Getting Schooled

It has been a busy summer break for the online team at the University of Minnesota. While the students have been off working odd jobs or headed back to their home towns, the communications department has been busy with a new project: redesigning and re-launching the University website

"This site reflects a three-fold mission," says the University's electronic communications manager Matt Sumera. "We had to decide whether it was in our best interest to serve only the students and faculty, or whether we want to serve a wider constituency. Our decision in the end was to serve a wider audience and create the site around more content areas." The Minnesota effort is indicative of a new trend of moving college and university websites towards more content rich and community-oriented vehicles. Gone are the days when the most popular college sites served as weak marketing vehicles or a glorified admissions form. Many institutions are re-launching sites, and many new initiatives are reaching out to a wider audience.

As Sumera said, Minnesota re-considered its position after a series of focus groups and extensive research from Nielsen//Netratings. Over the past three years, the site has grown from 20,000 to 60,000 users per day. That traffic has come as much from people outside the university as from the inside, and the interest came as much from the outside community as it did from prospective students.

"Yes, the university is for students but there's also a lot of community events that take place here (in Minneapolis,)" Sumera said. "We found that a majority of people were coming to the site to learn how to get here, or learn about events here. More than 60 percent were looking for information about athletic events."

So where the old Minnesota site focused more as an intranet than an outreach site, the new one leads the home page with summer concert information, research on bugs taking place at the school, and yes, the new school season. Sumera also said that his research has found that more than 60 percent of all prospective students use the web as their primary information source about the university.

While many universities are putting up impressive amounts of content (see sidebar), it would be hard to find any institution that has embraced the Internet with the zeal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Through a concept called OpenCourseware, MIT has made more than 50 of its courses available online, at least through raw resource material. In September, it will take that number up to 500 courses.

"We started it in September 2002," said Ann Margulies, executive director of MIT OpenCourseware. "At that time, we put up the raw research materials for 50 courses just to see what would happen. The response was overwhelming. In fact, the first week, we had close to 15 million hits from almost every corner of the globe."

OpenCourseware allows anybody, anywhere with an Internet connection the necessary access to lectures, texts, and other course materials for those courses. In some cases, lectures are available via streamed video. Margulies said the materials have been used by teachers at other universities, study guides for current MIT students, and interested students outside the campus. She said the project was still in the very early stages, and has a goal of putting even more courses up online.

However, OpenCourseware begs a question. As one of the most prestigious universities in the world, with one of the highest tuition rates in the country, why open MIT to the world for free? Even Margulies admits that the information the university is posting is "priceless." She believes the overwhelming response has put the MIT faculty and programs on an even higher plane.

"And out of the overwhelming email we've received, which is more than 7,000 messages, we've seen a tremendous amount of gratitude," Margulies said. "This puts us in a very strong leadership position, and we hope it will build momentum towards the open sharing of knowledge, instead of making information available only to those who can afford it."

MIT is certainly way out front in terms of posted information and access, but there are other notable efforts underway. The Syracuse University School of Law will take its redesign live this fall. The site has a large volume of its library available to the legal community at large, but according to Ron Denby, director of information technology services at the school, it will also serve alumni better. In fact, password-protected sites will give alumni access to more information than ever for one simple reason: alumni fund the school through donations.

Other efforts and new initiatives are more altruistic. The University of Southern California has a massive site. It includes the Annenberg Center for Communications, and within that, the Online Journalism Review. The OJR started in March 1998 as an analytic look at what was happening with online content. It also served as an advocate for upholding traditional journalistic ethics. If you wonder whether or not the University takes OJR seriously, consider the fact that Michelle Nicolosi is the editor. She is on the journalism faculty at USC. Previously, Nicolosi was a lead reporter on the 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of a University of California fertility clinic, where doctors took eggs and embryos from patients and gave them to other patients without consent.

The OJR counts more than 50,000 unique visitors a week, according to executive editor Joshua Fouts. Those users are 30 percent international and cut across all industry lines. Even with its success, Fouts believes a rethinking of OJR is in order.

"We will celebrate our fifth anniversary in March," he said. "Right now, we're reassessing our mission and goals. Nothing is set in stone and we understand that. The industry has changed dramatically."

And so has the academic approach to online content.

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign: ( This University has a lot of campuses, Chicago being one, with great websites. Urbana-Champaign mixes student and alumni information with news about happenings at the school. Sometimes those happenings have a distinctly high-tech flavor. For example, scientists in the chemistry department have found that by colliding two laser beams, they can measure the movement of chromatin - tiny packets of DNA - in the nucleus of a living cell.

University of Michigan: ( Yes you'll see a front and center report on the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of the University's affirmative action policy. However, the best thing about this site, especially from a media business perspective, is the school of business. There are stories and white papers about the impact of business consolidation, a link to the prestigious Kresge library and a special section on executive management. University of Michigan also runs the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, which can be accessed from the site.

University of California at Berkeley: ( You can see on the home page why this site rated number three on the Nielsen ratings. The biggest issue in California these days is the state's budgetary woes, and right on the left-hand column is a story about how that impasse may affect the school, with a link to a Q&A email capability for questions about that issue. This site does a great job of placing UC within the community at large.

Harvard University: ( You might think this site would take the ultra-intellectual road, and appeal to a small group of would be students. Surprisingly it's very accessible. It focuses more on community events, such as Harvard Film's archive of classic films, than it does on minute academic achievements.

University of Texas: ( The Texas site has more personality than any other site that made the top ten. The hook'em horns logo is ubiquitous, and the content doesn't take itself as seriously as some of the other institutions. One of the defining features is an Inside UT area that allows prospective students to follow a current student through a normal day, an online webcast of the recent graduation ceremony and other "day in the life" elements.

Stanford University: ( There is an amazing amount of information on this site. The Graduate School of Business has the tons of media-oriented information. Currently, that area has an in-depth report on how analysts interact with their companies and how that relationship can be changed. It also has a great deal of training information for executives and managers.

Cornell University: ( A surprising amount of multimedia here, with virtual tours of the university, an online magazine called "Explore Cornell" and a Real Media version of the famous campus chimes. In terms of printed content, it's a bit more scattered. Particularly impressive, though, was the new digital initiative that puts the University's science, art, and photography galleries online.

University of Wisconsin: ( Straight example of a site that sets its main goal as a vehicle for attracting students, alumni, and money. Most of the B-School site is password-protected for students only.

University of Virginia: ( Of course, you have Thomas Jefferson staring at you from the home page, but that's where this site loses its predictability. Like most of the effective sites on the top ten, University of Virginia invites the visitor or community member first into events such as theater, athletics, or on-campus lectures.

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