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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More on the topic from the Chronicle:

Colleges Get Poor Grades on Teaching Web Fundamentals
Wow. Thanks Mark.

Some of the general trends from the discussions on other forums show up at the Chronicle. I see other people talking about the catch 22 of "you must have a Masters to teach, but how do you get a Masters when there aren't even that many decent Bachelors programs in the field?". And I see some people bringing in the accreditation requirement angle that's been missing from discussions at places like ALA. But given that their target audience is academic first and foremost and likely not at all web savvy, I'm saddened but not surprised to see stuff like "This article is very stupid." (and we're supposed to take anything else you have to say seriously after an opening like that?) and "You don’t even need to know how to code anymore to create decent web pages because of good programs such as MS Publisher or Dreamweaver."

Argh! Publisher isn't even a web authoring tool!

The uphill battle continues.
Yeah I read that comment too and all credibility that comment had went out the window when I read the bit about Publisher and Dreamweaver. OTOH, it really made it glaringly obvious how out of touch academia is with the field.
Sadly, the bit about the need for critical thinking and what not I would be inclined to agree with, had the first paragraph not made such a terrible first impression with me. :(
This is a lot like the model I experienced at Tennessee Technological University. The "lab" you speak of was unofficially affiliated. It was the Technology Institute. We handled faculty training and support; special projects related to grants; and even occasionally took on contract work from outside the campus like a real design firm. Most of the people who worked there were web design students. This was made easier because the director of the Institute was also the guy who taught all the WEBD courses.

The program was "multi-disciplinary". So we took a mix of mass communication, business, and computer science courses. The curriculum was set up so that most semesters you also had a WEBD course that helped tie all the concepts from these classes more directly to the web. I think that approach was both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. It helped us produce very well rounded graduates who understood how to grow their skill set with just enough real world experience to have a leg up in the market vs. recent graduates with no work experience or portfolio to speak of.

But I think it also ended up being our downfall. As a multi-disciplinary program, we technically had no faculty. Bob was an English professor who just happened to teach all the WEBD courses (and no English courses). Technically, the faculty of the entire College of Arts and Sciences were available to assist us. But when Bob left, that didn't open up a spot for a web design instructor. That opened up a spot for a new English instructor. For the program to continue to work the way it did while I was there, they can't rely on any single instructor to fill that role. I'd love to see the WEBD courses be taught by a multi-disciplinary team or maybe have a moderator who facilitates discussion based on lectures given by a rotating roster of academics and working professionals. As it stands, I think they've become by-the-book courses taught by comp sci graduate students. The worst part is the books on the syllabi were never used in class. Those were resources we were expected to make use of outside of class. What's the value added to the student if the course is just a guided path through the exercises in a text they could buy and work through on their own?
Yes, this model is pretty close to what we have at Las Positas College. It's called the Design Shop, and it's a functioning business out of the Visual Communications program. It's mostly graphic and web design, and would benefit from some cross-discipline coursework in Computer Science.
There's an elephant lurking behind all this: You can't be a great web designer/developer/architect/reporter until and unless you understand how and why people live online.

It helps enormously to be one of those people who are online far too much. I suppose you could succeed also if you happen to be an incredible anthropologist of the online world, but I personally can't imagine why someone would know so much about a world and not be of it.

Which is a nice way of saying you can't teach it if you don't understand it.

In the previous segment of my career, running a major-metro online news operation as part of a newspaper company, I was amazed at how J-school grads were coming out indoctrinated in a print-only mentality as recently as just a few years ago. Their professors weren't evil monsters intentionally teaching them faulty information for kicks. They simply taught what they knew, and what they knew was newspapers.

Likewise, if you don't spend 3-4 hours a day steeping in the world of social media, shared video, mobile devices and database-driven, user-customizable experiences, you're going to be a professor that teaches the static web, circa 2004.

Solutions? How about an open-sourced curriculum, built by web professionals, that lays out a credible course of study? What about teaching media-literacy to kids in middle and high school? Hard to accomplish - of course - but would they be worth the effort?
I totally agree with the vast majority of what's being said here- I would love to see more interdisciplinary programs that combine writing, design, and computer science into a web developer curriculum.

Just a philosophical aside:
Believe it or not, I'm not sure that it's solely higher ed's responsibility to churn out designers who are "ready to go to work." That's called vocational training. I don't think it's a good idea for higher ed's to spoon feed students a specific vocation.

I feel that higher ed's job is to teach people how to think- to give them the mental tools to continue learning in their field. I was in class with many who expressed a similar frustration that "They're not teaching us what we need to know to work!"; yet I knew what I needed to know because I was working while I was in college.

I didn't wait for a faculty member (who were all really great teachers) to show me how to create a mask in Photoshop or write a div tag. I went out and just did it, using my design education to inform me on what communicated the idea most effectively.

It's called "initiative."
This is off topic, sort of. Has anyone noticed a trend where colleges are outsourcing their websites and dismissing their web staff?

Back on topic.
To be successful, know css, know photoshop, know a couple server side languages, have a handle on javascript, have a grip on a cms or two, Have the ability to Google out anything you don't know, have a good work ethic and you should be fine...until you get outsourced of course. I have yet to see someone that comes out of a degree program that is ready to hit the ground running. I have however seen web developers and designers that are self taught and have a passion for what they do that are.
What IS working is inviting industry professionals (regardless of their education) to come to teach the latest tools and trends. These are the people who are in touch and on top of what is happening.

Substitute real-world experience for their degree status and allow them to push the students beyond what they're getting currently. We've just unveiled our version of a mixed media major (web/video/audio/mash-up/interactive) and former students are very interested in coming back to teach.
I certainly agree there is a gap when it comes to web _____________ (fill in the blank). I think, without a doubt, web building requires multidisciplinary knowledge and collaborative/team-building skills. I've often referred to it
as the ultimate team sport of knowledge workers.

And the road to better instruction, or better educated professionals, it seems to me, is to ensure that any curriculum/degree/certificate in web _____________ touches on, not only the requisite software and design skills, but also includes IA, IT, writing, editing, and interpersonal/emotional skills, among others; and to echo my own background a bit -- courses in the history of science and technology and technical communication.

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