Geeky tech = easy course webpages

One of my duties as a teaching assistant is to maintain a website for my class section that lists information about me, useful links, and all the homework for the next two weeks. The solution that foreign language learning support tech service provides is Dreamweaver, installed on all of the office computers.

I’ve got two problems with this approach to course website design. To wit:

  1. Dreamweaver is complete overkill for editing the webpage equivalent to a form letter.

    The way these pages work is quite simple – every teaching assistant uses the same page, with all the same resources (button images, navigational headers, etc.). The only difference is the information for the individual TA’s class, and his or her picture.

    Editing a webpage like this is trivial for Dreamweaver, yes, but also causes complete confusion about how Dreamweaver, and web editing in general, works on the part of non-techheads.

  2. Using Dreamweaver on office computers means that the TA has to be in the office, on the office computer, to edit their site.

    This is what initally pushed me away from using Dreamweaver completely to edit my own site. My distate for Windows really does run that deep. Seriously though, why shouldn’t the TA be able to make these (trivial) edits on his or her own computer?

My initial solution to this (admittedly small) problem was to simply use Bare Bones Software’s great TextWrangler, a free text editor, to edit the HTML code of my site directly. That way, I could work on it whereever I wanted.

The other day, I taught one of my fellow TAs how to edit the code of her own site as well. It was then that I realized that the edit-the-code-yourself method can only go so far, inasmuch as you’ve got to be a techhead to find your way confidently around the sea of HTML code that comprises the stock site in order to get to your homework schedule (i.e. your editable content).

I’ve known about John Gruber’s Markdown language for a while, but I had never seen the utility of it before now. I spent some time using it tonight, editing my class homework schedule, and I’m now a convert. It’s a complete solution for editing small bits of websites by hand without the need to know full HTML or the intricacies of big programs like Dreamweaver. In a department full of literary folks, not having to know any confusing code to do basic web editing could go far.

I’m still using TextWrangler as my editor of choice, but I’ve added the Markdown.pl script to it to allow it to turn Markdown-formatted text into HTML in one keystroke. I’ve now got two files open all the time – the index.htm file of my webpage itself, and what I call hwk-mrkdwn.txt, where I write the edits to my page in Markdown. From there it’s a simple copy & paste, then a shortcut to convert Markdown to HTML.

When I add this nice trick to storing both files in my Dropbox, I’ve now got a way to quickly and easily update my students’ homework, in simple plain text, from any of my computers. Another win for technology.

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