Joshua Johnson

Front-end Developer @ BT

So you want to study a Web Design degree?

Are you at college or at Sixth form pulling your hair out over UCAS trying your best to find a decent web design/development course at a respectable university?

Are you not sure what you want to do as a career but enjoy web development as a hobby?

Are you about to start your first year at university studying a degree in web design or development?

Are you not sure whether you need a degree to work in the web?

I have been hearing a lot about A level results recently and it reminded me of when I was preparing for the rest of my life and the thoughts going through my head regarding what university would be like and how clever I was going to be once/if I graduated.  If you fall into one of the categories above, this may be some food for thought that may make your university decision making harder, but more beneficial in terms of what you actually learn.

Now I cannot speak for every university across the land and do not want to generalise, but I can share my thoughts on my own degree. To give you a bit of background, I am just about to go into my third and final year studying a BA Hons in New Media (a broad degree covering all things digital media) at the University of Leeds and am feeling pretty underwhelmed from the academic side of uni life.

I had a bit of a dilemma when I was choosing courses to study at uni because I was not entirely convinced whether I wanted to go into Business and Marketing or whether to bite the bullet and go for a New Media course. I had dabbled with web design when I was in my early teens (RIP Piczo) and had continued to do so when studying for my ICT A Level and enjoyed it but was not sold on doing it for a living. It was only when I visited Leeds that I knew I wanted to go to university - partly the courses doing but more the university and the campus but hey ho.

The benefits

Regardless of me feeling underwhelmed with some of my course; studying a degree comes with benefits that are hard to ignore. University gave me the time to learn the craft of web development and design - time I would definitely not have had if I had chosen to get a job after leaving Sixth form. I found that the time I had spent learning new things complimented the relevant lectures and seminars where I could apply my skills, as well as find out where I went wrong. Modules in Interface Design and Advanced Web Programming taught me the right(i'll use this word loosely) way of doing things along with aspects that I should be learning to improve further. I also learnt through taking modules such as Motion Graphics that there are many different areas of Digital Media that I enjoy doing - I doubt I would have learnt such skills without having the varied modules my course offers. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the modules on my course are refreshing and interesting.

My course also hold regular networking events where people from the industry come in, give talks, look at our work and in some cases offer placement and job opportunities to students. I think this was the most beneficial part of university in terms of my career as it not only opened many doors, it also helped me secure a placement and a job! I imagine if you worked full time, replicating these events would be more of a challenge, although university is not a prerequisite for networking. Having the opportunity to present your work to people working in the industry is extremely beneficial if you wish to get your name out there.

I would be lying if I said I have not enjoyed university. I have absolutely adored parts of it. The social side of university is something I think everyone should experience. Meeting people from different areas of the country and even continents really moulds you as a person - I have become friends with people I imagine I will be friends with for a long time to come -  people I would have never met if I hadn't gone to university. I'm aware you would meet new people whatever decision you made after college but it is unlikely you would meet such a diverse amount of people in such a short space of time. Leeds nightlife alone would attract me to go through university all over again - not something to be missed!

The drawbacks


Okay here goes. You do not need a degree to work in the web. The web was not developed using a book so it is not necessary to learn it from a book.. or a lecture for that matter. Without trying to sound like a Daily Mail journalist, I imagine the content of more "traditional" (eurgh) degrees are more suited to the university environment than degrees that specialise in the digital age we are all living in.

You cannot learn coding from sitting in lecture theatre. You can learn the background of a programming language, the basic premises of a language and the work going on in the field but you cannot learn the language. You learn coding from actuallycoding - it seems obvious but I have lost count of the amount of lectures I have been advised to get lecture notes online where all the code spoken about in the lecture has been uploaded; this just tests someones ability to copy and paste - not code.

I have learnt so much more from experimenting in a text editor in my spare time than I ever have in a lecture or workshop. Workshops are going in the right direction in terms of educating but I find many lecturers taking charge of workshops are still lecturing off of a powerpoint - why? If you are a lecturer and are worried about coding in front of 10-20 people, I begin to question what level of coding is actually required to teach at university level.

It may not be entirely the universities fault but I feel the content I have been taught in web development modules is not only outdated but somewhat irrelevant. I spent an entire semester learning Flash whilst I spent 2 hours of a semester on WordPress workshops. Unless you have been living under a digital rock, I think you'll be aware that having Flash as a skill on your CV is about as useful as having the ability to copy and paste. I was advised in my first week of Interface Design that using HTML5 is "recommended but not mandatory" - what is the point of teaching students old tricks? They are paying a lot of money to be sat in the lecture after all.

I say it may not be the universities fault as I presume updating and approving a module every year must be nigh impossible. Course content needs to be sound and lecturers need to be refreshed on the new content. That said - if they are offering a course with the word "new" in the title, it should be bloody new!


What would I do?

Knowing what I know now, I would have definitely looked long and hard at courses up and down the country offering web design and development, specifically their content. I am sure there are really good courses at some universities, you just have to find them.

As for me? I still would have gone to the same uni - the city , the people, the lifestyle has too much to offer for me and I would happily go back and live through it again. I would be hesitant to take my course again however. I feel if I had taken a degree such as Computing, IT or Computer Science, I could have broadened my horizons in terms of my technological knowledge whilst still having the time to practise what I love doing - drinking working on the web! The web is such an open place with a mammoth amount of resources for you to choose from (Treehouse and CSS-tricks are both brilliant), so make good use of them.

University is a gamble. It has both benefits and drawbacks and it is worth knowing them before you fully commit. It may be the time of your life in one sense but could also be time wasted in another. It is an expensive piece of paper a degree, make sure it is the one for you.