University Web Developers

University Web Developers

This week A List Apart published a thought-provoking article called "Elevate Web Design at the University Level". The following quote hit the nail on the head for me: "I've yet to see anyone come out of a university program knowing what they need to know in order for us to hire them".

I've been thinking about this issue for over a decade. I've hired numerous people over the years and not one gained the skills they need from formal education. I've watched members of my staff get graduate degrees and listened to them express their complete frustration over how inadequate and inappropriate the curriculum was. I've taught graduate level classes and as an instructor, found the experience to be very frustrating.

As higher education web professionals, we are in a position to understand the issue and work with our institutions to improve it. So how do we move forward?

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LOL. Me too! I double majored in German and History. I taught myself everything I know with training classes on specific topics here and there sprinkled in. Conferences have also been great learning experiences.
I think part of the problem is that departmental academic programs only teach a subset of web development to the exclusion of the others. Library sciences teaches IA, Art - design, Engineering - coding, Journalism - web writing. Students only have a fraction of what is necessary to develop and maintain a good web site. They seem to lack the ability to understand how all of these pieces relate holistically for a good, professional, and credible web site. My staff includes music majors, radio tv majors, journalism majors, etc., most are self-taught, but each has to learn how their areas impact scanability, usability, accessibility, strategy and findability. These big factors that influence site experience are critical tools to tie all of the web specialties together.
I've had some discussions with faculty here primarily because their students have traditionally done department websites as their class projects. I asked that at the bare minimum the sites they worked on had to meet basic web and accessibility standards. They argued that that was too much to expect students to learn in one course.

It is.

It seems like very few schools have a web design or web development program. Most programs I've seen have one course or even 1/2 a course on web design that is worked into a graphic design program or a CS program and students walk away thinking they know it all. I know I did.

I know there are actually a few more full programs dedicated to web development or web design at this point but I think most schools just fold it in as a footnote, "something else you might need to know" in a more generalized degree program.
Chas hit the nail on the head with the causes. I'm adjunct faculty for our art department who teaches web design, in addition to being the university's web designer/developer. I'd like to think that since I took over teaching the web classes 2 years ago, the students are slightly better off. I teach web standards and force them to create accessible web sites right from the get-go. I hold them to the same standards I have to meet as the university's designer. I have been contemplating stopping teaching, but I cringe knowing that the person who would take over thinks Flash is web design, should be taught before any web coding classes, and is strictly an academic - no industry experience at all.

It's true that the students don't care either, well most of them. 90% of my students want to be graphic designers and are only taking my course because it is now a requirement. Most think when they are done with my class, they are qualified to design sites, even though they have only done one. The 10% that really care are the ones that ask me what they can do to further themselves in the field. My answer has always been you have to learn on your own.

It's even worse when I get businesses in the area asking for students to design sites because they don't want to pay a professional. They think they will get top-notch results. I don't like telling them I can't recommend any students because I don't feel they are qualified enough.
I have worked as an instructor in a college level web design program and I started two web design and development companies, so I have worked both sides of the coin.

When I had the companies I never expected graduates to be entirely ready for front line work. What I was looking for was someone who saw themselves as a life long learner. These were the people who could learn on-the-fly, and adapt to the rapidly changing environment that we work in. Over time they were the ones who out performed the person who might have some well honed skill but did not see themselves as a learner.

Yes colleges and universities need to create a culture of learning for their faculty to help them keep up to date, but even more important colleges and universities need to graduate learners.
I think Vern is right. Those that will be successful in this business are self starters. No one whether self taught or holding a degree is going to know everything. The difference is knowing how to learn on your own. There are not many problems that can't be solved by using Google and participating in forums once you know the fundamentals.

Web design and development is a multifaceted field like no other. It seems that the curriculum I've seen entails teaching them some xhtml, css, a backend scripting language, maybe a photoshop and/or flash class and calling it good. To often the web programs (and college web departments) are grouped into the Information Systems and Computer Departments. Bad idea, it's a different animal than say a Network Administrator program or position. I feel that students at least need to be exposed to color theory, typography, and a little bit of video editing. They may land on the design or development side of things, but often they will be expected to be versed on both sides.

I was lucky to have grown up with a parent that was a graphic arts instructor, learned how to do some basic programming, and had a background in multimedia - pre-web. I started out with the web in the Mosaic days and have been on a constant learning curve ever since.

In the end the students success will depend on their passion for the craft, and their ability to be self learners.

IMHO Teach them the fundamentals, help them learn how to learn.
I'm also degree is in English.

I'm at a community college, so we do have technical degree and certificate programs for people who don't want to get four-year degrees. However, we still have some of the same challenges I'm reading about in this thread. We recently had industry representatives come to our campus to talk about where we fall short. For example, our graphic/web design faculty were shocked to learn that every company represented used PCs, not Macs. Apparently we teach solely on Macintosh.

An adjunct faculty member I spoke with says that while she teaches fundamentals of design in her class, she spends most of her time teaching students that they will have to be self-taught their whole careers.
Related to this discussion is the credibility of our profession. Although I am seeing some improvements, many colleges don't fully appreciate the importance of the web. I've often wondered if having formal degree programs would make our work more legitimate. If someone can learn our trade by being self-taught, how hard can it be? Does this have an impact on our salaries?
Educause has a very interesting (ECAR) research bulletin today on a new program at Syracuse U to train a new information professional: the cyberinfrastructure facilitator (CI-facilitator).

The paper (free to subscribers) describes the program goals: "The program will focus on using current information infrastructure in innovative ways and teaching cognitive skills needed to master new information infrastructure as it emerges. It will teach students to excel in the "three I's" - information, infrastructure, and improvisation. Such a program must also provide students with the research skills they require to discover the needs of information users and how to adapt available technology to satisfy those needs." (authors: Paul B. Gandel, Megan Oakleaf, Jeffrey M. Stanton, R. David Lankes, Derrick Cogburn, and Elizabeth D. Liddy)

I think this is a fantastic step in higher education responding to the demands of the industry and to professionals who have these combined "Y" skills of business/technology/creativity.
I think, perhaps, that there's a considerable lack of understanding about our profession and what we do. Colleges/universities know they need a web master/designer, but they can't articulate why. They understand why they need a VP of Business Services, because the principles and practices behind the business end of education are familiar and clear. I'm not sure the web is taken as seriously as other areas. Take the webmaster away, and they probably can't describe the key skills that a replacement would need.

I'm not sure a formal education would make a huge difference for web professionals. Yes, we need a good foundation in web design, code, web standards, web accessibility, etc., but as many people have mentioned, the theory behind web design will only take you so far. Web designers need to have real-world experience demonstrated in a portfolio. It's not just being able to create a website, but also how to communicate with people, how to learn when something doesn't work, and how to adapt to new technologies - and know how they will benefit higher education.

Our school has an entrepreneurial business for students to create both graphic design print pieces as well as websites for real world, local clients. They run into situations where clients change their minds...after a project has been completed, and they have to learn to change courses and adapt.
As a student who has been building websites from an early age (and now work at a web development firm as a User Experience Designer), I can definitely testify to the inadequacy of the "Web Development" course I'm taking this semester. My professor teaches the basic HTML stuff fine but the class is also supposed to teach "web design". Aside from the fact that attempting to pack HTML/CSS/Javascript/ServerSide/Web Design into one class implies failure, my professor hasn't worked in the field since the early 2000s (thats millenia in web years). It shows. The "Web Wizard's Guide to Web Design", which is our web design textbook, was written in 2002. The examples of "good web design" he uses do indeed provide a neat look back in time, to where web design stood in the early 2000s. There's just one problem: we've learned a lot since then. Needless to say I usually use that class period to network on Twitter and read the latest Smashing Magazine or A List Apart article.

A successful web development course will should not just teach stuff (wether past or current) because what we learn now will be obsolete in a few years. In addition to teaching the up-to-date knowledge, it should also infuse the students with a passion to immerse themselves in the industry: read the blogs, check out the new technology, get on Twitter and ask questions... but most importantly, build a lot of websites. If you've got an idea for a cool web app, just try building it. Learn as you go along. Unless you have gotten your hands dirty, you won't have the passion to learn more.
I'm late to this discussion but I've thrown my hat into the ring over on ALA. I'm currently recovering from a head cold, so forgive me if I fail to make much sense.

I've been trying to voice a call to action. Attempts to kick higher ed out of it's rut as it applies to our industry are important and appreciated. But I fear that the community of web professionals are ill equipped to affect real change in a timely manner. We have built the tools we can use right now to build a better educational infrastructure for those motivated, self guided learners out there (which, let's be honest, includes everyone who has a chance in this industry, even us degree holders). That's an area we have much more experience and ability in. We probably can't do much about what higher ed offers, and aside from our own companies we can't do much about what HR departments will accept, but I honestly think we can take tools like the creative commons and community/networking sites like Ning and forge them into razor sharp tools for a new kind of digital apprenticeship.

Think about it. Everyone in this community could agree to peer mentor a group of 30 "students". We get them talking to each other and sharing resources. We keep the discussions on track and share any expertise or resources we have (and if you're anything like me, what you lack in expertise you can make up for in resources, right?). We try to get them connected with local non-profits and what not so they can get some real world experience (although the nature of the tools we use mean we wouldn't HAVE to keep such a group geographically condensed). They don't get a degree, but they build a portfolio. They don't pay tuition, but they can attend a conference or two with the money they save.

We need a way to be able to vouch for the people going through such a process. Right now, simply agreeing to be used as a reference on job applications might be all we could do. Ideally, people would be able to say something like "I apprenticed under X for Y years." If X is "Derek Pennycuff", that might not mean much. If X is "Jason Santa Maria" it could mean a hell of a lot (or not, I doubt anyone I've interviewed with post-graduation would recognize that name either).

Anybody got a spare Moodle server up and running somewhere? :)



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