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Opinion: Should online academic bulletins be separate websites?

Question:

I recently started at a higher ed instution to manage their websites (in desperate need of an overhaul). I’m new to the higher education space and am still feeling my way around. One of the issues that have recently come up is Academic Bulletins. They want to get a system/software to post the bulletins online. From what I can tell about bulletins I’m having a hard time understanding the purpose of the bulletin. It would seem to me all the content in the bulletin should be found on the website (history, mission, academic calendar, degrees, course description, etc.). I’m told someone might want to print the bulletin out to read, but a) every web page should be printable b) I have a hard time believing a college aged individual would be interested in printing a 100 page document to read about the history of a college and all the undergraduate degrees they offer. But my saying it isn’t enough. I remember you speaking about duplicate content and unwieldy magazine formats and was wondering if you have any advice, understanding or research you can offer. Or a direction to point me in for further research.

Answer:

Thanks for the question, it is a complicated one. From the end users perspective there are two ways to look at the bulletin. The first is a self standing document that is a legal contract of the requirements and courses from when the student entered the school. The second is a wealth of information that needs to be references at various points within the student’s career at the school.

Traditionally the bulletin has been thought of as an independent document that is compiled by a single office, typically the office of the registrar and then sent off to print and then distributed throughout campus. More recently as institutions are trying to save costs the print run have been smaller and students are demanding more information online the solution has been to just dump the document online. The problem is they are still being thought of as an individual “site”. This may still need to be the case for legal reasons, I’m not sure I buy the “someone will print it out to read it” argument. The content of the document is all static and it doesn’t change from day to day so any content management system can create and maintain the pages but in my opinion the content of the document goes far beyond that.

You are correct, the content of the bulletin is redundant, about, history, contact information, course descriptions, etc. The key is to start thinking of it as either a central source of information or just a collection of external information. My preference is the first mainly because it keeps the control of the content with a central source and if executed correctly it can reduce the workload of numerous staff on campus.

I advocate for the bulletin to be online as an independent website to keep the legal requirements fulfilled. I also advocate for the content to be entered into a system that allows bits and pieces of it to be pulled to other areas of the website seamlessly. I am not familiar with every content management system out there and it might take a little bit of customization but ideally if the central source can publish the information about the degree, courses, requirements, contact information of every program on campus that information can also be pulled directly to that school/college/department website and be updated from that central source each semester, year, etc. This would allow for consistent information managed by a central source and continuously updated in multiple locations at once. The end user would not have to jump between sites and re-orient themselves with navigation. It also makes the departments look like they are on top of their game by always having current information. This alleviates them from having to manage academic information and allows them to re-focus their time on department specific information/resources.

I am not familiar with all the CMS’s out there that manage bulletins so this is where I open it up to my readers to help. How do you manage your academic bulletin?

3 replies on “Opinion: Should online academic bulletins be separate websites?”

Yes! Set it up as a single source, if possible. We started by feeding the courses and major requirements into department sites. I set up the whole thing in the CMS to create include files — plain HTML snippets of content that I can then include throughout our sites. We’re moving into the “front matter” now, which includes the history of the college, mission statement, and descriptions of offices and resources. Since ours is edited annually, I’d rather have the content fed into as many sites as appropriate to protect the institution from out of date content.

We’re also working on our regulations to feed pertinent portions to department and office sites.

As a result, we offer both a single site to view a particular document, with a particular presentation, and distribute the content to relevant websites without the nightmare of copy/pasting all the content and keeping it in sync manually.

Setting up the content as include files was the easiest way to go, and predates our CMS (I used to store all the “main content” files in a folder and include them with PHP.) Now, in the CMS for a department site there’s a note that shows within the CMS, but doesn’t publish out, letting the content editors know that the courses, or major requirements, etc., will be included on the published page, and that if any changes are needed whom to contact.

Nick –

Our approach has been to keep the bulletin as a separate site. We call it the Undergraduate Catalog and it is the “official” contract with students. It is only available online, we stopped printing it several years ago. (See http://undergrad-catalog.buffalo.edu/)

That being said, we also syndicate the content to other sites, the best example being the Admissions site (See http://admissions.buffalo.edu/academics/areasofstudy.php). The content you see here is pulled from an Oracle database that powers the catalog site. We hope to expand this to include academic departments in the near future.

Word files spread through email that are then conglomerated into Indesign to hand off to a printer. At this point it’s late August and the website still reflects the previous academic year so I accept a near-final draft while still in Indesign to translate to HTML for online distribution. Web Communications used to manually populate a MySQL database to provide all requirements and course descriptions for each area of study in a standard representation on the web alongside some generic info about the dept and faculty listing. This content could then be repurposed onto Academic sites that were hosted on www. Over the years it became increasingly difficult with the number of changes throughout the year to maintain a “dual” representation of academic depts (our standard vs. depts themselves) from a resource perspective in Web Communications so last year when it was converted to HTML the content was added as standard webpages within each dept site (in our CMS) or handed off as HTML to non-CMS sites and the “standard face” was discontinued. Theoretically the dept can maintain the content themselves which is a concern to the Academic Administration from a legal perspective. The process of updating the content in the traditional way has started again and how it all works out this year now that depts can update the content themselves is yet to be determined. Transitioning to a web content managed solution (vs word and email) is discussed by has no traction or resources.

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