Academic departments have final say over how their webpages are best managed, and these recommendations provide some helpful guidance.
1. All academic departments and programs should be encouraged to adopt a single yet flexible design, IA, and content structure.
Currently, our department and program sites fall along a spectrum of content presentation with a few maintaining their own independent websites—Theology & Religious Studies, Chemistry, Physics & Astronomy, etc. Of those in the standard template, there are some with more active sites and those that are little more than copies of the Course Catalog.
Prospective (and current) students flip between departments and programs when comparing colleges and universities, deciding which courses to take, looking into the resources available in various departments, trying to decide on a major, etc. Because of this, the information found on all of these departmental/program homepages should be succinct, engaging, and similarly constructed. It should be easy to compare and contrast options and to find the same information on each site.
2. A clear navigational path from one department to another (regardless of the School) should be part of the departmental design template.
Though the Undergraduate Degree Programs page lists links to all, the current site architecture presents department and program sites as sub-pages under their respective Schools. This means that the “Back to Departments” link leads to the list of departments within a particular school rather than the entire list. While this may make sense institutionally, it can be quite confusing to an outsider unfamiliar with where each department or program exists in our academic structure.
For example, if a prospective student navigates to the History Department through the Undergraduate Degree Programs page and then clicks Back to Departments in order to check out the Biology Department, at best she’ll wonder why Biology is not in the list and search deeper to find it. At worst, she’ll believe Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a Biology Department.
As noted above, students click between departments seeking information on an area of study, courses, major requirements, and other resources. We don’t want to limit their ability to flip easily between Biology and Philosophy or Economics and Politics and so on.
3. Institute a standard yet flexible IA for academic departments and programs.
Department and program navigations should be similarly worded and ordered, and the sites ought to offer similar information as a basis for comparison. Many SMC departments employ a common set of links that is clearly part of a basic template – so this idea is not new. But the current approach does not limit the number of links in the navigation or, it seems, specify the order.
Departments should be able to have unique links to top-navigation as long as they follow general IA best practices and the standard exceptions, noted below.
As we bring all departments and programs into the fold, we'll walk a fine line between keeping consistency among departments and allowing for necessary differentiation.
4. All departments and programs should adopt the same basic homepage content strategy.
Most of the current academic department and program sites are little more than staid descriptions of an area of study. While explaining, for instance, what Women’s and Gender Studies or International Area Studies is is important, it’s more important to put that information in context. This means showing the department in action and highlighting what it means to study that particular
academic discipline in practice. Providing real examples of department activities, research, events, and so on can ground abstract learning outcomes in reality and give a prospect a concrete idea of what they will be doing while studying in a particular subject at Saint Mary’s.
The biggest challenge here is when a department or program has few resources or is uninterested in their online presence. Our designs and content strategies should help alleviate this problem; in general, we should be sure to provide designs for relatively “content-poor” departments and programs in addition to dynamic and wired ones.
5. Review and revise internal department pages with a focus on tightening up the content and making it more vibrant, succinct, personal, rich with department-specific examples, and more web-friendly using in-text links.
Many of the current department inside pages are cluttered and overburdened with text. This text is often an exact copy of the course catalog and lacks the excitement and energy these sites should be conveying. The Web is a different medium from the print Catalog. It presents an opportunity to show the department as an active, alive place with real people and up-to-date
Heavy blocks of text are also hard to read. Please refer to our Best Practices document for suggestions regarding sub-page headers and other tactics to break up information.
6. More content is not necessarily better. Engaging content is better.
While the goal of presenting similar content on each of the department and program sites is important, it is even more important that pages within a department’s site should be thoughtful, relevant, well-written, and interesting to your audience. Incorporating a page that has little more than old catalog copy is not going to help engage your audience and won’t compare well with another department that is actively updating its content.
Ideally, departments will embrace their sites as an important means of communicating with prospective and current students as well as with a global community of scholars and develop a web presence that mirrors their real life activities.
7. Communications staff should monitor and assist with maintaining department and program homepages.
The interest and capacity of each department and program to create and maintain content varies widely. Given the need for over-arching consistency, we suggest a strategy of ongoing support by Communications staff for the homepages, any dated material, and the IA for academic department and program sites.
Beyond these areas, we feel departments and programs should retain independent control of the rest of their content.