Back to School

My daughter's class at school were doing a web design project last week. When I was her age a lot of people didn't even have a colour television (and if they did, they only had three channels to watch), so the thought of a bunch of ten and eleven year-olds creating websites was a bit of an eyeopener. We've done web projects and design masterclasses with A-level and GCSE students before but, speaking to the teachers, the age of being web-aware and coding is being pushed down and down. In a few years what we do will be happening in primary classrooms - a far cry from the self-taught bumbling about we went though in the 90s when it all started happening.

So, my dear daughter mentioned to her teacher that her dad "did websites" and kindly volunteered me to pop in and give a few tips. I had a chat with the teachers about what I did and they said it would be nice if I were able to pop in and help a couple of them out. As I'd already got a CRB/DBS check they were happy that I'd be able to do a bit more in the way of helping them one-to-one instead of being chaperoned.

Later that afternoon, every parents' nightmare, the phone rang and the dreaded "School" flashed up on the screen. Oh no - which of my two littluns had banged their head, been sick or got in a fight? It was much worse than that. It was my daughter's teacher saying that they'd been talking and thinking about it and it might benefit if the whole year joined in and could I do a talk in front of 60 kids and then run the web building workshop!? Bottle out and look a chicken in front of my daughter? Or pretend it was no problem and I was looking forward to it as I'd not done many school visits for a while? I went for the second option.

So the day began with me asking about what a graphic designer did. Surprisingly, they were able to explain that better than I could. I showed them some of my work and did a piece on the history of the internet and how computers have revolutionised the design process. I was a bit worried that this would be boring but all seemed pretty interested (the only person yawning was my own daughter, but then she hears most of this stuff every day...and she's got her own WordPress site already) and were highly amused at the examples of the early graphics in Sinclair ZX81 games, especially Donkey Kong using letter "H"s as the ladders and "O"s as barrels, as well as the blocky Dinosaur from the all-time classic "3D Monster Maze"!

After that, a bit about the importance of planning (yeah!), the process of designing and building a site from scratch and we were off!

We split them into two groups - an iPad group and a Laptop group (based on the available hardware) and we all logged into Google's web creator software "Sites". Not much in the way of design is needed when taking this approach as there are so many pre-built templates. This is ideal for a taster project like this as they can get something nice-looking without getting bogged down in HTML too early. We'll save that for next time...

The websites they were building were based on a project they had just finished on the Amazon Basin. Each student had concentrated on a particular area like wildlife, conservation or the geography of the region and their written and graphic work was to be converted into a website.

The Laptop group fared better than the iPad group initially, as we discovered the Sites app has a couple of bugs in iOS's Safari, but we got round them. For fairness, the iPadders swapped machines with the Laptoppers after lunch so they could see the difference. As they were busy creating, tracking down images, copying, pasting, typing and formatting I just spent the rest of the time bouncing between the two classrooms answering calls of "help!" and sorting out whatever problems came up. 90% of the queries involved flowing text round images which seemed to initially baffle them - not dissimilar to most people who have to do content editing.

Adding new pages and menu items didn't seem to be much of a problem, and we ended up with some really good sites with quite a few pages and sub-pages.

Because it's all done online, by the end of the day they had all had working, live websites so they could go home and show everyone what they'd been up to.

They, hopefully, learnt a bit about the process of design and content addition, and the limits of what can and can't be done. Hopefully, we managed to pull together all of the online knowledge they have picked up in bits and pieces or by accident and helped them to build up a better picture of how the internet works and its structure of several different independent components working together. They are completely fearless in a way older people are not and their willingness to try things to see if they work or not was refreshing compared to the complete fear some of our clients show when having to update their sites!

As usual, I probably learnt more than they did. Here's a summary:

  1. 10-year-olds don't care about breaking things - you can "undo" just about anything.
  2. The internet is just there to them - it's just like a washing machine or a bike. It hasn't been a process of evolution for them - there has never been a time without the web, email, texting or social media in their lives.
  3. They will always discover obscure bugs in apps (they should be used to test things more).
  4. They will flip from laptop to iPad to 3DS and iPod and expect them to all share data and talk to each other without any of the amazement I feel when I see it happening.
  5. They know how to (and do) set up group chats and talk about us secretly.
  6. Minecraft. Everywhere.
  7. The teachers are more aware of their students' online exploits than I thought and seem to be keeping up with the issues of young people being more connected such as bullying and privacy. It's a dilemma as the kids know each other and have their groups of friends because of school yet it all happens out of school hours, so the line between school and parent responsibility is blurred. I'd expect this kind of discussion in secondary schools, but primary schools also seem to be playing a big part now.
  8. The passwords teachers choose are crap. Dangerously insecure!
  9. When their children are at school, all of this web stuff will probably be a quaint little footnote...as low-tech and hilarious as 3D Monster Maze seems to them now!