Why teach journalism students Dreamweaver?

Over on Press Gazette’s Student Journalism Blog, Dave Lee has revived a very interesting discussion about whether journalism students should be taught to build websites in Dreamweaver.

Dave is with Amy Gahran in arguing against; Andy Dickinson, who knows more than a thing or two about teaching online journalism, begs to differ. After all, teaching the tool is a way of teaching the basic principles of website structures.

My €0.02: I’m somewhere between Dave and Andy’s views on this.

I was taught Dreamweaver on my postgrad journalism course a couple of years ago, and thought it was a complete waste of time.

But that’s not because it’s a useless bit of software. On the contrary: I learned everything I know about websites by pushing Dreamweaver to its limits — but had already done so well before starting the course. During the course, I used Dreamweaver to build a rudimentary database-driven news site — essentially a homebrew content management system. But that made me a swot. The course actually envisioned building a site consisting of a bunch of static pages.

It seemed to me at the time that journalists need either a lot more or a lot less knowledge of web design and development than a one-year (or even a three-year) Dreamweaver module on a journalism course can provide. My working life has confirmed this.

Most journalists, even the online variety, probably use no more than the most basic HTML tags in their day-to-day work. A few bold and italics, and maybe embedding the odd image or Flash file. They need to understand how sites work, but not in any great depth. For them, dealing with Dreamweaver is overkill.

For those who need aspire to jobs that do require them to understand how their newspaper.com CMS works under the bonnet — to maintain CMS templates, for example, to work on a multimedia production team, or to build new database-drive functionality for sites — one term or so of Dreamweaver is nowhere near enough training. In fact, most students working at that level of geekiness probably don’t like Dreamweaver, either. They will be the ones who who have started moaning about the standard of CSS/HTML/MySQL/PHP code Dreamweaver creates in WYSIWYG mode, and will have forsaken it for something far simpler, like Taco HTML Edit or Coda.

Similarly, teaching journalism students to build simple static websites is a bit odd: For most journalists, it is a pretty useless skill because no site they will ever work on will demand this of them. And for those who want to build or maintain the sorts of highly complex, CMS-driven websites they are likely to encounter professionally, it’s barely scratching the surface of what they’ll need to know to be employable.

It would be more useful to teach some basic principles including HTML, let the serious geeks (or failing that, the tutor) set up a CMS-driven site in WordPress, MT, Joomla! or another basic CMS, and then make sure everyone else can keep it running — by concentrating on the non-technical journalism skills, like how to present stories online.

With all this baggage in mind, I was heartened today to see what Paul Bradshaw’s students are up to at Birmingham City Uni.

They are building an environmental news web site — and that at least some of them are not afraid to get their hands dirty with MySQL and Joomla, not to mention learning how to integrate free online tools like Twitter. Marvelous.

26 thoughts on “Why teach journalism students Dreamweaver?

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  6. I know theres always a danger that if I’ll get tarred as the Dreamweaver advocate in a debate like this. I’m truly not. So I do sympathize with you when you had to put up with a whole module of dreamweaver. I agree- a bit of an overkill.

    I’m not teaching dreamweaver as a module. It just gets used where appropriate, to do a job. It won’t be used next year, But this year, with a lot of handholding, it does,

    In that sense I think their is a danger that dreamweaver can be a bit of straw man in the debate. A bit of a totem to represent web 1 when we are all supposed to be web 3.

    The truth is that any software can be as complex or as simple as you want to make it. I know there are parts of word I will never use and I think I had my first flying arrow in Powerpoint this week. They can do loads but . I use as appropriate.

    Ultimately it’s what works. As I say to my students, Use Dreamweaver, use word, use wordpress and save the page; use a hammer and some nails if you can get it to work on IE, However you do it. Just do it.

  7. Andy,

    I think their is a danger that dreamweaver can be a bit of straw man in the debate. A bit of a totem to represent web 1 when we are all supposed to be web 3.

    True. Both my experience and the example that Amy Gahran used in the post that started this were of courses where Dreamweaver was more or less the only thing taught about online journalism.

  8. I think the whole debate emphasises how valuable broad media degrees are.
    We encourage journalism students to study web design (Dreamweaver, accessibility, usability, etc.) alongside their core modules in the first year – but they don’t have to.
    And they don’t have to know Dreamweaver to do the second year Online Journalism module – instead they learn CMS and some basic HTML. Even when I didn’t have a CMS to teach them I created a bunch of templates so they only had to fill the boxes.
    IN the final year all students have to study a module from another production area to complement their core specialism. Azeem is studying web alongside journalism – which is where he learned PHP. TV students on the same module looked at VOD.
    The whole debate is best illustrated by the following: my best online journalism student has had to switch from the specialist Journalism degree to the broad media degree, as it is the only way he was going to be able to study areas such as digital cultures and Flash.

  9. Martin,

    Really interesting debate. I’ m responsible for a unit in online journalism at Solent University. I ditched teaching Dreamweaver for many of the reasons you describe in your post. We now create a single news site using Joomla!. Students also blog on WordPress.

    The outcome has been really good. Students don’t spend hours and hours creating pretty looking buttons in Fireworks and Photoshop. Instead, they get more of the online editorial skills, video and content management.

    In an ideal world, we would offer a bit of web design. But contrary to what those journalism degrees cynics would have you believe, we’re not exactly short of things to teach our students.

    If we spend time teaching web design, innevitably the students get less of something else, which is also probably really important. We’re particularly aware of this because we’re currently going through the process of updating the entire journalism undergrad course.

    I’m not sure if we’re quite there yet, but the aim is to have convergence at the ‘heart’ of the degree. We want to get our students thinking intellectually about it what it means and also have the practical skills to use in the newsroom. Our students also won’t be compelled to take NCTJ exams, although we’ll still offer them.

    It’s an exciting time, even though I am not really “excited” by the fact that I’m spending all this weekend drafting a load of new unit content. Wish me luck!

    Just one small thing, I really don’t see the point of Twitter. If anyone can “theorise” the significance of twitter to journalists, then please let me know. Answers on a postcard, preferably to arrive by first thing Monday!

  10. I have commented on the Dreamweaver aspect of this on my blog but would say to Steve that twitter is another tool in the toolbox. All tools will be useful if used in a creative way by creative journalists.

    Here is an (not particularly creative I have to admit but it will do) example

  11. I’m usually the first one to spout steam out my ears when I hit Cmd-U and see the telltale signs of Dreamweaver usage on a news site, but…

    this post from Matt Mullenweg of WordPress fame reminded me that there is a fine text editor built into Dreamweaver, which, used properly, will yield the good clean semantic code that the cool kids all advocate these days.

    Then again, there are plenty of free or cheap text editors around that get the job done with enough spending money leftover to buy a Dan Cederholm or Jeffrey Zeldman book that will take you further than any piece of software.

    To drive the point home: It’s one thing to teach a copy editing class how to use proofreader’s marks; it’s quite another to point them in the direction of Copperud and Bernstein.

  12. Mark’s post on this issue hits the nail on the head.

    Teaching software instead of underlying principles is like teaching a monkey to press a red button when he is hungry. Move the monkey to cage where the banana machine uses a blue button, and the monkey goes hungry…

  13. @Ryan – Couldn’t agree more. The text editor in DW is brilliant – it’s the only bit I use. But ever since I discovered that Taco HTML Edit does more or less the same thing, I don’t think I’ve opened DW once.

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  20. I agree that teaching to use dreamweaver without any knowledge about webstandards would be a waste of time, but If the students are teaching to write for web it should be useful to know how it is built. But that's my opinion though :-)

    I am interested in both of them and would like to gain knowledge in every field possible if relevant :-)

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