University Websites Get a Makeover

First impressions are important. Whether you're interviewing for a new job or meeting with your academic advisor for the first time, chances are you've heard this particular pearl of wisdom applied to a variety of situations. As it turns out, first impressions on the Internet are important too, and some colleges are learning this lesson the hard way.

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Design Is Important

When the Internet first launched into the public sphere in the mid-90s, the basic, pixel-y, MIDI-playing, single-page websites were amazing to most viewers. It didn't matter that the design was pretty crummy - this was new technology, and we were experiencing the world in a new way. But as the Internet and surrounding personal technology have developed, so too have the aesthetics and functions of websites evolved. Now, you're more likely than not to see careful organization, slick graphics, pixel-free images and flash animation as you browse around the Web.

Some people use the quality of a website's design as an indicator of the site's overall worth. This may seem a bit like a break from the old adage that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but there is some logical basis for this type of judgment. After all, the technology and software required to make a good website is far from inaccessible. Even little kids can get the hang of it and build a decent-looking site for themselves. With the means for good design within the reach of any organization large enough to hire a web developer, an unattractive and inefficient website can do more damage than you might think.

College Websites Feel the Pressure

This expectation of good design applies to college and university websites as well. In fact, according to an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25% of 1,000 prospective college students cited a negative online experience for their decision to not apply to a specific school. Depending on where you stand on the issue of good design, that figure may seem surprisingly high or low. For colleges themselves, though, this number is scarily high.

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It does seem reasonable to use a school's web presence to draw some conclusions about what it'd be like to go to school there. Technology is increasingly important in academics, and if a school can't even bring itself up to date online, there's not much reason to assume that their libraries and other technology centers would be more advanced.

Brochures, catalogs and viewbooks used to be a student's primary means of gaining information about a prospective school. Now, students have the school's website as an additional resource. If it's hard for them to find information on the site, there isn't going to be much incentive for that student to apply.

A Case In Point

The problem of an inefficient web experience discouraging students from applying has touched a number of schools, including Bethel University. Speaking with The Chronicle, Bethel's Director of Web Services, Michael Vedders, spoke of how he turned to Web analytics to improve the school's online presence. According to Vedders, the school's 'admissions funnel', or process of evolving a prospective student into an applicant, and an applicant into an enrolled student, had some specific problems.

One of the main problems was the fact that many prospective students would stop short of filling out an application. Specifically, they would navigate away from the page when the main admissions page directed students to create an account that would enable them to fill out a personalized application. One problem they identified as a cause for this exodus was the fact that the main admissions page was a bit confusing, since each individual program at the school had its own application.

The site was redesigned to address problems like this, and that redesign has been mostly effective. Through analyzing problems with web design, more colleges might be able to replicate the success that Bethel University had.

It's not just websites that are gaining prominence in academia. Professors are taking to social networks in a trend that may change the way we think about academia and the Internet.

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