Future student online experiences

Future student online experiences

Sharing the work of the Prospective Student Web Content Team

We are not replacing the Degree Finders. We are transforming them.

Replacing the University’s Degree Finders has been long talked about. It’s long overdue. In this post I’ll explain where we’re up to, and why replacing is not a term I prefer to use.

What are the degree finders?

If you’re not working in student recruitment at the University of Edinburgh, or you’ve never applied to study with us, you possibly don’t know what I’m talking about.

We have two degree finders, one for undergraduates and one for postgraduates. They’re basically directories of degree programmes to can apply for in a given academic year.

They exist at the centre of a broader ecosystem of online provision for prospective students, providing the most critical information needed for someone to decide whether they want to apply to study with us.

Concentric circles illustrating the place of the degree finder in a wider ecosystem of website

The degree finders sit in a much bigger ecosystem of websites that povide information for prospective students.

So the undergraduate degree finder is the core element of our provision for prospective undergraduates.

And the postgraduate degree finder is the core element of our provision for prospective postgraduates.

What’s the problem?

We face a number of challenges, which to a large degree cannot be addressed without a significant overhaul of how we present information for prospective students. The degree finders are at the centre of this provision.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, only some of the bigger challenges we face that are at the forefront of my mind.

Poor usability and student experience

These issues of experience for prospective students are well-known and cost the institution heavily in terms of enquiries that could’ve been self served. They are at the heart of why the Propective Student Web Content and the Prospective Student Enquiry Management teams were established.

As far back as 2016 when I was working in Information Services as User Experience Service Manager, I did research for Steven Ross and Lesley Middlemass (who managed the degree finders at the time) which showed quite starkly where the biggest problems lay:

  • Entry requirements
  • Application process
  • Cost of study
  • Funding opportunities
  • Routes to enquiry

A summary of the postgraduate degree finder usability research is available in a blog I wrote at the time (July 2016)

It’s not evolving

The current technical platform was built in such a way that the only way significant improvements could be achieved was via projects run by the Applications Division of Information Services. And for  such projects to be funded, they needed to go through the University’s annual planning cycle. This basically means that any meaninigful change has a lead time of at least 18 months, assuming the funds were approved. And this was before the current technical platform reached its technical end of life, which now means that no further development work is possible.

We need a platform which can evolve incrementally, on an ongoing basis, and without the need for long planning lead times. The Prospective Student Web Content Team now has the skills in software development, user research and design to make ongoing improvements. But we don’t have a technical environment in which to make them.

(Why is incremental improvement important? Because it’s not possible to deliver good quality, value-for-money software with such long lead times and monolithic plans. Read my blog post about humility in software development)

It’s structured with a print mindset

By this, I mean:

  • The structure of our provision is a digital mirror of how a print prospectus was presented. A load of generic content followed by a directory of programmes. With a digital platform, we can and should be presenting information about facilites, places to live and everything else in the context of the programme that the student wants to study.
  • The way we approach the management of the content is rooted in the annual print cycle. Engage with schools and units, update the content once, then leave it for another year. We need new ways to engage with colleagues in schools and colleges (our team’s customers) to facilitate ongoing improvement.

It’s understandable why degree finders began with a strong connection to print materials. Back in the 1990s, we thought about the web as a new means to distribute marketing materials.

But 25 years on we need to be thinking about the web (or indeed all future means to access digital content) as a means to deliver service.  We need to help people get things done independently.

It’s not comprehensive

Considering our degree finders are supposed to be our golden copy, there’s an awful lot of content that is important to prospective students that exists outside of the core provision. Just try and find out your entry requirements if you’ve got qualifications other than UK or International Baccalaureate. Or if you want to explore funding opportunities. Or if you’re studying postgraduate over multiple years. And these are just the core information requirements.

If we want to reduce duplication, and encourage colleagues in schools to retire the extra websites that are published across the University’s web estate, we need a central service that demonstrably provides a platform to publish all content needed for prospective students to make informed study decisions.

There will always be content on school and research group websites that is of interest to prospective students. But this should be supplementary material which is provided by the school for multiple audiences. Staff profiles are a good example of this.

Furthermore, so long as we need to publish content exclusively for prospective students on other central sites, then we demonstrably do not have a platform which meets business needs. Here I’m thinking about sites such as those for new students and offer holders, and entry requirements by country.

New students website

Undergraduate entry requirments by country

What have we been doing about this?

Working with Website and Communications towards a product-led approach

Since establishing this team, I’ve remained in regular contact with Stratos Filalithis and the Website and Communications team so am well aware of the product-led approach they’re taking to the Web Publishing Platform that will replace EdWeb. As philosophy and operating model for a publishing platform, it’s in line with the majority of user-focused digital services and with the way I think about managing prospective student digital services to our colleagues in schools and colleges.

So our increasing alignment towards a common publishing platform and ways of working is not a surprise. We all want to deliver improvements that meet user needs more frequently.

‘Are we there yet?’  – a blog post on product management and the Web Publishing Platform by Bruce Darby in Website and Communications

We all want to deliver improvements that meet user needs more frequently.

Design sprints exploring potentially tricky problems

While I’ve set out some of the big challenges facing us with the Degree Finders, I’m not going to suggest for a second that I have the full picture. Nor would I suggest that I have all the answers.

But what I do know is that a collaborative, human-centred approach which focuses on finding digital service approaches that measurably work for the intended audience is what we need.

Earlier this year, I put that into practice by setting up a series of six design sprints to explore some of our trickiest challenges. Over a series about 20 weeks we did rapid research, collaborative design and testing of our prototypes. We have more to do, but we learned a lot really quickly using the Google Ventures Design Sprint approach.

Reflections on a summer of design sprints – my recent blog looking back over our degree finder research and design work

Planning our approach for the next few years

We recently began a short project with Manifesto, the digital development agency who are working with Website and Communications to deliver the Web Publishing Platform.

This project will ensure that our plans align with those of Website and Communications, and that we set out a roadmap of what needs to happen with estimates of staff resources needed to deliver.

We expect this planning work to be completed by early March 2020.

What comes next?

The University planning process is well underway, and we’ve submitted an initial outline of anticipated requirements for the next two years. This detail will be firmed up when our current planning project concludes.

Assuming we receive the funding required to begin development in August 2022, I expect we will be working over the coming two academic years to deliver a new service to our customers in schools and colleges, and to the prospective students who ultimately we all aim to serve.

As it stands, we will be using our existing systems for at least one further academic cycle. I would anticipate us transferring to a new service in line with the existing cycles of degree finder content updates during the academic year 2023/24. We appreciate the level of work that our school and central service-based colleagues put into the degree finder refreshes each year, so harmonising with our existing schedules of collaboration is essential.

But we have much to do and much to learn between now and then. As ever, we will continue to blog on our progress and work as collaboratively and openly as possible.

Questions?

I’m always happy to discuss our work and how it aligns with that of colleagues. Get in touch if there’s anything you want to ask.

Neil Allison’s contact details

2 replies to “We are not replacing the Degree Finders. We are transforming them.”

  1. Niall Bradley says:

    Good to see this thinking brought together in one place.

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