University course finders suck

Paul Boag

I see a lot of University websites and the one area that consistently fails to deliver is the course finder.

Higher education is one of the biggest sectors Headscape works in. I have been involved in producing user interfaces for many of HE websites and have reviewed many more. It is a complex sector with significant challenges. However if I could address just one, it would be the inadequate course finders on most Higher Education websites.

Why the course finder matters

Let me start by defining what the course finder is. A course finder on a University website is the mechanism by which prospective students selects a course.

Think about that for a minute. A course is the primary ‘product’ that a University ‘sells’. Without courses there would be no students. Without students there would be no money and therefore no University.

Yet judging by the investment made in most University course finders, it would appear that many institutions fail to grasp this fact.

Sure, the course finder isn’t everything. Traditionally many prospective students will order the printed prospectus. However, this is changing. Increasingly prospective students are turning to the web as their primary source of information. Also there is a significant cost saving to be made by moving away from the printed prospectus.

You could also argue that prospective students use a lot of other criteria when selecting an institution. This is true, but these days students are largely funding their own education. As a result they behave more like traditional consumers where the product matters more than additional ‘benefits’.

However you look at it, the course finder is the single most important feature on most University websites.

With the course finder so obviously a key component it is hard to believe that it could be failing. However, it is.

Where the course finder fails

I am aware that a title like “University course finders suck” is a strong accusation, even if written somewhat tongue in cheek. However, I do believe there are some significant problems that need addressing. These fall into three areas:

  • The page mentality
  • The broadcast mentality
  • The copy and paste mentality

Let me explain those rather cryptic descriptions.

The page mentality

Users are increasingly expecting web applications to behave like desktop software, rather than traditional web pages. Unfortunately most course finders I encounter feel like they were built in 1999. While other web applications make use of technologies like Flash and AJAX to provide a faster and more interactive user experience, course finders are typically slow and page based.

Example Course Finder Page

The user is forced to navigate a series of link intensive and text heavy pages, before finding information on a single course. There is no ability to compare courses, filter results or receive course suggestions. Instead the course finder is treated like any other page of textual content on the site.

The broadcast mentality

The current crop of prospective under graduates are a generation that has grown up with social networks and value peer to peer recommendation over top down advertising. They do not trust information supplied by institutions and companies, preferring instead the recommendations of their peers. They are used to websites that facilitate this community recommendation model such as Amazon, Facebook or iTunes.

Screen capture of the rating functionality in iTunes

Unfortunately most institutions actively discourage peer to peer recommendation. Marketing departments fear what would happen if they lost control of the message and academics shiver at the prospect of having their courses rated by students. Instead they continue using a broadcast model where the content is controlled centrally and prospective students have no sense of how reliable the information is.

The copy and paste mentality

The problem is not just confined to the reliability of the course information provided. It is also to do with the quality.

In my experience much of the information about an individual course is lifted directly from the printed prospectus. In turn, that copy has been provided by individual faculties, schools or course leaders.

In some cases the original copy received has been checked for spelling, grammar and inaccuracy. Rarely is it edited to add personality and ensure consistent tone. However, even if the prospectus copy is beautifully crafted and expertly written, that does not mean it can be copied to the web.

It is not enough to lift copy from the prospectus and paste it online. The web is a very different medium and needs to be treated appropriately. Copy that maybe entirely appropriate offline can come across as cold and impersonal online. In addition, users read web copy differently to print. There is a need to aid scannability and condense text, to make it easier to digest.

Flickr community guidelines

In short most course finders feel uninspiring and out of date. While other sites are creating copy full of personality, empowering users to provide feedback and creating a desktop like experience, course finders feel stuck in the past. Why then is such an essential tool being neglected?

Why the problem exists

As with any large organisation the blame does not lay with one individual. In fact if you are reading this post, you are probably already aware of the problems I am outlining. The problem lies not with individuals but with the culture of the institution itself.

A large part of the problem is one of inertia. Although most institutions have tweaked their course finders to work with a new technology or to accommodate a new design, nobody has ever been given the job of addressing it properly. That is largely because nobody sees it as their responsibility. Addressing something as important as the course finder needs cooperation across departments and somebody with the authority to push changes through.

Of course Inertia is not the only problem. Higher Education institutions also have a responsibility to make their websites accessible. Highly interactive applications that make use of Javascript, AJAX and Flash are often perceived as inaccessible and with good reason. If you look at the majority of high profile web applications they are incredibly inaccessible.

However, the biggest boundary to modernising the University course finder is without a doubt time and money. Internal web teams are almost always overstretched with their time spent updating content and dealing with support queries. Rarely do they have the opportunity to think strategically, let alone undertake a rebuild of this scale. Their focus is on triage, not long term health.

Now as somebody who runs a web design company that specialises in Higher Education, you might expect me to suggest outsourcing. However, that is easier said than done. Demonstrating a need to finance a rebuild of an application that appears to be working adequately can be hard. Most senior managers will not grasp the benefits of upgrading the course finder.

Is this article therefore pointless? Am I simply pointing out a problem that cannot be fixed? I certainly hope not. I believe that with the right approach it is possible to push through change.

How to fix the problem

Lets begin by dispelling the accessibility misconception. Just because a lot of web applications are inaccessible, does not mean they have to be. The key is to build the application to work as a traditional page based site first. Once that has been done, Javascript can be added to intercept links and cause the application to behave differently. This article is not the place to explain the technical details of such a technique (known has HIJAX). Sufficed to say it makes Javascript driven web applications considerably more accessible, even with Javascript disabled. There are still some problems for Screen Reader users, however it is even possible to overcome these.

The real challenge to overcome are not accessibility but inertia and investment. How do you convince management to invest in upgrading the course finder?

There are two keys to success – Show and Tell.

One problem you face is managements inability to picture what an improved course finder would look like. Unlike us they do not necessarily use the web on a regular basis. It is therefore important that they can visualise the possibilities.

One option is to build a prototype. This would be the preferred approach because it best represents the final product. However, as we have already said internal web teams are overstretched. It maybe that the work can be completed out of hours. However I recognise this is not always possible or fair! Another possibility is to mockup some designs and wireframes that demonstrate how a revised course finder might work. Although not as good as a prototype, if accompanied with examples of working web applications, they can often be adequate.

Although a demonstration will prove impressive, it may still not convince. Management may not grasp the ramifications of what they are being shown. It is therefore necessary to explain the benefits so that investment can be justified.

Fortunately, when it comes to upgrading the course finder this argument is extremely compelling.

An effective, dynamic course finder is a powerful tool in differentiating yourself from the competition. It gives users the perception that your institution is progressive, relevant and dynamic. However more importantly, if it includes peer to peer recommendation, it also creates the perception that you are open and honest. Even negative comments have a positive effect because they adds credibility to the positive comments and to you as an organisation. Users can trust what is being said by an organisation that does not censor negative criticism even on its own site.

Social tools also create a greater sense of engagement with prospective students. Establishing a relationship with prospective students is a key component in encouraging them to attend your institution.

However, most importantly an improved course finder will be easier to use. This will enable more students to find the right course for them. Many students suffer from choice paralysis, overwhelmed with the number of different courses and the options open to them. A well built course finder will be able to guide them through that process and connect more ‘customers’ with the right ‘product’ for them.

Of course in reality management may not be so easily convinced. Fortunately that is where statistics come to the rescue. Monitor dropout rates from your course finder. Add a poll to it. You may even want to test improvements to the system using A/B testing. All these approaches are more weapons in your arsenal.


It is important to stress that I am not proposing changes to the course finder simply to ‘stay current’. This is about creating a more effective business tool. A tool that can facilitate helping potential students find the right course for them. Making this connection is almost certainly the most important role of a university website and yet in most institutions it is a wasted opportunity.