Best Practices for Teaching Web Design

Loose notes from SXSW 2007 panel: Best Practices for Teaching Web Design

Taking one for the team here. Didn’t expect to learn anything new at this one, and didn’t, but since I’m teaching HTML to journalism students, thought I should be at this one. Mostly reiterating the struggle: We all know what we should be teaching, but practical constraints and .edu politics make it tough to get enough leeway to teach things the right way. Also a huge entrenched problem of HTML teachers not feeling the need to teach standards, or to even help students appreciate the subtle glory of semantic, well-structured documents. Schools want to go straight for the design and wizzy jugular before the basics are in place (felt like they were describing my life here).

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Teachers tend not to keep up with web technology – way too many teachers still teaching HTML rather than XHTML, or just going straight to teaching multimedia rather than at least starting with standards.

70% of jobs asking for XHTML and CSS skills (This is a subjective estimate by one of the panelists, not a hard stat). Not HTML 4.1. Responsibility to prep students for the real job market.

Think function, think message. Start with content/information structure. For some educators, thinking about semantics before starting on design is a huge paradigm shift. Essential to think about structured content first. Design/artistic direction comes later. This is how you get control of your code.

What makes a good web site? Because it makes money? Or because it has influence? Or because it looks cool? Our criteria:

– Understandable to all
– Workable in all devices
– Easy to use
– Appealing to look at
– Good content

You can no longer think in terms of your web site being consumed only by web browsers. And yet we still teach it this way. Need to prepare students to go into industry and create content that will be consumable on any client.

The usual buzzwords:

Separation of markup from presentaiton
Usability & information architecture
Aesthetic appeal

Students must be exposed to all of these concepts – spend time on each. We forget to teach students what a page of good, clean, semantic markup looks like. This stuff is holding up the rest of the universe.

Teaching it right begins with knowing it right:

– Keep up to date. Insist on adequate training.
– Exchange tips with your peers and coleagues
– Encourage reluctant colleagues to accept change.
– Choose textbooks that thelp you teach standards-based thinking
Recommended books
– Your students may be skilled users of the Web and might know more than you do about certain things. Learn from them.

Understanding the Impact:

– Industry demands Web standards knowledge
– Are your students going to be employable?
– Students who want to learn standards may go elsewhere if your program isn’t meeting their needs.
– A reputation for turning out industry-ready students may have positive impact on your faculty/department budget.


10 Replies to “Best Practices for Teaching Web Design”

  1. Hi Scott,

    Just wanted to let you know how pleased I was to see my Vitamin article listed as a resource in this post.

    I’m honored – thanks!


  2. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for attempting to keep a summary. I would have much preferred it if we were able to make this more of a Q&A session in order to have more time for people discuss their experiences. This is an issue that needs more discussion, but unfortunately it was quite impossible for us to do that in a 25 minute session.

    I would like to just add that the statistic of “70%” is purely an approximation from my observation of the job market, and indeed local to my geographical location — and is not a hard measured percentage, so this is not a safe measure to quote. I would be most interested to know if other folks are seeing a similar trend in their local job market.

    Thanks for coming to the session and supporting us, even if you knew you weren’t going to learn anything new :)

    However, I think the fact that we can still re-iterate this issue and have it still hold true — is indeed a problem. We should strive for the day where the things mentioned in the session today need no longer be said.

  3. Thanks Steph – I’ve added a note that that was a subjective statistic.

    Too bad this session was stuffed into one of the shorter blocks – could easily have been a full-hour session. But I suppose they have to tailor schedules to relative interest show in the pre-show surveys.

    Strive on!

  4. Thanks for reporting on this panel. To me a big part of the problem is that curriculum flow is not organized to emphasize best practices from the start of the learning process. They get tacked on as an after thought at the end. We’re training students for a whole semester in something and then two weeks before the class ends, we’re telling them, “Oh, yeah, forget all that and do this instead.” My rule for using best practices is Start Now.

  5. Virginia, I agree in principle, but in reality, this stuff is sometimes taught rather quickly (for a variety of reasons). The plain fact is that you can teach (for example) table-based design in a very small fraction of the time it takes to teach CSS layout. The learning curve for CSS is just too great for a lot of environments. Which is unfortunate.

  6. I understand what you mean about reality vs. theory. But how should we expect universities to train the people who are supposed to be our future web professionals? From a best practices point of view, I’d like to see CSS built into the learning process from the start. This is why both my books have the words “integrated HTML and CSS” in the title. Then when the time comes to create a layout, the knowledge is already there. Best practices for teaching tables, on the other hand, mean that students are taught how to use scope and headers attributes, and summary and caption, as a integrated part of the process of learning how to make a table.

  7. Hi there,

    I have actually taught both approaches to layout, and have found that it’s not so hard to teach CSS layouts if you do it right from the beginning. (I’ve had to train folks how to do this when they have very basic knowledge in HTML in companies in a grand total of two days, for example.)

    I’ve found teaching CSS is easiest by explaining its basic concepts and how it works alongside (X)HTML before you come to looking at how to “slice” a design. Then it’s a matter of training your students how to analyse a design for CSS layout, before even lifting a finger to code. It’s much easier teaching them the method and the philosophy first, rather then expecting them to rote learn selectors, values etc off the bat, or memorising how to build two/three column layouts.

  8. Virginia, Steph –

    Out of curiosity, are the courses you’re teaching dedicated to web development, or part of something larger? (e.g. in our case we’re teaching a smattering of various multimedia skills to journalists). Approximately how many total course hours do you have with the students?


  9. I’m no longer teaching, but I have taught all sorts of classes. In some cases the classes were part of a degree program and I stressed web standards and best practices. In some cases the class was a brief introduction, maybe in a continuing ed situation or a one-day seminar. In those non-degree situations, I concentrated on far fewer skills but I still tried to teach best practices as a basic tenet. As you said above, theory and practice often conflict in situations like this. I’ve even taught classes full of high school teachers who were supposed to return to their schools and teach kids to make web pages using Microsoft Office as their toolset.

    In your situation, where journalists are probably entering content into some sort of CMS field, I would teach them a few basics such as headings, blockquotes, anchors, abbreviations, and various text formatting elements like strong, em, and cite. The assumption is that somewhere along the line someone with professional level skills has designed a standards-based template for the content they create. (Did I just talk about CMS and standards-based templates in the same paragraph? Talk about theory bumping up against reality!)


  10. Certainly many journalists will end up working with CMSs, but what we’re addressing here is the rapidly growing trend of newspapers/publications making HTML/CSS a requirement of new hires, as more and more publications go beyond the old text-based publishing model into more advanced multimedia storytelling. So HTML is just one part of a program in which they’re learning audio/video editing, Flash, and multimedia storytelling techniques. Since we have to cover all that ground, we can’t focus on XHTML/CSS as much as I’d like – not enough time.

    Thanks for your input!

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