February 5, 2015

The Illusion of Safety

What higher ed web strategy needs is a little more courage and a lot more action.

The Illusion of Safety

Higher education as an industry is not known for its speed or innovation. Despite the words thrown around by CIOs, CMOs, and enrollment VPs in meeting rooms and task force meetings (that’s secret code for “committee”), progressive thinking in the realm of technology or web services rarely shows its face. The practice of chucking buzzwords against the wall to see what sticks doesn’t yield any sort of progress or change. Instead, more questions are asked, more words are expelled, and more time is wasted. That cycle blocks any chance of advancement forward.

We see the overarching mentality going something like this:

My entire career has been based on choosing technology packages with mass adoption, a novel’s-worth of whitepapers and documentation, and a high cost (because it must be good if it is that expensive). Relying on technology that hasn’t been around for at least a decade is foolish, obviously. Basically, let’s play it safe.

While the rest of us digital hustlers are creating, using, and refining tools that speed up our processes, these quasi-luddites ignore or, worse, relegate our bespoke methods to even less-meaningful categories like hipster.

It’s 2015. CSS preprocessors are not new technology. Things like package managers and task runners aren’t new either. The darling technologies of two years ago are already being supplanted. You’re still using Node? Psh. Check out Angular.js.

Higher education’s failure to recognize the speed at which web technologies progress is what scares me the most. When a higher ed web generalist refuses to look forward at new methods, they have already committed their work to irrelevance. In any industry or field, if you are not interested in the new methods, tools, and skills your colleagues are developing, you don’t deserve whatever job you have.

Worse, that disinterest can do amazing damage to your organization.

That condition is the catalyst for poor content, bad design, and ineffective websites. Ask yourself why so few institutions make headlines with their new web properties. Do you have an answer?

Plain and simple: We are so concerned with not messing up that we miss every chance to excel.

I often think about what a university could do if its web unit operated with a startup mentality. I’m not talking, necessarily, about practice in Agile or iterative development or any other trend popular amongst small tech companies. What is remarkably striking about startups is their hunger.

Small teams can do amazing things when not bogged down with the political BS that comes with large organizations. What if, instead of taking direction from an administrator that rarely deals directly with students, a web team was given carte blanche to do whatever they thought it would take to increase enrollment and retention? A couple of opportunities come to my mind:

  • Student information systems would get better because the designers and product-focused people would listen to users first and fix their problems.
  • The school’s homepage wouldn’t be bogged down with minutiae. The site’s IA would be streamlined and simplified. Applications and other crucial flows would be dead-simple and lightning fast. They’d design these things for acquisition, not for decreasing bounce rates.
  • The internal student experience would be given just as much, if not more, attention and care as the acquisition experience.
A web team that’s given responsibility is one that can do amazing things. An interested, devoted, and talented team coupled with the freedom to meet goals however they want to can yield incredible results.

But safety’s primary ally is insecurity. The vast majority of our institutions are systemically insecure and this reveals itself in every public and private decision made. We choose Blackboard despite knowing our students and faculty hate it. We choose CMSes based on sales pitches or prejudices rather than its fit for the job at hand. We design a website to look like that other school’s because their’s went over so well last year. We slink behind instead of blazing trails.

In hanging back we do a disservice to that most ancient of responsibilities — educating — because the only security we can find is in someone else’s results.

You see, the university was always where the rest of the world found exciting ideas and new frontiers. The university drove innovation, thought, scientific achievement, and creativity for centuries. But decades of bureaucracy has forced much of the cutting edge out, replacing it with ambivalence and homogeneity.

It’s our own fault. The ones who choose to stick with higher ed are brave. But bravery is just a starting point. The follow through is what matters. As Winston Churchill once said,

Doubt can be swept away only by deeds

When we give up on ourselves we are giving up on our students, our faculty, and our coworkers. When we lose interest in our field’s trappings, we lose the respect and goodwill of our colleagues. And when we choose assuaging our insecurities over doing something world-changing, we have hammered the final nail.