Friday, August 12, 2011

College Websites

I know this is a big topic, but it has become salient recently in my world.

My college is taking a fresh look at its website. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the previous version won't be missed.

But in trying to put together a new one, it's becoming clear that different sets of expectations are crashing into each other. This can't be the first time such a thing has happened, so I'm hoping my wise and worldly readers can shed some light.

If I had to boil it down, I'd say that there are three fairly discrete purposes of the website, and they don’t always work well together.

The first, obviously, is the student or external user experience. At this point, a good website isn't just an advertisement; it actually allows you to get work done. It should be easy for a prospective student to find a particular course of study or professor; for a current student to see the next semester's course schedule and even to register; and for local companies to scan the workforce development offerings. You’d expect to find an employee directory, a list of faculty by department, and any job postings, too. And yes, there should be an obvious path for prospective donors to follow to find the development office.

The second is usefulness to employees. Websites make great repositories of forms and policies, for example. While prospective and incoming students may care only about the current course catalog, internally it's crucial to have access to previous years' catalogs, since students stop and start, and degree requirements are frozen at the point of entry. Some colleges handle the difference by putting the internal stuff on an intranet; we aren't doing that, but I wouldn't rule it out.

The third, and this is where things get tricky, is as an expression of institutional values. What does the college choose to highlight about itself to the world? How does it explain what it is, and what it aspires to be?

The symbolic function can clash pretty directly with the first two. What works from a marketing perspective can be pretty hard to swallow for the employees. Internally, we’re justly proud of academic rigor, the excellent transfer record, and the like, but those can be hard to represent visually. (And just about every college likes to claim that its academics are strong, so it’s not much of a differentiator unless you already know.) The things that the marketing folk tell us are the most appealing aren’t necessarily what we’re most attuned to internally.

Wise and worldly readers, I’m looking for the wisdom of experience. Have you seen a site that balances these three sets of demands well? If you have, what makes it work? (Alternately, have you seen a real train wreck?)