Switch from Teaching Word Processing to Teaching Web Processing

word processor typewriter

If you’re like me, one of the first computer skills you were taught in school (in the early 1990s) is how to use a word processor. We all mastered the art of formatting words for the printed page because we were still using computers in a paper-based world. As more business and education activities moved online, the web is the platform.

We are spending ever more time writing in web-based WYSIWYG editors, where our ideas are being automatically translated into divs, spans, ps and ems – a language that too few of us speak fluently enough to figure out why that underline came out so weird-looking, or why there’s an extra line between our bullet points.

Still, (in 2016!) the status quo is for people to write their documents in an offline word processor like MS Word, then copy and paste into the text editor of the web-based tools they use to collaborate. Though this sounds like an OK approach, I often see people wondering what all that weird MSOffice XML code that comes along is doing there. Worse, they save the Word file and upload it, forcing others to download the file before they can even see what it says.

Office Docs are the Worst

Running an LMS support line for a university edtech department showed me all the problems we were experiencing by trying to share Office files through our LMS. We had Word docs carrying viruses between machines, PDFs made on Macs that became unreadable to Windows users because of an unpatched Blackboard bug, and faculty complaining that their PowerPoints looked bad because students didn’t have the same fonts as they did.

It made me wonder what’s wrong with putting up a plain ol’ HTML page and letting people read it!

It’s Time to Write for the Web

I believe it’s time for students and mainstream users to write with tools that are designed to produce websites, not paper pages.

A whole class of beautiful Markdown editors have sprung up to help writers simply concentrate on their writing, and not to spend time futzing with the fonts, colors, margins, columns and text sizes (all things that your blog or LMS will style for you anyway, and all things that distract you from writing).

These tools are designed to help you write your documents so they’ll look great and work great when you finally post them to your LMS, blog, or other web-based publishing destination.

You simply write in plain text, and then export valid HTML documents that just work on the web.

Most importantly, they remove all the barriers that come between having an idea and creating a web page about it. Building a web page no longer feels like coding, it feels like writing.

If Markdown editors were as ubiquitous in schools as MS Word is now, then instantly anyone who can write can build websites. I taught a mixed group from junior high kids to retirees how to write markdown in an hour at Workshop Weekend, and they all walked out excited at how easy it is!

(Besides, most markdown editors are free or cheap, so schools could save a ton on software licenses!)

A Gentle Introduction to Code

If you pay attention, markdown provides a gentle introduction to the basic HTML concepts like paragraphs, links, images, headers, and lists that help us create good looking, semantically valid documents for the open web. The controls on a web-based editor give you hints as to what’s happening in the code of a web page, and they allow you to go look at the code produced after you added blockquotes, an ordered list, or a heading 3 using the simple, intuitive buttons.

Markdown Web Processors: Some Fantastic Tools

Your Thoughts?

I’m very curious to hear your reactions– I know a lot of us are most comfortable using MS Office tools, but I wonder if it’s a complete non-starter for you to adopt markdown and/or HTML as the main way you express your ideas?

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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