Revamping College Tech Curricula

This Post was written by admin
Date posted: August 6, 2012

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In the mid-1990’s, “webmaster” was among the hottest job titles. A webmaster was the person tasked with building a website for an organization, frequently one where they worked.  Coming from diverse backgrounds, and self-taught by necessity, webmasters mentored one another while building the early web.

As publishers offered books on HTML, the first college tech web design courses at colleges and universities were born.  In the beginning, everything about the web could be covered in a single course, generally in the computer science department.  Within a few years, though, colleges and universities began offering concentrations in web design.

Twenty years after webmasters started teaching one another HTML, most colleges and universities now offer classes pertaining to building websites.  However, those classes are offered in different departments, emphasize different aspects of web design, and, unfortunately, they are frequently not up to date.

Web design is a multi-disciplinary field.  Classes in web design are typically offered by the art and computer science departments, which offer courses in graphic design and in programming, respectively.  The marketing department may also offer a few courses in search engine optimization, web analytics, or email marketing.  The business school might offer courses in e-commerce strategy.  If the institution is large enough to offer human-computer interaction courses, there may be some courses available on user testing or interaction design.

Here lies the fundamental problem with a concentration in web design:  It can’t be tied to only one department if it is to be covered completely or well.

Graphic design-based programs tend to neglect programming beyond the basics, graduating designers who are unaware of responsive design, mobile design, or designing for different environments.  Graduates may be unaware of programming constraints or the latest methodologies for building websites.

Computer science-based programs tend to emphasize programming at the expense of the design and the interface.  Websites may be aesthetically unpleasing, lacking a professional look, or clunky and difficult to use.

Business and marketing programs teach strategic thinking, planning, and project management when it comes to designing for the web, but implementation is almost never covered.  Graduates are able to dream up big ideas, but unfortunately they may not know whether their idea is feasible from a programming standpoint.

The web design world is constantly changing, and the past three years have been no exception.  Flash, once everywhere on the web, is now seldom used since it can’t be viewed on the iPad and iPhone. Designers are placing new emphasis on designing for mobile devices, in some cases designing for mobile before designing for desktop.  Responsive design, separate mobile sites, progressive enhancement, and mobile apps are intensely debated as to which offers the “best” experience for mobile users.  Businesses hire experts in WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, and other content management systems.  Designers who are knowledgeable in HTML5, CSS3, and jQuery are in hot demand.  Video and audio have hit the mainstream as well, with websites commonly incorporating these types of interactivity.  Social media and Google Analytics are considered a requirement for most business websites.

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4 thoughts on “Revamping College Tech Curricula

  1. deb

    I have a child who will be applying to Universities this coming year. Can you recommend any schools that seem to be doing the best job of handling this challenge? Thank you.

  2. Jen Kramer

    Hi Deb — I have been impressed with DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media

    I do have suggestions for evaluating schools of interest. Look at the course catalog and see what’s offered for web design and development. Some schools offer a specific major in this, while others take a route of an emphasis (the degree is in art, but you took the graphic design option, for example). The degree programs may present more of a unified approach to web design, as opposed to an emphasis within one department — but this is not always the case.

    Speak with one of the department professors and get a sense of what’s offered for the curriculum, and ask specifically what the department is doing to stay on the cutting edge.

    Ask for names of recent alumni that you can contact about their experience at the school. Ask the alum whether they were prepared for the working world, and how their experience at the school has helped them in their working lives. (Most schools have alumni you can contact about their programs. Keep in mind these alums largely say positive things about the school!)

    It would be great if others would note schools that are doing a great job of keeping curricula up to date here in the comments. Also, if you have suggestions for evaluating a school — particularly when you don’t have a tech background! — please post those as well.

  3. suz62

    I thought this was going to be an article on college computer science programs in general, but it focuses almost exclusively on web design courses. Let me tell you – CS Department shortcomings affect all branches of computer science, not just web design! For example, we only covered SQL briefly in class, yet if I want to get into database management, it is a skill I have to learn. Now I have to figure out a way to learn SQL as well as other database technologies, and get good at them, in order to be employable. So I can pay back the student debt I racked up to get a degree which gives me no real workplace IT skills.

  4. Jen Kramer

    My background is in web design, so I just commented on those aspects of it. However, I agree — computer science in general is a bit behind in their offerings.

    Computer science majors graduate thinking their are ready for their first job. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case. Most employers know that they must teach the graduate how to work in the real world.

    For example, if you’re given an assignment, you have some period of time to complete it. You can spend 100% of your waking hours on it if you want. In the real world, though, your boss will give you an assignment and say spend no more than X hours on it. How does that impact your thinking and approach on a project? That’s almost never covered at the college level, and it’s a critical job skill.

    And I haven’t even touched the tech side of things yet. 🙂

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