Digital Education is Broken | January 31, 2016

Ever since I started blogging in the early the naughties, the emails came in. At first in dribs and drabs, one every few months. However by the end of the decade they were one or two a week. 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a year on tuition fees, and even more on living expenses, to find themselves languishing on a course that was woefully out of date.

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? Tales of 19 year olds effectively becoming teaching assistants on the courses they were paying for, because they knew more than their lecturers. Students walking out halfway through their courses, because they were learning more from their evening gigs than they ever could at school.

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.

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. Far from it. Instead I want my tax funded education system to produce well rounded members of society; individuals who are interested in following their passions and who have been taught the tools to learn and think. Sadly digitally focussed courses, in the UK at least, are failing on even these most basic standards.

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. 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.

You’d be excused for thinking the institutions themselves were broken, were it not for the amazing digital work coming from other courses like Product Design, Motion Design, Graphic Design and even Architecture; work that showed a deep understanding of creative problem solving and an appreciation of the medium. So why are digital courses so bad?

I sit down for lunch with a lecturer friend of mine. He bemoans the state of digital design education, as he attempts to scratch a living on the higher education equivalent of a zero hour contract, working far more hours than he was paid for. Fighting for quality inside an organisation that doesn’t really care; that has too many other stakeholders born in a different era to worry about this “digital thing”.

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? Is it any wonder that the graduates from a 10-week General Assembly course leave with more face time (and a better portfolio) than an 18-month Masters?

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.

And my lecturer friends do what they can. Running the best course possible within a broken system; hoping (and fearing) digital transformation will eventually disrupt their sector, like other sectors before it.

However there’s only so much any one individual can do on their own, which is why I’m pleased there are events like The Interaction Design Education Summit. I hope that through events like this (and others) we can put pressure on the institutions, improve the quality of courses, and help bring digital education out of the dark ages, in order to give students the learning experience they truely deserve.

Posted at January 31, 2016 6:59 PM


David Watson said on January 31, 2016 10:11 PM

Andy, I don’t doubt your commitment to the cause of improving digital education in UK HE, you’ve been an active supporter of our work at Greenwich for a number of years, but I’m not entirely sure that articles like this are helpful. The problem is that those who should read this, never will, while those of us who do just end up feeling frustrated; lumped in with the rest of a poorly performing sector.

The problems we face are significant but also complex and I worry that by casting the issue in the way you have, there is a possibility that it is reduced to an over-simple message.

The landscape in UK HE digital design education is not uniform, there are peaks of excellence rising from the plains and, in general, things are improving, though admittedly progress is slower than many of us would like.


Gillian Crampton Smith said on February 7, 2016 4:15 PM

I think it is difficult to teach basic design skills through digital media. Digital media pulls one towards the abstract, the logical, but there is always the point at which the concept and its logic faces its resolution in a thing—something that can be seen, heard, touched, sensed, responded to emotionally, where skills of synthesis and form-giving are more important than logic. And learning these design skills is like learning to play a musical instrument: it takes practice, a lot of practice, making, reflecting, re-making. I found it much easier to teach interaction design to people who had already developed design skills in some other medium where these processes are well established—product design, graphic design, architecture, for instance.
Unfortunately the modular structure of the modern university does not well support the development of design skills and sensibility; as Andy says, 6 hours of lectures a week is hopeless—however good and committed the teachers are.
When we started to teach the Masters at Iuav in Venice we decided to teach as we had been taught: we shared the salary so there could be two of us in class and met the students three afternoons a week. When they didn’t have morning humanities and theory lessons they worked in the studio. This meant that, as the class contained two year-cohorts of students, they exchanged ideas, perspectives, experience, building a culture from which we all learned. Most importantly, they were immersed in design, working on their project every day.