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Down in Front

At three years old, I would get impromptu invitations from the pastor of my church to sing. “Dan, do you have a song for us this week?” he would ask from the pulpit. I’d gladly oblige, walk to the front toting along my 37-key Casio, and sing and play a one-fingered version of the song I learned that week.

More than two decades later, I sing and play almost weekly as one-seventh of a contemporary Christian band. And in the virtual world, running a fairly well-traveled site and being a part of the world’s best web design consultancy (yes, I am biased) means enduring a large amount of scrutiny, both good and bad.

For all of my young life, I’ve been a performer. Not much has changed.

Impressionable young minds

A local college—The University of the Arts—has made the mistake of hiring me to teach a web design class. For the last few weeks, I’ve been teaching “Web Design II” as a Continuing Education class. My students are learning the “proper way“ to write XHTML and CSS. (Aside: even as the teacher, I’m probably the youngest in the class, so I use the terms “teacher” and “students” loosely.)

While the course description initially boasted that students would learn how to create dynamic websites using client-side and server-side technologies, I soon realized that learning—and teaching—structure, presentation, behavior, and content management in 10 weeks is extremely daunting. After week 1, I quickly revised my curriculum and shifted the focus to creating web designers that are extremely competent at CSS. That task alone is still proving challenging, especially with my initial expectations of a “Web Design II” class. That’s not a dish at my students; it’s a disappointed reaction to the poor state of web design education. For students to first hear and learn about the concept of “web standards” at an intermediate level is eye-opening.

I deliberated about releasing my syllabus. After all, it took a significant portion of my time to create (and continually revise) it, so putting it out there for people to see (and steal) is certainly worrisome for me. However, for the sake of capitalism—no, for the love of the sake of capitalism—the value that feedback could bring outweighs the danger of theft.

So, here’s the class website for Web Design II.

For any web design teachers out there (or anyone else interested), I’d love any feedback you can give on the way my class is structured. You’re welcome to use this as a jumping off point for your own classes; all I ask is that you let me know that you’ll be using it as well as what you’ve done with it.

For any program coordinators, I’m more than willing to collaborate and help create more well-informed web design programs. Drop me a line and we can chat.

Staying (Re)Fresh

Part of the reason I wanted to teach is to stay in touch with the basics. If I’m continually living on the fringe (oh yes, be on the lookout for upcoming new work), I may either forget what I’ve learned or not be able to communicate and sell a basic service to a client. Teaching students are the new to the concept strengthens my ability to communicate it.

However, for the sake of moderation, I also have to be able to communicate those fringe concepts. Refresh DC has given me the opportunity speak to them about a certain approach to progressive enhancement I’ve been working called “The Experience Layer.” I may write more about that in the near future, but until then, the only place you can hear about it is at the next Refresh DC. If you’re in DC this Thursday, do drop by and say hello. If not, feel free to tell your local conference organizer—be it An Event Apart, Future of Web Design, dConstruct, or SXSW—that you’d like me to speak at the event nearest you.


Tim Kadlec said:

Overall looks like a great class! I would love to see more colleges start to push the curriculum forward like this...there are still just too many that don't give the proper attention to standards based development.

Only one thought here...I didn't see it but does your course include a discussion of the box model? It's a very fundamental concept, but if it's well understood, it can make CSS development go much more smoothly.

Posted on June 16, 2008 10:54 AM

Ryan Burrell said:

I feel your pain. I teach continuing ed classes at a local community college here and find that the expectations that students come in with are often A) unrealistic and B) perpetuated by the continuing ed course catalog.

My advice would be: Don't be afraid of lowering your expectations from the class. As you said, this isn't a dig against the students; they haven't had the opportunity to learn this stuff before. My experience has been that tackling an in-depth topic such as CSS at a slower pace (especially with the older demographic that generally composes CE classes) usually yields better results than trying to hit all the things that are "important". Because, after all, it's all "important" :)

Posted on June 16, 2008 12:20 PM

Erik V. said:

Thanks for sharing! I don't teach web design (yet?) but have taught other courses; I'm pretty sure my former students--and maybe other people--are glad that I put the syllabi online. Hopefully the same will prove true for you.

Posted on June 16, 2008 02:48 PM

Sean S said:

I don't have any constructive comments for you other than to say that the class looks awesome. I only briefly skimmed the syllabus and slide decks -- they look great!

This is so needed.

Posted on June 17, 2008 02:54 PM

Scott Lenger said:

I wasn't in the class so this might be off base, but I would suggest cleaning up the technical language in week two. Stuff like "Adjacent sibling selectors" can often complicate an otherwise simple concept. Jeremy Keith is the master of making complicated subject matter easy to understand.

Also in 2008 do we still need to argue the business case for web standards?

Otherwise it appears like all the basic concepts are covered.

I also 2nd Tim's note about the box model.

Anyway, that's my $.02

Posted on June 17, 2008 03:45 PM

bearskinrug said:

How come when I ask you to do an impromptu performance with some singing and a little dancing, and some ventriloquism you shy away?

Posted on June 20, 2008 06:28 AM

Dan Mall said:


I didn't see it but does your course include a discussion of the box model? It's a very fundamental concept, but if it's well understood, it can make CSS development go much more smoothly.

Good point. Even though the box model was part of my lecture, I neglected to put it on my online syllabus. It’s there now under Week 3.

@Scott: Good catch. It’s updated now.

Also in 2008 do we still need to argue the business case for web standards?

Absolutely. I’d even go so far as to say that we need to emphasize it more now. There’s a certain generation that is learning how to write markup that is web-standards compliant and validates, but they don't understand why. They’ve never built sites with tables before. The value of teaching why clean markup helps and why we should separate content, presentation, and behavior is certainly just as needed as it has ever been.

@Bearskinrug: You can’t always expect me to be the dummy. You have to take a turn too.

Posted on June 22, 2008 10:37 PM

ks said:

Great stuff. I used to teach that very class. You're discovering many of the same things I did, and your approach is spot-on. It's much better to provide specialized instruction of value than attempt to be all encompassing.

The only piece of advice I would offer is to watch out for what I used to call the "9:15pm drop-off." Many of these folks work all day and have trouble keeping on point after that time. Best tactic is to frontload the most difficult content to the beginning of the session, when the cognitive skills are fresh.

Alternatively, you could sing the lesson ... that would certainly get *my* attention.

Posted on July 30, 2008 03:37 PM

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