Beat a drum

Education, Education, Education. Much of the buzz filtering back through Twitter from this year’s South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) surrounded the launch of the Web Standards Project’s InterAct Curriculum.  It builds on the efforts of Chris Mills and colleagues at Opera in developing their Web Standards Curriculum, and, while it’s still work in progress it looks – from a first glance – like it will grow to be an excellent set of resources to promote the teaching of best practice in web design.

These initiatives are all evidence of a brighter horizon, the product of efforts by web standards advocates to improve the quality of web design education, and thus the skillset of people entering the web design industry. This follows criticism of the standard of web design education, particularly at university level.

Web standards and accessibility have a very close relationship, so I wanted to talk a little about efforts being made here at Dundee University to promote accessibility and best practice in web design across all areas of education. We do this on a number of fronts, some of which I’m more involved in than others. (Oh – and please read the following as a case study rather than a blatant piece of marketing!)

Web design and accessibility/inclusive design is of course taught as part of the School of Computing’s undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses (Applied Computing, E-commerce Computing, Interactive Media Design, Design Ethnography to name a few), and I give the odd lecture here and there. Accessibility and inclusive design is pervasive from the start and throughout the degree programme, so is taught to all students – even those who don’t continue to Honours level in a Computing-related course.

A couple of examples:

  • a Yahoo! sponsored hackday has been a part of the Junior Honours (third year in a Scottish four year Honours degree) web design module on our undergrad programme for a couple of years now. and this year’s winner was a way of supporting searching that may be particularly beneficial for people with physical impairments.
  • And given that so much research here is looking at how technology can support disabled and older people, many individual and group student projects have a strong accessibility flavour, and involve interaction with older and disabled people.

We’ve been doing this for many, many years, and we think all this is a unique and very effective way of giving graduates a greater awareness of user diversity and the skills to develop software that takes this into account. I was asked to talk about our approach at an event held last year focusing on best practice in teaching inclusive design across the EU.

Beyond formal taught programmes, web design education takes place on many other levels here at the university, and my role as co-ordinator of the University’s Web Accessibility Support service sees me participating in some of these activities:

  • Staff development – reaching out anyone who might be publishing web content: teaching staff, researchers, people working in central services, admin staff. There are courses in web accessibility, in accessible document creation, accessibility in using major content creation applications such as Blackboard, our Virtual Learning Environment. Unfortunately these courses tend to be optional, so awareness-raising and skills-building relies on busy staff finding (or being encouraged to find) time in their schedule to attend.
  • PhD and postdoctoral researchers: at Dundee, the Generic Skills team runs a specialist programme specifically supporting in developing career skills alongside their research specialism. We produced and recently taught a introduction to Web design using Web standards, with Ian Lloyd’s Build Your Own Web Site the Right Way as the course text.
  • Classes available to the general public. Some are run by the Continuing Education department, and include Web design (I don’t know so much about the content of these courses as my remit is limited to supporting staff). And, separately, there’s often an accessibility flavour to the informal training given by colleagues here in the School of Computing to older people who come to visit our User Centre.

So, as you can see, we’re trying to spread the message to many different audiences, with different backgrounds, different roles, different aspirations, different levels of technical expertise. Inspiration comes from other Higher Education-based or focused organisations and initiatives, such as TechDis in the UK and  WebAIM and Stanford’s Online Accessibility Programme in the US.

It’s an ongoing task – there’s lots more I and others here want to do without the time to do it; but I hope this gives some reassurance that (at least!) some universities are indeed trying to promote and foster understanding of current and future best practice in web design.

I’ll shortly be blogging in more detail about the aims and activities of the University’s Web Accessibility Service, but I’d love to hear more about other approaches to promoting accessibility and web standards to diverse audiences, especially in an educational setting.

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3 thoughts on “Beat a drum”

  1. As a follow-up to the first Yahoo/Dundee University hackday in 2007 we invited one of the of the winners to intern with us over the summer holidays that year.

    I was very impressed at the level of knowledge about standards-based web development and particularly accessibility. I’ve not seen anyone right out of university with those sorts of skills and knowledge on day one. So we had to do no unteaching of bad habits, and our intern was up and running on a secret project on day one. Their contributions are still having a positive influence eighteen months later.

    I hope other universities across the UK follow in the same path as Dundee University. I’m really impressed with the quality of web development talent Dundee are cultivating.

  2. “PhD and postdoctoral researchers: at Dundee, the Generic Skills team runs a specialist programme specifically supporting in developing career skills alongside their research specialism. We produced and recently taught a introduction to Web design using Web standards, with Ian Lloyd’s Build Your Own Web Site the Right Way as the course text.”

    I need to know more about this. It is something we desperately need where I am.

    1. @Ira – I’d be happy to share our course offline with you. It’s 3x half-day sessions: 1) introducing semantic and structural HTML, 2) styling using CSS, and 3) testing and evaluation plus how to apply design skills in practice.

      Also, there’s more information online about Dundee’s Generic Skills programme,and the other activities it offers.

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