Introducing HTML: Top-down or bottom-up?

I have recently switched the way that I approach intros to mark-up languages, HTML and XML in particular. In the past I have usually started by writing sample code, moving from simple to more complex structures. I have seen other approaches focusing on editing environments and others focusing on schemas. More recently I have begun my workshops at the unlikeliest of places: the end product.

If we had focused on the end product during the history of TEI, I feel we would have followed another pattern. Many today, for example, still see TEI mainly as a descriptive language. At some point though, sometimes after years of mark-up somebody starts worrying about the interface. When I was introduced to TEI, I remember being taught how I should mark-up, but never why. TEI is a standard that allows humanities scholars to have one form of their thinking become intertwined with machine thinking. The goal though is to have a product for readers or users. That product can be a reference database, an online critical edition, an ebook, whatever. I wish somebody had taught me that on day one.

My approach now is to lead with something like:

  •     HTML is a standard way of marking texts meant for use on the internet.
  •     The marked-up text is saved as a file.
  •     That file is put in a folder in a machine called a server.
  •     The server allows anyone with access to the internet to see a rendition of the file using a browser.

We could call this the 'abstract' approach, but I'd rather think of it as the end-first approach.

Here's how I would approach XML/TEI:

  • TEI is a standard way of marking texts in the humanities.
  • The marked-up text is saved as a file.
  • That file can be manipulated in several ways, but the main goal of the file is to serve as the data source for a digital edition of the text. 
  • The features the scholar marks up can become manipulated in several ways in the final product.

The advantage of starting with the ultimate goal, rather than on implementation, is giving students a sense of purpose before embarking on the laborious process of learning the vocabulary and the grammar of mark-up. 

Did you find these lists helped you? How do you teach intro to HTML or XML?

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