Are You on The Right Tack?
On 6 November 2016, 29 boats left Les Sables D’Orlonne (France) on an around-the-world single-handed yacht race: The Vendée Globe. Using GPS and satellite navigation techniques the skippers set out to cover the course in the shortest time possible. Through changing weather and wind conditions, currents, problems with their boats and in response to the courses taken by their competitors the skippers had to respond to a continuous stream of data and adjust course accordingly. After 74 days at sea (and 45,374 km) the winner crossed the finish line followed 19 hours later by the second-place boat. The rest of the fleet started to arrive four days later
The characteristics that separated the winners from the rest of the pack were a combination of knowledge, skill and judgment. These characteristics equally apply to using tools and services that allow college and university websites to operate effectively.
How Are We Tracking?
In the same way that we conduct research to measure how higher education (and other) websites are actually configured and to understand which tools and applications are used to support their operations, individual websites need to be ‘instrumented’ to gather similar data about their own performance.
University websites exist to support a set of objectives and serve a broad range of ‘end users’ or consumers. There is a dynamic interaction between the intended outcomes and the way in which sites need to be configured to support those objectives. As a result, websites need data-gathering services and tools to measure how well they are meeting their objectives. And, it is important to view websites as 'processes' rather than 'projects', as one of the key benefits of ‘digital’ is the relatively low cost of making changes in response to new data. In fact, it may better to simply treat a website as a long-term experiment.
As Paul Boag noted in a recent blog post, 10 mistakes that are ruining the success of your digital projects:
… Specifications made sense on projects where the cost of change was high. But digital allows us to adapt as new information arises. It also allows us to gather far more data than other mediums. Data that can inform our direction. This is why prototyping and minimum viable products are so popular in digital. It allows projects to evolve, removing the need to specify everything up front.
Website Data Gathering Services
Our interviews and conversations with website support staff have reinforced the importance of competence with implementing and using a fundamental set of website data capture services/tools. These services gather the data that can inform the longer-term direction of websites and the outcomes they exist to meet.
The first of these services is Google Analytics. Our research, conducted over thousands of websites shows that 98.2% have Google Analytics installed. What is less clear, is how effectively Google Analytics has been implemented. We’ve conducted many Google Analytics reviews and these reveal shortcomings capturing “clean data” and setting up dashboards to focus on relevant measures.
One clue as to how well Google Analytics is installed is to look at whether the site is using a tag management tool. In our view, using a tag management tool recognises the breadth of website interaction data that can be captured and that non-technical staff need to measure the effects of site changes (experiments).
Again, our research shows that 42.4% of college and university websites have installed Google Tag Manager (or similar solutions, such as Tealium, Signal, Qubit). This result suggests that there is scope for improving the breadth and quality of data being captured and used to ‘steer’ websites towards their desired objectives.
Putting it All Together - Judgment
As well as acquiring data we need to ensure that the data is reviewed and individuals with the appropriate competence make any recommendations for action: which is the tough part. Competence is the combination of three attributes: knowledge, skill and judgment.
Knowledge can be acquired from online and offline training. Skill acquisition requires time and ‘deliberate practice’: structured pushing of boundaries rather than simple repetition. But, judgment is the most difficult attribute to develop. It is the element that lets you recognise if your knowledge and skill levels are relevant and sufficient for the task.
And, it is likely that expert judgment was the factor that divided the first and second place finishers in the Vendée Globe from the rest of the pack. It may be the factor that results in the most ‘adaptive’ higher education websites.