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HighEdWeb 2020

A few notes from the HighEdWeb Conference 2020 which took place on Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 October. And no, nothing to do with ‘our’ EdWeb…

HighEdWeb 2020 (USA’s IWMW)

Aside from the slightly awkward scheduling arrangements (I was attending from 15:00 to 22:30 both days, and dinner was definitely a working one!), HighEdWeb provided great insight into the issues motivating some of our international partners in the USA.

On a free ticket I had to select sessions carefully as I didn’t pay for access to the recorded videos, but in the end there weren’t too many difficult decisions to make, and the beauty of an online conference is if one talk isn’t to your taste, you can always drop out and into a different one.


The conference started with some Lightning Talks on a range of issues before getting into the really interesting stuff. I picked the following talks on Monday:

  • 5 Essential Documents for a Strategic Social Media Programme
  • HigherEd Website & Digital Marketing Trends That Will Outlast the Pandemic
  • How Google Analytics Helped Guide Our Response to the Covid Maelstrom
  • (Plain) Language Matters
  • Respecting Every Identity: The importance of an inclusive web for cultural diversity

Of these, the talks on Web Trends, Plain Language, and Respecting Identities gave me the most valuable information to take away. I didn’t realise, for example, that Plain Language is enshrined in federal law in the USA in the Plain Writing Act of 2010 (something I’d love to see in the UK to forever banish impenetrable legalese on website privacy statements!).

I also found out that higher education institutions using personalisation and content targeting are seeing a minimum of 20% improvement in their conversion rates, and that some institutions are dropping big category-based homepages in favour of prominent degree-finder style searches.

The final talk on diversity also underlined a couple of things I’d previously taken for granted in the form of Western-centric conventions for systems – for example, does a First Name/Last Name input really meet the needs of our users with potentially 3-5 family names?


After a long lie on Tuesday, I settled back in for another long stint with the following talks:

  • Keynote on making yourself visible as an institutional leader
  • How our Worst Website became an Institutional Favourite: A Case Study
  • Community Group Panel – Management and Leadership
  • Accessibility, It Matters!
  • Empathy and Design Thinking
  • Addressing the Tensions between Accessible and Visual Design
  • Building Digital Accessibility into Every Stage of the Student Journey

I was very encouraged to see how seriously American institutions seem to be taking their legal responsibilities; while the horribly named ‘Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018’ act doesn’t apply in the USA, they have a number of legal duties to ensure accessibility just like we have.

Encouragingly enough, there was no quibbling in the chat over whether or not people had to do this; it was widely accepted that not only was it legally required, it was also morally responsible to do it. This contrasted with previous talks I’ve attended in the UK where unfortunately some public-sector institutions have been trying hard to get out of meeting these obligations (University of Edinburgh thankfully not one of these!).

I followed this up with ‘Empathy and Design Thinking’ which, while attractively titled, actually demonstrated the dangers of a rushed, top-down approach to a website redesign. Although the speaker enthused about the process, the fact that it prefaced a huge organisational restructuring that seems to have gone out with little to no consultation set off a lot of alarm bells for me!

My second-to-last talk focused on the ‘tensions’ between Accessible and Visual Design – which apparently don’t exist, at least not in the way we think. It definitely provided some great comebacks to anyone saying accessible and visually appealing design don’t go together! And finally, I stopped in on Building Digital Accessibility into Every Stage of the Student Journey. This was a great discussion of how one institution has considered every action students take – from the initial online fact-finding experience through to the student’s on-campus physical movement after enrolment – and how to improve this as a whole, rather than focusing on only one or two aspects at a time.


In the end, I came away with a lot of insights and an increased empathy for our colleagues working in the USA. We share a lot of the same issues, even if our approach to University/Further Education differs in a number of ways. I also drew up a list of actions (largely around the talks on Accessibility, Inclusive Language, and Plain English) based on key points raised by the presenters, and made connections with a couple of individuals so I could follow up with them after the event.

Overall, it was a great experience and I sincerely hope the organisers will consider a remote attendance option for those of us outside America again in the future.

If you’d like to catch up with me on any of the talks I mentioned or view/chat through my session notes, feel free to drop me an email at

Further Information

This guest post comes from Jennifer Doyle, Digital Content Officer with the University’s Business School.

Jennfier Doyle profile

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