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?

Opinion: Should your homepage have drop down menus?

I get a lot of questions via twitter, email and in person about comments I make in my EDU Checkup episodes. I answer all of them, some may take me longer to respond than others (sorry) but I eventually get to them all. Today as I am responding I thought I should start posting the questions and answers publicly. Of course I will keep the question askers and the institutions they work for private but I think the insight into my process/thoughts can help a lot of people out there. So for now I am going to post them here, I may transition to a few text posts on EDU Checkup like HigherEdLive did a few weeks ago. Feel free to give me feedback on the idea.

Question

We’re in the process of redesigning our website and are using a main navigation bar that does NOT drop down a submenu when rolled over.

I believe I’ve heard you comment that that was the recommended format, but I can’t remember the primary reasons.  Would you mind letting me know if that’s still the better format over using navigation that does drop down submenu items when rolled over (we have people requesting this for our site)?

Answer

For me the homepage isn’t a “directory” to get to the major sections of the site. It’s more of a gateway to start determining who the visitor is and once they choose a path then they can be given more of a directory type of navigation. The primary audience for the homepage is prospective students but any number of audiences can start there so you can’t exclude them.

Secondly having a drop down under each menu item adds a whole separate level of complexity. How many items should be under each? Should they be alpha? Should it be based on process through the school? Should it be based on traffic? What if a dean/president wants a link in there, what is your justification for adding/removing items?

For me when exploring higher education sites and all the usability studies I have done and watched with our students shows they don’t use our homepage as a directory. If they know what they are looking for the will most likely search for it in the search form instead of hunting through menus. But every institution’s audience is different so I would suggest doing some tests with real students and just watching them interact with your proposed new site or other sites with similar functionality. You may also want to split that group into one you explicitly ask and ones you don’t.