Bizarre nooks and crannies of the web;FE Focus

24th April 1998 at 01:00
Terry Hyde took at look at Scotland's FE websites. But when he dipped his toes in the surf he stood on something unpleasant

Surfing the websites of Scotland's further education colleges is a frustrating and embarrassing experience. The phrase "amateur night" immediately springs to mind.

Many of the pages will have tremendous value on website design courses as examples of bad practice. But as a window on the world, they mostly invite the world to look in and say "I don't believe it!" During the course of several days research I soon discovered that at nearly one in five of the colleges, their window onto the world was securely shuttered because there was a problem with a particular server that supported all their sites. This was not a good omen. Would colleges put up with their switchboard being out of commission for an hour, never mind days on end?

Hit virtually any Scottish site and you will encounter some of the following features - links that don't link, arty-farty animated buttons that don't connect to anything, pages that have been under construction for years, spelling errors, out of date information, illegible wording, vast screeds of dense text, tedious bulleted lists from here to Christmas, graphic design by Julian Clary from an original idea by Liberace, no corporate image and user hostile interfaces. If you are unlucky you will encounter them all, and of course the inevitable mission platitudes alongside a photo-booth mugshot of the principal.

I should say right away that I did consider a policy of naming and shaming in this article. But then I thought better of it, because I would have to name my own employer.

In fact, despite the spelling of "enginnering", my own college site ranks as one of the better ones. This is not saying very much. But the colleges whose sites are described below will know who they are.

Readers old enough to remember the Oz and IT hippy newspapers from the psychedelic Sixties will recall that the pages looked sensational, with text overprinted on photographs or spectacular multi-coloured designs. Unfortunately you then could not read the text. Exactly the same problem occurs with web pages.

In your surfing you will find tiny navy blue links on a racing green background which renders them utterly illegible. At the other extreme you will find tasteful pastel shades of text set against an elegant but only slightly different Laura Ashley pastel background, which makes reading merely very hard work.

But why make do with the merely ludicrous when you can have the utterly preposterous? For example, text in two very similar colours alternating word by word, with no spaces between the words? One can only assume that the perpetrator of this excrescence was either heavily medicated or reading James Joyce.

Some colleges are so obsessed with their logos that they use them in their multitudes to form the background to every page, like corporate wallpaper or some hyperactive watermark. One does not generally type snail-mail on patterned paper, so why should web pages be so disadvantaged in their readability?

Some backgrounds are just bizarre, with tongue and groove pine cladding complemented by a margin containing illegible tiny hypertext links, all on a background of tartan so horrendous it belongs on the trews of a Japanese golfer.

This particular page has the sort of decor one might expect in the reception area of a cheap Leith massage parlour (I imagine!). It scarcely conveys the business-like image appropriate to a serious purveyor of education and training. Colleges need to understand that in website graphic design more is less.

You will encounter links within college pages that merely display an error message when clicked on, including one where the "home" button does this on each page. This is equivalent to a college switchboard which cannot connect incoming calls to the appropriate section, and it is just as unacceptable.

In this case the site was not, as might be supposed, some in-house DIY job. A suitcase of taxpayers' money had been handed over to a private website design firm for this operation, which also includes the novel spellings 'jewllery' and 'studing'.

Variations in incompetence include links that lead to lame messages about pages being "under construction" apparently for months or even years. This is equivalent to arriving at your package holiday hotel to discover that the pool is still "under construction" beneath your window. One college is proudly displaying its 95-96 prospectus for the entire planet to see.

Most irritating of all are those sophisticated sites that appear to promise "on-line learning", "a virtual college" and "e-learning".

But after a tremendous build-up they end with some limp apology about "courses not being implemented yet" - apart maybe from "Ferret breeding", "Introduction to God" and "Intermediate origami". This is all foreplay and no orgasm.

One of the keys to successful marketing (a subject which many colleges teach, of course) is that in business one should avoid telling potential customers what is not available and what cannot be done for them. One should concentrate on the positive, on what colleges can do for customers now.

No college worth its quality benchmark would dream of allowing a printed prospectus to hit the streets with spelling errors, out of date information, blank pages or messages saying, "This page is still being written". And yet on websites with a potential audience of tens of millions, colleges are telling the world "Look at us - we don't know what we're doing!" For example, many colleges apparently need to be reminded that they should now no longer be using the word "Scotvec" unless it is preceded by "former".

In more than a few colleges some positions of influence must be held by members of the Luddite or head in the sand persuasion. They have yet to accept that the Internet will be their prime marketing tool in the immediate future, if not already.

In my own field of flexibledistanceopen learning the notion that in five years time the education sector will still be dominated by dead trees smeared in vegetable dye travelling by snail-mail is completely implausible.

While there will always be a place for paper, especially with disadvantaged customers, the future has already arrived. One has only to access the website of any community college in the United States to see the truth of this. Meanwhile Scottish colleges dither.

Some like Aberdeen and Edinburgh's Telford are clearly ahead of the game compared to much of the rest of Scotland, and their sites are well worth a visit. Many smaller colleges might protest that size is important to the resources available for developing websites. In fact, size has no bearing on quality. On the worldwide web private individuals using authoring freeware have produced better looking and more effective sites than many of Scotland's colleges.

Terry Hyde is flexible learning editor at a Lothian FE college.

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