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’#section2
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#section3
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#section4
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#section5
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#section6
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#section7
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#section8
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.
22 Reader Comments
This argument is similar to the one that says that Microsoft needs to host their applications and offer them as SAAS… No they don’t, and no they didn’t miss the band-wagon either. It just wasn’t meant to be, and when it happens it’ll be a failure. Their time was a different time. Just like Yahoo and the new search game. It’s an uphill battle. Old schools of thought still have their place in the world, but their place is not in bleeding-edge industries. That’s where they lose their shirts. Blackberry spent their R&D dollars catering to the business people of the world, and if they don’t lose focus, they’ll still have a place there, but trying to compete with the iPhone will cause them to fail. What’s my point you ask?
Colleges were built hundreds of years ago to teach people about sciences that change over time, and history, literature, etc. They were never intended to keep up with technology that changes nearly every month. To think that you should have a college degree to do this stuff, or even to do C++ programming is ridiculous. Your education will be superfluous in an industry that turns direction faster than you can complete a semester. Get educated in why we won WWII, and why Winston Churchill was important, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and when you’re done… well then pick up a relatively new book, and get on a few blogs and start learning what you want to do. A girl I worked with told me she was planning on going to school to learn web design.
I told her that I made 100k and I had no training or school and I did web development. Instead of being inspired, she was depressed by it, and decided not to seek this as a career. My point in this example? You don’t get a free ride anymore just for sitting in a classroom.
I’m an undergraduate in Michigan that is graduating this year. I’m looking for some good graduate programs for web design/web authoring anywhere in the country. The ones in Atlanta and New York in this article are promising, but does anyone know of any others of quality?
“RE Brad”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/brighterhorizonsforwebeducation?page=1#2 , my old program director is talking about putting together a masters in web design at “Empire State College”:http://www.esc.edu/ in Saratoga Springs, NY. It took 6 years for his undergraduate program to get approved here in TN. I’m not sure if graduate programs or NY schools will make this one move any faster. 🙁
As for this article, I think all these resources are great, but I don’t expect them to make much of a difference. A lack of great material has not been the problem for at least 10 years now. The problems we face deal with the inability of higher ed to quickly and efficiently adapt to reality. I think this is a _big problem_ and I think it hurts a lot of industries, not just ours. I both fear and hope that the current economic down turn provides the stimulus necessary to get institutions of higher learning working on this problem themselves.
This problem, or really this *cluster* of problems, may go deeper than we as a community can hope to dig.
But these materials will provide an excellent resource. A few forward thinking individuals will incorporate them into single courses, as much as their institutions will allow them. Fewer still may incorporate them into full fledged degree programs, and even when we’re lucky enough to see that happen, chances are that program is a change in leadership away from returning to the status quo. Most importantly, these materials will provide a great resource for the self motivated learner. But like I said, a lack of great material isn’t the issue. The self motivated have been doing fine with sites like ALA for quite some time now.
I think this movement has more potential to show the power of the creative commons and online community than it does to change higher ed. I think we could see the rise of digital apprenticeship to replace an educational infrastructure that simply cannot support the needs of our industry as it currently exists.
A student who spends 12 hours a week with materials such as these, and an additional 20 or so hours a week making an honest effort to put the ideas they contain into practice, would probably stand toe to toe with the vast majority of recent university grads after 4 years. They’d have better overall skills and less debt. For what this student isn’t paying in tuition, s/he could attend a conference or two every year and get “hir”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun network on. Some recent studies would seem to indicate that a large chunk of the value of a university degree comes from the “social capital”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_capital gained through the process. In other words, when it comes to predicting future personal and financial success, the networking and community built through the process of earning a degree can be just as important (possibly even more so) than anything actually learned. There are ways to tap into social capital while cutting out the middle man.
In addition to conferences, there’s the power of social networking. One of the biggest benefits to me as a university student was the cohort of fellow learners I could bounce ideas off of, share expertise with, and get constructive criticism from. But with a little initiative couldn’t we get that from a MeetUp.com group, a Ning group, or a FaceBook group? Recruiting learners with a serious outlook might be a problem. We are looking for *constructive* criticism after all. But I’m sure there are more than a few of us working professionals who’d be wiling to moderate such a group.
Ideally, a student would be able to build a portfolio and occasionally even collect a pay check from time to time throughout this process. I’d love to see a way to connect more budding web designers with local/small non-profits who could benefit from even a student’s work on their web presence. But even that could be as simple as helping both students and clients get more use out of resources like CraigsList and Guru.com.
I’m a staff member at a community college. I still have faith in the value of higher education. I have both a “2 year degree”:http://www.pstcc.edu/departments/mdt/web_about.htm and a “4 year degree”:http://webdesign.tntech.edu/ in web design. I’m currently working on a “master’s degree”:http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/mact/ . But I’ve grown tired of waiting for higher ed to catch up to my chosen industry. I honestly think we can do it better ourselves. We have the tools and we understand our own needs.
As unfair as it is, I think the best possible solution currently available for a student who is looking for a degree in web design but unable to find a program to their liking is to sign up for whatever degree program you think will get your foot in the door; graphic design, computer science, bakery sciences, whatever. Some degrees are obviously better than others but I think in today’s job market it’s better to have any degree, even a poor fit, than it is to have no degree. Then you’ll need to effectively double your work load as you use the wealth of material at your disposal to hone your true web design skills. That’s pretty much what “Jina Bolton”:http://www.sushiandrobots.com/about did while getting her graphic design degree at Memphis. She also chose a degree that would teach her principles that she could apply to her web work. Again, that’s extra work for you and it’s horribly unfair compared to someone who just wants to go into, say, Java programming with a comp sci degree.
If you are lucky enough to find a degree program that you think will work for you, then by all means go for it. I was very lucky in that regard but I can’t guarantee that program is still able to provide the same sort of experience I had now that we have a new director. But even as lucky as I’ve been in my education, I still think the years of self guided study I’ve put in thanks to resources like ALA are just as important to my current skill set.
@Web Design – There’s much more to our craft than lines of code. Aren’t we building the most far reaching communication conduit in human history? Don’t the sites and web applications we build have a significant influence upon culture, politics, commerce, media, and the daily lives of billions of internet users?
Our craft has a *huge* impact on the world everyday, and as such certainly deserves a place in our high schools and colleges. The programs we need to see in higher education should teach communication strategy, human factors, visual literacy, on top of how to intelligently construct a websites.
@Derek Pennycuff – I’m with you that a number of us have had great luck with a DIY approach to web design, but if the generations that follow us do the same they’ll be doomed to repeat what we’ve done rather than taking our ideas to places we could never have dreamed.
I’ve been developing and designing websites professionally since my senior year of high school in 2000. I do not have an undergraduate degree. Ironically, I’m working on a web team for a major university system in Texas on a site emphasizing that “higher education is for all of us”. After reading these articles, I’m left wondering “where does this leave me?” Do I have to put my career on hold, go back to school for 6 years learning about a field I’ve professionally practiced for 9 years if I want to teach what I know at the university level?
It seems that most of the people I have worked with also lack degrees. Maybe universities are too limited. Maybe we need to look for solutions in places other than the overly structured realm of higher ed. Is higher education failing web design and development because it belongs somewhere else? How many fresh graduates are really ready for the working world in other fields? When did college become trade school? Maybe this industry needs a kind of apprentice program to teach its successors instead of trying to shape universities to fill the needs.
I would agree that a degree in web design is probably not appropriate – it’s too transitory a subject, and a degree needs to remain relevant. It’s also a very narrow field, and if you’re not careful is likely to leave graduates with limited employment prospects. A better subject might be Media & Communications, with a strong emphasis on the web design side. This would provide better links into neighbouring areas, and would better prepare students for life-after-college, as well as better equipping them for work in web design.
But the problem is more deep-rooted than that. Schools, colleges and universities often have classes and courses involving web design, even if that isn’t at their heart. And these are often (maybe even ‘usually’) taught extremely badly, because they are more concerned with getting something that looks funky done in a short space of time than they are with teaching web design properly. This is partly a result of the exigencies of the curriculum, but mostly because there is no-one who knows and can teach proper web design in the institution.
The problem is educating the educators, but until web design is seen as a serious job rather than as something that “anyone can do in Frontpage”, it is going to be a seriously uphill battle.
to @WebDesign and other nay sayers. Formal education is not about today or yesterday, but it is about tomorrow. There was a point that formal education couldn’t keep up with modern medicine, but they had to develop a whole new VERY different way of proceeding formally in order to maintain and sustain the needs of their profession. The same holds true for us.
Now to the piece. I like the general outline of the curriculum you suggest, it is very strong. I think what is missing though is the outside. That is a strong base in history and criticism and an understanding of cultural relevance to what we are doing.
The other part that is missing is the means of education. You don’t discuss whether this is going to be taught as a “design” education, or as a computer science or social science education. The 2 are very different and the ways they are taught will dramatically effect the types of roles and positions they are prepared for. I.e. design education is focused on studio. Not just “foundation” (awesome that you have that) but on studio, which is the environment and teaching style that foundation and other design courses are taught within.
It would seem to me b/c of the combination of design and teachnology that you are proposing (at least semantically) that we need to create a hybrid approach, but as I write this I’m challenging this.
What is the difference between code and plaster? Both are the means for enabling the vision of a designer to come to life. Also, as tools afford us more opacity to the technologies we are using, is “code” even relevant for the designer? Or are you educating designer, or the executioners of the designs of others.
Now this brings up the last question in my mind (I doubt it), should design and technology practice & education be mixed? With more and more to learn in our domain every day does it really make sense moving forward to sustain a professional environment where the practitioner needs to know everything from C++ to the typography? I’m not saying there won’t be people who DO just that, but is that a sustainable model for the profession.
So while I agree w/ the message of we need to educate formally to sustain, I’m not so sure that the rallying cry of “Web” is useful to your market or to the long term sustainability you are trying to defend.
“RE Aarron”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/brighterhorizonsforwebeducation?page=1#4 – We’re turning the fruits of our own labor into the tools to be used by the next generation. ALA is a perfect example of this. And the people who have cut their teeth reading ALA are building Nings and Basecamps. Your argument seems to be saying such evolution isn’t possible without formal education in the field. But obviously it’s happening anyway. A student starting out today has a hell of a lot of tools I didn’t have 10 years ago, and I hope that means they can do even better than I have.
But I don’t think it’s all automatically better. Now students have so many resources they may face a serious information overload crisis. I also worry that the ability for anyone to start publishing a blog may make it easy to “fall in with a bad crowd”. You used to at least kinda know what you were doing to launch something like Zeldman.com. What if someone trying to learn on their own finds a bunch of blogs publishing “tutorials” worthy of the Daily WTF? But that’s where I think a new form of apprenticeship can come into play. If we know people are already trying to teach themselves in the absence of a reliable higher ed infrastructure, shouldn’t we do what we can to support that?
And I’m in no way arguing against _trying_ to support the development of a sustainable higher ed infrastructure for this industry. I just don’t think we should focus exclusively on that. I for one don’t have a lot of hope to see any significant advances there for at least another generation. I think a lot of colleges and universities still miss the boat with their comp sci curricula, and that industry has a good half century lead.
“RE mimi”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/brighterhorizonsforwebeducation?page=1#5 – Thank you! Years of over education have robbed me of my ability to speak/write/comment succinctly. You ask several important questions and I feel our minds are working in similar directions. 🙂
“RE Stephen”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/brighterhorizonsforwebeducation?page=1#7 – My wife has a degree in “Media Arts” from the University of Tennessee. She’s had to put a lot of extra work into her chosen field to maintain her ability to compete in the market. So have most of the other people we know who graduated from her program. It seems such multi-disciplinary programs tend to teach you just enough about each field to leave you unhirable in all of them.
Still, your idea is probably more sustainable in the long run than a pure web design curriculum. And the best people in any field always have the initiative needed to make up for whatever the program lacks in the way of focus. That’s the theory that lead me to choose my graduate program.
I have taught web design at the high school level for a few years now and am just beginning to teach at the community college level. I really appreciate what the folks on the WaSP task force, and all the others mentioned in the article are doing for the web design profession.
Web design and development will become more and more a part of formal education programs. What we see going on currently is the Information Architecture of webucation. Just like we need to think through the structure of a website, we need to think through the structure of web education.
If this is thoroughly though out, developed, and made readily available, it makes the next step a lot easier. The next step, as I see it is teaching according to these frameworks, adding working examples and testimonials, and really pushing school administrators/deans/department heads/etc to support these programs.
As a webucator, I feel I have a responsibility to help educate fellow web design teachers and program directors. But Aaron asks the same question they do, “What’s in it for them?” This is a question I hope to talk more about in the future…
As a side note, there is a really cool “Doctoral and Masters program in Baltimore”:http://iat.ubalt.edu/dcd/
In a final note, I agree that we should put an importance on IA in web education. Overall, we want students to have a big picture and conceptual understanding of design and development, not just technical skills.
Great job Aaron (and all else mentioned in his article), you are definitely moving my career of webucation in the right direction.
I graduated in 2005 with a BA from Pacific University in Integrated Media. (http://pacificu.edu/as/media/programs/integratedmedia.cfm)
The liberal arts education I received was invaluable. Rather than being stuck in a particular role, I feel like I have the knowledge and understanding to change and adapt as our field evolves. My professor, Mike Geraci, pushed us to see out more information. I’ve been reading A List Apart since he recommended it my freshman year. I agree with the author that smaller schools are getting this degree right… you just have to seek out professors with a passion for learning.
Am I the only one that finds it ironic that the two higher education programs mentioned in the article are not offered online? Shouldn’t the education of our craft be at the forefront of the online education movement?
This is where I feel any university-affiliated program is going to have to go to be successful. After all, why do I have to be located in one particular place to learn about a medium that can be viewed anywhere, at anytime?
I too have felt this disparity. Like a couple of the posters above, I work at a university. I have no educational background for the design I now do, but agree that I would have benefited if I did.
That said, now to the real problem: unrealized opportunities. It isn’t that there are not degree options out there for those of us who practice design, or even that if we stopped and got degrees it would hurt us or be a “˜waste-of-time’; the real problem exists in that we want degrees to be based more closely on what it is that we do.
Here, I would make several arguments:
1) Undergraduate degrees outside of the field actually BENEFIT web designers.
There are the obvious benefits of a technical degree; learning code, keeping up with the hardware side of technology, etc. Additionally, there are benefits to obtaining a degree in the humanities; namely, you learn how to write. This is a skill that is invaluable to those designers who would, at some point in their careers, move past simply designing the pages. Even those just starting out, especially if you are trying to start out on your own, would benefit from this.
2) There are Master’s degrees out there.
More and more you see Master’s degrees at both small and large universities that represent the web design world. They may not be “˜Masters of Web Design’, but that is their focus. Look, for instance, at degrees such as Masters in Marketing – New Media, Digital Journalism, Graphic Design, Information Services, etc. The list is long once you start digging into some of the programs.
3) PhD programs shouldn’t narrow you to such a fickle thing as the Internet.
I am a designer, and love it, but I have been doing this long enough to know that getting a PhD in “˜Web Design’ would be absolutely ludicrous. Degrees such as Visual Arts, Information Services, Marketing, Science and Technology Studies and other similar programs focus on how to manage the information that is mentioned throughout this article. These semi-professional style degrees are, at their core, a way to inform those that study them on the origin and best practices in the fields and HOW to wade through the large amount of shift this and other industries undergo.
These types of degrees are what can identify a deeper understanding of the process. Remember, there are no degrees in Newspaper writing — there are degrees in Journalism. Focusing too much on a single issue like Web Site Design is short-sighted. Look to the future.
1) Online is the way to go – I was amazed that nobody brought up online schooling until Sean Ryan’s post. My wife is currently enrolled in a kind of “double” master’s degree program online for both education and nursing. As a technologist, I have been amazed by how thorough and effective and sophisticated the program is. And the instruction comes to YOU – no time lost in traffic getting to IT. Web Design is a natural for this kind of schooling.
2) Don’t discount narrow-focus “vocational” training – After having spent some years in an industry that, for economic reasons, exited the United States (apparel manufacture), I decided to attend an eighteen month vocational school for networking (this was back when Novell was king – a century ago in Internet years) And, on my own, simultaneously followed the Microsoft curriculum and, after six incredibly tough exams, became a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. Both programs were well thought-out, got good results even from those with modest natural talents, and both carried weight on a newbie CV.
I have also spent time at traditional academies of higher education, and I just don’t see them being effective at pumping out the numbers of qualified people that we will surely need going forward.
Despite all the negative comments, this really does sound great. The biggest problem in the past has been that these materials, being collaborative works, are rarely comprehensive, consistent, and easily navigable. It’s a big leap to go from available material to approved curriculum of course. At least it is designed to be compatible with classroom education, which will make the material more useful to educators. Reference manuals, online discussion and resources are not easily divided into succinct hour-long lesson plans.
As this debates rages across the net – perhaps it would be worthwhile to step back and look at the role of education in the context of the needs of the industry.
At the Art Institute of Atlanta, we continue to develop our curriculum with inputs from industry professionals. Our courses do address contemporary trends, technologies and approaches. Further, our faculty are practicing industry professionals (freelance and full-time) and bring their real-world experiences into the classroom.
However, we, as educators, need to do more than just stay current with the needs of the industry. It is important that we help our students learn to learn. They need to be able to solve problems, think critically and creatively, step back and see the big picture, learn from other media, visualize the future for the industry and develop an interest in breaking boundaries and taking chances.
Like any other field, some academic programs get it, others do not. The support and involvement of industry professionals is important in achieving the optimal mix of concepts, technology, problem solving, etc., that make a good curriculum.
To all the industry folks who are complaining about the state of education, please go teach a course at an academic institute near you. After all, getting a good curriculum definition is the first step. Bringing it into the classroom and making learning come alive, is the next challenge.
As head tutor for a web design course in London (http://www.digitalartscollege.co.uk) I was very interested to see this article. Our philosophy is to teach students the skills that will be most useful to them when they actually get a job.
This means that we cover marketing, design theory and project management first, then show them how to create their designs in Photoshop before teaching them to markup their designs into valid XHTML/CSS.
We believe that this approach will give students the best possible chance of becoming a valuable member of a web team and we can easily adapt our course syllabus as technologies change.
While I appreciate the high-minded ideals of Aarron Walter’s and Leslie Jensen-Inman’s efforts to improve web education in our nations schools, the fact is that the multitude problems inherent within our schools are systemic. No one third party effort geared toward improving a specific curriculum will make a difference without first gutting the rotting core of the entire system.
My intent isn’t to be a bore, but rather to play devil’s advocate to these two well-intentioned arguments.
I have an intimate and long-standing connection to *The Art Institute of Atlanta*, the school at which Mr. Walters teaches. As a partial consequence, after each graduation period, I receive dozens of resumes from students who have graduated from every applicable department at The AiA. I have also spent a good deal of my time playing the role of advisor to many AiA students. Suffice it to say, I have a far more intimate knowledge of the school than I desire. My sad conclusion is: It is entirely possible that Mr. Walters is the only qualified teacher in his entire department who has a modicum of recent professional experience.
In six years, I have seen three AiA student/graduate resumes worthy of a second look. None of those resumes were submitted by graduates of the AiA’s web design department. In fact, roughly half of the “web” grads whose queries I receive don’t even provide links to online portfolios (by no means is this exclusive to the AiA). It’s one thing to claim that the AiA web department has been teaching web standards since 2002, it’s another thing to see it reflected in student work.
This sounds grouchy, and it is, but the AiA is a perfect test-case for the many deficiencies of our educational system. It is worth pointing out that the AiA is not a university. The school does offer degrees, but it is a “corporate” college. In other words, its charter is not to educate so much as it is to earn money for its holding company, investment firm Goldman Sachs.
Grumbling aside, all of the following points still apply to the general discussion.
*Reality Number 1: Quality of the teacher*
For every true-blue teacher who not only has an ingrained passion for his or her chosen discipline but also has a rare and equivalent passion for sharing that knowledge, there are a hundred, maybe a thousand, so-called teachers who are merely talking heads – individuals who very likely wound up in a classroom because they failed in their chosen profession.
*Reality Number 2: Salaries and revenue*
Teachers are woefully underpaid. This is especially poignant at “corporate” schools like AiA where the primary goal is increasing revenue, not improving the quality of their educational products.
*Reality Number 3: Administrative (In)competence*
A doctorate degree does not guarantee competence. I have spoken with quite a few AiA faculty members over the years, both full-time and retired, and none of them have ever given a single iota of praise to the school’s administration. Every single teacher uttered a variation on this theme, “They ask us for our opinions on countless forms, but never ever listen to or implement what we have to say.”
To the best of my knowledge, none of the AiA’s administrative personnel have ever worked in a design industry, none have ever so much as even taught a single class or course of study that the AiA offers in degree programs, and none have a clue about what is happening in today’s job market.
This glaring fact begs a simple question and one that highlights why change in education will be next to impossible unless significant change occurs with management … How can a design school whose administration has no connection to the world of design possibly make intelligent decisions about its coursework? About it’s hiring practices? About it’s admissions policies? About the technology and equipment needed to properly teach and train design students? It can’t. Period.
And, in many ways, this simple fact renders all other arguments moot.
*Reality Number 4: Quality of the student*
Admissions policies do not assist in weeding out unprepared students. AiA, in particular, has an admission policy that can be summed up with this statement, “If they can pay, they can play”. Although titled “The Art Institute …”?, no art portfolio is required for admission.
The capacity of a teacher in an institution of higher learning to disseminate relevant information to his/her students is directly proportional to the student’s ability to learn the material. If the students entering a college read at a fifth grade level, it is ludicrous to expect that those same students will be prepared for life in the real world of design and advertising upon graduation. Even a superhuman teacher can not make up for eighteen years of poor learning. Many of AiA’s students readily admit, “I cannot draw”?; such a student has no business in an art school – that’s common sense.
The educational system has to be retooled from the ground up, starting at the elementary level. If universities and colleges truly want to raise the quality of their graduates (and programs), standards for admission must (a) actually exist and (b) be enforced.
*Reality Number 5: Speed of change*
Teachers who are good at teaching are a lot of things: Passionate, intense, curious, dedicated, hard-working, intelligent, inventive, inspiring, etc. They also spend a lot of time honing their craft and are constantly learning. My friend did not choose to be a teacher. Teaching chose her. Just like art chose me. No matter how much she learns, she is constantly finding new material for her classes and constantly working to improve her own knowledge.
It’s safe to say that most disciplines change; therefore, personal development is always possible. However, taking basic design, or even a crucial ancillary discipline like art history as examples, it is also safe to say that these disciplines are “static”?. By which I mean that change happens, but it happens as result of universal trends or simply as a result of the passage of time.
Web design and development, on the other hand, changes at a far more rapid pace across multiple languages, platforms, applications, movements, technologies and trends. It is an impossible task for any individual to keep ahead of the learning curve in this demanding and constantly (explosively) expanding field.
*Reality Number 6: Professional development*
Given the impossible task of keeping up with the breakneck speed of change in the field, how can a teacher possibly keep up? Symposiums, conventions, workshops? All good ideas. The AiA requires that full-time teachers engage in 24 hours of professional development each year (most schools mandate 12 hours).
While I agree that professional development is a must for any improvement in education to succeed, teachers already have to deal with class schedules, preparing coursework, working with students, grading, and all the other administrative tasks that come with the job … and then they have to deal with absurd policies mandated by schools like the AiA requiring professional development hours while offering their teachers zero compensation and zero time off to improve their skills. Schools already pay their teachers a pittance to deal with unprepared and uninspired students, the least they could do is compensate teachers for their professional development.
Let’s not forget that attending symposiums, conferences, and workshops cost money. First of all, teachers have to get there, then they have to pay for lodging, transportation and food. But that’s not all: Most of these workshops are expensive. Really, really expensive. I only have my own experience to relate to here, but let’s assume that Joe Web Design teacher wants to attend an Adobe workshop to brush up on the latest adobe product. Depending on the program, the cost can range from a few hundred dollars into the thousands. Want to attend an industry convention? The HOW design conference costs a minimum of a thousand dollars to attend – a bitter pill to swallow even for a working professional who can charge premium rates for his/her services.
So it’s easy to state that “teachers need to attend conferences and workshops”, but those of you who promote that idea are part of the problem. You expect to be paid to speak (or, at least, have your travel expenses paid for), but the fees associated with your participation jack up the cost of ticket prices. And, frankly, most of you aren’t worth the money to hear speak despite your industry “celebrity”.
The message being sent is painfully clear: Don’t enter teaching as a profession unless you are independently wealthy.
*Reality Number 7: Abolish the Master’s Requirement*
This is a nice thought and one I wholeheartedly agree with, but it’s a fantasy. There is a single word that will prevent this from ever happening: _Accreditation._
School programs need to be accredited in order for the dean to hand a graduate a diploma after a student successfully completes his course of study. The mandate for accreditation is handled on a state-by-state and/or region-by-region basis and is governed by numerous regional educational organizations and various state agencies. Schools are required to meet specific criteria established by these oversight organizations for various courses of study all of which set concrete benchmarks that must to be met before an applicant for an education position will be considered for hire.
The issue here has nothing to do with the quality of the applicant but, rather, with the financial implications implicit in accreditation.
Another single word: _Loans._ Schools without accreditation can’t offer government loans to students. Without loans, schools can’t stay in business because their target demographic can’t pay current extortionate tuition rates. The cycle is vicious but all too real.
*Reality Number 8: Preparing for the industry*
Most of us who have been, or claim to have been, in the industry for over ten years have one huge thing in common: We all got started around the time the internet as we know it was invented. We have watched the technology grow and explode. We have been around long enough to learn what our strengths and weaknesses are and, consequently, where to apply our skills. Our careers have been an ever-changing, on-going learning process filled with successes and failures. All of us understand one thing implicitly: _We can’t know everything about our trade._
It has taken me nearly fourteen years of exceptionally hard work to get where I am today. So why do we expect recent graduates to know enough to be able to hit the ground running?
No one, and I mean no one, can do all of these things. Let alone do them well. Precious few people have the skills and talent to bridge the gap between the creative and technical sides of our profession. And those individuals who do have such a rare ability know very well where their skills begin and end.
So why then would we expect this from an untested graduate?
All of us have another very critical thing in common: We learned on the job. We made a commitment to better ourselves and improve our skills and habits through hard work and a never-ending crusade to learn. At some point along the way, we were lucky enough to find ourselves in at least one work environment that fostered that growth.
*Reality Number 9: Conclusion – An employer’s responsibility*
It goes without saying that our educational system needs to be improved at every level. Schools need to begin offering courses that apply to our ever-changing job reality.
It is, however, simply not enough to tell a teacher to attend a workshop or for a school to mandate professional development. I, personally, could do more than I already do to help the design community at large, but real change won’t occur until more of our colleagues step up to the plate and accept responsibility for the betterment of our industry.
Instead of looking for the perfect applicant, employers should be looking for the most promising student-professional. Employers simply can not expect a noob to be able to walk into a high-paced office and suddenly become a professional designer, web developer, or team-player. Employers need to be looking for talent they can nurture. Employers need to understand that they too are an important, if not the most important, cog in the wheel in terms of advancing the web. That responsibility begins with the understanding that new hires need to be moulded to fit in with their particular machine. Employers need to provide an environment that fosters learning and provides time for new hires to get themselves up to speed. Employers need to impress upon their team that part of their responsibility to the company is to help train “˜the new guy’. That is what teamwork is all about.
Why can’t a busy agency set aside an hour a week for a team professional development session? They have plenty of time for weekly happy-hour gatherings.
Graduates in web design are unprepared because a university can never possibly teach a student to comprehend the complexities of the real business world. The best teachers can do is attempt to prepare a student for the general reality of the work environment. Most schools are even failing at this … which is why efforts such as the Web Standards Project are important. It is, however, only a very small piece in a much bigger and infinitely more complicated puzzle.
I am glad to see that many businesses are taking the education part into their own hands. I am still surprised that even though this change in how people are educated and what they are educated about is nothing new, schools have not more widely adopted their studies to include more of a web based and interactive focus. Although I guess the people doing the teaching are finally getting into the classrooms to change how the traditional methodology is thought about.
In 92-93, I would teach students Business Applications of COBOL at the undergrad program at the Univ. of Texas at Austin. Of course, at that time, we had not foreseen the coming y2k boom for COBOL programmers. But in talking to recruiters, I found that they did not spefically care whether we trained students in COBOL or FORTRAN or C. They were looking at us as a place where their prospective employees learn to think with logic and structure. Upon employment, they were able to take the good quality clay we had prepared and mould it into great shape with minimal effort. Did anyone lose out in the bargain? I think not. Universities, Colleges, Schools are places of education not of vocational training.
I do believe the web education is indeed an important knowledge to learn today as compared to old style offline learning. The web education has make a big lead to another generation and people are struggling to keep the pace of the fast emergence of web technologies. What we learn today might not be working for another year.
Learning is learning, working is working. Everything to comes to a rest point and take a break to watch movies with friends and continue learning again. Time will never stop us from learning towards advanced web education.
As a person who graduated from college in 1985 (Ohio State University), I’m very surprised to hear that web design courses and/or degrees are apparently still so lacking at the collegiate level. EVERYTHING nowadays needs a website, and so few people know how to do them correctly (including me). While it’s true that most people can fumble through and create a website, to do it correctly takes real skill and experience. How can this area be so under-represented at higher learning institutions still in 2009?
Got something to say?
We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.
More from ALA
Personalization Pyramid: A Framework for Designing with User Data
Mobile-First CSS: Is It Time for a Rethink?
Designers, (Re)define Success First
Breaking Out of the Box
How to Sell UX Research with Two Simple Questions