Randa Alvord, Brigham Young University
The World Wide Web became publicly available in the early 1990s. Since then, technology has grown at an accelerated pace and has affected every aspect of the college experience. It changed how students attain information and build connections. Over the last decade, much of the technology focus in higher education has been on new technology tools (e.g., social media, student success platforms, apps, video conferencing), nonetheless websites still play a critical role in the college experience. Beyond serving as the virtual front door to campus, websites provide support to students throughout their entire academic journey. Today 9 in 10 American adults use the internet (Pew, 2021), and over 60 percent of the global population are active users (Kemp, 2020).
With rising fiscal strains, the rapid expansion of online usage, and increased demands on advisors, higher education administrators are reassessing the effectiveness and limitations of technology tools for students, including websites. The questions abound:
- Are there ways to leverage websites to ease pressure on resources?
- What information is essential for students to understand?
- How can students be encouraged to engage with available information?
- Do websites motivate students to be self-sufficient?
- Have websites been overlooked as an effective tool for helping students and enhancing the advisor/student relationship?
- How can advisors be more aware of website best practices beyond seeking help from copyright, universal experience design, or inclusion offices?
A focused needs assessment can be extremely valuable to determine the answers to these questions. According to Musser et al. (2008), “a needs assessment is a systematic way of determining the current state of an organization before developing solutions or programming.” Surveys, data analytics, focus groups, interviews, comparison of other advising websites, reviewing institution guidelines and policies, or other methods of assessment create a framework for evaluating the quality and effectiveness of a website. Both anecdotal feedback and qualitative survey responses are beneficial; therefore, the process can be formal or informal. Advisors do not need to be website development experts to evaluate the potential improvements of an advisement website’s purpose and functions.
Garett et al. (2016) identified the most common elements mentioned in research on effective website design as purpose, navigation, simplicity, readability, organization, content utility, and graphical representation. Advisors should consider these elements in connection to a needs assessment to evaluate and restructure an advising website.
In Crookston’s (1972/2009) classic article he brought to the forefront the importance of advising as teaching and having confidence in students’ responsibility in the relationship. One purpose of advising is to facilitate a student’s rational processes, problem-solving, decision-making, and evaluation skills. In providing prescriptive information such as frequently asked questions, essential links, upcoming deadlines, handouts, forms, and ways to connect, students have access to resources to make informed decisions. When students and advisors then interact, it enhances the relationship as the appointment time can be spent with the advisor and student collaborating on developmental tasks. Although this purpose does not need to be clearly stated on a website, advisors can encourage students to use the website for this reason and even demo it during appointments.
No matter the content, if students cannot easily locate information, it is not useful. One of the greatest benefits of a website is search features to quickly find material, both through search engines and a search field. To aid in this, add keyword tags at the bottom of the page for terms students may use. Additionally, create a sticky menu (consistently stays on every page) that includes a search feature to help students know where to locate information and what to expect every time they use the site. If the website serves a variety of audiences, such as faculty or other advisors, advisors can dedicate a page on the menu for each population.
Simplicity, Organization, and Readability
Along with facilitating ways to navigate a website, the information needs to be presented in a way that enhances understanding and is user-friendly. Some ways of doing this are:
- Minimize the content and highlight important elements through using different size fonts, creating sections, or using multiple pages.
- Create clear subject headings that identify the focus.
- List information in numbered lists or bullet points rather than large paragraphs.
- Include student-friendly language instead of internal university verbiage and text at an appropriate reading level.
- Provide descriptive hyperlinks (links which state what the link is instead of click here) for lengthy information or information found on other pages or sites.
- Consider cross-platform compatibility to allow viewing from mobile devices and numerous web browsers.
- Implement recommended accessibility elements such as automatic captions, proper color contrast, text size, and avoiding color references in the text (i.e., click green button) (World Wide Web Consortium, 2020).
The content on a website needs to be useful and relevant. One complication of academia is changes occur continually. As information is in a constant influx, advisors must adapt. New content is to be added or current content needs updating to not stay stagnant. To help with this, advisors can create an internal list to track information on the site that requires frequent updating, dedicate a spot on the homepage for timely information, do a scan periodically to check for updates, especially looking for broken links.
Incorporating icons and different types of media improve user engagement and are aesthetically pleasing. However, complex issues and opinions surround how different groups are included in media and representation can easily become distorted, especially within higher education. Overrepresentation, misrepresentation, and underrepresentation all need to be considered both in the images and language used.
NACADA's core value of inclusivity urges academic advisors to “value a supportive culture for diverse populations” and “to create and support environments that consider the needs and perspectives of students” (NACADA, 2017). To promote a spirit of belonging for all students, images that reflect the student body, first-person language, and gender accommodating pronouns must be done with intentionality and not as an add-on. Although representation is not always easily understood, it is worth taking the time to be more conscious of it. Simple techniques such as using real images instead of stock photography can be employed.
It is also important to acknowledge representation does not happen with images or language alone. Other forms of support need to be advocated for to serve underrepresented groups as well. Posting information or links to safe spaces, scholarships, or other services for all students shows a commitment to foster genuine inclusivity.
These techniques offer a guide and starting point for evaluation. As advisors examine websites, it is important to keep in mind the insight from Garett et al. (2016), “different disciplines and industries have different objectives.” Websites for each advisement office will have different components to be highlighted. However, the value of implementing a well-thought-out website is universal. Not only will it provide information available at any time, create expectations for students, alleviate pressure on resources, foster a developmental approach, increase belonging, and offer insights into the culture of a university, a good website will, more importantly, be a part of students’ support system.
College of Fine Arts and Communications
Brigham Young University
Crookston, B. B. (2009). A developmental view of academic advising as teaching. NACADA Journal, 29(1), 78–82. (Reprinted from “A developmental view of academic advising as teaching,” 1972, Journal of College Student Personnel, 13, 12–17; “A developmental view of academic advising as teaching,” 1994, NACADA Journal, 14, 5–9)
Garett, R., Chiu, J., Zhang, L., & Young, S. D. (2016). A literature review: Website design and user engagement. Online journal of communication and media technologies, 6(3), 1–14.
Kemp, S. (2020, January 30). Digital trends 2020: Every single stat you need to know about the internet. https://thenextweb.com/growth-quarters/2020/01/30/digital-trends-2020-every-single-stat-you-need-to-know-about-the-internet/
Musser, T., Hoover, T., & Fernandez, M. (2008). Get the horse before the cart: Conducting assessment of advisor development needs. NACADA Clearinghouse. http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/tabid/3318/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/622/article.aspx
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies model. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreCompetencies.aspx
Pew Research Center. (2021, April 7). Internet/broadband fact sheet. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/
World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). (2018, June 05). Web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. https://www.w3.org/TR/2018/REC-WCAG21-20180605/
Cite this article using APA style as: Alvord, R. (2021, June). Website redesign: Adding curb appeal and engagement. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here]