Entries Tagged 'recruiting' ↓

Fear and Higher Ed Web

Alan Levine inspires as always when he blogged yesterday about the default attitude about privacy on the web in higher education. It’s easy to point to FERPA, copyright, and intellectual property concerns and their role in the development of the traditional authenticated LMS environment. But, there are other concerns that universities have with opening things up, and we have faced them quite boldly at UMW on multiple fronts.

Since before 2001, our web policy has had a few interesting passages in it, mostly related to clarifying the bright line between “official” and “non-official” websites:

“The University of Mary Washington assumes editorial responsibility for official University Web sites and official UMW on-line resources, which are defined as the official Web pages or on-line materials of UMW departments, divisions and other units. For these sites and resources, UMW is the content provider and not a content-neutral “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. You may also find within the UMW domain — signified by the address “umw.edu” or within the range of Internet protocol addresses assigned to the University — Web sites or on-line materials over which the University has no editorial responsibility or control. Such sites include but are not limited to the Web pages or other on-line materials of individual faculty members or students, individual class sites and materials, and the Web pages or on-line materials of student organizations and other organizations not formally a part of the University. For these sites and materials, UMW is a content-neutral ISP.”

This is a perfectly normal and accepted type of policy on any higher ed website. The University is both protecting what is considered official messages AND protecting the first amendment rights of students and faculty. Like may policies, this does not exist to explain so much as to prevent legal action against the University.

The above is much easier to enforce when there is an LMS involved. Once UMW Blogs came online, and the website began to openly link to it, the game changed. Although the letter of the policy is still being followed, the spirit of it — to draw a bright line between official and non-official communications — becomes harder to enforce. How can a university celebrate and share what can be controversial academic debate in the context of its public communications and still maintain control of the message?

I was part of a presentation to the UMW Cabinet with Jim Groom addressing the fear of potential disaster should a student post something untoward. Jim made the argument that, for every possible “f-bomb” that is posted, there are thousands of great ideas that are shared every day online, and showcase the depth of the academic conversation at UMW. He was asking them to take a gamble, and they have.

I do believe that this fear of exposure of possible offending language — or (gasp!) bad grammar — on the part of those managing the public message is a contributing factor to institutional desire to hide academic conversation within authenticated environments. Once the classroom is exposed to the web, it’s in the ether and the bright line between official and non-official seems parochial at best. At worst, it’s a technique to avoid conversation about more complicated issues regarding free speech and what makes a university different from a corporation. If we are peddling the development of free thought and critical thinking, why are we so afraid of exposing just what it is we hope to foster in our students?

I leave you with a video clip that I’ve used in presentations in the last couple of years. It’s a favorite metaphor of mine: the university public website as the ridiculous freestanding tollbooth that anyone can circumvent if they just open their eyes.

It’s About Community, Stupid!

After watching Jim Groom’s  talk on DS106 and open education, I started to think about all the energy that went into re-thinking what is possible on umw.edu, and all the potential that we now have.

For now, lots of activity is swirling about responding to a stream of complaints, fixing bad links, improving server performance, making navigational adjustments for our internal users, getting folks used to “thinking” in WordPress, documentation, training: essentially housecleaning. These things are important. I’ve learned one thing in the past 11 years at UMW: As much as the institution may want the Web site to be primarily a marketing piece for external audiences, it has become so much more to our internal audiences, and we owe them basic functionality before we move on to the cooler things ahead. Balancing those two things is not a science, and involves a willingness to be flexible and to respond to user need, to keep a cool head, to admit mistakes, and sometimes to kill our darlings. There are a few darlings strewn alongside the road right now, and that’s to be expected.

Jim’s talk brought back to me many reasons why I wanted to do build the foundation of the new UMW Web site in the way we did it: No big corporate vendor-interloper, open source tools, working in ways that people already work and think, paying attention to the Web as an academic space, building a community of ideas. As with any iterative process such as this, spiraling back and forth between the initial idea and its execution, and you see that every decision that you’ve made actually potentiates the next decision, then you know you’re on to something. And complaints and fixes notwithstanding, we are onto something. So, what next?

So much is next that I get giddy just thinking about it. But I’m most excited about building a core piece of the Transparent University environment: showing the world what it is like be a part of the various disciplines at UMW.

Currently, as with most higher education web sites, we have kind of a dry list of academic disciplines that link to the various department sites. From an information perspective, it’s bare bones. It does not communicate a compelling argument for studying THAT discipline at THIS institution. If we are communicating that we are Great Minds, a list doesn’t cut it. We need something more. We need to expose our community of ideas, and invite participation.

The traditional student recruitment model on the Web involves a lot of showmanship: cool design, perhaps some video, twitter, facebook, maybe some student blogs, for the resource-rich, some interactive flashy stuff. The trouble is that this type of thing is largely expository rather than participatory. Playing with a canned “immersive experience” on your own is not quite the same as being in community. Enabling people to ask a question of the admissions office on facebook or twitter is a start. But, the activities and the flavor of the institution cannot be embodied within our admissions office alone, as amazing as those folks are. A simple list of faculty with their areas of expertise (the Media Resource Guide) is a great tool, but again it’s not compelling in and of itself.

We have an embarrassment of riches at UMW with regard to online, easily-accessible, and aggregation-ready academic content. UMW Blogs unchained the higher thinking of this institution from the shackles of the LMS and, on a minute-by-minute basis, exposes our student and faculty activity to the world. What UMW.EDU needs is a way to aggregate all that good stuff, along with data from the Media Resource Guide, maybe some Banner data on courses, catalog information, social media, and all that stuff into a meaningful environment that fosters scholarly discussion and invites the world — of which the prospective student is a part — into the conversation.

Over the years, we have talked about this notion of allowing the prospective student into the UMW experience prior to their actually plunking down the deposit. Our technology, heavily dependent on student system data, was always a stumbling block: Students cannot have access to the portal or any online system until they are in the student system, which doesn’t happen until the deposit is paid. So, if we are going to rely on our systems to allow students into the UMW experience as a recruiting or “yield” tool, it can’t get there from here.

But if there’s anything that UMW Blogs has taught us is that we don’t need to let a little thing like an ERP system stand in the way of letting the world know how cool it is to study with the Great Minds at UMW. We have enough out there right now that we can shape its delivery in such a way that, for instance, a student in New Jersey who is really interested in communications just may join DS106 because they saw it in the mashup “Communications” site on umw.edu. That kind of magical connection can’t be bottled in a costly flash application — it’s real connection with real people where the technology takes a back seat in service to human need, not the other way around.

The branding effort for the new Web site, with all the fancy graphics, was, to me, only a start. The real UMW experience is not one of unlimited resources, a pristine campus, or dazzling residence halls. It’s the people, the Great Minds, students included. Who would not want to belong to this club? It’s where all the cool kids go.

We’ve got the barn. Let’s put on a show!