Honesty is the best policy…

Earlier this year we launched a website to allow our applicants to talk to each other and our current students. The idea behind it was to create a virtual community of applicants and to allow real students to answer questions about life at Edge Hill. The site is public but only applicants and/or students can contribute. The site we call ‘Hi’ has been a success for us. It’s given us a medium to update applicants with key information about joining us and for students to answer questions/queries directly. It’s not edited, not censored… it’s for applicants to use as they wish.

Last week we saw an example of it doing what it does best! A-level results day and students flocking to the site ready to secure their place and make new friends. Great we thought – result!

Yet with the positives came the negatives. A thread started about students being declined on-campus accommodation… and it didn’t sound good. Clearly we had some disappointed students on our hands and that concerned us.

We’ve made no secret of the fact our applications have risen phenomenally since we acquired University title in 2006. Infact it’s something we’re incredibly proud of but an increase in student numbers has meant whilst we can accommodate most requests we cannot guarantee on-campus accommodation for all first years (see the EHU2020 website for details on our plans for the future). Although applicants are informed of this it’s naturally disappointing news when they find out they haven’t got a place. So they turned to the site – the site we gave them to use as they wish – and shared their frustrations…

However negatives can be turned to positives. We’ve been thrilled to see the site being pro-actively. Firstly from our perspective it’s been great. We’ve been able to respond to individuals quickly and provide them with much needed advice and support. We had already arranged House Hunting Workshops on-campus but by using the site we could inform applicants about these and allow them to use the ‘secure’ off-campus accommodation finder to look for rooms. We’ve also seem some really positive and pro-active applicants too. One particular applicant found a seven bedroom house and started a new thread to get room mates! So people who had never even met before could sort something out together – exactly what a community site should encourage.

In July I gave a presentation at the IWMW entitled “Let the students do the talking…” so you may wonder if I still feel they should?! And my response would be ‘absolutely’. No Uni is without its problems… we can’t pretend everything about starting University will be seamless and effortless but we can ensure we offer our applicants excellent support and the best way to understand what they need is by listening to them!

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)

Andy Clarke’s presentation at @media 2007 was concerned with international styles in web design, some interesting questions arose.

I was interested in why designers felt that they needed to conform to an international design style rather than adapting regional traditions in design to the web.

For example would an Italian designer look to adapt Giovanni Pintori’s classic typography for Olivetti to the web, or would they regard themselves as a world citizen designing in a universal medium where local traditions and innovations were insignificant?

Is there really an international style?

One thing I noticed when I started looking at CSS Gallery websites was that there appeared to be a specific look and feel to a design that wanted to say:

“I am a Standards Compliant CSS Website”

I feel that a lot of European designers began using American design styles because the first wave of Standards Compliant CSS Websites were American, and this trend has stuck.

The main difference would be in Typography, Europe gave us Sans Serif fonts like Helvetica and Eurostile. Whereas Americans’ prefer serif fonts like Georgia and Palatino. Serif fonts are now much more common in Europe.

Another striking thing about American design is a sense of history, a lot of contemporary design has a retro look, a certain early 60’s American Graffiti influence. The continuing vogue for logos with a flowing hand written feel like Coca Cola is evidence of this. Coca Cola incidentally have gone retro, and their new cans have simple flat colour and clean traditional type, rather than the recent fad for gradients and drop shadows, an interesting diversion.

Coca Cola Redesign

Americans also like to use a lot of texture and bring organic elements into web design, whereas European designers were always quite evangelical about white space. Nowadays Europeans’ have gone crazy about colour gradients.

One of the biggest American influences has been Apple Computers. Appletastic black and grey gradient backdrops are ubiquitous, as is typography with a faded reflection or shadow. It’s neat and tasteful, but it’s becoming homogenised. Websites don’t need look like an Apple product in order to appear more Web 2.0.

So I think there has been a move towards a universal style in web design. This could subconsciously reflect a medium without old rules and boundaries, but where is the variety?

Tracking the interweb

A comment on my last post from a journalist at the Essex Chronicle got me thinking. Obviously he’s using Google Alerts to track topics of interest, in that case possibly “World Scout Jamboree” or maybe “Chelmsford” or “Hylands Park” (hello if this triggers the alert again!). I know other journalists do this too – I wonder if the Ormskirk Advertiser[1] pick up on what we say online…?

Back to the point I was going to make! What tools do we use in Higher Education to help us better track what goes on online? I have a few Google Alerts of my own, but non for work use at the moment. I track interesting sites using RSS feeds and I monitor Technorati for people posting about Edge Hill – what do other people do? Is it part of our role in Web Services to track everything online, or should we be showing others some of the tools to monitor the internet for themselves?

I’ve just subscribed to an alert on “Edge Hill University”. Let’s see how much my inbox gets flooded!

Update: make sure you’re specific about alerts – I originally subscribed to Edge Hill University without the quotes and two out of three notifications weren’t anything to do with Edge Hill.

[1] icNetwork is currently broken – why is it always so slow?!

Can you find what you’re looking for?

Yesterday Sam and I went to a talk organised by MERIT and presented by Jan Klin titled “Advanced Search Engine Marketing – A Fast Track Approach to the Google Top Spot”. Now, I’d admit that I’ve always considered SEO a bit of a dark art and people specialising in it had something of the Derek Trotter about them, but yesterday’s talk was genuinely interesting. Jan talked through a process of auditing your site, identifying key phrases and targets and only then modifying your pages to be optimised.

While SEO in a university environment might not be quite as important as businesses who are selling products and services (unless you believe students are customers) we do need to ensure that people are able to find what they’re looking for on our sites. We can certainly do more in describing our pages and ensuring that site visitors find pages appropriate to what they’re looking for rather than just landing on the homepage and being left to browse the site themselves.

This is something that we’ll be looking at more in the future and building into new developments from the outset but in the mean time if you’ve had trouble finding something on our website, please do tell us – post a comment below or email the webteam – and it will help us identify areas for improvement.

Online Excellence Scholarships

This year we’re launching our first “Online Excellence Scholarship” in a bid to reward students who are excelling in the construction and creative and interesting use of new media. Successful applicants could be upwarded £1,000 over 1 year (for PGCE students) or £2,000 over 3 years (for undergraduates) an attractive bonus for any student.

So how will we judge “excellence”? Well we’re particularly interested in the richness of content, creativity, innovation and/or technical accomplishment shown in the work and whilst most people have a MySpace page or a blog somewhere or other we’ll be looking for things that stand out from the crowd.

With all the web 2.0 technologies and sites available it’s easy enough for those creative and innovative individuals to really make their mark in the online space and we’re looking forward to seeing some of the best examples and awarding the scholarship to someone we feel can really add value to the growing online community. 

Google universal search

Google announced yesterday that they’ll be launching “universal search” where results from video, images, books, maps and so on will be blended into web search results. This has been around for a little while in the form of the “onebox” – a few image results or products shown at the top of the page – but in the future these results will be right in the main listings.

With a significant proportion of our site visitors finding the Edge Hill website using Google (information that’s easy to find with the new Google Analytics interface!), this is potentially a big change in the ordering of results. While I would expect that the top result will still be our home page, we might see video results from YouTube and Google Video starting to sneak in lower down. The Google interface will be tweaked slightly to bring more attention to other types of search result through a bar across the top showing all their services and a bar just above the search results showing search services which are likely to find what you’re looking for. With users much more likely to go looking for these other types of page it raises new SEO challenges to get our heads around.