WaSP Interviews Lars Gunther
On Web Standards Advocacy in Education
Interview Conducted for 26 September 2006, by Rob Dickerson and April Siegfried of the Education Task Force
Lars Gunther discovered CSS layouts while searching for an easier way to develop Web sites. As a teacher residing in Sweden, Lars had an opportunity to affect change in the curriculum of gymnasium (senior high/secondary school). What were the challenges? How did his peers react? In this interview, Lars Gunther shares his story.
This interview also available in Swedish.
It’s a pleasure to talk with you Lars. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a pastor and a teacher, married, with two teenaged children. I grew up outside the town of Borås.
During the 90s I developed a web site for the church where I worked, but became increasingly frustrated by the need to handle both MSIE and Netscape. I also wanted a few DHTML-effects, like rollovers on the menus and such. I gave up coding by hand and settled for Net Objects Fusion.
My wife is involved in politics. Because of her commitments I could not move to another town when I stopped working in my church, so I started teaching computer science: hardware, LAN and server technologies, Linux, multimedia, database development. But my greatest joy is teaching Web-related technologies. I have developed two courses myself, one focusing on XML and another on database-driven websites using PHP. I also teach a little math and religion—if needed.
What led to your interest in Web standards?
Coming from a WYSIWYG-background, I had two forces driving me towards standards: my students, and the need to develop my first database-driven website in PHP. At the time, they all used tables and non-semantic HTML. I was too lazy for that.
Nested tables are bad enough to maintain. Mixed with PHP-code it became impossible. In those days I had not learned MVC-patterns and really mixed HTML and PHP-code in an awful way. I found CSS-layouts while desperately searching for an easier way to develop a site for my wife’s political campaign for the election in 2002.
In the spring of 2002 that site went on-line. It was suffering from divitis and classitis and still had some non-semantic HTML. I did not know about CSS-filters, but through PHP sent different CSS-files to MSIE 5, MSIE 6 and Gecko-based browsers. I had not grasped the power of standards fully, but still found this to be an easier way of doing things than using tables for design.
I started sharing what I learned with my students who, of course, ran into trouble: “Why doesn’t it look the same in Firefox as in MSIE?”, “I can’t get these two blocks to line up properly”, etc. Searching for answers with them, I soon found sites that taught Web standards.
All good sermons come in three points. One could say that during the fall of 2002 and 2003 I finally understood my three guiding “s”-principles:
- Standards, not proprietary code.
- Separation of design from content.
- Semantic (X)HTML to provide Structure. (Maybe that’s a forth “s” there.).
Being a pastor, it wasn’t hard to convince me about the benefits of better accessibility either.
What prompted you to contact the WaSP Education Task Force last August (2005)?
Knowing that the “gymnasium” (like senior high/secondary school) will have a complete “makeover”, I saw an opportunity to raise the standard of education (pun intended) in Web-related courses. However, I am not a well-known figure; I am a teacher in a rather small town. I thought that WaSP would have a voice much more well-respected and authoritative. A quote from the mail I sent WaSP EduTF a year ago:
If I (maybe as part of a group) could speak not only for myself, but as an official representative of WaSP (which I am a member of and wholeheartedly support) maybe we could see some wonderful results?
In September 2005, you were appointed a liaison with the Education Task Force. It is well-known that you contacted Skolverket quite soon after. Can you tell us a little bit more about your activities during this time?
First of all I had to become a detective to find out whom to contact at Skolverket. That information was not public and my mails were not returned. I was lucky that the rumor spread about my efforts, and I was contacted by a colleague at another school. He gave me one name to contact. From there I got a few more names. Their addresses could be found on Google, and after a good while I was finally talking to the right people.
My next problem was that they had not heard of WaSP. The initial reaction to my efforts seemed to be “who is this guy and why does he think that WaSP should be heard?” I had used arguments such as WaSP numbers some of the top names in the industry, WaSP is working with MS, WaSP is working with Macromedia, etc.
After a little while, I was communicating with the teacher in charge of the subject “Interactive Media”, which basically serves as an umbrella for Web design and multimedia. He was somewhat sympathetic to our cause, and even made accessibility part of a curriculum draft that went public last autumn.
I was promised that WaSP EduTF should be given an opportunity to comment upon the draft, and translated it into English. However, there was some glitch in our communication and all of a sudden the only opportunity I got was to publish some thoughts on the bulletin board on Skolverket’s website. Less knowledgeable teachers posted their thoughts as well. One even wrote “what does accessibility aspects mean?” And her opinion seemed to make a difference. In the final version (published this spring) the mention of accessibility is gone.
I imagine that you were disappointed to learn of these setbacks. What did you do in response?
During the winter I tried to communicate with these people again. I had now also found the guy in charge of “Internet Programming” (think PHP, ASP or JSP). And he responded to email! He seemed to think that standards matter. He thought that there was no need to explicitly mention them in the curricula, though.
By chance, I also found out that there will be a third subject: “Information and presentation technology,” and that my own principal was in charge of it. At least I’ve got his ear, and the word “standards” made it into the curricula. But now I’ve stretched the phrase “this time” all the way into March 2006.
Was it during this time that you began to draft your Letter to Skolverket?
There were two things that started my writing the letter.
- I wanted my colleagues at my own school to have a position paper on how we should teach Web-related subjects.
- I had come to the conclusion that there was a need to *educate* my contacts at Skolverket about standards, or at least help them more clearly see the issues. Then I heard that there will be additional steering papers apart from the actual curricula, and I thought that my paper could be expanded and be of help as these guidelines were written.
I also thought that it would be good to have our position (what we are lobbying for) and our arguments (why it matters) put into writing.
The internal paper was written during the winter. As for my work with Skolverket, I felt a bit defeated in February as I saw that we had not really impacted the curricula and that they had been finalized. In March I learned about the additional guidelines, and hope was rekindled. The final decision to write the letter was made about that time, and I started to contact Swedish “standardistas” soon thereafter, to review my words and perhaps co-sign the letter.
You’ve developed quite a circle of contacts within the Swedish communities of bloggers, education, Skolverket, and edu-related publications. From your experience, do you have any advice for others who want to “spread the word”?
To the extent that my efforts have been successful, I think it’s because of two things:
- I researched whom to contact. If people blogged about standards and accessibility, then that person would probably be supportive of my efforts as well.
- I tried to be polite. When I grew up my parents tried to tell me how to behave politely. It did not catch on at first because I never understood the value of the rules. Having grown up, I understand that being polite means attaching value and dignity to another person.
Apart from the Web standards community’s enthusiastic response to your letter and your actions, how has the gymnasium reacted?
I wish I had a successful story to share at this point, but I don’t. Skolverket has not responded at all to the letter, as such—with “Skolverket” actually being the people responsible for the relevant subjects, who are basically teachers themselves and not employed full time by Skolverket as a national agency.
This may have to do with the timing. In May we teachers basically do nothing but grade our students and then there is a long summer break. Right now things are starting up again, and I’ve recently sent a reminder. However, two mail addresses are no longer working making it time to play detective again…
It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Lars. Do you have any closing thoughts?
…being formally trained is not the same thing as being up to date.
Right now in Sweden there is a big debate about the qualifications of teachers. The leading unions are lobbying hard to get all schools not to hire anyone but a formally trained educator. But being formally trained is not the same thing as being up to date, or even being trained in the right discipline.
General computer knowledge does not make one an expert in web design. People often say “he is working with computers” as if that would be one single profession. Being a “teacher in computer science” should not be enough to teach web related courses.
Swedish schools need to re-educate their teachers in web technologies as specific subjects. Front-end design expertise is not the same as back-end design expertise, and definitely not the same thing as managing a Cisco router. Winning Skolverket to our cause won’t matter at all if we do not get to “tutor the tutors”.
Since we last spoke with Lars, the Education Task Force has been contacted twice by individuals in the Swedish Web community. KTH, Sweden’s largest university for students interested in technology, has launched their new site which validates as HTML 4.01 Strict and CSS 2. Malmö University has started a new program that mentions accessibility, platform independence, and usability. Emil Björklund, a student in the program, hopes to see Web standards presented in the program. Emil has told us that he shall do his best to nudge the program on the right track if Web standards are not presented.
With an ever-growing need and desire for a Web standards-based education at all levels in academia, now is the time for Skolverket to address and adopt the proposals of Lars Gunther.
Lars Gunther is a teacher in computer science, pastor and entrepreneur. He is married to Penilla and intends to run a Web site at keryx.se. He is interested in theology, history and philosophy. He is often found sitting in front of his computer developing in PHP or reading from his insanely massive amount of RSS-feeds. He is a member of The Guild of Accessible Web Designers. This summer (2006), Lars celebrated his 40th birthday but still has had no middle age crisis.
- Some parts of that site (still with ghastly N.E.Fusion code) have been salvaged at http://keryx.se/modesty/ and http://keryx.se/forrestgump/ (both in Swedish)
- Letter to Skolverket (English Translation)
- Letter to Skolverket (Portugese Translation)
- Letter to Skolverket (in Swedish)
- A Letter from WaSP EduTF to Skolverket – 456 Berea Street
- Paul Boag podcast at Practical Web Design
- On Quality Education
- WaSP Welcomes Sweden
The EduTF thanks Roger Johansson (456 Berea Street) profusely for helping us with the translation of this interview.
The Web Standards Project is a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all.