Notes on a ‘web education’

Liam Hutchinson @LiamHutchinson_  asked myself and my friend Christopher Murphy @fehler for some comment on ‘web education’ prior to his talk at @hey_stac.

Liam’s slides can be seen at https://heyst.ac/talks/do-you-need-a-formal-education-to-work-in-digital.

I thought I’d share my notes which were put together rapidly the other Sunday afternoon for Liam. I was pleased to see that from his own research that the respondents with degrees didn’t have regrets and seemed to have got a lot more than ‘just a degree’ from their time at Uni. My notes:

The question is, ‘what is web education’?

For many currently in industry, if they have a degree it may have nothing to do with the industry. If it was a ‘web education’, it is more likely from a computing department or via an early multimedia degree, neither of which probably served them that well if they knew the direction they were headed. They were perhaps frustrated by the seemingly dated technologies taught, or the lack of the ‘right’ technologies being taught.

Then there is a newer generation who have come through courses actually labelled web design or web development in some way. Again these students will have had differing experiences with the delivery of course content. Some of these courses are part of computing schools, others are placed elsewhere. Our small group who meet under the banner of Web Teaching Today, formerly Web Teaching Day, is a small band that teaches in this area and is interested in sharing practices. It is also there is minimal engagement from the area of Computer Science in this area. That may say a lot.

There are a number of issues that are affecting this area. Recruitment – how many 16/17 year olds even know the ‘digital industries’ exist? That there are a variety of roles, in an expanding, fast moving industry?

The industry – what does it want? Backend, Frontend, UX, Digital Marketing, PMs. What do these even mean. They can vary from one agency to the next.

The students – this is akin to being a musician. You can go to music college, get your degree, but are you going to get that job in the orchestra? You go to college, you practice and gig as much as you can whilst a student – you are much more likely to get that gig on graduation.

Our best students do this. They work hard on their degree. They practice, they get work in the industry. Most employers don’t meet these students. The company that has wisely employed them whilst they are a student already has them sign up and committed after graduation. They are ‘agency ready’.

There are other excellent student who for whatever reason don’t do this, but they have the talent and desire. The wise employer that acknowledges this, spots the potential also wins. Yes, they have to give the student more time, support and space to become ‘agency ready’, but they end up with an excellent, loyal employee.

Every year we see the above happen with our students. The only problem for industry is that we aren’t producing enough of them, which goes back to the recruitment issue.

Graduates, from my own University the industry is recruiting graduates from Computing (backend/frontend, media), the Business School (digital marketing), Art school (design, media), Humanities – my own frontend/UX students. Industry has a wide selection of talent to select from. Are they all ‘agency ready’, no. But that is where a close relationship between University, student and industry is essential. This is where more relevant curriculum can evolve, where students can gain insight and placements. Where staff can ensure their teaching is relevant.

Teaching – as Chris Murphy explains – we are navigators. We can’t keep up on all new technologies and technical skills. The job of academic doesn’t currently allow this. It may in fact be impossible. We can guide, inform, and teach standards, best practices, and theories. We can’t always teach the latest techniques. Some of the most successful courses mix a blend of full time staff and part time staff (who are still industry based). That is perhaps currently the only direction in which this can work.

The hardest part of teaching this stuff? Students like answers, they like to know the ‘right’ answer. In this industry the answer is frequently ‘maybe’.

Finally. Do you need a degree? Definitely not. There are an increasing number of apprenticeships and/or external courses that deal with the practical aspects of becoming say a frontend developer. A middle option on the horizon is an apprenticeship degree.

Why a degree. For me the strongest answer is ‘the future’. Having three years to learn and develop sometimes mean students actually leave and go in a totally different direction. Some, after a number of years in industry go in different directions. The degree in your pocket still makes this easier.

Is it worth the debt? Ask the government. For me it is a crime to start this swathe of young peoples their working life, already in crippling debt. It makes no sense on any ground. But that’s my view. On plus side, if they do work hard as a student, the industry will welcome them with open arms and a job is almost guaranteed. What’s hard for a lot of 17 year olds is making that decision – what actually will work best for me – at this young age.

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Guest Speakers 2014-2015 on BSc Web Development at MMU

This time of year I do a short write up as way of a ‘thank you’ to all the wonderful folks you give their time to inspire our students. And this year…

Wow! Just wow!

There is no other way to say it without a load of expletives and exclamation marks. 

First, a few questions answered.

Why so many guest speakers? If you don’t already know, this industry is nuts. As academics (ageing in our case), keeping up with what is happening and changing in this industry is next to impossible. Web design and development is also a broad, multidisciplinary subject, many skills, many arts (as they say). We also have a simple aim to keep things real. This means for example in User Experience dealing with the tools and techniques that professionals are using in the work place (now) rather than what is suggested in a dated HCI text book. Bringing in guests with their experiences and industry ‘war stories’ bridges that gap between the theories and practice.

How do we get so many great speakers? Charm and coffee. Being in the centre of Manchester is also a big help We are smack bang in the middle of a dynamic digital economy. But more than anything by simply getting out there and making sure that we are talking to those in industry, making contacts and new friends each week. The pay off is that not only do we get offers from great and interesting speakers, but their businesses and employers get to know about us and more importantly our students. This then leads to job and placement opportunities coming direct to us.

Who speaks? Well you are going to get a break-down of this years amazing list. You will see that this ranges from the top of the tree ‘web personalities’ who are usually seasoned conference speakers, but also authors and professional speakers through to local developers, designers and UX professionals. In fact some of the well known names that visited us this year were indeed doing this kind of thing for the first time.

How does this fit in with classes? Pretty well thanks! Some guests are brought in as topic/subject experts, telling how it’s done in the workplace. Others add a wider context to the theories. Others bring in their experiences and insights into particular tools or techniques. Being able to show how x was handled with/for client B is invaluable. It often reinforces our own teaching (yes, you did cover that in my class!) and supports coursework. Our final year technical unit in web design, Agency Ready culminated in a portfolio show with a number of guest professionals providing advice and feedback to the students attending.

Students talk to guests from industry
Garry Finch (@gazraa) of the Hut Group talks to some of the Agency Ready class at the Portfolio Show.

So what happened this year? Well you asked, so here we go…

Before the term started (and after successfully hosting WordCamp Manchester for the lovely @wcmcr crew in June) we played host to the Front End North conference for the Make Do chaps (@makedoin). The conference consisted mainly of local speakers and a good gathering of professionals in the audience. Sadly few students attended either event. We were lucky to also see the first Upfront Conference in May 2015 here in Manchester, which again was a great opportunity to see some great speakers on all things front-end web design. This included being wowed by Ben Foxall () and his trickery with our phones. It was also great to see performance become a core theme in all the talks. We do our small bit by hammering students over the head about image optimisation and clean coding.

Once term started it was nice to bring back some former graduates. Michael Walsh @MichaelWalshMan who is working at @FrankDesignLtd came in for a Q&A with all BSc Web Development students. We asked him how scary it was starting work, what was a typical day, the tools he uses and how he got on with versioning. For our Project Management unit Jill Griffiths @Jill_Griff brought back Matt Scarth and Ben Lyon who provided a wonderful insight into their careers as digital project managers since leaving us.

One of our early guests for our UXD unit was former grad Lizzie Dyson, currently UX Designer at the BBC – Co-Founder of @LadiesthatUX, Co-Host of @LadiesthatUXMCR & organiser of @Talk_UX. Lizzie and her colleague Tina (@Digital_Orange) took the students though the BBC’s new personas, how they were developed and how they will be used. The students were working a client based project which was MMU’s own MyMMU portal. The ever kind Kieron Lonergan from the portal team took time out of his busy schedule to act as the client in this UX review and re-design. Sadly Kieron passed away this year and will be much missed.

The second term of UXD brought in a variety of speakers including Chris Collingridge – @ccollingridge – Planning and Conducting User Testing, Matt Thompson from Amaze on UX and analytics and our mate Barry Briggs @quiffboy covered Guerrilla usability testing (interestingly reviewing the same site as last year, this time post production -and yes, students still found some issues). Jenna Cosquieri from UserZoom introduced the product and remote testing. UserZoom kindly give the students access to use it as part of their assignment. Fiona and Lucy from Simply Usability came over from Leeds to show us how to use our Tobii Eye Tracker, again a tool students can choose to use for the assignment. Our great friend Chris Bush (@suthen) of Sigma (@wearesigma) talked multi-variant testing, showing some great tools and tips for successful A/B testing. And once again things were rounded up by Jane Murison @mewroh of the BBC, again giving advice (in her usual lively style) on pitching the results of your user research.

Michael Cropper (@MickCropper), founder & Managing Director of Contrado Digital in Blackburn talked all things SEO to second year students and the new final year unit, Agency Ready got off to a flying start with a series of ‘master classes’. Agency Ready aims to give final year students the opportunity and space to develop some of the technical skills they identify as being important as they head towards graduation. For some this may be improving their CSS, getting to grips with JQuery or conquering Git. The coursework also guaranteed that by Easter every student had an externally hosted portfolio site, ready for future employers. The masterclasses were aimed at many of the current trends. Dan Donald (@hereinthehive) and Darren Cousins  (@sygad1) – Senior UX Developer for Reading Room, Manchester both gave fascinating talks on responsive design. Dan took a top down approach of all the issues and elements of responsive, while Darren came ‘bottom-up’ from the coal face, with a very practical ‘this is how we do it’ talk full of tips and advice.

Former MMU Computing graduate and Little Chip winner Mike Stephens (@bit_byte_bit) came in and talked about portfolios and looked over the work of a number of students. Mike also talked about the importance of ‘self-initiated’ projects once in the workplace to help maintain and develop your skills and passion outside of the workplace.

The wonderfully sparky Jenny Wong (@miss_jwo) along with Robert O’Rourke (@sanchothefat) from Human Made came in for a class on developing a WordPress theme. Lots of tips and advice for all levels. Jenny shocked the students, having taken the time to look at all of their portfolio sites, and all of their blog posts. She then asked some pertinent questions, like ‘why hadn’t they blogged more’? What was setting them apart?

Mid term we all visited Manchester Talent Day, which is part of Manchester Digital’s Digital Skills Festival. Something like 70 employers had stands for our student to visit and discuss careers. A great opportunity from both sides of the table. It was also fantastic as we are now starting seeing some of our past graduates manning the stands for their employers. Hopefully there will be even more in 2016!

We were lucky to again have Andrew Clarke (@Malarkey) in (thanks Sue) talking this time about CSS typography  (man, do slides get any better!). Andy convincing us that that fraction of line hight made all the difference. It did! Lorna Jane Mitchell (@lornajane) talked versioning with Git, followed by our good friend Jon Duckett, author of htmlandcssbook.com and javascriptbook.com who came in and talked about programming followed by lots of sage advice as he shared many of the things he has learnt over the years. This included dealing with and billing clients, costing time etc. We even got to dog sit Ivy whilst Jon did his talk.

The following week we were especially pleased to bring in for the first time Harry Roberts, known to everyone under his @csswizardry twitter handle. Harry did a knock out session on writing and efficient and lean CSS architecture. Harry made great use of tlk.io throughout the session as well as introducing us to a variety of other tools as he challenged the students to write lean CSS.

The final session of the term was from our former graduate Dave Sims (@sheepfred) who finished the term with a knock out session on integrating SEO in your coding.

I should round up by mentioning that this year we finally got off the ground (in a small way) an idea that has been there for some time. ‘Digital’ is in all areas at Manchester Metropolitan University, that’s why we now have the Digital Innovation unit as a lynch pin and focus for all things digital. The idea for some time has been about bringing student from all these diverse areas across the University to meet, discuss and work together. Therefore we were proud to launch the Digital Innovation Student Network. This started off with an evening in The Shed (home of Digital Innovation), inviting students and guests from industry to a Q&A between two of the leading voices for the web design industry, Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) and Andrew Clarke. Andrew hosted at MMU whilst Jeffrey spoke to us via Skype. It was an insightful discussion and we are very thankful to these busy professionals for giving their time up for the students. Somewhere there are pictures of me literally jumping for joy as Jeffrey validated our approach to web design on the BSc Web Development.

Audience listen and watch Jeffrey Zeldman from New York.
Jeffrey Zeldman Q&A hosted at MMU by Andrew Clarke.

The Network also hosted a UX talk by Andy Budd (@andybudd) whilst he was in town. As usual, Andy left us with lots to think about. It was also great to open this up to our friends from industry. This is something we like to do as students get to meet and talk to professionals.

And finally I also need to mention that we managed to take students to @nuxuk@DPMUKConf and Camp Digital. All great events, with great speakers, fab organising teams and invaluable to students. A huge thank you to those folks, all who are kind in their support and great friends of MMU.

There I did tell you! What a year! It’s going to be hard to top, but of course we will try. If you want to help and get involved, drop me a line via @eskins. That’s it.

ps. May 2015 saw the 3rd Web Teaching Day – now Web Teaching Today. Anyone involved in teaching this stuff, you need to be involved and join us in 2016.

pps. if your reading this in another part of the UK (or world I guess), please think about supporting your local students they way these fantastic folk have. As Jeffrey said in the Q&A, the whole ethos of sharing and supporting is integral to the (past and) future of the web.

Our guests, 2013-2014

One of the few things I do try to find time to blog about is essentially a great big ‘thank you’ to all of our guests for the past academic year. This year has been a little different, sometimes strange. At least one student accused me bringing in guests to ‘get me contacts’ and some colleagues questioned the use of guests! Most students thankfully appreciate our guests and the effort involved. I do know from meeting my peers via our Web Teaching Day (a little self help group for those that teach web design) that they are impressed with the excellent guests we are able to pull in from the generous community in the North West. Believe me, I’m certainly not going to the BBC at Media City this Saturday ‘for my benefit’!

In September 2013 we launched a new Year 3 unit called User Experience Design. Together with my colleague Jonathan Willson we decided that we wanted this unit to be industry led. It was to be about what the practitioners do, rather than the regular HCI type unit. We started by asking our UX friends including BBC UX and recent grad Lizzie Dyson @LizzieDyson, what they did, day to day in their UX roles. The tools and techniques they use. This helped us develop a programme that included a number of guests who could share their knowledge and testing ‘war stories’. This included Barry Briggs @quiffboy on guerrilla testing, Chris Collingridge @ccolingridge on planning and preparing, Guy Redwood @eyetracking on eye tracking (helping us to get to grips with our @TobiiEyeTracker), Lee Cooper from @UserZoom on remote testing (giving students free access to@UserZoom) and Paul Carysforth @PaulCarysforth on UX and analytics. It was all wrapped up by the fantastic Jane Murison @mewroh from the BBC providing tips and advice for the students in pitching their findings to clients. Jane did a great exercise with yoghurt and spoons that required volunteers to eat a pot whilst watched by their fellows.  This got the students talking about the user experience of everyday items and activities.

We presented our story of the unit at Camp Digital – see http://www.slideshare.net/RichardEskins/teaching-uxd-camp-digital-2014

A special thanks to Lee Duddle of @WhatUsersDo who was going to come in, but had to be cancelled because of the strike.

Things were a little quieter than normal. We did host a Camp Digital Bite Sized for our friends @WeareSigma before term started but during teaching we didn’t run any events ourselves. That said, the fine people at Manchester Digital and NorthernUX ran NUX2 (http://uxmanc.co.uk/), an excellent UX conference to which we took a number of students. They all seemed to have a great day. Some new ‘contacts’ were made, one of which indirectly led to two of our grads getting jobs. That was also followed by another excellent gig for digital project management, by the local DPM:UK group @DPMUKConf (and Manchester Digital again). See http://www.dpmuk.com/

While mentioning Manchester Digital @McrDig I must thank Katie, Rachel and Shaun for all the hard work they do for us including hosting and organising the Manchester Talent Day each year. They also do the same for the Big Chip Awards that we were again involved with, having another nominee for the Little Chip student award category.

In web design we had fewer guests than usual. @MickCropper and Derren Wilson @wilsond dropped in again and Chris Mills @chrisdavidmills did a short session on the new Firefox OS for mobile in his new role at Mozilla. Picking up on a couple of great articles written by new @WeareSigma employees, @beckytopps and @Meevil, we promptly dragged in Liam (@Meevil) to deliver a session on responsive design and an exercise using Foundation. We were also lucky enough to host a whole day for a number of students with Andrew Clarke @Malarkey going over the intricacies of CSS Layout with CSS Flexbox. A number of the students were truly inspired.

ANdy Clarke with our students
Designer, author Andrew Clarke ran a Master Class for our students on CSS Flexbox.

This summer we hosted WordCamp Manchester @WCMcr for the local WordPress user group. Working with the lovely Jenny Wong and Mike Little an excellent day was put together for WordPress Developers and users. We are now hoping to build on this for 2015 with at least one WordCamp focused on writers, bloggers and journalists and potentially another for school children.

And finally, we were to host the first front-end conference, Front End North @frontendnorth in June but this got put on hold. I’m happy to say that this has now been rescheduled for Saturday November 15th 2014 – see http://makedo.in/frontendnorth/.

Back-end and WP role

This might suit one of our grads who already have some experience – email Richard if interested.

We need someone who’s strong on back end web development; we work mostly in WordPress. Ideally someone with some awareness of SEO as they’ll be responsible for dealing with the technical side of this service e.g.

 ·         Importing meta data and images from existing sites

·         Technical SEO

·         IP Redirection/Detection

·         Site Speed

·         301 and 302 redirects, canonical urls

·         HTTP headers

·         Crawler Access e.g. Robots.txt and Rel=Canonical

·         JavaScript

·         Microdata and schema

·         Dealing with High Priority Issues / Medium Priority Issues / Low Priority Issues highlighted by MOZ in crawl diagnostics.

·         Using WebMaster Tools to analyse what’s going on with each client site and action including link analysis & clean up.

 A designer / front end developer works for us part time already; we need some who complements and supports his work.

Placements

A short post I’ve been meaning to write for some time. At present our course does not contain an official placement. This is something that may change in the future but for now, when students ask me about this option I share the experiences of recent graduates.

The students that tend to do well when they graduate are of course the ones that have found themselves work whilst studying and have gained considerable experience. These folks generally move smoothly from student to front-end developer. The companies they have been working for quite often snap them up. If they don’t, these same students rarely have trouble finding their first job. Of course, the downside to this is that other agencies have already missed our best graduates.

I know I’ve just used the word ‘best’. I am however concerned that numerous job adverts ask for ‘superstar web developers’ and such. Actually many of our very successful graduates are those that didn’t get any experience, weren’t ‘superstar’ devs, but have slotted perfectly into the work environment and are appreciated. How do I know? I regularly get asked by employers for ‘more like so and so’.

So back to placements. When? for my students between years 1 and 2 and 2 and 3 (final) they are essentially free from April until mid-September. They may have an exam or two in May so you they will need some support and flexibility.

Who? Well my guys (male/female) are front-end with a focus on UX, accessibility and standards. Like all students some will be better than others. We will have some who are enthusiastic but with limited skills. We will also have others turning out high quality code. You would need to interview them. More and more we are hearing from industry they want softskills, which often means devs that can communicate. We focus on that in a variety of ways. Our students will talk (and smile) to clients.

Pay. Well yes. It’s illegal and un-ethical not to. What to do with them? That’s for you to work out. All I know is that a number of agencies have done this successfully, making great use of our students.

Internships. A number of agencies have started to run year long internships. Like placements this seems a very successful way to talent spot and then to get that talent to find their niche within an agency. Students finish in April/May and graduate in July, internships that start in September seem to suite them.

All of the above takes effort. Agencies making these efforts are the ones often getting the talent they need.

* Obviously the dates above relate to our BSc Web Development. Contact courses local to you to get their pattern.

Our guests, 2012-2013

As usual, I like to do a little round up to tell you about our guest speakers and to thank them. Again, another frantic academic year has blown past with a new version of our second year Web Site Development unit running for the first time. We also say goodbye to our final year practical web unit as we now say hello for 2013/2014 to a dedicated UXD unit, plus a portfolio unit for all of our Web Dev which includes a ‘major project’.

Most things went well, one or two things went wrong, and a few more need to be teaked. But then, that’s the nature of the job, especially with a subject like web design that is in constant flux. Each year is different.

Which brings us to our guests. As usual, we have been very lucky to be able to bring in a number of excellent speakers for all years. Sadly, as usual attendance of students has often been poor.  Our first year students had to put up with just me for the basic HTML and CSS. Second years had Garry Byrne @boboshady talking about the web design process and project management, Nathan Beck @Redswish discussing the role of the designer in the web design, and Michael Cropper @MickCropper with an introduction to SEO.

Final year students had the usual run of excellent guests, some returning, some new. MMU’s own design/web guru, Derren Wilson @wilsond gave us all a raft of CSS tips & advice as only a practicing developer can. The fantastic Louis Georgiou @louisgeorgiou  nearly came in to deliver his lecture on CMS, but got too busy as MD @computerlovers.  @MickCropper from @computerlovers did also give the 3rd years a search marketing lecture. After Christmas we had a run of guests with @boboshady discussing mobile, Rich Clark @Rich_Clark on some of the features of HTML5 beyond the new semantic tags, and   Dan Donald @hereinthehive talking all about responsive (despite have just become a dad again).

Final year students also had the pleasure of presenting one of their assignments to us, their tutors, their fellow students and Andrew Clarke @Malarkey. Andy gave the students  feedback and short talks on each of the topic areas covered. He also helped us award prizes to the best speakers. A great afternoon, if a little scary for the students! Oh and Andy kindly brought in a whole pile of books from his own library to give to students as well as  donating one or two new books as prizes.

We then rounded off things with Farooq Ansari @anti_social from @ReadingRoomMcr giving students tips on pitching to clients for their final assignment.

What else? Only Andy Budd! Andy @andybudd of @clearleft volunteered to come and talk with students in a very informal Q&A whilst in Manchester for another event. For the small group of students that attended, this was an excellent opportunity with lots of tips and advice regarding the industry. I particularly liked ‘[in your CV] listing you can use MSWord, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, is a bit like a chef listing that she/he can use a pot, a pan, a knife…’.

And finally, of course we worked with our great friend Chris Mills @chrisdavidmills as we ran a December evening event, What does it really mean to create a responsive web site? Speakers included Chris, @boboshady@hereinthehive and Chris Bush @suthen from @wearesigma. We sold out the 250 seats, with about 150 turning up, which is excellent for a free event. A good night was had by all with some great talks and approaches. We also ran a @Malarkey inspired geek books for students book swap (with a large number donated by Nick Harris @pixelenvy.

And so to the 2013/2014 academic year? As we lose the third year practical web unit I hope to keep a flow of guests by a. bringing in new guests for the UX unit, and b. by running a series of small, evening talks from guests throughout the year. It is hoped that we can make these open to all students, and those in industry.

We will be looking forward to working more with both Chris Mills and Andrew Clarke, and will hopefully be able to announce some larger evening or weekend events with some exciting guests. Keep an eye on @eskins for news.

If I’ve missed anyone out, sorry. Let me know. If you fancy joining in and would like to contribute by guesting for the students, please drop me a line. Richard.

Oh and finally, thanks to the guys at @forepoint Preston, who let me join their ‘winning’ team for bowling at the last New Adventures in Web Design conference! Cheer chaps.

Mentoring for 2013-2014

In a revision of our BSc Web Development all final year students for 2013-2014 will be required to complete a final year project. This might be a research project relating to UXD, IA or web design or such, or a practical project such as the development of a site for a client.

With this revision we would like to introduce a level of mentoring from industry. This would require web professionals to act as mentors to the students, providing a limited amount (to be agreed) of guidance and advice. The students will also have an academic supervisor.

If any web professionals (in this case front-end developers, UX, IA and accessibility experts) feel that they might like to be involved with this please register your interest by emailing Richard Eskins – r.eskins@mmu.ac.uk For ease of contact, we would prefer professionals based in North West England, but would be happy to hear from others further afield. This would be purely voluntary, no fees.

Even better, if you’d like to become a mentor and have a small project you’ve been avoiding (perhaps a site for your friend’s small business) that we could use, that would be perfect.

We would also love to hear from any one already working such a scheme if you can help us get this right. Any suggestions are welcome.

Richard