Web Design Education Sucks

Lucian Tucker shares his thoughts on how web design is currently taught.

I learned a lot more about web design outside of a classroom than I did inside one. And the more I learned, the bigger a difference I noticed in knowledge between my teachers and other design students, and myself. While my teachers and fellow students knew basic and essential design skills, I couldn’t help but think about how much of what was being taught would be well outdated by the time we all graduated. It’s a serious issue that effects many design students without them knowing.

One Approach

Blame it on the teachers

It’s admittedly easy to lay blame solely on teachers, who often feed students outdated information; it’s understandably difficult to teach courses on a constantly evolving subject. Nevertheless, teachers are part of the problem.

A recent article by teacher and designer Leslie Jenson-Inman on A List Apart entitled “Elevate Web Design at the University Level” dives into this matter. In the article, Jenson-Inman quotes James Archer of Forty, saying,

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.

Fix the teachers

But what’s the solution? Jenson-Inman suggests a focus on teachers and connecting them to local web professionals in their area. To support this, she references designer and speaker Aaron Walter who believes, “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.”

Hire different teachers

Jenson-Inman also suggests hiring a different breed of teachers: “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.”

A Better Approach

Fix the students and teachers

I wholeheartedly agree with both of those ideas, and believe they should be put into practice. However, I’d like to suggest a third approach for consideration—instead of focusing only on teachers, universities should devise approaches that focus on professors and their students simultaneously, inspiring growth in both.

Raise passionate students

Universities need to foster a passion for design in their students. Students should to be encouraged to study current design standards and best practices after class. This way, even if teachers are not up-to-date, the students will be. These savvy students could then pass on there wisdom by bringing up standards and best practices in class when critiquing others designs, thus naturally spreading the knowledge to teachers and students in the class. If we can ignite a passion for design in students—enough to get them actively studying the craft—the fervor will spread up to teachers, giving them a larger incentive to learn more.

But how do you get students to develop a passion for design? A daunting task, but I have three suggestions.

Make them intern

First, encourage students to intern. Personally, I think internships should be mandatory at every university, because learning in a classroom and learning on the job are two completely different things, both of which students need exposure to.

Besides giving them an opportunity to put textbook learning to practice, internships place students in an environment where they are surrounded by professionals passionate about their field. Not only does this position them for a more holistic learning experience, but it may also draw an increased enthusiasm from the students.

Encourage extracurricular learning

Second, universities need to encourage students to study after class. Like most, many design students think of homework as simple task, doing only what is required for an assignment and nothing more.

Teachers need to augment these “simple task” with out-of-class lessons that require students to review design related magazines, web sites, and books to be discussed later in class. The goal here is to condition students to learn outside the classroom and hopefully, if design is something they really want to do, they will continue reading aside from homework.

Bring professionals to universities

Third, universities need to bring professional designers onto campuses to talk with students about their experiences and answer questions.

A designer came to my school once my sophomore year of college, but no one really attended. However, after encouraging my department head to make it mandatory, he created a class for juniors that required them to attend talks every Friday by someone in the industry. Afterwards, students had to ask the speaker questions and write a short paper reflecting on the talk.

As a result, students that were not sure what they wanted to do in design became inspired, and those who knew what they wanted to do were motivated when someone in that particular profession came.

Another thing that made this mandatory class great was the fact it was open to all teachers and students on campus. While its great to have teachers attend conferences like Walter suggests, bringing professionals to universities for both students and teachers to enjoy simultaneously allows for growth in everyone.

Conclusion

These suggestions follow the “teach a man to fish” method. There is an old Chinese proverb that goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” We need to train students to fish for knowledge, not just make sure they are feed the most current information at the moment. Otherwise, we are doomed to remain in the same position we are currently in, since, like we all already know, the web is an ever-changing place.

  • http://www.theodin.co.uk theodin

    Great article. Couldn’t agree more on the mandatory internship. I wish it was something I had been able to do, instead I found my first year in work I was unlearning a lot of bad practices I had picked up from Uni. Thanks for sharing!

  • Tom Kentell

    Excellent article, something I can really relate to as I had an excellent teacher in college at one point and then someone who knew very little to none about the subject the following year.

    It really interests me as well as I’ve thought quite a lot about going in to teaching web design (however bad the money might be… up to a certain point) however it may be difficult as I have no teacher training, Degrees and I’m only 23 – However I am also self taught and extremely well experienced now in multiple aspects of web design and believe I could definitely do the job!

  • http://inclusivenewmedia.org Helen Kennedy

    Are all web designers the same? Are you all good, all bad, or all different? The answer is clearly the latter. Likewise, web design teachers are not all the same, and how we do our teaching differs too. Whilst there must be some bad web design teaching out there – otherwise, why would web designers and developers be so angry about it? – there is some good stuff too. I am proud of how we introduce our students to web design in the first year of their new media degrees at the University of Leeds. We teach them how to be good web design professionals, how to learn and how to keep up. We don’t teach them software applications – they can use what they like. We teach them a mindset. We teach them to handcraft HTML & CSS, to adhere to web standards, to build accessible sites, to think about users, to follow industry leaders’ blogs and tweets. We encourage them to move away from spending days designing in Photoshop, to prototype in code, to experiment with Andy Clarke’s content-out approach. We go beyond standard accessibility to consider the needs of web users with cognitive or learning disabilities, based on research some of us have carried out. So their sites end up being more accessible than many professionally-built sites which ignore the accessibility needs of this marginal and misunderstood community. We do that today, anyway – we’ll do something different tomorrow when it all changes. Everywhere I’ve taught we’ve always worked closely with new media industry practitioners, bringing them in to give talks, run workshops, provide feedback to students on their work, as well as getting them to take on students for work experience. Many of our students are brilliant when they come to us anyway, but we like to think that we are getting things just a little bit right, and providing a framework in which they can become even more brilliant.

  • http://www.nished.com Jason

    Having recently graduated from University I agree with the above post. Encouraging students to explore topics outside those discussed in class will widen their knowledge, combining this with internships will provide hands-on experience. However the biggest draw back I found from each module at University was that you are performing to a criteria. You can spent time learning the latest techniques but if the mark scheme is looking for archaic answers. Your extra knowledge could end up penalising you! As a student you want the highest mark possible even if this means using ‘old’ code. I believe this is holding people back when they graduate and are looking for employment.

  • http://matthaltom.com Matt Haltom

    Interesting article Lucian. I am a student graduating in July with my Bachelors in Web Design. I have to agree with you on the fact that learning web design is the responsibility of the teacher and the student. I have seen the same scenario play out in my school.

    My first teacher there was great and knew quite a bit about web usability and all that comes with that bowl of tricks. Our last teacher though for the past 2 terms has no clue about anything. For heavens sake he didn’t even know what a CMS was until we showed him. Now of course he is teaching the database class, good thing I can read on my own.

    I agree with that problem of requiring a Masters Degree to teach. You also run into the problem that many talented web professionals make a hell of a lot more money working then teaching, but there are plenty of people who look past that and teach anyways.

    Students need to step up but I think course material has to be flexible enough to allow them to do this. I took the road of not doing internships but just jumping into freelance work full time once I got a small contract with a local design company. Now its nearly been a year I’ve been freelancing full-time and I have definitely learned more then I did in school.

    Overall I think professionals from maybe W3C or some kind of web industry organization needs to bridge the gap with these schools to help write and update the curriculum and perhaps even evaluate teacher applications.

    The company joinwow.org is one such company that is trying to make steps to improve web education.

    • http://frieze.dk Bjørn Friese

      I totally agree that students should go searching for the latest and greatest information themselves. I would say that the majority of the responsibility involved with learning new things lies with he student – not with the teacher.

      However, after seeing the presentation Mike Kus gave @ FOWD, I don’t really believe that the most important thing is to use the lastest and greatest tricks. Instead, I rather think the most important thing is good design. Most design principles can also be applied to web design, and will never be outdated.

  • http://www.spear-bournemouth.co.uk Garry Sibbald

    There is a lot of validity to the article and whilst there is no denying that following the educational curriculum won’t keep you at the cutting edge of our industry, the article could lead to some deciding to opt out of gaining an academic qualification.

    I am not so sure that opting out of education will do you any favours for the following reasons.

    Most designers/developers do not start their career as freelancers but through full time employment and I believe that most employers still favour employing a candidate that has been through the educational system over and above one who hasn’t.

    One thing is absolutely certain though, if you only have course work to show for your time in further education, you are unlikely to get the job. Unlike other careers (engineering springs to mind), there are no barriers to stop you from practising and perfecting your talents in your spare time. If you aren’t interested in doing so, then frankly you are in the wrong industry.

    Personally, I will not consider a candidate unless they have been actively involved in producing work of their own accord and I believe that most employers would also say the same. In other words, you should have the qualification but don’t expect the coursework you did for it to count towards the jobs you apply for.

    In simplistic terms, the criteria I believe most employers follow goes something like this;

    1. does the individual have an educational background.
    2. If so, has the individual produced their own portfolio or are they relying solely on coursework.
    3. What is the quality and level of their work and how enthusiastic do they appear to be for working in this industry.

    If you can tick all 3 boxes, you are far more likely to get the job. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be considered for the job if you can only match number 3, but if you are up against someone who matches numbers 1, 2 and 3 you probably wont get a chance to argue your corner.

  • http://www.kingjason.co.uk Jason King

    A couple of years ago I taught evening classes in web design. Students tended to want to learn so they could build their own small business sites, they weren’t intending to become web professionals. The curriculum included how to use frames for layout, font tags etc. We were expected to use Dreamweaver 4.

    I tried to stick to the curriculum while working round it, so I taught students why NOT to use frames, showed them basic CSS layout instead, and they got the hang of it ok, but one week when I was off sick the replacement teacher taught the students all the outdated stuff I was trying to avoid filling their heads with.

    It’s difficult to keep a curriculum up-to-date. And for teachers to keep their knowledge up-to-date, especially when they’re expected to teach web design one week, flower arranging the next. In many fields teachers have been using the same lesson plans for year after year, but that’s not good enough in web design education.

    I agree with Bjorn, to a great extent students need to learn themselves and the teacher should point them towards the best, simplest books and resources for learning web standards.

  • Gemma

    Hyperisland [http://www.hyperisland.se/] in Sweden does an excellent job of teaching evolving design disciplines. The whole uni is devoted to teaching through practice and everyone I’ve met from there has been exceptionally keen to explore their subject beyond the boundaries.

    I didn’t go there myself, I went to a UK Uni (where I felt really behind the times when I graduated and went on to reteach myself) and I wish I’d known about Hyperisland at the time – I would have liked to have gone there instead!

  • http://sweetpaperdoll.wordpress.com SaraKate

    I recently decided to forgo forking over the cash to go back to school for graphic and web design in favor of teaching myself (for the most part, anyway – might take a class or two). I have found so many great resources online that teach me all the same things most people pay a lot of money for… between new design friends on twitter, reading blogs, finding YouTube tutorials, and spending time playing with the applications and tools on my computer, I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of months. All without spending a time.

    Of course, it took time to find these resources and and I have set aside chunks of time to read, educate myself, and put my education into practice. But, I think that seeking out the information myself actually makes me an even better web developer in the end because it gives me more hands-on experience.

  • http://frieze.dk Bjørn Friese

    @Gemma:
    Yeah, I’ve heard/read about Hyperisland. I’m 18 years old and is just starting out as a freelance web/print designer/developer, and would definitely like to study there if i get the chance.

  • http://www.iamfrankstallone.com Frank Stallone

    Great article. I had a class at a local community college where the teacher was teaching about iframes and table based layout. He was a great teacher but he was just not up on the major changes that had happened in the industry.

    I love this industry and I like that it can change quickly, it keeps me on my toes and I agree that we need to have teachers that stay on top of the constant changes and students who participate more.

    I ended up doing a few lessons in that class with the teachers permission explaining my final which (instead of being done with iFrames or tabels) was done with CSS and although it was not perfect it was very enjoyable and the teacher still has my site up on the colleges servers.

  • http://www.webcoursesbangkok.com Carl – Web Courses Bangkok

    Great article and I whole heartedly agree. This is why I founded Web Courses Bangkok.

    I am confident in our courses and they are based on my self-taught experience. We teach only what is happening now and what the web standards community would approve of.

    It is great to see beginners moving up to advanced course and being on par with the pro’s in such a short time.

    Thank you for this article.

  • http://twitter.com/alphastory Matthew Wagner

    I’m a junior with The Art Institute’s Web Design and Interactive Media program. The Art Institutes (of Indianapolis at least) actually do a fairly nice job of selecting professionals to instruct at their institution. There are many instructors who are only slightly behind the times, but for the most part when I spend time learning on my own, I could go into class the next week and ask my instructors about it and they would be able to answer that question or help me find the answer.

    I believe the problem lies in students. So many students at my college don’t make the extra effort to teach themselves something. I feel that maybe they expect to learn everything they need to know from the instructors. This mindset is terrible and within the next 5 years, these students will likely struggle in the field. It is imperative as students that we spend our free time improving ourselves; however, most students spend their free time on video games or partying. Perhaps it is that I’m slightly older than most of the students (easy now, I’m only in my mid-20s). My free time is spent on one of my constantly evolving side-projects implementing the things that I have been taught and expanding upon them to gain a further understanding beyond what was taught in the classroom.

    The problem for my school lies mostly in the students and I wish that I could do something to motivate my classmates to strive for something beyond perfection. Something to help them gain the initiative that they will need in their careers.

    Good read.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ajbouman Adriaan Bouman

    Yes, good point! My study had the opportunity to extend the internship into a full on graduation. So I studied for two years and did another two years internship. One day a week I went to class and met people who did the same, very motivating to meet people in the same situation!

    One other thing I would recommend for both students and teachers. Learn to think about opportunities in a more commercial way. I think this isn’t really covered a lot, and is a seperate skill.

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