uLwazi – SAEON

Teaching about the web

During South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown, the science engagement officer of SAEON’s Egagasini Node, Thomas Mtontsi, organised a two-session web-development tutorial for the SAEON Staff Kids (SSK) club run by SAEON uLwazi.

The tutorial took place over Zoom and certainly would be more challenging in an offline environment – one of the unforeseen benefits of mandatory remote work.

Exploring ideas about the first steps of web development can be lots of fun and I am happy to report that the reception was positive, and (hopefully) there was something for everyone – parents and children alike.

As a skill, the reality is that the reason web developers are proliferating everywhere and the reason they tend to be quite young is that building websites – i.e. implementing web technologies – is not actually difficult. The stereotype of the tech-savvy whiz kid, like so many stereotypes, is not incorrect; it is incomplete.

Most early-career web developers today do not act autonomously, yet they still produce immense value as implementers. At SAEON’s uLwazi Node, we hope to go beyond that and to engage in the technology itself, but as always, most of the work is in implementation. That is the message that is worth communicating; that implementing web development is not that difficult and you do not have to be the stereotypical whiz kid to do it.

Unlike many career paths, where the work itself is complex, there is little complexity inherent in actual computer code and, hopefully, this came across in the SSK sessions. Programming is an endless series of small, obvious little steps. The complexity comes down to managing (and remembering) volume.

Building websites is not as difficult as, say, managing a team of people who build websites. It is also not as difficult as writing newsletter articles about building websites.

Computers, like children, need specific instructions in order to work. So specific, in fact, that the actual instructions are typically easy to understand. Computers, unlike children (or, to be fair, most people), are good at remembering long lists of instructions that, when written out, look daunting. And so, a barrier of entry is created where developing the world-wide web is the prerogative of a protected few.

Those who have access to people who can teach web development easily collect web-development skills. And those who cannot find tutoring stare endlessly at the volume of work that makes up web development.

Without the tools to effectively pick and choose what to learn, it is difficult to know where to start. This is not how it should be; the web could – and perhaps should – be the collective say of every person who sits in front of a computer for their work.

Tutorials

In our two tutorials, the SSK club discovered the basics of creating a file that contains source code for a webpage – including HTML, CSS and JavaScript (in the same file). We covered what HTML tags are, and why we need to use them. At the end of the day we had a webpage that included a heading, a subheading, a description and photos.

For a retrospective look at the process, the tutorial notes are still available as a Google Doc.

While it is exceedingly difficult to expose people to development skills without a platform by which to reach them, the work uLwazi produces is open source, which allows for dissecting and disseminating the information systems built professionally to the general public as educational tools. Thus, members of the SSK club could build upon the basic HTML exercises completed during our session using the very tools that SAEON produces.

The web-development industry’s best kept secret?

This is a prerogative that few development teams have due to constraints that are well outlined in non-disclosure agreements. The fact that web products are 99% re-packaged open source code is … ahem … probably the web-development industry’s best kept secret.

SAEON’s web-based software tools extend the same concepts as introduced in the SSK tutorial (HTML, CSS and JavaScript), as does every other website in the world. Our source code is state-of-the-art, and we would love to share how it works.

We would also like to hear feedback from anyone on ideas of how to leverage our open-source platform code as an educational tool. Also, we are available to give more information sessions on the work we do.

And most importantly, website building should remain fun!