No, digital design education isn’t ‘broken’

Kai's Power Tools - the cutting edge back in the day but like flares, not something we want to see come back again.
Kai’s Power Tools – the cutting edge back in the day but like flares, not something we want to see come back again.

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:

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.

4 thoughts on “No, digital design education isn’t ‘broken’”

  1. Thank you for your thorough and educated response here! As an active, self taught designer, I research and educate myself daily. Experience and working with other designers have helped equally to the hours I’ve applied into Adobe, Sketch etc. Becoming familiar with the process and how to work best to solve problems is priceless. It’s what you put into it. Though I didn’t attend a university for design, I can relate to your optimism in students desire to learn, not just be taught.

    1. Thanks, Keith. I’m a self-taught designer too as it happens. There’s nothing like just using programs to learn them. By the time I left industry and went in to education I could use Photoshop like I was playing piano (keyboard shortcuts FTW!). In fact it was that that brought me to the attention of someone who then recommended me for a job…

  2. Thanks for the long and considered response to my article. Unfortunately it feels like your approach has been to take individual statements out of context, wrap your own (often incorrect) interpretation of what I meant by them, then present them back as though they were my own beliefs. It’s a great argument technique, although not an entirely fair one. You also called me out on several things I failed to say, which again seems a cheap trick considering this was a short blog post rather than an official report on the state of education. That being said I’ll try to address some of the things you claim I’m saying and some of things you feel I didn’t say, but should have.

    First off, my criticism of digital design education is largely scoped around the UK, as there are fantastic institutions teaching truly modern digital curricula in countries like the US, Norway and Sweden. Sadly when I look across UK courses I’m yet to see any that come close to the quality of education provided at places like SVA or CIID. The closest, based on the feedback I hear from students, and the quality of output is probably Central St Martins. I’m not counting Hyper Island here btw, as it’s effectively a private company, started in Sweden by a digital agency, and doing a reasonably good job from what I can see.

    In terms of who the offenders are, it’s somewhat unfair to expect me to call out bad courses. It’s especially unfair on those hard working and passionate lecturers who are doing their best in very challenging situations; often delivering the one good module on the course. It’s also difficult to do as the list would encompass the majority of courses I’ve experienced. That being said I’m happy to call out my local University of Brighton as an obvious offender. Not least because I know several very good designers who went through there and found the quality of education severely wanting. And by that I don’t mean they were using slightly older version of Photoshop, I mean they were teaching fundamental beliefs and practices which have been dismissed, discarded or proven to be irrelevant many years ago. Something I made perfectly clear in the article. So I want people to be taught how to think, to explore to learn (again something I also made clear) rather than to absorb information by rote.

    I’m also happy to call out Ravensbourne college (although there are plenty of others), which is considered by many as an exemplary provider. However while the output of their product design, motion graphics, and even architecture courses demonstrated a deep level of understanding of both craft skills and the underlying fundamentals of design, their digitally focussed courses demonstrated neither. While I’m not so quick at bashing students as you are, I was surprised how few of them turned up to the student show I attended last year. Then again the course leader couldn’t be bothered to turn up and unlock the door to the studio where their show was taking place, so I’m not overly surprised. However you’re right that I shouldn’t judge a course by the show. Fortunately I’m not. I’m judging the courses partly by the output their students have presented, which is almost always weaker than other design related courses, but also on talking to the individuals (often in depth) and exploring their outlook and way of approaching problems. Like a good maths teacher I’m more interested in seeing the workings than the final result. Sadly the bulk of digital courses seem to fetishise the output.

    It’s worth noting that I’m not basing my views on a small sample of disaffected students as you suggested, although these views are easy to come by. I’m basing them on talking to existing students on courses and asking them how they are finding it, talking to existing lecturers on courses and asking the same, viewing the output of said courses (with much disappointment), exploring the skills demonstrated by students coming out of some of the best regarded courses in the UK and who are partaking in our internships, and then judging those folks against students from overseas institutions, exploring the skills of folks on courses at places like SVA, talking to agency founders and design leaders at companies large and small, and participating at discussions on education at national and international meetings and conferences. So while it’s a good trick to claim I have a narrow focus, that’s far from the truth.

    It’s also worth dispelling the idea you created that I think university is about lectures and nothing else. I wish more universities would create dedicated studio spaces for their digital design courses, akin to product design and architecture. However in a lot of course I’ve come across, all that face time is compressed into a single day a week. The 6 hours I mentioned. And while you may feel that a day a week plus access to a library constitutes value for money I don’t. A big part of education is creating the context in which learning happens, so I’m a huge fan of students helping each other out. However there’s a big difference between that and students having to step in and correct their lecturers because they are teaching fundamentally bad habits.

    It’s easy for educators to claim these issues are natural or insurmountable or that industry doesn’t understand the challenges, or the students are to blame. However you only have to look at new schools like the School of Communication Arts to know that isn’t the case; an organisation who have created a deeply immersive learning environment, attracting hundreds (rather than a handful) of industry practitioners to mentor, and thousands of student applications, with successful applicants winning literally dozens of Yellow Pencils (which I personally don’t care for), done from a disused church in Brixton, thanks to the passion of a few individuals willing to disrupt the education system rather than apologise for it.

    So I agree that education should be about lighting fires rather than filling buckets. I just see too many students barely surviving the education system because they bought their own matches, and many more leaving with their fires put out and the sense that they’ve been pissed on.

    1. Thanks Andy. As you’ve probably gathered your original article has raised a few heckles in the academic community and within industry itself.
      Let me reply to some, if not all, your comments.

      Thanks for the long and considered response to my article. Unfortunately it feels like your approach has been to take individual statements out of context, wrap your own (often incorrect) interpretation of what I meant by them, then present them back as though they were my own beliefs. It’s a great argument technique, although not an entirely fair one. You also called me out on several things I failed to say, which again seems a cheap trick considering this was a short blog post rather than an official report on the state of education. That being said I’ll try to address some of the things you claim I’m saying and some of things you feel I didn’t say, but should have.

      Okay, well I can’t simultaneously be ‘considered’ in my response and then accused of taking things out of context, can I? Either it’s considered or it’s ill-considered?

      First off, my criticism of digital design education is largely scoped around the UK, as there are fantastic institutions teaching truly modern digital curricula in countries like the US, Norway and Sweden. Sadly when I look across UK courses I’m yet to see any that come close to the quality of education provided at places like SVA or CIID. The closest, based on the feedback I hear from students, and the quality of output is probably Central St Martins. I’m not counting Hyper Island here btw, as it’s effectively a private company, started in Sweden by a digital agency, and doing a reasonably good job from what I can see.

      Okay but go back to the point I made a couple of times… The criticisms you make are not unique to you, nor are they unique to ‘digital design’. You praise graphics and product design courses, yet those disciplines also get criticised by people in industry too. It’s easy to criticise (I know – I do it a lot too) but the criticisms tend to be sweeping ones not specifics and that’s really not useful. Your complaints seem more about hurt feelings and anecdotes (the course leader didn’t open the door – well, that’s hardly a reason to condemn the course, is it?) rather than a detailed critique of the curriculum or the way it is taught based on what you’ve actually observed.

      In terms of who the offenders are, it’s somewhat unfair to expect me to call out bad courses.

      As opposed to simply saying all (which is what you imply) digital design education is broken? I think that’s unfair.

      It’s especially unfair on those hard working and passionate lecturers who are doing their best in very challenging situations; often delivering the one good module on the course.

      Ditto. If you see good practice, say so – careers are made on the basis of such praise.

      It’s also difficult to do as the list would encompass the majority of courses I’ve experienced.

      Again, a really broad and sweeping statement. By ‘experienced’, what do you mean? Have you spent hours observing the teaching? Have you been in studios and labs to see what students are up to?

      That being said I’m happy to call out my local University of Brighton as an obvious offender. Not least because I know several very good designers who went through there and found the quality of education severely wanting.

      I taught at Brighton for four years. That aside (the course you seem to be criticising wasn’t one I had anything to do with) there’s an inherent contradiction in your statement. These ‘several very good designers who went through there’ – does the course get no credit for that?

      And by that I don’t mean they were using slightly older version of Photoshop, I mean they were teaching fundamental beliefs and practices which have been dismissed, discarded or proven to be irrelevant many years ago. Something I made perfectly clear in the article. So I want people to be taught how to think, to explore to learn (again something I also made clear) rather than to absorb information by rote.

      Right – well without criticising that particular course, I think we’re on the same page here as I said in my post. I too encounter teaching that clings to outmoded beliefs and practices and I’ve spent the past 15 years trying to change that. But I encounter that in industry too. So is the digital design industry broken? No.
      Students don’t choose courses blindly – or at least they shouldn’t. It should be pretty clear whether you’re applying to a traditional course or a progressive one. Ideally you should be exposed to a range of approaches and ideas – this is university after all and you can’t be taught how to think and explore if you’ve got nothing to push against.

      I’m also happy to call out Ravensbourne college (although there are plenty of others), which is considered by many as an exemplary provider. However while the output of their product design, motion graphics, and even architecture courses demonstrated a deep level of understanding of both craft skills and the underlying fundamentals of design, their digitally focussed courses demonstrated neither.

      I’m assuming you’ve told them that? And suggested improvements? So there’s one. What about Brunel? 93% student satisfaction rate. Brighton’s digital media course has a 77% satisfaction rate – not stellar but not as bad as you’re suggesting.
      The point I’m making here is not that everything is wonderful but that there is a real spectrum. Your article suggested it was very black, and not a lot of white. Your criticisms may be valid, but your broad brush application renders them invalid which is a shame because you clearly have constructive points to make but are not making them.

      While I’m not so quick at bashing students as you are,

      Whoa whoa… what? Where did I bash students? I simply said that sometimes poor work is the result of poor students or failed (but bold) experiments. I’ve never known a degree show that only showed the best work.

      I was surprised how few of them turned up to the student show I attended last year.

      Welcome to my world. Degree shows are usually ghost towns after the Private View. I wouldn’t criticise students, or the course, because they didn’t get the bunting out for you. Have you seen the energy that goes in to putting those things together? They were probably knackered.

      Then again the course leader couldn’t be bothered to turn up and unlock the door to the studio where their show was taking place, so I’m not overly surprised.

      I don’t think course leaders do that – it’s usually the estates team. Is your complaint that you turned up and no one was there? Well that’s a legitimate complaint. Is your extrapolation from this somehow that the course is crap? That’s quite a leap of logic. I’d have opted for hangovers or job interviews being the more likely explanation.

      However you’re right that I shouldn’t judge a course by the show. Fortunately I’m not. I’m judging the courses partly by the output their students have presented, which is almost always weaker than other design related courses, but also on talking to the individuals (often in depth) and exploring their outlook and way of approaching problems. Like a good maths teacher I’m more interested in seeing the workings than the final result. Sadly the bulk of digital courses seem to fetishise the output.

      There’s another contradiction here. You say Ravensbourne’s output is ‘always weaker than other courses’ but then say ‘sadly the bulk of digital courses seem t fetishise the output’. So is it weaker than the others or are they all the same?

      It’s worth noting that I’m not basing my views on a small sample of disaffected students as you suggested, although these views are easy to come by. I’m basing them on talking to existing students on courses and asking them how they are finding it, talking to existing lecturers on courses and asking the same, viewing the output of said courses (with much disappointment), exploring the skills demonstrated by students coming out of some of the best regarded courses in the UK and who are partaking in our internships, and then judging those folks against students from overseas institutions, exploring the skills of folks on courses at places like SVA, talking to agency founders and design leaders at companies large and small, and participating at discussions on education at national and international meetings and conferences. So while it’s a good trick to claim I have a narrow focus, that’s far from the truth.

      Okay. I don’t think your judgements are correct but you’re entitled to your opinion. But I should explain that uniquely in the world the UK higher education system employs the external examiner system which means that every course is visited by someone from a competitor institution. Their job is to ensure that standards are comparable, that a first at Brighton is equivalent to a first at Ravensbourne. The whole system is overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency, an organisation that has no equivalent in the USA, which involves a rigorous process of inspection. I’m an external examiner and I’ve sat on several validation panels. Believe you me, we do not simply nod things through. I think it’s fair to say that I get asked to be an external examiner because I’m a ‘critical friend’, and whenever I’m involved in appointing externals I make this a key qualifier. You could be an external examiner – why not offer? The pay’s lousy but the experience is interesting. Educators also meet up regularly – New Blood would be one example where we pore over what each other is doing. But there are also subject associations: I went to one of these recently and be assured we do not sit around thinking ‘hey isn’t everything great’. We’re only too happy to critique, to share good practice, to criticise out of date approaches. We are critical. We know what’s going on. We’re not backward in coming forward if we think something’s not up to scratch.

      It’s also worth dispelling the idea you created that I think university is about lectures and nothing else. I wish more universities would create dedicated studio spaces for their digital design courses, akin to product design and architecture. However in a lot of course I’ve come across, all that face time is compressed into a single day a week. The 6 hours I mentioned. And while you may feel that a day a week plus access to a library constitutes value for money I don’t. A big part of education is creating the context in which learning happens, so I’m a huge fan of students helping each other out. However there’s a big difference between that and students having to step in and correct their lecturers because they are teaching fundamentally bad habits.

      I think you fundamentally misunderstand learning. That’s fine – it’s not your area of expertise. But you sound like Michael Gove and that’s not something to be proud of. I didn’t say ‘a day a week plus access to a library constitutes value for money’, I said that students don’t get six hours. That’s like saying you only watch BBC1 so why do you have to pay for all the other stuff? It’s that characterisation of what students ‘get’ that demonstrates that you do think university is about ‘lectures’ (by which I mean direct didactic teaching whatever the form, or ‘face time’ as you call it). ‘Tuition fees’ are misnamed – they don’t pay for tuition. They pay for membership of an institution and the best students make best use of that.

      It’s easy for educators to claim these issues are natural or insurmountable or that industry doesn’t understand the challenges, or the students are to blame. However you only have to look at new schools like the School of Communication Arts to know that isn’t the case; an organisation who have created a deeply immersive learning environment, attracting hundreds (rather than a handful) of industry practitioners to mentor, and thousands of student applications, with successful applicants winning literally dozens of Yellow Pencils (which I personally don’t care for), done from a disused church in Brixton, thanks to the passion of a few individuals willing to disrupt the education system rather than apologise for it.

      This is a fantastic model. It’s what I would do if I could. The trouble is you’re comparing apples and oranges there. It’s a private institution set up by organisations that previously would have provided this training to its employees. It’s an apprenticeship model. That’s brilliant. Fantastic. Can’t fault them for that. But, er, that’s not a scalable model. They take a handful of students – which is very nice. They charge nearly £15,000. They compress the course into a 50 hour week. They get free teaching (although it’s probably the old fashioned ‘sitting with nellie’ approach) from industry. We can’t compete with that. It’s madness to suggest it’s a model. It’s an ideal. It’s not a social enterprise, it’s an elite institution funded by industry. Good luck to them, we need this diversity, but it has little relevance to a school leaver from Huddersfield who’s never left Yorkshire and can’t afford to leave home. (Actually, on reflection, it’s not an ideal – if the only thing those students are learning is how to be advertisers, it seems to be worryingly narrow. What if you decide advertising’s not for you?)

      So I agree that education should be about lighting fires rather than filling buckets. I just see too many students barely surviving the education system because they bought their own matches, and many more leaving with their fires put out and the sense that they’ve been pissed on.

      I agree that there is bad practice out there. I said it myself in my original post and I’ve been fighting it since I moved from industry, and pissing far more people off in the process than your original post did. However there is a LOT of excellent practice out there. We are, despite your protestations, producing f***ing excellent designers who are redefining practice globally. The world of digital interaction design bears no relationship to what it was 15 years ago – probably little relationship to what it was 15 months ago. This suggests we’re getting something right because otherwise we’d still be teaching Flash. But to take your experiences which, I’m sorry to say, are somewhat limited, and extrapolate to the whole sector is irresponsible, especially as you don’t make one practical suggestion for what you would do differently. Which is a shame because you know so much about the discipline, and you share it with others. But the way you’ve gone about this criticism is an attack, not a critique.

      So here’s my challenge to you. What would your ideal course look like? One year = 120 credits, that’s 1,200 learning hours (note – not teaching hours). Assuming a modular structure with 30 credit modules, two each semester, what would you teach? Just a rough sketch would do. Be creative. We want your suggestions – this isn’t me goading you.

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