The dream, for many campus technologists, is to design and maintain one school website that translates to every internet browser on every laptop, desktop, smart phone, and tablet on the market. The reality is quite different, with websites created for every conceivable device.
Notre Dame on April 1 joined an exclusive club of colleges and universities that have made a single school site that adapts according to which device it appears on, keeping the website an appropriate size with no need to scroll or zoom in and out to adjust to the differences between am iPhone screen, an iPad screen, or a MacBook screen, for example.
Using a website creation method known as responsive web design (RWD), Notre Dame launched what has been dubbed the “Holy Grail of higher-ed website[s],” said Karine Joly, a web marketing official and editor of Collegewebeditor.com, a blog covering marketing and public relations in higher education.
Read more about mobile websites in higher education…
Ethan Marcotte, a mobile site design expert, introduced RWD in a May 2010 article on AListApart.com, a site for website developers.
With college students – and the web-using public in general – turning to the mobile internet in large numbers since 2010, college IT officials have been tasked with maintaining several websites dedicated to a growing number of mobile devices.
The time needed to make and update these sites has proven burdensome in campus IT offices, leading to a search for a more efficient way to maintain a high-quality, reliable site readable on an enormous desktop screen or a miniature smart phone display.
Joly said Notre Dame’s “mobile first approach” could serve as a model for institutions putting money and resources into improving mobile web content. And with RWD like the one used to make Notre Dame’s site, college websites will be neatly displayed on the next generation of mobile devices, whatever they may be.
“It’s something that’s going to morph and adapt, and it’s really a perfect solution for all devices,” Joly said of RWD. “Eventually, it will become too much to manage several sites for tablets and smart phones. That will really add up to a nightmare.”
The guts of RWD are, of course, highly technical. Using proportion-based grids to create the site, words and images can adapt to the layout of a viewing environment, or display. This lets colleges create sites that don’t have to be presented in a more basic form to be viewed on smart phones, for instance.
The proliferation of smart phones and tablets has mainstreamed mobile internet use – once the domain of the most tech-savvy students and faculty members on campus.
In fact, an inadequate mobile site could cost colleges prospective students.
Fifty-two percent of prospective college students said they had viewed a school’s website on a mobile device in 2011—more than double the percentage from 2010. Forty-eight percent of those students said the mobile site experience bettered their view of the campus, according to a survey conducted by higher-education consulting company Noel-Levitz and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions.
And more Americans will access the internet through a smart phone or tablet than via desktop computer by 2015, according to a September report from International Data Corporation (IDC).
Arizona State University’s online program, ASU Online, is among the few examples of colleges and universities that have adopted RWD, drawing praise from a host of web-design sites that included ASU Online among the best examples of RWD on the internet.
Joly said that within a couple years, colleges and universities will have no choice but to use the RWD approach.
“It’s really going to be the next big step forward in web design,” she said. “But it’s no surprise that RWD examples in higher education don’t abound yet even though this approach of designing once for all devices might be the most efficient way to maintain and future-proof higher-ed websites.”
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