By Mark DuBois


April 28, 2009

I supervised a state SkillsUSA web design contest on April 24, 2009 (both secondary and post-secondary divisions) and thought it appropriate to summarize some of my observations. These comments are divided into two separate areas (business professionalism and knowledge of web design and development). Although I see the cup as “half full,” there is definitely room for improvement in both areas. I believe it is up to us as educators to encourage our students to improve in these areas.

On the business side, I must stress the importance of arriving on time for the contest and staying until the end of the contest. As a practicing professional, I am always hoping for a little extra time to polish a site for a client. Those that left early should have used the extra time to improve upon their work. Less than 25% stayed for the optional briefing after the conclusion of the contest where we shared a significant amount of information. One of the main differentiators many employers look for is passion and dedication in their employees. Staying for the debriefing confirms a desire to learn and improve.

It is also important to verify that your work has been properly copied. In many instances, although given the opportunity to check their work on the USB drive used to collect the final entries, very few opened more than the initial folder. Attention to detail is an issue of major importance as several sites had inadvertently pointed to a folder on their desktop (which will not work when the challenges are judged). This leads to broken links to images and CSS (and lost points).

Part of the competition also included an interview. As an aspiring professional, it is permissible to state that you do not know the answer to a given question but would like to find out more about it. Less than 10% of those presented with such a question took that approach (the remainder tried to guess their way through without success).

On the technical side, there was a heavy reliance upon tools (which is fine – provided one understands how to use those tools effectively). Of the tools used, Adobe Dreamweaver CS3 captured the major share (being used by over 85% of all participants). However, it is clearly evident that there is only a superficial knowledge of how to use the selected tool (resulting in errors such as pointing to an absolute location [on the desktop] for an image or CSS document). Likewise, reliance on templates (such as the Spry framework for the JavaScript challenge) is permissible, but one should definitely test prior to submitting (to make certain regions are properly defined in the HTML). Similarly, if there is a challenge to create a two column layout using only CSS, one should not use a Dreamweaver layout table to accomplish that challenge.

The quality of code is important (for example, there is no p2 element; there should not be HTML body elements placed above the DOCTYPE declaration). With the majority of contestants using Dreamweaver, one can easily test for valid code (and the tool actually helps one write such code). Unfortunately, it would appear that this feature was not employed on most challenges.

In my work with numerous business and industry professionals, it is clear they are looking for individuals who have a solid understanding of web standards and can use tools to effectively accomplish tasks. This is why the individual challenges were selected for this contest.

I implore those educating the next generation of web professionals to focus on the following areas to better prepare students for the workforce.

  • Develop a good understanding of web standards (and why they are important – for maintainability of the code, for improved search engine ranking, for increased accessibility and all the other reasons). Tools are important, but students need to know the fundamentals before they can effectively employ those tools.
  • Increase the emphasis on web accessibility and usability in the curriculum.
    Increase the emphasis on professional behaviors (arrive on time, test your work before turning it in, admit when you don’t know something and so forth).
  • Help students develop a solid understanding of the use of the appropriate tool and when one must go beyond a given tool.

It is up to us as educators to raise the bar to help our students succeed in the workplace.