Thoughts on ‘The UX Design Education Scam’ by @andyrutledge: my first rebuttal

In my capacity as a course leader in a higher education programme that features the words “web and new media” in the title, here are the first of two rebuttals of Andy Rutledge’s article “The UX Design Education Scam“.

Former BCU colleague Matt Machell asked for my thoughts on this. It actually relates to a post I wrote earlier today or more specifically to a promised secondary post concerning how my third year students are approaching building projects in my new-look module. That post is going to take me a bit of time to put together, but it answers Rutledge’s claim:

a primary reason university and college programs cannot change to remain relevant is because the technologies, standards, and practices one must understand in order to remain employably-relevant are changing on an annual or even monthly basis

Stay tuned for that one then, but rest assured Andy, I’ve got that covered, and I’m saddened to hear the courses you’ve been advising on haven’t (you share the blame for that, I’m afraid Mr Rutledge).

So enough of what’s to come. What can I answer now?

Sadly, the institutional definition of a web design course is one where some tool—usually Dreamweaver or Flash—is taught. 

Not on my watch.

Those who understand the UX design disciplines know that teaching Dreamweaver to web design students is like teaching typewriter to creative writing students. A typist does not a writer make

I agree with this point but note where I cut it: I had to remove “yet throughout academia the definition of web designer approximates to ‘tool jockey'”. Good teachers in higher education know they are not just teaching tools, and not just training technicians. There are great places that do those things already, so that’s not what we’re there to do. Sure, along the way we do need to teach production craft skills, and we will employ a number of means to ensure our students have a good level of production competence. But our actual job is more than that.

In the UK, the policy makers would have us train technicians. Digital Britain and Creative Britain are just two recent government documents that imagine a position for HE as a place that trains the workers needed for Britain’s creative economy to flourish. The subtext of this is that we should move towards more of a training model. Certainly I feel that is the way Skillset reads it.

But Skillset, Digital Britain and Andy Rutledge have forgotten what higher education is actually for. I haven’t.

HE is not Training

We need to be very clear about what a degree is, and what training is. I lead an award named BA (Hons) Media and Communication (Web and New Media). While our graduates must be capable media workers, skills based classes are just one part of what we deliver. BCU is well positioned to deliver excellent skills-based training through short courses run at NTI and via our further education partnerships. Our undergraduate courses must of course make this sort of quality training available to students, but we must also be aware that by offering level 6 qualifications we have signed up to do certain other things. 

The Bologna Process – which forms the basis of a common EU education framework – holds that a key feature of undergraduate study is that it must prepare students for postgraduate study – it must open up the route to further “second cycle” study including research degrees. The UK Quality Assurance Agency descriptors are based on the agreements of the Bologna Process. They state that at Level 6 students must:

…have developed an understanding of a complex body of knowledge, some of it at the current boundaries of an academic discipline. Through this, the holder will have developed analytical techniques and problem-solving skills that can be applied in many types of employment. The holder of such a qualification will be able to evaluate evidence, arguments and assumptions, to reach sound judgments and to communicate them effectively.

additionally:

Holders of a bachelor’s degree with honours should have the qualities needed for employment in situations requiring the exercise of personal responsibility, and decision-making in complex and unpredictable circumstances.

So while the *named* element of a degree might be considered to represent subject specific skills, the BA element denotes other higher-level skills that relate to personal qualities, effectiveness and adaptability. 

There’s a real parity between what a degree should provide and what employers actually want from graduates. The International Employer Barometer study of 2007 found that, when making recruitment decisions, specific subject skills were a fairly low priority for employers; much more important were broader undergraduate skills such as analysis, planning, and general intellectual ability. Additionally employees focus on soft skills such as team work and communication skills, which are often shaped through the teaching and learning methods we use within HE; the skills employers want are actually hard to gain through desk based research and experimental play at home, via self study, as Rutledge advocates in his blog post. Additionally, the study showed that employers are largely satisfied with HE’s ability to deliver subject specific skills

This is not just about responding to a “market” for our graduates and ticking boxes for the QAA; there are genuine student-focused reasons to develop these aspects of our courses. Many of our graduates will not enter full time employment, but will seek out opportunities to freelance or form their own creative businesses. BCU’s Destinations and Reflections survey of 2000 saw as many as 20% of art, design and media graduates would enter some form of self-employment in their first 12-months of industry practice. 

There are few jobs for life, especially in media industries which are experiencing constant change; even those students who do not start their own enterprises need to be entrepreneurial and innovative to ensure their own career development. The portfolio career is a realistic outcome of creative industries work. An undergraduate programme that focuses on skills for life-long learning, innovation, and critical insight equips a graduate with the best possible tools for a successful portfolio career. I have also found that it opens up opportunities for students that they would never have imagined when they started their course; higher education should be about opening up exciting opportunities for students, not closing them down.

Teaching in higher education isn’t about spoon-feeding knowledge to students; it’s about removing the barriers that prevent students from learning and attaining their potential. We can’t teach every skill that a student needs for their professional life but we can provide them with a space to develop self-reliance, independence, critical insight and portfolio building skills. In doing so we remove barriers not just for three years, but for life.

I agree with Rutledge that our field is still evolving. It’s not enough to teach to the bleeding edge of technology. The creative industries needs a stream of innovative, entrepreneurial leaders who are life long learners. Higher education programmes are specifically tasked by policy makers with delivering graduates who can step up to this challenge.

That is what my web design course offers, and it’s my job to make that happen.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org

  • toolbag

    Perhaps designers should be in FE not HE. Or media courses should not pretend to be design programmes.

  • Jon Hickman

    It really depends on what the student is looking for as to what route they should take, so you’re quite right that FE is one route.I can’t speak for other programmes but mine doesn’t “pretend to be a design degree”. Something I make clear at open day, right up front, to applicants and their parents. My institution has superb design degrees in another school.