On teaching web design and development

As a company, we are interested in how students are taught web design and development. As you might imagine, the quality of students coming from post-secondary courses profoundly impacts our business from the quality of our work to our profitability.

After reading an article by Jen Kramer over at Smashing Magazine about some of the issues and solutions on the teaching side, I thought I’d chime in from the industry side.

The structure and content of web design and development courses needs work. In addition to the teaching side issues Jen Kramer mentions, I see broader issues that I’ve described here.

The Problems with Programs

Programs conflate design and development.
Anyone who works in the industry recognizes the significant differences between the design and development ends of the business. Programs teach the two as if they were one subject, ignoring the complexities and nuances of both and producing a student who understands neither.

Programs teach outdated material.
The curriculum in these programs is  often out of date before a student enrols. When the student graduates, they will not be prepared for the work environment and will require significant training and retraining to erase bad habits they picked up in school.

Programs don’t teach students the importance of lifelong learning.
Important in any field, but especially important in the exceptionally fast-paced environment of the web, students need to be immersed in educating and re-educating themselves on a daily basis. This is the way they and whomever employs them will stay ahead of the curve.

Programs don’t teach students requirements gathering and scope estimation.
In any workplace students will be expected to ask the right questions and provide accurate (or at least not widely inaccurate) estimations of scope.

Programs teach bad or questionable habits.
Designing for a single web browser. Use of Flash for non-trivial user interface elements. Reliance on grids. Reliance on complicated JavaScript or 3rd party modules, and bandwagon jumping (insisting on using the next “big thing”) are all bad habits that students gain during their course work.

Stop conflating design and development

What to do?

Obviously, the teaching of website design and development needs to change. For starters, these programs need to stop conflating design and development, it’s an over simplification. Provide an introductory course that provides general knowledge in both spheres, but have students choose the track that interests them. Once they’ve chosen that track, require courses in the opposite track to round out their skill-set.

Next, please involve industry in curriculum development. Have industry representatives (freelance and agency) sit in on some meetings and provide insight into what is important in a productive hire from their perspective.  Have development experts provide direction on best practices and the current state of the web.

Teach lifelong learning by getting students started with resources they can use to expand their knowledge on a daily basis. Involve them in community groups on platforms like Google Plus and LinkedIn. Teach them how to root out the solutions to complex design and coding challenges. Encourage them to build personal portfolios and code open source projects as a way to not only expand their knowledge, but be a resource to the larger design and development community.

Give students “real world” assignments. Have them estimate the scope of a project to redesign and develop their company’s website. Get them to sit down with a “client” to gather requirements and put together a creative brief. Have them take apart the code of another developer or the use another designers work to put together something important.

Stop teaching bad habits. Again, involve designers and developers who work in the industry.  They will tell you what works, what doesn’t, the factors to account for when making technology decisions, and the harm bad habits cause in the real world.

So, where to?

For the most part, programs exist and make money training students to be hired by an industry that thrives on the availability of highly skilled labour. The two work together in a kind of symbiotic relationship. With web design and development that relationship is out of parity. Only by working together, educators and industry, can we bring the relationship back into harmony.

Sagetree is a digital marketing agency that offers years of experience in web design and development. Contact us if you have a project you’d like to discuss.