If WaSP has anything to say about it, the next few years will be marked by a major shift in web education.
Most of us probably agree that there is a lot of work still to be done when it comes to quality of work industry-wide. For every nice site we come across, we probably trip over five done poorly. Clearly, this is an issue that deserves attention and resources; an issue worthy of our efforts.
Unfortunately, in my view, the current efforts seem to be centered on higher education. The assertion made by proponents of this view is that, like psychology, history, biology, and graphic design, students at universities should have the opportunity to pursue a course of study in web design or development.
I consider this unfortunate because it fails to recognize that fields like web design and development are those which are most likely to fail at places like colleges and universities in the long run. Instead, our attention should be focused on ways academia can contribute to a strong web industry based on its strengths, not based on overcoming its weaknesses.
That academia moves slowly is one of its core strengths. Its glacier-like pace serves as a vetting process for ideas, ensuring that those ideas taught as fact have stood the test of years (if not decades) of testing before making their way into the classroom. Once the glacier passes, mountains have been formed, and ideas that have withstood the onslaught are taught as fact to thousands of thirsty students.
The academy doesn’t cater to industry particularly well. Industry, especially those as volatile as ours, can move incredibly quickly, with newly-proclaimed best practices being completely out-of-date within months. The storms and squalls of industry, as strong as they may be, impact these mountains very slowly, affecting only the surface layers over time.
After all, full-time faculty don’t actively work in the industry, at best observing from the outside. Their time is spent teaching, which is more than a full-time job in and of itself — the expectation that a full-time teaching faculty member would stay as up-to-date on the current best practices as a full-time practitioner is highly unrealistic.
Most of us accept the truth of this notion, which is why we — students, parents, employers — place so much value on internships. It’s through programs like co-ops and internships that students have the opportunity to begin learning the application of those fundamentals taught by universities. A good internship program seeks students with potential, not students with job-ready skills, and helps teach them those skills, enabling them to get closer to reaching that potential.
Being a Web-Design Major
Based on this, we should expect any existing web design programs at universities to be sorely lacking. We should expect them to be out of date and oblivious to the changing world around them.
So why be surprised when we find exactly that at the vast majority of universities? Students majoring in web programs are learning things like table-based layout, timeline-centric flash, fixed-height layouts, and other anti-practices that have long been frowned-upon in the industry.
These students are victims not of poorly-run programs, but instead of the misplaced expectation that they can be taught to be great web designers or developers as an undergraduate.
People will be quick to point out the exceptions to this: programs that have progressive curricula, passionate teachers who are doing great work on the side, and students who are coming away ready for the industry. Those examples probably share one of these traits:
- Teachers and professors who are relatively new to their role in academia. Teachers who have recently been in the industry are obviously more likely to be up-to-date with best practices and industry standards. Over time, the gap will widen, as the instructor gets further from her experience in the industry and has a tougher time keeping up.
- Instructors who are part-time. This is common with trade schools or certificate programs, like the program where I teach web design classes, but less common with universities. Universities are judged by the percent of faculty who have terminal degrees (Ph.D. or equivalent) and by the percent of faculty who are full-time. Having a swath of part-time faculty, working in the industry the rest of the time, is detrimental to a university’s rankings.
- Instructors doing a substantial amount of work on the side. This can be a solid way of keeping up, but it’s generally not sustainable in the long run. Burnout will always win when you’re working two full-time jobs.
- No tenure. Tenure in universities is the great anti-motivator, but you can’t attract the best faculty without offering tenure-track positions.
I have great respect for some of the professors and instructors who are doing some great work teaching at the undergraduate level. Leslie Jensen-Inman is a superb example of such a person, teaching undergraduate design students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with boundless energy and enthusiasm. I hope that the fire to stay up to date lasts as long as possible as her tenure in academia continues. For less-passionate instructors, I have relatively little confidence.
Providing a Path
Of course, I’m not claiming that there isn’t a place for aspiring future web designers and developers at a university — far from it. Instead, I’m claiming that the path to future web success may have relatively little to do with the web, at least directly.
I think there are three key paths involved:
- Internships: I’ve already mentioned the value of internships, but it’s worth repeating. Working in the industry is the single best way to gain experience and practical knowledge, and internships serve exactly this purpose. Whether it’s a full-time internship during the summer, or part-time during the semester, these can be invaluable. By the way, we’re looking for interns at Viget.
- Post-Graduate Certificate Programs: Truly-effective certificate programs are beginning to crop up, including Boston University’s CDIA programs, at which I teach. These programs leverage the skills of instructors who are currently working in the industry, teaching part-time or on a short-term basis full-time. That these programs embrace the part-time faculty allows them to be more nimble in their curricula and keeps new ideas coming into the program.
- Studying Related Fields: Majoring in design will teach many of the foundational elements that are crucial to success as a web designer, and computer science majors aren’t wasting their time learning Java and low-level concepts. Psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other social science majors can directly apply their studies as a user experience practitioner or designer; economics majors can be great strategists, business analysts, and project managers; and math, physics, and chemistry majors have a lot to bring to the table as developers with their systems-thinking backgrounds.
My path was even more abstract, but I swear I use my studies in music, philosophy, and education all the time in my work on the web. Anyone who works on the web would be well-served by a basic understanding and appreciation of design, the ability to think about and understand complex systems, and knowledge about how people interact with interfaces as well as with other people.
And should the web blow up again, a broad-based education provides options, and the confidence to make a change if needed.
Society should have learned from experience that trying to make academia do what industry wants it to do seldom works in the long-term. By concentrating our resources on providing and embracing a career path that doesn’t require moving mountains, we create a stronger work force and a stronger, more multi-talented industry.