When I was growing up, I was the only kid in my class from what was called ‘a broken home’. As such I was labelled and that label stuck. One thing I’ve taken in to my adult life is that it’s wrong to apply labels either to institutions – homes, schools, universities – and doubly wrong to let that label affect the way you see the products of those institutions.
So when I saw this on Twitter yesterday my reaction was not positive:
In my experience digital design education is broken (and has been for some time). Agree/disagree? https://t.co/sONirJ1a6h
— Andy Budd (@andybudd)
Take a moment and read his article – it’s certainly very interesting and intended to provoke a reaction, as evidenced in his tweet.
I have a lot of time for Andy Budd – I’ve followed his blog for years and learnt a lot from him. I gave a copy of his book to a student once and have recommended it to many more. I haven’t always agreed with his opinions on everything but he’s usually well-reasoned and his opinions demand respect. I say ‘usually’ because as I continued to read I began to recognise arguments that I’ve heard a lot over the last fifteen years, but which don’t stack up to the evidence. Now I should be more careful than I have been in what follows – I’ve taken the challenge and replied to hyperbole with hyperbole. And I realise I should be the last person to criticise another for sweeping statements. Be sure to read this as a criticism of the arguments, not the person, because I know that Andy and his colleagues give a lot to the design community, and to those new to the industry. Having said that, let’s rip…
My main problem is that the article is making a case based on a self-selecting group of commenters (disaffected students) and assuming that what they say is true (basically ‘our teachers know nothing about the real world’), therefore all digital design education is broken. (It doesn’t say ‘all digital design education is broken’ but it doesn’t qualify his headline at all, so that’s the inference I’m making. I happen to agree that design education is in need of modernising (not just digital), but not in the way that Andy says. It’s not about the lack of ‘real world experience’, a phrase he thankfully doesn’t use but clearly implies. It’s down to the lack of creativity and this, sadly, in my experience is often (with many notable exceptions) down to the influence one way or another of industry or those who claim to speak for it.
He says he’s been getting
Emails from disgruntled students who had spent up to £9k a year on tuition fees, and even more on living expenses, to find themselves languishing on a course that was woefully out of date.
Firstly, as anyone who knows me will agree, I’m an active advocate for disgruntled students. But I don’t accept every complaint without question.
Out of date in what way? Are they teaching the wrong type of coding? Are they teaching coding at all? Is the software Adobe CS6 rather than CC? Or is the problem that they’re using Adobe at all instead of, say, Coda? It would be really useful to know the specifics here.
In my experience when people complain that something is out of date they mean the software or the hardware. Or they mean that the curriculum isn’t covering whatever the latest fashion is in digital design. And let’s be honest, those fashions change faster than the ones you see on the catwalks every season (I took a short break in reading net magazine and the whole landscape had changed in a few short months).
Imagine a course for car mechanics where they only learned to fix Ford Escorts. That wouldn’t be very useful, would it? Instead, they should be taught to fix engines. That sort of knowledge can be applied to almost anything.
I know lots of courses where students are still taught Java, with the inevitable cries of ‘you’re still teaching Java?!’ including from me. The problem is you can never be up to date in the specifics of what you teach, which is why any half decent course avoids doing it. Education should be based on principles, solid grounding that can be applied in a number of different contexts. It’s not Java that students are being taught, it’s programming. It probably doesn’t matter what language they’re learning so long as it covers the core principles. I know of digital design courses that teach Processing. It’s easy to pick up, it has immediately visible results, it encourages playfulness, it doesn’t need powerful computers, it’s cross platform, and it’s not a waste of time. Those are good reasons to use it.
But forget digital at all. I’ve heard many, many student complaints about courses that don’t sit them in front of computers all day every day and try to teach them ‘theory’ – like how to conduct design research, how to observe human behaviour, how to co-design, how to base decisions on evidence. Is a lecturer who understands ethnography but doesn’t know how to write HTML somehow disqualified from teaching on a digital design course? It would be crazy to make that call. But that seems to be what’s coming next.
Their emails were filled with tales of lecturers from engineering, graphic design or HCI departments, co-opted to teach courses they didn’t understand because, well, it’s all just computers really?
At the risk of sounding patronising, are students best placed to know whether someone is qualified to teach them or not? They can’t see inside their heads after all. I haven’t really practiced design for 15 years – but results suggest I can teach design. I don’t know jquery intimately, but I bet I can teach it. I’ll come on to the question of ‘teaching’ later. But lack of understanding is not the same as lack of knowledge. I’m aware there’s a place called Russia, though I’ve never been. Can I have a decent conversation with a student about it, about its politics and culture? Can I help them investigate it and find out more about it? You bet. That’s good teaching. Have I ever had a student question my qualification to teach them? Oh yes – from the very first day I began teaching. But it doesn’t last for long.
Are there bad teachers out there? Of course. Should that reflect badly on everybody else? No.
Is this a statistically valid sample to be able to say this represents the whole of digital design education? Even if it were partly true, we still seem to be turning out highly employable graduates who go on to do great things. But that scenario, that if it’s computers then anyone can teach it, doesn’t match with reality as I experience it. As a manager in Higher Education, I wouldn’t dream of asking someone to teach a subject they had no interest in – it’s not fair on them and it’s not fair on students. I don’t think I’ve ever met a manager who would. Even if the emails reflect reality in one or two universities, it doesn’t reflect it in any I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered a lot from former polytechnics to Russell Group.
Andy then talks about:
Tales of 19 year olds effectively becoming teaching assistants on the courses they were paying for, because they knew more than their lecturers.
You know what we call this in teaching and learning circles? Good practice. It’s called peer-based learning. There’s a vast literature on it, and national schemes. There’s not enough of it going on in my view.
The idea that students teach other students is not some sort of way of dealing with inadequate lecturers, it’s a way of building self-esteem, team work and sharing. All key skills that employers tell us they want – and even if they didn’t we’d do it anyway because they’re the sort of skills that they should want. The days when students were sat in classes and ‘taught’ are – or should be – long gone. Universities are places of learning, not teaching. Students should learn from one another. It would be madness to prevent it, and madness for any student to reject it. But seeing this the way Andy does – that it’s a sort of compensation for deficiencies in the teaching staff – is just wrong. Remember that mention early on of ‘students who had spent up to £9k a year on tuition fees’. I recently wrote here how ’tuition fees’ is the biggest misnomer since they dubbed the Titanic ‘unsinkable’ – they’re not tuition fees, they’re membership fees. Membership of the academy, access to learning opportunities and facilities. And that includes your peers. The idea that you should only learn from academics is crazy.
It was in this context that Clearleft started our general internship program way back in 2008; to provide the growing ranks of self taught designers and developers the knowledge and experience they needed to succeed in the workplace.
Of course when I started out in industry they didn’t call that ‘internship’, they called it ‘induction’. There are a lot of people in industry who seem to think that providing training and support for those new in post is some sort of compensation for the deficiencies of the education system when in fact it’s just good practice. </snark>
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those libertarian Silicon Valley types who believe the role of education is to churn out dutiful employees.
The rest of this paragraph I have no problem with. Unfortunately the sentiment isn’t supported by the conclusion.
As I walk the halls of the end of year degree shows, I’m amazed and saddened in equal measure. The work coming out of digitally focussed courses with “User Experience”, “Interaction Design” and “HCI” in their titles are shockingly poor.
I think we’re walking different halls. I wish he’d name names. This really irritates me about criticism from industry. General, sweeping statements that don’t name the places they think are doing a bad job. Who is that helping? If I were doing a bad job, or could do better, I’d want to know. Don’t get me wrong – I have seen bad practice. But it isn’t rife. It’s the exception. And it’s not always the fault of the teaching, either. Sometimes bad work is down to the student. I’ve had graduating years where there is utter brilliance, and mediocrity. Maybe he’s only remembering the latter?
There’s another important point to remember too – design doesn’t really lend itself to “the show”. Design exists where it’s meant to exist and can’t really be judged in an all white exhibition space, digital design more so. Design is like an iceberg (I use that analogy a lot but it’s true) – the bit you see is 20% of the mass. The bit you seen on the wall is only a fraction of the learning, the research, the various iterations and experiments.
In education we’re not producing builders but architects. Many digital designers don’t make the things they design, and it’s simply not realistic to expect that we can turn out people with the same level of technical skills you might find in someone with years of experience. That old chestnut from industry about the need to produce graduates who are ‘oven ready’ is nonsense. A respected industry leader (and you’d know him if I named him) once told me, straight faced, that he’d recently tried to replace someone who’d been with his company for over five years but all the new graduates he’d seen ‘lacked experience’. I bet the penny still hasn’t dropped on why that was a really silly observation to make. University is the place to experiment. It’s the place to try out different things, to take risks, to indulge in speculation. With that comes the reality that the final result may not look all that great – but the stuff learned along the way is absolutely priceless.
The best courses represent the fetishes of their course directors; more art than design in most instances. The worst courses have the whiff of Kai’s Power Tools about them.
Can’t win, can we?
I think we actually agree more than we disagree. I’ve witnessed the same things myself and I wish it would stop. However, while I’m generally critical of design courses that turn out artists, I’ve seen it work brilliantly, so I’ve learned that generalising isn’t a good idea. I don’t assume that this spectrum applies to each and every course out there. That’s not just untrue, it’s insulting. Like I said above, a university course should be a sandbox, a place where students learn through experimentation, taking risks, failing gracefully. You can call that ‘art’ if you want to. But I remember the early days of the web when everything we did was an experiment, and it was the ‘artists’ who were really pushing the boundaries. It was the more ‘artistic’ efforts on CSS Zen Garden that helped me understand the possibilities of CSS. And it was in galleries that I saw people actively trying to understand how humans and computers interacted. Look at any technology, any medium, it’s the auteurs who break the ground that others come along and claim as everyday. Don’t knock it.
Andy qualifies his criticism. Other design courses are great. Graphics, product design, motion design… all great, apparently. Talk about black and white!
So why are digital courses so bad?
There’s a really important case to be made here: why is ‘digital design’ a discipline in itself? Should it be? At the weekend I wrote what’s turned out to be the most read and shared article I’ve done for years, on ‘fearless polymaths’. The main point of that was that the narrower a course becomes, the less useful it turns out to be. I don’t think the practice of digital design is well served by separating itself off from other areas. (I said in my polymath post that the worst thing that ever happened to Higher Education was the creation of disciplines – stop talking to people in other areas and you stop having ideas).
Let’s be honest. The issues raised by his ‘lecturer friend’ are not unique to digital design courses. That’s enormously egocentric – and a symptom of that disciplinary focus. All higher education is beset by the same problems his friend laments – or rather every lecturer in every subject would say the same thing, whether it’s true or not. But don’t blame ‘the system’ or ‘managers’, blame the government and the people who voted for them. Lobby your MP, or the relevant ministers. Support us, don’t attack us. We’re trying our best and doing really rather well.
Another aspect of Andy’s post that worries me is the picture it paints of what ‘teaching’ is. And, on the flip side of that, what the role of the student is. We refer to teaching and learning a lot in Higher Education. The two go together. But teaching doesn’t result in learning, it facilitates it.
The students are keen to learn, but how much can you really teach in 6 hours of lectures a week, by somebody who has never designed a commercial website in their lives; or at least the last 6 years?
So first of all… lectures? Who teaches using lectures any more? Actually, I use lectures, but not to teach – to provoke, to start them off, to pose questions rather than answer them. I said above that universities are places of learning, not teaching, and this notion that you go to university to sit in class and ‘be taught stuff’ is badly out of date. Students don’t get 6 hours of lectures. They get access – often 24/7 these days – to libraries, IT suites, a community of fellow scholars ranging from undergraduates to research students and academics. The best students take advantage of this. They don’t sit and wait to be ‘taught’ stuff. This would actually be the most helpful message that Andy could send back to the disgruntled students who email him: what are you doing? Are you taking every opportunity to use the computer labs? Are you meeting up with your tutors for coffee to talk about your work? Are you organising study groups? Are you taking part in design jams? Are you volunteering for a local charity, honing your skills? Are you reading about what’s going on in industry, keeping up to date with what’s happening? Are you writing and sharing articles and blog posts and talks? Are you having conversations with academics and practitioners? Are you being part of the scholarly and creative community around you? Are you going to talks about every subject under the sun? Or are you just turning up to lectures, doing what it takes to get a pass, and then firing off moaning emails about how shit it all is? There’s a tendency to think that ‘the student experience’ is something universities provide – it’s not. It’s something students create. If you’re not doing the stuff above, you’re wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Fine if that’s what you want to do, but don’t blame everybody else for it.
If I think about all the students I’ve had who I’d rate as ‘the best’ and who subsequently went on to do well, they’d be the ones who didn’t sit in my sessions being taught, they’d be the ones who questioned me, challenged me, caught up with me later and asked for advice, popped in to my office for a chat, collared me at the supermarket, tweeted me, or just chatted about Saturday’s Doctor Who. In other words, acted as university students instead of school pupils.
In old fashioned parlance, we used to say that students were ‘reading for’ a degree, and that pretty much summed up the role of the student: to study. Teaching has never been the major part of the university experience and it never should be. The role of teaching is more to help students learn how to learn.
When I went in to teaching it was very much with Andy’s attitude: as a practising designer I knew more than the people I worked with and I’d been annoyed at the quality of designers we’d been hiring, so it was all ‘broken’ – if only people could see. The first courses I taught were in things like Photoshop and Flash and I did it the way a lot of students still demand: lessons that went step by step through how to do stuff like create bevelled buttons with chrome-like reflections (this was 1999, after all). And then you’d do the next lesson, drop shadows before they made it a layer effect (you kids don’t understand the pain). The end result was people that could repeat the steps – but faced with a situation they hadn’t been taught about, they were stuck. We’d produced cooks, not chefs. We produced technically competent people with no ideas. Artworkers. Mac Monkeys.
This is not how we should be teaching. My former student Lauren Currie wrote something interesting recently in AD, the magazine of The National Society for Education in Art and Design, about the approach they take at Hyper Island:
Instead of teaching people tools like html and Photoshop, we teach people how to learn new tools and how to be comfortable with the uncomfortable learning zone.
That’s the approach to take. If you want to go to university to learn how to use Photoshop, or how to code in <insert language of the week here>, save your money and subscribe to Lynda.com. If you want to learn how to create, how to think, how to work with others, how to deal with the unknown, then welcome to university. You’ll love it here.
The irony is that the courses that Andy is criticising probably approach the curriculum the way that a lot of people in industry think we should be doing it (have you seen the ‘National Occupation Standards‘ we’re supposed to be working to? Dull as ditchwater). The end results speak for themselves. No creativity, just slavishly following the steps and producing Kai’s Power Tools results.
Let’s revisit that quote from Andy again:
how much can you really teach in 6 hours of lectures a week, by somebody who has never designed a commercial website in their lives; or at least the last 6 years?
This is the most common criticism of design education today. It’s being done by academics with no real world experience. Well firstly, that’s just not true. I’ve taught in several universities in the UK, been an external examiner in several more, and sat on validation panels in others. In each and every one of them, a substantial amount of the teaching was being undertaken by practicing designers.
My second criticism of that is the insinuation that in order to be able to teach digital design you have to be a practitioner rather than an academic. That’s simply wrong. At a really simplistic level, I bet most French teachers aren’t French, most zoology teachers are actually humans not animals, and the vast majority of experts in cancer have never actually had cancer. To say ‘there’s nothing I can learn from you’ based on your portfolio is arrogance itself.
I was a pretty mediocre graphic and web designer. I’ve never shown any students my work because, to be frank, it was okay, it did the job, but it wouldn’t win any awards, and it’s not relevant to the question of ‘can I teach?’. It turns out I was a much better teacher of design than I ever was a practitioner. And you know what? I’ve met many practitioners who are fantastic at what they do, Yellow and Black pencils coming out of their ears, but who couldn’t teach a monkey to throw its own faeces. There is absolutely no correlation between ‘real world’ experience (how I hate that term – there was noting ‘real’ about the ten years I spent in industry) and teaching ability.
Some designers are good teachers, some are not. Some good design teachers are designers, others are not.
Being a web designer does not make you a web design teacher. Teaching is a skill – and a good teacher can teach things they themselves do not practice. I’m not Chinese but I bet I can teach you enough of the language to get from the airport to your hotel and order a beer when you get there and, in doing so, help you understand how the language works, a little about the culture, and how to go about learning more. 对！
Teaching is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire. It’s not knowing stuff and telling it to students. A great teacher inspires students to learn, they don’t force feed them. Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for life, etc etc. Charles Handy said a degree is a license to learn, not to practice. He’s spot on.
And so we continue to do what we can. Answering emails from disgruntled students, speaking on courses, offering student tickets, hosting CodeBar events, and running our internships.
I think it’s great that Andy speaks on courses – presumably not ones that are broken, so contradicting his own headline. And I realise that I’ve probably ended any possibility of him ever coming to speak on one of our courses, which would be a shame because a) we need this debate and engagement and b) I’m writing in a purely personal capacity here. But seriously, Andy – when you speak you are not compensating for the poor quality of courses, you are enhancing already good ones. But if you’re speaking and then leaving thinking “god, that course stank” you’ve really not helped. So speak up, and speak out. Or at least have a quiet word with someone before you go.
Digital design education is not broken. Many design course, regardless of the specific discipline, could do with a shift in the way they’re taught and a move away from a rigid curriculum to genuine problem-based and discovery-based learning. And many design students could do themselves a favour by getting out of the way of thinking that says ‘I’m here to be taught stuff’ and instead opt for ‘I’m here to learn stuff’. There is a big difference, and vastly different results.
If you see a poor course, speak up and name them. Give us the evidence. Suggest solutions. But don’t extrapolate from a few emails and a wander round a degree show or two and condemn a lot of people who are working bloody hard and producing highly employable graduates who do amazing things. The industry seems to be doing okay. That suggests things are better than Andy thinks.
I’m proud of every student I’ve ever taught. They deserve better than being labelled the product of a broken home.