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Feb 7, 2019

Kill the Catalog

Catalogs were the primitive foreshadows of websites before the websites. You would get a thick book with everything about a university in it. Most universities do not print them anymore, but they continue the existence as a separate section of a university’s website. It is a curious atavism, a testimony to the peculiar conservatism academic institutions. Look at Sac State’s catalog, for example. It has 21 sections, most of which really should be elsewhere on the university’s site, or they simply duplicate the information already provided elsewhere. For example, it has its own faculty directory (just names, without the contact information!!) in addition to the regular site’s directory. The President’s welcome is in the catalog, but it should be in the About section of the site, or on the President’s page. Who would go to the catalog to look for it? The same could be said about the Accreditation section – it should for sure be on the main site, normally under the About menu. But wait, the catalog has its own About the University section, with Mission and strategic planning – exactly the same as on the main site. It has yet another directory of the campus’ Leadership, with just phone numbers, but no e-mails or office locations. The catalog has two big sections called Campus Life, and Colleges. The information on them repeats the websites. Academic policies in the Catalog either cite or repeat what’s already in the University’s Policy Manual. The Bursar information on fees is exactly the same.

Just imagine how much time and effort is going into keeping the main website pages and the catalog pages in sync. Should I mention that despite best effort, such efforts are not always successful? Some program pages on the site contradict their twins in the Catalog’s parallel universe. This partially explains why we need so many advising resources for students. We confuse students with a chaotic information environment, and then hire people to explain what’s really going on. The question is – why are we doing the silly, costly, confusing thing?

Fundamentally, the catalog is simply a part of a website that follows a different, stricter set of editing rules. Certain descriptions and policies may not be changed on the whim, without a proper chain of approval, and even then, they can only be changed once a year. I would say there are three kinds: (1) certain academic policies, such as admission requirements, degree requirements, the rules about dismissal, student rights, etc.; (2) program requirements, and (3) is course description. If the catalog is truly intended for students to use, we must admit that students do not care what rules we follow to update the information. Therefore, the special status of catalog pages should not be visible to the user at all – it is our inner workings. Any information published anywhere on our sites (or given out as paper handouts) is official, and will be taken as such should a dispute arise. We need to kill the catalog as a stand-alone user space, while certainly keeping it as a quality control mechanism.

As a first step, we should delete the parts of the catalog outside the three areas, and integrate the content with the existing sites and pages. In the second step, we should make sure these three things only appear in the catalog, and are in no way replicated elsewhere on our sites. The program sites should be allowed only to link back to the catalog or pipe the info. This needs a little technical problem-solving, so that the catalog’s content is “piped,” not simply linked, but it is a trivial problem to solve.

What is not trivial is finding the will and the resources to take the informational ecosystem of the university seriously. Perhaps we should ask students to audit what they see, because most of us faculty and administrators get used to the byzantine maze of the information on campus; we fail to see its problems. Perhaps we can hire a user experience expert to do this for us. We are now trying to rebuild the website, perhaps it is a good time to look at the catalog.

1 comment:

  1. Funny, we (some subset of Sac State faculty) were just discussing this very proposition.