Weight at start of year, in pounds: 278
Weight at end of year: 268
Number of articles in the Christian Science Monitor in which I am quoted: 1
Number of minutes conversed with Jeffrey Zeldman over lunch at An Event Apart: 20
Number of days I lost my voice after An Event Apart: 2
Total appearances in CSSquirrel comics in 2010: 2
Twitter followers, December 31, 2009: 820
December 31, 2010: 1153
Books completed in 2010: 3
Number of different books completed in 2010: 2
Number of books resolved to complete in 2011: 12
Expected number of books to complete in 2011: 2
Number of homes purchased, 1972-2009: 0
In 2010: 1
Change in percent of Zillow’s estimate of home value since April: -12
Days snowed in due to buying a house located on a sloped street: 2
Of paint colors applied to house walls, percentage named for food or drink: 67
Percentage that share name with popular young adult paranormal fantasy book series: 11
Public talks given: 2
Total slides in Refresh Bellingham talk “Teach Your Child Nodes Well” deck: 138
Distance from Seattle to Bellingham in miles: 90
Menu item ordered at “Bellingham’s Best Mexican Food” Taco Lobo post-talk: 20
Number of times HighEdWeb 2010 talk “10 Years In The Hole” given: 5
Number of ways in Cincinnati chili eaten at HighEdWeb 2010: 5
Conference awards won at HighEdWeb: 2
References to Anthony Bourdain in Bellingham talk: 1
References to Conan The Barbarian in Cincinnati talk: 1
Seattle Barcamps attended, lifetime: 3
Number of comparisons made between eating cantaloupe and vulgar sex acts during lightning rant at Barcamp Seattle 2010: 3
Times acted as Santa Claus, 2010: 1
As Tooth Fairy: 3
Cost of Weber Genesis grill received as birthday present: $600
Total meals cooked on Weber Genesis grill: 0
Total days unassembled Weber Genesis has sat in its original box in the garage: 94
Total moving boxes still unpacked in garage: 21
Total boxes of books unshelved: 6
Current trimmer setting requested of barber when having head buzzed: 2
Percent, estimated, of beard hair that is white or grey: 40
Number of times, estimated, I have played Sleeping Queens with the daughter: 35
Number of times won, estimated: 10
Percentage of nephews who returned from military service in Afghanistan unscathed: 100
Expected percent cut of state’s funding for university in 2011: 20
Estimated budget cut had Initiative 1098 passed: 5
Amount I-1098 would have saved me on property taxes: $180
Number of times larger expected pay reduction as a result of new budget is than expected tax cut from I-1098: 11
Months until I reach 10 years at UW: 5.5
Number of times in 2010 attempted to open office door with car keyless remote: 17
Mariners games attended, 2010: 11
Number of those games which featured Cliff Lee as a Mariners starter: 0
Mariners wins at those games: 4
Mariners’ overall win total: 61
Ratio of devices using Internet connection to home occupants, December 2008: 2:1
December 2010: 3:1
Total years of The Economist bought with frequent flyer miles: 2
Total blog posts written in 2010: 3
Total blog posts written in 2010 still in draft form: 4
Days it took to complete this list: 3
Odds Harper’s will issue a DMCA notice for deriving this blog post from their trademarked Index: 1 in 3

Late last night someone sent me a link to today’s XKCD cartoon, saying “This reminds me of you…”:

XKCD: University Website

XKCD #773: University Website

By this morning, it was all over Twitter and spawning all sorts of it’s-true-no-it’s-not commentary from the higher ed world. Most of the negative commentary seems to be around the importance of the university website as promotional piece. Meanwhile, the user-centered design folks are mostly pointing and screaming “THIS.”

As for me, I agree with both sentiments — the home page is about promotion, but it’s also about focusing on your users and their needs. But, in addition, I am reminded of something I’ve been saying around here for years:

The web is a tool, not a toy.

One of the sentiments I hear from higher-ups on university campuses is that they see the web as this “thing” they must “have” like the latest electronic gizmo. It’s a sentiment I heard in the late 1990s quite a bit from people — that having a website made you Cooler Than Everyone Else.

The frightening thing, of course, is that people are still saying that in 2010. It doesn’t make you cooler than anyone else to have one; it’s de rigueur now, so NOT having one makes you LESS Cooler Than Everyone Else.

Around 2002 or so, I noticed a change in what they were saying. They talked now about putting information on the web, filling their sites with a mishmash of information. I dubbed this the “web as bulletin board” approach. This was an improvement over the “web as toy” attitude, but there was no strategy involved, and often you ended up with university home pages that were slumgullions of random chunks of information that had no purpose other than to, well, make you look Cooler Than Everyone Else. Here’s a big box about a research grant we got! Here’s a huge thing on some random academic center whose professor demanded we put it on the front page. Oh, you want to find out about our academic programs? Click on this itty-bitty link down in the bottom right.

University websites, for the most part, have been a combination of these two things ever since then. Take the now-famous Brown University website, filled with its sliding boxes. Perhaps, from an information architecture standpoint, it’s pretty good (and I think it probably is), but what did everyone talk about? The sliding boxes. This is the Web As Toy, and I personally think it distracts more than enlightens.

Then there’s the new University of Washington home page. If you head for the bottom of the page, you run into what’s been dubbed the “Obama footer,” so called because it was the same link-heavy footer style used on the Obama campaign site. The problem, of course, is that you have a lot of useful links all clustered in these long lists that make them hard to read and unusable. (Scott Thomas, the Obama ’08 design director, explained at An Event Apart 2009 why they had the link-heavy footer — everyone wanted their stuff on the home page, so they just stuffed them all in the footer out of the way of the news and marketing messages so they wouldn’t interfere. Win-win, yes, but it doesn’t seem like a viable long term strategy, and in fact the big footer was not a design element of any Obama-derived website that followed.)

I don’t think the web is a Toy, and I don’t think it’s a Bulletin Board. I think it’s a tool. It’s a device for getting needed information to the users looking for it.

An example: Someone at our undergraduate advising office told me a story a couple of years ago. For a long time, the advisers were constantly going through burnout due to the endless crush of students begging them for help. They decided to do something radical: They rounded up all the frequently asked questions of students — everything from what classes to take to how to declare a major — and put a list of answers on their website. Students were then advised to check the website first to see if the information they needed was already there.

Something strange happened in the Advising Center. The students kept coming, but the questions were now harder, things that required time and effort to solve. The advisers, though, found they now had time to do the legwork to solve the hard questions and take the time to help walk students through crises, because they weren’t spending the day on the phone answering the questions the website answered. Students were happier, and the burnout started to fade as the advisers saw what their work meant to these crisis students.

To me, that’s using the web as a tool — they identified their audience, identified their questions, answered them, then made themselves more available to deal with the stuff the web didn’t or couldn’t answer. It’s not just the “user-centered design” we wave around like the new banner we must rally around, but it’s also a user-centered organization that uses the web to help make their users’ lives easier.

Now, there is one issue with this — what information needs to be in front of the audience. Audiences want to find faculty phone numbers. Audiences also want to find out about your school. Both pieces of information need to be available to them. I am not opposed to the home page as marketing tool. Used correctly, it can be a great device for promoting the institution.

But it must come with findability. The information the people are there to look for needs to be obvious. It needs to be findable.

Think of it this way — retail stores fill the fronts of stores with aspirational products as well as cheap, high margin tchotchkes. My local Target is loaded with items they’re promoting that I’m not looking for, all with the idea that perhaps I’ll think hey, this is only $1, or hey, I really do need a 5 burner gas grill with sear burner and at a low price to go with the socks and underwear I actually was here to buy.

But imagine if Target was only about all this stuff they were trying to promote. Imagine if it was such that you couldn’t actually find the socks and underwear for all the big displays of grills and the videos of people using electric toothbrushes and the aisles and aisles of cheap junk. What would happen? They’d stop selling socks and underwear and everything else people came to find because people would go to Fred Meyer or Wal-Mart where the socks and underwear were findable.

And that, to me, is the truth of the XKCD cartoon. A university website is a tool for finding answers. If along the way you find out something new about the institution you didn’t know before, that’s gravy. But if your audience is prospective students, and they just want to know if you offer their degree and how to apply, and you’re shoving videos and mission statements in their face rather than giving them a route to the application form they want to fill out, you will lose.

Noel-Levitz’ recently released E-Expectations survey found 1 in 4 prospective undergraduates took a school off their potential applicant list because of a poor experience with that school’s website. We can say all we want about how nice multimedia presentations and marketing materials help draw students in, but if you don’t give the students what they want, they will leave.

The web is a tool. It is not a toy. Content may be king, but the user is God. And they demand — and deserve — usability and findability. Let content strategy and user-centered design lead the way, not the hither and thither of provosts and presidents and professors and their pontifications.

I have a lot of respect for Seth Godin. In the marketing world, he’s been the best advocate for authenticity in marketing in a time of massive media upheaval. His books sell a hell of a lot of copies because he’s smart, funny, and a great communicator about the marketing world.

He knows marketing. He breathes marketing. He is marketing.

And I think that’s why his post this morning about higher education is so detached from the reality of higher ed.

Mind you, I agree with his basic premise (and have said so in the past) — that higher ed in this country is on the precipice of collapse. Nine years building and running websites for my large research university employer has given me a view into the dark present and darker future of our institutions of higher learning.  Some have overemphasized research at the cost of providing solid undergraduate instruction. Others have solid teaching, but the diminishing returns of massive tuition increases means they are vulnerable to the coming revolution in online learning, which will bring the same Internet-driven changes to colleges that have come already to the music and news industries. Budget cuts in public institutions are obliterating any chance for schools to do anything but hunker down and survive. Meanwhile, private schools like Stanford (Godin’s alma mater) now charge more than $50K a year just for tuition.

The business model of higher education is completely unsustainable. I think Godin and I agree on that. And it pains me to defend higher ed, because I know where the problems are and who the problems are and that why universities are in trouble now and in the years to come.

But his case is so vapid and superficial it’s as if he’s seen the postcard and that’s all the data you ever need to judge a place. And sadly, that’s his case, in a nutshell.

Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is?

No, you can’t. But first off, you’re not buying a car. You’re buying an education. An experience. And every school has their flipbooks of ivy walls and brick buildings and oversaturated blue skies because that is exactly what we expect.

Not students, mind you. Parents. Students don’t read the flipbooks. They read the websites. And the websites of higher education are a vibrant, diverse cohort. And that’s where the real competition is, if you call it that. The schools that have chosen to dive into social media and have sought to interact with potential students that way have been rewarded. Those that haven’t, well, they have flipbooks.

Flipbooks and catalogs and brochures go to two kinds of people: Parents and prospective students who need to have something “tangible” to show them that yes, they are really going to apply for that grad program. Everyone else uses the web. And as public colleges have more and more of their funding cannibalized for, I don’t know, paying for lawsuits over pointless immigration and abortion laws (I’m looking at you, Arizona and Oklahoma), there’s less and less money for print. Most of the schools within my employer have ceased printing catalogs, telling people to go online instead.

College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up. As a result, there are millions of people in very serious debt, debt so big it might take decades to repay….

Well, yes. DUH. College costs have outstripped inflation for something like 25 years straight. But there are a lot of reasons why they’re going up. State support has collapsed. Health insurance costs have risen. Students are demanding more and more services — nicer dorm rooms, wi-fi, cable, writing centers, etc. — that cost money. The one thing I can say isn’t the problem, honestly, is tenure. Tenure protects the bad eggs and gives those who “can’t do” a teaching job, that’s certain, but a vast majority of faculty work their rears off writing papers, winning grants, and teaching students just to get tenure.

But the problem here isn’t that colleges are tone-deaf to the rising costs. It’s that as a society we think it’s perfectly acceptable to pass the full cost of a four year degree off onto students. If they’re unable to afford it, tough. This despite the desperate needs we have in this country for well-trained scientists, nurses, accountants, technicians, programmers, and thinkers. This is a post-manufacturing America we’re living in, after all; if our children stand a chance in a world where a Chinese peasant can build toys for $1/hour and an Indian college graduate will code for 1/5 what an American developer makes, we have to give them the best shot we can at winning the global economic game.

And that’s the weird conundrum we’re in. We throw the kids in the pool saying “Learning to swim is what we all must do!” then yelling “You can figure out how to swim on your own!” from our deck chair. We can’t have it both ways. Godin, I think, wants to have it both ways.

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I’ve ever seen. Why do it?

Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants.

Here Godin looks at a pig, walks around the pig, pets the pig, stares at the pig’s snout, and announces it’s an ostrich.

Why is university direct mail so bland? Three reasons, I think. One, it’s been done this way for a generation, and it’s hard to break out of that rut. Two, in order to break out of such a rut, you need creative, dynamic people — the sort of people who won’t work for universities because they can’t be paid enough. Three, universities are so tight on cash they can’t drop $100,000 on hiring a marketing firm filled with young Seth Godins to spruce up their images.

The best universities can do is pick up what they can during a downturn knowing they’ll be gone the moment the green shoots of an economic recovery appear. And during that collapse they’ll have no money to effectively execute such a plan. Or, they lean on young, green BS/MS marketing students who are just learning the ropes and don’t understand the university’s issues from a business perspective.

So 90% of college marketing is barebones, repeatable, and filled with tropes (such as Jared Spool’s Girls Under Trees) because that’s the best most schools can do. And if you’re a unit within a university, you have even less to rely on.

(This is not to knock the 10% of people in higher ed marketing that are doing innovative and remarkable stuff. I flip through the CASE awards every year and think how people are managing to do some spectacular pieces despite the lack of resources at hand.)

So the question to Godin is whether a university should be dropping $100,000 on hiring him to fix the “undifferentiated pieces of junk mail” problem, or whether they should be spending that $100,000 on scholarships. Or on maintaining a wireless network. Or, heaven forbid, cutting tuition.

As for the “increasing rejections” issue, it’s far from the truth. Maybe all that advertising draws more students and ups the rejection rate, but it’s just one factor in the mysterious US News formula. You could do as Clemson did — cut class size — and get a better ROI out of the rankings than you would with blasting eleventy-billion flyers out there. And remember, if it’s all less than compelling, why would you apply in the first place?

[Added 4/30/2010: Let me reiterate that last point, because I think it needs to be. Godin is saying these publications are less-than-compelling marketing pieces, and they’re using them to bolster their reject rate. If schools are really trying to bolster their reject rate, why wouldn’t they use COMPELLING media pieces? Wouldn’t they have a far, far higher ROI? Wouldn’t they be hiring marketing gurus? Godin, again, can’t have it both ways. Either these marketing materials are useless, or they’re compelling enough to skew reject rates. Which is it, Seth?]

College wasn’t originally designed to merely be a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that’s what it has become. The data I’m seeing shows that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness than a degree from a cheaper institution.

What data, Seth? Where? Because studies have shown that people with bachelor’s degrees earn substantially more than those with only a high school diploma. Yes, the ROI gap is closing due to the massive tuition increases, but it hasn’t closed yet. And consider the medical field, where 10 years of education will leave the average doctor with well over $150,000 in debt — schools are still churning out doctors every year.

And honestly, I think the primary issue here is that if you go into college without a plan, you’ll spend a decade wandering around making minimum wage waiting for your life to start. For the people who come to college for “binge drinking” this is the life they’ll end up with. But I’ve been teaching college students this quarter, and I work with college students, and I’m friends with college students, and I can tell you that almost all of them are driven to get an ROI out of college. They’re not in school to binge drink. They’re in school to learn and gain opportunities their parents never had. And binge drink. But only after binge studying.

The college that Seth (and I) went to, the place of Animal House and weed parties, is vanishing. What’s replacing it is an environment where kids work and study and push themselves. In other words, the institution Seth wants already exists right now. Yeah, still drinking, still drugs, still sex, but it’s all part of college and growing up, anyway.

Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.

As someone who’s had to go through the horrors of the re-accreditation process… bulls**t, Seth. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

Outcomes are what drive accreditation. Measures. Goals. They’re not about high cost, high risk, low reward. It’s the opposite. It’s about getting schools to offer the low risk, high reward stuff that’s essential to an education. It’s also about making sure that a public health graduate will be what the public health organizations need, or a computer science graduate will be what software companies need.

And that means in some majors requiring practical aspects of the field be baked into the program. Internships. Practicums. And it also means taking a careful look at each class and each syllabus and asking whether the program is building future leaders.

Sure, in the sciences you’re churning out professors. But no business school would last if it were churning out professors. Ditto public health, nursing, forestry, veterinary science… hell, marketing!

Yes, online programs are struggling to get recognized by accreditors. But we know that will be solved soon enough, just as when blogs weren’t considered worthy of producing news, or when online-only musicians weren’t “real” musicians.

Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less.

The premium services a university provides are ones that can’t easily be replicated by online learning, like one-on-one teacher interaction, or working in a research lab, or learning group dynamics. Whether those premiums are worth paying for will be the question students and colleges will have to answer over this next decade, but there are definitely benefits to such an experience. Yeah, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Costco destroyed the five-and-dimes and department stores, but Nordstrom is still around, because people are willing to pay for a great customer experience. And when the Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Costco of higher education finally arrive on the scene, they will leave a trail of destruction in their wake, but most colleges will survive, for the same reasons Nordstrom survives (and thrives).

I think we all know that some schools — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn — glide by because they have a great reputation that feeds back on itself. We also know that other schools are trading on a good name but are shadows of what their reputation suggests they are. And there are schools out there that are offering a superior education but don’t have the name brand that Harvard/Yale/Stanford/Penn do. But such it is in any industry.

Yeah, my college degree is nowhere close to my chosen field (which, mind you, didn’t exist until about my junior year of high school). So you could argue my education was meaningless. But college also taught me how to think critically, read widely, and write clearly. It exposed me to the full spectrum of the liberal arts, giving me ideas and thoughts that I’ve been able to port into my chosen field. I don’t think I’d be the success I am if it weren’t for my college education.

Could I have received that education outside of the ivory tower for a fraction of the cost? Perhaps. Perhaps if there were an internship in web development I could have taken right out of high school… oh, wait, I graduated in 1990, a year after Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web and three years before Mosaic, the first viable web browser, became available. So I guess that’s not an option.

Could I have done anything else? Sure. Worked a job. Taken a gap year. And eventually I would have probably made my way to college. But maybe not. I think I made the right decision to go to college, even if at times it feels like I’ve lost a few years to indecision and feeling myself out.

But my big problem with Seth’s line of thinking is he’s throwing rocks at the ivory tower without understanding what’s inside that tower. It’s different over here, Seth. Maybe you should climb down from your marketing tower and come see what the modern university is like. You’d be surprised, I think, to see what it’s really like — that students are getting a quality education with a solid ROI despite everything going against higher ed right now. Maybe it’s time you taught a class, or just spent a few days helping people like me figure out how to market their university school with no budget whatsoever. You’re certainly welcome to show up at my office and offer to pitch in.

Climb down, Seth. Come find the truth over here where we dream of just having a marketing budget that matches your honorarium.

There’s no question I don’t blog much anymore, and it’s because Twitter has been a better megaphone for my thoughts than blogging is. Every once in a while I’ll think “I need more than 140 characters to convey this thought effectively,” but then I just end up not tweeting it rather than blogging it.

About two years ago I first conveyed this shift in direction in a comment on Zeldman’s post on the vanishing personal site. Last month a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor found that quote and my dying blogs and e-mailed me asking if I could elaborate further on my comment. The result of that e-mail conversation became about 1/3 of his article on whether blogging has peaked.

Since a few people have been asking me to elaborate on my comments (and more than a few have been asking me when I’m going to blog about the article) I thought I’d post my full response to his questions. (The nice thing about Mr. Shaer is he did a great job distilling my long rambles without losing the meaning of what I was trying to say. Seriously, you young ink-stained wretches, take a lesson from him.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Apparently, tech conferences are all I can blog about anymore.

I spent my own money this year on An Event Apart Seattle, which won out over Webvisions on the “can I sleep in my own bed?” tiebreaker.

If you’re reading this because you got my Moo card at AEA, howdy.

This trip to SXSW was much different from my first trip in 2007. For one, I knew people there this time, not only from the last trip and from Seattle but from my Twitter followers. For another, I was a panelist for the first time.

The core conversation I hosted ended up being very polarizing for attendees. Some were very happy about the experience. Some left some quite brutal assessments on Twitter. I learned that if you’re going to talk about faculty struggles with the web to ask if there are faculty in the room first.

I was generally happy with the experience, and happy to have one of the best higher ed social media experts in Brad Ward to help me through it. But the room was dimly lit, the lack of amplification and dearth of chairs made the experience dissatisfying for many attendees, and the fact I had such a generalist topic meant we were trying to whip through multiple concepts — social media, politics, accessibility — in 60 minutes. Any of the topics we discussed could have taken up an hour unto themselves.

And doing the talk threw me for a bit of a loop. I didn’t hit a lot of other sessions while I was there, and hit even fewer after the talk.

I think, unless a project I’m working on earns a return speaking engagement, I’m not going to propose anything for SXSW 2010. Don’t get me wrong — I loved hosting the core conversation and thoroughly enjoyed it, even with the bumps and mistakes. But I think what I missed this time around was the serendipity of meeting people and hearing great ideas. I did do that, but I felt bound up by the demands of my talk. I think I also want to feel more secure about being up in front of the crowd. I really felt my self-esteem issues the whole week, but the immediate aftermath of the talk was very bad.

And I did meet a lot of great people this time around. Too many to list, in fact. But it was good to hang with Elaine and Andrea and Ralph again, and being able to catch up with Vijay (through pure serendipity) was great as well.

I’m planning on being back in 2010. I really hope I can be.

Oh, SXSW, I wish I could quit you. Despite your massive crowds, drunk geeks, and 2.75 million “social media experts” around every corner, I still love the conversations on the margins, the introverts trying to break out of their shells, and the BBQ and Tex-Mex.

Tomorrow my core conversation on higher ed and the web rolls — 3:30 in Room 19B. Let’s all be there.

Also, we’re having a higher ed meetup at Buffalo Billiards tomorrow night from 6-10pm. Come on down and drink  your higher ed budget woes away.

About a week ago, another school at this university invited my colleague in advancement to a meeting. The meeting, as it turned out, was less of a meeting than it was a sales pitch.

The other school, and the campus media office that works with this school, wanted my school to help share the cost on something called Meltwater. What Meltwater was providing these units, basically, was a clipping service — they’d monitor media sites around the globe looking for references to their school and compiling them all into their user interface. It’s pretty slick; there’s even a button for translating foreign language press into English (by means of a Babelfish-type “translator,” which, of course, isn’t “translating” as much as “looking up word meanings and subsituting the English words that mean the same without reference to cultural context clues or idioms”).

Meltwater costs this other school and the media office $10,000. I’m not sure if it’s a month, year, or multi-year subscription, but the number that stuck in my coworker’s mind was $10,000.

As everyone who’s acquianted with the University of Washington knows, we’re going though a horrific budget crisis and looking at a 13% cut to the state’s higher education funding. Discretionary spending, already low in good times, has shrunk to almost non-existent now. Asking us to share in a $10,000 bill for a clipping service is something we can’t do.

But here’s the thing: we already have a clipping service running here in the school. A few years ago, I set up some Google Alerts using variations of the school’s name. About once a day I get an e-mail with an article or press release featuring some combination of the search term. I get a lot of false positives, yes, but the gems are easy to spot amongst the muck, and more often I’ve been able to scoop our assistant to the dean on stories — and our dean’s assistant is incredibly diligent at monitoring local news sources.

My colleague, luckily, had the Meltwater username and password, so I went in and compared a search of our school’s name with the Google Alerts responses I received. Meltwater was a little better at limiting the cruft, but not much, and they did not turn up a single article in their search that Google Alerts had not already notified me of.

No, Google Alerts doesn’t have a slick user interface. It’s just e-mails. It doesn’t have a “translation” service built in. You have to go run the article through Babelfish to fake-translate it yourself. And there’s a bit of a learning curve. You must punch in the searches yourself and tinker and tune them until they’re right.

But Google Alerts is free.

I’m hard-pressed to find anything about Meltwater that’s so superior to Google Alerts that it’s worth $10,000. In a time of financial hardship, would you rather pay $10,000 for the all-in-one solution that is Meltwater, or pay nothing for a product that has 90% of the features and has a slightly higher learning curve? The decision, for us, was easy — we’re not paying in to this $10,000 service.

There’s one thing gnawing at me, though. This can’t be the only service at this university people are overpaying for. Somewhere out there we’re leaking cash this university desperately needs to some company providing a service that could be done elsewhere for free or for a much lower cost.

Ten thousand dollars. That’s tuition for three quarters of graduate work here on campus.

My grandmother, my mom’s mom, was a 10 year old when FDR was elected. She grew up in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma; during the worst of the Dust Bowl her mother would spend the morning sweeping off the red dirt that had accumluated on the front step from the dust storms 300 miles west. Unemployment in Oklahoma at one point reached 33% -1 in every 3 adults who wanted a job didn’t have one.

And while times were lean for my grandmother’s family, my great-grandfather never lost his job, and they never suffered the indignities of unemployment and foreclosure that other Okies did.

Why? My grandfather owned a tire store. You can’t run a car without tires.

As we look down the barrel of what will be the worst economic crisis since at least the 1981-82 recession, I think we’re at a critical juncture in higher education. The budget cuts will be deep, and they will cripple American higher education for a generation. In a time when countries like China and India are rapidly building out their higher ed research and teaching institutions, these cuts will almost guarantee an end to the US domination of graduate education and scientific research that has existed since the 1940s.

At the same time, we’re starting to see the web batter at higher ed the way we have seen it overwhelm media companies. Teaching is moving online. The desire for extended learning grows greater as people work more hours to keep food on the table. Some are starting to see tuition as a costly barrier to entry and are turning to DIY learning and open courseware. People are starting to ask the question we all don’t want to hear: Is the college experience really worth the expense when you can get most of what you need online?

The present budgetary nightmare is going to lead university presidents and chancellors and deans to consider whether it’s worth keeping their web geeks around and whether it’s worth investing in the web. But this isn’t a world where paring back on web expertise will win you anything, and the coming changes in higher ed will only exacerbate the impact of paring back on the web now.

Just as tires are essential to a car, the web is now essential to any institution of higher learning. Any institution that thinks they don’t need to invest in the web will be stranded on the side of the road waiting for someone to sell them tires — at a price much higher than they would have paid if they hadn’t neglected them.

For the web in higher education, this is a time of incredible opportunity. A paucity of resources will mean relying on free web applications, open source software, duct tape, and bailing wire. Paucity will breed innovation. The low cost and the reliance on open source will mean lower overhead and the ability to be on the bleeding edge of the coming revolution in higher education. The lessons learned in the next couple of lean years will form the backbone for how post-secondary education evolves in this country for the next generation.

I’ve been worried of late that I’d be fighting to keep my job amid the economic calamity here on campus. I’m not as worried now. I realize that, like my great-grandfather, I sell tires. The web is not only vital to running a higher education program now, it’s critical and essential to keeping that program relevant in the future.

We in higher education can no longer pretend that the web is just some toy for geeks and nerds. If we do, it will be our undoing, just as it has been for the newspaper industry. I think most people in higher ed get this fact now. But there are still those who don’t. And I expect we’ll be driving past a lot of them in the coming years, sitting on the road shoulder, staring blankly at their latest blowout.

During the last round of redesign, I removed the tuition information from the prospective students section of the website. The way the University of Washington handles graduate tuition had become so hard to grok that I didn’t feel like it was worth the risk of confusing them. As well, the individual program websites had tuition info specifically for that program. (Unlike many schools, you don’t apply to the school itself but to the program; we don’t do admissions at the top level, only assist in recruiting and financial aid.)

Here’s the problem in a nutshell: We have three tiers of graduate school tuition, and we have four kinds of graduate degrees. PhDs pay Tier I tuition, the lowest level. MHA (Master of Health Administration) students pay Tier II tuition, the mid-grade cost. MS and MPH (Master of Public Health) students pay Tier III, the highest tier. And no, it’s not silver-gold-platinum (though, honestly, if you’re paying 20% more for a degree, shouldn’t you get bonus miles or something?)

Earlier this month, I got some scuttlebutt from other schools of public health that their one chief criticism of the school site was, yup, no tuition information. So I set about trying to figure out how to add that information back into our prospective student package without confusing the heck out of prospectives.

I went to the UW tuition website and clicked on Tuition Rates.

Which sent me here, a page on the Office of Planning and Budgeting site.

The tuition tables are all PDFs. Untagged PDFs that fail the basic accessibility check in Acrobat (whatever that means).

In the tuition table in the “Annual Tuition and Fees” PDF, the tiers are listed with no explanation or hint as to what they are:

An image of the PDF for UW tuition info. Red arrows highlight "Tier I," "Tier II," and "Tier III" graduate tuition rates, but there is no explanation as to what these tiers signify.

An image of the PDF for UW tuition info.

You want to know what these tuition tiers signify? Well, you need ANOTHER PDF for that. And that PDF doesn’t list our MHA program as being in Tier II; in fact, it’s not even listed at all.

So, what can I do with this mess? I’m not even sure. Create my own tuition page for the school — one I’ll have to update every single year with new tuition data, meaning I’ve created yet another data island in the university’s infamous web archipelago of data? Yuck. Alternatively, I could attempt a long exposition of how the university’s tuition system works, which means I’m doing their work for them, and that doesn’t make me happy.

I think the third solution may be the best — yell at the Tuition Office. A lot. Until they fix this mess.

But this is inexcusable for a major public university. Sequestering this data in inaccessible PDFs is dumb enough, but then separating the crucial expository data into another PDF, one with too little actual expository information to explain which tier governs which degree?

Compare with Penn State’s tuition site. They have a much more complicated branch campus system, but you’re still two clicks from getting correct tuition information.

There are three fundamental questions every prospective student needs answers to before they apply — Does this university offer the program I desire, is this the right university/program for me, and how much will it cost. The first and second questions are ones I can answer on my level. The third, though, in a huge school like this, is one I can’t answer — those answers are owned by people higher up. So, we depend on these higher-ups to provide those answers in the most usable, accessible way possible for every prospective student looking to come to our university. When they don’t, we all suffer.

The solution is simple: Move the tables out of PDFs into HTML. We’re talking about a 1-2 hour job once a year that would greatly benefit everyone, especially disabled students, and would provide greater clarity for prospective students. This isn’t “create a web application from scratch” territory, this is “build a table in Dreamweaver/Composer/BBEdit/whatever.” And this isn’t “hire a super-expensive webgeek” work, this is “hand a secretary an HTML book or send him/her to an HTML class” work.

This is frustrating.