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Training vs. education

Jul 1, 2010 12:00 AM


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I meet lots of people from our industry who have opinions on what we should be doing in graphic communications education. Some of these folks are looking to hire our graduates and others just have their own ideas about what a graphic communications degree program should look like. One thing that has struck me over the years is how many people focus mainly on wanting our students to be better trained, but overlook the importance of education.

You might have noticed that I just used the words “training” and “education” as mutually exclusive. Education is elusive and difficult to measure, while training is much more tangible and easily apparent. Training is focused on narrowly defined operational skills, usually relating to a specific job function or technology. Training is one aspect of what we educators do, but not the whole picture.

Foundational knowledge

As a degree program in Graphic Communications at Illinois State University, if we weren't teaching hot topics like web-to-print, variable data printing, digital press systems and color management, we would be out of touch. But if you think back on your own education, what specific skills and knowledge do you remember and apply in your job functions today? Unless you just graduated, I'd guess you'd be hard pressed to remember specifics. For me, I majored in Graphic Arts Technology in 1986. Along with general management courses, much of our curriculum centered on photo-offset lithography: halftone photography, phototypesetting, film stripping and lithographic presswork. The many hours spent learning these technologies were essential, at the time, to understanding the current state of technology. And while mastering those technologies was not necessarily helpful in terms of life-long abilities, I was learning fundamentals that still apply today. This is the core issue. My colleagues in our Technology Education program like to call these abilities “enduring understandings,” or what you might think of as foundational knowledge.

Graphic communications technology is extremely challenging intellectually, both from the trainer and trainee perspective. Just this past month, a group of us from ISU attend a high level training session on quality control with the HP Indigo, given by Michael Johnston at Top Graphics in St. Louis. To really understand what Michael was covering required a lot of fundamentals about print technology, not to mention basic mathematics (one cannot really understand something like print contrast without a working knowledge of mathematics). To get the most from the training, one had to have a foundational knowledge of densitometry, halftone theory, color theory, paper manufacture and the components of toners and inks.

Lasting truths

It becomes the job of educators to ferret out what represents an “enduring understanding” and differentiate these from transitional technology, then teach these fundamentals well through the lens of modern technology. In additional to teaching foundational knowledge, our primary goals as graphic communications educators at any level is to raise the level of our students' basic skills, foster enthusiasm about the discipline, and help them become better at solving problems and more capable at independent learning. To me, this represents print education at the highest level.


Dr. Daniel Wilson is a professor and coordinator for Illinois State University's Department of Technology, Graphic Communications. Contact him at dgwilso@ilstu.edu.

Building on the basics

When I taught at Pennsylvania College of Technology, we had an internship program for our 2-year technical degree that placed many students in production positions for the summer. Some of the sites would provide feedback about the student's lack of production skills. For example, one employer complained that the student didn't know how to throw paper well (handle large piles of paper by fanning and stacking neatly on the infeed table or paper cutter bed), and another said the students did not know how to remove ink from an ink can properly. Another company was disappointed that the student did not have better knowledge of a (now discontinued) imposition software application. In my mind, these criticisms focused on a lack of specific aspects of hands-on training but did not reflect poorly on our ability to educate these interns.

Learning is lifelong

Similarly, we've had companies request that our digital media students specifically know ActionScript (a programming language for Adobe Flash) or VB.NET so they can “hit the ground running.” From an educator's point of view, the specific language used is much less important than students understanding the fundamentals of programming and scripting, allowing them to learn and apply a new language. The most important thing is that they be highly trainable and adaptable.

Real world disconnect

A few Illinois educators were invited to attend a meeting with our regional PIA affiliate. The president of a local company told us graphic communications education is not teaching current technology well enough. He said that if a graduate can't walk into his facility and instantly add value by being able to apply the latest technologies and suggest new, more efficient ways of doing things, then we are not doing our jobs. When questioned further, he walked out of the meeting. Many people are, like him, passionate about graphic communications education — which is a good thing — but lack understanding about our function as educators.