The Digital Campus

How to Care for Your Digital Campus

Pete Ryan for The Chronicle

April 20, 2015

The 19th century was a period of rapid growth in American higher education. Although many new colleges didn’t survive, their demise may have provided a lesson on the importance of campus aesthetics, Thomas A. Gaines wrote in his 1991 book, The Campus as a Work of Art.

"In their haste to open these new democratic schools," he wrote, "most administrations forgot that a concern for aesthetic vitality is crucial to developing any cultural center."

Much has been written since then about the importance of maintaining a beautiful campus, and successful institutions continue to make significant investments in campus architecture and green space. As we move to an era in which the campus extends beyond the traditional brick and mortar to the online and digital landscape, however, we must not repeat the mistakes of those 19th-century institutions. Colleges must invest in building digital campuses that are just as inspiring, vibrant, and functional as the stone arches, sculptures, and flowers that adorn our physical campuses.

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The late mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed the concept of a "hero’s journey" to describe a pattern found in some of the world’s most famous literature. A hero is called to leave his daily life, travels to a mythical land, acquires knowledge, has that knowledge tested, and ultimately returns to daily life, forever changed by his journey. Luke Skywalker in Star Wars is a great example of this concept.

A college education can often be like a hero’s journey. At least we hope that’s what happens. But with more than 4,500 degree-granting institutions in the United States, how do students choose where to begin their own hero’s journey?

Imagine you’re a high-school senior and you’re interested in learning more about the University of Alaska at Anchorage. You don’t live in Anchorage, so you probably Google it and click on the result for — you’ve now entered Alaska’s digital campus.

Many colleges leave their entire digital campus in the hands of a few web developers spread across the institution.

So what is a digital campus? I define it as anything a college puts on the web — its home page, learning-management system, web portals, mobile apps. This is a space where students, parents, and faculty members are spending increasing amounts of time, and nobody wants to spend hours in a lifeless, ugly, or cluttered space.

A college’s web presence — its digital campus — is becoming the gateway to its physical campus, and the experience students and parents have in that space contributes to their picture of the college as a whole. Sadly, for most colleges, the picture isn’t very pretty.

Many colleges take great care to maintain a beautiful and functional physical campus, with entire departments devoted to landscaping, architecture, and maintenance. We make sure there are sidewalks connecting one building to another, that there is plumbing, and that we have maps and signage to get people where they need to go.

Unfortunately, we don’t do the same with our digital campuses. Just look at the organizational charts — in many cases, each department, school, and office within a university has a "web person." Do these same departments have an architect? A landscape artist?

Absolutely not. Because a long time ago, we decided that our physical infrastructure was so critical to our ability to operate that we centralized decision-making and resources in that area. We decided the physical infrastructure could not be left in the hands of individual buildings or departments, and their varying budgets, to manage. Our physical infrastructure has a holistic strategy, life-cycle funding, and departments dedicated to maintaining it through the decades.

We have not been so disciplined in the digital world. Many colleges leave their entire digital campus in the hands of a few web developers spread across the institution, with varied skills and expertise and little collaboration. As a result, many digital campuses are a wreck. We have multiple administrative and learning-management systems, endless sites, broken search functions, few cross-links, and a belief that just because the information is on the web, everyone who needs it will find it.

Relying on would-be visitors to know the URL or to "Google it" is bad strategy. But this seems to be standard procedure.

A decade ago, colleges had some departments that were using Drupal, others using WordPress, and still others using homegrown solutions or static pages. So we in higher education bought a collegewide content-management system, thinking that if everyone used the same tool, we would fix this. Then, a couple years ago, "branding" became the buzzword, and colleges created style guides and brand kits and mandated their use. We all thought a unified image would make a beautiful digital campus.

None of those things fixed our problems, and none of them alone ever will. Why? Because they are tools, and what we need is a strategy — for a solid and flexible infrastructure.

A content-management system, a few web developers, and varied ideas don’t make for digital beauty (or effectiveness). It’s time to bring the discipline and foresight we use to beautify our physical campuses to our digital campuses.

So how do we fix this? We can start by taking lessons from our physical campus: Centralize web strategy and development. And while the solution will vary for each university, here are a few key points:

  • Beautifying the digital campus requires a long-term vision and infrastructure that should be independent of a college’s marketing efforts. Marketing departments don’t design or create our physical campuses, and they shouldn’t be the creators of our digital campuses, either. Marketing has a role in the appearance and branding of our digital campuses, just as it does with our physical locations. But our websites and digital spaces are more than a marketing or branding tool — they are our infrastructure.
  • Maintaining and creating websites and other aspects of the digital campus should be a collegewide budget expense, not part of an individual department’s budget. Just as deans don’t have to budget for the landscaping that surrounds their buildings, they shouldn’t have to choose between giving faculty members a raise or upgrading their school’s website.
  • We must connect all our sites to one another. Our physical world has pathways to connect buildings and create a unified campus, and we need to bring the same infrastructure to our digital campus.

Digital strategy needs a home, an owner, ideally a centralized team that would work under a vice president or director, and it needs to be a part of campus planning. We need to move the conversation beyond branding and agree that beauty is in function as well as form. Colleges that continue to play "Choose Your Own Adventure" when developing for the web aren’t just irresponsible — they are failing their students.

If I were to plant a tree outside my office, our landscaping department would have fresh sod in its place by tomorrow morning (and my boss would be seriously evaluating my employment status). I cannot plant a tree at will, so why should I be allowed to clutter the digital landscape? It’s time we tend to our digital campus with the same professional care and planning that we devote to our physical campus.

Brian F. Hawkins is communications officer for information technology at Indiana University.