EPIC FAIL: the sorry state of web education in schools

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Anna Debenham brought the house down with this outstanding presentation at the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. The key take-away: web education in too many schools—both at the high school and university level—is out of date, lousy, and losing students. So much so that it's threatening our countries' digital and economic futures.

A failing grade for teaching the web

Some highlights from Anna's talk:

  • Younger students often have nowhere to turn if they want to learn web design or development. Serious training often isn't available until the post-secondary level — despite the fact that the most talented developers (like Anna herself) start early. Matt Mullenweg, for example, created WordPress.com before he could legally drink. And Anna's colleagues launched their own online business (UploadRobots.com) while still in the fifth grade.
  • High school and university curricula is often out of date, teaches bad practice, or is just plain wrong. The official UK high school curriculum, for example, instructs students in cutting-edge practices like "the use of tables to position text and graphics" and "using Microsoft Word or PowerPoint to create web pages." And the largest academic institution in Europe lags behind Wikipedia in defining basics like HTML.

    Let's face it
  • Students are dropping out as a result. Not surprisingly, studies report that the best students are "insufficiently challenged" by the poor quality of what's offered.  The number of UK students taking A-level computing courses has dropped 57% in 8 years. And the number of UK girls studying computing beyond age 16 has dropped to an all-time low.

    57% in 8 years
  • Schools confuse office drudgery for real webcraft. Instead of helping students build creative lives and careers on the web, too many schools stick kids in front of a PC with proprietary productivity tools for office drones — teaching them to passively consume technology instead of creating it. In one teacher's words: "All we're gearing our kids up for is a life in an office. No wonder there's no stampede for that career path."
  • All this education fail translates into economic fail. Europe, for example, is facing a shortage of 70,000 skilled workers in the tech sector in 2010. The UK's Royal Society says the sorry state of computer science in schools is "damaging to the UK's future economy... We are now watching the enthusiasm of the next generation waste away through poorly conceived courses and syllabuses."

Web education that's more like the web?

The Drumbeat Festival was full of folks tackling these and related problems. But Anna's examples paint a pretty grim picture: current web education practices in schools resemble teaching the use of bloodletting in medicine or instructing automotive students in the wonders of the Model T.

One thing seems certain: for the system to improve, it'll take communities of young innovators like Anna helping to reinvent and update not only schools' curricula, but their overall approach to teaching the web. Replacing top-down models with more fluid, peer-led classes where teachers can accept and make a virtue out of the fact that many of their most talented students will know more than they do. Creating those solutions in an open and scalable way would be a massive but worthwhile undertaking. Could be a great potential Drumbeat project?

First published in: o p e n m a t t

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Matt Thompson (@OpenMatt) is the Director of Program Management at the Mozilla Foundation. He's currently working on an interview series and open book in progress called Working Open, gathering strategies, hacks and case studies about inspired teamwork and collaboration.


If i went back into teaching (web not math) i would want to work in a progressive environment where were ..

"Replacing top-down models with more fluid, peer-led classes where teachers can accept and make a virtue out of the fact that many of their most talented students will know more than they do."

.. working on open source projects like Drupal, .. .

Nice article.

Paul Booker

I'm one of the few who teaches web design in a US high school. My students come to me with either no skills or "skills to make mils". My student always impress me with their knowledge and excitement to do and learn more.

I see myself as a facilitator...one who gives them the basics...then I let them create their own sites. However, I see more and more administrators in other schools who do not realize that web design can lead to all kinds of employment opportunities.

In addition, I've had former students who worked their way through college using their web design skills to do web sites for small businesses.

One day, maybe somebody will clue in the clueless administrators.

I learned absolutely nothing from the teacher, he punished me for using web standards which were not taught in the course, I had the best looking website in the class (which was filled with people who were there only because they wanted a class where they could go on facebook), and after getting 50s throughout the course because of him not understanding web design, at the end of the year he gave me a 0 on my year end report card, because he found out I was using Bluefish as my editor, instead of Microsoft Expression Web, which we were required to use. Even before this, I only got away with using Bluefish by making a fake Dynamic Web Template file, because we were forced to use the stupid Microsoft DWT files, which basically lock down certain parts of the website, so only the body sections can be edited -_-

Oh, did I mention we weren't allowed to use anything but Internet Explorer? My website (which was about switching from Windows to Linux by the way), looked fine in every browser I tested. (Firefox, Chromium, Opera, Midori, Safari, but the bottom border was shown 3 times on Internet Explorer due to it's failure to comply with Internet Standards. I lost a lot of marks on that assignment because of Internet Explorer.

Not that it mattered, I was given a 0 at the end of the year for not using Microsoft Expressions Web...

I'd just like to add, this was in Grade 10, or Level 1 as it's called here in Canada.

Hi Grundoko,

I'm an IT professional in South France, specialized in professional networks for town halls, public libraries, schools and the likes.

You can relay this message to your teacher and plainly tell him he's an idiot and deserves no less than to be banned from teaching. In my daily work, I sometimes come across these MS-admins, who were taught to use a computer like gorillas are taught to push coloured buttons.

Avoid these retards, by any means.

Cheers from the rainy South of France,


I really get ripped when the schools allow teachers to "teach" web design who have NEVER learned or taught themselves HTML coding.

My students use "industry standard" editors in web, images, along with vector based drawing programs, animation editors, and do video editing to place on websites. That way, we cover all of the programs they might run into when designing a site. My advanced students learn straight html coding along with php with server side includes. Even the best web editors get glitches.

I don't use any M$ programs even if they are "free".

To think there are still people who wonder why homeschooling works so very well, compared to the bureaucratic nightmare that is "normal" schools.

I soooo agree, and it is not really the instructors fault they are employed by an industry that doesn't yet know how to address web designs diversity. I mean it is computer science, but then it's not. It is graphic design, but then it's not. It is something new and still getting "new-er". (guess that works.) Web design and internet technology is innovation; and how do you teach innovation? It can be done by teaching the basics and the concepts. Then set the students free to create.

I applaud the article's criticism of the state of Web education. I am an assistant Prof. of Web Development at UWSP, and I am keenly aware of the challenges facing this type of curriculum at a time when it is needed most. Although not perfect, I believe that my program has been able to negotiate these problems in a successful way, and we did it by following these steps.
1. Get rid of the notion of strict boundaries in areas of expertise and concentrate areas of knowledge into one program. My department is filled with faculty from a wide array of backgrounds (graphic design, communication, CIS, Electrical Eng). Our experience is that having all of us under one administrative unit makes us more flexible and responsive to change. If we were split up into multiple departments (all too common at other institutions) curricular needs take a back seat to department politics.
2. Make sure your institution properly funds the program. I have seen many programs that rely on shoestring budgets and soft grant monies. These invariably fail because they cannot keep up. In order to have a successful program the institution must commit to funding new software and technology purchases on an annual basis. The Web literally changes every 18 months and funding cycles need to take this into account. My program is hard funded in the six figure range to ensure that labs are refit with new machines every three years, that our software is always up to date, and that other equipment (tablets, smartphones, drawing pads, cameras etc...) are replaced in a timely fashion.
3. All faculty have to have a grounding in programming, object-oriented principles, and visual design. The Web is not static HTML anymore (and hasn't been for quite some time). The Rich Internet Application is what is driving Web 2.0 (soon to be Web 3.0). All of that involves programming at a high level with a heightened awareness of Interaction design. My research in the field indicates that agencies are increasingly looking for "hybrids," or people who are capable of working with Photoshop, Flash, Actionscript, Javascript, PHP and MySQL. The reason is simple, when you are an agency or a department that has multi-talented teams you are more productive. In order to produce this type of person faculty have to be equally schooled in these areas of knowledge. This is not easy, but it is essential for success. In recognition of this, our institution, UWSP, provided every member of my department with a $1,700 professional development fund that is to be used solely to maintain currency in the field through continuing education conferences and classes. Without this type of support, faculty quickly become "stale" and they lose touch with industry trends and needs.
4. You need to create strong communities of practice in your students through peer mentor led programs and meaningful internships. Because of the stress and high workload that a major in Web Development demands, first and second year students need role models in their older peers who can help them negotiate schedules and encourage work habits that are productive. It is also essential for students to have a chance to practice their craft in industry setting before graduation. This not only helps transfer their education into their professional careers, but it also provides them with portfolio objects for when they enter the job market in earnest.

If you would like to see what we are doing, please visit

Education is about teaching people to teach themselves and introducing them to possibilities. You can do that using almost any related technology - it changes so fast anyway anything specific you teach now will have little use in a few years. You just need to teach the basic skills and introduce ideas so people can work out if it interests them or they have an aptitude for it. There just isn't enough time to cover stuff properly without extra curricular activities for the most talented and interested.

Training is a business requirement and has no place in schools. Training children to use the latest specific technology is just short-sighted - and yes I realise this is in part your point, but just changing technology trained for isn't a long term solution either. Once you start working you learn so much so fast anything you were trained for at school is quickly surpassed or unnecessary (and that goes for university too).

And seriously - web development? There's so much stuff out there and with computers so cheap it's gotta be about the easiest thing to teach oneself. IT is a lot bigger than one currently popular technology too. And for that matter computer SCIENCE is even particularly concerned with technology as such - that's the realm of technicians and engineers.

"peer-led classes where teachers can accept and make a virtue out of the fact that many of their most talented students will know more than they do."

Yeah ... it's always been like that since home computers existed. So what? They're so cheap and information is so easy to get these days and there's plenty of free time to do your own learning if that's the way you're inclined. And clearly this is the case - how else do the students already know more than their teachers? The opportunities and facilities available these days are greater than they have ever been so it is no surprise that people are taking advantage of that.

I suspect fewer people are doing computer science because of much more mundane reasons - i.e. science is still seriously uncool, or parents pushing something more glamorous/money making (in the 90s IT was a money target for parents, then the .com bust happened as well as moving jobs to cheaper locations), or even just that there are a lot of tv shows and dramas about lawyers, doctors, coppers, reporters, artists, fisherman - hell - even loggers these days, and not too many about IT or computer science.

I agree that the purpose of education is to help people become critical thinkers, but if all we taught was critical thinking then there would be no need for majors or specialized areas of knowledge. Critical thinking is applied in a context, and students need to practice critical thinking in the context of their major if it is ultimatley going to mean anything for them. I also agree with you that many students don't go to Computer Science now because the curriculum tends to be a little dry. This is an argument for the Univesity and faculty needing to keep up with what is going on in the world around us.

I couldn't agree more. Sadly, academia doesn't really care and because the "powers that be" don't know any better, nothing is likely to change. But academia is not the only guilty party here. Sadly the blame must be also shared by the software giants who, through heavy handed marketing, have forced their mundane products onto the world and locked them in to this outdated process, just so they can make money.

I redesigned our web development course a couple of years ago to be less about memorizing html tags and to learn how to use a content management system (drupal). I'm hoping to redesign it even more extremely next summer - html5, canvas, apps, etc., and a gentle introduction to javascript (since most of my students have never done any development before).

The key to me though is that all students should learn some basic programming in high school / college - javascript or whatever. Learning how use spreadsheets and powerpoint isn't enough anymore. Even young children can learn and understand some of these fundamental concepts. See for example these resources:
<li><a href="http://csunplugged.org/">computer science unplugged</a></li>
<li><a href="http://www.edutopia.org/literacy-computer-programming">programming is the new literacy</a></li>
computational thinking
<li><a href="http://rushkoff.com/2010/03/25/program-or-be-programmed/">program or be programmed</a></li>
<li><a href="http://scratch.mit.edu/">Scratch</a>


Since when has academia prepared anyone for anything in the real world.
Consider the old lessons like - wood work, metal work etc.. did we expect schools to turn out skilled carpenters, fariers or engineers ..I don't think so. wake up guys, its about the discipline of learning, understanding terminologies and communicating within the said discipline.

The purpose of senior high classes like Web Master, Wood Shop, etc, are to get students interested in said profession, and show them how it's done on a more basic level, to make them either more interested in advancing that skill through a higher tier of schooling (Trade School, College, etc.) or to show them that they do not like it, and they'll look at other professions.

The purpose of Web Master is to teach students the basics of Web Design and server management. It should be a broad coarse, which teaches all the fundamentals, so students can see many aspects of web design, and if they're interested, they can go and do a more specific course in a higher tier of school, or if they realize they don't like it so much as they thought they would, they will look for something else they have interest in.

By schools having poorly taught Web Master courses, students will get a bad example of what they are doing, and may get a bad impression. I for one, despised our Web Master course, because of it's incorrect following of Web Standards, and how we were graded on two things, the content on our page, (Information about the false business we made up, and how realistic it is, not at all related to Web Design), and our ability to copy/paste the teacher's code. (We were graded on making an image map, basic text format tags, and making divs)

I like the way you go for a better solution because you just know it is better.
I've been a young rebel myself, asking every now and then "why on earth are they using such stone-age tools" ... I still do, but on the other hand, I earn my living by doing tasks in a team where I get paid for doing things exactly as specified. Our client expects to use this (web based) software for the next 20 years, so
there's a good reason to stick to some proven stuff. Take pure SQL for ex. It has been around for 30 years, it's reasonable to think it'll not fade away in 18 months, like many of today's hot stuff will.
But what comes to training vs education, I do agree, marching in formation is not the most important skill today's Web Masters are expected to have.

I agree with your statement, " its about the discipline of learning, understanding terminologies and communicating within the said discipline," I think schools may be fialing to keep up with the fluid nature of web design and techniques. The basics of web design are not that complicated, it's when you adding CSS and java script when things get interesting. Then you throw-in PHP, jQuery, Ruby, Python, SEO, and CMS and you can lose people. Some of the coding structure of these are conceptually the same, so maybe schools should start with paudeo code then dive into the deeper levels.

I am about to finish my Grad Dip Ed and I am facing the choice to teach within the Australian education system or not. The problem with being part of the system is that teachers are also responsible for getting students across the line with their tertiary entrance exam. Horizons should be expanded for students and the education board should be flexible in allowing this. Many of the syllabus topics being followed are out of date in the computing subjects for high school.

i agree with you ,AS the purpose of Web Master is to teach students the basics of Web Design and server management
thanks : you can visit www.mastercomputech for more details

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