January 20, 2009
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Web Design in the University

Leslie Jensen-Inman, writing in A List Apart, offers some interesting ideas about teaching Web design at the university level.

Right now, web education is out of date and fragmented. There are good people working hard to change this, but because of the structure of higher education, it will take time. So while sweeping change can’t happen today, let’s challenge ourselves to do what we can.

She's an assistant professor at Tenessee; one of her recommendations is to “let go of the idea that professors in these disciplines must hold a master’s degree.” This is wrong, I fear, on two counts. First: wrong credential: a master’s isn’t really enough. If you don’t have a doctorate, you’re always going to be handicapped. (An exception might be made for an MFA if you’ve also got a clear track record of personal — not collaborative — accomplishment in your art.) And second, wrong strategy: if you aim to hire lots of people without degrees, they’re going to be adjuncts and instructors. What you need are tenure track people, people who will set policy.

Universities will never manage to teach Web techniques that are really up-to-date. That’s not the point. Universities should be preparing people to be able to pick up those techniques fast and to land running.

Inman interviews Greg Storey, who obseves that “students are used to having more time to complete projects than is required in business“. I think that’s inevitable. First, students don't know what they’re doing, so of course they take more time. Keep in mind, too, that students are likely to have three or four other courses to handle, and a job on the side to pay as well. Finally, a professional studio ought to be providing its employees with good facilities and great equipment; lots of students are going to be sharing a room full of three-year-old budget computers.

Jensen-Inman cites WaSP and the World Organization of Webmasters, but I suspect the ideal route for her crusade is Web Science. Web Science has the abstraction, the intellectual depth, and the interdisciplinary heft to find a central place in the university, not just as an odd corner of the arts but as a widely-understood and generally recognized tool for all the arts and sciences.