[This is an expanded version of what was available in the print edition]
As many students may have noticed, the law school updated its website on August 15, 2013, before the start of the semester. What many students might not realize is that the process for rolling out the new website began just seven months prior, on January 11.
I sat down with Jessica de Perio Wittman (Director of Information Technology Services), Michelle Helmin (Director of Communications), and Donald Babcock (Web Programmer), members of the Website Development Team (“WDT”) (in addition to Bianca Slota of communications and Karen DeMeola of student affairs), to discuss the school’s new website and gain insight into its creation, design, features, and future developments.
As noted, development of the new website began in January of this year, though it had been in talks for some time before then. With the previous website lacking the functionality and design necessary to adequately represent the quality of our law school, many stakeholders on the UConn Law campus had been independently discussing the need for a major overhaul.
In May of 2012, the school hired Jessica to serve as the Director of Information Technology. With instructions that her first priority should be the website, the wheels were set in motion. With a permanent director in place, the Communications and Information Technology departments were able to begin fruitful discussions on what a new website might look like. In January, with the hiring of Donald, the school acquired someone with the technical skills to translate those discussions into a tangible form. With the limited staff resources available at the school, and with the help of student workers, the final release date set by the newly appointed Dean Fisher was achieved. The specific release date was set to coincide with the start of the 2013-2104 school year.
The website has many masters. It must provide the content necessary for students, it must satisfy the requirements of a state library, it must effectively communicate the law school’s mission statement, it must comply with style guides set by the main campus, and it must comply with numerous regulations imposed by the American with Disabilities Act, the American Bar Association, and other governing bodies. Though some students may complain that the website is not sufficiently tailored to them, it is this duality of purpose and responsibilities that creates some of these conflicting goals.
The WDT stressed that the new website has much greater oversight so that it may satisfy all of these requirements. While students might notice some materials that were previously on the website are gone, this is in some instances because that information should not have been on the website in the first place. In other instances it is only because a specific feature has not been fully implemented yet, as will be discussed below.
Content heads have been appointed as part of the new oversight structure. They have been tasked with a continual review of website content related to their specific field and the responsibility to report back to the WDT on future site development related to their work. The WDT continues to meet each week to discuss feedback from these content heads as well as from students.
FEATURES OF NOTE
When asked about the most important features of the new website, all members of the WDT stressed that it is really no longer one website, but three. The new website is broken down into 1) an extensive marketing brochure to attract the best students and faculty and further play up the many important aspects of the school, 2) a student portal to help guide current students through their time at the school, and 3) a library tool to assist students, faculty, and Connecticut residents generally in their pursuit of legal research.
The Student Portal
The Student Portal is the most important new feature for current students. Students can get to the Portal by clicking the Current Student link on the main page. Once inside, students will find most of the links necessary for day-to-day tasks. The quicklinks bar on the right allows students to jump directly to TWEN, Law Mail, Symplicity, and many other things. Along the top of the Portal, students will find five tabs to steer them toward the content they desire. Under the Academic Life tab, students can find registration forms, exam dates, and school policies (it is worth noting they are now in PDF format with dates, so that students have up-to-date information they can actually rely on). The other tabs, Student Life, Information Technology, and Library all provide additional, targeted and useful information for students.
One of the most important features of the new website is its internal search capabilities. Though the previous website contained a search option, it lacked any functionality. The easiest way to find information on the previous website was to use search engines such as Google, with terms like “uconn law __________”. The new search function is much improved. Additionally, since search engines like Google have not fully crawled the new website, their search results will be lacking, so the internal search feature is currently the best way to find information within the site.
Keeping track of events on campus can be a chore. The website’s new calendar feature is aimed at helping students and faculty alike navigate through each week’s important events. Through a tagging system, events are tied to specific areas of the law school website. For example, pages related to Student Organizations will show only those related events, whereas pages related to Admissions will provide event information important for prospective students.
UConn Law has recently embraced experiential learning as an important aspect of legal education, evidenced by the recent change in curriculum and appointment of Professor Paul Chill as the school’s first Associate Dean for Clinical and Experiential Education. As such, clinics are going to play a greater role in students’ academic lives. The WDT received feedback from students that information related to the clinics was too difficult to find. With that, they released an updated Clinics page that is both visually comprehensible and content rich. The page serves as a useful jumping off point for all avenues of experiential learning at the school.
Students should not fear that the website is complete. Issues with “broken links” and missing content are constantly being addressed. Most of the issues with broken links were the result of streamlining the old, bloated website which contained roughly 16,000 individual pages into the new site which is currently at just over 2,000. Additionally, the WDT is very receptive to student input. They have tried to engage students with usability workshops and email feedback, and they would very much like additional student comments. In the upcoming weeks there will be additional usability workshops that students can attend. Student can also email the WDT at firstname.lastname@example.org at any point with comments or suggestions on how the site can be improved, or with questions regarding previously available content.
With that in mind, there are specific features on the horizon. Donald is currently working on a newly-formed Exam Archive to replace the previous iteration which was nothing more than a giant, unsearchable list. Additionally, as mobile technology is an increasingly important aspect of internet use, mobile functionality will be increased. The overall design of the school’s website embraces “responsive web design” which replaces the need for redundant bifurcated websites with desktop and mobile sites sitting side-by-side. With responsive designs, web pages use “breakpoints” to determine the best visibility for the user’s viewing screen. Though the school’s current website contains the necessary breakpoints for desktop and tablet viewing, Donald is working on releasing a final mobile breakpoint to enable the best mobile experience.
Many additional features are in the development pipeline, with things such as online course evaluations and other useful student tools being discussed. Though the WDT and the school administration have some ideas as to what features the website should add, students should not hesitate to provide feedback as to what resources would be most useful to them.