WaSP Interviews Vito Evola
On a course in Web standards offered at the University of Palermo, Italy
Interview Conducted for 5th July 2005
A College of Letters and Philosophy offering a course in Web standards? They might seem like strange bedfellows, but Vito Evola explains how focusing on the Web as an instrument of communication marries the two.
Could you describe your program for us?
Our School is in the College of Letters and Philosophy. My course is mainly a workshop. All of our students at LxWeb (Lingue Moderne per il Web, Modern Languages for the Web) take a lab course at their final year before graduating. This course on Web Standards is an advanced course, which is optional.
At the completion of their curriculum, students present a final thesis with a multimedia project — more often than not blending teaching foreign languages with the Web, or dealing with issues concerning accessibility and usability, but often other subjects such as literature, philosophy, linguistics or whatever.
How did this particular course come to be part of the program?
Web design is clearly a ‘linguistic’ problem on many levels.
My lab on Web Standards was born because of the immanent need to talk about the Web being an instrument of communication for all users, whether they speak Italian, English or Arabic, whether they have perfect eyesight or not, whether they have knowledge of computers or are just starting. Web design is clearly a “linguistic” problem on many levels (coding, accessibility, usability, marketing).
And how did you become involved?
I proposed teaching a course that would be Web design-oriented, but with a semiotic and communicational edge to it. My superiors and colleagues were all aware of the need to teach such a course.
Here’s how I personally got interested and involved with it all. I started working with our university’s and our school’s Web sites. One day, our main director says he wants a layout different from all the rest: all the content of the Web site in one screen, and the navigation at the bottom and to the left of the page. How do we do that?! We started considering iframes, but then opted out because we knew frames were not all that accessible. That’s when we discovered the force of CSS-P. There are a lot of templates out there now with two- or three-column layouts, but that’s not quite what he wanted. We spent many nights in front of our computer. When we thought it was OK, we noticed it didn’t work in that browser, or using that resolution. Back to the drawing board: Thank God for espresso! We finally got a truly liquid layout, and it was well worth it.
After using CSS for the presentation, we thought it might be cool to use it for print also. Our students especially appreciated the fact that they can print out their information on a single page or two rather than 2-3 pages with all the clutter they were used to.
The sites aren’t as “neat” as they were, but keep an eye out for our new sites this coming autumn, when we’ll be incorporating other media style sheets. That will be fun!
What is your approach to teaching this course?
I mainly try to concentrate on communicating through the Web, so it’s not just “How to create a layout” or “How to insert an image.” We talk about cognitive aspects of typography, colors, and Web space, on how to write effectively for the Web, and in primis how to keep the user at the center of the project (whatever it may be).
Where do Web standards fit in?
Standards means nothing less than ‘speaking correctly’ with our target.
The first lessons deal with the “need” for XHTML and CSS, moving towards a more advanced knowledge of CSS1 and CSS2, keeping in mind that standards means nothing less than “speaking correctly” with our target. At the end of the lab, the students are required to present a Web site which is validated, uses at least 3 types of media style sheets, and is fully accessible.
Interestingly enough, presenting Web Standards as an advanced course, the students have already had some experience with the old-school of Web design. They were able to realize the shortcomings of “traditional” Web design (clumsy mark-up language, heavier code and bandwidth expenses, problems concerning the usability of the Web site—both as a designer and at the user-end) confronting it with this newer approach. I like the fact they see the “evolution” of HTML first hand: what was originally just a means to rapidly share information was so easy to use and learn that most Web designers started to “abuse” tags such as tables and headers to suit their needs, and now we’re trying to go back to the roots. So the students themselves need to gain consciousness that there really is no other way if we want to use the Web to its fullest.
It’s like a revelation to them when they apply their knowledge to redesigning even their own homepage, and they validate and read “This page is XHTML Valid!”…it’s like they’ve won the lottery! Plus, I personally am grateful for the guys at the W3C, because thanks to the Validator, I get to correct a lot less coding!
Finally, when our students see that their pages can only look better, that they have cleaner and lighter code, and that all-in-all it makes it easier to maintain even a small Web site, they say “Why do the big guys do it any other way?” That’s when I tell them “That’s because they’re waiting for you to enter the market!”
However, I also try to make them understand that just because they have a little W3C button on their site, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely accessible or usable – but it is halfway there. After dealing with Web standards, I feel it’s necessary for any serious course to deal with accessibility and usability issues.
For the former, the best way is showing the class how other people might use the Internet, and what problems they might have, and how we can make it a little easier just by adding a few things here and there or changing things around. At the end, we all benefit from it.
When you put the user at the center of your design, you get a lot back for the time you put in.
As for the latter, good common sense isn’t always the best educator, which is why I think it’s useful to spend some time talking about navigational systems, Web space and color, typography, the differences between users’ reading and interaction with texts on paper and on the screen. When you put the user at the center of your design, you get a lot back for the time you put in.
When was the course introduced?
We started teaching concepts of Web standards last year, mainly focusing on accessibility and usability issues, but this is the first year our students are really geared towards Web standards.
And the response has been…?
The lab has been well received by our students (over a hundred have signed up), and those who haven’t had the chance to participate have asked explicitly for it for next semester, which is overwhelming. I think this is mainly because the way the subject matter has been presented is not too technical, underlining the communicative and social aspects, and bringing to life something that otherwise might seem a little too mathematical, a little to dry.
What resources do you use to teach the course?
Unfortunately there aren’t many books out in Italian, but we’ve been using Zeldman’s translated version of “Designing With Web Standards” (“Progettare il Web del futuro” ed. Pearson Education Italia, 2003), which has been a gem.
There are a lot of great resources on the Web too, including the W3C and WaSP Web sites. I have found a great deal of wonderful Web sites with insightful articles. I hope to see WaSP organize the more useful and accreditable on-line assets.
My teaching method is blended (in class and on-line), which in many instances has proved to be very effective, and which I earnestly suggest. Besides our lessons in class, we also have a blog, where anyone can post an article and comment off of it, and a discussion group, where usually they just ask questions, share info and what not. This has been great: we consider our blog our classroom on-line and the discussion group our main hall!
I think it would be wonderful to create a network of educators in the field, a WaSP for higher-level education.
Thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail, Vito.
I hope our educational experience might be of some help to others!
Bio: Dr. Vito Evola received his degree at the University of Palermo, Italy in Foreign Languages and Literatures and has taught Web-related courses at the School of Modern Languages for the Web (Palermo) since 2002. He also teaches Cognitive Sciences, and is particularly interested with users’ cognition and the Web. He confesses he also enjoys American coffee during his late-night projects!
The Web Standards Project is a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all.