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Hi. I'm Jake Caputo, Director of Design at
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Higher Education & Web Design

Higher Education & Web Design

A few years ago I was asked to be a guest speaker in a high school web design class in Barrington, IL. At the time I didn’t think anything of it and just looked at it as another day, but I ended up actually enjoying doing it. Since then I’ve had it in the back of my mind that I would like to teach a web design class at the college level. I don’t want to be full time faculty by any means, but I would like to teach one or two classes a week. Hell, maybe even a few seminars.

Now, let me preface the article with this; I am by no means attacking any individual colleges, students, or alumni. And everything in this article is about my industry, the web design industry. I’m also not saying that I am the world’s best designer, but I am cognizant of my own skill set. While I talk about myself in this article, the article is not about me and I am not trying to brag. I’m merely using my experience as an example to point out the problems I see with web design at the college level.

Higher education and web design is a two way street. One of the nice things about our industry is that you don’t need a piece of paper saying you graduated; If you’re good you can make a living doing it. On the other hand, since you don’t need a degree, if you’re bad you can make a living doing it. You can’t say this for many industries. Doctors need a degree, many businesspeople need a degree, grade school teachers need a degree.

Remember when your parents used to tell you “practice makes perfect”? They lied to you. Practice helps but it’ll never make you perfect. I believe design is a skill that you either have or you don’t. Regardless of your level you can get better, but you can’t become Saul Bass by reading books on theory and getting a Masters degree.

But at least if you have a degree in web design you’re one step closer, right? If you’re taught properly, yes, but that’s the problem.

Much of the web work I have seen from fresh graduates is quite lackluster (to put it nicely). Colors clash, the markup is beyond poor, and usability is close to nonexistent. And these people are looking for jobs. Jobs in my field. And they have a degree. Something is wrong here. How is it possible that they can go through four years of college and still be putting out sub-par work? Who is teaching these people?

In the past two months alone I have been flat out offered 6 full time jobs, some at top design firms, and invited to be a founding member of a number of startups. All of which I have turned down (I’m very happy working for myself). Meanwhile, I finally decided to apply for some adjunct teaching positions at several colleges in my area.

I have only heard back from one, whom said I wasn’t qualified to teach. I didn’t even get a phone call, let alone an interview. Just an email stating they’re not interested.

…Why? Is it because I don’t hold a Master’s degree? I have a Bachelor of Arts degree, but I didn’t study design. In fact, I never even took a web design class. Is that why I’m not qualified? How is it that I am able to do so well in web design and be asked out of the blue to design for some of our nations top brands, but I’m not qualified to teach others how to do it? Recently a site I made got national attention from the biggest media outlets in the country and in the world. I’m capable of doing that but not to teach a room of 15 people? Something is broken here.

In all fairness, maybe some of these candidates are better designers than me. Maybe their code is that much cleaner than mine. But what they’re teaching certainly doesn’t show it. The books for these courses are 4 or 5 years old. My sister took a Photoshop class when CS4 was the newest version. They taught her CS1 and the book she had to buy for the class was on CS1. We work in a fast paced industry and in 5 years a shitload of things can change.

The generation that is entering college now is smart. They have grown up on computers. Many of them could probably make much better websites faster than you or I could, but they still need to be molded; And I feel our colleges are failing to do so. Teaching outdated programs and outdated code is doing a disservice to them and to our industry as a whole. There is absolutely no excuse for this. When that student graduates without the proper knowledge and skill set it makes them look bad, it makes the school look bad, and it hurts our industry as a whole.

There are websites out there like tutsplus and treehouse that teach up to date information starting from?$19 a month. A community college costs about $5,000 per semester. So that’s $1,000 per course, divided by 15 classes equals about $66 per class. So if students are paying that much money for web design classes, shouldn’t they at least be getting taught up to date technology?

Something needs to change here. Higher education needs to be more about skills and less about how education looks on paper. And that goes for both the students graduating and the teachers teaching the classes. Students need to have a good work and a strong portfolio to get a job. I don’t care if they have a degree, most employers in our industry won’t care if they have a degree, and their clients certainly won’t care if they have a degree, as long as the work is good; Which it is not. It seems to me the degree mostly matters to the colleges that distribute them. And as long as colleges keep hiring their design teachers based on their on-paper-education rather than their skills, this will remain an infinite loop.

26 Comments on "Higher Education & Web Design"

  • Jami says

    Agreed. Especially teaching outdated systems. Heck, when I took a few web dev classes a few years ago at a college (that will remain nameless), they were still teaching XHTML in all of its table glory when HTML5 was already being used by professionals. The same with old versions of PHP, JS, Adobe CS2, etc. I was, literally, embarrassed for them while sitting through the lectures.

    I suspect the problem isn’t the existing instructors but the ‘administrative machine’. It takes A LOT of resources to update an entire department from, for example, CS1 to CS5. Money, hours, staff education, etc.

    And that’s why online education is increasingly becoming the way to go, for all the reasons you’ve pointed out.

    • Jake says

      I’m sure it does take a lot of resources to upgrade entire departments, but there can be work arounds. I just recently upgraded out of CS3, but that doesn’t mean I was still designing based on 3 year old standards. And as far as books, they’re not needed. By the time a textbook on our industry is written it’s already outdated. Keep it online.

  • Well said Jake! As a .edu marketing practitioner and more recently a post-grad marketing student, I see similar issues in marketing education. One example. The subject I am currently undertaking is Digital Marketing and we are studying out of a textbook from 2009. I suspect a few things have changed in the digital sphere since 2009!

    But old textbooks are always going to be an issue. It takes time to collate information and review, design, publish, etc. How these issues can be assuaged (and where the real value of any course comes from) is by employing teachers who can take those books and apply the theory to today’s working environment. Unfortunately these teachers are not ubiquitous in academia…


  • Very right eye catching website design is important for any type of institution. You have done very good work by tell us it is two way street and we need to be very professional about it. cheers…

  • I think if you were truly able to present yourself as a teaching candidate beyond filling out a questionnaire, you would be seen as competent and qualified. On paper you’re a guy who is saying “I know it looks like I’m not qualified, but I really am!” Well, maybe you could go in and prove it to them and explain the disservice they are doing to their students, because someone has to. For instance, if you had a meeting with the hiring faculty member or even one of the current teachers of web courses, you could explain much of what you expressed here. Or, possibly, you would still be considered unqualified for, I would venture, administrative contentions as Jamie suggested. I think a community college that has a history of hiring faculty members based on a somewhat reliable litmus test of having a master’s degree or something would want to continue that trend. And hell, do you know anyone with a master’s degree in web development? Is that a thing? I say if he/she completed that, let him teach! Hell, he can teach me about where the hell he completed a web development master’s program! My point is, this is how colleges hire. Why would they know any different? I chalk it up to a rapidly changing educational environment and an ignorance to know to adapt.

    It’s superficially comforting, but actually more sad, to know that many areas of study at colleges around the country are producing degrees that are basically worthless. But there are glimpses of hope. Just yesterday I was in the Sun Times that enrollment in for-profit colleges is sinking. Trade schools and apprenticeships are part of the national discussion again with President Obama wanting to grant aid to young people wishing to pursue career advancement opportunities beyond conventional higher learning.

    Degrees, and college as a whole, don’t mean and don’t do what they used to. Without the internet, Treehouse and Tutsplus wouldn’t exist and that standard of education would have to be offered at…a college! College administrations don’t know what to do about this and probably won’t have to even think about it until university enrollment starts dropping as well.

    Web development is an interesting beast as there is definitely a technical side that requires traditional study and memorization, and programming languages can certainly be taught well in a classroom setting. Using the language in an efficient and constructive maner, however, isn’t a set of rules that you can memorize. It’s an evolving concept that writing down in a textbook would be completely useless.

    I’d be interested in hearing the experiences of an engineering graduate or an engineering teacher as web developers face a lot of the same challenges in their work as engineers, yet an engineering degree is still seen as valuable/necessary isn’t it? Or has that changed too…

    • Jake says

      While I understand that “this is how colleges hire” a bigger point of the article is, which maybe I didn’t touch on clearly enough, that needs to change. That’s the whole point. Our industry doesn’t need a degree to do it, so why should we need degrees to teach?

      All of your other points are spot on 😉

      • I was just trying to address your surprise at their response, if there was any.

        • Jake says

          I was kind of expecting it, honestly. Especially after I had filled out the application and had to mark “No” for most of the questions about my formal education in web design.

  • Great read, Jake. I think a vast majority of schools do operate as you describe, and unfortunately the majority of students graduating don’t have that great of work. The biggest challenge for Universities on staying up to date is the fact that everything has to be run by a department head, dean, or board.

    Budgets have to be spelled out in minute detail, which can get frustrating to many professors who would prefer to just “get it done” on their own. That could be a huge reason why schools aren’t up to date on this stuff. I know for sure mine wasn’t, I learned html/css etc outside of class on my own time (nights, weekends, winter break).

    There’s no easy answer to how to fix this, but it’s definitely needed. We need more “web design” programs in schools that are not only current but taught by proficient folks who can sling their fair share of design and code.

    Also, on the teaching thing: Most schools that are accredited are required to hire those with a masters degree. Not sure if that applies to adjunct faculty or not, but definitely for full time. But I think you’d definitely be qualified 🙂

    • Jake says

      Thanks Ben. You have some good points in there. I’m not sure about how the budget stuff works, but there’s not too much that should cost anything. Google is free 😉

      As far as the positions I applied for, they didn’t require a Masters degree, but they preferred it or 2,000 hours of working experience.

  • Scott says

    Good read, and in alignment with some of my thoughts at the moment.

    I’m an old-school developer currently learning design. It’s something with which I’ve always struggled. I know good design when I see it, but I don’t necessarily know what makes it good. I used to work with hundreds of the most talented designers and artists in the world, at Disney, helping them interface with technology. I know all of the ins and outs of Adobe CS-Whatever, but I don’t know the first thing about design itself or why you would want to apply *that* filter at that point, for example.

    As far as what tools are used, CS1 vs CS5 — I think it doesn’t really matter for beginners. What is important is theory first, application second. Further, I think there’s something to be said for learning about early tools and the progression of the tools themselves separately to the skill being learned. It helps things make sense if you know why the tools work the way they do.

    Alas, I think design CAN be learned. At least, the process initially, and then the art later. Like programming, you can learn the process and the art will come if you stick with it (yes, there IS an art to programming). It just takes a willingness to cast off old approaches/perspectives and to adopt new ones.

    As far as needing a degree to teach, well, I wouldn’t imagine you could work at Microsoft without using Windows. Schools are, after all, in the business of selling pieces of paper with specific markings on them. 😉

    Personally, I would love to get a designer’s perspective on things to see how a designer approaches a problem of laying out elements of information, for example. And then dressing them up and applying some style. So, yes, do an “intro to design” video! Maybe a walk through of how you approach designing a site/theme with a specific purpose? 😉

    • Jake says

      You know this old saying?

      You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

      That’s how I feel about design. We can teach and teach but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the student will be an amazing designer.

      If Derek Rose were to teach me the fundamentals of basketball it doesn’t mean I’m ever going to be able to play in the NBA. 😉

  • pescadito says

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I couldn’t get a job teaching Spanish at the college level until I had my Master’s in Spanish. Ultimately it has made me a better foreign language teacher but I realize that for design work it’s not the same. I too would love to teach computer related classes but I know I would have to have the degree. Some things just do not make sense. I know that even with the little bit of experience I have in design work that I am far better than most who teach. Oh well, I don’t see it changing for a long time. It’s the people with PhD’s that want to keep a tight hold on things.

    • Jake says

      You’re absolutely right. As long as the people who are running things are the people with the pieces of paper, we’re going to have a hard time getting anything changed.

  • You are spot on Jake! Education system and courses are not updated at the same pace as technologies which are used in the industry. In India they still teach Pascal in the first year of Computer Engineering … yes … Pascal. In fact they have been teaching this for over a decade now and most assignments that these folks can think of are already available to students as textbooks 🙂 … which means most of the students who score high in the exams are students who have MUGGED up the entire program and are not capable of writing a singular piece of logic.

    This translates into huge problems when these “graduates” come into the industry as fresh newbies. A study conducted in 2008 showed that a measly 4% of engineering students in India (out of a massive 700,000) are employable. The rest have to be taught from scratch how to code.

    The huge IT factories (yes, I like to call them factories) such as Infosys, TCS, etc have long training periods of upto 6 months for getting these newbies upto speed. All because the education system has failed miserably.

    • Jake says

      So in India is it a well known fact that most of these people will need to be retrained on the job?

      As far as I’m aware, most of the students, unless they keep up on design and coding themselves, are unaware of how behind their curriculum are.

  • KJ says

    What’s sad is that my accredited, out-in-the-sticks junior college was more up to date than a University I attended. They were teaching HTML5, jQuery (a side to JS), and all systems were up to date with dual monitors, all running Windows 7 and using the latest Adobe software. The instructors were geekably relateable ? one of my instructors wrote “Cake and grief counseling will be available at the end of the test” on the board on test day, and the security expert is a Star Wars fan with every inch of his office decorated with SW. They would go out of their way to help you understand the material. Sometimes I feel smaller is better so long as it allows them to stay up to date and move quicker.

    • Jake says

      Well on the bright side you found a college that sounds like it’s doing it right. Most of the college’s I’ve referenced are junior colleges and community colleges – If I (this article) would ever be able to sway someone I think I’d have a better chance at doing so at a small school than a large university.

  • CodingJack says

    It’s just silly that schools don’t recognize this problem. I recently looked at the curriculum for the community college close to me. I thought it might be fun to take a class — learn something new, maybe meet some people, etc. But the curriculum was outdated big time and there wasn’t a single class that interested me.

    • Jake says

      I’m totally with you. I’d love to be able to go learn something new. And don’t get me wrong, as much as this article sounds like I’m against college, I’m not. I would much rather take an in person class on jQuery or PHP than signup for an online course, but unfortunately those in person classes are too far behind.

  • orlando says

    Don’t quite agree. College is supposed to be different than training; a design class in college teaches you the basic concepts of design, rather than the details of what’s being used right now (many students will learn that too). College should be teaching you the stuff that doesn’t change every five years 🙂

    We have certifications and portfolios, and those are very useful; a college degree should be different.

    • Jake says

      Well what you think is supposed to be getting taught and what’s actually get taught are two different things. I agree, college should be teaching you the basic concepts of design, but they’re not. The students I know aren’t even getting the basics. They’re not getting the correct information and they’re not getting up to date information. That’s all part of the problem.

  • George says

    think if you were truly able to present yourself as a teaching candidate beyond filling out a questionnaire, you would be seen as competent and qualified. On paper you?re a guy who is saying ?I know it looks like I?m not qualified, but I really am!? Well, maybe you could go in and prove it to them and explain the disservice they are doing to their students

  • This is exactly why I dropped out of college and studied on my own for a year before starting my own business. I realized I wasn’t going to learn what I needed to know by taking the web development classes my college had to offer.

  • Matt says

    During my degree, we had a tutor who was well versed in his craft (Flash, Director, Maya) and would do a lot of self-study in his own time in order to better himself and his students.

    He was laid off by the school because he didn’t hold a formal teaching qualification.

    A few years later, I was lucky enough to have an interview with a design school to teach web development/web design. They flew me up for the day, gave me a tour of the campus, talked to the tutors, talked to the students and had a very candid interview with the program manager (who took me out to lunch).

    In the end, I wasn’t offered the position. Instead, they opted to split the job between 2 people instead.

    The reason? No teaching qualification. When we bought it up in the interview, I was told I had a training allowance so I could go and get qualification.

  • Lee says

    I could not agree more. 90% of design school grads I interview are not ready to be hired ??many should not have been accepted into the design programs. Schools seem to be focused on producing tuition bills, not job-ready graduates.

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