I felt uninspired for a spell in 2019 and decided to enroll in a beginning-level community college course on web development as a way to “spice” things up, sort of like going backwards in order to move forwards. I had no interest in being an old dog learning new tricks; what I wanted was to look at front-end development through the eyes of a beginner in 2019 after having been a beginner in 2003.

Fast-forward five years, and I’m now teaching that class for the same college, as well as three others. What I gained by reprising my student status is an obsession with “a-ha!” moments. It’s the look in a student’s eyes when something “clicks” and new knowledge is developed. With the barrier to learning web development seemingly getting higher all the time, here I am, making merry with the basics. (That linked post to Rachel’s blog is what spurred me to go back to school.)

With several years of teaching under my belt, I have plenty of opinions about the learning landscape for web development. But what I am more interested in continues to be vicarious living through the eyes of my entry-level students and the consistent sparks of knowledge they make.

Questions are often the precursor to an “a-ha!” moment. And my students ask some pretty darn interesting questions every term, without fail, questions that have forced me to reconsider not only how I approach curriculum and instruction but also how other people think about The Web™ as a whole.

I’ve made a practice of collecting handfuls of student questions and comments. That way, I can reflect on how I might respond or answer them for future students and reference them as I write and update my lesson plans. I thought I’d share a few of them because, I hope, it will give you an idea of what those getting into the field are curious about. I think you’ll find that as many of us debate and decry the value of JavaScript frameworks, Core Web Vitals, AI, and whether Typescript is a necessary evil, the people cracking into web development are asking the most interesting questions in the field and are making way different connections than those of us who have spent forever on the front end.

These are pulled straight from students in the current Spring term. We’re only three weeks into the semester, but check out what sorts of things are already swirling around their minds as we discuss semantics, accessibility, and writing modes.

“I really never thought of this; however, code could be inclusive, and how coding could express empathy. While reading this portion of the context, I was thinking about my Kindle and how the Kindle can have audio, change my font style, larger/smaller font, and lighting. All of this helps me to read and navigate my books better depending on my surroundings and how much accessibility I will need. For example, when I am driving, I love my audiobooks, and at night, I use my dim setting and change font size because it’s the end of the day, and my eyes don’t want to do too much work reading smaller text. It’s really fascinating that coding can do all of this.”

“If we are confused about our coding and it doesn’t make sense to us, it will definitely confuse the readers, which is the opposite of our end goal, accessibility. There are also times when we might want to use <div> where we could use <article> or <nav> or any of the other important elements. It’s essential to fully understand the elements and their uses in order to write the cleanest code.”

“Tackling CSS logical properties this week felt like a juggling act, trying to keep all those new concepts in the air. Swapping left and right for inline-start and inline-end is a bit confusing, but it’s cool to see how it makes websites more welcoming for different languages.”

“What are the legal implications of website liability? I couldn’t imagine the size of a class action lawsuit that Facebook would get smacked with if a rogue developer decided to pin a gif of a strobe light to the top of the world’s newsfeeds. Are websites subject to the same legislation that requires buildings to have wheelchair ramps?”

“Sometimes, I wonder how to make all this new stuff work on old browsers that might not get what I’m trying to do. I also get stuck when my page looks great in one language but breaks in another. What’s the best way to check my work in different languages or writing modes?”

“One of the big things that really got me stoked was learning how to make content in Flexbox the same size using flex or flex-basis. This was a really big thing for me last semester when I was working on my final project. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the content in Webflow equal in size.”

“Hearing the terms “Writing Modes” and “Logical Properties” in CSS was a bit of a concern at the beginning of this week. A lot of CSS I remember was beginning to come back, but these two were new. After going over the course modules, my concern lifted a lot, mainly because Writing Modes were the layout of text in a certain element. As simple as I thought it was, it was also very important considering how writing modes change in different countries. Learning how these writing modes change the flow of text showed how much more inclusion you could bring to a website, allowing for different languages to be filtered in.”

“Although in the previous course, we learned how flexbox and grid can be used to style interesting content on sites, we didn’t study how they were made with CSS. It was surprisingly simple to grasp the basic concepts of setting up a flexbox or grid and how their children can be positioned on a main axis and cross axis. I especially enjoyed setting up grids, as both methods are intuitive, and the concept of selecting the grid lines that an element sits in reminds me of how some programming languages implement arrays and ranges. Python, for instance, allows the user to select the last element of an array using -1 just as the grid-column: 1/-1; the property can specify that an element spans until the end of a row.”

“Logical Properties were intimidating at first, but it was just changing the code to make it make sense in a way. After learning CSS — a bit a while ago — Logical Properties seemed more modern, and I think I adapted to it quickly.”

“But as a whole, I could see the building of websites to be a very easy thing to automate, especially in this day and age. Perhaps that is why site builders do not get super specific with their semantics — I usually only find <html>, <body>, and <head>, while the rest is filled with <div>. Especially when it comes to companies that push a lot of articles or pages out onto the internet, I can see how they would not care much for being all-inclusive, as it matters more that they get the content out quickly.”

“I did not think I would enjoy coding, but so far, I like this class, and I’m learning so much. I liked getting into CSS a little and making things more customizable. I found it interesting that two elements make your content look the same but have different meanings.”

I want to end things with a few choice quotes from students who completed my course in the last term. I share them not as ego boosters but as a reminder that simplicity is still alive, well, and good on the web. While many new developers feel pressured to earn their “full stack” merit badge, the best way to learn the web — and make people excited about it — is still the simple “a-ha!” moment that happens when someone combines HTML with CSS for the first time in a static file.

“I can confidently say that among all the courses I’ve taken, this is the first one where I thoroughly read all the content and watched all the videos in detail because it is so well-structured. Despite the complexity of the subject, you made this course seem surprisingly easy to grasp.”

“Man, I’ve learned so much in this class this semester, and it’s finally over. This final project has given me more confidence and ability to troubleshoot and achieve my vision.”

“Even though I did not pass, I still truly did enjoy your class. It made me feel smart because coding had felt like an impossible task before.”

“I especially appreciate Geoff’s enthusiasm for multiple reasons. I am hoping to change careers, and the classes are helping me get closer to that reality.”

These are new people entering the field for the first time who are armed with a solid understanding of the basics and a level of curiosity and excitement that easily could clear the height of Mount Elbert.

Isn’t that what we want? What would the web look like if we treat the next wave of web developers like first-class citizens by lowering the barriers to entry and rolling out the red carpet for them to crack into a career in front-end? The web is still a big place, and there is room for everyone to find their own groove. Some things tend to flourish when we democratize them, and many of us experienced that first-hand when we first sat down and wrote HTML for the very first time without the benefit of organized courses, bootcamps, YouTube channels, or frameworks to lean on. The same magic that sparked us is still there to spark others after all this time, even if we fail to see it.

Smashing Editorial

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