by fffunction

22 Nov 2014

Uni or Indie

I was recently asked by a friend who's son had dropped out of his degree at Sheffield University for some advice as he was seriously thinking about moving from a physics degree to web programming. This got me thinking about the cost of a computer science degree over a web programming degree and then my mind moved onto wether I would advise doing an under graduate degree at all.

There is a rise in independent programming schools opening up on both sides of the pond. Most noticeably for me is the Iron Yard, started in Greenville - South Carolina, it now has many schools across the USA. They used to offer a guaranteed job at the end of the course, but maybe that proved a little difficult as they have grown.

My advice to my friend was eventually quite simple, $12000 for an intensive 12 week course on programming plus flights, living and accommodation - £10,000 could cover it for those 12 weeks. And an amazing experience would be had, life skills would be learnt and jobs would become available.

Compare that to a debt of £30,000+ after doing a degree, I can't help but think that the opportunity to spend some time in the USA and gain an education, that will allow him to gain meaningful employment straight away is a no-brainer.

So why are these schools starting up? The obvious facts are that a degree course is three years long, so at the time of writing they can become out of date very very quickly. Are educators able to pivot quickly enough when the landscape changes? This then got me thinking about designers and the Unicorn Institute, kickstarted by Jared Spool and Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman. Would I advise friends to send their kids to an independent design school?

I would say that if someone was looking to get into User Experience design then the Unicorn institute would be an amazing place to study, but does it trump a bachelors design degree? The cost of a unicorn education is $59,000 around £40,000. A degree will set you back around £35,000 for three years education over the two years at the Unicorn Institute.

At fffunction we provide sessions with the third year graphic design students at Falmouth University. Teaching them design processes that they otherwise may not get to see until they are released into the working world.

These sessions mainly serve as ways to teach students the way we would tackle design problems on a real live project. Show them the methods we use and how we start to understand our customers needs and those of their users. We don't touch any code, we keep away from visual design too - these sessions are all about understanding problems and getting started on that user experience journey.

All of the students we see, have the ability to solve problems, they are being taught how to be good designers. What we achieve is the ability to show the students that the skills and knowledge they already have as young designers is what we do in our day jobs. What we have, that they don't, is the knowledge and understanding of the methods and processes which allow us to successfully start to think about users, empathise with them and start the research process.

Falmouth has recently decided to stop running its digital media course. This sounds crazy at first read. Digital is where the world is at. But I am guessing that they just can't keep up with the changing landscape in technology and prefer to focus on creating successful designers. Individuals who know how to solve problems. It's then left up to the employers to get these individuals up to speed with the tools that they use to get the job done. Alternatively keen students will teach themselves to do the bits the course isn't teaching them.

I think if you are going to do one thing well then creating designers is the best way to go. The question is then, can they create successful web designers who don't truly understand the technology that goes behind the designs? Whilst studying and solving design problems, I think so. Plus these skills can be learn't relatively quickly on the job or in spare time outside of university hours.

Universities will struggle to keep up with the likes of the Makers Academy in London, when teaching technical skills. Though I am not suggesting that these alternative courses are the equivalent to completing a computer science degree. But if one was looking to get into meaningful employment programming on the web, I would still advise my friend to convince his son to sign up to the Iron Yard. With £10,000 in his pocket he will learn a new language that will allow him to gain employment quickly and have a wonderful experience at the same time.

I would also encourage designers to go to design school and spend three years immersing themselves in design theory. Meeting other designers and being creative. But also be sure to get some of those technical skills under their belts as soon as they possibly can.

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