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As Web professionals, we have an intuitive understanding of the web at our institutions — at least what it means to us. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that understanding. What do we mean when we talk about “the Web”? When we write policies, hire employees, define unit responsibilities and assess organizational needs, it is helpful to start with a solid and shared language to describe the different pieces that make up today’s higher education websites. Frankly, there is so much on “the Web” today that we need more precise language.
Beyond Former Models of Understanding
Many people originally thought of the Web as a public medium, meant for sharing information; however, it became clear that the same technology could be used to communicate private information. This distinction led to the creation of the unfortunate term “intranet,” which referred to any website that is internal and hidden from the public by use of a password. This leads to the term “Internet” as the world’s collection of public websites. (These terms can mean far more than just the Web, but that is beyond the scope of our present discussion.)
Understanding the Web as public versus private, or Internet versus intranet, is a simplification that does not reflect the significant differences that exist in nearly every higher education website. Placing a website in one of two boxes is not granular enough; the painter’s brush is too wide. I propose that there are really six components that make up college and university websites today.
Introducing the Six Branches
Julius Cesar noted that all of Gaul could be divided into three parts. Unfortunately, higher education web sites are a bit more complicated than that. The six parts into which higher education web pages can be uniquely divided are:
- Social Media
I will now take a moment to review each.
Marketing Web Pages
This is probably the most obvious branch that comes to mind when people think of a higher education website. This is our most public face and our most widely circulated publication. We have this website to build and sustain relationships with our multiple constituents (thank you Mark Greenfield). Marketing pages need to meet the strategic needs of the institution it serves. Most likely, an important existential function is the recruitment of students.
However, it serves other important roles as well. It is the main source of information for prospective employees. Both prospective and current employees can find information about benefits and other information about working there. Parents will often utilize information on the marketing branch, both during the prospective student’s evaluation and the current student’s time at the college. All higher education constituents should find some valuable information online in the marketing pages.
I see nothing unique to higher education in this branch. Virtually every organization that serves a Web-connected population would have this branch.
Personal Web Pages
There is a strong tradition of colleges and universities providing their students, faculty and staff space to post personal websites for the world to see. While under the control of the institution and likely running on its servers, this presents learning opportunities and a creative outlet for students; however, particularly for public institutions of higher education, there are challenges of censorship should the institution ever desire to take down information posted.
More recently, the academic enterprise has sought to reassert its influence over personal Web space. Certain disciplines are encouraging or requiring students to use their personal Web space to publish assessable portfolios of accomplishments during their academic career. These “e-portfolios” serve two functions: they replace a former system of paper copies of learning artifacts that institutions and accrediting bodies use for programmatic assessment, and to provide students a means to think of and assess the skills they will be taking away from their college experience and with which they will be entering the workforce or graduate education. Such resources are often made available to prospective employers, and some have suggested that colleges should make this space available to alumni for their lifetimes and beyond.
Social Media Pages
The key difference between social media and any other branch discussed in this article is that it is out of the control of higher education institutions. In the marketing branch, the institution has the capacity to control the message. In social media, as many of us have learned, you can only hope to participate in the discussion. Failure to participate means leaving your brand in the hands of your most vocal constituents.
At the same time, organizations need to manage their social media presences carefully. It takes a deft touch to keep an online community healthy. It also presents unique business continuity challenges. If social media pro Lucy gets hit by the beer truck, Lucy’s school will still want to communicate using those accounts Lucy has set up.
The ubiquity of social media makes this branch of Web strategy important for virtually every organization.
Utility Web Pages
There are certain tools that any large organization needs to conduct business efficiently in the 21st century. Institutions of higher education are no exception here, and those tools that use the Web make up the utility branch of the modern college or university website. Tools such as email, calendaring, and business process management make up this branch. When at work, it is common that college employees will use desktop software applications to interact with these utilities. When the workplace extends beyond campus grounds, the Web allows employees (and students) to more easily take their work home with them.
A real challenge exists in this branch. When such tools are evaluated, they are typically considered with respect to organizational needs for the utilities themselves. The Web portion of these utilities may not be evaluated for compliance with institutional standards for websites, including accessibility. The Web component is seen as only an extra feature. At the same time, if accessible tools are available on the desktop, I argue that accessibility via the Web interface is not as important.
I think we can all agree that emails don’t need to be reviewed by marketing before they’re sent, but does your Web policy as written exclude the webpages that are generated by your email system?
Business (Process) Web Pages
Colleges and universities have a fairly common set of applications unique to the sector, but universal across it. Such programs include admissions applications, course registration, unofficial transcript viewing, degree audit systems, financial aid information, billing, and payment processing. Inasmuch as these services are available through a web browser, they constitute the business branch of higher education web sites.
A similar challenge exists in this branch as well. Old campus-wide systems were often modified to add web capabilities. Newer products in this field are built with the online component in mind. When institutions consider upgrading such systems, the huge number of requirements for such a system tends to overwhelm web-oriented considerations.
To the extent that every organization has specific tasks they need to accomplish to run their type of entity, and those tasks are on the web, every organization would have a business branch; they would not necessarily compare well across dissimilar organizations.
In the business world, sector-specific server software that manages this content might generically be called enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. In higher education, I’ve often seen the term Campus Information Systems. The major players here are Oracle/Peoplesoft, Banner, and Datatel.
Learning Web Pages
Students attend college to get an education. The point is obvious. It is increasingly likely today that students will complete some portion of their curriculum online. This does not mean that students are necessarily taking online-only courses. However, online distance learning is increasing, and student enrollment in such courses in this country was expected to exceed a million in 2005.
Beyond the traditional professorial website, the classroom has been extended by cohesive systems that allow professors to communicate with students; students to collaborate with each other; examinations to be administered; homework to be administered, collected and graded; and online communities facilitated. Harvard Business School found that student participation and satisfaction increased when using a synchronous online meeting to supplement the classroom experience (Mills & Salloway, 2001, p. 59). Increased participation is likely the single greatest benefit of using web-based learning technologies.
This branch constitutes the Web-based delivery or enrichment of the core function of higher education, and so it is fairly specific to our sector. The tools through which institutions bring coursework online are most often called Learning Management Systems. The LMS your school uses might be Blackboard, Angel, Desire2Learn or Moodle.
Concluding the Six Branches
I believe these six branches reasonably and usefully reflect the realities colleges and universities face with their Web efforts. There are enough differences between the branches that Web-related policies should be sensitive to their existence. Often, different offices on campus will be responsible for different branches of the website. The responsibilities may be further divided by organizational units. It can be very difficult to coordinate this complexity without a shared agreement clearly defining the scope of those responsibilities.
Cohn, E. R. and B. J. Hibbitts. (2004 Num. 4). “Beyond the electronic portfolio: A lifetime personal Web space.” Educause Quarterly. P. 7-10.
Maltz, L., P. B. DeBlois, et al. (May/June 2005). “Top Ten IT Issues 2005.” Educause Review. P. 15-28.
Mills, D. Q. and M. Salloway. (2001 Num. 2). “Web-supported interaction in an MBA course.” Educause Quarterly. P. 56-59.
Oblinger, D. G. and B. L. Hawkins. (July/August 2005). “The myth about e-learning.” Educause Review. P. 14-15.
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