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Playing to the Strengths of the Academy

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.

Moving Mountains

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those as volatile as ours, can move incredibly quickly, with newly-proclaimed best practices being completely out-of-date within months.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.

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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

Entry posted from Viget Labs

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  1. One might say some of this even a bit more brazenly: the things that are really important about web design are not the particular practices of web development. The web part of web design is a host of quickly changing conventions and practices, a large toolbox that sees old tools go and new tools arrive with startling speed. Learning about the tools is well and good, but they're not really the point of the whole affair.

    You're right to point toward the idea that this is mismatched with the idea of an undergraduate degree, which, ideally, should give one a broad base of knowledge and ideas that can be turned to any number of the opportunities and challenges a person might face in life.

    I studied philosophy in college. Sometimes I'm jealous of coworkers who studied fine arts, a similarly broad and noble course of study, but I'm never jealous of people who had courses about CSS and Javascript and things like that. I will pick up and discard tools all my life, but the philosophy I studied will inform absolutely anything I do, as does your music and education.

    Over-specialization is a growing problem in American higher education, one that attempts to cater to a world which frequently thinks it wants people with nothing but specific, immediately applicable job skills. I'm grateful that the world of the web seems to be a place where many people instinctively see the flaws in that way of thinking.

  2. Solid post mate. I appreciate how you took the time to explain how the strengths of academia do not make it best suited for a web design major.

    Since I started teaching part time at a community college I have gained a lot of faith in how these institutions can help web professionals. They tend to be a little more open to change, attract part-time teachers who are professionals in their fields, and are more affordable to students wanting to develop just web design skills without the rest of the liberal arts classes.

    That being said, while a university might not cater best to a web design major. It is still a little sad that the university I went do doesn't have a single class that teaches any core web technologies, besides Flash. It would he nice to see that change.

    I don't think this goes against your central point, though.

    I also like that you encourage internahips as part of the education path. Getting kids real world experience is one of primary goals in my high school class room.

    Even when/if a web design major comes along, I will still encourage many of it eager web design students to study other things as well. I would never trade in my degrees in history and education for a major in web design.

  3. This reminds me of an interview I once heard with J.J. Abrams.

    Before going to college his father gave him the advise to get a broad education in things like history, literature, philosophy etc. instead of studying film production. The reasons being, he could pick up the techniques of film making easily later on in life, but studying those other disciplines would give him the ability to write a more intriguing story.

  4. @Nate: Well-said. I'm a huge fan of a broad-based education, and in less polite conversation, I may in fact say it far more brazenly ;)

    @Zac: I don't know if I could even trust individual courses at a university that deal with the specifics of the web. In truth, I'd rather see classes on things like Flash and Dreamweaver disappear at the university level entirely, replaced by broad-based courses. I think the best-case scenario for that kind of thing would be to have the web staff at the university teach non-credit classes on those subjects.

    @Brad: That's a great attribution. Should have just posted that ;)

  5. I see higher-education “trade” schools as another option, similar to that of “Post-Graduate Certificate Programs”. Schools exist such as Full Sail that may (or may not) possess intership-like qualities in educating its students through full-time coursework.

    I also feel, as you described, that certain tracks exist within formal academia that lead, along with internships, to careers in web design/development. However, none are required, or should be. One example would be: not having a CS degree should not prevent anyone from being a web developer. Perhaps it helps, perhaps it speeds along the process but, it is obviously not required.

  6. I have a degree in computers. When I was in college they taught us things they were teaching for many, many years and were obsolete for a long time but they don't care and they don't want to change this very soon. After spending 5 years in college and getting my degree I came to the conclusion that what you learn for yourself is what really helps you in real world. I know that new thing rise every day and a learning institution can't really keep the pace with all that, but they might try at least…To be more precise, nothing that I learned in college really helped me. The only thing that really mattered was the degree, but the knowledge I gained in college was not helpful at all.

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