Articles: Teaching & Learning

The worldwide demand for higher education and lifelong learning has never been greater. Colleges and universities around the globe need to scale up their offerings to cater to a mass influx of students, for whom a degree is their passport to the 21st-century workforce.

You may have heard that the most popular show in the world during the 1990s was the bathing-beauty vehicle "Baywatch," but the current leader may come as a surprise.

The annual Educause conference is the premier teaching and technology showcase for higher education, and this year's expo, held in Dallas in October, was no exception.

You might call 2006 the year of the redesign for institutions of higher education. Duke University (N.C.), Brown University, Ball State University (Ind.), Humboldt State University (Calif.), Virginia Tech, and Centenary College (N.J.) are among the group of IHEs who redesigned their sites. Over the past few months, many other new website looks have been announced or unveiled.


Expect some opposition and criticism from staff, faculty, students, alumni, and even donors for changing "their" website.

If you haven't redesigned your site yet, chances are that process will come your way soon. Selected from the suggestions of a few higher ed web professionals behind recent successful website redesigns, the following tips should help in the endeavor.

Don't embark on a website redesign only to keep up with the neighbors. You should expect some vocal students, upset faculty and staff members, angry alumni, and even puzzled donors to criticize, oppose, and fight you for messing with "their" website. That's why you need to come up with quantifiable goals for your redesign. "Clearly define the purpose of the redesign, and put it in writing," advises Andrea Arbogast, web manager at Humboldt. She rolled out a redesign this August. "I have found a short document with the redesign's purpose to be invaluable. There is usually a very concrete reason for taking on a redesign, and being able to articulate it easily has saved me a lot of grief," adds Arbogast.

You wouldn't renovate your house without researching the city code, thinking about the needs of your family, or browsing magazines for inspiration. So, do your homework as well before jumping into a web redesign project. Find out as much as possible about the current state of your website by analyzing web traffic data and feedback from users. Also take the time to learn more about your target audiences' needs and expectations by setting up online surveys, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, or usability tests.

"Before we began any work on site architecture or design concepts, we devoted several months to research," explains Michael Dame, director of Web Communications at Virginia Tech. "We interviewed members of our primary audiences-students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni-to find out how they use the university's website. Our findings informed later decisions regarding site architecture, navigation, and design."

If you plan to tear down the walls of your website, make sure you rebuild a compliant and functional web presence for your institution. Technologies, standards, and user expectations have changed a lot over the past few years. Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act defines ground rules to assure your website is accessible to disabled users. Make sure your redesign is compliant.

A website redesign is a project and should be managed as such with a defined scope, a given budget, and a defined set of resources. Set up a realistic schedule and manage expectations. Aggressive timelines will force you to cut corners or bypass necessary consultation. "You need at least one person who is a wizard at organizing people, details, and workflow," says Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, program manager of developer relations for the Office of Web Communications at Cornell University, who worked on its 2004 web redesign.

A website redesign is the best time for a content audit. Once you know more about your users' expectations and needs, start to review and reorganize your website content. After auditing your web content, you'll be able to assess the gaps between the current state of your website and the information architecture that will best serve your users.

Any change in the design of your institution's website will get noticed. That's why it's so important to get as much buy-in as you can before and during the process. "Real transparency is key," says Ben Riseling, web operations manager at Duke. "Was this audience group consulted?" is the question that he heard repeated the most.

While communication and buy-in are critical to the success of these projects, redesigns by democracy or by committee should be avoided. They don't work most of the time. "Our redesign blog was a crucial tool in showing our audience what was in the works and establishing a conversation about the new site. You have to be careful to set the tone of such a blog, though. We made sure it was very clear that we would listen to all ideas, but that the site was not being built by a democracy," says Cameron-Norfleet.

Make sure that the new design works by having a few members of your target audiences test your ideas and layouts as soon as possible. Test your paper or interactive wireframes (the documents showing the information skeleton of your pages) before picking the fonts or the photos. Try to launch your redesigned home page in private or public beta first. "About six weeks before launch, we posted a 'sneak preview' section on the university's website to inform and solicit feedback. And, a month before launch, we opened up the staging site to all faculty, staff, and students for testing and further feedback," says Dame.

If you plan to fix your website information architecture, navigation, design, and content, you might want to kill two birds with one stone and couple your redesign with the implementation of a web content management system. "Getting a site on a good CMS makes it easier to maintain and also enables it to seamlessly syndicate content," says Riseling. Beyond the power of syndicated content, a good CMS will make your next redesign implementation a breeze by separating content from design. Next time around, you will be able to focus only on redesigning the templates used by the application to produce on the fly the thousand of pages composing your website.

When it comes to redesign, bigger isn't always better. Major overhauls often generate a lot of resistance from constituents and can even upset your most fervent users. That's why some major names on the web, such as Amazon and eBay, don't redesign their websites anymore. They prefer to roll out any major changes slowly. Small changes prevent these companies from disorienting or losing their customers. Another benefit of the incremental approach lies in the eyes of your budget holder: Most of the time, small changes can be implemented quickly by your team and cost less.

If you're looking for more tips, you can read all the information and advice gathered in preparation for this column at www.collegewebeditor.com/redesign.

If we build it, will they come? That was the $16 million question Temple University (Pa.) executives, administrators, and trustees pondered before they gave the go-ahead to construct the largest student computer center in the country.

"It wasn't a slam dunk," recalls Timothy O'Rourke, vice president of Computer and Information Services at Temple, a public research university. "Nobody was going in this direction. The trend has been to equip students with laptops and wireless connections. I would get questions from faculty and the trustees on the order of 'Why would you do this?'"

However, after rounds of discussions and presentations to the Board of Trustees, the consensus moved to, "Why not do it?"

Construction started in March 2005. "We didn't go into this blind," O'Rourke says. "We did student surveys and found that only about 5 percent of students carried laptops to school, so we did believe there was a need for such a facility."


Students-both campus residents and commuters-did not want to bring their laptops to class.

Still, O'Rourke remembers his angst up until the day the TECH (Teaching, Education, Collaboration, Help) Center opened its doors on January 6. "I feared no one would come," he recalls.

But they did come-in droves. During the 2006 spring semester, the center recorded more than 432,000 visits from 20,000 individuals. The busiest day occurred on April 26 when 8,000 people entered the center. This fall semester, the daily attendance is expected to average 6,000 visits per day.

"The numbers have blown us away," O'Rourke remarks. "The traffic has far exceeded anything we could have imagined. It has been a tremendous success."

The 75,000-square-foot TECH Center sits in the heart of Temple's main campus in North Philadelphia, which serves 25,000 students. The building, which once served as a mainframe center for Bell Atlantic, met the needs for conversion because of its footprint and location.

The two-story facility also houses Temple's new 4,200-square-foot Welcome Center on the first floor, which tacked on another $1 million to the project (see "The Wow Factor," p. 46). The first floor also consists of various breakout rooms where students can collaborate on projects. Equipment includes flat-panel wall displays and desks with computers set up for group interaction. In addition, the campus Help Desk is located here, offering 24-hour support for the entire campus community. A Teaching and Learning Center offers training and technology support for faculty and teaching assistants, coupled with a faculty breakout room and lounge. Finally, the first floor houses the WHIP internet radio station (staffed by students) and, of course, a Starbucks cafe that's open 24 hours a day Monday through Thursday, with limited hours on weekends.

The second floor consists of an information desk staffed by a librarian to assist students, an internet lounge, and a service desk where students can go for support, reserve breakout rooms, and rent loaner laptops. There is a section solely for print operations consisting of high-speed laser printers, color printers, and plotters.

General computer areas are subdivided by different color schemes, each housing PCs and Macs, print stations, and popular software programs. In addition, the center offers free music and cable TV feeds. Various specialty labs house computers, special applications, and ancillary equipment. A video editing lab, a music lab with keyboards, a graphics/CAD lab, and a language lab round out the second floor's technology offerings. Moreover, there are two quiet rooms, as well as various breakout rooms reserved for collaborative work. Each room contains a flat-panel wall display and desks set up for group/computer interaction. Some labs are equipped for multimedia presentations, with surround sound and large screens.

Finally, various couches, coffee tables, and cozy chairs are scattered throughout the floor, so students can read, use a laptop (the building is wireless), or even nap between classes.

Even the sole vending machine is unique. Rather than containing the basic student food staples-snacks, candy, and gum-this machine dispenses memory sticks, ear buds, pens, paper clips, batteries, and, of course, Excedrin and NoDoz for those late-night term paper deadlines.

A side note: Food and beverages are allowed in the Internet Zone area, and beverages (with lids) are allowed in the computer areas. "We haven't had any problems with spillage on keyboards, and no stains on the carpet," says David Matthews, a lab manager. He attributes the success of the beverage policy to the large work stations and adequate spacing between stations that give students more room for the business at hand and less opportunity to knock over drinks.

According to Clarence Armbrister, senior vice president of the university, the idea of a large computer facility was born from various discussions throughout the university examining what the university needed to do to equip students for the 21st century.

"The TECH Center is the outgrowth of forward thinking from Tim O'Rourke,"Armbrister says. "When we initially went to the trustees with the idea, we were questioned if the university really needed the facility-considering the investment and the changing pace of technology. We went back and I got together with the academic side of the house and Tim examined the technology side, and we finally came back with a plan that encompassed what we thought would be a facility for 21st-century teaching, collaboration, and technology. And that's how the TECH-Teaching, Education, Collaboration, and Help-acronym came about."

Armbrister notes that other factors contributed to the idea of the center, including the knowledge that students-both campus residents and commuters-did not want to bring their laptops to class. Also, because students can't afford specialty software, the university wanted to give them access to high-end applications. And since previous computer labs were dispersed throughout the campus, consolidating the labs into one facility opened up those labs for additional classroom space.

Armbrister adds, "We also realized that students change majors all the time, and technology and applications cross over various disciplines, so now all students have access to all applications."

Tom Halligan is the former editor in chief of University Business and an alumnus of Temple University.

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