Perspectives on web education: What to teach the next generation of web professionals.
Let’s face it. Technology moves fast; academia doesn’t. So how do we teach web design and development—a subject that is constantly changing? How do we prepare our students for the real-world and for real-world expectations? And how do we, as educators, stay up-to-date about the information we are teaching?
The best way to approach this topic is to seek the expertise of leaders in the web design and development fields. As the people who will hire our students, they should have input about what type of students we are producing. With that in mind, I interviewed thirty-two leaders in the fields of web design and development, each of them is acutely aware of the importance of formally educating the next generation of web designers and developers.
The following are the experts that were interviewed:
- James Archer, Chief Executive Officer, Forty Agency
- Andy Budd, User Experience Designer and Developer, Clearleft
- Joe Clark, Accessibility Researcher
- Andy Clarke, Web Designer, Stuff and Nonsense
- Jeff Croft, Web Designer and Developer, Blue Flavor
- Mike Davidson, Chief Executive Officer, Newsvine
- Rob Goodlatte, Product Designer, Facebook
- John Gruber, Web Author, Daring Fireball
- Aaron Gustafson, Principal, Easy! Designs
- Jon Hicks, Designer, Hicksdesign
- Molly E. Holzschlag, Web Standards Advocate
- Shaun Inman, Web Designer and Developer, Mint
- Jeremy Keith, Web Developer, Clearleft
- Geert Leyseele and Veerle Pieters, Chief Executive Officers, Duoh
- Cindy Li, Graphic/Web Designer
- Dan Mall, Interactive Designer, Happy Cog
- Eric A. Meyer, Web Writer and Speaker
- Chris Mills, Developer Relationship Manager, Opera
- Cameron Moll, Interaction Design Manager, LDS Church
- Keith Robinson, Principal, Creative Director, Blue Flavor
- Josiah Roe, President, Creative Director, Coptix
- Dan Rubin, Graphic Design and Web Developer, Superfluousbanter
- Gareth Rushgrove, Web Designer and Developer
- Richard Rutter, Information Architect, Clearleft
- Daniel Ryan, Web Production Manager and Web Developer, Coptix
- Jason Santa Maria, Graphic Designer, Creative Director, Happy Cog
- Christopher Schmitt, Web Designer, Developer, and Author, Heatvision
- Glenda Sims, Senior Systems Analyst, University of Texas at Austin
- Greg Storey, Principal, Airbag Industries
- Khoi Vinh, Design Director, NYtimes.com
- Aarron Walter, Interactive Designer, MailChimp
- Rob Weychert, Graphic Designer
In order to get a pulse on what web professionals are thinking, I asked each interviewee the following questions:
- What skills and technologies should colleges and universities teach students who want to be web designers and/or developers? Why?
- Should students be educated in both web design and development or just one? Why?
- If you could create your dream curriculum for web design and development, what courses and information would you include? Why? What courses and information now in such programs would you eliminate? Why?
- What type of projects do you want to see in a recent graduate’s web design and/or development portfolio?
- How can colleges and universities keep web design and/or development curriculum current and relevant?
The thirty-two people I interviewed had varying ages, job titles, and responsibilities, and were spread out over the United States, the United Kingdom, and Belgium. Everyone I interviewed expressed genuine interest and concern about the direction higher education is going, especially since the education of the next generation of web designers and developers is important to the future of many of the interviewees’ companies. Everyone was passionate about the Web and wished that higher education played a more prominent role in producing graduates with strong skills that would make them valuable employees. Most emphasized challenges common to higher education: technology moves too fast for curriculum to keep up with it. As James Archer, chief executive officer of Forty Agency, a high-end strategy, marketing, and branding agency based in Phoenix, Arizona, stated,
“The culture of large educational institutions has, in my experience, consistently proven itself unable to cope with the demands of such a varied and fast-moving industry. I know many good people are trying, but I’ve yet to see anyone come out of a university program knowing what they’d need to know in order for us to hire them.”
As web educators, we need to work together to set standards that include room for expansion and modularity to the curricula. The suggested curricula must be relatively easy for various types of educational institutions around the world to adopt. By setting standards and working towards getting these standards accredited by the proper educational accrediting bodies, we can provide students with the skills needed for meaningful and productive careers.
We need to connect educators and practicing professionals through web and educational conferences and encourage conversations between local web professionals and higher educational institutions. Through these communications, online outlets will be created that will enable web educators and web professionals to remain linked in meaningful dialogue. Aarron Walter, an Interactive designer and web professor at The Art Institute of Atlanta, advised that
“Departments need to create a culture of learning that requires faculty to stay abreast of new topics. Schools should make it a priority to send faculty to conferences and training programs to ensure they’re not falling behind.”
For a comprehensive list of conferences relating to web design, development, and education, visit Teach The Web.
Having open dialogue between web professionals and web educators is particularly important because trends and technologies are constantly evolving. This connection between educators and practicing professionals will create a curriculum that is consistently relevant to the professional world of web design and development. This is how we prepare our students for real-world expectations, and how we stay aware of these expectations. As educators, we need to ask: are we doing everything possible to properly prepare students for fulfilling careers? Are we doing everything possible to be part of the web design and development communities? If the answer to either of these is “no,” we must determine how to improve our teaching, and improve ourselves. If the answer to both is “yes,” we need to share our experiences with other educators.
It is necessary to break down archaic ideas of how academia works. Open source teaching, also known as open education, is the transparent sharing of information between educators. This concept is imperative to maintain relevancy and prod the industry forward. Educators should unite and share ideas. This can be done in-person and on the Web using online collaboration tools. Web professionals and web educators interested in seeing meaningful change in web curricula must come forth as leaders to implement continuing discussion. The Web Standards Project Education Task Force—(WaSP EduTF) has created—an online space for resources on topics related to proper standards-based web education. WaSP EduTF has also created a survey to gather input concerning the appropriate web design and development skills that should be taught in the classroom. The participants of this survey that was conducted in the second quarter of 2006 were current educators of web design and development. The results of the survey show that these educators believe that the following concepts should be included within a proper web media curriculum:
- Addressing (URL, URI, IRI)
- Documents (Markup Languages)
- Protocols (HTTP, SOAP, Web services)
- Information Architecture
- Device Independence
- Semantic markup
- Evaluating/Validating (testing a website)
- Deploying a website (e.g. using FTP, WebDAV)
- Procuring a standards-conforming product
- Web application development/programming
- Requirements gathering
- Project planning and management
The WaSP EduTF survey also showed that the following technologies should be included in the curriculum:
- Web-related computing essentials (e.g. browsers, user-agents, protocols, clients/servers, publishing software)
- Computing platform and operating system basics (Windows, OS X, Unix)
- Internet Hypertext markup history
- Server-side programming languages (PHP, Perl, Python, Ruby,Java)
- HTML, XHTML
Additionally, input from practicing professionals should be sought, encouraged, and used to modify curricula. The full interviews with practicing web professionals that I conducted are online at Teach The Web these provide additional insights about what web professionals need students to know by the time they graduate. Below is a breakdown of the skills the interviewees deemed most important to teach students, followed by percentage that these skills were cited by the interviewees.
- 84% CSS
- 72% HTML
- 60% Layout
- 56% Typography
- 48% Flash
- 48% Color
- 40% XHTML
- 40% Accessibility
- 40% Writing for the web
- 36% Usability
- 32% Design theory
- 32% UI
- 28% Information Architecture
- 24% PHP
- 24% Rails
- 24% Project Management
- 24% Grids
- 20% Standards
- 20% Web history
- 20% Wireframe
- 20% Site maps
- 20% Communication
- 16% XML
- 16% AJAX
- 16% Branding
- 16% Validation
- 12% ASP
- 12% Business
- 12% DOM scripting
- 12% Adobe Photoshop
- 12% Python
- 12% HCI
- 8% Contrast
- 8% Marketing
- 8% Multimedia
- 8% Databases
- 8% Video
- 8% FTP
- 8% MySQL
- 8% Django
- 8% Proposal
- 4% Design psychology
- 4% Ethnographic research
- 4% Presentation skills
- 4% Mobile web
- 4% Film
- 4% Photography
- 4% Computer networking
- 4% Media studies
- 4% Social networking
- 4% HTTP
- 4% URLs
- 4% Copyright
- 4% Podcast
- 4% DW
- 4% Quality insurance testing
- 4% Perl
- 4% Launch Maintenance
- 4% Findability
- 4% Adobe Illustrator
- 4% Media law
This list illustrates the vast number of skills that graduates need to be considered valuable employees. They must be proficient in a variety of technologies, theories, and business skills. Web writer and speaker, Eric Meyer, suggests this approach,
“I’d start everyone with basic markup, CSS, and scripting; basic design tools and design principles; intro to information architecture; intro to usability and accessibility (I see them as being two sides of a coin); and a few “art”classes.
For developers, there would be two basic ways to go: front-end and back-end. For front-end, the courses would get more in-depth on scripting, markup, CSS, Flash, IA, accessibility/usability, user testing, AJAX, and so on. Back-end would bring in classes on PHP, Ruby/Ruby on Rails, Django, server administration and configuration.
For designers, there would be more design, usability, color theory, grid theory, web typography, and so on. Much more like a traditional graphic design course, really, but grounded in a thorough understanding of the medium.”
Web designer Andy Clarke offered another approach:
“An ideal curriculum for web design would include classical design theory, typography, and other core design areas, plus best practice for markup and CSS, sprinkled with emerging technologies/ideas such as Microformats. In my ideal curriculum, the focus would almost definitely focus on visual design for the Web as a means of creative expression and use supporting technologies in their place, rather than as the main focus;”
Interactive designer Daniel Mall conveyed his thoughts on what needs to be taught,
“A well developed web curriculum would include instruction of every discipline in the life-cycle of a project. Obviously, that would include extensive training in design and development. In terms of design, there should be fundamental graphic design training as well as digital design classes. Development training should include fundamental programming skills, ignorant of language, as well as specific language-based classes.
However, it would also include knowledge of ancillary skills, such as project management, information architecture, and explanatory writing.”
Some of the people that I interviewed said they deliberately do not hire students who study web design or development at higher education institutions. As Archer stated:
“The industry moves fast enough that the curriculum is obsolete by the time they get around to committee approval. That’s why Forty won’t hire anyone who comes out of a university web design/development program… I hate to be cynical – I genuinely do want this to work, since we need more talent to hire – but that’s the current consensus...”
Many of the interviewees are disappointed by the quality of the students who graduate. They would rather hire someone with no formal education in these fields, but who spent the last few years teaching themselves web design and development. Many interviewed said that self-educated people make better employees. Often, anyone passionate enough about a topic to teach it to themselves possesses the initiative and entrepreneurial spirit that employers desire. Many experts I interviewed said that self-taught people were more willing to learn new technologies and to adapt to current trends. Interactive design manager Cameron Moll stated,
“We recognize that students rarely have an extensive portfolio upon graduation. However, it’s difficult to hire a recent graduate for anything other than an internship if he/she hasn’t had thorough experience creating the very things he’s been learning about in school.”
Moll suggests that students need to be able to problem solve and to understand users of websites. For Moll, it is also important for students to be able to “…build relationships with clients and internal customers.”
Educators should be able to provide the foundation in skills, concepts, and technologies that students need for successful careers. With that in mind, many experts advised educators to stop teaching outdated techniques and technologies. Shaun Inman, designer and developer of Mint and Fever, provided some examples of what no longer should be taught:
“tables for layout, purely presentational class names (like “green” instead of “accent”), inappropriate markup (
<h1>Heading</h1>), modifying the browser window (resizing, disabling features like status, and address bar) unless requested by the user, popping up new windows automatically, flash introductions, and targeting proprietary features or favoring a single browser rather than standards (targeting Firefox for learning is acceptable since it offers excellent support for standards).”
But how do we know if what we are teaching is out-of-date? This gets back to communication. Books cannot stay as current as the Web. We should use them to teach the fundamentals of web design and development while acknowledging that, by the time a book is printed, most likely some of its information will be out-of-date. Educators can stay current not only by reading books but also by being active members in the web design and development communities. This means subscribing to relevant RSS feeds, and requiring students to do the same. Using a feed reader to subscribe to RSS feeds of interest lets everyone easily keep up with frequently updated content on blogs and websites. This promotes discussion on the latest news and information. As Inman notes:
“Professors, as well as, students need to engage the web design/development community and figure out where the action is happening relative to their area of interest. Professors can reach out to committed peers in the field for starting points (which feeds to subscribe to, etc). Maintaining (and I mean really maintaining, not just setting up and then forgetting about) a shared OPML (a list of feeds, most feed readers can export them) or even a static HTML/Wordpress page of links to relevant online magazines and personal sites is really important. Encouraging discussion both in and outside the classroom.”
We can participate in the web design and development communities by leaving comments on web professionals’ websites and blogs. Inman also believes that,
“They (students) should leave college knowing where to find the latest in web development, whether it be subscribing to the feeds of personal blogs, frequenting online industry magazines or subscribing to the standard bodies’ mailing lists.” Visit Teach The Web for list of websites and blogs with meaningful discussions about the current and future state of the Web.”
Students are accustomed to participating in online social networks, such as Myspace and Facebook. Yet many students have never joined online discussions about web design and development. This needs to change. Students should be encouraged to have a voice in these discussions and to share their opinions about the growth of the Web. By blogging about the serious issues of web design and development, students cultivate their professional communication skills. Greg Storey, Principal of Airbag Industries, a corporation based in Aliso Viejo, California which helps businesses and organizations with their Internet-related concerns, said,
“I want all students, and I mean all, to come out of school with good fundamentals in communicating with others through written and oral means. Without these skills, they’re none too useful to themselves, to the company they work for, or to the client. I find that the students who don’t communicate will drag down the team and require the most babysitting…
Blog experience is welcome. I think it’s important for everyone on the Web to blog in one fashion or another. I find that those who blog and read blogs are more in touch with what’s going on within our industry. Those who blog show more initiative and creativity. Most web shops that I have come across use a blog in one way or another as a basic marketing tool. Any student who comes to the job knowing about this world definitely adds value to the employer.”
Blogging can be intimidating for students and educators: Who knows what students will post on their blogs? This is where our guidance about appropriate online behavior and creating and maintaining an online presence is vital. It is necessary to show students examples of what is appropriate and what is not. Examples should be pulled from actual blogs. Below are two real-life examples of appropriate comments. Such comments help authors develop a positive online presence while keeping them engaged in professional discussions about web design and development.
From: jasonsantamaria.com. Comment by: Nick Whitmoyer.
“Nice work Stan! The previews look great. The admin for Wordpress has always been a bit of a mess. For the past year or so, I’ve been using admin UI that Steve Smith put together. It’s nice to see that a plug-in to replace the admin won’t be necessary anymore. Can’t wait to try it.”
Whitmoyer keeps a positive tone. He acknowledges Santa Maria’s efforts and why they are meaningful. By providing a link to an additional resource, he helps forward the conversation.
From: robgoodlatte.com. Comment by: Jessica C.
“I’m glad that you didn’t bother designing for IE6, but not IE7? Even though we don’t like it, the simple fact of life is that a ton of people still use IE. I was sad when I switched browsers to check out your site and saw some alignment issues with the main content area. Without even a mention of ‘this site best viewed in Firefox,’ users may not realize it’s their browser, but rather a fault of the developers for the display issues.”
Even though Jessica C’s comment was not as positive as other comments left for Goodlatte on his blog, she remains respectful while making her points.
An appropriate, respectful tone allows the best opportunity to have meaningful discussions in an online space, often with people who have never met in a real space. An online presence is slightly different than a real-world presence because words on the Web are there forever. Students must understand that it is best to remain positive and respectful even when they disagree with someone.
It is imperative to teach students how to determine if an online resource is accurate and appropriate. We must encourage students to explore the Web and to share their findings with the class. Hopefully, this will demonstrate to students the importance of being life-long learners. Sharing students’ discoveries also offers an opportunity for educators to stay in touch with websites that students think are important, enabling educators to determine trends among their students, as well as guiding students towards additional resources that expand upon their interests.
Technorati is now tracking 185.62 million blogs. According to Technorati, over 175,000 blogs are created every day and 1.6 million new blog entries are posted daily. There are also 162,662,052 websites according to Netcraft. With this vast number of people posting information, how do we know what is credible, reliable, and current?
As web developer Jeremy Keith stated,
“Using the tools of the Web could help a lot. Rather than relying on books and other written material (which get out of date quickly), blogs, wikis and mailing lists are more suitable for staying up-to-date with the latest in web design and development. This means that colleges and universities need to be willing to be less insular and have a more direct connection to the world outside their campus. There also needs to be an understanding that knowledge flowing in from the outside needs to be evaluated, rather than accepted at face value. In the age of Wikipedia, that is true of all disciplines.”
One of the first steps to evaluating information on the Internet is to make sure that the author is credible. Many personal websites will include information about their author, often in an “about” section. This is a great way to learn about the author of the site and to determine if the person has enough credibility to be considered trustworthy. As with most things on the Web, it is best not to take things at face value. Additional research is required to fact-check the information that is provided on an author’s “about” page. A search engine, such as Google, is essential to further investigate the author and/or a company’s background. Look for newspaper articles and online articles from credible sources like those from major news outlets. These should help determine if companies or individuals are representing themselves honestly and accurately.
Another important criterion when evaluating the usefulness of an online resource is its currency. Is the website dated? If there are posts, do they contain a date stamp? Are they recent? Are the links on the site also up-to-date? If students are doing research on current topics in web design and development, they need to gravitate towards websites and blogs that are up-to-date.
To determine an online resource’s accuracy, students should check for spelling, grammar, and other obvious errors. But this is only the first level of determining accuracy. It is more challenging to determine if the content of an online resource is accurate. Students need to cross-check their findings with a specific site with reliable resources. This becomes more important with the ever-increasing number of blogs that let anyone express their opinions and share information, however bogus, inaccurate, or outdated. With the increase of blogs comes an increase of opinions. This is good and bad. While it is wonderful to see so many people expressing their views and sharing information, it is increasingly more challenging to find the information that you need and to know that it is reliable and unimpeachable. Students must be taught about objectivity. It is important to understand why an author chooses to publish, and essential to know that it is human nature to mix opinions with facts. Students must compare different sites by different authors who have different opinions on the same subject. This will illustrate how the authors’ views alter the way information is disseminated and possibly distorted or even fabricated. Visit http://www.teachtheweb.com/resources for a list of web-based resources that have a proven record of publishing relevant and accurate information about web design and development.
We have tapped into the web design and development communities, and we are keeping up with our RSS feeds and participating online. We are also going to conferences, and workshops, and meeting people face-to-face. How do we translate the trends and technologies that we are learning about into classroom experiences? What do we teach and how do we create courses that are up-to-date? How do we avoid rewriting curricula whenever a new trend in technology emerges? Frequently, the rapid advancement of digital tools and media demands reevaluating the skills taught in the classroom, while also creating a curriculum built around core foundation topics. Many people I interviewed agreed that core foundations should be the focus of the curriculum. For example, Andy Budd, a user experience designer and developer at Clearleft, a team of accessibility and usability consultants for website design based in Brighton, England, said,
“Colleges and universities should be teaching core design skills like colour theory, typography, branding and design psychology. They should also focus on user-centered design skills such as ethnographic research, usability testing and information architecture. And they need to develop softer business skills like presentation training, marketing and running your own business.”
Jason Santa Maria, creative director at Happy Cog, a web design and user experience consultancy specializing in targeted, effective content and standards based design, believes,
“Technologies come and go and advance all the time, but good design problem solving skills not only stay fresh for a very long time, but are integral to establish a base for personal learning after school…
As far as actual skills and technologies, designers should be schooled in past and current design history, and foundation art courses: drawing, 2D and 3D design, color theory, multiple courses in typography, layout, writing, visual thinking, etc. I feel that designers, web or otherwise, need a foundation in design practices, rather than just an understanding of how to make a website.
I’ve always been of the opinion that technologies can be learned easier than a basic design foundation on your own.”
Aaron Gustafson, Principal of Easy! Designs, a team of well-known designers, developers, and architects from across the world based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, explained,
“I would not teach specifically to any tools. In a design context, it’s a little more difficult. But I would encourage students to try a few different applications and see which is most comfortable to them.”
Integrating theory, practice, and production is vital for a well-rounded program. Special topics courses should regularly be offered. These courses should focus on the latest trends and technologies. Aarron Walter, an Interactive designer and web professor at The Art Institute of Atlanta, advised that,
“… curriculum should have special topics courses where contemporary topics can be explored in detail. Having these sorts of expansion joint courses can let a curriculum adapt as the industry and technologies change.”
The concept of expansion joint courses stems from the knowledge that a rigid surface, such as a sidewalk, needs a separation between two sections of the same material used to create the sidewalk to minimize cracking and fracturing. This is why you often see seams between two hard surfaces. Expansion joint courses act in a similar manner. They allow curriculum to expand and change while minimizing the damage to the core curriculum.
Another way to maintain relevancy in a program is to hire practicing web professionals as adjuncts and lecturers. This opportunity for students and full-time faculty to interact with local professionals is important for enhanced student and faculty growth and community involvement. This type of connection often allows for internship opportunities and a stronger connection between local businesses and an educational institution. Khoi Vinh, design director for NYTimes.com, said,
“Programs like this need strong integration with the working world. In fact, an ideal program would partner with a small number of studios to tightly integrate an internship with coursework.”
Local web design and development professionals should be asked to speak to classes and offer site visits to their businesses that employ full-time web designers and developers. Real-world experience is essential, and real-world internships must be integrated into the curriculum. Through such experiences, students are given the opportunity to work with real clients who have real expectations, deadlines, and budgets. Greg Storey, Principal of Airbag Industries, stated,
“I find that students are used to having more time to complete projects than is required in business. It would be handy if students were taken through a series of real-world exercises and projects that made them studio-ready as soon as that diploma hits their hand.”
Connections between higher education and local businesses have to be created, nurtured, and sustained. These relationships support the growth of educational institutions and support the community’s desire to retain recent graduates who might otherwise leave the community. Partnering colleges and universities with local companies, that provide career paths in web design and development, allows recent graduates to see the community as a viable place to further their professional interests.
Another area to be addressed is the ever-changing state of technology. That makes it challenging for educators to stay current, although staying up-to-date is essential. As Rob Weychert, a graphic designer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania said,
“Hire faculty that are motivated to maintain their own continuing self-education (just as many of us in the work force do, largely via the blogosphere), and have schools fund it whenever possible (conferences, workshops, seminars, etc.). I hear too many horror stories about schools teaching sorely outdated practices. As much as I’m sure budget constraints are a problem, I can’t get my head around the idea of hiring professors who lack the curiosity to keep up with what’s going on in the web design/development world. It moves too fast. Hire people willing to keep up with it.“
Teaching current technologies is critical. Equally critical is teaching that these technologies will change and that, for students to stay competitive in the real-world, they will have to change with these technologies. To give students a well-rounded education, fundamentals and theory must be taught, as well. Although technology is vital to web design and web development, specific technologies are not as important as teaching “why” something should be done. As Dan Rubin, a graphic designer and web developer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida said,
“…the thought process involved is the most important thing for me. I like to see that each problem is approached in a unique way that’s appropriate to the given problem. I don’t really care how it’s approached, just that a degree of thought has been applied.”
Creative and critical thinking are vital to a proper education. While technology is important, it is always changing. Many tools that we use today did not exist five years ago and they may not be suited for tasks in another five years. Focusing on core concepts, rather than specific tools, allows for greater flexibility and growth within the curriculum. This is important for strong, flexible programs that produce viable candidates for the web design and development fields.
We also need to let go of the idea that professors in these disciplines must hold a master’s degree. The reality is that many web professionals are self-taught. A person with solid experience and a proven track record should be considered an appropriate candidate to teach web design and development in higher education. Jeff Croft, web designer and developer at Blue Flavor, a design agency specializing in standards-based design and development for the web and mobile web in Seattle, Washington, mentioned that he would be interested in teaching at the university level:
“Hire instructors that are relevant. By and large, educational institutions are not doing this… I was contacted by a large university about teaching web design and was quite interested. Then they found out I had no graduate-level degree. So instead, they hired a retired Java programmer to teach, ‘web design.’ Huh?
Most of the relevant folks in the industry today don’t have graduate-level degrees in web design or development. Why? Because web design and development programs didn’t exist when we came through school. Most of us stopped going to school as soon as we realized the schools weren’t teaching us anything relevant.
To be more relevant, colleges and universities are going to have to get over their accreditation standards and hire the people doing great work on the web today to teach. That’s really the only way. They can’t keep giving the same old dude that’s been teaching PASCAL for 25 years a Dreamweaver book and call it ‘web development.’ It doesn’t work. Likewise, they can’t expect the same folks that have been teaching graphic design for 30 years to really be competent web design teachers. They need new blood—people that really understand this stuff and are passionate about it.”
It is essential to teach students how to communicate ideas effectively. They should be given ample opportunities in the classroom to read relevant web articles aloud to sharpen their public speaking abilities and reiterate the need to stay current. Opportunities to make presentations on research they have found about web concepts are another effective method of engaging students in classroom discussion while honing their communication skills. The classroom needs to be a safe environment where educators and classmates give constructive criticism.
Additionally, encouraging students to continue the classroom discussion online is a wonderful way to extend learning and help students develop communication skills they will need in the business world. Many tools can assist with online discussion and collaboration between students. Currently, the tool that I find most useful is Basecamp. Although other tools help facilitate similar tasks, Basecamp has a very clean, minimalist style. Students respond well to it. It is the best tool for collaboration since professionals in the web design and development fields regularly use it as an online project management tool. Being proficient with a widely adopted online collaboration tool helps students prepare for the real-world. When they graduate, knowing Basecamp will ease their transition to the professional world. However, Basecamp is only a tool. The key reason to use it is to allow further development of the core concepts of collaboration, communication, workflow, and project management. It will help students learn how to communicate in an online space, which is imperative in today’s business environment. When asked about using Basecamp in the classroom, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graphic design student, Nicholas Turner, said that Basecamp
“makes you ask, ‘How did they get along before this?’ It was great being able to communicate with classmates and my professor between long stretches with no class. Everyone seemed to take to it.”
Can the same person be a proficient designer and an efficient developer? Yes, but this is rare. It is the widely accepted perception, by people in the web design and development fields, that designers use more of the right side of their brain, which is responsible for non-verbal, spatial, and perceptual information. Developers, on the other hand, use more of the left side of their brain, which is associated with verbal, analytical, and logical thinking. Rarely, do we see a person who can really succeed in both disciplines. As, Glenda Sims, senior systems analyst at the University of Texas at Austin, said,
“I personally think that design and development predominately use different sides of the brain. Most individuals will excel in one or the other. So, it really is up to the student. If they are strong in both left and right brain processes, then sure, educate them in both. But if an individual is primarily right brained, let them flourish on the design side (and vice versa). Concentrate on the student’s strengths. I do think it is important for everyone to understand the big picture and how their work contributes the big picture. But we don’t all have to learn the nitty gritty details (of, let’s say, Photoshop or Java programming).”
Joe Clark, an accessibility researcher, expressed it this way,
“Developers will tend to have different brain structures and won’t be very good designers most of the time. They’re two separate disciplines.”
Daniel Ryan, web production manager and web developer at Coptix, an integrated team of innovative design talent and expert programmers, shares this belief:
“While some people are able to juggle both development and design, it is my experience that these two activities stem from different sides of the brain and, therefore, a person tends to have a noticeable inclination towards one or the other. Whichever path a student chooses, however, they should have some rudimentary understanding of the other side of the field as well.”
For this reason, it is best to encourage students to focus on either design or development, not both. However, it is extremely important that designers and developers effectively communicate with each other. John Gruber of Daring Fireball, a website where Gruber shares his views in the form of a blog, states,
“The most effective web developers can do both coding and visual design. But that’s sort of like being talented in two different sports. If you’re a strong visual designer with no programming aptitude or vice versa, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
This means that designers need to know the basics of development and developers need to know the basics of design. Without being taught the fundamentals of each field, designers and developers are being set up for failure. Designers need to know how to design websites that can be developed; developers need to understand why designers make specific design choices. Mike Davidson, chief executive officer of Newsvine, an open source, community news service, put it well:
“…certainly every designer should know enough about code to a) help him/her do their own work better, and b) help them respect the people on the other side of the aisle they’ll be working with after college. The same goes for developers. Developers hate when designers produce uncodeable designs, and designers hate when developers impose undesignable components. When each side knows and respects what goes into the other side of the equation, everybody will do a better job to produce a solid end product.”
We need to think beyond the design/development divide; both design and development communities must understand that each is important and both are needed to create compelling web media. Although these groups do not work against each other, they also usually do not make a concerted effort to work with each other. It is time they come together to discuss the future of web media in education. If the divide between designers and developers is not bridged, it will be even more challenging for web media to continue to meaningfully develop. If designers and developers discuss what needs to be taught, setting standards for web education becomes a more attainable goal.
Professional organizations in these fields afford the most efficient opportunity to set a framework for the collaborative process. Several organizations such as The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), The Web Standards Project (WaSP), and the World Organization of Webmasters (WOW) are pioneers in this effort. The mission of AIGA’s Design Education steering committee is
“to enhance the abilities of design educators and educational institutions to prepare future designers for excellence in design practice, design theory and design writing at the undergraduate and graduate levels while supporting the fundamental mission of the AIGA”
which is to advance design as a professional craft. WaSP—
“a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all”
has an Education Taskforce (WaSP EduTF) which works
“with institutions of higher education to promote instruction of Web standards and standards-compliant public sites.”
Another organization that is working with educators is WOW, which provides educational resources and certification to web professionals during any phase of their career. Over the past 12 years, WOW provided training and resources first to educators in K-12, then to educators in community colleges. It has now progressed to educators in four-year institutions of higher learning. If these groups combined their efforts, we would truly be on the path to creating curricula that supports the educational needs of our students. That would give students greater opportunities to be considered valuable members of the web design and development communities.
Understanding that not every educational institution will be able to revise current curricula to accommodate multiple courses in web design and development, I have developed a single web media course that introduces the broad strokes of proper web design and development. This versatile course addresses many core concepts that are needed in order to succeed in these fields. The supporting materials for this course can be reviewed and downloaded at Teach The Web and may be used or altered as per Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. The materials include-sample syllabus, Keynote slide presentations with lecture notes, lesson plans, exercises, assignments, resources, and an exam question bank. The lessons are modular and the suggested amount of classroom time for each topic is provided. This allows the course to be used in a variety of classroom schedule scenarios, say a 15-week long semester course versus a 5-week summer semester course. The modular lessons also allow educators the flexibility to muve at the best pace for different groups with varying needs.
Although, at this time, colleges and universities are not producing the type of web professionals needed by the web design and development fields, thoughtful effort from passionate people can change this. We have the opportunity to combine our resources and professional networks to champion the ideals of web standards based curricula that will prepare our students for meaningful careers in web design and development.