AJ Dyrbye

Web Developer and Digital Humanist

Tag: html

Volunteering with Ladies Learning Code

This last Saturday was a particularly good one: I did something to shift from being simply a learner, to assisting others’ learning experience. That something was volunteering with my local chapter of Ladies Learning Code, a digital literacy initiative that provides affordable, beginner-friendly sessions in technology skills.

I first heard about them in late 2013, when I’d just defended my Masters and was looking for a community and a way to keep developing my own hard-won knowledge base. I took their session on PhotoShop and Illustrator, and was impressed by not only the quality of the workshop, but the enthusiasm and collegiality of the instructor and volunteer mentors.

Not long after, I fell down a year-long WordPress rabbit hole and forgot about it for a while. It was no bad thing from a personal and professional standpoint – being brought on to the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum as web developer was one of the highlights of 2014 and prompted me to take a course in theme development – but it stalled my participation in the local community.

Now, in 2015, that’s something I’ve resolved to rectify. It’s partly that working (not to mention job hunting) from home is isolating and getting out to participate in the larger community is one of the best ways to break that isolation. But, more importantly, I’ve reached the point where I’m comfortable in my own skills, and it’s time for me to give back by helping others with their learning.

I chose the first session of the year, LLC Edmonton’s HTML and CSS workshop, to take the plunge as a mentor. Despite the overnight dump of snow, about 30 learners braved the roads to attend, plus several other mentors.

Once the instructor started, the time flew.

I initially had a table of three, which became a table of four about an hour in. For the first half hour or so, the uncertainty was palpable. The subject matter was foreign and intimidating to the learners. It was amazing watching my table as they made simple changes to their HTML document, and the baffling cipher in front of them began to transform into a process they could understand and control. One woman even laughed delightedly when she refreshed the browser and saw her changes take effect. With one exception, the help they needed was primarily to break down a given task a bit further until it clicked for them, or to catch them up when the instruction occasionally proceeded faster than their new understanding.

That exception was the latecomer to the session. To get her caught up, I ended up quietly working one on one with her for about half the day; I am tremendously grateful to the mentors at the adjacent tables who jumped in and out to help the other three when I wasn’t able to. She started out flustered, apologetic and baffled, but, over the next few hours, she not only gained confidence but caught up and started adding her own customizations to her page while she waited for the instructor to move on. Though she started behind everyone else, she left excited by what she’d accomplished and was looking forward to teaching her daughter what she’d learned.

By the end of the day, it was amazing how far everyone had come. They’d gone from feeling over their heads to building a simple, well-styled one-page website, no mean feat for a beginner. The last hour was the most intense from a mentoring standpoint, however – by that point in the day, the learners were commenting that were feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they’d been absorbing. They were generally upbeat and satisfied with their progress, but keeping up with the remaining tasks had become much more challenging.

All said and done, I’m tremendously pleased that I could help out. Having a busy table proved to be no trouble for me; I ended up energized by it. It helped that the Ladies Learning Code group as a whole was tremendously open, welcoming and supportive. Though most other mentors were seasoned, I was by no means the only first-timer. Furthermore, they were from a range of backgrounds – some work in web development, some are interested in web development for personal reasons, and at least one is currently learning web development and programming as part of a career change.

The common thread was love of the subject and desire to instill it in others, and I’m left glad that I took the plunge to share my own.

Github repository

Quick update: As of today, all code and other associated files I created for my Masters thesis are available on Github.

This includes not only the final thesis, but also the full code for the case study website I developed as the project portion of the thesis. As such, it provides an example of my work in XHTML, HTML5, CSS, CSS3, PHP and MySQL dating from 2012 and 2013.

On Creating in WordPress

A Few Thoughts on WordPress versus Hand-Coding

In the last several months, I’ve had the opportunity to go in-depth with WordPress as a web development platform. 

This represented a departure for me. Ever since I first learned HTML, back in the days of Geocities and table-based layouts, I’ve been most at ease hand-coding my pages. While I’ve used web development software before, I appreciate the control and depth of understanding hand-coding permits.

Which is not to say that it is without drawbacks. Designing and modifying a website in a text processor is time-consuming, even with a modular design and PHP to stitch it all together. It’s easy to introduce errors; all it takes is one mis-spelled semantic element, or misremembering one piece of CSS syntax. I’ve spent many hours tweaking box element positions on a stylesheet even when all is going well.

Yet, it’s easy, too easy, for me to get caught up with layouts and structure at the expense of the site as a whole. Spelling and grammar are harder to proof, for one. More critically, it’s harder to step back to see the overall effectiveness of a site when I’ve spent hours working with lines of code for just one part of one page. To be fair, some of that may be an artifact of being just one person, and never mind one who is still learning in many respects.

By contrast, working with WordPress emphasizes content. Instead of creating a layout from scratch, users choose a preset. Instead of writing a new file for each page, users choose from a short list of templates, then proceed immediately to formatting their text and adding media. 

It is simultaneously restrictive and strangely freeing.

When I started working with the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum project, they had no website to speak of, just a space on the University of Alberta’s ARC servers and a WordPress install. All it took for me to get the site roughed in and ready for project content was a Skype call with the coordinating committee and a few afternoons of creating pages, setting up menus and roughing in the sidebars with example content. By contrast, it took me weeks of dedicated work to get the case study website I designed for my thesis structured and styled.

Despite the time it took to get the formatting just so in WordPress’ page editor (amazing disappearing non-breaking spaces! Header tags mysteriously applied to whole paragraphs!), it was almost absurdly fast to get each new page populated and ready to go. No messing with positioning, no time spent searching out where I missed a close tag in an unordered list, no playing around with formatting individual CSS classes, just a polished page. 

I’m of two minds on this. It’s great to have it done in relatively short order, ready for the world to see. However, I feel like I’ve invested very little of myself in the pages, beyond the images and text. With WordPress, and especially with the free version I’m currently using, there is a limited capacity to alter layouts, change fonts, experiment with colour schemes, or refine how the pages behave under various devices or browsers. 

It’s great to have a portfolio up and running so quickly, but at the same time, I built my first one from scratch for good reason. It was a chance to not only demonstrate that I can build a competent, if basic, website from scratch, but also a place to refine and practice my HTML and CSS. That said, I also learned a great deal from running the Contemporary Ukraine Research Forum site as an admin; it gave me the broader view of good site design by distancing me from the level of code.

I’m still deciding how I want to go forward from here. I like WordPress, despite its limitations, even though I miss getting deep into the code level. Yet, I still value my old portfolio, and I regret the loss of both it and my thesis case study website with the end of my university hosting.

Perhaps it’s simply time to invest in a domain and hosting. Transfer over my older work, and give myself the ability to effect greater control over my WordPress work. Worst case scenario? I develop a passion for WordPress theme development.

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