I was recently poring over a mailing list from the International Society of Bassists, attempting to locate an actual double bass faculty member with actual working contact information. My task: find out if there’s a bass instructor, get his/her email address, and send them a personal note to come to the International Society of Bassists convention this summer. This project resulted in me being parked for about 12 hours looking at hundreds on university websites. After staggering out into the sunlight, rubbing my bloodshot eyes and trying to get my circulation flowing again, I decided that this lengthy hunt needed a blog post all its own.
What I Found
My findings? In short, university music department websites are some of the most non-standardized sites I’ve ever encountered on the web. It’s as if each individual school has completely reinvented the wheel with their sites, with no regard to solutions others have come up with. Very few (if any) design conventions can be found among the pack. The quality of a school’s website seems to have no relation to the size or prestige of the school; in fact, some of the best websites I found were from schools with tiny music departments consisting of three or four music faculty members, and some of the most headache-inducing sites came from major universities with 40,000-50,000 students.
In defense of those charged with building and maintaining these university websites, they are faced with a seemingly insurmountable task: operate a site that contains a stupendous amount of data for faculty, staff, and students, while projecting a clean and appealing public face, and keeping it updated. Change too much, and the legions of people comfortable with whatever mid-1990s kludgy interface they’ve grown accustomed to will revolt, and the hapless tech staff (doubtless overworked and underpaid already) finds themselves swamped with panicky emails and phone calls from professors and students. Change too little, and the site becomes some ancient, shambling Internet dinosaur, looking like a Geocities homepage on a bad acid trip.
Despite this complicated legacy/innovation balance, some schools have managed to project an appealing public face online, something that will only grow in importance with each passing year as reliance on web research for university selection continues to grow. If I were a student looking for schools right now and based my choice solely on the quality of the school’s website, I’d be drawn to the following schools:
- BIOLA University – man, look at that design! Very well done.
- DePaul University – nothing too flashy, but clean and easy to navigate
- Boston University – clean site, embedded within the College of Fine Arts site rather than its own dedicated page, but clean and inviting nevertheless
- University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign – this site packs a lot of information into a clean design. I like how the faculty pages are laid out in a table that conveys a lot of information yet can be drilled down for a clean look at each faculty member (see Northwestern University’s site for an example of difficult-to-navigate faculty pages)
Some of the best sites I’ve found were actually not from universities at all. The Chicago High School of the Performing Arts, for example, has a fantastic site, though it has the dreaded Flash intro that I despise so much. Any site done completely in Flash makes copying text nearly impossible, which is a real downer–students need to copy and past information from school sites frequently, and Flash sites make this irritatingly impossible.
These sites have some nice elements but some negative characteristics as well:
- Northwestern University – a decent site that packs in a lot of information, but the narrowness of the site layout gives it a strange look on most computers, and the layout has a bit of a 1990s feel to it. Also, try hunting through the faculty profiles–it’s in a massive alphabetical list! Not typical for most university sites, and difficult to navigate as a result
- Rice University – The Shepherd School of Music feels a little “bloggy” for a university site, and there’s something about the colors and layouts that feels a little off
- Cleveland Institute of Music – this site is laid out like many music school websites (I could have put another dozen or so here in its place). All the pieces are in place, yet there’s something a little confusing about his it is laid out. The site switches from a three-column view to a two-column view if you drill down into the site, and while I can find information without too much trouble, it lacks the elegance of the sites mentioned in the previous section.
I have decided to not be a jerkwad and specifically point out examples of bad sites (fun as that might be), but rather let people know what I commonly ran into in my search. Over 50% of the sites I looked at had at least one of the following problems, and some were unmitigated disasters. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the school is a disaster, but with a school website becoming increasingly seen as its calling card, this might be how a school is perceived by prospective students:
- -Google graveyard – In my search for university bass professors, I did an awful lot of Googling for a music school, getting the top result, landing on the supposed ‘home page’ for the university music site and receiving a “what you are looking for no longer exists” message, only to find a “404 – page not found” error. Nice. I’d frequently have to go to Wikipedia, search for the school then click through the link for the institution provided on Wikipedia. Ha!
- -No info! – Sometimes there’s just a paragraph when you click on “music” letting you know about the mission of the music department. No degree specifics, no faculty, and no additional info. Great… I’d go to school there in a heartbeat!
- -No email contact options – I see you…clearly – there you are, with your smiling mug on your page. But I can’t freaking contact you! How is a prospective students supposed to learn more? There’s frequently only one email on an entire website–for a webmaster. I mean, c’mon, I know that spam is a problem, but there simply has to be a way to get in touch with you if you’re a university music teacher.
- -Who knows where that link might take you? – clicking on faculty would, in equal proportion, take you to a page of faculty biographies or to the login page for university faculty members – confusing, eh?
- -No info on faculty whatsoever – You might be amazed at how many faculty info pages are nothing but a long table with a name and (if you’re lucky) an email address. No bio snippets. No information on what they might teach. Just an undifferentiated list of text, helpful to nobody.
- -Large sections that are ‘under construction’ – Ever see a site that claims to be “under construction?” This is nothing but a euphemism for web graveyard. If you see this on a university site (and I have!), beware.
- -Flash intro – If you have one, I automatically hate your site.
- -Internet Explorer required – Some school sites proclaim, at the very top, to require Internet Explorer (not available on the Mac) to properly view the content. Really? In 2009? When you’re servicing a population that is pretty heftily slanted toward Mac users?
- -Graphics that don’t load – nothing like little image fail icons all over a page to inspire confidence in a prospective student.
- -Personal emails (like AOL emails) on pages instead of university emails – In addition to being an open invitation to spammers and email harvesters, having personal Gmail, Yahoo, and (heaven forbid) AOL emails makes a school look kind of chintzy. Faculty members who really want to only check one email should simply set up the university email account with an auto-forwarder (like I do) instead – much classier without any additional hassle.
- -Design by committee – Far too many sites that look like 20 different people designed their own little digital fiefdoms with no regard to interoperability between the various components.
I’m trying not to name names, but one of the worst websites I’ve seen so far in terms of navigability (not ugliness) is the University of Memphis. They have a full-time double bass professor, but try to find him by navigating the menus–I dare you! Try to find the music department at all, for that matter… http://www.memphis.edu.
I’m not exactly a web moron, and if I couldn’t find any info about programs and faculty even through thorough digging at many of these sites, what are prospective students and parents going through?
Like it or not, web pages are becoming the most important link between a school and the outside world. An ever-increasing number of students will make decisions to attend a school based on information derived through the school’s website. Does this mean that a student will go to school based on the slickness of a school’s website? Probably not, but if a school’s website is a mess, with no easy way to find information on degrees, faculty, events, and other such information, what kind of message is that sending?
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