Chris Wiegman Chris Wiegman

Higher-Ed vs The Private Sector: It’s the mission stupid!

A short exchange on twitter the other night left me thinking. A comment from a friend who is a web designer in a private sector firm made two points: 1.) Anyone who uses the title “webmaster” doesn’t belong working on the web and, 2.) many places, including higher-ed, have no place running their own websites. As someone who works on the web for higher-ed I find these statements interesting, not because I believe them, not because they struck a personal nerve, but because I’ve heard similar comments about higher-ed from many private sector developers and I’ve heard the exact opposite about the private sector from a number of higher-ed developers.

Before I voice my opinion on the matter lets look at the facts. First, neither side is developing the same type of sites. From the audience to the message to the types of content the only two things are similar, the desire to sell a product and the basic media that is used to sell that product. Beyond these two similarities the two worlds are really very far apart.

So how different are they? Well, lets break down the vast majority of what each camp does. First there is the private sector developers. Often they’re working for small firms (less than 100 employees) and make their living based on the quantity of work they turn out. That’s not to say they don’t do quality work, on the contrary some of the most cutting edge design comes from the private sector. However they are concerned with providing an often singular message armed with only an intermediate level knowledge (sometimes less) of the sender of the message they are trying to convey. Whether building a site for a small mom-and-pop or the largest of the fortune 500 by nature they cannot by design know the finer details of the product their message is trying to convey. Because of this their expertise tends to rely on the message itself and while effective it usually does not provide much real in depth information about the sender of the message. This works great for individual products, small companies, and many other situations where background information isn’t important however for higher ed this model simply doesn’t work.

Higher-ed is a different beast. The mission of the higher-ed developer often isn’t so much the medium in which the message is sent, but is in fact the message itself. Cutting edge graphics must be replaced by content that meets various accessibility laws, brand new photos must be passed through various levels of bureaucracy before they can be released to the public, and, worst of all, the idea of academic freedom means there are thousands of individuals providing content for and demanding their equal place throughout the site. This isn’t to say there isn’t a message to be conveyed. On the contrary higher ed has at least 3 messages to convey. First and firmost a good higher ed site must recruit students. Second, a higher ed site must engage alumni in an effort to generate donations. Finally, higher ed websites must serve a plethora of audiences with numerous tasks from test taking to class registration to housing information all from the umbrella of a single site. To due all this successfully a web department is not only nice, but required to both make sure the messages are conveyed successfully and to ensure that that the college’s brand is not lost in the numerous agendas and missions that make up the average college web presence. This is often done not with cutting edge graphic and design technologies, but instead with cutting edge code and algorithms that can handle the raw data that comprises the college’s message. From the beginning of the internet colleges and universities have worked to advance web technologies from web browsers to cloud computing to semantic web.

So who is right? Well, they both are. In the case of the webmaster title it is true that most of the private sector, particularly design firms, have turned away from it’s use and consider it antiquated. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong however. In both higher ed and other organizations the official title of webmaster has been built into the very system that must employ the people in question. In many cases this is the result of a lot of work in systems to which change isn’t on the daily menu. As a consequence some very capable web professionals still use and will continue to use the webmaster title. While the private sector my shun the word for whatever buzzword is popular at the moment, the public sector and in particular higher ed, will continue to embrace it for the foreseeable future.

Now for the second point. Who does or doesn’t have any business developing web sites? The answer is they both are necessary for the web in their industries. Private sector developers private thousands of site for brands that would otherwise not be on the web and continue to advance the technologies that present these messages on the web. On the other hand, higher ed requires their web developers for both providing the numerous applications that can make up their sites and to help provide the content that makes up the average collegiate website. For even those college that outsource the design of their site still need people who understand the web and current web technologies and can use these to merge the numerous messages with the most current and accessible technologies.

In the end, the web has room for both private sector designers and higher ed developers. Who knows, they might even learn a thing or two from each other.