Thursday, February 05, 2009

I've been neglecting all my imaginary readers

Things have been crazy. Professionally, academically, personally; you name it. Chaos defines me. Even more than usual. I've had plenty of blog worthy thoughts in the past month, but this is the first chance I've had to sit down and actually blog, you know, as a verb.

There was an explosion of discussion over at A List Apart on higher ed and web design. And by explosion, I mean I posted a lot and the discussion was meaningful to me. I'm sure there are articles with a hell of a lot more discussion.

The articles in question are Elevate Web Design at the University Level by Leslie Jensen-Inman and Brighter Horizons for Web Education by Aarron Walter. Both are worth checking out if you haven't already.

I've tried, and failed, to articulate what my heart tells me about this issue. I've posted discussions for both those articles. I've posted to the University Web Devlopers group on Ning. I've posted on various blogs where the discussion has spilled over. I've carried on conversations via email with a few folks. The closest I've come to getting it right is probably this comment in response to Leslie's article.

I'm trying to make the case in favor of a new type of “digital apprenticeship” in the industry. I think a formal education can work in our field. No. I know it can. My bachelors was a great model and actually follows a lot of the suggestions that people have come up with in these ongoing discussions. But the shelf life of that program as I experienced it was limited to about 5 years. A change in leadership is all it took to bring it back to business as usual (in other words, the kind of troubled program Leslie was targeting with her research). I don't think our industry can afford to wait a generation for the top level of campus politics to embrace the educational philosophies required to produce marketable graduates. For the next 20 years we'll see a lot of hit or miss programs, and some campuses will be more progressive in that respect than others. There are probably half a dozen or so solid programs in existence right now that have the proper institutional support to remain viable and stable. But I don't think students should be required to seek out places like MIT to find a decent web design program. And I'm sure less prestigious/well known campuses are capable of fielding the sort of program I'm talking about, but we're still faced with the problem of how do students find out about them? I mean, the only reason I found the program at TTU is because I started out there as an engineering student.

So while I appreciate the efforts that are being made to entice higher ed to get with the program, I don't think that's a sphere where we have any real influence. A lack of solid educational material hasn't been a problem in this industry for at least a decade. The fact that most academics will pay no mind to such material until it's formalized in a book or an accepted peer reviewed journal is a failing on their part (within the context of our industry), not on our part. In my mind, the spirit of peer review is alive and well on prominent blogs. And the transparent nature of the comment and debate system removes a lot of the politics that can infect trade journals. Movements like open course ware seem to indicate that some academics understand this and are forging new educational models. But until that kind of thinking can emerge from the underground, it only serves as a further means of exclusion.

We can't make higher ed listen to us. And we can't force HR departments to not require a degree for a given position. But I don't think we have to. Before we can effectively maneuver around the momentum and bureaucracy of the old schools of thought, we may be able to build a better model ourselves. After a couple of hiring cycles of employees with graphic design or computer science degrees who can't address the full range of skills a web position requires, HR might learn to value portfolios and experience a bit more, at least for these positions. If universities start noticing problems with retention and the ability of their graduates to compete in the market, they'll come to use for a solution.

Right now I feel like we're trying to cook a more enticing meal for a man who doesn't even realize he's hungry. But he's not just hungry, he's starving. Things like the Opera Web Standards Curriculum are great. But in the mind of most academics, it's foistware. We're pitching a solution to a problem that isn't even on the radar yet.

But, I have a bit more hope now than a few weeks ago. Leslie's article on ALA was largely preaching to the choir. But she's an academic herself (and a fellow Tennessean). The research that lead her to produce the ALA article is also the sort of research that academics may be willing to pay attention to. In fact, she caught the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Maybe academia is more willing to listen than I've assumed. Still, I'll believe it when I see it.

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