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.