A different approach to web design education

A friend of mine is a mechanic. Recently he took on a new job working with young people who have failed to fit into the normal educational system.

He has little in the way of curriculum. His objective is a simple one. He is to engage with these young people and get them excited about mechanics in whatever way works best.

His solution to this challenge is an elegant one. He makes use of his students natural curiosity, following it wherever it takes them. If they want to learn about bikes, he works on bikes. If they want to understand how an engine works, they take one apart.

He combines this with real world experience. If they repair a car and make some money from it (within the limits of being unqualified), they get to keep the cash.

This struck me as a great strategy for kids that just didn’t respond to our traditional and extremely inflexible education experience.

Learning from medical schools

This combination of curiosity and real world business experience was further reinforced by a book I am reading called Brain Rules. In this book the author John Medina points to Medical Schools as an alternative and potentially better way to learn.

Medical schools combine traditional academic teaching with real world patient care. They often have a strong research wing that allows the curiosity ignited in the learning process to flourish into new areas of research.

The answer to web design education?

It strikes me that maybe this is the answer to the education problems we are seeing in web design. Although there are certainly some good courses out there, many are teaching hopelessly out of date techniques. As web design employers we often claim that new graduates are not equipped with the real world skills we need. Equally many graduates find it hard to get a job because they don’t have the experience many employers demand.

What if we took a page out of the medical school book? What if web design courses were effectively run as web design agencies? They would take on real clients with projects run by seasoned professionals and developed by students.

These professionals would also teach more academic classes based on their real experience of working with clients, unlike many traditional lecturers who have little in the way of current industry experience.

Money earned from working with commercial clients could be used to help reduce course fees, so making the course accessible to more students.

Finally in much the same way Google provide 20% time, these courses could leave room for personal projects and research. This would introduce the much needed innovation that is the lifeblood of our industry.

I am the first to admit I know nothing about web design education. There was no such thing when I attended university. However, it strikes me that a combination of real world experience and giving students time to explore their own curiosity (in terms of personal projects) could produce the next generation of web designers to carry innovation forward.

So would it work or am I being naive? Are you a lecturer, if so what are the problems? Are you an employer, do you think it would help the skill deficit? Are you a student, would you go on a course like this? Are you a client, would you employ a web design school? Let me know in the comments below.

  • Paul; that’s exactly the way that I run Open Door Internet.

    The only difference being that I’ve weighted the commercial work (which I do 3 days a week) in such a way that I can provide the training (which I do 2 days a week) free of charge for the trainees (because they’re exclusively long term unemployed).

    In fact; I’m now evening employing some of the trainees – they work on paid projects most of the time, but still have allocated time (whilst getting paid) to develop their own interests and skill sets.

    It works, and it’s great!

    I often wish I could do more teaching and less client facing work; but the reality is that it’s only by keeping a balance of both that everything stays on the cutting edge.

    • That is great to hear! I am particularly excited to hear you are doing this with the long term unemployed.

  •  Sounds good! Is this like an apprenticeship, then?

    Are there apprenticeships in this area – and if not, should there be?

  • Simon Brookes

    It would and does work Paul. I can’t speak for web design courses but myself, and many colleagues who work in enterprise education and who teach creative industries related subjects, have been using applied leaning techniques for some time now. We also integrate real-world projects, with real clients, wherever we can. This type of learning provides students with much than domain knowledge alone and allows for development of more esoteric skills and competencies that one can normally only develop through work experience. It can be difficult to find real projects though, as I’m sure you can imagine, so it is crucial that academics and businesses develop close connections in order to collaborate on projects. I would like to see more direct industry collaboration with universities at the curriculum level.

    • Great to hear Simon. What happens to the money earned from the projects.

  • Great article… I learned web design while working for an interactive company. I was taught to do things thier way because of the issue of hiring students that just didn’t work out. The students were futher behind and had no real world training. It sounds like a good idea to give them a real world training which workout for other industries.

  • I like the idea it sounds like old school apprenticeships. I think this is a great way to learn the problem is in our culture we have fell into this idea that how ever we learned should be the way everyone else does to and idea like this sounds like a trade school which most people don’t respect. Also to many college internships don’t work because interns are just used as lackeys. The other problem I see with you approach is that medical school is a post graduate program that means 4 years in school not really working on skills you need and then taking another 2 years for this training. I don’t think you can do that. Now if we can do that for the last 2 years of their undergrad you may have something.

  • I really love this idea. I think that hands-on is really useful for web design. One of the reasons I dropped out of a design school and switched to an English degree was because of how outdated the curriculum was, (we were learning Director in ’09). So to me, this is a much more appealing thing to do. Like TyusDurant says, an old school apprenticeship may be a terrific option, since students will  get real-world experience while learning about real problems as they go. 

  • akurtula

    that would be a great approach. last year I graduated from  a web development course and I really felt/knew that everything was out of date from the day be learned it. 
    The main problem is that the courses about web design are treated as the other courses. Similar to history (for example) which does not change. 
    even something as little as asking web professional to come and talk to the students or come and give few lectures, would really spark the interest of the  students. 

  • Sounds like something that would run perfectly in the 4/5 months of the summer break from uni. Gives students a chance to earn a bit of money while putting what they’ve learned into practice.

    I did something similar (worked as a software tester/assistant developer/dogsbody) during summer breaks and learned more about the practical side of things from the people there than I did at uni.

  • I think this is a brilliant idea, and something i think alot of us do a little bit of.
    Last year I took on an intern within the company. To find the right candidate, alot of work was done visiting careers fairs, talking to students etc. The most worrying thing that came from that was just what is being taught in universities, and by whom.

    I blogged about it after another careers fair (http://www.twentysixtwelve.co.uk/2012/03/14/students-they-dont-know-what-they-dont-know/).

    One of the things i think gets in the way of quality candidates is they don’t know what they want to do yet beacause they havent experienced teh different aspects of “web design”.

    Our intern has fantastic front end skills, but has now had experience of UX, backend dev, test, and real deadlines on real clients. He is instantly more employable with just 9 months experience under his belt.

    So, yes, I think this is fantastic, and would really, really like to be involved in any way i can helping shape this out. :)

    Cheers Paul!


  • I know there’s plenty of positives to this and there does seem to be something lacking in the current level of education at university level. My biggest issue here would be clashing with and undermining local firms.
    I believe there’s a similar thing at Lancaster Uni – though it may not be within the course structure, it is possibly more a post course business  incubation type thing. Anyway it has led to some local business being priced out by these not for profit type businesses and causing friction with local business. I think there would certainly need to be a degree of working WITH the local business community.
    It’s not something that would effect big established businesses but working at a not for profit level would cause problems for freelancers and local start ups who would be around the same price points.  

  • Amit Kumar

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  • I’ve actually got an AA in Web Design from a local community college and a BS in Web Development from a university (class of 2009). The professors, at both schools, on multiple occasions, posed as factious clients, and had us meet with them as if they were clients and then design a website for their fictitious bike shop or antique shop. My senior year, we did internships and projects for people in the community (making games for a non-profit, making an e-commerce site for someone who had a local cottage business). On top of that, most students at the university level were working on side projects; games, blogs, start-up ideas, etc. Even so, I had trouble finding a job right out of school because everyone wanted experience in the real world in terms of a number of years. More hands on projects for real clients would have been wonderful, I’d be all for that… but at the same time, it doesn’t give one the ability to say “I have five years experience with x-company” which even the entry level positions were asking for.

  • As a student on the FdA Web Design course at University Centre Wakefield, I am happy to report that this is how part of our course is run and is one of the major factors as to why I decided on this course. In fact it has been a core part of the course for several years already.

    The current 2nd years are just coming to the end of their time accepting and completing commercial work, and us 1st years are currently at the stage of deciding how to structure our team, define job roles and establish day to day working practices and standards.

    Not only does it allow us to experience all of aspects of the design process in a commercial setting but it also gets us networking with the local web industry to find out and explore working practices and organisational structures while also allowing us to build links with experienced professionals.

  • I am a returning student. I finished my bachelor’s degree over 15 yrs ago. Now I am back in school to learn graphic/web design. I hate to say that I have learned more relevant material from online courses and tutorials than in class in terms of web development. The principles of design are what they are, and the main reason I went back to school was to learn these. 

    I think students need to recognize that traditional school is just a primer. Seek out your own information in your spare time. The younger students I know, I have encouraged them to try and learn a web language (PHP, ASP, whatever), Javascript, and become rock solid with the basics like HTML and CSS. 

    I like the idea of apprenticeships or mentor programs too. I have been doing architectural and engineering drafting for the past 12 yrs. My first job, I knew extremely little. My boss took a chance, and paired me with a very patient and understanding mentor. I owe most of my fundamental knowledge of drafting to her. 

    The unfortunate part is that typically bosses won’t take that kind of risk. I was lucky that my first boss was someone I had known for many years. Most people don’t have those kinds of experiences. 

  • Abby Foster

    Where do I sign up? 

    I majored in fine art in college, and have become a self-taught graphic and website designer. While I often think about returning to school to refine my skills, I find that the best experience so far has been through real-world work projects. Why spend the time and money going back to school if I can gain the same, if not better, experience finding free-lance work? Your hypothetical scenario would provide the best of both worlds.

  • I feel like I got a great education from the school I went to but I would agree that an initial environment with that level of immersion would go a long way. I also think would be a great approach for budding developers – it’s a difficult environment to ‘break into’. Employers are generally looking for senior developers and there are mentorship opportunities out there, but you predominantly have to develop your skills on your own (which you should be doing anyways).

  • Djava tech

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  • Matthew Setter

    Very well said. It’s one thing to see an example, see someone else doing something, hearing stories and so on. But to really ingest knowledge and to be able to process and ultimately improve it, we must all, not just students, both apply and experiment if we really are to grow as people in our education.

  • Djava tech

    Thank you,

    The given information is very effective.

    I’ll keep update with the same.