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knew basic and essential design skills, I couldn’t help but think about how much of what was being taught would be well outdated by the time we all graduated.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.
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It’s admittedly easy to lay blame solely on teachers, who often feed students outdated information; it’s understandably difficult to teach courses on a constantly evolving subject.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.
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.