Innovation 101: Associative Thinking Session - School Websites


I’ve blogged before about what makes a person, team, or organization innovative.  The experts seem to agree that a significant, if not the top condition or attribute of an innovative experience is associative thinking.  It is largely the reason I gave people the book, “Steal Like An Artist” for birthdays (etc) while I was the Chief Innovation Officer at Saint Leo.  It helped remind people to carry a mindset of paying attention to solutions from other places. The key is looking around to see how something is being done effectively in another context and bringing it to your context - that is innovation.

To that end, let’s have an associative thinking session.  Are you up for it?  I was reading an editorial recently in IHE entitled, “What's Wrong With English Department Websites?”  The writer was lamenting a litany of weaknesses presented by most College / University English Department websites. 

That said, the article could have just as easily appear in Wired, INC., or as a tutorial for Wordpress.  The writer, James Van Wyck (PhD) expresses the same problems found on most bad websites: a lack of relevance to the actual audience, poor storytelling, a lack of meaningful information, and more.  (Note - the article was content focused and not SEO focused.) The only real difference between the arguments found in this article and an Inbound Marketing firm’s blog is the percentages of “badness” being addressed.  It’s probably not far reaching to say that 85% of all higher education department websites are bad…really, really bad.  In fact, you could likely argue the same thing for most college or university websites in general.  They do not seem to consider their audience effectively, they do not tell the right stories, they are hard to navigate, and it is often hard to get the information you are after.

But as I read the article, chuckling and shaking my head at the same time, another conversation came to mind.  I’ve blogged before that my dad works in the church world.  He is an extremely good communicator (aka preacher), fantastic with organizational consulting, a sharp auditor, and he helps churches grow by leaps and bounds.  In other words, what I try to do for higher education, my dad has been doing for evangelicals twice as long. 


My dad invited me to a webinar he was putting on for a group of head pastors and senior leaders a few weeks back. The speaker was an author of a book that would not likely come across my radar: “Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate (Dr. J. Clif Christopher , 2008 ).” Interestingly, the talk was as much about generational proclivities, values, and charities, as it was about church giving. But this researcher and author, who had some fascinating statistical analytics to share, made some extremely poignant and salient arguments for the religious sector which could easily be transferred to higher education. (Remember, this is an associative thinking exercise.)

So, Dr. Christopher discussed the very real dilemma many churches face today - giving is down. In fact, depending on the measures and metrics, while overall charitable giving is up, church giving is at about 50% of what it was when my grandparents were the dominant generation attending. But it was some of the very practical “why” elements that might be used for consideration when designing a university, college, or even department website.

Before I try to merge the thoughts of these two writers together, a quite note from my own perspective.

  • I was an administrator at a university where the public website was a debacle. It was taken over and redesigned by an enrollment marketing team who did not care a lick about current students, faculty, staff, etc. Their number one priority was getting new students in the door, so the website (built by a professional marketing firm) was very much like a for-profit college, looking so polished and filled with so many buzz words that most students (and/or parents) soon realized it was not authentic. At the same time, all of the current constituents at the school were (and still are) incredibly frustrated with how hard it is to find anything of relevance to their immediate experience.

  • That said, I was a faculty/staff member at a university which cobbled together a website one department at a time. Some of the department webmasters were (literally) department admins who did not know what Twitter was, let alone how to create a header tag that would help people during a search. Wandering around that website was like exploring Sim City - some places looked professional and even innovative, while others looked like they were one missed payment away from foreclosure.

  • And finally, I have also been an administrator at a school where IT ran the website (with an iron fist). The site was extremely functional, as a Director oversaw the layout and approved all content sent her way. But to call the site boring was an understatement. If a persuasive argument takes ethos (credibility), pathos (passion), logos (logic) and mythos (narrative), the university’s site was like a legal contract. Heavy on the logic, but absolutely no emotion (or even credibility). So, with those extreme cases in mind, let’s look at another approach.


Dr. Van Wyck noted the lack of narrative. (Genuinely ironic for an English Department website!) But it’s important to note that Dr. Christopher noted the same thing. In 2018, people give to a lot of charities and not-for-profit organizations that are not churches. But if you do a comparison between the organization websites given to the most and contrast that against a church website (or a college, for that matter), you find a difference. The lack of stories is obvious. A successful nonprofit will have a homepage with the face of a person being helped, larger than life, taking up much of the page. Next to that person is a story, or a large quote from a story, about how the organization helped them. A church’s homepage is typically a picture of the building or occasionally a picture of the pastors. (And just as rare is the university, college, or department website that doesn’t showcase a building, classroom, or aerial shot of the campus as the homepage…)

Both authors noted the language used too. Dr. Van Wyck suggests, “Pull up a random English department website and you’ll find sentences that don’t speak to students (or their parents). English departments are putting out website copy that ranges from forgettable to laughable.“ He goes on to illustrate the point with ambiguous “critical thinking” phrases or the use of “liberal arts” which means almost nothing to educated people and even less to those potential, first time college explorers.

Similarly, Dr. Christopher noted that church websites do themselves harm as well. They often reference vague mission statements about “serving” or “transforming”, without any meat on the bones regarding how, when, or where.

I blogged recently about the ambiguity, and even outright oddness of school mottos. But for many colleges, universities, and the departments that make them up, goal and mission statements can be just as ethereal, unhelpful, and immeasurable. (What is particularly discomforting is how often you find the same language in outcome or objective statements, but that is another blog.) Pushing that language out to the public on a website, really does seem far more for the extremely narrow audience of other school’s one might be competing with and far less for the students or prospects.

Finally, Dr. Van Wyck notes the difficulty English department websites have making a case for becoming a major. Listing everything from “fun” to being a better writer (uh…duh?), once again he points out that most miss the mark of pragmatism today’s learners are seeking. How will it help a student land a job, get a promotion, work better in their community, etc? Those kinds of practical applications are often missing.

Dr. Christopher tells an even grimmer tale. What do most churches do to communicate value? They tell the audience that there is a shortage of funds. Oh, and they say that same thing almost every year. So what is a giver to believe? It took a few decades, but people finally started wondering why they would donate to an organization that could not manage their funds very well. In fact, if you look at a nonprofit website, the only time you will see an emergency noted on the website is in relationship to natural disasters.


So what do colleges and universities do here? As institutions face an unprecedented competitive landscape preparing to lose students to the tune of 15-20% by 2026 (depending on your source), including a downturn in the international population that used to see US schools as the king of the hill; as Americans lose more and more faith in higher education; and as students (including parents when contextually appropriate) demand more career readiness, how do college or university websites reflect this? Does the website still honor the past by talking up jobs right out of an Agatha Christie novel? Or is credence given to a new world with new jobs and mounting problems this next generation wants to stop talking about and start solving?

As I conclude, I must admit that I’m a bit nervous to hit the “publish” button. After all, an institution can start making significant upgrades to their website, likely driving more student (or potential student) traffic, but not make those same changes culturally or with regard to learning, outcomes, experiences, etc. It concerns me that in 2018, there is still so much more emphasis put on language when math skills are needed exponentially more than ever before to get, keep, and even thrive at a job. Nation wide shortages of genetic counselors, data scientists, and social media managers suggest education did not do a particularly good job of looking ahead a decade ago. We know that true, interdependent collaboration is a life-skill needed to get a job in 2018, yet most school work is still autonomous and independent. Just as Jacob Morgan tells us that the list of desirable qualities for workers changed in 2005 to include people who desire (not simply tolerate) change, we see colleges and universities digging their heals in and “adhering to tradition.”

I hope this little foray, although perhaps more parallel than tangential, provided a quick example of associative thinking. I also hope it made you consider the messaging your website is giving future and current students alike. But most of all I hope the website messaging becomes more of a compass than a lighthouse. After all, connectedness is not just about marketing or spin, but about strategy, implementation, and action.

Good luck and good learning.