Revamping College Tech Curricula

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

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All too often, however, university curricula don’t reflect these new trends.  For example, many universities are still teaching Dreamweaver as the tool to build websites instead of open source content management systems, a technology that’s been mainstream and affordable since at least 2005.  Recently, a colleague pointed out an active syllabus where “DHTML” was to be taught.  DHTML was cutting edge around 2000 and has been abandoned since then.

Simultaneously, there has been an explosion in tutorials and documentation available to those who want to learn about website design.  Google searches turn up endless blogs, videos, books, courses, and more, many of which are free.

Why would an engaged, motivated student want to go to a university andpay huge sums of money in exchange for learning outdated information via outdated methods?

Universities, in my experience, are behind the times for several reasons:

    • It’s difficult to keep up with a rapidly changing field.  Web design changes so fast, it’s difficult to stay up with the latest trends unless you’re actively building websites every day.  Full-time faculty members may not realize how rapidly the field has changed from year to year and may not update their lecture notes accordingly.  Indeed, many lectures are updated only when the next version of Dreamweaver is released.
    • Adjusting an existing class is difficult.  At large institutions, where several sections of a class may be offered, it’s difficult to change the syllabus, since so many instructors are affected by the changes.  Universities feel a uniform experience is more important than presenting the most recent technologies.
    • Adding new classes is even more difficult.  Adding a new class requires drawing up a course proposal and getting approval from faculty members, approval of the university, and incorporation into the latest course catalog, a process which can take a year or more.  This process means that once an emerging topic is identified, it can take a year or two for the course to appear in the curriculum, and years more before it becomesa required course.
    • The publishing industry has been undergoing some radical changes lately, meaning that there may not be a book available encompassing a course that covers the latest topics.  Rather than covering a chapter per week in a book and having students complete the exercises specified at the end of the chapter, instructors must search for information on the web, pulling together a database of Internet resources for students to learn from (ironically, this research process is a valuable skill for students to learn, since it is how they must keep up with the field after graduation).
    • Inter-departmental collaboration is difficult.  Web design concentrations, when offered well, will draw from courses offered through the art, computer science, marketing, and business departments.  This interdisciplinary requirement means that faculty must collaborate across departments to ensure a cohesive message is delivered to students.  Faculty must also know a bit about each course offered within the web design program, courses that may be outside their areas of individual expertise.  It can certainly be uncomfortable for a computer science professor to sit in on an art class, or for an art instructor to sit in on a computer science lecture, but it’s worth knowing a bit about all of the courses offered in the degree program.  In the business world, web designers know a bit about search engine optimization, project management, and graphic design, even if HTML and CSS are their primary skillset, and likewise, university instructors should be fluent in other areas outside their expertise.
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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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