Considerations for Special Higher Ed Content Types

Toy cars

So many content types, so little time…

We know many of the ways that higher ed communications is unique in practice from other industries—the quirks of the academic calendar, the diverse range of audiences, the intense politics, working under a knowledge-centric mission, and so on.

But another way in which higher ed stands out are the content types that only we get to wrangle—catalogs, handbooks, policies, program pages, and so, so much more.

Just because they are native to our world, however, does not mean that these content types are easy to plan, create, manage, or even simply comprehend. Sometimes, they are among the most complex content we have to account for.

In some cases they are legally mandated, other times they are reliant upon information from disparate units across the institution, and then sometimes they simply fall prey to poor governance.

With proper planning and structure, however, these unique—and business-critical—content types can fulfill their role in the higher ed digital ecosystem.

Common Content

With an eye on best practice and sustainable management, we’ve compiled some of the content types we commonly encounter in higher ed and some special considerations for managing them effectively.

Policies

Every institution has policies—from non-discrimination to computing usage to academic integrity and many, many more. To ensure that our community is aware of their rights and responsibilities, it’s important to ensure this content is accessible, accurate, and up-to-date.

But as important as it is for institutions to communicate this information, policies end up being a huge content hot potato. Why? Because of unclear ownership. Policies are derived from a wide range of units across the institution, and there is usually a charge to collect them all on a single page. That charge falls to the web owner, who typically does not own the policy content itself and does not possess the knowledge or authority to modify it.

But the website cannot “solve” the problem of communicating policy information. Instead, it’s time to use a lifeline.

  • If tasked with wrangling policies, call in some executive reinforcement—whether it’s with legal counsel, the provost, or another administrative function at the university-wide level—to define offline ownership and governance for policy content. It’s not the web team’s role to police the policies.
  • Work as a partner with that executive sponsor to figure out the best way to house, structure, and link that content appropriately.

Academic Catalog

Catalog content is one of the most important content types on our website. It describes the most fundamental currency of an institution’s value—its courses. However, how this content is managed can vary wildly. Sometimes, it’s managed via a database or third-party catalog software, and sourced straight from the catalog issued by the registrar. Or at some institutions, faculty may directly update course content on static webpages. How can we make the most out of this content?

  • Structure it with appropriate metadata so it can be fed onto appropriate program pages and other relevant pages on the website
  • Course schedules and catalog data share a lot of the same information, but are often managed in different systems (for example, Acalog and Banner). To make the most of this content, explore ways to connect those systems and amplify course descriptions with current semester offerings, faculty, times, capacity, prerequisites, and rooms, as well as links to syllabi, program pages, or other relevant information
  • There may be political considerations for doing otherwise, but think about communicating to students about course popularity or other noteworthy information
  • Avoid repeating course catalog content elsewhere on the site

Consumer Information Disclosure

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, as amended by the Higher Education Opportunity Act
of 2008, has multiple disclosure and reporting requirements [PDF] to ensure information is distributed to key audiences, including students and staff. Institutions must comply with these requirements in order to be eligible for federal financial aid, so it’s no joke.

The challenge with these requirements, in addition to the difficulties in simply gathering the required information to begin with, is figuring out how to publish it on the web. Attempts to do so often result in confusingly labeled and organized pages rife with redundant content. After all, this is content that, while ostensibly intended to convey important information to our target audiences, is designed more to fulfill a federal requirement than to communicate intuitively.

Thankfully, a 2009 report by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC), published shortly after the 2008 amendment of the HEA, provides some guidance. It may not be exactly what you’re hoping to hear, though. The report, which bears the poetic title “Information Required to Be Disclosed Under the Higher Education Act of 1965: Suggestions for Dissemination,” [PDF] explains the challenges thusly:

Decentralized information management means that even within a single institution, processes and standards for information collection, formatting, and dissemination may be varied. In addition, the unit responsible for the information at one institution may be different than the unit responsible for the same information at another institution. … This problem can be compounded by the inconsistency in how the information required under the HEA is provided to consumers by institutions.

The report then makes the following key recommendations:

  • Don’t sacrifice communication for compliance; use more intuitive and meaningful labels for required content
  • Create an easily accessible portal page with links to HEA-mandated disclosure information. This approach, the report contends, “ensures that institutions preserve their flexibility in collecting and managing their own information, while providing a distinct entrance point on an institution’s website for the HEA-required disclosure information.”
  • Ensure HEA-mandated disclosure information can be accessed within three clicks of the homepage in a general area (like an “About” section) versus an audience-specific section like “Current Students.”
  • Use plain language labels, not institutional or technical jargon
  • Label disclosures by content, rather than the source of the information (meaning, ditch the org chart)

There is much to debate in these recommendations, including the fundamental question of whether or not a mandated portal, however thoughtfully managed and labeled, accomplishes the required disclosure more effectively than a highly intuitive information architecture. But at least they provide some sanctioned guidelines for how to manage this content.

(Note: Included among the information required to be disclosed under the HEOA is campus safety information, as detailed by the Clery Act.)

Program Pages

You can make the argument that it is more important to nail your program pages than your homepage. Program pages are where you make the case for your institution’s primary product. If you can’t sell the value of your program, you likely can’t convert a prospect to a matriculated student.

Doug Gapinski of mStoner has a thorough, spot-on take on how to create better program pages. I would add that in addition to core program information such as degree options, courses, and requirements (which you must nail, clearly and accurately), you cannot overestimate the value of including some representation of outcomes (for both young alums and older, more established alums) and the current student experience.

Through well-crafted profiles (written or video) or even quotes (with photos and full attribution), you can answer these important questions:

  • What are my classmates like?
  • How do they like this program?
  • Where will I be headed will I graduate?
  • To what can I hope to aspire further down the road?

Tuition and Fees

Of course, the most fundamental thing to ensure with tuition and fee content is that it is up to date. And depending on the scope of programs you offer at your institution, and what sort of fees you may charge, it can be very easy for a master tuition and fees page to become unmanageable to read and unsustainable to maintain. Imagine a long scrolling table, 50 percent of which outlines charges for the nursing program—and you’re a business major.

This content needs to be a high priority part of your regular content review process.

  • Determine when any price changes are made public and ensure the website is updated accordingly
  • Enforce tuition as an authoritative content type (more about authoritative content later) to prevent duplicate pages from popping up, which would increase the chance of someone finding outdated tuition and fee information on the site
  • The more you can structure this content in a way that allows you to make it sortable and filterable, with relevant chunks able to be placed on relevant school or program pages without creating new, redundant (and risky!) tuition pages to update, the more usable and useful that content will be

Forms

As any business doing lead generation and capture will tell you, the concept of the inquiry form is not unique to higher ed. But this industry does not consistently do it well. Many third-party enterprise software packages that institutions use to collect and manage enrollment data offer clunky, rambling form experiences that may deter users from making a key conversion—completing an inquiry form.

Whenever possible, strive to optimize your form experience:

  • Use clear labels.
  • Only collect the data you need—to paraphrase a popular editing adage, omit needless fields.
    Ensure it works well on a mobile form factor.
  • Give people context as to why they are completing a form and what they will get in return (A viewbook? An occasional or a weekly email? A trip to Cancun? …OK, maybe not.)

But higher ed has many more forms to offer than the inquiry form—most of which are downloadable and typically included on long lists of links. These pages are ubiquitous, but we can do better:

  • Create an internal process to manage version control, making sure there are not multiple copies of the same form on the website (that means both linked and unlinked) and that the version you post is the most up-to-date
  • Gives users the confidence in a form being the latest version through “last updated” designations or by sharing your annual deadlines for revision or replacement
    Make forms web-based where appropriate or possible
  • Always designate when a hyperlink goes to PDF, Word file, or other non-hypertext document
    Use the hyperlink text (or additional descriptive text, if necessary) to clearly explain what the form is for, since the administrative title of the form may not meaningfully communicate that purpose to the user

Accreditation

When a university is going through an accreditation process, tensions can run high. People across the institution are working feverishly to prepare for site visits and to ensure that accreditors can access the information they need and that it is accurate and up-to-date. The website is naturally an important part of this process.

It’s important for the on-campus point person for the accreditation process to have a close partnership with the website owner. Ideally, the website owner should reach out proactively to ensure that best practices are taken in how accreditation-related content is thoughtfully managed on the site, and that they are not left to react against a deadline or political pressure.

Handbooks

Chances are, your institution publishes handbooks for different populations: students, faculty, and staff. In what format are these handbooks? Are they PDFs, perhaps with anchor links? Or is the content broken out onto separate pages with a navigation? Do they live within sections specific to those audiences, or to the organizational unit that created them?

Formatting is a challenge for handbook content, but one of the bigger issues is redundancy. As we craft a user-facing information architecture that enables our audience to find content intuitively, handbooks often contain duplicate versions of that content.

The challenge is that the handbook functions as the definitive university communication of policies, rules, and standards (see Drexel’s, for example). And there have even been instances of handbooks being cited as contractually binding in a court of law, though many handbooks will explicitly state that they do not serve this function. Either way, this makes it difficult to say “blow up the handbook!” when it does serve a compelling official function.

On Whose Authority?

How have colleges tackled these types of content? In one model, at the University of Buffalo, the Digital Communications Transformation Advisory Committee identifies certain of these as “authoritative content” which must be stored in and published from a shared content repository. At UB, authoritative content includes tuition info, “about” content, news, policies, TOEFL scores, and academic calendars. The content is owned and managed by the “offices which are responsible for maintaining its integrity.”

How do you handle these content types? Please share your strategies and workarounds in the comments!

Photo by charleswelch / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

Comments

  1. Georgy,
    Thanks so much for this thoughtful examination of common content types! I hadn’t even thought to look at types like “policies” and “handbooks” holistically, but you nailed the challenges they face. I’ll definitely be looking at my content in a new way – especially Tuition and Fees – I love the idea of creating it as “authoritative content” set up in reusable chunks.

    You asked “how do we handle these content types?” Well I have to say the only one of these I really feel we finally have a grasp on are program pages. It’s been a three-year process but we are finally down to creating our last handful. Here are a few of my strategies:

    1. Because they are so important and I couldn’t carve out the time with the requests coming at me all the time, I was able to convince my superiors to let me speed up the process by hiring freelance support (tip – use a recent grad – the content learning curve will be much less steep AND they are much more affordable than an established professional!)

    2. I created a very structured content template with detailed prompts. This could then be shared directly with departments to fill in, pre-populated with all our existing knowledge for the departments to critique/plug in gaps, or used as an interviewing prompt. (Having tried it all ways, my recommendation is – if you can afford the manpower – to fill in as much info as you have on hand, then share with the department chair and ask for a meeting to discuss it/fill in holes. It helps to have had conversations in the past about the department’s key distinctions to make sure what you’re writing hits all their high notes.)

    3. I used GOOGLE DOCS extensively for revision management and editorial feedback. With all the players (freelance writer, me, departmental content manager, department chair, program heads) I really don’t see how else we could’ve stayed sane!

    I hope those hard-earned nuggets of learning are helpful! I’m happy to chat/share my working documents if somebody’s just beginning this journey.

    And….a little show-and-tell. I might be proudest of our Music Department content because we have SO MANY major choices that at first glance can look similar to a 17-year-old musician. Now it’s all much more clear:

    Thanks again, Georgy, for this thought-provoking post!

  2. Absolutely right. Every often I visit an educational site, a few pages are missing or incomplete. Moreover, the layout is not user-friendly and even make visitors confused.

What do you think?

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