It’s probably hard for today’s college-bound student to visualize what it was like to begin the college selection process in the pre-Internet days. Imagine having to call or write a letter to a school in order to request a viewbook. Or having to pour through printed course catalogs to select classes. Next, came waiting in long lines to register for classes only to discover they were filled by the time you reached the front of the line. Student ID cards were simply that, I.D. cards, requesting a copy of a transcript was done in person or by writing a letter, and Library research was conducted using a card catalog.
A lot has changed in a short amount of time, and although the adoption of Internet technology within higher education happened slowly and gradually, it’s now deeply entrenched in all aspects of college life. We’ve fully incorporated technology into how we communicate, disseminate information, and educate ourselves. Everything—from viewbooks to alumni networking to pedagogical models—has changed. Higher Ed websites are now a critical mechanism for recruitment, research, collaboration, business processes, and fund-raising. Basically every aspect of work being done on college or university campuses today is represented on the institution’s website.
With that in mind, let’s take a little stroll down memory lane and see how Amherst’s web presence has evolved over the years.
In the Year 1996
Palm Pilots have just hit the market. Macromedia Flash 1.0 made its debut. Google is only known on the Stanford campus. Pokémon was officially released, and mobile phones were not ubiquitous.
If you’re a fan of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, the oldest entry from Amherst College dates back to October 19, 1996. Although this image-mapped, publication-style approach might look outdated today, a quick comparison to other .edu sites from the same year actually reveal a rather sophisicated early approach to a higher education website. While most schools were offering a column or two of links accompanied by clip art, the Amherst site not only included a search option, but also recognized the early potential of a website as a unique and powerful way to reach prospective students.
2000 Here We Come
In the year 2000, we see the arrival of MP3s, DVDs, and USB drives. Internet users numbered around 360 million (compare that to the 1.71 billion monthly active users found on Facebook in 2016).
In 2000, the Amherst website adopted a leaner-and-meaner approach. Amherst was now devoting some front page real estate, however minimalist, to Amherst news—a first step away from merely providing links on the homepage, to providing some actual content. Okay, not actual content, but two news headlines. This is a departure from simply providing links to the major areas of the College, a trend that was happening across the board on .edu websites at the time. We also see the introduction of items like “dining menus” on the home page. The relevant point here is that this is useful content for the current, not the prospective student. This marks the beginnings of the intranet/portal trend. Notice the very small graphics, an aritifact of the slow bandwidth available to dial-up connections. Also notice how the content available on the home page is still echoing a table of contents or index page. And nothing, absolutely nothing, falls below the dreaded “fold” (all content must fit one screen). It was easier, in 2000, to predict the variety of screen sizes site visitors would be using and to design for those display sizes. Think: desktop and laptop computers.
Website 2000 Redux
The short life of the previous design gave way to this one, also in 2000. In this iteration we find another growing trend—the annotated list of links. Worth noting is the introduction of the “Intranet” link (the “My Amherst” trend had not yet begun) on the homepage.
2006: Web 2.0
In 2006, there was an explosion of social networks (e.g. My Space, YouTube and Facebook). Personalization, location, user contribution, blogs—these are some of the technology trends taking hold in 2006. Observe how the upper left-hand navigation of the College’s site was segmenting content by audience (“Information for...”). By this time websites had grown increasingly important not only to recruiting efforts, but also for conducting the daily business of higher education. The homepage still fit “above the fold.” Although we were now seeing an increase in the number of news headlines, over all the site is still presented as a series of links to help visitors quickly get to the “real” content. The idea of a homepage as a “dashboard” had not taken hold yet.
In 2007, we moved our website into a highly customized version of the Drupal Content Managemet System (CMS) and began working, behind the scenes, on the next redesign. Adoption of a CMS allowed hundreds of students, faculty, staff and alumni to create content for the Amherst site. Embracing the philosophy of a more social, collaborative, interactive and responsive web, Web 2.0 marked a philisophical shift in how we engage and interact with online content.
2008: Apps, SLRs, GPS and USBs
By 2008, the digital camera explosion is in full swing, developers are busy populating Apple’s App Store, GPS specialists are in demand, and wicked-fast USB cables for transferrring data are an absolute necessity.
In the website landscape, a fundamental shift has happened. The links to the main sections (e.g. About Amherst, Admissions, Academics), which up till now have dominated the homepage, have now been relegated to a thin navigation bar. The bulk of the homepage is able to educate, inform, inspire and enlighten. The homepage of a website in higher education is about conveying the spirit of that school to the outside world: what we have done, what we are doing, and what we will be doing in the near future. Notice the healthy balance of stories, images, and short factual statements, complimented by discrete groupings of quick links. Also notice that the notion of the “fold” is starting to blur—screens are getting bigger, website visitors’ behavior is changing, and the value of having real estate on the home page has grown significantly.
2012: Responsive Design—Tablets, Ultrabooks, Hi-Definition TVs, Google Glass, Smart Phones, and Retina Display
In an era of retina-displays, speedy wi-fi connections, smart phones that keep growing in size and variety, and laptops that keep getting thinner and more flexible, the humble website of 1996 has blossomed into a full-fledged communications hub. Big, bold images, videos, social media tie-ins, sophisicated story telling, business processes, applications, donations, registrations—everything is happening online, and everything needs to work 24/7 on any device. Although the organization of the site has not changed drastically at this point, the design—particularly the homepage—underwent several revisions in a few years. Although not a full site redesign, the iterative changes during this period addressed the need for a resposive website, and took fuller advantage of faster download speeds and a growing trend toward presenting large, compelling images on the homepage.
2016 and Beyond
In the spring of 2016, Amherst launched a fully redesigned site. More responsive and interactive than ever, today’s website is a living, breathing reflection of the past, present and future of Amherst College. Through extensive use of photography, videos, and web-friendly text, the Amherst website continues to evolve, mirroring growth found in technology, changes in user expectations and behaviors, and a growing body of knowledge about website usability and accessibility issues.
What will our website look like in 2020? Will wearable technology be the norm? Will we all be starting our cars and controlling our thermostats through mobile apps? Will VR games like Pokémon Go have developed into immersive learning environments? What sort of device will you be reading the next installment of this article on? Only time will tell. The only certainty is that Amherst’s digital presence will continue to evolve.