The Transparent University Gains Support

So much work on the new UMW Web site has been accomplished in this past academic year that I’ve neglected to continue blogging about the ideas that inspired it, primarily this notion of the Transparent University, the title of this blog. That’s why it has been gratifying to lift my head from the grindstone temporarily to present the idea, now poised for implementation, to those at the University who have not been party to the day-to-day process.

The charge has been a “new UMW Web site,” which, due to our pretty robust collection of content on our main Web server and on UMW Blogs, has been a more complex process than most institutions face with a project of this nature. When your site houses everything from Admissions materials to where to recycle your office waste, and when you now have thousands of student and faculty postings, updated daily, that comprise the online academic life of this institution, this project can’t be a facelift. To take best advantage of this moment in time when we are re-positioning ourself in the marketplace, the new Web presence has had to be a wholesale revisiting of what a higher education web environment means.

In short, unlike many institutions, we HAVE the content, we don’t have to dream it up. And the “upper levels” of the site need not comprise “brochureware” — they can pull from the content we already have, using site architecture to contextualize feeds from multiple areas, giving a rich and deep meaning to what UMW life can be, and indeed is, in these days when core issues like the academic experience rank below the look of a residence hall in the priorities of the incoming student and their families. How does UMW, alongside UVa and William & Mary, deign to put forth academic experience as a main driver in recruitment?

That’s not an easy question to answer. And, surely, the appearance of our campus, the likelihood of post-graduate employment, and quality of non-academic life, are “brand drivers” that will remain in these highly-competitive times with shrinking state budgets, and shrinking family tuition dollars.

The Web site can only play a small part in this effort, but if you hang around Jim Groom enough, you become convinced that perhaps, just perhaps, it may be bigger than you think. I mean, who else but The Bava can elicit a roomful of applause at a UMW Cabinet meeting?

Since May, Jim Groom, Curtiss Grymala (our resident WordPress guru), and myself, have had occasion to present the ideas behind the coming UMW Web site within three contexts: Faculty Academy, University Relations and Advancement’s division meeting, and the UMW Cabinet meeting. These presentations have come at a time when the thinking behind this new Web site has been fleshed out beyond the conceptual, when we are developing, testing, and designing in a real environment with real people. And the responses we have gotten in all three presentations have been overwhelming — this institution gets it, is willing to take a risk, is willing to be out in front of the pack rather than following and imitating what others are doing.

This is a good thing because, as I’ve mentioned in many contexts over this past year, no one institution has a lock on how best to “do” the web. Indeed, most research into higher education Web sites can leave you feeling a bit of despair. You’ll see forays into mobile, video, blogging, social bookmarking, flash, jqueryUI fanciness. Behind many of these, you can almost hear the strategies: “We’ve got to have a mobile presence! We need a Facebook page? Get students who want to blog!” It’s as if the overall thinking is that the purchase of or participation in new technologies somehow makes your site more current and relevant.

I understand it — it can be hard to feel like the Web is passing you by and leaving you to irrelevance. It’s a temptation I’ve resisted, despite the clamouring of many a vendor to get UMW’s attention during this redesign process. I took some heat from a consultant on this recently, but I just don’t see the point in taking precious resources towards developing a confection of interaction like cute little flash or html5 apps just so we “look cool and relevant.” There is no research that tells me that the quality and quantity of admissions applications go up when you spend all your Web development dollars on cute interactive apps and microsites. As a matter of fact, there is research that states that this “microsite” approach works best when it includes quick access to relevant information rather than marketing content.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned from UMW Blogs, from Facebook, and from Twitter, it’s that the technology doesn’t matter. All three of these environments are based on very simple Web-based applications that have grown organically through “crowdsourcing” and iterative improvements, taking advantage of simple technologies coupled with the network effect (i.e., human behavior and ingenuity). It’s one of the reasons why the new Facebook video chat announcement seemed so ham-handed: who cares about video chat technology? The cool stuff that made Facebook work was the simple ability to find that guy you went to the prom with and realize why you broke up afterall. Now I cringe that he could hit that button on the right-hand column and actually ask me to video chat — EWWW!

It seems as if we’ve learned that people respond less to applications than to each other, and that works best when the application is most transparent and usable. We’ll see that heat up once Google+ starts decreasing its nerd:normal people ratio. It’s cool, but my 7 brothers and sisters (ranging in ages from 53 to 71) aren’t going to be on Google+ anytime soon.

What does all this mean for UMW’s Web site? Well, content and relationships are king. So, we’re keeping the app simple and extensible (WordPress), we’re encouraging subscriptions to existing media hosting environments (YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Picasa), and we’re integrating, through simple RSS, our academic life into the body of the Web site.

On possible scenario: You’re a prospective student looking for a college with a great Study Abroad program. You can visit the catalog page that describes the program, you can go to the Center for International Education program page which goes into more detail. But what if that “institutional” content served also to contextualize a feed of posts by students stationed around the world at that moment in a host of countries, blogging about their experiences, enabling a direct connection between the prospective student and the student abroad? The simplicity of this proposition is at the heart of what we are trying to do: Not bypass the official communications about the university, but allow it to exist side-by-side with the actual work of this institution, enabling direct communications between people with the University acting as one of many hubs.

UMW is in a unique position to accomplish much with this simple idea. In reality, our Web site now is so old anything will look revolutionary, but don’t be fooled by appearances. The shift we are planning on making, if successful, is a bold one, and our Cabinet is to be applauded for its courage and its faith in the folks driving this project. Stay tuned.