Our young medium is still ironing out a few kinks—perhaps the biggest of which is the way budding web professionals are being educated. Schools that teach web design struggle to keep pace with our industry, and those just starting their curricula often set off in the wrong direction because the breadth and depth of our medium can be daunting.
If you’ve interviewed candidates for positions in the web industry, you’ve probably heard firsthand the heartbreaking stories of recent graduates who are woefully unprepared to enter the workforce. When this happens, we usually respond by cursing the school that miseducated the applicant and return to our work, only to relive the experience with every new round of interviews.
No industry can sustain itself if it doesn’t master the art of cultivating new talent—an art that requires close ties between practitioners and educators. Passively watching education struggle to bridge the divide only contributes to the problem. Aren’t we all sick of complaining about the problem in our companies, in our classrooms, and at every conference? It would seem so, because there’s a movement afoot.
The times, they are a changin’
The industry education gap has been on the minds and lips of many for some time, but at long last, many organizations are developing education initiatives in concert. The Web Standards Project, Opera, the Information Architecture Institute, IxDA, and Web Directions North have each embarked on their own education initiatives that have the potential to affect real change in education.
The WaSP Curriculum Framework
In our ongoing fight to establish wide adoption of standards in our profession, those of us involved in The Web Standards Project have begun trying to tackle the education issue. Industry experts and veteran educators on the WaSP Education Task Force are currently working to develop the WaSP Curriculum Framework (WCF), a modular curriculum that can be used to improve existing curricula or serve as the foundation for emerging programs. (Disclosure: I’m a member of The Web Standards Project, an educator, and the project lead of the WaSP Curriculum Framework.)
The WCF will be released in March of 2009 as a living curriculum that will adapt to changes in the industry so that schools using it can ensure their students are learning the concepts that are relevant to their field of study.
The WCF’s first release will contain approximately 14 courses divided into six learning tracks:
- Front-end Development
- Server-side Development
- User Science
- Professional Practice
Each course in the WCF will contain a list of learning competencies that students must master to pass the course, assignments with assessment rubrics to help educators consistently evaluate student progress, lists of recommended textbooks and readings, exam questions, and other relevant teaching and learning resources.
The WCF is designed to accommodate new courses, and certain elements of existing courses can be adapted to meet the needs of a particular school or region. The WCF will also include a template that helps educators create their own short lesson plans or “learning modules,” thus giving educators the freedom to tailor courses to their own teaching approach while staying true to the courses’ core learning competencies. Educators who have had success in the classroom with their learning modules can submit them to the WCF team for review and potential publication so that other educators can benefit. All the content in the WCF will be released under an open Creative Commons license.
The Opera Web Standards Curriculum
Under the leadership of Chris Mills, Opera recently published the Opera Web Standards Curriculum (Opera WSC), a series of articles that introduce readers to the core concepts of planning, building, and publishing websites. Upon completion, the Opera WSC will contain 52 articles written by industry experts; 37 of these articles are already available. In a recent interview, Mills explained why Opera sees education as a critical issue today.
The Opera WSC is already finding its way into classrooms. A number of schools are evaluating the articles for possible inclusion in courses, while others are already using them. The Opera WSC is part of a grander project called Opera Education, which seeks to connect with educational institutions around the world. As Mills explains, Opera has big plans for the future of their curriculum. Here’s what’s on his to-do list for the Opera WSC:
- Improve the material as much as possible by considering the massive amount of feedback we are getting, and making changes.
- Repackage the material into a better form for educators to use, with more sample questions, teaching guides, etc.
- Make accessible PDFs available of all the material.
- Translate all of the material into as many different languages as possible.
- Release it all as a printed book.
- Create a series of presentations that can be used to teach some of the material.
- Create video tutorials to go along with it.
Incidentally, many of the WaSP Curriculum Framework courses will include Opera’s articles as recommended readings and will tie directly into the learning competencies, assignments, and exam questions in foundational courses.
The Information Architecture Institute
The Information Architecture Institute (IAI),—a multinational professional organization dedicated to advancing awareness of information architecture (IA)—is also working on an educational initiative. They’ve formed a working group to research the state of IA education and develop learning materials to help schools incorporate industry best practices into their courses. Andrea Resmini, the lead of the IAI’s education initiative, has noticed that IA is not getting the attention it should be in educational institutions, especially in the EU, but he hopes to change that.
To plot the right course for IA in education, the IAI started running a survey in October of 2008 to identify what is being taught in schools, and where things need to change. As Resmini explains, their survey along with a survey to be run at the EuroIA 2009 conference will serve as the foundation for the curriculum development the IAI will begin in 2009.
The research and the curriculum materials the Information Architecture Institute compiles will be released freely for any institutions or individual to use in the hopes that it will reach a broad audience, and even create cross connections with other related curricula. The IAI curriculum will take the form of white papers, books, and guidelines.
IxDA’s Education Initiative
The Interaction Design Association, known as IxDA, is also in the midst of a number of education initiatives aimed at both raising awareness of interaction design and improving its profile in higher education. Jeremy Yuille, the Secretary and Director of IxDA and a faculty member at RMIT University’s Communication Design program in Melbourne, is currently heading a plethora of IxDA’s educational initiatives. As Yuille describes, IxDA’s efforts extend beyond the classroom.
Most of IxDA’s projects are still in early stages, but they are actively seeking organizations and institutions with which to collaborate. Yuille sees all of these initiatives as a means of building a network that will bring together educators and industry professionals. The IxDA approach is unique in that their goal is to facilitate awareness and discussion, rather than to develop a central curriculum for their craft. As Yuille describes it, IxDA has a deep appreciation for the breadth of perspectives in interaction design, and they want this to carry through in their education projects.
Ed Directions North
In other good news, education is finding its way into the schedules of major conferences including, Web Directions North. Introducing education into traditionally industry-focused conferences is exactly the type of cross-connection needed to achieve parity between the two fields.
Allsopp explains why the Ed Directions North workshop is a logical fit for the conference:
Web Directions is also considering a more permanent role for Ed Directions in other Web Directions conferences, as Allsopp explains:
The tip of the iceberg
Though the industry has been frustrated with education in the past, there’s much to be hopeful about in the current climate of community innovation. It should also be noted that the black eyes our industry has readily dealt education are not always just. Rarely do we hear about the countless community colleges, high schools, training programs, and small universities that have kept pace with best practices and are providing the type of education for which we’ve been pining, but these programs do exist. Educators in these smaller schools are often able to circumvent bureaucracy, which is why they frequently outpace big-name schools.
At the Art Institute of Atlanta’s Web Design and Interactive Media program, where I sometimes teach, standards have been part of the curriculum since 2002. The program prepares graduates for the industry and also teaches them to evangelize to their colleagues and bosses at major institutions.
Big-name schools are catching on, too. The School of Visual Arts in New York will be launching a new MFA in Interaction Design in 2009. Chaired by Liz Danzico, the SVA Interaction Design program will train students to “research, analyze, prototype, and design concepts in their business, social, and cultural contexts.”
There are a lot of positive things happening right now—more than we can comfortably fit here. But we need to remember that the creation of educational materials and founding of new programs is the easy part. In order to affect significant, permanent change in education, we’ll need to work multilaterally to reach computer science, graphic design, media studies, and a host of other program types. A one-size-fits-all strategy for evangelism won’t work.
Your help is needed to keep the positive momentum going in these education initiatives. If you want to make a difference, share the Opera Web Standards Curriculum with an educator or student so it finds its way into more classrooms. Support the conferences that are uniting educators and industry experts so they can continue the great work they’re doing. Participate in an education survey to shine a light upon the areas that need to be folded into future curricula. Help define the concepts you’d like to see in curricula. Constructively contribute to the broader conversation about educating web professionals that’s taking place right now.
Building a real relationship between industry and education requires that we answer this question for both parties: “What’s in it for me?” Whether you’re a practitioner or educator, the answer is the same: graduates who are ready for a career in the web.