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Elevate Web Design at the University Level

Issue № 276

Elevate Web Design at the University Level

by Published in State of the Web · 80 Comments

Let’s face it. Technology moves fast; academia doesn’t. So how should educators teach web design and development—subjects that change constantly? How should educators prepare students for real-world expectations? How do educators stay up-to-date? And how do web professionals help educators to create graduates who fit in and actually know what they’re doing?

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Right now, web education is out of date and fragmented. There are good people working hard to change this, but because of the structure of higher education, it will take time. So while sweeping change can’t happen today, let’s challenge ourselves to do what we can. Today, let’s begin to make positive, sustainable change to build a foundation for the future.

Define the problem

Many people casually, but often passionately, complain about the state of web education. I’ve heard these complaints at conferences, over dinner, and have read them online—especially when someone tries to hire a recent graduate as a web designer or developer.

About a year ago, I embarked on a journey to discover where we are in web education and where we need to go.

I interviewed thirty-two web design and development leaders. Each of them expressed interest in the formal education of the next generation of web professionals. Most emphasized a challenge common to higher education: technology moves too fast for curriculum to keep up with it.

As James Archer of Forty Agency stated,

The culture of large educational institutions has, in my experience, consistently proven itself unable to cope with the demands of such a varied and fast-moving industry. I know many good people are trying, but I’ve yet to see anyone come out of a university program knowing what they’d need to know in order for us to hire them.

Rip off the bandage

“Ouch!” That’s what I thought when I read through the interviews. Many comments were similar. I know educators who do what they can to stay afloat teaching web topics. Most of these educators don’t have the resources to do what needs to be done.

I understand these frustrations. We’re not preparing students and that has a lot to do with the educational bureaucracy and institutions. However, educators should have help shouldering the burden. In partnership, web educators and web professionals can be pioneers for change.

Connect people

We need to connect educators and practicing professionals through web and educational conferences. We need to encourage conversation between local web professionals and higher educational institutions.

Aarron Walter, the lead user experience designer for MailChimp, advised that,

Departments need to create a culture of learning that requires faculty to stay abreast of new topics. Schools should make it a priority to send faculty to conferences and training programs to ensure they’re not falling behind.

Yes, this has to happen. Web professionals attend web conferences to keep up-to-date with trends and technologies and to create/maintain a professional network. Travel and event cost is usually a business expense. It is often paid for by the employer or is a tax write-off for business owners or freelancers. Educators often do not have these resources; and, many do not have any budget for travel. This makes it extremely difficult for educators to afford to attend conferences and workshops.

Web conference and workshop organizers can be part of the solution by offering deeply discounted rates to educators.   By making these events more affordable, organizers send the message that educators are welcome.

Businesses can be another part of the solution. Businesses can reach out to local educators and offer to sponsor their trip or part of their trip to a web conference or workshop. This can be great publicity for both the business and the university and help businesses to participate in producing viable job candidates.

Web design and development professionals need to speak to classes and offer site visits to their businesses to connect educators and students with full-time web designers and developers. Real-world experience is essential, and real-world internships must be integrated into the curriculum to prepare students to work with real clients who have real expectations, deadlines, and budgets.

Greg Storey, Principal of Airbag Industries, stated,

I find that students are used to having more time to complete projects than is required in business. It would be handy if students were taken through a series of real-world exercises and projects that made them studio-ready as soon as that diploma hits their hand.

Connections between higher education and business have to be created, nurtured, and sustained. These relationships support the growth of educational institutions and the community’s desire to retain recent graduates who might otherwise leave the community. Partnering colleges and universities with local companies that provide career paths in web design and development allows recent graduates to see the community as a viable place to further their professional interests.

I know that you are sitting there, reading this, and thinking to yourself, “Yes, this is what needs to happen.” And I know you’re wondering to yourself, “What can I do to get involved?”

Here’s how you can make a difference and start changing the state of web education, today.

When you drive, bike, or scooter to work each morning, do you pass a university? If so, contact the web educator at the university and see what you can do to help connect the school to you, your company, and your professional organizations. Does the educator need/want a guest lecturer to come to class and speak on your area of expertise? Yes, you are an expert on something and you should share your expertise with educators and their students.

Initiate contact with a web educator. The minimal time and effort that goes into making an introduction and spending an hour with a class greatly influences educators and students. The positive influence you’ll get from speaking with students and helping them achieve their goals might surprise you. It’s a feeling you’ll want to capture in a bottle to replenish yourself on days when clients are acting awful, your server is down, and you’ve spilled coffee on your laptop. When everything goes wrong in the world, you’ll know that you’ve done something right; you’ve given your time and energy to help shape the future of web education.

Embrace change

Although staying up-to-date is essential, the ever-changing state of technology makes it challenging for educators to stay current. As web designer Rob Weychert, said,

Hire faculty that are motivated to maintain their own continuing self-education (just as many of us in the work force do, largely via the blogosphere), and have schools fund it whenever possible (conferences, workshops, seminars, etc.). I hear too many horror stories about schools teaching sorely outdated practices. As much as I’m sure budget constraints are a problem, I can’t get my head around the idea of hiring professors who lack the curiosity to keep up with what’s going on in the web design/development world. It moves too fast. Hire people willing to keep up with it.

Teaching current technologies is critical. Equally critical is teaching that these technologies will change and that, for students to stay competitive in the real world, they will have to change with these technologies. To give students a well-rounded education, fundamentals and theory must be taught, as well. Although technology is vital to web design and web development, specific technologies are not as important as teaching “why” something should be done. As web designer Dan Rubin stated,

...the thought process involved is the most important thing for me. I like to see that each problem is approached in a unique way that’s appropriate to the given problem. I don’t really care how it’s approached, just that a degree of thought has been applied.

Let go

We also need to let go of the idea that professors in these disciplines must hold a master’s degree. The reality is that many web professionals are self-taught. A person with solid experience and a proven track record should be considered an appropriate candidate to teach web design and development in higher education. Jeff Croft, web designer and developer at Blue Flavor, mentioned that he would be interested in teaching at the university level:

Hire instructors that are relevant. By and large, educational institutions are not doing this…I was contacted by a large university about teaching web design and was quite interested. Then they found out I had no graduate-level degree. So instead, they hired a retired Java programmer to teach, “web design.” Huh?

Most of the relevant folks in the industry today don’t have graduate-level degrees in web design or development. Why? Because web design and development programs didn’t exist when we came through school. Most of us stopped going to school as soon as we realized the schools weren’t teaching us anything relevant.

To be more relevant, colleges and universities are going to have to get over their accreditation standards and hire the people doing great work on the web today to teach. That’s really the only way…Likewise, they can’t expect the same folks that have been teaching graphic design for 30 years to really be competent web design teachers. They need new blood—people that really understand this stuff and are passionate about it.

Get organized

Professional organizations afford the most efficient opportunity to set a framework for the collaborative process. Several organizations such as The Web Standards Project (WaSP) and the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW) are pioneers in this effort. The WaSP Education Task Force is developing a web standards-based curriculum called the WaSP Curriculum Framework. Opera has been developing and publishing curriculum. Read Brighter Horizons for Web Education to get more information on these endeavors. It’s really exciting to see so many people making positive change in web education. Combined, these groups can create curriculum that supports the educational needs of our students.

Although, at this time, many colleges and universities are not producing the type of web professionals we need in web design and development, thoughtful effort from passionate people can change this. We have the opportunity to combine our resources and professional networks to champion the ideals of web standards-based curricula that will prepare our students for meaningful careers in web design and development.

Get depressed, get over it, and get involved

As an educator, I want to see my students succeed. I want to give them every opportunity to graduate with skills that allow them to have fulfilling careers—careers where they contribute to the field. Although, universally this is not happening now, I challenge us all to change our thinking, to get over being depressed, and to move beyond complaining.

Here are three things you can do today to make a difference in web education:

  1. connect with a university,
  2. sponsor an educator, and
  3. volunteer your time.

Let’s collaborate to create learning environments that students need. Seize this opportunity to create the education that students ought to have. We can only improve on the situation, right? So let’s do it. Let’s all decide, today, right now, that we are going to help change web education for the next generation of web professionals.

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