WaSP Interviews Daniel Frommelt
On Web Standards in Higher Education
Interview Conducted for 1 August 2005
Back in October 2003, Daniel Frommelt and his team of students presented the re-tooling of Slashdot in XHTML 1.0 at WebdevShare, scoring a wave of interest across the Web community, a two-part series on the process then further articles on A List Apart.
How did it all begin? Where did it lead? In this interview, Daniel fills us in on the backstory.
Daniel, it’s great that you’ve agreed to our interview proposal. Could you start things off by telling us about yourself?
I am the World Wide Web Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin–Platteville. I have worked at Platteville since September 1997. My degree is in History and my background is in publishing, computers, and management.
The University of Wisconsin–Platteville site was one of the first sites in higher education in which I saw Web standards being utilized. How did you get UW–Platteville involved with Web standards?
The goal for the Web Development Office was to make code that was light, portable, and easy to maintain.
I suppose you could say that UW–Platteville was one of the early adopters of Web Standards. At the time we did not know about Web Standards, rather we were trying to solve simple accessibility issues. We began by adopting XHTML over HTML in 2001. The goal for the Web Development Office was to make code that was light, portable, and easy to maintain. Since the office is run a by myself and seven students, maintaining a simple code structure is vital for the University.
We chose XHTML to eliminate the silly mistakes that we would make in our code. Occasionally someone would forget to add an end
</tr> tag or an end
</table> tag, or would nest tags incorrectly. When the file was checked with multiple browsers, there would be multiple results. Multiple results meant spending more time debugging. Of course there were the issues of continually forgetting to add the
alt attribute to
<img /> tags.
By forcing the Web Development Office to use XHTML and validating the pages, we were able to eliminate all of the silly little mistakes which caused pages to be inaccessible. We realize that just doing XHTML did not solve all of the accessibility problems, but it was a very good first step.
In mid December 2001 we read an article from A List Apart by Jeffrey Zeldman entitled “Why Don’t You Code for Netscape.” Then we started to realize the power of CSS. Before that article we had used minimal CSS. After that article, we made a priority to master CSS in all its potential. We were not aware of Web Standards at the time, but we could see the direction that the W3C was pushing and we knew that XHTML and CSS were the future.
How has the campus responded?
When we first converted pages to the Web Standards model, the design did not change therefore campus was unaware that anything was different. In fact we purposely remained silent about the transition just waiting to see if we would hear any complaints. After we ran for three to four months with no issues, we announced that we had converted the site to cleaner, simpler, more streamlined coding model for the Web.
The network staff from the IT department was the one who had the biggest reaction to our conversion. They initially were startled because of the unexpected drop in bandwidth from our Web servers. They were suspicious there was something wrong with the servers until I reassured them that we just reduced the amount of code. It was a happy response, but I wish I would have had statistics before and after our conversion to quantify the result.
Most of the instructors are still unaware of Web Standards, and my next job is to start to educate them on the benefits of Web Standards. The logic persists that you can use a word processor’s “save as Web page” feature to generate Web pages. I need to show them why that is not a viable option, and what can be done to put things online.
The administration of the University has been very happy with the conversion. The insight to adopt the correct strategy to address the accessibility issues, simplify the maintenance for the Web sites, and reduce bandwidth all had very positive effects. The support of the administration is vital.
You mentioned that your next job is to educate instructors on the benefits of Web Standards. Unfortunately, many instructors at institutions of higher education still instruct students in table-based layouts. How do Web developers and standards advocates convince instructors to adopt Web Standards?
The way I explain Web Standards is to lead by example. I typically take a site that someone else has built and reconstruct it using Web Standards. I then show a speed report on the two pages side by side. The speed report is a Mozilla extension tool from the Web Developer toolbar set. With the data side by side, it is easy to see that there is a bandwidth savings and a cache gain by using CSS instead of tables to do layout.
The next thing I do is to show the old design compared to the new design in different emulators. I use a few different PDA emulators, a Web TV emulator, a cell phone emulator, and a screen reader. Most developers have never viewed Web pages in ‘alternate devices’ so showing them the table design failing in an ‘alternate device’ is eye opening.
The realizations set in once the developers see that the Web Standards version of the Web page will load more accurately in the ‘alternate devices.’ Then I show the benefit of having a printer friendly CSS. So on top of the bandwidth savings and ease of maintenance for design, being more accessible is usually the final selling point.
The biggest hurdle is the lack of a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) Web editing program that follows the Web Standards design philosophy. What most instructors really teach is not Web development and design, rather how to use a program to generate Web pages. Operating a program is an entirely different skill compared to understanding basic Web Development from a code perspective. Students complete the course thinking they know Web development and design, but what they really know is how to run an editing program.
Many colleges and universities have a decentralized system of Web development. As developers discover Web Standards, they often realize that they are in the minority when it comes to developing to standards. Many of these developers have become advocates for Web Standards at their own campus. How did you become a Web Standards advocate?
The University of Wisconsin system consists of 13 four-year institutions and 13 two-year institutions. Out of all of those schools, there are multiple people in charge of each institution’s Web presence. In July of 2000, the Campus Web Council of Wisconsin (CWCW) was formed to help with the collaboration efforts on Web technologies throughout UW System. As a founding member of the CWCW, I have been very active in sharing the benefits of XHTML and CSS through the many years of our Web Standards adoption process.
I was presenting one time at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and was approached by an individual there asking if I would be interested in presenting at the “WebdevShare” national Web conference for higher education institutions at Indiana University. I submitted a proposal, and it was accepted. The real reason I was excited to go was the because of the chance to meet the keynote speaker, Jeffrey Zeldman. It was his site, A List Apart, and specifically his articles that got us moving in the correct direction.
Since I was accepted to speak, we needed a good example for the presentation. My students and I decided that redoing “Slashdot” would be a lot of fun and a neutral choice so we would not be picking on any individual university. We obtained permission to rebuild “Slashdot” and went to work. The presentation won the “Prestige Award,” and with that a whole flock of speaking opportunities rolled in.
The biggest challenge for me was being asked by Jeffrey Zeldman to write about my conversion of Slashdot for A List Apart. That was when I realized that I was a true advocate.
You were the Closing Keynote Speaker at Penn State’s Web Conference 2005. How much speaking do you do?
To date I have presented twenty-one times on the topic of Web Standards and how to utilize CSS over the past two years. I have had a chance to travel, meet a lot of really great people, write some articles for A List Apart, and even won a few awards. I have a few more presentations lined up for later this year including three presentations (Conversion to Web Standards; Aural Style Sheets; and a four hour Advanced CSS Workshop) at the “HighEdWebDev” conference in Rochester, NY. I’m typically willing to present at a conferences, pending my work schedule.
Acceptance of Web Standards seems to be increasing at colleges and universities. What advice can you give people just starting out?
Web Standards is a journey not a destination.
Learn XHTML first. It is the very first step to doing Web Standards. There is almost no attention paid to XHTML in any of the articles out on the Web today. All of the buzz is about CSS and how to do a CSS design that fails gracefully. So take my advice and start with XHTML and keep doing things the way you have been, even if it is a table structure design.
After you have mastered XHTML, then move onto simple CSS to learn the basic principles of how CSS behaves. Learning how CSS functions is vital to doing more advanced techniques. The biggest complaint I hear from people is that “this is not what we used to do” meaning that it is different. They are correct. CSS is not like any other tool in our Web development tool chest. It is a unique skill that we have to master, and like anything new it takes time to master.
Once you start to advance in CSS you will realize that less is more. You will realize the power of the Cascade and not just focus on the Style Sheets. The advanced technique removes all tables and presentation specific markup from the Web site and uses simple CSS for layout.
There are numerous sites available now for guidance. To make things easier the Campus Web Council of Wisconsin maintains a Reference Links page with useful articles, tools and tips that our Webmasters have discovered. The “Reference Links” page is a great place to get started because we continually update the list of links.
The last piece of advice I would like to give is taken from Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”…“DON’T PANIC”. Web Standards is a journey not a destination. We are all continually learning, so get up to speed and share the wealth because there is a lot more to learn! We have yet to scratch the surface on the DOM and Aural CSS, much less all of the really cool things going on now with the new recommendations at W3C!
Sound advice. Thanks again for participating in the interview.
Daniel M. Frommelt <firstname.lastname@example.org> has been the Web Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin–Platteville since 1997. Daniel has a staff of seven students who assist him in maintaining the core university Web pages, and with training faculty, staff and students on Web page maintenance and development. Daniel’s background is in publishing, teaching, management, and computer technologies. Daniel is an executive committee member of the Campus Web Council of Wisconsin, a graduate of the State of Wisconsin’s Club Tech 2000 program, a graduate of Loras College. Daniel is very active in pursuing Web standards and advancing Web technologies. He has written multiple articles on Web standards and design techniques for “A List Apart” online magazine.
The Web Standards Project is a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all.