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The Unheard Word

One woman's slightly skewed views

Educating the Educators

An emerging discussion on the Web Standards Group (WSG) email list has brought up some interesting points on the quality of web design and development instruction in tertiary institutions.

I don’t have any statistics to back this up (and would be surprised if any formal study has been conducted) but there is strong anecdotal evidence that the majority of institutes of higher learning don’t teach web standards — and when they do, it’s with a wishy-washy attitude.

There are exceptions of course, and apparently Sydney TAFE has some excellent, standards-conscious teachers. I am sure there are others but they must be few and far between if members of the world’s leading web standards discussion group don’t know about them. (I’m assuming that if students were taught about web standards, their teachers would know about, and let the students know about, this group.)

A former colleague recently made a lovely site for her upcoming wedding, having attended a short “Dreamweaver course” at TAFE. It looks great, but it’s got tables for layout and many validation errors (mainly syntax-related). I know she took the course to learn how to use a tool and not how to become a professional web designer, and she may not even care if it’s not done right as long as it looks right — but it is just as easy to teach good coding practices as it is to teach bad ones, so why not teach it correctly from the start?

There seem to be myths abounding, such as — for example — tables for layout are easier than using appropriate mark-up and CSS — but actually those who never learned any other way, and those of us who have become used to the simplicity and flexibility of XHTML/CSS, find tables very difficult to use for layout. It’s really what you’re used to — so let’s teach correct methods from the start. One day these web design hobbyists may become professionals (soooooo many of us started out as hobbyists!) and teachers have a responsibility to put them on the right track.

One of the issues we face is that a need to teach web standards may be recognised (I know it’s true at least at my former place of study, and I am sure that is not the only such institution) but the teachers may not know much about it themselves. Many have a lot of catching up to do, partly because, in an academic environment, they don’t always continue to actually work in the field. They have little or no opportunity to put these things into practice in order to learn them thoroughly enough to teach them. It might also be the case that teachers have specialised elsewhere, and web design is merely a sideline that they’re told they have to teach, like it or not.

Another issue arises when the need is not recognised at all. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s left to the students who know more than their teachers to start making waves. As a friend of mine discovered, this is detrimental to academic health: he lodged a formal complaint against a teacher and now cannot take half of his classes and may not be able to receive his TAFE Diploma. I wonder how comforting it is to him to know that he’s paving the way for future generations of web designers!

Also to be considered is the length of time it takes to recognise a need for a curriculum change and then to actually introduce the changes. This can take years at some institutions. But I’d also suggest that it doesn’t really require a curriculum change at all. Good coding and adherence to web standards are part of web design, not any kind “optional extra” or even new technology to be included. Our current web standards have been around since at least 1999, but standards in general go back well before then and, as I said above, it’s just as easy to teach good coding practices as bad coding practices.

But first, the educators must be educated, and not just with skills and techniques. Before it even gets to that point, they need to be armed with the knowledge that there is a big benefit in teaching web standards in the first place. Until we succeed in getting this message to tertiary institutions, change cannot take place. Then, of course, the teachers do need to get up to scratch with skills, but this is an ongoing process and not something that would happen instantly.

I would venture to suggest (at the risk of appearing egotistical) that I know more about CSS and web standards and certainly web accessibility than many, if not most, tertiary staff that teach web design classes. However, I would not even be considered for a teaching position (as far as I know and I could be wrong) because I don’t have a tertiary qualification myself. It’s a bit sad, really. People like myself, who care about web standards and actually know quite a lot, could play a valuable role in educating teaching staff as well as students — and provide an alternative to those teachers who are only doing it because they’re told to, regardless of their own skill level or even whether or not they like web design.

This is getting really long so I’ll stop here, but feel free to leave your own thoughts and ideas in the comments.

2 Responses to “Educating the Educators”

  1. [Comment Removed] Says:

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  2. Vicki Says:

    Hi Geoff, thanks for the very thoughtful comment. The link to Virginia’s article was very timely; she makes some good points.

    It’s a shame about your TAFE course being so unsatisfactory (in this context, at least). Usually TAFE is pretty progressive. And just because lecturers are out of the workplace for many years is no excuse not to keep up with such a fast-changing industry. It’s their industry. Nevertheless, I can see how it would happen, and at least at university there are often external staff (who work in the real world) teaching in tutorials.

    I’m definitely going to get the Charles Wyke-Smith book — thanks for the recommendations!