University course finders suck

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.

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  • A large part of the problem are, no surprise, academics. It’s often a miracle if you can get them to even submit more than a few lines of text about a course they’re planning to run next semester…let alone get them to really sell the course, make it attractive, and gather up information that could really make a difference to somebody browsing for courses…

    The rating issue is also more difficult if you’re talking about courses that, potentially, take over a year to actually plan and set up. If a product in an online store gets consistently bad ratings, it’s not a huge problem to just dump the toxic stock and restock with something else quickly…not so with courses. There are quality control measures in place, of course, but they’re more behind-the-scenes (student satisfaction surveys, course assessments done by outgoing students, etc).

    But yes, in general I agree with the overall direction of this article. Nice one.

  • As a college student, I can’t agree more. Choosing one elective out of a list of hundreds of courses is difficult, both because it’s hard to find one, and because the two-sentence description isn’t enough to tell me whether it’s the right choice.

    But there are a couple other problems which a course finder will have to deal with, but which it could also help fix. These are mostly administrative problems: at the university I’m thinking of, the official course catalog is only published every two years, meaning that if there’s a specialized course that has a new topic every semester, the documentation is out of date for one and a half out of every two years. Then, most academic departments, each of whom have their own website, publish their own lists of course descriptions; this would be more up-to-date than the course catalog, but in conflict with the more “official” document. Third, one professor might teach a course for ten years without changing its content, until a new professor takes over the course and overhauls the syllabus. In that situation, the catalog is not necessarily updated to reflect that. (There are good points in the previous comment as well, but that’s why a course finder will have to be built to suit the particular university that uses it.)

    Obviously, the problems above are the result of inherently slow administrative processes combined with lack of coordination, rather than deficiencies of the current course software. My point is, however, that course software could be an opportunity to address them. The software should engage academic departments and allow them to be responsible for the course information, even if their privileges are more limited than the top-level administrators. There should be a mode of feedback through which department administrators can provide information, keywords, and recommendations for students.

    Ultimately, the current course finder is disconnected from the departments that run the courses. In a sense, this is like a marketing department that isn’t quite coordinated with the engineering department. This is why student-to-student feedback is not enough, and it’s probably why a public rating system could be damaging if it gets out of control.

    Thus, the “connection” that good course finding software might add is not only from student to university and student to student, but also from student to academic department.

  • I just started a project to promote online courses on the distance education website of the college I work for. So far we have had a couple of instructors come in to produce a promotion video explaining the course in detail, more than its official description, and inviting students to enroll for the upcoming term. The videos were added our blog and embedded in our electronic version of printed schedule. This started when a instructor came to us asking if he could some how promote a course that had never ran due to low enrollment. So we offered to make video and announcement on our homepage. In four days we had it up and a week later he had his minimum enrollment reached.
    We are working on developing a formal process for soliciting promo opportunities, reviewing the promo course quality, and production of promo pages and videos. My main job is to integrate these in to our course finder. The blog was quick and easiest way to put it out there for use with HIJAX. This is only one part of improving our existing course finder, which is exactly as you describe it, text and subject oriented. I still many more improvements to introduce before it is student and (proactive) instructor oriented. Interactive course suggestions based on the user certainly needs development, but the cross department organization of college data and security of student information makes this difficult. Social interaction is a required part of online (all) classes and the thought of pushing the social web on a course finder, such as links to or open course ratting sounds great not just for students to find courses but to promote course and instruction quality. Imagine that public reviews of products and services!
    The course finder sucked in 1999 when I started taking classes here and has always been something I wanted to improve but I often lose my inspiration due to intuition process. I’ll stop here before my rant continues. I’m always glad to hear your “working for the edu” outlook and motivation – Thank you, Lee.

  • Hi Paul,
    From you travels around University websites, have you found any that you think are ones worth looking at?

    Regards, Piero

  • Janet

    Hi, Paul,
    Have you seen a university website that allows student reviews? I would love to see an working example of this.

    • So would I! Unfortunately I do not know of an institution brave enough to do it.

  • Janet

    I’m on the case! I hope to be able to give you an example (or a least a pilot project) by Fall 2010…
    Also,thanks for the great article, Paul!

  • Hi Paul, I’d be interested in your comments on our newly launched Prospectus at Naturally, the prospectus is the most important and most visited area of our website. So we decided to try and bring all the information that’s vital to the student decision making process directly to where our students visit, rather than leaving users to trying to try and find it across the website. Thanks, Steven.

  • bgrggfe

    Worldwide more than $100 billion worth of counterfeit products, from Louis Vuitton Replica Handbags to Rolex watches, are sold every year. I have developed a great idea, which will allow shoppers to check the authenticity of the product by using their smartphone before they buy the Louis Vuitton Replica. It will add only a fraction of the cost of the product for the manufacturer, who will be more than happy to pay this little extra cost to protect their brand and increase their sales. However, I do not yet have a working prototype, which requires significant investment. I do not know how and who to approach for venture capital funding. I am so confident about the success of this idea that I feel like selling my house and investing in this technology. Your advice will be very much appreciated.