Cal State Fullerton User Experience Certificate Program – Review

CSUF-UX-Certificate-Review

CSUF’s UX Certificate program is in its early years of experimentation, but has already gained a strong reputation in Orange County. Unlike the more established UCLA UX Design (link), CSUF’s UX courses may undergo drastic change with each iteration. Thus keep in mind that the following review is for courses taken in the Fall 2012 – Winter 2013 Certificate track.

Currently, the class is only offered in-person at the Cal State Fullerton – Garden Grove Campus, but I believe the faculty is actively producing an online version of the course. For a schedule of courses, check out:

http://extension.fullerton.edu/professionaldevelopment/Certificates/UX

The Review

Class Structure

CSUF’s approach to crafting a UX education is quite unique. As the structure stands, there are 6, now 7 classes required for the completion of the program. Each class occurs over the course of 2 or 3 consecutive Saturdays, with denser classes running for the better part of 6+ hours. Prospective students – say goodbye to your Saturdays! Fortunately, there’s usually one weekend break between classes. Here’s an illustration of a student’s schedule over 2 courses:

Prototyping User-Centered Design Solutions: 11/16 – 11/23, 9 – 4PM

Concepts & Practices in Usability Testing: 12/07 – 12/21, 9 – 4PM

Each class operates independently, for better or worse. It’s like a weekend crash course in one particular UX topic, without much continuation into the next UX class. This structure can bring up questions about the program’s value; since each class is like its own individual module, would the hundreds of dollars go farther attending local UX workshops? It might not be a fair comparison because CSUF’s classes have homework and can require much more participation & engagement than a 2-3 hour UX workshop, but if you’re tight on money I might consider the latter first.

The People

The people make the program. Each class has about 20 students from all walks of life; what’s helpful is that a lot of students are working professionals with experience in business, graphic design, project management and more. Some companies that my fellow students work at: Blizzard, Hyundai Capital, Red Bull, PIMCO, Toyota, Google, Apple, Kaiser Permanente, Rent.com, Boeing, etc. Beyond the opportunity to network,  I felt sense of camaraderie amongst my classmates because we’d get to know each other via in-class exercises and hang out during lunch breaks. These classes are 5+ hours at a time, so there’s no excuse not to get to know your UX compadres

As for the professors, there can be anywhere from 4 – 6 instructors throughout the course of your program, and in my experience the maximum that any teacher taught is 2 classes. The plus/minus is that while you get to meet and network with more UX instructors, there isn’t a consistent teaching structure that cohesively ties all 6 classes together.

Content

Content-wise, the approach is a blend of formal UX theory and practical in-class exercises. It’s definitely a bit more academic in nature compared to UCLA’s UX Class. Again, this has positives and negatives.

Each class goes deeper into each aspect of the UX discipline, such as User Research and User Testing. We’d get assigned academic readings and sometimes books are required for the course. I don’t think this worked out too well; some of the books can be expensive, and especially if you’re buying them for one 2 – 3 weekend class. UCLA’s philosophy is that new theory changes so quickly in the UX world, so professors would rather provide links to updated & current articles. Each approach has its merit. As much as I disliked slogging through Observing the User Experience, there were a lot of gems in that brick of a book.

In UX, your portfolio is the ticket to any conversation with a company. The biggest mark against CSUF’s UX class is that we didn’t get assignments / projects that could turn into UX deliverables (read: portfolio items). IMHO, the certificate lacked discrete focus on helping students prepare for and attain a job in the user experience design industry. UCLA’s 12 week UX course gave me a solid portfolio piece, as well as framing UX theory in a startup. I’m obviously biased towards a project-based approach to learning, but I think a specific course/seminar on portfolio development would bode well for CSUF’s certificate program.

Extras

There were many opportunities to listen to guest speakers notable in the field, such as the authors of The Customer Experience Revolution. We even got to take a field trip to a user research lab in Irvine. really cool stuff.

Parking is free and easy to find.

Final Verdict: The CSUF UX Certificate Program is a great way to get your academic grounding in user experience, and I can’t forget the camaraderie of being in a close class cohort (say that 3 times fast). However, at this stage of the program’s growth, the Certificate program is working towards more practical application of concepts (read: something you can put in your portfolio), but is not quite there yet. Just my honest 2 cents.

I want to make clear that this grade derives mainly from structure of the certificate program and is not a reflection of what I think of the fine professors I had the pleasure of meeting. No education is ever perfect. Here’s a TL;DR breakdown on the pros and cons of the certificate program:

Pros:

  • Content: Good in-depth examples, pretty good academic theory mixed with real life examples from professors.
  • Accessible professors that care and have time to answer your emails / talk career with you
  • Guest speakers & potential field trips
  • Class camaraderie & bonding
  • CSUF Garden Grove campus is convenient, has free & easy parking
  • Perks of being a CSUF Extension student: you automatically get a college email, and can thus access Lynda.com content for free, as well as other perks associated with having a college email address (like being able to test out Amazon Prime for free).

Cons:

  • $3000+ price tag for the entire certificate program (7 courses now)
  • If you miss one class, you have to wait until that same class is offered in the next cycle to complete your certificate. Fortunately I avoided this, but a few unfortunate classmates could not because they understandably couldn’t make it on some Saturdays.
  • Some classes required physical textbooks which doesn’t always make sense, especially when each classes span at most 2 – 3 sessions
  • No online system to manage coursework, most administration was done adhoc via personal email. This made class management a bit disorganized at times.
  • Asked to fill out paper class surveys after every single weekend session. This should at least be digital, which also helps survey takers remain more anonymous.
  • Each class felt very separate, no consistent framework tying in each individual class’ theories

With that said, the cons can easily be mitigated because the faculty is attentive and always trying to improve their courses. I would recommend taking the certificate as it’s the only accredited UX Certificate Program I know of in UX in Southern California. Especially if you have company-sponsored education, taking the certificate is a no-brainer.

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