May/June 2001 // Commentary
How Are Dot Edu's Using the Internet?
by Jonathan Gueverra
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Jonathan Gueverra "How Are Dot Edu's Using the Internet?" The Technology Source, May/June 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

In 1997 Michael Stoner, vice president for new media at Lipman Hearne, a non-profit consulting firm with more than 120 higher education clients, argued that colleges and universities need "adequate and professional" Web sites (Stoner, 1997). Have institutions met the test? Monroy (2000) argues that university Web sites, while adequate, are not sufficiently professional and quotes the dean of admissions at Case Western Reserve as saying that "higher education Web sites are fundamentally flawed."

In January 2000 I asked my colleagues the following question: "Within the last couple of months, have you visited or heard of accredited college or university Web sites that did a memorably good or bad job of addressing the needs of current and prospective users?" On this basis, I examined the Web sites of 40 institutions in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC. The 15 features in Table 1 served as guides in determining how college and university Web sites provide information to users. For each of the sites, I accessed the relevant pages, noted the availability of features, tested the features, and formed opinions about their applicability. Although the 40 institutions I examined are doing a respectable job providing information, the primary mode of display continues to be text, still photographs, and graphics.

Internal Users

Internet-savvy students expect online services such as registration, course schedules, grade reports, and financial account information. Virtually all sites have program information and faculty information, and some have direct e-mail links to faculty and staff. Most provide the academic catalogue, and some list current course offerings. Yet only 20% of the sites that I surveyed offer online registration. Likewise, while a majority of institutions allow students to update personal information, only 20% allow secure access to academic records.

Secure access to academic and financial records appears to be a critical issue for many of the institutions. Mercy College and Kean University are part of the increasing majority that allows students to register online for classes and update personal information by contacting the registrar via e-mail. However, these institutions?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand, indeed, the majority of institutions?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùdo not provide online access to academic records.

Hofstra University is one of the few that do provide online access to academic records. Hofstra, along with the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Delaware County Community College (PA), appear to have dealt successfully with the security issue, allowing direct authorized access to grades and entire academic records. Many institutions are digitizing student records. Since the bulk of these institutions were founded well before the advent of computerized technology, converting records?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwhich can involve significant imaging and data entry?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùcosts time and money. Access may provide convenience to students, but for some institutions the cost of this convenience is prohibitive.

With regard to financial access, only 10% of institutions allow online tuition and fee payment. Financial transactions via the Web are a complex e-commerce issue; institutions must essentially have the capability to maintain a 24-hour retail operation. Instead, some link students to sites such as Academic Management Services, a short-term financing agency, in order to avoid the complexity and liability of maintaining an operation capable of handling online financial transactions. As the number of online programs increase, one would expect to see an increase in the number of institutions providing this feature.

Institutions of higher education are increasingly offering online retail and other services. More than 50% of the college and university Web sites that I investigated provide the hours of operation for campus health clinics, labs, and residence life services. Forty-five percent had online bookstores. Textbooks, college apparel, and other retail items are available through the online bookstores of The Julliard School, Saint Francis University, and the Pennsylvania College of Technology. Others, like Tompkins Cortland Community College, use the Network to provide bookstore and retail services. These institutions appear to be building a foundation to increase the online presence of residence life services, though one might speculate that some institutions' reluctance to provide more online services is related to their desire to encourage on-campus socialization. If more and more services are available directly in the dormitory, why bother leaving the residence halls?

Students are not the only internal users who rely on information available on the Internet. Faculty, administrators, and staff now use their institution's Web site to provide and access routine information such as calendars, newsletters, library services, human resource links, help desk services, staff directories, faculty home pages, and syllabi. Two of the institutions I investigated, Roger Williams University and the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, have links on the start page designated for faculty and staff users. Other institutions offer online services for faculty and staff, but most do not group them specifically for these users.

External Users

Colleges and universities use the Web as a vehicle for marketing their institutions to prospective students and their parents, alumni, corporations, and community organizations. These users require online information on admissions, program costs and degree requirements, online or alternative instruction methods, reputation and rankings, faculty quality, graduation rates, class size, SAT scores, conferencing availability, and institutional contacts. What's more, donors and corporate sponsors who make financial contributions want to see evidence of where their money is being used.

Quite a few of the colleges and universities that I surveyed provide links for alumni, friends, and prospective students and their parents. All permit e-mail contact with the admissions office to request application materials, arrange guided campus tours, or arrange appointments with admissions counselors. Eighty percent accept online applications. Interestingly, Stoner (1997) reported that only 3% of institutions that accept online applications actually find that students want to apply online. Unless this trend changes, colleges and universities will need to consider whether expending resources in this area is warranted.

The depth and scope of such services to prospective students vary. In the most elaborate cases, pictures and sound complement the online offerings, while in the most modest cases, sites simply give an e-mail contact. Brown University, for example, allows prospective students to link to financial aid sites and to e-mail current students. Other institutions, such as Saint Francis University, display recent favorable rankings from Barron's or U.S. News and World Report. Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Cornell University have pages for parents. Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Keystone College are among the 80% of institutions accepting online applications. Lesley University provides graphics of a typical dorm room and integrates sound with links to internships, clubs, and activities.

Alumni and donors are another significant sector of university Web site users. Using the Web, alumni update personal information, contact alumni representatives, find classmates, or pledge donations. They also learn about upcoming events such as alumni gatherings, fundraisers, and athletic events. Seventy-five percent of the institutions that I surveyed make these options available. A well-designed Web site thus helps institutions maintain current information on alumni and compete for donor support. The Web serves as one more medium to generate exposure, attract new business, and stay current with alumni, donors, and constituents, but great care is necessary to assure that information, press releases, contacts, and links are current and relevant. Stoner (1997) indicates that "many organizations neglect to have a maintenance plan to keep their sites up-to-date."

For continuing education students interested in online courses and corporate organizations interested in finding training providers, an institution's Web site is a useful venue. When investigating sites, two issues become apparent: distance education is not synonymous with online learning, and public institutions appear to be at the forefront with Internet courses and programs.

What is marketed as "distance education" varies with the institution. For example, one community college lists under distance learning the following: telecourses, Internet courses, and live televised courses. At another college, distance education is entirely Internet-based. At yet a third institution, the distance education program has no online offerings, only television or videocassette rental. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 1998, 1,680 institutions offered 54,000 online courses to more than 1.6 million students. In my sample, 50% of the institutions offered online courses or programs (NCES, 1999). The number of online courses and programs suggests that institutions find online learning important and lucrative. Some institutions are in their infancy with online technology and primarily offer introductory courses, not online degree programs.

One is more likely to find online courses and programs at public institutions than at private ones. NCES (1999) found that in 1997, 79% of public four-year and 72% of public two-year institutions offered distance education courses, while only 22% and 6% of four-year and two-year private institutions had such offerings.

The Future

Colleges and universities should be applauded. During a period when many institutions are attempting to rebuild enrollment lost during the 1980s, a majority have made Web development a priority. But even though institutions have invested significant resources to develop their sites, Web designers and administrators must continue to improve user access and increase the scope of offerings.

Negroponte (1995, p. 71) notes that "The medium is not the message in a digital world." Web pages will become the proverbial book cover upon which judgment is passed. Simple extensions of text-based designs are fast becoming outmoded. Institutional webmasters need to consider creating multiple options for users with the capacity to download graphics and audio or video quickly. Enhanced virtual tours such as the one at Adelphi University, which includes audio and video, help those who cannot afford campus visits. Cornell University produces live video and audio of its famous chimes. Using live video cams gives visitors a sense of the weather, the atmosphere, and the surroundings. Institutions like Marywood University, Adelphi University, Brown University, and Cornell University provide online chat for prospective students, audio and video virtual tours, multiple online services, and live Web cams.

One college, Tompkins Cortland Community College, displays marketing savvy and social responsibility by providing bilingual options. This is the only institution in my study that does so. With the growing percentage of first-generation and immigrant students in higher education, offering alternative language options could be the factor that decides whether a prospective parent can use a particular site. Since a parent's familiarity with a school may have a positive impact on a student's decision, this positive relationship may be fruitful. Tompkins's webmaster indicated as much, saying that the bilingual feature was added to the Web site because the institution has strong global connections and a growing number of students from the Dominican Republic.

It is imperative that colleges and universities view their Web sites as entities that create positive first impressions, provide access, interface with multiple audiences, and extend their traditional scope of marketing. In my periodic visits, I noticed above all that sites are constantly being updated and improved. The greatest challenge is to find creative ways to increase access and options for the multiple audiences, both internal and external. Every site is different. Each of the sites I surveyed delivers relevant user information. But some are mere extensions of academic catalogues, failing to realize the full potential of the digital medium. As long as colleges and universities keep up, the Internet will continue to help them cope with the costs of marketing as they "seem to compete not for new student markets but increasingly against each other for the same students" (Best, 1989, p. 491).


Best, J. (1989). The forces of markets and management. In L. F. Goodchild & H. S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education. (pp. 491-496). Needham, MA: Ginn.

Monroy, T. (2000, July). Colleges get bad grades for Web sites. ZDNet: Inter@ctive week [Online serial], 1 (4). Retrieved July 19, 2000 from the World Wide Web:,4164,2558936,00.html

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1999). Distance education at postsecondary education institutions: 1997-98 (No. 2000-013). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Retrieved April 29, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Stoner, M. (1997, July). Taking a professional approach to Web development. NET Results, 2, 1-4.

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