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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