Enter the Next level of Web Design

Over the past 3 years, we’ve been continually trying to improve our web design course and make it more ‘user friendly’ in response to feedback from learners. Some changes have been really successful, others not so, but we’ll keep trying to listen, reflect and improve the learning experience.

Date DueThis semester one of the strongest points of feedback has been the need for more structure. People really enjoy the benefits of learning at a pace that suits them individually, but also need more structure – to see the path ahead, to know what is due when, to see exactly where they are in the course. These are all very reasonable points, which begs the question: Why aren’t these things built into the course already? The short answer is that they were, but as we’ve tried to improve the course to suit the flexible needs of learners these qualities have unfortunately slipped in priority… leaving people sometimes feeling like there isn’t a target to work towards. “What’s the due date? Whatever we negotiate together, given your own commitments and client projects” – sometimes this is too vague and difficult with a lot of students. And we want to fix this.

The current course structure

If you’re interested you can read a brief history of the webdesign course to understand how it has developed to date, but the bottom line is that now we’ve got a range of learners learning at their own pace (sometimes in small groups which is great), some who attend fulltime, others who attend one or two set days each week, and a few whose attendence fits in around their work schedules. A very small percentage of learners are able to complete the course in a single semester (usually those who already have substantial programming experience), most full-time students complete in two semesters.

The biggest problem that we’re facing is how to provide a schedule of learning activities that caters for the ranging needs of learners and addresses the required skills. We tried to implement the idea of a succession of mini-projects where each project builds on the last project and integrates more skills, together with individual learning contracts with individual deadlines (see Teaching Web Design Part II for more details). In practice, we’ve only had time to create individual learning contracts with the flexible students (leaving full-time students who learn at their own pace with only a vague schedule or timeline through the course) and the mini-projects were too difficult to develop without time put aside to do so. In addition to this, quite a few students had something better to work on which demanded their time: real client projects.

Competency Based DrowningTo enable learners to progress through the course flexibly we’ve been structuring the Web Design Wiki-course into topics (Basic HTML/CSS, Intermediate HTML/CSS, Client-side scripting, Server-side scripting, Emerging Technologies etc) that are based on the national units of competency – which makes great sense for assessment, but not so much for learning. One big problem is that most topics are either too narrowly defined or, on the other hand, way too big to focus on in one hit. Most participants get overwhelmed when they first hit Javascript. They feel that they’re not “getting it” quickly enough and their motivation levels start to sink (an effect I think of as Competency Based Drowning).

In the past we’d schedule 4 weeks of learning Javascript and many people would end up just feeling dumb. For the last year we’ve been allowing people to take their time as they progress through these harder large topics, but because people are then focusing on the one topic for a substantial amount of time, the feeling of progression is lost and as a result some people end up again just feeling dumb.

Ultimately, what we’re looking for is a way to provide a concrete pathway through the course that supports people learning flexibly and yet still provides concrete timeframes for individuals to work with.

Enter the Next Level

The next level and motivationIn her article What can software learn from Kung Fu, Kathy Sierra highlights how reaching a recognised “next level”, whether in a computer game, a Karate belt, or web programming, stirs us on to keep progressing even when it’s tough:

“There’s always something new to aim for and as you progress through each level, the motivation to go higher keeps growing. How many of you have felt the seduction–where you go into something thinking you’ll never care about anything beyond the bare minimum entry-level, only to find yourself sucked in? Next thing you know, it turns out you did want to learn CSS. Because once you know CSS, then you can do… (and on it goes).”

I reckon people in class have experienced this feeling when they start getting the hang of HTML and CSS! But I also get the feeling that starting Javascript or PHP can be like running into an inpenetrable brick wall. Perhaps a better picture of our motivation would be this second one.

Next Level in Web DesignLuckily a number of people in class have real client projects that keep them in the flow of progression and motivated to keep learning. But the problem remains that the larger, more complicated topics can get us bogged down, losing sight of the end, and failing to see any progression in our learning.
My question is: Would it be worthwhile for us to re-structure the course into smaller, more achievable levels – where each level can be mastered in a matter of weeks (maximum 15 days full-time).

Each Level could have it’s own time frame (for e.g., “Estimated time required to master level 1 is 6-8 days”), could include a range of technical, communication and media-based activities that are ideally integrated together. The level description can also be used as the basis for an individual learning contract that is printed and signed – helping us facilitators to negotiate concrete timeframes with everyone. At the end of certain levels learners may be ready to demonstrate their competence in certain units of their qualification. And most importantly, learners can see exactly where they are in the course (e.g. “I’m currently working at mastering level 9. Level 12 is the final level for my course so I’m approximately 3/4 of the way through.”).

Larger or more complicated topics can be spread out over a number of levels and integrated into activities that continue build other skill-areas. For example, Javascript could be introduced in Level 3 (What are Javascript events?), built upon gradually through Levels 4 and 5 (functions, basic input validation etc.) and completed in level 6 (dynamicly hiding/showing elements on a page, more complicated form validation etc.) Yet the learner wouldn’t be stuck doing only Javascript through levels 3-6: the activities at different levels could build on HTML skills (e.g. learning more accessible forms using the label element), CSS Skills (e.g. a few CSS challenges), Multimedia skills (e.g. designing buttons for image rollovers) and communication skills (e.g. determining client functionality required for a dynamic page).

At the end of each level, learners might review their learning (using a variety of tools such as simple Flash-card sets), demonstrate their skills with their facilitator and sign off for mastering that level (possibly also for certain units of competency).

Hopefully this would allow learners the time needed to process and practise more difficult skills while still progressing in other areas, and more importantly, recognising their progression from one level to the next. Learners can always see exactly where they are in the course (which Level). Learners can learn in a holistic yet practical way that can be self paced (but doesn’t have to be), while still having concrete deadlines to work towards. Facilitators can link units of competency and assessment activities to the appropriate level, and hopefully track learner progress without so much pain!

Over to you…

So, over to you. Have I correctly understood the feedback from learners? Would it be worthwhile to restructure the course into smaller, more achievable levels? Do you agree with the benefits outlined for you as a learner or facilitator, or can you see disasterous problems? Please let me know your thoughts below! After you’ve done that, you can even help us brainstorm the new structure on the Wiki-course site.

12 comments to Enter the Next level of Web Design

  • Rob

    Dear Michael, Thank you for all your thoughts on the learning process and mostly thank you for careing so much about us!

    I am in 5 minds about everything, but at the same time really have no issues with any of it. I think learning in smaller segments would probably be good, as well as being able to see where we are heading. Also though, I get quite excited not knowing where we are heading only to find out where we end, when we end.

    Probably the only issue with smaller segments for me would be moving on without actually knowing the things we last learnt. Often the learning, with older brains settles in over time (often not over night). As long as there was time for the brain to sifel it all, I think smaller segmenst of learning would be good.

    I do also think deadlines are good. Good to be pushed into getting something finished and also good as it clears you for things ahead. Deadlines in my mind make good management.

    It all sounds good to me. Thanks again,

  • Brigitte

    Hello Michael,

    The different levels sound good to me, especially as some programming topics overflow into multiple levels to reach full competency. This would really help us gauge where we’re up to in the bigger scheme of things.

    The deadlines (whether met or not) are beneficial in prioritising tasks and also in assessing the level of output one decides to put into the final results for assessment, i.e. pass, credit or distinction and pass/fail.

    A prime example was when you told me the Intro to Programming was a pass/fail subject, and then I stopped wasting time trying to dazzle you with a truly glamorous site and returned my focus to the content! :-) This enabled me to return to the more technical stuff earlier!

    Thanks for the continuous improvement and keeping us informed.

    Have a great break … we may run into you at the lake!


    Even though

  • Thanks Brigitte and Rob for getting back some feedback.

    Rob, I certainly do want to make sure that there is time to let things sink… that’s part of the reason why I thought spreading things out over a number of levels might help… would be good to hear what others think though.

    Brigitte, I’m glad you focused back on the content for Intro to programming! Surprised that the modules grading (Competent/Not Yet Competent a.k.a. “Pass/Fail”) was the thing that got you to focus on the content!? I mean, the criteri that I use don’t assign distinctions because it looks pretty ;) (Unless it’s a design module of course, but I don’t facilitate any of those!)

    Where are the others? :)

  • Marg has some thoughts on this from the point of view of engaging teachers in Professional Development in Going to the next level: Baby steps and big breaths.

  • Thanks Michael,

    …and thank you for your reflective comments on my post – I was airing some frustrations when I did so and almost took it down, but am glad now that I didn’t! :o)

    Your earlier post was also enlightening and I’m thinking more on the notion of engaging people to see ‘what’s in it for them’ as you suggested.

    I see your point (and also Kathy’s) that each step has its own value and yes, step 2 does need to be smaller – there is a need to perhaps have steps 1a, 1b, etc before getting to step 2! As always there are a lot of factors that impact the move of teachers towards more inclusive and communicative onlien learning and teaching approaches, which for some organisations is not something inherent within its culture. The culture comes first I think! We are very often caught on the bridge (and hoping the water doesn’t rise too much while we’re there!)…

    BTW, who professionally develops the professional developers? ;oP …am putting together an article on this with some colleagues…

    Cheers and I’d like to follow up your comments further…stay tuned!


  • Matt

    Hey everyone, sorry Michael I totally forgot about replying to this, I was meaning to do so then the holidays started and I just got side tracked.

    Anyway, I think it’s a great idea, I think with someone like myself who is struggling with javascript this would be perfect, for example when saving my work I would label what level that is, and each time I felt like I was forgetting what I had just learnt, I could always refer back to that level.

    I think it saves a lot of problems, I know you and I have had a couple of discussions on how I can go back and accomplish things without forgetting it, and these levels would defintely be an answer to that not just for me, but for others who might be struggling.

    Again sorry for the late reply, but better late then never… I was even losing track of what day it was, haha… needless to say at least I am enjoying the holidays… don’t worry I am doing TAFE work every 2nd – 3rd day if that makes you feel any better Michael!

    Hope you all enjoy the rest of the break, see you soon.

  • After meeting up with Genie today to try and structure the activities for each level, we realised how large a job it will be and how long it’s going to take to get it right… After I nearly melted down to a pool on the floor Genie had a great idea about how we can address the main issues (deadlines to work towards and structure through the course):

    The idea is to use the ‘levels’ as templates for each individual learning agreement. So when a new student starts, we’ll create a learning agreement based on Level 1 (ie, set deadline at 7 working days, copy-n-paste the activities) then modify it where required before signing the agreement. People who are already half-way through the course will need to cut-n-paste a bit more liberally (and contribute a bit too!)

    Hopefully this’ll allow us to learn at our own pace, still having deadlines and a structured pathway through the course – while at the sametime providing a sustainable way for us to evolve and improve the learning pathway together.

    One of the other issues has been sticking to the contracts/agreements… so to help us with this, we’re thinking that Thursday mornings might be a good time to set aside to review our agreements individually.

    It won’t be perfect, but it will allow us to keep improving the course incrementally without burning out! If you’re keen to have a look at the levels to get a better idea, take a look at the New Structure page of the Web Design wiki.

  • Robin

    Finally getting a chance to comment on your plans.

    Deadlines are really really important, especially for the design industry. Meeting is deadlines a core skills that students need to develop. Maybe all projects could be due on say the third Friday of the month.

    As I was reading your post I was wondering if there was away students could set the deadlines, and you have come up with that in your discussions with Genie !!!!

    You might want to have a look http://www.ispi.org/pdf/Merrill.pdf


  • Thanks for the link Robin. I just took a brief look, and it looks really interesting! Look forward to printing and reading properly.

  • [...] Back in June this year we started restructuring the learning pathway through the course into smaller yet holistic levels with individual deadlines/milestones. This was in response to feedback that, although participants enjoyed the freedom of learning with real projects and at a pace that suited their own needs, the resulting [...]

  • [...] I’ve kept my brief conversation with Michael Nelson in the back of my mind (and the various comments from others on Michael’s post), about attempting to close the gap between step one (starting out with online learning) and step two (moving forward from just learning the tools)… [...]

  • [...] I was reading Michael’s post about taking his Web Design course to the next level and as I did I began reflecting on how we’re going about revamping our PD workshops around flexible learning and delivery. I sighed that familiar sigh, “how do we get teachers’ attention about our workshops?” and “what’s in it for our teachers?”. [...]

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