Class Act: What's Your Digital Media Strategy?

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Ten years ago the web was already a reasonably mature medium in education. The modern browser was born at a university, and most students and faculty had already been online for years. Yet even then school websites were often a haphazard affair. A college or university could be expected to have a modern (for 1998), well-designed central website. But if you had scratched the surface and drilled down to individual departments or units, you’d have found a different world.

Instead of professionally designed webpages you’d have found sites put together by student workers, graduate assistants, or secretaries who picked up web design on the side. The results varied from inspired and easily navigated to eye-piercing and Byzantine. I don’t blame the folks charged with creating them. Rather, they were a reflection of the fact that schools still weren’t sure what priority to give their websites, and why.

These days things have improved quite a bit in the web world. Most learning institutions take the necessity of investing in their websites seriously. But when it comes to digital media, I feel like it’s 1998 all over again.

Just like the schools on the cutting edge of the web in the late ‘90s, there are certainly institutions that are taking the lead in creating, using, and distributing digital media. Unfortunately, they are still the exception.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no digital media being produced elsewhere. From professors’ podcasts to students’ video assignments and video press releases from communications officers, there’s plenty of media out there. The big question is: How does it all fit together?

Let’s say you’re a communications specialist at a big state university, and one of your faculty wins a big honor (possibly a Nobel prize). Or maybe you work for a small community college district where one student becomes a finalist on Jeopardy. Wouldn’t you like to have a podcast or video of that professor or student ready to go and be posted to your school’s website? I bet your development office would love to send an email blast out to alumni and big donors with a direct link to that media.

Some colleges and universities are taking advantage of online media to show off just how brilliant their faculty and students are. Short web videos are an excellent way for a biology researcher to explain how her findings hold great promise for the future cure of a disease or for a student to explain how his coursework in urban planning is benefiting the local community.

But it’s not just about publicity and donor dollars. High school seniors choosing among schools now have the opportunity to preview lectures from some schools and actually watch the professors who might be teaching them in less than a year. Which would you choose—the school that makes it easy to drop in virtually on Psychology 101 or the one that makes you guess?

Of course, the most important goal at any school is educating the students enrolled there. How is your institution going to support the instructor who wants her students to produce podcasts? What can you do for the chemistry professor who wants to record videos of experiments that are too volatile to do in the lecture hall?

We can pretend it’s 1998 and leave it to individual departments, units, or faculty members to come up with ways to capture, produce, and distribute digital media. Some will have great resources at hand while others struggle to get someone to help post a QuickTime clip to a website.

Frankly, that doesn’t make any sense. The institutions that are taking best advantage of digital media—and reaping the greatest reward—are thinking about it at a campus level. Most schools now realize that vital services like networks need to be provided on a campuswide basis. Support and standards for web servers have been codified across institutions. It’s time for digital media to enjoy the same level of planning and support.

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