Why every student should know HTML

Move over "Word Processing," now there's something meatier...
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

If you ever took a "Word Processing" or "Keyboarding" class while you were in high school, read on. It's time for an update to these once-mandatory classes. Most kids these days can type fairly well (at least speedy hunting and pecking interspersed with a healthy dose of emoticons) and the vast majority use Word and PowerPoint by the time they hit high school.

In addition, most are sending emails, instant messaging, and have created a Myspace by this time.  However, many don't even know what HTML stands for, let alone how to use it.  Those of us who grew up with DOS-based WordPerfect (you know, blue screen, white text, good stuff?) and its "reveal codes" feature have a pretty good understanding of how HTML works.  It's not voodoo, after all; it's just instructions for formatting text.

What students today don't realize is how pervasive markup languages (i.e., HTML and XML) really are.  Like it or not, we live in a Web-based online world, our students more so than we could have ever imagined as we were hammering away in WordPerfect. As a result, our students are interacting with HTML every day, and, while they invariably have some WYSIWYG interface to make it easier, most could really benefit from a reasonable understanding of HTML.

Myspace accepts HTML tags for easy formatting of various posts and most blog sites (including this one), free web creation tools, online forums, etc., allow users to bypass the WYSIWYG editors for a far greater degree of control over the appearance of their posts.  Creating content for the Web is no longer reserved for webmasters in the way it was even five years ago.  It is now a daily fact of life.

With the maturing of PHP and the extremely low cost of web hosting (my own site costs me $3 a month and my domain registration was free...even a teacher can afford that), barriers to creating and hosting dynamic content are coming down very quickly.  Already, a number of my students have reached the limitations of Myspace, Freewebs, and the like and are hosting bona fide web sites.  Those with at least a basic understanding of HTML have gotten up and running with few problems.  However, even our school webmaster (a volunteer student "internship" at our school) struggled with legacy code and debugging the pages he created in Dreamweaver until he forced himself to learn HTML. It was a quick leap from HTML to scripting and he easily jumped into PHP programming, but obviously could never have made the leap without learning HTML.

Perhaps more important is the fact that all future attempts at open standards for documents center around XML.  While XML is by no means just fancy HTML, markup languages, in a variety of evolving forms, are here to stay and will most likely replace "word processing" as we know it (many, myself included, would say that they already have).  Just as teachers of previous generations sought to prepare us for the real world by teaching us to use typewriters and word processors, we need to teach our students to fully utilize the wealth of web-based tools at their fingertips.  That means starting with HTML.

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