Formal Education and Web Design #fail in #imho

I attended a Crafthouse evening last Tuesday that focused on Education and the Web – the front end specifically, including front-end development, website design and animation as well. The crux of it was whether (or rather why) Irish formal education, such as degree and various diploma courses, are failing to deliver the relevant skills to equip graduates for the web and animation industries.

The web moves fast; technologies that were par for the course 5 years ago or even less may now be completely irrelevant, yet they are still being taught at universities and government funded courses. So why are many institutions failing to keep up with the pace of technology? I’m not talking about the basic principles or theory of design and animation – these don’t change and can be taught with pen and paper – but what does change is the software we use to create, especially as web (or animation) professionals.

It was a big crowd at Crafthouse and it wasn’t just the free beer and pizza that drew us out of the woodwork. Many people were pretty passionate about how their chosen formal studies had failed them; there were plenty of stories of frustration on the kinds redundant technologies still being taught, “stale” tutors and lecturers that hadn’t worked in the “real world” for years (possibly decades) and how many had to resort to teaching themselves.

There was frustration but there was also hope, without being too dramatic about it, in the form of “rogue” educator Christoper Murphy who (helps?) runs the Interactive Media Design course in the University of Ulster. He delivered a great presentation on how he sees his role as educator – a shaper of minds. Well that sounds kinda wanky but it wasn’t. He was spot on. He challenges himself to ensure that his students get the best education and most relevant, employable skills his course can provide. He said he and his other team members constantly reassess (yearly, monthly, even weekly) their curriculum to make sure it stays fresh. Needless to say this guy isn’t purely academic – he works in the real world too and maybe this is the key.

University Versus On-The-Job.

Murphy also touched on the idea of mentorship and apprenticeships as a great alternative way of imparting knowledge and skill. I think this approach is a much missed opportunity especially in the web industry where a working environment can be a much more efficient way of getting skilled up in technologies. Students we’ve hosted over the summer in Cookie Web have told us that they feel like they have learned more in 6 weeks with us, than they have in 2 or 3 years at college .

Personally I went in for a do-it-yourself apprenticeship at a couple of excellent companies. As soon as I secured myself a paid job I dropped out of college. I was lucky to find a company that took me under it’s wing and through a combination of hard work on my part and commitment on theirs I “graduated” as it were by moving up the ranks. The pressurised environment suited me down to the ground and I thrived. In university on the other hand I was unmotivated and often bored with subjects that seemed completely detached from the kind of work I was interested in pursuing. It’s not for everyone of course but I think that for particular industries an apprenticeship scheme could be formalised and made into a real alternative to 3 or 4 years at college.

When Cookie Web are looking at hiring we only give  a passing glance to “formal education”. We’d go with the motivated self-starter with a good portfolio of (not necessarily paid) websites every single time over a graduate with an impressive set of courses of under his belt but a crappy attitude and little actual hands on work to show. And if I may be blunt – if you’re interested in a career in web design then I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t have already started experimenting with your website design and development.

It’s hard to fault the teenagers who are put under enormous pressure from their parents and society to “get a degree”. But if that bit of paper isn’t actually going to help you get a job doing something you really want to do then one has to really think about whether it’s worth that kind of commitment. My personal recommendation, if anyone’s asking, is a few (thoroughly researched) short courses, lots of online tutorials and a lot of experimentation on your own steam. Do some websites for free or a pittance for a local community group or a charity. Definitely do an internship with a web company – keep door knocking until you get one or take part in the government scheme (brilliant idea if they ever had one). You will need to work your butt off and you probably won’t earn much for the first few years. But if this approach to learning is your thing then you’ll probably get a lot further a lot more quickly than the 4 years of college route. This is my personal opinion on an alternative approach on how to get working in the web industry as a designer or a front-end developer because this is what worked for me.

Aside from the inspiring attitude of the educator Chris Murphy I am not going to be holding my breath waiting for most Irish universities to suddenly start modifying their fairly rigid structures to tackle the challenging nature of keeping up to speed with the web industry. I’m not disputing that Universities are perfectly suited to many professional careers – God knows you wouldn’t want a surgeon learning on the job. I am simply arguing the case for creating a viable alternative route to getting established in the Web industry.

Comments of all kinds welcome.