Elevate Web Design at the University Level
Issue № 276

Elevate Web Design at the University Level

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Right now, web education is out of date and fragmented.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#section2

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#section3

“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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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#section8

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.

80 Reader Comments

  1. One of my dreams for a lifetime achievement is actually “elevating web design at the universtity level”, at least here in Portugal. I would absolutely LOVE to join this initiative if something is carried on, either by Leslie or by anyone else.

    Please let me know of such moves, I’d appreciate it very very much!

  2. Leslie, this is a great article–calling on professionals to step up and contribute to the higher ed community is timely and necessary.

    I’m curious if the field is complex enough that it should be an accredited major (ie 60 credit hours or more) at the undergraduate level.

    I think an undergraduate certificate is probably more appropriate than a full on undergraduate degree.

    If there was a 15 credit certificate, I could imagine a breakdown similar to:

    one 3 credit class in:
    interface design & typography
    presentation code

    and a choice between:
    human factors/usability
    information architecture/lib sci
    or e-commerce systems

    and two 3 credit on-site internships at two different shops.

    I also think the curriculum has to be established at the institutional level rather than at the instructor level:

    I taught at a private art college in Washington DC (without a graduate degree), and at an institutional level it was really every man for himself–my class was straight up XHTML/CSS/layout/usability whereas next door everyone was playing in Photoshop for 4 hours a week making rich gradients, drop shadows and gel buttons. Talk about a circus when one of the other class’s students dropped by my class to make up a missed lesson.

  3. I took a web design and development course in 2005 at Georgian College in Barrie Ontario, and honestly, I don’t think it could have been a more relevant course. We studied strictly HTML/CSS layouts, usability, accessibility and project management from a web perspective. The professors also made a huge emphasis on the students figuring out solutions on their own, with their own resources, may it be Google or textbooks.

    The material that we were being taught was so far a head of the game. One of our instructors, Lisa McMillan, got students into Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and tons of other web communities before they had really even taken off. We also had great speakers come in, including Derek Featherstone, to give small mini-lectures to the students.

    I can’t talk enough about how great this course was… I still apply so much of what I had learned to my current projects. Unfortunately, my class was the last graduating class as the college decided to close the program. I still feel that this was a ridiculous decision. Someone I knew had registered for the following year, but do to the closure, was forced to take a course at another college in the area. The other course, a 9-week intensive, was still teaching tables and frames.

  4. Fantastic article, and for me personally, it is well-timed. I recently filled an adjunct role in Drexel University’s Westphal College of Art and Design, teaching a web-standards design class to those graphic design majors who have chosen a “web track” focus.

    IMHO, the thought leadership in design schools are starting to wake up to the needs of the industry… but the talent isn’t necessarily right at their fingertips. That’s why I think Leslie’s call-to-act is important. Reach out to your local design schools and find out the structure of their curriculum. Find out if you can assist in any way.

  5. I can perfectly relate to most points in your excellent article, but the one that hit me closer to home was about teaching outdated technologies or practices. I’ve done a graduation on Communication Technologies, and web design is a large part of the curriculum. Can you believe that, by 2006, they were still teaching how to layout pages using tables? That’s right, 2006, not 1998. Of course I’ve since learned proper web design, but more from personal practice and passion for the subject than from classes.

    In fact, the only thing I do not regret about getting my formal education at a University is the doors it ultimately opened to me. I currently enjoy a good position as a web designer because of a couple of good projects I worked on during my period at the University, so I believe there’s still some point in getting a formal education.

  6. Thank you for this great writeup Leslie. As a former HS web teacher (8 years) your article hits very close to home. It’s great that you are asking professionals to get involved. Often, teachers teaching Web Design don’t even know what they don’t know. In other words, they don’t know what they need to know. It takes highly motivated teachers to ensure that students are getting relevant subject matter. My experience has been that the necessary motivation is often lacking.

    What really needs to happen is the right people need to be placed in decision making positions. Imagine you were the head of your department Leslie (maybe you are). Who would you hire to ensure you had the best possible web program. Next, imagine you were the head of your department and had almost no web experience. What kind of person would you view as qualified to teach this subject now? I hope you are involved in some way in the decision making process at UTC.

    Finally, over the last 6 months or so I’ve seen firsthand what a motivated educator is capable of. Jeff Brown, a teacher at “Damascus High School”:http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/schools/damascushs/ in Montgomery County, Maryland, is doing great things with his students. Anyone who ever wonders if what you’ve described is possible needs to “visit his classroom”:http://teachmetheweb.org/.

  7. Entirely True…

    Students like me, teach themselves… learn from blogs and other ppl …

    The Art/Design department is too laid back … its more like AIGA… They will only hire people with a masters degree… no matter how talented they are…

    Beautiful Code?? what does that mean???

    Inconsistency in browsers??? My professors had no idea that codes render differently in different browsers….

    The concept would have to change that web design/dreamweaver = learning dreamweaver interface.(I love Dreamweaver.. but that’s not the point)

    Another idea I had was to divide a classroom into group of web designers and throughout the semester or year… make them handle local clients, and projects… with changing roles….

    If the local clients don’t trust you with their business, there’s enough departments in the university itself… We could even use those departments as clients …

  8. I left my university course that was supposedly aimed at teaching e-commerce and business management. I wanted so much more from the ‘e-commerce’ side of things that the University and the lecturers just couldn’t provide. Techniques being taught were simply out of date and most of the time I thought I could give the lecturers a run for their money, I’m no guru but it really was that bad.

    I left when I became sick of my lecturers abandoning the course and then learning that the course had been scraped from all future admissions. I certainly wasn’t alone either the original class had dwindled down from about 28 to 10.

    Although the Business side of things played a part in my decision being not very business minded I was coping. Back in 2004 there was just very little choice in the way of web development and this course presented itself as the best option for me.

  9. Nice article, and good to see the range of the great and the good interviewed. Given that you assign a substantial part of the problem to the issues around hiring graduate web designers and developers and part of the article quoting the interviews, I do have a few questions if you get the time:
    * How many of the people interviewed (not just quoted), are directly responsible for the hiring and firing of staff at their organisations
    * What are the sorts of numbers we’re talking about (interviews / staff)
    * Again with those interviewed, which are responsible for organisation strategy and planning how to make the best use of any agencies most valuable resource, it’s people.

    Since you’ve published the interviews it would be good to get a feel for the weight of them based on who presently has issues in this area.

  10. I am glad an article such as this has come about. The current state of affairs in web design classes range from abyssmal (still teaching basic HTML with frames) to much better (CSS/XML).

    I’m going to recommend this article to my higher ups (and my students – who should already know about A List Apart). As an instructor I feel for the admins in that they don’t have time to keep in touch, but they should at least see when instructors doesn’t do a good job. There’s always room to teach outside the curriculum, and take the time to point out good websites – even if it’s five minutes at the end of class or two minutes posting in an LMS or e-mail listserv type thing. Maybe fifteen seconds on twitter, or five minutes on a personal blog.

    I definitely tell students that the software skills they learn will be obsolete soon after they get out of class. The generic skills they do learn will be applicable throughout their career; much like the programmer who understands object oriented programming rather than just Java or C++. Lifelong learning indeed!

    What isn’t happening is a commitment and understanding that courses will be changing rapidly, quite often from semester to semester. Instructors need to understand that the course they’re teaching today, may not exist next semester, and they will have to adapt. Knowledge is growing at an exponential rate, so it should be adapt or get carbon dated.

  11. Hopefully this doesn’t come off as too much of a ramble.

    This was such a refreshing read!
    We do not get many web conferences coming to Southern California (LA, San Diego), and the local colleges are not teaching design/ development at a level that you have talked about.

    As a full time In-house designer/code monkey finding valuable resources can be difficult(budget/time constraints). I usually end up watching vids on the web or buying dvd’s.

    Thank you for the encouragement to approach local campuses and offer time. This is definitely something I plan on looking into.

    I know quite a few young aspiring designers who would truly benefit from interaction, and input from people who are actually working n the real world of design/dev.

    Thanks again for a great read

    ~ Aaron I

  12. Universities are not there to teach particular technical disciplines, though they’ve been shoehorned into the role for some time now. A university’s job is to provide a general education – to turn the student into a whole person. Web design is just not the sort of thing that deserves serious attention at the university level. If you want schools to train better web designers, then foster technical schools to do so.

  13. Instead of chasing after some specific technology, wouldn’t it be better to prepare the students on how to chase after the technology on their own? I see commenters decrying the use of tables … but set yourself back 10 years and change “table” to “SGML” and you’re back at the same argument.

    Chasing after the hot technology of the moment is not only Sisyphean, but actually harmful to students.

    I’ve been a professional web developer since 1994. In 2008, while going back to school to finally get my CompSci BS, I took two Web Development courses. You know what I found? We spent all of our time talking about HTML and attributes and XML and none of the time talking about the underpinnings of what makes the web actually work.

    The students that left those courses were exactly the people you would want to avoid when hiring web developers.

    I’d argue that a Web Dev I course should have almost nothing to do with HTML or CSS or XML. You’d brush on those in the last two weeks, but they wouldn’t be the focus of the course. Instead, the vast majority of your time should be spent clearly explaining the distinction between what happens on the client side and what happens on the server side. Talk about HTTP and state and cookies and tokens. Talk about XSS and XSRF and nonces. Talk about CGI and how the web server talks to scripting languages. Talk about pipelining and the effect of having 200 1KB images versus 100 2KB images and 10 20KB images. Talk about RPC and automation.

    At that point, Web Dev II is icing on the cake. Then and only then should you talk about CSS and HTML and XHTML. Web Dev II should be the transient and ephemeral technologies, in other words.

    First teach the “how”, then leave the “what” for last.

    It works this way in every other curriculum — in Engineering you don’t talk about steel and concrete in your first year, you talk about statics and dynamics and Newtonian physics — you learn the basic underpinnings first. Why should our field be any different?

    Point being, you’d leave Web Dev I an actual Developer, not just someone who can use Frontpage or Dreamweaver and asks why they can’t use JavaScript to manipulate a server-side session variable.

  14. I graduated from a program that I honestly feel followed much of what you’re suggesting here. I felt, and still feel, that my college experience kept me up to date on the newest technologies and gave me the opportunity to participate in more real-world centered projects. It should probably be noted that Aarron Walter was one of my teachers.

    One thing that I agree 100% with that would improve my alma matter, would be the hiring of instructors without Master’s degrees. I would love to teach, and think I would have a valuable perspective (then again, who doesn’t?). But, when it comes between gaining more real world experience by practicing my work or getting another degree, the real world experience wins out. I could cop out and go to a part-time graduate program that would give me a token degree, but the only programs that would be really, truly valuable require a full time commitment. It’s a challenge.

  15. Personally, reading the comments from employers, I think they are mistaking what the purpose of education is – they have an expectation that it is to provide commercial training in specific languages / packages.

    It’s been the same problem in Computing generally – good courses teach programming principles which are re-usable, and equally how to learn – but companies say they want .NET or Oracle skills.

    What would be interesting would be asking the same businesses if they could accurately predict what skills they will require in 4 years time. In 1995, few businesses could have predicted they needed web development or design skills at all. In 2003 few businesses would have seen non-IE based browsers becoming important (although many would have wrongly said WAP would become important).

    I would have thought that much the same holds true of web design – basic principles of readability, white space, information display, form design, etc – are more important than specific techniques.

  16. Some very interesting points here…
    I do believe that colleges/universities need to find a balance between teaching technical and theoretical, and instilling in their students a willingness to learn on their own.

    I graduated from the York/Sheridan Joint program in design, and I definitely feel that the majority of students were turned off of “the web” in general because of the departments’ inability to engage students who did not already have a thorough understanding of HTML and CSS. The result was a graduating class of mostly print designers with no interest in designing for the web, in an increasingly interactive world. While I think that a large part of the onus is on the student to learn and teach themselves, I believe that the school has a responsibility to teach a well-rounded education, and you cannot escape interactivity in the design industry.

  17. Thanks Leslie. Thought I would bring “Hyper Island”:http://www.hyperisland.se/ to your attention. Hyper Island have for over 10 years connected practising professionals with students. It’s not University Level, but if your looking for more material on this matter, I suggest you get in contact with them.

  18. Great article, Leslie. I graduated just last year and I have a confession to make; I didn’t take a single web design/development course in school. I found them to be 5 years behind industry standards. So I took matters into my own hands and self taught.

    I was fortunate to have an internship program with my degree that helped me make the bridge from academia to private but I do know that other degrees don’t require this.

  19. While there is a strong need for more graduates with the experience and skill set to do good web work. A highly academic classroom is not necessarily the place for it. Academia is for theory. Learning how to learn and push your field. One advantage of the university environment is that it is often full of smart people who want to put good ideas into practice. Students need to get involved with activities that will teach them the technologies they need for practical applications of the concepts they are learning in class.

    Don’t go to an expensive 4 year university to learn JavaScript, XHTML, CSS, PHP, etc. You can do this much cheaper in small training classes. Go to a university to learn algorithm theory, design principles, software architecture, information architecture, HCI theory. But also take advantage of the speakers your university can bring in. The clubs and organizations that can help you work with peers to produce real work. Don’t confuse a university degree with a technical college education.

  20. Rob Weychert kinda brought it up, but it may be cost effective for schools to _host_ their own conference. Open it up to educators and students alike from the surrounding area. Try to land an industry rock star for a key note. Invite working professionals from the area to sit on a few panels. Make it a one day thing to cut down on costs both for the host and for the attendees. We admit that real world work experience through things like internships are important. We admit that the conference circuit is important. Could we not consider something like this as real world experience in conference attending for the students?

    “RE Zack”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/elevatewebdesignattheuniversitylevel?page=1#3 – I had a similar experience with my “4 year degree in web design”:http://webdesign.tntech.edu/ . As great as the experience was, it ended up being a cult of personality. Now the director of the program has moved on and I’m not sure how the curriculum will be updated and managed without him.

    “RE Jon”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/elevatewebdesignattheuniversitylevel?page=1#10 – Life long learning really is the key. But as much as that buzz word is tossed around in higher ed, I don’t see much of it in practice. I’d be willing to bet that the spirit of life long learning is more easily found among ALA readers than among recent university grads. And that’s part of the problem. Those of us who are passionate about this stuff figured out long ago that the educational infrastructure simply wasn’t there and we’ve found other resources. I’ve got 2 degrees in web design and working on a masters (not in web design) but when it comes down to what I do 40 hours a week at my job, ALA has been just as valuable as any of that education. My degrees get my the interviews, the skills I’ve taught myself thanks to the wonderful community we have at our disposal gets me the job.

    “RE Rick”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/elevatewebdesignattheuniversitylevel?page=2#13 – I almost agree. You’re begging the question that a university program in web design has to be based on chasing the technologies rather than the underlying philosophies. It doesn’t have to be that way. My “2 year degree”:http://www.pstcc.edu/departments/mdt/web_about.htm was very much based on teaching the tools. (In their defense, 3 years later things might have improved.) But my 4 year degree (linked above) we never talked about code or tools in a lecture. That was what the textbooks were for and we were expected to pick that up on our own and even amongst ourselves. Lectures were on things like The Odyssey as oral narrative and how it ties in to the narrative structure of hypertext. Or how Perician semiotics or Shannon’s work at Bell Labs apply to the nature of the web as a communications medium. But that’s precisely the sort of thing I think the program lost when we lost our director. Now I think we’ve got graduate students with a Java background teaching PHP. There goes the philosophy. 🙁

  21. Wow, this is a wonderful article. Thanks for writing this, it’s time to act. I hope the nearby universities are just as thrilled to get some volunteer speakers in their classrooms.

    Here’s to hoping! Thanks again, Leslie.

  22. Where or why internships disappeared is beyond me. Frankly I think they have a place in IT today more than ever. Physicians have long used teaching hospitals and clinics for doctors to obtain real life experience.

    Why should IT be any different? I believe people learn by doing and I see a lot of college students learning things the wrong way or the old way.

    Teach them the basics, lets focus on structure, architecture, encapsulation and methodology. Then place them into internships where they can spend a year or two working in IT. Let them begin by making a few contact pages and working their way up the ladder. They will have exposure that they certainly won’t get in a classroom, seminar or webinar.

    I find that those who have been doing “freelance work” during their education have a far better grasp than those who just ride out the 4 years in a classroom.

  23. I’m one of those self-taught people. I’ve been designing websites since Netscape 0.9 beta came out in October of 1994. I remember the day. So the idea of going to University to learn web design and development seems foreign to me. For me, the only way to learn is by doing. It’s great that these degrees are offered now, but they need to keep a foot in the real world. That means conferences, internships, freelance, guest lecturers, etc. All the things the article talks about. IT is a professional career and as such, the training should be no different than what you’d expect when training to becoming an Engineer, Architect, Doctor, etc. A third to one half of the degree should be spent working as an intern.

  24. There has been quite a bit of talk about modernizing university level instruction in my immediate circle, so it’s good to see it raised as a topic here. Thanks Leslie.

    I feel that students graduating from interactive programs need to be able to generate a good balance between design, process and technical ability. From my experience, it seems that the design portion of instruction is well-rounded, but the process is pretty much overlooked and the execution is behind the times. Walking into a position at a company shouldn’t be the first time one hears of sitemaps, wireframes, project management software, xhtml/css, browser testing, etc. This should have focus in every curriculum.

    I’m entering into my 4th semester teaching standards-complaint web design at Tyler School of Art as an adjunct. It can be a challenge presenting all of that content into one semester with integrity. Thankfully the students are eager to learn about it and the teaching staff is very supportive.

    We’ve been talking about generating more guest talks in the near future and connecting with the local web community in Philly. If anyone is interested in contributing, feel free to contact the school and/or me via our respective websites.

  25. I am a Civil Engineering student in the UK but the dilemmas you face in the education of web designers can be helped with application of similar ideals to those taught within construction.

    One of our lecturers recently described how in the last century we have developed more knowledge about engineering that in all of history. In the last decade we have discovered more than in the last century! Gone are the days when one engineer could design an entire structure as a lifetime would need to be spent on a single field of study to gain expertise.

    Instead we are taught a method of thought. We are taught the theory that underlies what we may do day to day. We are involved in projects that develop us as people who can work effectively in industry. I recently met an architecture student who had some industrial experience and he shared my view. We don’t get taught what we need to work. We get taught how we need to work.

    As with web design there is no way I can be taught everything that I need to be an instant success upon graduation. What I can be given is a solid grounding so that I can be effective.

  26. I love your article Leslie, it’s high time someone brought this subject to the masses. I am a web developer that happens to have a full time gig as a Web Development Technology (WDT) instructor at my local community college (Pearl River Community College, Mississippi, USA). I was fortunate enough to marry the love of my life that just happens to be the WDT instructor at another rival community college here (Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College). Wife came first and then the job followed, it was love at first chat for us, two web nerds with more in common than we knew. Sorry, lets get back on track…

    The reason I took the job at this college was at first to relish in the benefits that a state employee is afforded. I also knew about the problems surrounding an education in Web technologies at the post-secondary level. I wanted to be a part of the solution so I started teaching. My wife and I are very fortunate in that we have what many would see as a luxury in that we are allowed to teach those things that are relevant and important to industry as a whole. My wife had the one of the first WDT programs in our state and wrote the majority of the curriculum that the state adopted for this degree program (2 year AAS).

    She knew, as well as I, that nothing about the Web was static. We recognized that the Web as a whole and the technologies that run it are an ever evolving mass. The curriculum that was written at the time was done in such a manner as to be fairly agnostic when it came to the technology itself. The concepts surrounding those technologies were focused on without specifics being named. This allowed us to have a set of classes that could evolve and include relevant technologies as changes were needed. Turns out that the majority of the classes we teach change every semester to reflect the changes in our industry.

    My wife and I spend more time working outside of the classroom than in. We are constantly learning and bringing that wealth of knowledge into the classroom. We see first hand the poor quality of work being produced by those in our area that I call “Uncle Bubba the Web Developer”. He’s that person that’s someones brothers cousins friends uncle that knows Frontpage and can make you a real good web page. We are breaking barriers and educating our local businesses. We ask for their help. We ask those in the biz to work with us as part of our craft committee, to give us input on the state of the industry as they see it. To give us feedback on their needs so that we may be able to meet them.

    We participate and contribute to industry and would like to see more instructors in our field do the same. At the conferences that I attend, the subject of education always comes up as it relates to the Web. Way too many times have I heard one of our fellow “Web Professionals” spew out some drivel about “Those than can, do. Those that can’t, teach.”. Most of the problems of poor education in our field stem from the bureaucratic BS inflicted upon us by unknowing government “officials” that think they are doing something good with a smattering of “I need to teach what?” thrown in from the instructors, many of whom are thrust into an arena they know nothing about. Without other professionals in the wild being willing to help, our educational system will continue to decline until the point where an education will be completely worthless.

    I challenge everyone to make a change. Help others around you understand the process, either as an educator or someone out there grinding it out every day. Both instructors and professionals alike MUST step up if we expect to see any improvement in the system.


  27. Web professors should be required to BE web professionals, not just attend conferences and write papers. Real-world production is the best way to learn.

  28. Hey,

    I found the topic of this article very interesting. As a part time lecturer at a technology-centered university in Sydney, Australia, I can relate to much of what is being said.

    I graduated with a Visual Communication degree, and have been working professionally on all things interweb since 2000. I started teaching initially to make some spare dollars, but as I got into it, I remembered what it was like to be taught myself by people who didn’t get it – ie – academics.

    Not that there aren’t many professors or lecturers out there that don’t know their stuff – but it certainly helps matters if the person doing the teaching is actually out in the real world working the subject matter they are teaching.

    From my university’s perspective, this kind of industry teacher work model is quite prevelant. And unlike many places, to be a part-time lecturer I don’t need to have a masters to be able to teach what I live/breathe/know. (Of course, there is a lot to be said for understanding best-practices when teaching – something I go out of my way to absorb and hone in my own time).

    Also, after holding the position for a few years, I made the case for change so that the course could adapt faster to the world around us, focusing less on software titles and more on the technology underpinning them.

    The subject I teach places students in real-world scenarios, with pretty tight deadlines and demanding requirements. This allows them to get a good sense of the “whole”, rather than just learning how to use software XYZ. It falls under the design department – and this is of course something that needs to be taken into consideration when setting up tasks, but I like to think each student can leave the class with a good solid understanding of the entire web site design, build, deploy, maintain process.

    I know I can improve our curriculum further, but at least I like to think that this adaptable, real-world style teaching model is the future.

    PS – I think that teaching a purely theoretical subject on the connected world should be a pre-requisit for all students studying web technologies at university. Alas, as yet (in my university at least), it is not.

  29. I teach web design at a university.

    The principal question for me is whether university educators should focus on fundamental concepts and enlightened discoure about web design or particular details of current approaches such as specific tools, techniques and vendors.

    For example: Adobe Dreamweaver is hot right now, so should our classes use that program extensively or advocate only generic text editors for writing code?

    For example: Should we explain in detail how to create CSS sprites as it is the clever idea of the moment, or emphasize a more philosophical and less technical discussion of seperation of presentation and content?

    I personally believe that the university level is not so much intended provide a toolkit of skills, tricks and hacks, but instead to engage creative and intellectual capacities and foster deep contemplation and discussion. There _are_ some facts which must be learned by memorization (like common CSS properties) but I really am much more interested in students who can explain the difference between and than those who can recite all the CSS positioning types on command. Dreamweaver, likewise, is a perfectly wonderful tool, but I feel that teaching students to use that application is biasing them toward a company which is about as academically appropriate as insisting they take notes using only Bic pens.

    This is not to say that students do not need these skills and nor that there is no place where they should be taught. Universities have a long, intentional tradition of neutrality and academic freedom, and locking in to one vendor or one technique eats away at that storied principle.

    Finally, I am personally rather wary of the claim that universities should _fully_ prepare students for careers in web design. Students who complete our certificate program should have all of the knowledge and intellectual capacity _to become_ a professional web developer without any further formal education. Where they learn the techniques and tools popular right-this-instant is up to them and their employers.

  30. So I’m a high school senior. I taught myself HTML 6 years ago, and now I’m in the advanced level web development class at our school, in charge of programming- i.e. Javascript, PHP and such for the school’s website. To get into this class, you have to have completed (or show mastery over) the first-level web design course, which with its restricted curriculum covers HTML, Dreamweaver, the oversimplified workings of the web, and possibly copy/pasting javascript/CSS. And it honestly seems as though nobody else knows how to use Dreamweaver’s code view. Just the other day a classmate asked me why her layout ‘”messes up in firefox, I thought Internet Explorer was the one that was retarded”:http://www.adobe.com/cfusion/communityengine/index.cfm?event=showdetails&productId=1&postId=682 ‘. Most of these kids will never touch CSS, and have never coded a line of javascript on their own. So you have the kids who have a heavily outdated foundation in basic HTML (before I was placed in the advanced level course last year, I got up to FONT tags and nearly cried, while the first few weeks were full of frustrated kids dropping the class), and then they jump straight from there to managing a real site; you also have the people who know what they’re talking about who feel like everyone else is just hopeless. There are no challenges, no colleagues to discuss with, and I doubt a web development firm would hire a 17 year old. What does one do with either of these camps?

  31. This is good idea, however post itself is too long (I read like main points only).

    When I attended university in Latvia I found web classes to be covered quite good. Let me explain:
    1) Programming languages – you don’t have to learn only one programming language. We were learning one programming language per week. You just have to understand concept of programming languages and you can do it
    2) SEO & Web design was thought by person, who had his own company therefore knew what’s new out there

    To be honest, you can’t teach students about everything in web. There is too much going on. You have to teach them basics and let them explore themselves. When they finish university, they will have to learn how to find news in web anyway.

  32. I must admit since graduating with a first class BA(hons) degree in Design for Interactive media in July 08, I feel like I’ve been thrown to the wolves somewhat. I’m sure uni helped, and I’d rather have my degree than not, but I just wasn’t prepared for the world of work at all. We were given so long to do everything, chance to do research, told we didn’t need to learn software, just how to design. I like that philosophy, but if you can’t use the software to convey your design, then you’re severely limited. Yes we should have explored ourselves and spent time experimenting and what not, but not everyone does. I don’t know what my excuse is for not doing that to be honest, but few people on my course did. I feel they should have kicked us more with regards to this, and they did say something about giving us a few short projects to show us what working on a real time frame would be like, but never did. I think this would have helped massively.

    Just wanted to say I agree.

  33. I’m glad I was pointed in this direction. I’m currently at University to try and improve my web skillset and open up some doors. Nothing I’ve learnt in the classroom (apart from some XML/XSLT and IA) is going to help once I leave for a proper job.

    The problem is that the modules tutors think link to the web don’t and if they do it isn’t as expected. I found myself bored in lectures because I had already taught myself how to validate an XHTML page and didn’t need 2 hours to work out what had obviously been missed out on the page, and this was in my second year.

    This is why I created the Web Developers Conference (http://www.webdevconf.co.uk). I started it up with help from the University of the West of England (also do very well with guest lectures) and one very web savvy course leader who had actually worked in the web industry. The aim has and always will be to show students exactly whats going on in the world of the web away from any classrooms or lecture halls and to help keep them on top of new technologies. It also gets them sat in front of real professionals who know whats going on and haven’t read it (all) from a book).

    It’s a chance for students to ask questions and meet professionals which can lead to placements and even jobs after University. It is the first of many steps I’m taking to improve an amazing subject and area that students and professionals alike need to know more about that what an academic can read out of a book thats older than the web itself.

    I’m glad other people have also seen these issues!

  34. This recent discussion of university level web design/development education has been especially relevant to me: I am an 18 year old designer/web developer and, for little awhile, was searching for a reputable university program that would match my interests. I couldn’t find anything, and am instead pursuing a degree in computer science. What I’ve realized, however, is that design and development are inherently limited in their ability to be “taught”? in a classroom. In place of a college degree in web design, I plan on continuing my education through online/print resources, work experience, and internships.

  35. Derek, Yes in the simple answer. There is loads behind it. It is a professional event in the fact that it’s open to web proffesionals too. The 2009 site is going live next week. Want to know my email is on the site somewhere.

  36. I teach web design in a technical college in the UK and a lot of the points made in the article mirror my own views.

    I’m writing now, not to echo some of the points which have already been made but to draw your attention to a Web Application and Development course that is run by the Open University here in the UK.

    The course consists of 6, 12 week course. 3 at university level 2 and 3 at level 3. While the course is considered an academic course, it still covers a lot of practical aspects of web design.

    But what I found to be most interesting is that the courses are presented 3 times a year and the course materials are update after each presentation, were the course teams feel it to be necessary. As a result the courses remain reasonably relevant to todays technology.

    I only wish that I could employ the same model in our local technical college, where we are bound be the syllabus set by the awarding body.

    Thanks for writing the article.



  37. I am a teacher/administrator for The Art Institute of Portland’s Web Design and Interactive Media program.

    Like any program, ours is not perfect, but I can at least say that is good.

    What do I mean by good?

    I mean that our two full-time instructors have numerous years of web-industry experience. Our curriculum was designed by web-designers. And our adjunct faculty are industry professionals who have a talent for education.

    These pieces are very important. Because the only people who are able to inspire useful thought and exploration of web-design are web-designers. The catch is that the only people who can teach, are teachers.

    I once was watching a video presentation by David Heller, author of Becoming a Digital Designer ( http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Digital-Designer-Broadcast-Animation/dp/0470048441 ). And there was a teacher who asked, “so should we be teaching tables?”

    This question represents, I think, a fundamental problem with the thinking behind teaching the web. Someone who doesn’t get the web as a paradigm will teach someone HTML and get caught up on questions about tables.

    It’s like teaching someone graphic design with an intro class on the printing press.

    We focus on teaching people how to think like web designers/developers, how to “speak computer” (to quote Steven Heller), problem solve using technology, and how to research and learn technologies on their own.

    Instead of teaching people the ‘right’ way to do things, we teach people how to assess problems so that they can discover the best way to solve them.

    We teach people not to expect to know everything, but to know where and how to find everything and everyone so that we can leverage what makes the web so powerful: Access to communities of people who know more than you.

    Yes, we do teach specific technologies…

    But we pick technologies based on input from the local Portland Web Community.

    I am realizing that I could talk FOREVER about this topic, so I’ll sum it up.

    We have %100 job placement.
    We focus on careers in the web.

    Here are some awesome graduates…

    I would say our biggest challenge for us is the difference between compensation for teachers vs. compensation for web designers. The two rarely match up which make it challenging to attract teachers.

  38. I would think the challenge is in convincing the schools that attracting the right teachers can often turn off to be a real payoff in the long run for the schools themselves. 🙂

  39. As someone who studied website development on my degree in 2002 and then had to relearn EVERYTHING when I came out of Uni (in the UK), this article resonates on a high level for me!

    As someone who has worked in a number of jobs since graduating, all working on web based projects, I have had to work so hard to get to where I am today; something that, I feel, could have been helped if I had the proper skills when I graduated.

    I am seriously considering moving into education in the forthcoming years but, as a solely web professional, I have concerns that I lack the teaching skills required. Reading this article, however, has boosted my confidence once again!

  40. I’ve been doing a lot of cross-country air traveling lately, and I always seem to wind up sitting next to a young person, just out of school, looking for work. I tell them that they should get into web development, because the market is crying out for good, fresh talent. They ask me *where* can they get the skillset to fill these jobs, and I tell them I have no idea.

    I’ve been to assorted community colleges and supposedly “tech” schools to view their curricula, but as the article and other commenters have noted, the courses seem to be lodged in 2001 with framesets and embedded presentational elements.

    I wish I had an answer – – I don’t have the urge to campaign at schools, but frankly, I don’t understand why community colleges and the like don’t recognize this underserved market.

  41. I would have thought that colleges are grounds of new bleeding edge technology. Again good advice. I would love to get involved in teaching / volunteering usability related courses (I have an MS) I don’t know how to connect with a university to do so.

  42. I myself is a web developer and running my own company. I did my professional course in web programming few years back but now I am forced to discuss few things with other people in the industry to take the right technical decisions for my clients.

    And according to me it is very difficult to keep yourself updated with the technology now days!

  43. I partially agree with Thom Blake (comment #12) and Robby Slaughter (comment #31) above. I think the role of Universities is not to educate students on tools, but concepts.

    It’s about the “Why” not the “How”. The “How” changes too frequently and it makes no sense for universities to rewrite their curriculum every 6 months after the release of “the next best thing” in web development. It changes too frequently and often goes down the wrong path. Think: Why are so many colleges still teaching table based design? Because that’s what the web told them to teach 10 years ago. Yet the concepts of separating content, strucutre and design are not new. They form the very basis of HTML and CSS and as such are as old as the web. Yet colleges are teaching what industry wanted 10 years ago. They should not fall down that trap again.

    Having said all that, the aims of the article are good, but I don’t think it is Universities which need to be targeted. More it is vocational colleges. Or better still, the companies themselves. Companies are themselves not fullfilling their side of the bargain – that is to ensure their workforce stays appropriately educated. They expect education to supply the “How”. This is wrong. The “How” can only truly be learned on the job.

  44. @#45: As far as I know, most new technologies are never, ever introduced in universities, and rather just become popular via comment threads, message boards, mailing lists, and general usage. Maybe this is because web technology just isn’t tangible; regardless, maybe more of the problem in modern web design education is lack of communication. Nowhere is a user encouraged to frequent forums or look things up, and I have yet to meet a single person in real life who has heard of A List Apart, and yet the very nature of the Internet makes sure that no comprehensive web reference can exist for too long.

    Perhaps good web design education should encourage actually using the web for what it was intended, which is simply communication.

  45. Universities and colleges are still working on the teaching model developed when education was Latin, Greek history and not much more. Even then those were static subjects.

    As new courses were added, they could be static as well because the pace of change was still generational not annually. I remember being told in 1963 when I was looking at colleges, being told that, as an engineering student, I would need to take German! This at a time when the US was the preeminent engineering country and Germany (still climbing out of the second world war) had not yet regained their technology base and no new engineering text was written in German.

    This was one of the first places that I learned that the response times of universities and colleges was on the decade time frame and while that may be a problem for engineering and specifically for all areas of computer science, it’s a good thing for history and political science.

    Engineering needs to be cutting edge to have graduates trained in what they will need to start work but for history it takes a long time to recognize cause and effect. Look at the discussion about whether or not the steps the government took during the great depression were as effective as we all were taught in school.

    Growing up in the 50’s Franklin Roosevelt was the “hero”? but now economists are beginning to debate whether or not his measures helped or prolonged the depression.

    These institutions will have to develop a new faster model for some subjects and keep the existing model for others and that means the manger of these schools will have to develop new practices and standards. But they must accept outside help because all their training is in the “static model”? and they will fight the new ideas simply because it’s counter to all their training and experience.

  46. To respond to comments #44 and #45, I believe that the danger is an empahsis solely on skills and not on a combination of fundamental concepts _along with_ particular expertise in tools and techniques. I encourage anyone who wants to learn about web technologies to pursue both a traditional academic component in addition to a hands-on experience building web sites for real clients.

    #47: The reason you see table-based design and the prevalance of the tag in University curriculums in 2009 is because of transmission of ignorance. Both students and industry demand a training program that enables graduates to create a particular output, and faculty respond to that demand. But responding to outside demands is exactly the kind of behavior which Universities were established to avoid. In this way, we have failed you.

    #49: If you believe that the purpose of a University education is to wholly prepare a student for success in the private sector, then you are right: the model is wrong. However, I believe that Universities do not have this objective. Instead, our programs our designed to broaden perspectives and enhance student ability for intellectual discourse. Graduates may not have direct experience with an individual tool, but should be capable of adapting and learning to any particular job requirement.

    The analogy I prefer is contrast cooks and chefs. A cook is someone who follows instructions to produce a meal, but may not have any understanding of the process or any ability to synthesize, evaluate or create. A chef may have never used a particular kitchen implement or tried a popular recipe themselves, but their fundamental understanding of the interplay of ingredients, time, and heat provides a way for them to make unique and meaningful contributions to the culinary world.

    Universities, in my opinion, should produce chefs. Learning to cook with All-clad is something which happens elsewhere.

  47. Bucky Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    I believe, but am unable to document, that Peter Abelard argued (nearly 900 years ago!) that the foundation of education was discourse while the foundation of faith was lecture. He said this as a means of differentiating the role of the university from the role of the church. But if you look at what goes on in many university classrooms today, what do you see? Is it open, omni-direction discussion and debate (discourse)? Or is it a one-way “sermon” of “facts” based on the assumed authority of the lecturer? I’ve experienced a good deal of both. My learning style may bias my outlook, but I’ve always learned much more from the discourse method than the lecture method.

    But what do we see when we look at communication on the internet? What happens a hundred times a minute on Twitter? I think it’s much closer to the discourse model and therefor, for me at least, an effective medium for learning. The only downfall could be the utter lack of authoritative voice built into the medium. But there’s a reason the author’s comments get a special background color in these discussion threads. With forethought and critical thinking, we’re much more easily able to address the shortcomings in the medium we spend our days building than we are to affect a sea change in education.

    I honestly believe we’re sitting on the tools, *right now*, to build a better model. And the best part is these are tools we’ve built ourselves.

    I would count all the things discussed in the article among those tools. And there will be those working in academia who “get it”. The students lucky enough to spend a few months or a few years under their guidance will no doubt benefit greatly. But before such practices can become the norm, the number of these people actively working in academia has to reach some kind of critical mass. I don’t expect that to happen until most of the academics who currently get it have “Emeritus” after their names.

  48. @#51 In which case, maybe this discussion should be less about how universities should better their education, and more about how we can get students to collaborate with these tools and with the real world more.

    Should we have to hit the ground running, with a knowledge of where to turn to for help? And the other issue is, where can you consistently you find good, reliable help? There are mailing lists, forums, blogs, but the answer isn’t so obvious for anyone new to the web design community (or any new field, for that matter). As “Derek brought up”:(http://www.alistapart.com/comments/elevatewebdesignattheuniversitylevel?page=6#51 what we need most is authoritative voices, but the kind with credibility. Fortunately, people on the Internet are usually kind enough to go out of their way “to point out when someone is wrong”:http://xkcd.com/386/ so maybe this “model” works.

  49. I was really happy to see this article appear in my RSS feed because as a web instructor I empathize with every word.

    I’ve been teaching at the Art Institute in Vancouver for three years and so far I had been lucky enough to be dealing with a system where the course construction was entirely in the hands of the instructors. This gave me the opportunity to go through the current lesson plans and remove irrelevant, out of date info – which there was a lot of – and really begin to revamp the curriculum to start fitting the actually industry standards. Before I began teaching the school didn’t even offer a Javascript class.

    Currently the school is attempting to move all the programs to degree granting (in Canada we only offer diplomas) and as an effect of this are stating that all faculty will be required to have Masters degrees. This has become an issue with the web program because none of the faculty have Bachelors degrees, let alone Masters, since there are no degree programs that offer web design and programming. The feeling is “get your Masters or get out”.

    Since the best instructors are also those who continue to work in the industry the time and money required to get that Masters is just not worth it. Instructors are unsure of their continuation as educators. I am afraid that with the lack of these instructors the education level will quickly spiral downward and possibly revert to its outdated ways.

    This article really opened my eyes that my co-workers and I aren’t the only ones feeling the stress of the education politics. I really hope that people heed these words and change begins to happen.

  50. This article couldn’t have come at a better time.

    I think there are plenty of students out there that are yearning for the skills you describe. I know some teachers that are struggling to add up-to-the-moment Web design classes at local institutions, and we need to reconsider the Master’s degree hurdle for teaching higher education. Many of the smartest people I’ve met in this industry have advanced degrees from the school of hard knocks and client deadlines.

    A good place to start sharing your skills? Take a look at your local community college first, as opposed to trying to become an adjunct instructor at a four-year school. I spoke with my local community college and was able to start teaching this quarter a “class for working designers”:http://www.80works.com/ to start bridging the skills gap that invariably rears its head when they start work at a design agency.

    Could we do the same sort of thing for purely Web design/development?

  51. Inspired by this discussion, I “wrote”:http://wutworks.blogspot.com/2009/01/getting-myself-edumacated-about-web.html about my experience in a web development class this semester—including slides of what my prof. calls good web design… its amazing.

    From the post: A successful web development course should not just teach stuff (whether past or current) because what we learn now will be obsolete in a few years. In addition to teaching the up-to-date knowledge, it should also infuse the students with a passion to immerse themselves in the industry: read the blogs, check out the new technology, get on Twitter and ask questions… but most importantly, build a lot of websites. If you’ve got an idea for a cool web app, just try building it. Learn as you go along. Unless you have gotten your hands dirty, you won’t have the passion to learn more.

  52. Interesting. I was just having a conversation about the disaster that is our education system this weekend. It was a long conversation and for the sake of brevity I’ll try to make the point fast.

    The old adage “those who can’t do, teach” has a lot of truth to it, if only in the sense that the vast majority of people who can “do” have no inclination to go through the rigors of becoming a teacher only to earn less than they do already.

    Put it this way: I learn far more in two days at AEA each year than I could possibly learn from a decent classroom professor in two weeks, simply because of the variety of teachers all presenting their most relevant material.

    I imagine a future where anybody can create virtual course content and be paid for doing it well. Why limit teaching to teachers? Let everyone create courses and upload them for consumption. The same brick and mortar institutions of today will become a place where we have the ability to enroll in the most effective lectures given by the brightest minds in each and every industry. Why should students be stuck learning math from a low-quality local teacher if the most effective lectures in the world can be made available?

    Obviously it would all take some sorting out, and I in no way mean to offend today’s educators, but the open source community has proved it’s abilities in so many other realms. Why can’t we find a way to apply it to education?

  53. I think it’s unfortunate that there is a belief that a culture of self-education in the education system. Everything one needs to keep abreast is out there for free on that series of tubes. I don’t see why those in education can’t keep up with the latest in the same way that the rest of the applied professionals in the industry to it. In my professional career, I’ve given up on formal training in the arena of web and technology because it’s so hit-and-miss. But I feel that I’ve stayed up-to-date by simply keeping up with blogs, etc. Why should educators not invest the same amount of time in such things? Isn’t a large part of teaching in higher education supposed to be research?

  54. …err, I mean: “I think it’s unfortunate that there is a belief that a culture of self-education in the education system has to be costly.

  55. As someone who just graduated from an $30,000/year institution who falls victim to the problems described in this article, I agree and can unfortunately relate to a lot of this. The first job interview that I had, I asked the interviewer why they wanted me to be able to create tableless layouts. I honestly believed that THEY were the ones in need of some updating in their web knowledge. That was about a year ago. The knowledge that I have gained in web design and development in the past year (self-taught, and with the help of those I work with) cannot even be compared to what little and poor knowledge I gained in the 4 years of college.

  56. Web technology only changes fast in detail. The main principle — text based HTML to gain structure — has never changed. HTML 4.01 is around for ages and HTML 5 will take years before really relevant. Some goes for CSS and JavaScript.

    The main problem is teachers not having any contact with professional web designers. They taught Java or C++ a decade ago and decide to just “do the web”. With this approach, they bypass the web as an expert environment having it’s own use, quirks and guidelines. They don’t understand HTML because they don’t know its origin. As a result, semantics, maintainability and compatibility are ignored.

    I myself teach web design at a University of Applied Science in the Netherlands. Over here we have several bachelor degrees dealing with web design. But none of them focus on just web design. They focus on multimedia in general arguing web design is too narrow for adolescents at bachelor level. I think they have a point.

    Another idea is bringing teachers together to learn about the view on web design of their colleagues and curricula at other universities. In the Netherlands, we are organizing such a meeting with lectures from people professionally involved in web design and web standards.

  57. There definitely needs to be a change. It wouldn’t hurt to have people with field experience and a college degree.

    When I look back at the only class I ever took on web design, the only thing the teacher knew was the books she had us reading (Lynda.com books) since she went over them herself prior to teaching the class. She had no relevant field experience, just the credentials to teach.

  58. I absolutely agree. Until recently, I moderated a forum for beginning web designers and hobbyists. I also know a few college students taking courses in web design & development right now. The self-educated designers and hobbyists, without exception, always understand standards and best-practices far better than the students do. Their designs are more attractive and modern and their code is cleaner and better formatted. They also know a wider variety of tags and css instructions and use them more appropriately and effectively.

    Because of this, I am of the opinion that classroom educations in web development in the current state of things are hurting the students more than they are helping. Not only is the curriculum circa 1998, the instructors themselves are hopelessly lacking in knowledge and talent. I’ve often been directed to the sites they put together as examples for student assignments and frankly they’re shameful in all regards and rarely work outside IE6.

    The biggest barriers in my opinion aren’t the institutions; they are the instructor’s own arrogance. For that reason it can be difficult to communicate with many of them. I’ve got a few people in trouble after correcting bad syntax, encouraging them to use CSS for layouts, or techniques compatible with multiple browsers. Instructors mark them down, tell them they’ve done it “wrong” and that it’s not the way it’s done “in the real world” (which apparently to them exists entirely before the turn of the century).

    I guess I could continue to rant indefinitely. Thank you for the article, I’ll certainly try out some of your suggestions!

  59. I did a degree in Computer Science and I have a good background in development work. I did an elective from the multimedia dept that covered web based development. During the course of the unit, I found that all of the designers didnt have a clue about even basic stuff like HTML and JavaScript and when it came down to doing the workshops, I spent more time helping the instructors and other students more than I was spending on doing my course work.

    Since I graduated in 2000, I have worked in the web industry doing primarily ASP development with some PHP and Perl thrown in as well. Some designers that I have come across have a good understanding of hand-coding HTML and doing some basic JavaScript and a couple of them have even managed to bridge the divide and can write server side code.

    I would be very interested in seeing Web Design/Development taught at a tertiary level with branches for the two different streams where a student, after completing the first couple of units where they learn about the syntax of HTML and the DOM and learn how to hand-code HTML rather than having to depend on a WYSIWYG editor.

    From there, the students can select the stream that they want to traverse and can do some crossover units as electives.

    There is nothing more annoying than working with a designer and asking them to find a bug in the HTML source code and they have never even looked at it before.

  60. I posted this in response to Aarron’s article. Here it is again….

    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.

  61. Congratulations to our author for “getting some press”:http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/3582/colleges-get-poor-grades-on-teaching-web-skills in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article there doesn’t really add anything new for this audience, but among academics (and possibly more importantly among administrative types) it should result in some high visibility of these issues. It’s a major indicator that higher ed might actually be ready to start paying attention to us. Great work Leslie!

    Also, I didn’t realize until I read it there that you (Leslie) are a fellow Tennessean. If the UT system takes your work to heart, do you think there’s any chance of getting TBR to catch up to the new millennium (maybe as part of their new “sustainable business model”)? 🙂

  62. you should check out full sail university in orlando florida. They have a degree specific for web design and development at a very fast pace and alot of advanced topics. OOP PHP and javascript theory, css 3.0 and html 5 are some topics.

    thats where i went to school..http://www.fullsail.com

  63. I agree that there is a tiered disconnect between the industry and academia, but I don’t necessarily believe that:
    1) It is academia’s fault.
    2) It is necessarily a problem.

    First off, you can go to a trade school and be taught web design (Flash, Photoshop, HTML, AJAX, etc.). The expectation at these institutions is that you will be given an immediate skill set and that you will be able to execute within that skill set at a high level. Part of the advertising message for these schools is that you will be taught by professionals in the fields, and for the most part a terminal degree is not required.

    Secondly, you can also attend universities of note and also obtain an education which allows you to work in the interactive field- the topics of study will simply be a little more upstream than those taught at trade schools.

    Georgia Tech, CMU, NYU, Indian, USC, U Washingston, Stanford, etc, etc, etc, all offer phenomenal programs in either HCI, Digital Media, or something equivalent. True in most cases you will not encounter classes that are implicitly about web design or one of its subordinate disciplines, but that is because students in these programs are simply expected to acquire that skillset along the way.

    You may have an interaction design class where the default programing language is PHP and most likely PHP isn’t taught in the class per se, but the students are expected to either know it or learn it fast. So in this respect, a striking percentage of ‘academic programmers’ are self-taught.

    I think something that is often forgotten, or not taught at all, is that what the industry knows as web design to has deep roots in academia- within the works Nelson, Licklider, Sutherland, Buxton, etc… The interaction models that these individuals were prototyping in the 1960’s are still being realized today.

    Things like the toolbox I mentioned above (Flash, Photoshop, etc…) may or may not be of passing permanence. For fields like HCI, CS, and Digital Media to stop and become entrenched in these very tactic things would be almost certainly hamper the research that will ultimately determine what this field looks like in 50 years.

  64. I do like the idea of web design professionals getting more involved in education, but I feel that parts of the article are confusing the business model of web design with the academic model of universities.

    Companies are for-profit entities that ultimately need to make money. Universities are non-profit organizations that ultimately strive to advance knowledge. Their drivers are completely different and require different credentials to advance their needs. Business needs skill. Academia needs knowledge and degrees.

    It’s not so simple to simply ask universities to give up the need to hire people with graduate degrees. Universities are more established than web design, so why is it that universities are broken? Why not ask businesses to hire people who are “unqualified”?, and then spend time training them to be productive in the context of their business? Why isn’t it that web design businesses should change, or at least change their expectations on who they hire?

  65. Like many readers to this great article, I’m a student, and very unsatisfied with my current curriculum. I would love to transfer out, but I’m not really sure what are my options out there!

    What school would you recommend?

  66. Wow, this article really struck me. I go to an online university, and I am dying for a better education. I though that getting my BA in web development would prepare me for this line of work. instead I feel that I am advanced for my classes and have wasted my time.
    Now I will owe a ton of money and not feel ready to work for a company.

    I should have continued the path that i started. I originally did all of my studying on my own. I read articles and studied websites online. I bought the latest books and magazines on website coding and trends. I could be spending my times studying on my own and learning more.

    Everyday I wish that I could meet real life web designers that could tutor me on the web development standards of today. I feel that as soon as I finally get down one thing, I have a hundred more things to learn. It can get very overwhelming at times.

    My point is that this article is 100% true, and I wish I knew this before I started my online schooling venture. The web design teaching at universities needs some serious help!
    Thanks for this article!
    This article made me realize that I’m not the only one with the same thought on Universities and web design.

  67. I think that employers should also be more assisting. I went out to get my degree because I am serious. So please work with me. Don’t expect me to come out of college knowing PHP, ASP, XHTML, CSS, Illustrator, Photoshop, Flash, etc. proficiently. I love to learn and enhance my skills, but many employers won’t even give me a chance.

  68. I don’t think that many of the people interviewed in the article have a clue about the educational environment in the US. One of the overriding issues is accreditation. It is the accreditation groups that require the advanced degrees not the institution. There are valid reasons for this requirement in most cases.

    One thing I didn’t mention was Community Colleges. I teach in a community college and I full control (well almost) of the course work. We get to challenge our students with real, hands-on development from web design to graphics to databases to active web page development. From what I have heard the 4-year schools, due to their view of developing the whole person, cannot off this level of pure education in the tools of the trade.

    The issue of education cuts both ways. How many of the business types in this article were looking at a skill set that simply isn’t available in a 4-year degree setting but is at a 2-yr school. Yet they put a BSCS in their requirements for the position. Wake up people!

  69. This article gives a commendable comprehensive description of the issue of education and technology. Very thorough, very beautifully guides the reader through the fuzzy and intricate world of academia and web design.

    As a graduate of a master’s program in Digital Media Art & Technology at Michigan State University, I have seen a lot of really great things happening in the industry as well as many cultural challenges that will only take time to break down and move through.

    The “DMAT master’s program”:http://dmat.msu.edu/ at MSU does a lot of things right, and there are some very intelligent (and young!) professors leading the program as well as very intelligent students that come out of the program. I’m happy to discuss these in more detail, but what I really want to touch on in this post is the cultural tension and the growth that I’ve observed happening in the higher education system.

    There is a lingering lack of understanding and respect for the creative and hands-on industry in the higher education institution. This is because the higher education institution was built on the strengths of research and academia from its roots hundreds of years ago. There is a cultural paradigm shift that is happening and needs to continue to gain momentum to really attack this problem. And the cultural problems are the longest and hardest to change.

    Evangelizing the education system is just as complex as evangelizing any other industry that our industry is doing now. For example, integrating social media into the journalism/current events industry is a slow but steady process that is mobilizing; same for government. The fact that the recent http://www.recovery.gov was built on the Drupal CMS is a huge step that cannot be under-stated.

    We need to do for education what Obama is supporting for government. We need to *show* the education system what it means to make a useable and effective website. Look at the university websites out there, as compared to the industry websites like Apple, HP, Media Temple, etc. If our industry can *show* the education industry, a little bit at a time, what it means to make a good website, educators will see it, and they will want it for themselves. When they want it for themselves, they will begin to get exposed to what it takes to create and maintain a dynamic and cutting edge website.

    We need universities to be our clients. And we need to make visible what it means to have and build a quality website. This will fold over one staff member, one professor, one committee, one department, one college and one university at a time – motivating them to create better web professionals themselves, and teaching them what the best web professionals actually do.

    We need to hold their hands, teach the professors by fostering their involvement, and make it important to them.

    We’re the kids and they’re the parents. Kids need to teach their parents how to do things different until the kids get the opportunity to do it their way and become parents. 🙂

  70. Great article Leslie! Very relevant to the current state of the education system. I’ve been similarly frustrated as I search for a graduate degrees pertaining to the web development.

  71. I was in an MLIS program with a focus on web design, but I left halfway through because I felt like I wasn’t really gaining practical knowledge. Since then, I’ve learned a whole lot more from taking courses on CS3 and interning. The program was a huge waste of time and money. I think programs need to look at web design from a practical and academic perspective. Ultimately, a course should enable you to actually be a web designer, and I don’t feel like my program allowed me to do that at all.

  72. Although you hit several absolutely true notes about what Universities don’t have available to them, one thing they often do have is the sabbatical.

    Beginning with the premise that “to teach, you must first do”, and in any constantly churning and expanding area of knowledge you must _keep on doing_, then an internship for professors seems a logical solution.

    If that’s too hard on the ego for a professor, then call it “research”. On the other hand, the ego delating “internship” _may_ be just what’s required.

  73. As a new faculty member in the IT department of a comprehensive state university, I was hired to teach the intro to web development for our undergraduates. While I do have a Masters degree as required by the accrediting agency, I am a self-taught web developer who started back in the 90’s with HTML 3.2. There simply were no IT programs with a web emphasis to be found back then, and there are no Master’s programs that I know of that focus on the web, so I have tried to keep myself current over the years while working full time as an IT Manager and earning the Masters. Now I finally have a chance to make a difference — but it’s easier said or dreamed than done.

    Keep in mind that I work at a state institution and with repeated state budget cuts, funding for the IT program is non-existent (a total of 10K annually for the entire department excluding salaries). We are hard pressed to bring in professional web developers or hold conferences, although we are sponsoring GeekEnd in Savannah this year with the support of the university. http://geekend2010.com/schedule

    Our IT program is only 8 years old and we’ve done a lot right, but there are also many challenges. Internships are required of all IT majors in order to graduate, and we see excellent placement rates for our graduates, with an average starting salary of 58K this past year. We have only 7 faculty members for the entire IT program, with 3 of us in the web & multimedia specialization. With all the funding cuts, we are now expected to bring in funds, grants, and donations when we can barely cover the teaching load. If any of you pros out there care to volunteer as a visiting lecturer, please let me know!

    Another issue”¦

    I’m now teaching XHTML 1.0 strict, CSS, and JavaScript in the intro web development course, having inherited the curriculum from the previous instructor. It is all well and good for students to learn good coding practices, but three quarters of my students are Communication Arts majors. Most of these students have no technical ability to speak of, but they are required to take the course. Some can’t even unzip or attach files let alone grasp XHTML syntax or JavaScript (me – pulling hair out in wads). I can’t help but feel we are going about this in the wrong way; and that the intro course should cover the big picture rather than jump head first into strict code.

    Assuming that I can revamp the curriculum to some extent, I’m hoping someone here can provide advice. I want to prepare my students for the future; and I must keep the code in the course, including JavaScript (lite) as it is written into the course objectives. With HTML5 upon us I’d like to make the switch for next semester. The biggest problem aside from HTML5 browser support is finding a text book or other course content that covers introductory HTML5, CSS and JavaScript, but delivers the material in a readable, visual, and interesting way in order to accommodate the needs of non-IT majors. Of course the material needs to challenge the IT majors in the class as well. Educational publishers are just beginning to incorporate HTML5. Can anyone recommend a text book currently in publication or perhaps open courseware that I can design my intro course around?

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