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March 29, 2016 /

Experts Weigh In: What Web Trends are Emerging in Higher Education?

In higher education, the web is the primary means of communication for our organizations, and its the medium for the first point of contact with prospective students, current students, alumni and faculty. An academic institution’s web page plays an important role in the student’s decision to attend and the selection of a field of study; as such, it extends beyond the traditional marketing role. Web design trends influence content and how an academic institution engages with its community and other academic institutions. We reached out to a handful of professional working in higher education to get their take on emerging web trends in their industry.


tonya oaks smith

Tonya Oaks Smith, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Henderson State University, and Board Member, HighEdWeb

One of the most important trends in higher education websites – not particularly design focused, but design can help implement it – is a focus on accessibility for all our audiences. Our university has a slightly different focus when it comes to accessibility than where our brains first go.

At Henderson State University, a majority of the students we serve are first generation. Many of these students are also from rural areas; they visit our sites mostly through phones and our state still has connectivity issues in some areas. While we work on those issues, making sure our sites speak to prospective students in their language, on their speed becomes incredibly important.

Accessibility means that our websites are compliant with relevant regulations and moral obligations. But – for us – accessibility also means communicating with language that our audiences understand, using responsive design so that our sites can be viewed anywhere, and making sure that the load time on our pages allows visitors to see what they need to see.

Centralization and the Growth of Personalization

nick denardis

Nick DeNardis, Director of Digital Communications, Wayne State University

A great university website isn’t the medium that will push a prospective student to apply, but a bad website can push them away. Higher education has the challenge of engaging and keeping students on their site while they have five or six other universities just a tab away. This struggle is often compounded by decentralized staff with varying levels of expertise. Because of this a great deal of institutions have very polished home and top level pages but as a user dives deeper the experience becomes inconsistent. This design challenge isn’t unique to higher education, but it’s a reality we have to embrace.

By now most of the world outside of higher education has gone responsive, but you’d be surprised how few institutions have. The most recent redesigns, almost exclusively, have embraced large hero graphics. Initially this was to ‘break away’ from the traditional institution homepage layout, but it’s now becoming the norm. Surprisingly a lot of the ‘girls under trees‘ have been replaced by drone shots of campus or slow moving video. Long scrolling pages have also become commonplace and the research shows it is effective, although infinite scrolling has seen its rise and fall. Higher education is still trying to figure out menu design, almost every variation is being implemented (and hopefully tested) from hiding the navigation by default behind a hamburger icon (even on large screens), mega menus and there are still some multi-tier menus out there.

In the next few years I predict higher education websites will become more centralized and governance will focus on the overall user experience between the silos. Testing will become a pillar to making decisions as institutions squeeze more interactions out of every visitor. Page weight will start coming down and I think we will finally see the shift to ‘responsible responsive’ design as Google and others put emphasis on PageSpeed. Further in the future I believe we’ll see more personalization that doesn’t feel like a login portal. The opportunities are great for higher education to lead complex information focused design, we have the environment and test bed of users, it’s now up to us to collaborate and share our findings.

Growth of Social web

jeff stevens

Jeff Stevens, Assistant Web Manager, UF Health and Creative Director, Union Design & Photo

The latest trend I see in higher education web design is the shift from portal style home pages that try and cater to all audiences to very targeted, marketing-driven sites. Sliders have given way to enormous hero image designs, supported by web and social content that try and capture the uniqueness of the respective campus. The home page is now the brochure for the institutional – transactional pages and apps are pushed down to secondary sites or role based landing pages.

As we focus more on marketing benefits to students, I think the next trend we’ll see in higher education is the integration of student reviews for programs and faculty into websites. It’s almost ubiquitous as part of the social web – even health care is starting to see this shift. Incorporating these reviews in our sites would keep our audiences on our site rather than pushing them to external sites for such information, where it is far more difficult to monitor and respond. Internalizing this increases transparency and builds trust in our institution, and encourages us to have more empathy and provide better for our students and audiences.

Surviving the Attention Drought


Melissa Cheater, Communications & Public Affairs at Western University, and Founder of #PSEWEB, Canada’s National Higher Education Digital Communications Conference

Welcome to the year of attention whitespace. We are pitching stories to our own students and alumni, competing with our own content and the game is scored in three second rounds.


Facebook counts just three seconds as a video view. Vine is laughing all the way to the Twitter newsfeed with its six second limit. Snapchat has a cool ten seconds for you to say your piece, but you better be ready to do it live and without edits. Twitter gives you thirty seconds – unless you’re buying an ad, and Facebook lets you run out the clock – unless you’re buying an ad. And your audience? They stopped watching after three seconds. Platforms and people are both insisting that we deliver our stories in short little bursts.

  • Stop producing two (or sixty) minute YouTube videos and cutting them down for social media.
  • Start storyboarding for three seconds; consider the next seven seconds below the fold and everything after that off the radar. And, for goodness sake, upload them directly to each individual social network and stop linking to YouTube.

We’ve had a decade to figure out the dos and don’ts of social media and yet we continue to default creating official social media accounts too quickly, overlooking the pre-requisities of a) listening and learning, b) customer service, and c) optimizing our already existing assets.


Take the five minutes per platform to test how your website content displays when shared on social media sites. Take the additional five minutes per platform to fix it. Each social network offers easy to follow instructions that will allow you to optimize (and control) how your web content appears when shared.


The latest changes to Facebook’s newsfeed are pitting your posts against each other. Take the time to learn the new New NEW Facebook and realize that content minimums are a thing of the past, post expiry dates may very well save your content calendar and above all else, cross your posts and hope to reach.

The web is getting serious, but maybe too serious?

tim klapdor

Tim Klapdor, Online Learning Technology Lead, Charles Sturt University, Australia

One of the most important trends in higher education around the world is that the web is (finally!) being treated seriously by the organisation. Our websites are the most important interface we have between our institutions and our students – whether they’re prospective or already enrolled. The design, architecture and experience of using them is incredibly important because the reflect in many ways the values behind their education. They also provide a perfect window into the culture and community of the organisation which is so often reflected in the design of the web experience. For too long web teams weren’t properly recognised or resourced and this led to websites that failed to provide a worthwhile or engaging experience. Thankfully I’ve noticed more and more universities remedy this by developing a web strategy that brings a renewed, fresh and holistic focus to their online presence. A web strategy brings together the information architecture, user interface and technical tools and a focus on the user experience to work together on a core component of the university’s operations. The web has finally grown up in the eyes of management.

At the same time I get a sense that some of the fun and experimentation that fueled the growth of the web is disappearing. As the functionality of the web becomes more important, it also becomes more centralized. Web teams are formed and roles, permissions and controls soon follow. The web becomes less and less organic, free and open. That has a profound effect on us as users of the web who find themselves publishing into silos like the LMS, Facebook and Medium instead of something that is our own. What happened to the  /~spaces? These are the places and spaces that promoted experimentation and self expression long before it was homogenized into a news feed. It’s why Domain of One’s Own initiatives are starting to spring up all over the place (like UMW, OU, Davidson). It’s bringing back the fun and excitement that comes with learning and exploring technology, and being able play in your own space. While it’s great to have to have the importance of the web as a platform recognized, let’s not lose sight of how important the people and their independence are to it actually working.