 specifically? Or a demand for more/better ways for learning markup? Or programming in general?

Teaching Computational Thinking versus Teaching HTML5: What are we preparing kids to do? Dangers of restricting the curriculum to a particular programming language or tool as technologies and tools change so quickly. People have to adapt quickly. Teaching about computational thinking -- something that's applicable across the board -- versus focusing specifically on teaching HTML5.



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