I’ve been a member of a site called EduStyle since right after I took this job. It’s a gallery site for higher ed redesigns. I’ve been consistently blown away by the innovations, both visually and technologically, coming out of small, private colleges and universities compared to the standard 4-years.
In regards to technology, Douglas Adams said:
- Everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;
- anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
- anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
The modern web was “born” in 1993. We can go with the release of Mosaic and say April 22, in which case the web is now old enough to drive. Or we can move a little later in the year with the Eternal September in which case the web is still stuck with a learner’s permit. Either way, it’s old enough to be shopping around online and planning for its academic future. Our personified web will be a traditional starting freshman come Fall 2011.
A .edu website communicates a lot about the brand of the institution. If we're horribly behind the times in technology that our primary recruiting demographic considers part of the natural order of things, we will suffer for it. I’ve observed a gap developing over the past couple of years, and I admit that our site is on the wrong end of that gap. But I'm trying to catch up.
Compare Yale and Columbia to Denver Seminary and Biola Undergraduate Admissions. I’m picking on the Ivy League and perhaps a bit unfairly. Cornell’s design is good enough that it’s inspired many other redesigns, including our own. But it’s possible that the University of Southern California inspired Cornell.
The reason I single out the Ivy Leagues is because today’s potential students have an innate, subconscious ability to judge us based on our web presence even if they lack the prior knowledge to understand things like published research and accreditation. Does anyone go to the University of Phoenix because of the great research they produce? I highly doubt it. But their website feels more up to date than MIT. We can delude ourselves and pretend that somehow our students are too smart to fall for such marketing gimmicks. But it ain’t just gimmicks to them.
I think it’s easy for us to forget what it’s like to be a teenager shopping for a school. We’ve turned academics into a career, so we forget how alien a world it can be to an outsiders. And let’s be honest, the vast majority of our potential students are outsiders.
I’ve been at the top of my class throughout my entire academic career. I was recommended for West Point and was encouraged to apply to lots of prestigious schools. I didn’t pursue those options because I wanted to stay in Tennessee and I didn’t think I could afford Vandy. I don’t regret those decisions, but I admit I may have chosen differently had I been equipped with a better understanding of financial aid. I didn’t know who SACS was until my alma mater went through their own accreditation review while I was a student. I still don’t know the exact different between a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science. If I ever need to list my degrees, I’ve gotta go look that up. I didn’t know my degree from Pellisiippi was an Associates of Applied Science until I literally had the piece of paper in my hand. All I knew was that it was a degree that could advance my chosen career path. I had no reason to care about the academic nomenclature. I doubt today’s students are much different.
Managing and protecting our online brand perception is a big part of my job. As much as I loathe jargon, I can't really think of a better way to say it. I’m lucky to be working on a campus that understands that concept (if not in all the gory technical detail) in spite of the rarity of an administrator who was under 30 in 1993. :)