NAIROBI: A few days ago I decided to browse through Kenyan university websites. This was not the first time. As a doctoral student in Germany some years back, Kenyan university websites were, apart from word of mouth and random news reports, among the few channels I could use to catch up with what was happening back home. A year before completing my studies, I began searching for a job locally by regularly scanning through the various websites.
For all the universities I considered working for, I had to complement my job searches with regular phone calls to people on the ground. The reason was simple. The websites of most universities are pretty much unreliable insofar as accurate and efficient information is concerned. Ironically, this is at a time when most of our waking hours are spent in the digital space.
Outside of the physical and social environment of the university, the website is the most pivotal section of the university. For the many millions who will never visit the actual university, the website defines their only experience with the university and hence, the website is essentially the university. The university website announces the values and aspirations of a university and in many ways, reveals the proclaimed and shadow mission that defines it.
Indeed, visitors make value judgments about universities based on the images and information immediately seen on the site. A few photos of sporting events: users see an emphasis on athletics. A video gallery with thumbnails of people that all look the same: users see a lack of diversity. Banners with scientific innovations and new findings highlight an emphasis on research. The makeup of a university website is in several complex ways a subtle statement of its overall well being.
According to data available online, local university websites receive hundreds of visitors each day, translating to hundreds of thousands of online visits each year. For these visitors and the university, the website becomes mission critical, defining the nature and direction of future engagements. Thus, for a university, the website is a crucial intermediary for business, for getting prospective students, especially international students and increasingly important, for being a unique branding space in a globalised world.
Exaltation of power
However, a simple online tour of local public university websites is a depressing experience, especially if one takes the position of a prospective student. What catches one’s attention is the visualisation, which in nearly all public universities, is a celebration and exaltation of power. Often, the university bosses, alongside politicians are deified, thereby dominating and thus obstructing the digital narrative of the university. For instance, in nearly all the sites I visited, multiple images of senior government and university officials were a near constant in public universities’ websites. The main addressee is definitely not the prospective student. As an equivalent to the media arm of the university, I drew comparisons of the current public university website to the VOK (Voice of Kenya) of the 80s and early 90s, where a preoccupation with power ruled. Indeed, most websites are excessively formal, grim and visually asymmetrical, thereby not representing the entire spectrum of university life.
If such images constrain, others border on the absurd. Some of the contents appearing in university websites indicate sheer negligence and ignorance in branding higher education. A public university at the Coast has running visuals of jaded members of a Master’s thesis examination board as one of its main images. Another in Central Kenya has pictures of traditional dancers gyrating hips before a panel of disinterested university administrators and their Caucasian visitors.
A newly established university college’s website looks more like a Jubilee Party website, with rolling images of the President, his deputy, the Interior Cabinet Secretary, the Leader of Majority in Parliament and a host of local notables. In the South Rift, a university has a website that looks like an average personal blog, while one university in the former Western province has embarrassing and disastrous errors, with conflicting banners, dysfunctional navigation bars, not to mention plenty of misleading information. Further, most websites have broken links that lead nowhere, with plenty of information that is out of date. It is shocking that insofar as visualisation is concerned, very few public university websites in Kenya cared to give prominence to their most important constituent: students.
The ideal visualisation of a university website should be a direct appeal to a prospective student, not a mechanism for the dramatization of (often masculine) power. A good website should communicate the camaraderie of university life, and the social and physical environment that supports learning. While almost all universities in Kenya proclaim an aspiration to world class status, there is virtually no effort to show prospective students that these colleges are indeed composed of a diversity of students. The most immediately recognisable attribute of a good university website is one that makes deliberate visual appeals that make a student want to be part of its academic and social life.
The grim reality is that public universities have totally neglected their websites. A poorly designed website reflects negatively on the institution and its overall branding and messaging. The current websites of public universities reflect an attitude of detachment and casualness that is perceived to be an abiding attribute of other public institutions. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that private universities seem to be keener with their websites. Private universities’ websites make an attempt to appeal to the personalised experience of learning, giving details of everyday campus life, with a clear focus on the student. There is almost no focus on politicians or holders of powerful offices.
One of the obvious reasons for the neglect of websites of public universities is the fact that they are assured of admissions through the State. Private universities have to deliberately reach out to prospective students. As such, websites in public universities have the luxury to be inward looking, focusing more on personalities than on events. On their part, private universities’ websites gain very little in deifying personalities and must use digital messaging in a deliberate and targeted manner.
However, public universities must shift from their comfort zones. Universities globally are increasingly competing for quality students. With falling numbers in public universities as a result of the establishment of multiple university campuses across the country, the competition for students is becoming more and more intense and the web is the most important channel for recruiting students. Having a good website is no longer a matter of luxury. It is critical.
The challenge with university websites is that they are highly centralised, and are often created and managed by small ‘expert’ cliques, who also see their role as that of protecting turf. However, universities that have the best websites are those that allow individual faculties and departments to put across information that is relevant to their overall objectives, while still keeping with the university’s overall aspirations. To do this, the management of websites must be broadly inclusive and devolved, with contents that are functional, interactive, up to date and most important of all, student centred.
Dr Omanga is Head of Department, Publishing and Media Studies at Moi University ([email protected])