Friday, December 05, 2008

When it rains it pours

Getting caught up on my blog reading, which always gets me thinking, and once my comments to the entries of others grow longer than the entry to which I am replying, I figure I'm better off putting it here.

I have both a 2 year and a 4 year degree in web design. As in, the word “web” is actually printed somewhere on my physical degrees. One says “Web Development Technology” and the other says “Web Design”. I got a lot out of my education because the timing and my mindset were right for it. I had a few years of field work under my belt, so even when the course work did a crappy job of tying the concepts to real world examples I was able to fill in those gaps.

The downside is at the undergraduate level classes have to assume no prior knowledge on the part of the student, at least nothing above and beyond what is taught in high school. In other words, the first few classes assume you can type and that's about it. The problem there is some of the most promising students will be turned off early on in such a program, say to hell with it, and go get a job with the basic skills they already have. The other edge of that particular sword is you quickly go from the early hand holding courses to being expected to understand stuff like the OSI Model or object oriented programming in detail. If I were playing a video game with a learning curve that steep, controllers would be bouncing off walls, likely in multiple pieces. But my prior experiences made things more manageable and I was mentally prepared for the challenges that came up.

A lot of people would not be. That doesn't make them bad people or somehow less intelligent than me. If anything it indicates that the traditional academic model is poorly suited to cover highly technical disciplines like web design.

I say the timing was right because the 2 year program had just entered a stage of growth and was updating its curriculum to be more relevant. The first semester I was in that program the textbooks and course materials were very 1996. Browser sniffing, tables for layout, optimizing animated gifs; scary stuff. By the time I graduated they were offering classes on CSS and XML. Still far from cutting edge, but they managed to advance their curriculum about 7-8 years in the 3 semesters I was there. The problem is the nature of most colleges and universities make it very hard to do such changes more often than once a decade or so.

The 4 year program was brand new. I'm the 6th person to graduate with that degree. Since it was so new, the curriculum had not yet had time to get stale. The director of the program was also both knowledgeable and passionate, and he personally taught most of the core classes in the program.

In a single lecture we might start out talking about the Iliad and how it's an example of an epic, then move in to how the structure of an epic is guided by oral traditions. And just when you're starting to wonder why the hell we're talking about this stuff in a class on web design, we shift to talk about how communication on the web shares a lot of characteristics with oral communications (you and I are having a type of conversation right now). From there we talk about how the structure of an epic poem can be seen as an early prototype of hypertext with the various ways the narrative loops back on itself and includes passing references to other epics from the same cannon. And I use phrases like "we talk" for a reason; the courses were very much structured around discussion and team work. I learned more from my fellow students than from the professor and that was by design. My current graduate program hasn't managed to pull together ideas as seemingly disparate in 2 years as Bob routinely did over the course of an hour.

But literally the day I graduated the director of the program packed his bags and drove several hours north to become the new Director of Graduate Studies at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Without his leadership, I don't know how well the content of the courses will be kept up to date or how well the structure of the courses will translate to new professors covering that material. I'm very lucky to have gone through the program when I did.

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