A Call for Education: How Do We Educate the Web Standards Kids?

There have been some exciting developments in web standards education of late. I've pretty much got the core of the Web Standards Curriculum published, and there are translations on the way. I have also contributed to the WaSP InterAct project, which currently has 11 courses available and promises more in the next year or so. And these initiatives are being brought together along with others under the umbrella of the Open Web Education Alliance, which promises to provide a worldwide standard for teaching web design and development that provides educators with all the tools and resources they need to start teaching web standards and best practices in their courses.

Although at an early stage (we had the first OWEA summit in Tennessee in early August 2009), this promises great things for web standards education and therefore adoption. But I have a worry - it will be easier to integrate our courses with higher education, where they at least have some existing courses covering "web stuff" in some capacity. But what about kids at high schools, and even below that age group?

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The issue as I see it

The problem is that many of the pre-higher education age group have nowhere to go if they want to be taught web design or development.

Kids these days are far more tech savvy than you might give them credit for. The average kid knows their way round Windows or Mac OS X, and can write and print a document, surf the Web and communicate over instant messenger and e-mail before they reach their teenage years. They probably have a Bebo, MySpace or Facebook page too. Or all three. Many of them have probably started exploring how to customize the look and feel of their pages too.

The next stage is for the geekier kids to start looking further into the Web. They want more. they want to start creating their own web pages. They can start to tinker, view source, read blogs, and learn the craft themselves, but having a course to do at their school would be a much easier and more effective path for them to follow. But most schools do not offer this. In fact, you are unlikely to find anything except basic Microsoft office tuition at the average high school!

I had this confirmed during a random e-mail conversation with Anna Debenham (one of the bright young minds behind the upcoming ScrunchUp project) - I was bitching about the fact that when I was at school many years ago (I'm 31 now, so that gives you an idea) the only computer course available was CLAIT, which offered basic tuition in Word, Excel and Access. Anna is over a decade younger than me, but said that she had exactly the same experience! So in all that time, only the version numbers of the software have changed (I've had others share the same story too...)

Education outreach

So how do we deliver tuition to the web standards kids, when so little is available for them? Below you'll find a few ideas that I'm actively involved in putting into action.

Pilot courses at schools

Find receptive IT teachers at schools and convince them to run a pilot course to teach the basics of web design. If you have the capacity, reach out to school administrators, parent governors and politicians that have some sway over what is taught at schools. Convince them of the important of teaching web standards and best practices, and let them know about the free resources that are available.

Promote self teaching and evangelism

Go straight to any students you know who are interested in Web development, show them what's available, and get them to try teaching themselves. Ask them to do outreach to their teachers, and to their fellow students.

Organize your own classes

Ask your local college if you can use a room for an evening to run a web development training session, and see how it goes. Better still, have a go at running a summer class to give kids something to do on their summer holidays. Talk to you local government/council to see if there is an existing program you can slot in to. The Summer University program in the UK is a good example of such a program, although it doesn't contain anything about web design yet ;-)

Letting your kids play with technology at home

If you have the facilities at home, it is never too early (at least in my opinion) to start introducing your kids to computers and the Web. I've already started letting my kids play with my Macs, and my iPhone - my son is 6, and my daughter is 1. It is important to give them free reign to play, and start giving them guidance when you feel they are ready. Obviously when they get to a certain age and start reaching out with others using e-mail, messenger, etc., it is vital that you warn them of the dangers that lurk on the Web, and keep them safe.

How young?

Google go around recruiting incredibly gifted 15-16 year olds. I know 13-15 year olds who are better designers and developers than me. I've seen 10-12 year olds playing with web site customization and basic web pages. I think these age groups are perfectly suited to learning web design and development skills (and using Opera!) so I have started to create a series of absolute beginner's articles to suit. But how young do you go? I think that kids of 5-8 years old should be able to start learning at least the principles of good practices (for example good document structure, usability, information architecture) that will lead on to a basis for web design skills and best practices. I'm beginning to explore the idea of what web education for kids of this age, and will probably write my thoughts up in a future post.

Should we be going any younger? In vivo Wifi?

Of course, the exact ages are not important - the point here is to set a goal, and it shouldn't rely on age limits. I've only included ages for illustative purposes - your exact exeriences will differ from mine, and the exact ages that kids can start playing with computers/the Web depends on such factors as locale and priviledge.

Summary

This is the start of another big conversation on web education - I'm only scratching the surface here. I'm hoping that the Open Web Education Alliance project will help greatly in terms of getting education opportunities out to students below higher education level, but I think slightly different issues will need to be solved for this target group.

I'm not the world authority on this though - I'd just like to start a conversation, and I'd like to hear your thoughts.

  • Do you think I'm right, or wrong?
  • Are you a student who wants to learn web design/development? What resources have you got available to you?
  • Would you like to teach students web design/development?
  • Would you like to help in some other way, eg purely with outreach?
  • Are there any other outreach methods that should be considered?