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What schools should do to improve web development education

What’s the first thing you think about when I tell you I’m a teacher?

Did any of these things just cross your mind: “vacation”, “more vacation”, “big pension” or “20-hour workweek”? I hate to disappoint you, the stereotype doesn’t apply to web development teachers. At least not to the ones who care.

I teach students in college HTML, CSS, Javascript, jQuery, PHP & MySQL, Node.js, Linux, ASP.NET and all things related to those fields. In my opinion, anyone who teaches HTML should also know a lot about SEO and accessibility and share that knowledge with their students. When you teach CSS, you should have a lot of hands-on experience with tackling older browsers, but also with the latest developments in CSS-land. Otherwise, you’re just playing.

In this article I hope to describe what the current problem with the education system is for anyone teaching web development.

Before we get started, let me be clear that I’m very proud to teach at Thomas More college in Mechelen and that I’m blessed with some of the colleagues I can work with. If you feel like studying web development/design, then Interactive Multimedia Design is definitely something you should consider (I would definitely study IMD myself if I had to start from scratch). Get in touch with us at http://www.facebook.com/WeAreIMD if you have any questions and we’ll help you out.

This article isn’t for students, but for anyone wondering what makes working as a web development lecturer difficult.

Embrace lifelong learning

When you teach web development, you aren’t teaching English or math (with all due respect to anyone who’s teaching English or math). Sure, you can always learn something new in math or English, but it’s a completely different ballgame compared to web development, where new technologies pop up practically every week.

New versions of software, programming languages, operating systems, browsers, ... it never ends. Don’t get me wrong, the constant evolution in web development is exactly what draws me to this field and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

If web design was still the same thing it was in the 90s, we would still be teaching HTML, the <font> tag and be done with it. There’s no fun in that at all. But schools and universities haven’t really caught up to the rapid field we’re working and teaching in or they simply have no clue. Teachers get paid the exact same wage no matter what they are teaching and that’s where things go wrong.

If I’m not keeping up with the latest developments in our industry, I wouldn’t want to be a student in my own class. Lifelong learning is what we need to do to, I just wish that schools realized that this should be part of the job as well, not just a part of the weekends.

Adapt to reality

I’m not teaching for the money, there are much easier ways to make a living. Teachers / college lecturers like myself get paid in “hours”. Put simply, a teacher gets paid depending on the amount of hours they teach weekly. The school system doesn’t care whether you’re teaching math, soft ball or web development, they just count the hours and call it a day. That’s how budgets and thus the workload gets divided.

I can honestly say that I need at least twice the time a math or languages professor needs in order to prepare a great class. Why is that you ask? Read on and you shall discover.

Empower real-life projects

Without building out projects for clients or myself, how could I possibly gain the necessary experience to stay on top of my game? By reading a book? By watching some youtube video for 10 minutes? Forget it. You can only learn web development by building out projects and by shipping code. I can’t imagine a math teacher having to put in the same amount of effort to teach somebody how to calculate the surface of a circle. That math course probably stays the same for the next thirty years or so.

To be good at web development, you have to put in the hours. Hours that aren’t budgeted by the current education system. That makes it very difficult to attract experienced and motivated people to teach.

Stimulate meetups and networking

You want your students to end up at good companies with enjoyable jobs right? I know I do. That’s why I find it very important to have connections in our industry that I can rely upon. In exchange, companies know they can contact me when they need a good web developer. I’m more than happy to make the introduction.

Musketon

Meeting people in our industry requires going to meetups, speaking at events, networking at conferences. It’s something I enjoy a lot, but it comes at the price of time. Again, time that isn’t budgeted by our current education system. I don’t see the English teacher going to those meetups either anytime soon. Nobody expects them to show up at those events to begin with and they probably wouldn’t have a clue what all those geeks are talking about anyway.

Host and organize events

There’s no better way to learn from each other and to meet new people than by organising your own events. I’ve convinced our management to budget some time (not enough, but it’s a great start at least!) to be able to organize our own events. We invite our personal heroes (like Musketon) to speak and share lessons with our students.

We host events where we invite alumni to share knowledge with our current students. We organize Coding Olympics where our coders fight in a Javascript coding battle while web development company District01 mentors them towards victory.

The Coding Olympics

These aren’t activities my boss requires me to do, but I love doing them so much and I wholeheartedly believe they make our curriculum so much more interesting and exciting to our students. It wouldn’t be the first student I introduce to a potential employer on one of those events.

I wish schools would invest more in teachers (again, not money but time) that want to organize valuable events and make that a structural part of their job.

Experimenting with new technologies

Besides teaching and optimizing the courses I’m already teaching, I see it as my responsibility to keep my eyes open for new opportunities and technologies that arise in the meantime. One day, we will probably be teaching those technologies as well and when that day comes, we want to be ready for it. There’s only one problem with that. Schools don’t pay you (not cash, but hours remember) to invest time investigating topics you aren’t teaching right now.

I understand where that comes from. For decades, schools have taught courses that would hardly ever change, like math and English. Why would an English teacher need to invest time into investigating some new obscure language. It’s not as if we’ll all be talking Klingon anytime soon is there?

In comparison, look at the iPhone for example. It didn’t even exists when I started teaching seven years ago and now almost everything we do is mobile-first.

Stimulate extra-curricular activities

Web developers and designers like me and my students are a weird, creative breed. We sit behind our computers all day long while the world requires us to be creative all the time. We don’t need much, but we appreciate an inspiring work environment more than anyone else.

Because our school wasn’t going to give us such a space automatically (I get that), we decided to build one ourselves with the help of our students. We did all that in our vacation time, for free. Because some people of our management believed in our ideas, we were able to get the funding in order to build The Creativity Gym out of an abandoned gym on school premises.

Right now this space is the heart of where we teach Interactive Multimedia Design and it has become a space where we teach, host events, network and especially work together on projects.

The Creativity Gym

We would build that Gym again in a heart-beat during our next vacation, but wouldn’t it be better if schools would simply support their teachers more to invest their time into something they really believe in? We didn’t spend that much cash building out the Gym but we did get a huge boost in motivation in return. Our students love the Gym and I’ve noticed a steady increase in motivation and quality of work, what school wouldn’t benefit from that?

Schools should be more like startups

Schools - especially colleges - should be more like startups or they risk becoming obsolete. Somebody already wrote that and I totally agree. Gone are the days where students just went to school because that was the only place where knowledge could be found.

Today, we can easily get our hands on any kind of learning resources especially in our field without leaving the bedroom. The real value of going to college lies in the advice you get from experienced mentors and the network of fellow-students you can build out. If schools don’t change the way they support their mentors, they risk loosing them, simply because they don’t get the time necessary to do their job the best way they can. And then what?

It’s important to note that some people in our management have shown the courage to empower me and my equally motivated colleagues. I’m extremely thankful to them for supporting our quest for a better education system. If there are students that study Interactive Multimedia Design right now, I encourage them to chime in and let us know in the comments what they think of the recent evolution we’ve gone through within our field of study, I’m sure they’re on our side.

I am optimistic and think that it will only take more time before schools will realize the importance of investing in people with ideas that can make a difference. I just hope it won’t be too late by the time that happens.

Until then, I salute my math and English teaching colleagues. I love you guys and I know you work harder than I can even imagine, I’m sure you guys understand I just needed a scapegoat to describe my own quest.

See you in school kids!

Update: It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who experiences work in college this way. Bramus is a colleague in another Belgian college and he has the following to say.

About the author

Hi there! I'm a freelancer who can help you build a great application or website - yes, also for mobile devices. If you speak Dutch, check out my eBooks.

Hire me, whether it's to help you build your next project or to organize a workshop. I teach about web design + development in college and I'd be happy to put a workshop together for you.