José Mota — The blog

A perspective on the state of education (of the Web)

26 December 2011

  • design
  • personal improvement 

This is a challenge by Molly Holzschlag concerning how the Web is taught around here. Even though I tend to be opinionated, things have been happening that I consider important to a better future.

Learning the craft of the Web has always been hard. It has taken a lot of blog posts, trial and error, inspiration, books, etc. to slowly progress; all of this... after hours.

You must get things done at daytime. Innovation costs time that doesn't exist. At least that's what most companies believe around here in the last 5 years. Money is all leaders see, there's not the time nor the money to delve into a better process or a better performance. Why bother if the pay is low and things are steady? This is a cultural issue and that might just be the hardest impediment that our people has to clear.

Academics is overrated

Our culture has been dictating over the years that the path to success must include a college degree. It even includes two now, a bachelor and a masters degree. If you achieve none of them, people will think you're an idiot. That immediately lowers any expectations for anyone that decides to hire a web designer or an open source developer (i.e. not Java / .NET). That's probably one of the many reasons why websites like Clients from Hell show up. We don't have ECTS to prove our clients we can do our job as much as those that do have them.

The nature of the open web allows anyone to learn it and that is wonderful. Resources are available everywhere, updated perhaps monthly. The community gives their time, tutorials, references and screencasts. How will teachers reassess innovative technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and Javascript? What will universities do with such a plethora of information?

It's pretty hard to embrace all this change, so volatile. Trying to enclose an everchanging engineering is hurtful for both the enclosed and the enclosing. That's my #1 reason to believe that teaching the web isn't meant to be dominated by universities but by the community.

Education is underrated

I took a Computer Science Engineering degree from 2004 to 2009. Everything I know on how to be a web standards designer did not come from that degree. I have learned every semantic element, every CSS best practice, every bit of jQuery from home, after school. Professors lethargicly give students the W3Schools' URL and that's it, they are not required to know more. However, they are responsible for the future of website and web application development, would they choose to. They ought to know more than simple divs and some background colors. They are taught how to give birth to a full fledged, top-to-bottom application, from database modeling and systems architecture to basic MVC. It seems to me that the V is left a little alone.

True education in its most pure and holistic meaning surpasses any established rules. What matters is content and the apprentice's will to absorb it in the way he feels it's best for him. Factory oriented learning — the one that's implemented today from kindergarten to college — violates the principle of individuality and it hurts growth. Sadly, achieving individuality in the process of learning is utopic at this point in time and thus a compromise must be reached.

All we have now is the free Internet. People still keep learning and sharing after hours (like I am right now). Twitter allows us to keep up with the brightest mentors such as Molly herself, Andy Clarke, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jeremy Keith, Dan Cederholm, Chris Coyier, amongst so many inspired people that blog and speak about design, standards and application development. I owe them my career, certainly not my college degree. I'm pretty sure most good portuguese designers feel the same way, even if ever so slightly.

Solutions

I have stated before that universities shouldn't raise the flag and shape the whole web standards industry. However, there is the room and the need to solidify the basic assets of web development. In fact, I totally support the creation (if not an update; perhaps a branch on W3C?) of a unique place where all these resources can be served with quality documentation and possibility of debate, allowing universities to have some sort of reference of what can be introduced in their courses and promote the best content to their students. This not only:

A great example of a standardized way of centering resources in one accessible and friendly place is the Rubygems platform. Unlike other programming languages, Ruby has managed to flagpole an idea so great and no other language has ever made it this well. Sure, PEAR for PHP is nice and CTAN for LaTeX is huge but not has rewarding and simple as the gem system. Everyone uses Rubygems, all the tools for publishing Ruby knowledge are published through it; it builds trust amongst the developer community and it's just amazing.

The effort of standardizing education of the web is being debuted in Portugal with the birth of a post-graduation in Web design at ESAD. Tiago Pedras et al have been working hard so as to build a course that grants you ECTS points and also means something. I look forward to hear from him and acknowledge that finally the bar is being raised for everyone.

Conclusion

After several years, our nation is finally taking its first steps to adulthood regarding the craft of the web. Up until now, every designer was a nomad messing around with what they thought they knew and stuck with it. Now there's a chance for constantly embracing change and be happy about it. Let's look at what has been done well in the last few years and consider the chance of making the world a better place through creativity and care, one step at a time.

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