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Three Critical UX Tips for Higher Ed Websites by:


February 12th, 2013

Higher education is embracing digital in a big way.  More than three-quarters of the nation’s colleges and universities now offer online classes, according to a survey of college presidents.  And about one in four college graduates have taken a course online, according to the general public survey. (Pew Institute of Social and Demographic Trends, November 2012)

In our work with higher education institutions, we have seen the trends below becoming more and more evident.

Key Trends in Higher Ed

Through research and our project experience, we have seen major shifts in the following three areas for higher education institutions.

  1. Access: Social channels and mobile devices are changing student expectations for both the delivery of content and services as well as the level of interactivity available to them.
    1. Students expect a high-touch, real-time access to peers, faculty, support staff, etc.
    2. Students value inputs from peer groups (both in and out of the classroom).
    3. Students demand more online transactions (enrolling, paying bill, applying for aid, uploading homework, etc.)
    4. Students expect their online learning system to follow them — to not only be accessible via tablet and smartphone but also optimized for those environments.
  2. Learning Paradigm Shift: Higher education is shifting in terms of both learning models as well as delivery mechanisms.
    1. Students today co-create work, learn from their peers, and rely on a variety of sources (video, podcasts, forums, and peers) to complete their work.
    2. Learning is less of a passive activity where students listen to a lecture, and more of an active conversation where the student participates and engages more.
    3. The role of instructor is, therefore, changing as well – shifting from the standard lecturer to more of a facilitator and mentor.
  3. Flexibility: What has been considered a typical student is changing. As more and more adults are becoming students again, higher education institutions must refine their offerings and programs to better respond to market needs.
    1. How can adults effectively and quickly re-tool their skills?
    2. What will their return on their investment be?
    3. More and more traditional institutions are offering online-only and hybrid certification and degree programs.

According to Pew Research on Social and Demographic Trends, about one-third of college presidents report that they use Facebook weekly or more often; 18 percent say they use Twitter at least occasionally.

What Does This Mean for Online Learning Experiences?

First, user-centered design has never been more critical. Universities and other higher education institutions must design with the student in mind, including their feedback at key design points.

Specifically, user interfaces must be:

  • Modular: Ensuring that content and services can be distributed across multiple channels (desktop, tablet, smartphone, social media channels, etc.).
  • Extensible: Universities should strive to create a framework where their digital presence is supported by a flexible platform where self-contained components can be added to meet student needs instead of looking for a single, “über” product.
  • Approachable: Reducing the student’s learning curve and barriers to use by leveraging common interactive patterns, presenting content in a variety of ways that support different learning types (audio, visual, tactile, etc.). Many online students expect their learning environments to be as straightforward as those of Twitter or Facebook.
  • Social: Even though students may be taking courses online, they still desire a sense of community and collaboration. Embrace this need and bring appropriate social components into the online classroom.

What trends are you seeing? Do you think they are here to stay?

Tags: Mobile, Social Media, Strategy, Usability, User Research




One Comment on “Three Critical UX Tips for Higher Ed Websites”

  1. Lashanda says:

    Great Article. These concepts work well for intranets as well.

Comment on “Three Critical UX Tips for Higher Ed Websites”


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