University Departmental Website Content?
October 18, 2011 8:56 AM   Subscribe

What do you think should be on a university science department's website? If you were a student researching/applying for an UG or Masters program, or someone generally interested in the dept, what would you like to see and where? Alternatively, what are good examples of science dept. websites that you have seen?

I've been charged with updating my departmental website. We are a chemistry department in a predominantly Undergrad Institution (i.e. no Ph.D. program, some research w/masters/undergrads).

We have a very specific form/style guide - this limitation, along with limited technical expertise limits us to static html: i.e. links and text only please.

We currently have:

Programs of Study (inc. application details)
Useful Science Links
Faculty (including their personal pages)

Who else would be reading the website apart from potential/current students, and people interested in the dept. What would they like to see?

Any other advice greatly appreciated.
posted by lalochezia to Education (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The undergraduate adviser's contact information should be prominent, not just buried in the staff/admin (or faculty) pages.
posted by Think_Long at 9:11 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

I am answering this from the perspective of a prospective job candidate for a faculty/lecturer type position (in the past, when I was invited for phone interviews/onsite interviews, I always started with the university and department web pages). Also answering this from the perspective of pregrad school days when I wanted to say "why go to grad school X."

Here are the things that helped me (can't do the links - just checked, and the ones that were interesting in the past changed again, so google away):
• Does your/did your department win any large grants that changes how you teach? If so, include your philosophy of teaching or how it will implement (e.g. will use technology in the classroom).
• Include other awards/grants recently won by faculty (in the event there are commonalities to discuss during the interview).
• A web page describing what your grad students are doing now (a brief blurb about the masters level students - what are they doing/where do they go after they finish?)
• Description of courses offered or a link to the department catalog.
• Any cutting edge research, including collaborative research. For example, is there a microscopy facility (or something that applies to chemistry world I guess). Put up some cool pictures and describe the reseources available if so.
• Another university had a really neat newspaper written in a format accessible to the average lay person and it included interviews and summaries of the faculties work -- a new publication was put up every few months. This appeared on the web page for the science department (I think they worked closely with a communications department to do this).
posted by Wolfster at 9:19 AM on October 18, 2011

Hey there! I am working on something very similar - updating an academic website, very limited formating options.

We include Science! News! in our field and we also try to have a little original content - interviews with people in the department, for example. You say that you can only have links and text - do you also have the option of uploading photos? (I ask only because faculty web pages often have photos.)

Also, think of common student problems (department-related, program-related, etc) and where they need to go to resolve them - maybe create a linked page with this information?
posted by Frowner at 9:19 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

A page for any departmental specific honors programs or undergraduate research opportunities.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 9:20 AM on October 18, 2011

For the love of god, what Think_Long said. I do not want to play five minutes of variations on " professorname" every time I need to contact a professor without their syllabus on hand. Big ole' link right on institution.ed/chemistry called "FACULTY" and a nice, neat table of faculty names and email addresses, office hours and department extensions, if they have one. Also, class schedules for each professor would be nice, especially if they allow students to make up classes in other sections.
posted by griphus at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's the famous XKCD on university web sites, which I think is instructive. A very small number of the people who visit your web site will be interested in news and events.

It might help if you used Google Analytics to see what people were predominantly using your web site for.
posted by grouse at 9:21 AM on October 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Course descriptions are very helpful.

Info on research there.
posted by maurreen at 9:23 AM on October 18, 2011

Course numbers and descriptions
posted by victoriab at 9:24 AM on October 18, 2011

I would actually reach out to either the IT department or the Marketing/Communications department and find out who set up and manages the website as a whole, and see if they have any recommendations.

Honestly, this person could exist in either department, both departments, or not exist at all. But it would be worthwhile to reach out to them to see if THEY have any recommendations. There may be a standard structure they're trying to keep, or some cool tools you don't know about that they can set you up with.

I work at a university in web services and I woud love for a department to come to me and ask "What should I put on our department website?" YMMV.
posted by kellygrape at 9:35 AM on October 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Were it me, I would do profiles of fairly-recent alumni who have gone on to interesting jobs. Students are really focused on getting useful job skills, and they'll be more likely to choose your major if they can envision how it will lead to a career. (Of course, we all know that few majors lead directly to careers, but at least they'll be able to think "students who major in this sometimes go on to do that," which is helpful.

Office hours would be super, super, super helpful, but I sometimes wonder if departments don't post that because of safety concerns.
posted by craichead at 9:36 AM on October 18, 2011

In addition to the excellent suggestions above, do you have any student organizations or clubs? Highlight those. You can also list news items -- faculty publishing something, getting awards, students receiving awards, pictures or statistics of the most recent graduating class (and info on what they're doing next), new hires to the department, grants received, etc.
posted by bluefly at 9:49 AM on October 18, 2011

(By news items, I essentially mean a sideblog. It doesn't have to be updated super often, just when news happens).
posted by bluefly at 9:51 AM on October 18, 2011

You should make it very easy to find a list of everyone in the department. I liked how my old departmental website did it with everyone (faculty, staff, grad students) on the same page. Also, try to make sure all your faculty members have a research page, even if it's just links to their last few papers.
posted by auto-correct at 9:59 AM on October 18, 2011

Keeping information up to date is pretty important, and it's also nice to let the site visitor know that information is up to date (an accurate site updated date on the bottom of each page, perhaps?).

For students, it's nice to see both a listing of current courses including who is teaching them and maybe time/location, as well as past course schedules and anticipated future course schedules. Since most college catalogs are based on ideals, it's useful for students to know what they can expect in reality when they're planning their schedules. If the really awesome class with the really awesome professor isn't on the books for the next four years, students should know so they don't get their hopes up. Likewise, it would be good to indicate on your faculty page any current or planned faculty sabbaticals for student advising purposes.
posted by wsquared at 9:59 AM on October 18, 2011

I consulted on this subject for a well-known institution in California. The administrators wanted to make the depts. more well-known to media, journalists, etc., besides the usual highly technical press.

I advised the dept. that every prof. needed a photo (because tv producers want to see what the scientist looks like), a well-written, but not too technical, bio, links to published works in more than just the usual professional publications, and ways to contact the departments for more information, setting up interviews, and so on without having to bother the academic for this sort of information.

MeMail me, and I can give specifics.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:08 AM on October 18, 2011

The department's mailing address.
If possible, at least a basic outline of who is teaching what for the next 2-3 years.
posted by rockindata at 10:49 AM on October 18, 2011

This is maybe more the faculty's job, but I am so tired of bland generic faculty pages that don't have any content, with a link to a personal website for the professor that looks like it was coded in 1997, with every professor having their own idiosyncratic format. Sure, let them keep their weird old websites but at least include a brief bio blurb and a list of recent publications on the standardized page, so when I am just browsing looking for someone to work with I know who is worth checking out in more detail.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:51 AM on October 18, 2011

I just redid the entire graduate studies website for my university.

As a result, I doubled the pageviews and time on site, and halved the bounce rate.

Things that have been popular:
* Clear list of fees -- (well as clear as possible, anyways). This is very important to potential students.
* Clear contact information and exactly where to send supporting documents
* How to apply
* Scholarships / funding -- again, very important to grad students
* Blog with profiles, external awards, events, tips -- lots of human stories

Fortuitously, the university moved to the CQ5 platform so I was able to really take advantage of the page tagging capabilities to make the custom pages even more customized to their audience. (Eg. computing page-at-a-glance contains all the university's computer science scholarships and none of the biology ones, and has all of the blog posts related to computing.)

Definitely get google analytics on your existing site asap so that your visitors can tell you which are your most popular pages. I'll bet that it's all of the pages for "Future students".

Those results will give you backup for content/navigation decisions .
posted by wenat at 11:02 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey, cool! I do this for a living (web content and online marketing manager for a university) so I might have some ideas.

You want people to feel good about the page and, by proxy, your university, by making sure it's friendly and helpful. As others have mentioned, hiding stuff like staff contact info is frustrating and pointless. So put the most useful, important information towards the top and towards the left - course list, faculty contacts, link to online prospectus order form, open day or open evening dates and registration link, application and finance information. This is what people are coming for, so give it to them!

Keep text simple - short and punchy in chunks of 3-4 sentences, tops. Decide on a key message and talk about it - what is your department known for? High levels of student satisfaction? Good graduate employment rates? Great facilities? Whatever it is, tell people about it, with links to specific evidence to back it up whenever possible (for example, if you're rated well in some area in some sort of national ranking, link to it. If you have an amazing chem lab, imbed some photos or link to an external photo gallery if that's absolutely impossible). Don't be shy. Other universities are bragging, so you need to do the same.

Finally, you need to make sure people are actually looking at the page. A little SEO knowledge goes a long way. Think about exactly what your department's typical potential student might type into Google - "chemistry degree" or "undergrad chemistry" or "west coast chemistry program" - and work those phrases (naturally) in to the text. It doesn't hurt to ask some current students in the department what kind of searches and research they did when considering where to study to get some idea of good search terms to include. There is lots more SEO information directly from Google here if you want to know more.
posted by cilantro at 11:11 AM on October 18, 2011

Something I found helpful as an undergrad: departments tend to be pretty good about listing the overall requirements for the major, but it was great when they also listed a typical sequence. I.e. something like "most students take either the 13XX general chemistry or 14XX honors general chemistry sequence in their first year, organic chemistry and one elective in their second, &etc."
posted by kickingtheground at 11:35 AM on October 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Looks like people have said most of the good stuff, so I'm going to mention a couple of fussy things:

On the symposia/seminars page please find a way to include a calendar that someone could upload to their google calendar (or other calendar). Also make sure that this stuff gets updated.

I spent some time trying to compile all the seminars that might have been relevant to a lab I worked in and it was really nice to be able to download a single file and put it into google cal and share it with the whole lab. The places that had pdfs did not make me happy.

Make sure that faculty pages have their publications linked to an abstract server of some sort.

A good list of classes required for degree is always nice.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:56 PM on October 18, 2011

Yeah, that XKCD comic should be your guide here. Please don't fill up the front page with press releases and shit like that. Nobody will read it. Even people who might potentially care about the contents of the press releases won't read them.

Basically, anyone who shows up on your website has a specific question they want answered. And nobody ever asks the question, "Where can I find a list of every random thing that someone at the Bigass State U chemistry department felt like bragging about?" They just don't.

They might ask "How good is the Fancy Newfangled Polymer Lab at Bigass State U? Where can I find a list of their recent accomplishments?" Or "What is the Bigass State U chemistry department's graduation rate?" Or "What industries did the members of last year's M.A. cohort end up in?" Or "How about Professor So-and-so who I met at a conference last year? What is she working on these days?" Or "Where does the department keep its flux capacitor, and who do I need to ask if I want to use it for a research project?"

Every page needs to answer one specific and coherent set of questions. Everything you want to brag about, you need to find a question to which it is the answer and put it on the relevant page. If you can't imagine anyone asking a question to which your latest press release is part of the answer, then that means you shouldn't link to the press release. Same goes for Official Statements from the Vice-Dean for Student Wrangling, photos of your fancy-pants equipment, and even announcements of upcoming events. (You need a single page that holds all of your event announcements, and don't go smearing them all over the front page. Someone who wants to know about events will click the link that says "events." Someone who doesn't want to know about events doesn't give a shit.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:48 PM on October 18, 2011

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