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Brighter Horizons for Web Education

Brighter Horizons for Web Education

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.

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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:

  • Foundations
  • Front-end Development
  • Design
  • 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.

In addition to HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and accessibility courses, the WCF will also include courses that teach students the basic principles of design and usability, as well as how to speak about their work and how to work in teams. It will take some time for us to do justice to all facets of our craft, but it’s our hope that the initial courses released will teach the practices at the core of our industry.

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.

We are very concerned that even after all of the evangelism of the last decade or so, the rate of web standards adoption is still pretty poor, and we think education is one of the main issues—availability of good educational material, ignorance, and myths. We want to tackle the issue at the very source, by making high quality material available, doing outreach to make people aware of it, getting educational institutions to improve their courses, and debunking myths.

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:

  1. Improve the material as much as possible by considering the massive amount of feedback we are getting, and making changes.
  2. Repackage the material into a better form for educators to use, with more sample questions, teaching guides, etc.
  3. Make accessible PDFs available of all the material.
  4. Translate all of the material into as many different languages as possible.
  5. Release it all as a printed book.
  6. Create a series of presentations that can be used to teach some of the material.
  7. 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.

...although IA is a well-established profession and a thriving community of practice, it’s not yet a fully recognized academic discipline and it’s not, with a few notable exceptions, an acknowledged course of study in most of the EU. That means very little communication among institutions, no common perspective, no shared understanding, and a constant need to reinvent the wheel.

Even though this scenario seems to be slowly changing, we think a little help and perspective is needed to avoid loss of momentum and fragmentation. We think this help and perspective are the responsibility of the people currently researching, teaching, and practicing IA today. As such, the working group’s main purpose is to provide the basis to establish IA as a full-fledged academic discipline and bridge the two camps of professional practice and academia for the common good, as we believe they are both needed for the field to grow and mature.

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 survey is going to run for a couple of months and hopefully will allow us to have a fairly precise snapshot of the status quo. This is being complemented by a rather informal but precious short survey administered to EuroIA 2009 attendees in Amsterdam, concerning what their professional view on IA education is, and whose results should be made public in November. Both surveys will provide the base materials for involving the IA community of practice at large, and any interested parties in the elaboration of a shared IA curriculum framework, to be released in the summer of 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.

We’re collecting a list of programs offering Interaction Design curricula as a service to our members, and the wider design community. Ultimately we’d hope to crowd-source this content, particularly with Institutions and Programs. We’re using this to start putting together a reader or online resources to help support the education of IxD. We’re initiating mentoring projects in at least two locales, one based in a geographic area (San Francisco), and another looking at how the global network can support mentoring. We’re also looking at how our network can add value to the educational experience (and vice-versa), through mechanisms like Master Classes, internships and the like.

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.

We’d rather celebrate and support that multiplicity rather than attempt to normalize it. In a real sense it comes back to the fundamental values of IxDA, that we believe discussion and people are more important than policies and templates. The best thing we can do for IxD education at this point in the profession’s development is help make connections and increase the richness of the dialogue. Our strategic approach will be to look at how we can help facilitate adding value to a lifelong educational experience through a fantastic network of practitioners, educators, and students.

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.

John Allsopp, a founder of the Web Directions conference series, has put together a day-long workshop that unites industry experts and educators—Ed Directions North—which will be part of the broader conference. In addition to catching educators up with contemporary practices in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and accessibility, the workshop will also provide the guidance and take-away information needed to bring best practices back to the classroom.

Allsopp explains why the Ed Directions North workshop is a logical fit for the conference:

Educating the next generation of web professionals has been a strong interest of mine since the mid 1990s, when I was involved with developing and delivering some of the earliest web focused courses at a post secondary level in Australia. And of course, web standards have been a passion of mine since not long after. Yet, I think all of us in the web standards community are aware that for many students of web design and development—whether at school, in the commercial sector or at a tertiary level, current best practices and standards aren’t necessarily central to curricula and courses.

There have been a number of great initiatives to help address this in the last year or two, among them the work of the WaSP Education Task Force, and Opera with their Web Standards Curriculum. So, it made sense in the context of these to bring people together face to face, and help facilitate a transfer of skills and approaches to teaching and course development. I think the key to furthering the goals of the web standards community of a standards based accessible web is making sure the next generation of web professionals is firmly grounded in the importance of these. And what better way to make that happen than helping those responsible for the education of this next generation to put together the best possible training.

Web Directions is also considering a more permanent role for Ed Directions in other Web Directions conferences, as Allsopp explains:

It’s definitely something we’d be keen to continue, whether as stand-alone events, or in conjunction with the conferences we run. If the response to this first Ed Directions is good, and more importantly, if the outcomes from the day are promising, I’m sure we’ll see more of them.

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.

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