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!

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