At edWeb 2009, you could hear speakers and participants in higher education websites describe the limitations of the latest new media technology. And you could also learn about how to use the latest new media technology. The irony was not lost. As Boston College’s Rick Allen pointed out, “social media wont fix the yellow background on your website.” I kept wondering, do prospective students really decide where to spend $50,000 in tuition based on the interactivity of the home page (even the Vizlab’s)? Can you really fool the kids?
Of course, prospective students have been raised on rich media and are immersed in social media. But according to a report that Erick found, “Scrolling Toward Enrollment: Web Site Content and the E-Expectations of College Bound Seniors,” 80% of prospective students said that content is more important than looks. At a breakfast session at the conference, consultant Bob Johnson confirmed this trend. Based on recent surveys of visitors to ten higher education websites, visitors don’t seem to care either way about site participation or social media. Okay, maybe these visitors were older and not prospective students. Or maybe they simply expected their social media kicks to come from Facebook instead of Fordham. Few organizations have succeeded in creating their own separate social network, though some schools have done well with password-protected sites exclusively for accepted students. Similarly, visitors had few complaints about visual appeal of websites (“The animations don’t move fast enough”?), but they had quite a few complaints about navigation and search (“Somebody tell me how much this school costs!”)
By the way, the next time your website is caught in the crossfire of departmental politics, remind your colleagues that outsiders tend to be happier with university websites than faculty and staff are – as long as the sites have good usability. Outsiders don’t care about departmental politics. Internal audiences would be happier with their website if it were an intranet, designed for them. And presumably prospective students would be better served if they didn’t have to deal with links and content items that don’t apply to them, that belong on an intranet.
Googles Dimitri Glazkov demonstrated new 3D technologies that some browsers are beginning to support. But some conferees questioned how much these visual effects really improve communications, which is what websites are supposed to be about. Via Twitter, one attendee suggested to me that interactivity in itself is a good thing, and it’s true that these new effects are very impressive. As browser support increases, they will become even more common. But I suspect (and I think research supports my suspicions) that few prospective students are looking for websites that say, “Hey kids! Visit us and do stuff!” I think most students are saying instead, “No, I want you to do stuff, like answer my questions about your school.”