Avoid Kent State University’s MS in UX Design

Posted By Debbie on January 5, 2016

This article is my opinion based on my first-hand experience. Your experience and opinion may vary. These are mine. 🙂 I have no horse in this race. If the degree continues the way it is, that doesn’t affect me. If someone changes it, that doesn’t affect me.

Many people working in UX as well as in other industries are considering a graduate degree in UX. There are many options out there including online degrees. Kent State University aka KSU offers a MS in UX Design, as they call it. I gave the online MS in UX a whirl last year and have the opinion that it will be the wrong program for most people considering it.

It’s easy to get into. Want the easiest to get into and lowest costing degree no matter what the classes are, who teaches them, and what the material is? Then you want KSU and my opinion won’t matter since your decision is based mostly/wholly on “easy to get into” and “least expensive Masters degree in UX.”

I don’t need the degree for my career. I figured some day, I’d teach college, and for that I’d need a Masters in my field of expertise. But this experience has turned me off to that, at least for the foreseeable future.

What Will the KSU Degree Teach You?

According to the website, you will learn things based on a 5-stage model called LUMEN. Learn (L), Understand (U), iMagine (M), Evaluate (E), iNform (N). You find out later that the LUMEN model is what the school is teaching you. That’s how you do UX work… according to LUMEN. Hands up, how many of you are using the LUMEN model? How many of you are looking for a LUMEN practitioner for your next hire? Nobody, right?

This is a model nobody uses except KSU. The person who created it told me it’s a derivative of UCD (user-centered design) but it’s his own thing. This degree will teach you about the LUMEN model but none of the other concepts, principles, or approaches in UX. I know this because I did the first two classes in the degree before dropping it.

The degree has the following classes:

  • 2 intro classes
  • 2 classes on usability (usability testing)
  • 2 classes in IA (one appears to be about “practical skills for information architectures” and the other appears to be on CSS and making websites compliant with federal regulations… federal regulations on websites?)
  • 2 classes on content strategy (content “crafting, promotion, and optimization”)
  • 2 classes on user research
  • your final thesis

This is a MS in User Experience Design. Where is the design? Other than a piece of one 7-week IA class covering “wireframes,” where is all the design one might assume goes with the degree name?

Before we can fry that fish, we have to look at something harder to believe; the basics/intro classes don’t cover the basics.

Wait, What? This UX Degree Doesn’t Teach UX Principles and Concepts?

That’s right. The first class is “Principles and Concepts.” I would expect people to start out learning generally about UX. User-centered design. Gestalt theories of perception. A history in product design and human factors. Ontology, taxonomy, and choreography. UX has many things at its core; let’s teach people some or all or these.

KSU teaches you none of them, at least not in the first two “basics” classes I attended. I was shocked out of my mind to take the classes and find that none of these were covered. Not even mentioned. How do you offer a Principles and Concepts of UX class and not teach ANY principles and concepts?

Week 1 of this class was let’s look at some jobs you could get in UX. Week 2 was let’s write a professional research plan like you might give a client.

Wait, whoa, that seems a bit fast. You haven’t even explained what we’re doing, in what order, or why. How did we go from “job types” to “write a research plan”?

I asked the “concentration coordinator,” who here I’ll call Dr R, to help me set my expectations correctly. Why aren’t we learning about UCD or other core concepts of UX? Why does the instructor not teach anything? Why is she just a discussion forum warden who sends out grumpy, unsupportive emails? With a class full of newbies, why isn’t there more teaching and more explanation of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? I asked if anybody is supporting the students who are already struggling… because seeing that much struggle makes me want to mentor people.

KSU Wants Newbies Only

We interrupt that story to fill you in on something interesting. KSU has personas for their MS in User Experience Design. All of the personas are people new to UX thinking of changing careers to UX. As an existing UX practitioner (or expert), I’m not the target audience. This seems strange. Why wouldn’t a Masters degree want to attract existing practitioners? Why would it only want newbies for a Masters?

The answer is that newbies don’t know what they don’t know. Newbies may not know that they’re not being taught key principles or concepts. Newbies are likely to think they’re getting things wrong rather than the program or instructors are failing them. Newbies won’t know that the LUMEN model is nothing and not used at all. I don’t think it’s an accident that the program wants newbies.

Back to the story, this was semi proven when Dr R replied to my questions. I got a long, defensive email mostly telling me the program was perfect and amazing (I’m paraphrasing) and that if I don’t like it, I should consider if it’s the right fit for me. He told me he doesn’t have to teach UCD because he teaches his LUMEN model, which is a derivative of UCD (but not an improvement of it).

He told me it would be inappropriate and disrespectful for me to mentor my classmates.

People go to grad school partially for the network they are supposed to end up with. I’m a 20-yr industry veteran, mentor to many up-and-coming UX’ers, in a position to hire people, offering to mentor classmates for free and you’re warning me that I absolutely should not even think of doing it. His email was very clear. This guy sees me as some sort of threat and he wants me to go away.

OK! Expectations are now re-set! I officially now expect the content to insult me. I guess I can live with that. But what about my classmates? Those newbies looking to learn about UX for the first time?

The Others In My Class

Being mostly newbies, my class was pretty confused as week 2 hit and they were expected to write a professional UX research plan. Questions came into the discussion forum asking for examples. The teacher said no, you can’t see examples. Well, how do you expect a bunch of UX newbies to write a serious research plan in week 2 of grad school and without good examples?

We were then told that we’re not getting examples because if we do, we will just copy them. The whole class was accused of plagiarism without even being given the chance to not plagiarize. I wrote into the forum saying that this was an awful message to give students… to think the worst of them without giving them a chance… that we are all adults and surely we can use examples as models without copying them exactly. I wasn’t the only one writing back in with some surprise and maybe a bit of anger.

Privately, I received an email from Dr R warning me that he won’t hesitate to bring academic action against me for my behavior. I asked him to tell me exactly what I have done or what he thinks I might do that would warrant me being reported to the school’s disciplinary arm. He simply wrote back that the matter is closed for discussion and if I want to continue the matter, I can contact the school Ombudsman. Shot fired with no info or detail. Just threats.

The others in my class thought they were doing things wrong. They thought they were bad at learning. They thought they were bad at UX. They thought because they didn’t understand what was going on, what UX was, and they were doing poorly on assignments that they should just give up. I told them we’re not even doing UX! It’s too early to judge if you’re good at this. You’re not being taught the right things, heck you’re barely being taught anything, and you have instructors taking points off every possible place they can because it’s “grad school.” But more on that in the Instructor Handbook section of this blog post.

I asked these confused classmates if anybody had been in touch with them. Did anybody notice they were struggling and ask how they can help? The instructor? Our adviser? Dr R? Nope. Nobody. People leaned on me and I did the best I could to support and encourage them.

Classmates also wanted to know if they really needed a graduate degree in UX to excel. No, you don’t. I’m now a Director of UX at a very cool agency and I have a degree in music. You do NOT have to have an academic degree in UX to do better or manage people. Maybe if you want to work in a really buttoned-down, we like credentials industry like banking the degree would mean something. But not necessarily. And everywhere else, nobody cares. Many of the best UX practitioners I met had degrees in architecture. You do NOT need a UX grad degree to have a great career or end up a manager.

Will You End Up With A Design Portfolio?

Some classmates that wrote me privately mainly wanted to know if I thought this class would leave students with an impressive design portfolio at the end.

I said I’m not an expert on this program but it appears not. We have classes on the basics, which aren’t teaching the basics. We have a lot of classes on research, testing, and content. I looked at the syllabi for the information architecture classes and it looks like we spend about 2 weeks on interaction design. We do not learn about the key tools out there like Axure, Omnigraffle, etc…

The degree in UX design appears to have no design. So no, I think you won’t end up with a portfolio. I think you will end up with a lot of academic writing about research. If you want that, this degree could be right for you.

The degree sells you on the idea that it will prepare you for a career in UX. I am not sure what kind of career you’d be prepared for. Where is your design portfolio? Are you living and breathing UCD? You never heard of it? You learned the LUMEN model (that nobody has heard of or uses)? I imagine you might get a job with someone impressed that you have a Masters who didn’t look at what you learned or what artifacts you can show or what tools you learned. Outside of that, companies with serious UX directors might care that you didn’t learn any of this.

The Instructors Aren’t Instructors

In addition to all of this distracting, stressful nonsense, I found that the “instructors” were unforgivably poor communicators. I expect good communication in a graduate school environment. I expect monsterly fantastic clarity and communication from people with graduate degrees and who claim to be UX experts.

I also do a lot of training and teaching, so I have an expectation that someone claiming to be an instructor is going to be an industry expert who is there to teach, mentor, guide, explain, and tell relevant tales. KSU instructors do none of this. Dr R wrote all the lectures. The lectures are recordings of him talking over slides. The instructors don’t teach. They police the discussion forums, answer emails, and grade you… when they get around to these things. At best, this is their side job.

Each week, the assignment lacked clarity. How a bunch of so-called UX pros could week after week write assignments that newbies and experienced UX practitioners couldn’t make sense of I’ll never know. Each week, students asked instructors publicly and privately to explain what we’re supposed to do. The instructor in my second class mostly gave up, telling us she would grade leniently every week because what the assignment asked for could be interpretted so many ways (and she wasn’t always around during the week to help clear things up).

Unclear assignments easily lead to people getting poor grades. And the poor grades felt like a surprise. OH if you wanted THAT, why didn’t the assignment say so!

Other students emailed me about some of their upsetting adventures in getting grades back. They did so much more poorly than they expected to on assignment after assignment. They second guessed themselves. They lost confidence. The instructor would just send out what I called “bad dog” emails to the whole class telling us in general all the spots where we’re all getting it wrong.

I had endless bizarre experiences with the grading. Week after week, one instructor took points off for surprise reasons that had nothing to do with the grading rubric. She once took points off because she didn’t think that I’d be able to build next week’s assignment around the persona I came up with this week. That’s right. I got points off because she assumed that I would do badly on next week’s assignment. I got a 96 on next week’s assignment, thank you very much, crazy lady. The grading rubric this week does not include whether or not you think I will do well next week.

Knowing this woman would take points off randomly, I asked her how long the last assignment should be. She told me in writing it should be somewhere between a few paragraphs and a novel. She admitted this wasn’t helpful, but I should write enough to show I know what I’m doing. OK. I wrote about an uncommon topic so I took some extra time to explain it since part of the assignment was that the class would read it and comment on it. I wanted to make sure people had enough background information to be able to comment on it. I got points off for making it too long. It was about 4 pages of text and 2 pages of pictures.

The same assignment asked you to write casually and put in your personality. So I ended my fairly serious paper with one line about how I hoped someone would buy the item about which I wrote for my birthday. I got points off because according to the instructor’s comments, that joke wasn’t funny. I didn’t think it was a joke. It was just a personality moment, the type of thing the instructor had asked for in the assignment details.

The woman who wrote her whole paper on how public bathroom hand-drying paper towels are difficult for pirates to use? She got no points off for sense of humor. I didn’t realize that points could be taken off if the instructor doesn’t think you’re funny. I would have worked harder on some good comedy lines.

I hoped the second class would be better than the first but it wasn’t. The “instructor” evidently didn’t know she was supposed to hang out in the online discussion forums. She travelled and would disappear for days. I started emailing her when someone had posted a question in the forums so she’d know to answer it. How did she not know?

The Instructor Handbook

I previously mentioned that instructors didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to do. They didn’t think they had to teach. They didn’t think they had to respond to discussion forum posts and questions even though that’s nearly the only way we all communicate.

This is especially odd when you consider that Dr R, concentration coordinator, has vetted them and given them a handbook on how to be an instructor. How do I know this? Because I found his instructor handbook online when I was Googling for things relating to him. It was marked as a draft but it didn’t seem like a draft. It was very complete.

I have two fave parts of the handbook.

  1. Dr R suggests that it’s OK to grade people harshly because most of the people taking this program are probably bad at UX so it’s OK to weed them out. Thanks, vote of no confidence for your own students! Dr R can rest assured that it’s working. Most of the people in my class were sure that bad grades meant they were bad at UX and maybe they should drop out.
  2. Instructors might want to consider being a tiny bit lenient on students who are in Ohio. The handbook mentions that KSU gets serious subsidy from the state when they have Ohio students getting a B or better in each class. KSU relies on this subsidy. While Dr R can’t say all Ohio students should just be given super grades no matter what, the handbook implies that it’s best to keep the Ohio people in the program by them getting a B or better in each course.

All Roads Lead To Dr R

You can’t get away from Dr R. He’s everywhere. When I tried to go to my adviser, I got an email back from Dr R. When I tried to go to my instructor, I got an email back from Dr R. As far as I can tell, nobody has any power or authority to answer students or deal with issues.

Dr R wrote the lectures. Delivers them. Selected the readings. Created the assignments. Instructors don’t get to create anything we learn. They are just trying to interpret what Dr R intended, which was rarely easy for them.

It’s Dr R all the way, which was a tough situation since I found Dr R to be the Achilles Heel. There was no way around him.

When I tried to go to anybody in the department, the replies from Dr R were the email equivalent of, “Good day sir. I SAID GOOD DAY.” The great part about that is having all of this in writing. I love paper trails.

I went to the Ombudsman and the Dean with long stories and copies of the correspondence. I still hope they will open their eyes to their program and the person running it.

I Had Filed A Formal Grade Challenge

I put my heart into that first class. I wanted to do my best. I calculated that I should have had an A-. They gave me a B. For starters, the grading rubric said the lowest 2 quizzes would be dropped and they didn’t do that. When I told them about it, they had no idea “that was still there.”

I couldn’t get anybody to talk to me (see above about all roads leading to Dr R, and he’s a “before we start, this matter is closed” kind of guy), so I filed a formal grade challenge. I was easily going to prove that I should have had an A- due to a variety of errors and problems.

Once they saw the formal challenge, they gave me a B+. I guess they hoped that would be enough to make me shut up and go away. By the time my evidence was going to the dean for review, I had decided to quit school (and drop the grade challenge). May I say that quitting was incredibly freeing. I felt SO happy after disconnecting from that program. So happy to know I don’t have to deal with or hear from Dr R and his pseudo-team anymore. You always know you’ve done the right thing when your heart is soaring and you’re sleeping well again.

It looks like giving you whatever grades they feel like is the way they decide who stays and who goes. You actually have to maintain a certain average to stay in the program. Giving me a B would have been a step towards eventually kicking me out for low grades… if they hadn’t manufactured a way to kick me out for “behavior,” for which they were planting seeds.

I guess they REALLY don’t want non-newbies in the program! We know too much. And some of us aren’t quiet. Some of us will stand up and say something, especially where we think others are being deceived.

And This Is The Short Version

There is so much more I can say but this is the short version. I gave it my best for two classes but my natural “help people” instinct, my UX researcher instinct, and my ability to measure BS were all firing like crazy. I slept poorly at night worrying about my classmates. I’d be fine! I work in this industry. I have no problem getting jobs. I know the material. But what about the newbies paying so much money to NOT learn UX?

I decided that if this is what online university looks like, I will go teach at General Assembly (when I have time). At least there, expectations are set. Instructors teach! You end up with a portfolio. You get a job that matches what you just trained to do.

The UX degree from KSU should be and will be a laughing stock of our industry once people learn what’s going on there. People are much better prepared to work in UX after a 12-week General Assembly course.

People eventually figure out when the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. It starts with me saying something out loud like this blog post. This will validate all the people struggling in the KSU program… the people who are confused, lost, and assuming they’re just bad at UX. It’s not you.

A Good School Is There For You

When you are having trouble and the instructor is no help, your adviser is no help, and the “concentration coordinator” isn’t really listening or helping, it’s not you. Just because this is grad school doesn’t mean you should be abandoned and left without support. I’ve met people who have reputable UX degrees from famous universities (that they did in person, not online), and they raved about the personal attention they got. Just because this is online doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get care and attention.

It starts with some of us finally saying these things out loud to each other or in public. It continues with things like this question I got in a public discussion on Facebook:


You’re reading that correctly. A KSU student is asking me what should he/she be investigating independently. Sounds like he is starting to realize that the courses aren’t teaching him what he wants to learn, what he needs to learn. He will have to do his own research and studying to get to know UX, to understand it, to hopefully excel in it.

That shouldn’t happen. The MS degree from KSU will run people around $25K. That’s a LOT of money to spend only to have to then “investigate independently” to learn what you aren’t being taught. It’s sold as a degree aimed at newbies to teach you everything and prepare you to work in UX. I imagine the people who excelled after taking this course did so in spite of the degree, not because of it. Or perhaps they were already excelling and just added extra letters to their names.

Raise Your Standards

It’s OK to quit grad school. It’s OK to dump this school and pick another. It’s OK to spend a little bit more to get a better education. Or spend less. General Assembly costs a fraction of what this KSU degree will, it takes only 12 weeks, and it will do a decent job preparing you for an entry level UX job.

It’s OK to choose a school based on more than what it costs and how easy it is to get in.

It’s all OK. Whatever you choose for yourself is OK. However, in my opinion, it is not OK for Kent State to pass this degree off the way they are. You want to work in UX? Act like it! Ask questions. Ask more questions. Keep digging. Learn everything you can. Imagine scenarios. Outcomes. Reasons. Look objectively at KSU, the courses, the faculty, the approach. Look at how the lectures and classes work. Think critically. Once you take “this is cheap and easy to get into” out of the equation, there is a lot you should be seeing.

Thanks for reading and good luck in your schooling adventures! I hope you are all successful and happy UX practitioners (or whatever you decide you want to be). 🙂

Edit: October 2016, here is a follow-up blog post on this topic.