Two weeks ago I held a webdesign workshop at the annual Intermediate Skills Challenge — a day for junior high school students to learn about careers in trades and technologies. Every year there are demonstrations, hands-on activities and competitions related to careers in graphic design, video production, cooking, baking, hairstyling, carpentry and many more.
It’s all part of the Skills Canada not-for-profit organization which I’ve been a part of for many years as a competitor, coach, and technical committee member. Think of it as the “Nerd Olympics”, with the ultimate goal to be a competitor at the biannual World Skills competition (the next one’s hosted in London next October).
Normally I would have attended the event to judge the Graphic Design competition, but this year I was contacted by Skills Canada who asked if I knew anyone who could hold a web workshop in the absence of the cancelled Web Design competition. I happily volunteered.
I don’t particularly agree with the idea of holding a competition for junior high school kids who are just beginning to learn about how websites are made. My main issue with this is that these kids simply aren’t prepared by their teachers to compete. It’s no secret that the majority of web design courses in grade school (and some colleges) are taught by instructors with little to no experience with web standards — something I know all too well from my own experience of being a student. There are exceptions of course, but this seems to be an overwhelming problem.
How disappointed would these kids be to sit down at the computer on competition day and realize that they don’t know what they’re doing? Or worse, sitting down next to a whiz kid who might actually know enough to get by (perhaps from a relative), who wins by a landslide? Discouragement from the start, especially at such a young age, isn’t the best way to get kids excited about learning web design.
Neither is setting them up with a copy of a WYSIWYG editor — the weapon of choice for most grade-school (and college level) technology teachers — and expecting them to make a website without first understanding how or why it works.
Naturally, I jumped at the chance to set these kids on a good path, hopefully preventing bad practice before getting too much exposure to the ways of the past.
I began with the basics that we often take for granted — I taught them what a website is, how it works, what a browser is, gave examples of text and visual editors, domains and web hosting, site structure, file formats and extensions.
I talked about HTML and CSS, stressing the importance of separating content from style — something I bet they’d never heard from their technology teachers before. I taught the basic tags used for structure in a simple three page website and showed them how to work with stylesheets. I gave them time in between to try writing simple HTML tags and applying styles so they could understand how it worked.
I tied it all together with an example web workflow from start to finish — from concept sketch to uploading finished files to a web server.
Although the workshop only lasted for two and a half hours and I knew it would be impossible to teach them everything, my goal was to provide them with enough takeaways to get them dabbling with design at home. Each student received a copy of my slides, the example files, resources for further reading and study, and my business card with an open invitation to ask me any questions whenever they needed help. One student in particular endlessly thanked me for coming and couldn’t wait to get home and practice the new things he learned. What a great feeling it is to make a positive impact like that.
It’s important for web professionals to get involved in education whenever possible. Web design can be daunting enough as it is — especially these days when the line between website and application is becoming more blurred. Anyone can “design” a website in a few mouse clicks, but we need to make sure that the fundamentals of web design are passed on to the next generation of designers to come.
A final plea — If you’re a web design instructor in education of any level and you’re still firing up a WYSIWYG editor on day one of “Introduction to Web Design”, it’s time to admit that you aren’t on top of your game and start learning web standards (might I suggest you start here). Your role is a powerful one, and it’s you who should prepare students for the real world. And the real world doesn’t use table layouts anymore.