Teaching Web Design and Development at Penn State

open source education

This is the fourth interview in our series called, “Open Source in Education”.

We are running this series to publicize efforts to teach open source. We went to DrupalCon Portland in May and heard from a lot of frustrated teachers. Many of them are struggling to get their universities to allow them to run cutting edge web design courses.

We’ve previously interviewed Tessa Mero who teachers PHP, Jen Kramer who teaches open source development and Brent Laminack who teaches Joomla.

This week, we talk with Greg O’Toole who teaches web development at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).

#1. Hi Greg. Can you introduce yourself?

I am a Lecturer and Sr. Web UI Engineer at the College of Information Sciences & Technology (IST) at Penn State. I teach Sustainable Web Ecosystem Design and work in front end, open source web development, research, and education.

Additionally, I am a Research Cyberspecialist in the Penn State Earth and Environmental Systems Institute which is part of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the Penn State Institute for Energy and the Environment. I am an affiliated researcher with the Social Science Research Institute and an adjunct faculty in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State. Additionally, I am an Assistant Professor at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online Division in the Web Design and Interactive Media Department where I teach related classes, and have a lot of fun offering seminars on contemporary Web topics. After a lively oral defense in Berlin, Germany, I am very proud that my Ph.D. was recently conferred Magna Cum Laude in Media & Communication at European Graduate School in Saas-fee, Switzerland.

gregIn general, I am a webmedia technologist working in webmedia consulting, theory, research, development, and education from the PA I-99 Innovation Corridor. For 20+ years I have been working professionally in technical creative media.

These days I live valid rooting distance from the home of the Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers, and Union. Simultaneously, I am lucky to live on the edge of 2.3 million acres of protected public wilderness: a stone’s throw away from some of the best trout streams in the country. I spend my professional time on the following topics: lightweight, scalable, accessible, mobile, usable, creative Web development, research, photography, writing, and user interface engineering. We have arrived at a point where we now need to specify our discourse about “HCI” or human-computer interface, and include the more direct process of “BCI” or brain-computer interface, so my long term interests go a bit further than creating cool web projects for exceptionally cool people. For that reason, I have a more formal biography on my site (www.otoole.info).

#2. What classes are you actually teaching at the moment?

penn stateThe most recent class I taught at Penn State was in this past Spring semester. It’s called IST250 Introduction to Web Design and Development (which was recently updated from New Media and the Web). The class covers HTML, CSS, FTP and introductory topics on Web design and development.

I am writing the sequel to IST250 now called IST251 Intro to Web Application Development. This class will focus heavily on PHP and MySQL. We will use all open source technologies to help the students learn how to create a basic, well designed and developed, standards based Web App.

#3. How do you actually teach the class? Is it all hands-on? Do you use lectures?

I do some in-person lectures of ideas and theoretical concepts, but this makes up only part of the class. I try to do this early on to give context. Then the rest of the time we work in building.

Small projects are helpful, and sometimes they culminate into a big project at the end. This hands-on practice time to build is where you see the students really start to learn and understand.

#4. So you’ve recently moved to a flipped classroom model? Has it been a big change?

We use a “flipped classroom” model which has been working very well. There is a lot of new-topic, introduction, self-paced, asynchronous, Web tutorial type learning early in the week. Then later in the week we meet in person, and I start with demo material in front on the big screen. After each new idea is demonstrated, the students work hands on with the processes. I am there walking around the classroom answering individual questions. That’s the model, it’s simple and it works very well. The students are challenged and happy with the results, you can see it in the end-of-semester feedback surveys we do with them.

#5. What are 18 year old computer science students interested in these days? PHP? Ruby? Javascript?

Startup culture is big at IST. We have a Startup Week conference every year that brings in IST alumni from the San Francisco area to give talks and otherwise work with the students. The students are very interested in the business angle, they are curious how to get going with their own ideas.

They are curious about the technologies being used and have a good user-side perspective. I try to emphasize the practical understanding of how to build, what the code is, how it works, and how to be successful and sustainable with the time they put into learning it.

#6. You’re the first person we’ve talked to who has been able to run their class in the main curriculum of a university. Any advice for teachers to get their open source classes?

Propose a class that really has impact in Web/IT technology today in the business world. The emphasis does not have to be on open source at first. It can be on social media, building Web apps, designing mobile apps, elearning, anything.

Do the research and show how much of an impact these techs are having on the world. Make the point that the students need to learn it or be left behind to some degree. Forward looking administration will be helpful. Once the class is OK’d, simply find open source technologies and methodologies to complete the task.

#7. What plans do you have for future classes?

cda displayimageNext I think we will get under the hood of some popular open source content management systems. The power of these techs and communities is something students need to be exposed to and understand.

I have a great interest in the bigger picture of Web, so I wrote a book that is out this year in July (from Springer) called “Sustainable Web Ecosystem Design”. This book is about the process of creating web-based systems (i.e., websites, content, etc.) that consider each of the parts, the modules, the organisms – binary or otherwise – that make up a balanced, sustainable web ecosystem. In the current media-rich environment, a website is more than a collection of relative html documents of text and images on a static desktop computer monitor. There is now an unlimited combination of screens, devices, platforms, browsers, locations, versions, users, and exabytes of data with which to interact. Written in a highly approachable, practical style, this book is useful for stakeholders, system administrators, developers, designers, content managers, and the anonymous web user in industry, as well as faculty, staff, and students of all levels involved in teaching and learning in information technology.

I encourage anyone interested in understanding the Web today to take a look at the book. It is available very soon in paperback or in any format the reader prefers:  http://www.springer.com/computer/swe/book/978-1-4614-7713-6


  • Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. He was a teacher for many years before starting OSTraining. Steve wrote the best-selling Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress books.

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