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I woke this morning after dreaming about how to implement a really useful, effective way to use Twitter for the Admissions Office. Thankfully, I didn’t lose all the details upon waking, which sometimes happens to me with dreams interrupted by an alarm.

But I did think, upon waking, that the dream was a really bad sign. A really good sign too, but also a really bad sign.

It told me I don’t have enough waking time to process this sort of thing.

I suspect either tomorrow or the next day I’m going to have to tell my boss that I’ve reached critical mass. That I have too many tasks and need help. It’s swallow my pride time and I hate that.

He’s just back from vacation and the approximately minute-and-a-half I had with him today was not the time to address this, but it does need to happen soon.

The firefighting I’ve been doing has shoved the less pressing things to a back shelf, and if we want to keep them alive, I’ve got to lean on others.

I hate that. I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever, and not always good at delegation: I’ve always subscribed to the “to get things done right, do it yourself” school of thought. But I’m learning. Sometimes the hard way.

In the process, though, I’m learning that people like to be challenged. When I hand over non-drudge work, work that requires critical thought and judgment, they appreciate it. Most of them realize that means I trust them.

And that trust is, sometimes, hard to come by. Hate to admit it, but it’s true. But I’ve got to learn better.  Hopefully other folks will help me out by doing well with the projects I hand over.

We have a new writer/editor on board as of yesterday. Desperately needed, I might add. I’ve already passed her two tasks that I really needed an editor’s eye on, and she already caught a typo I missed (I did write it and hadn’t proofed it yet–nor had I put it up yet, but that’s beside the point).

I’d love to tell the story and link it, but it’s not ready for public viewing just yet. I’ll give some background instead.

In a cost-saving/environmentalist attempt to be more efficient, our office is going to stop sending a letter reminding students who apply that we’re missing information from them like standardized test scores and their high school transcript. Instead, we’ll be directing them to their online account with us, where they can view their regularly-updated status and see exactly what we’re missing at the time.

In the past, this letter and the transcript or scores often crossed in the mail, prompting anxious calls. At the same time, I expect we’ll get “I didn’t know I had to check that” calls from now on, even though we’ve made every effort to point them to the resource, and we know that most students are using it. Obsessively, even.

So there’s rewriting of current material to be done. We have to catch everywhere we might mention that letter.

Even though the process of halting this letter started almost last year at this time, it was only today that we made the decision to stop the letter entirely. Starting tomorrow.

So there was, of course, a bit of a scramble to make sure we’d killed it everywhere we needed to. Most of it was double-checking on things I’d changed six months ago and forgotten about for certain, but it was a scramble nonetheless. I checked the last place I needed to at about 5:10 this afternoon.

In the process, a few things were proven to me.

I had considered asking the new writer/editor to help me locate the letter references, but quickly dismissed that as folly. She would have no idea where to start other than a search engine.

If I hadn’t been in the office today, this might have been a problem. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I really do think that I’m the only one in the office that knows all the content on our site backwards and forwards. And given that memory isn’t always my strong suit (I digitize most of it to give me more processing room), that resource needs to reside somewhere else too.

Basically, I’d argue that for a large site containing lots of procedures, you need documentation for where things that may need to be changed reside. And it has to cross platforms.

We’ve yanked a lot of references in my time with Admissions:

  • SAT I became just SAT.
  • We used to recommend against the rush option for their scores–strangely enough, there was a time this came to us via paper, whereas the normal scores came electronically and were loaded faster.
  • We used to take scores as official if they were printed on a high school transcript. No longer.

And that’s just standardized test scores.

Now that I’ve been there long enough and I know all of our materials, I can name most of the spots all the above used to appear: which brochures (viewbook, fact brochure), presentations (prospect, out-of-state, SASD), letters (AU001–the missing information letter; a host of others not worth mentioning), pages on our site (news/html/newsat.htm, from our old site–and I’m sure you can recognize the archaic structure there), the application for admission, and a ton of standard email we send out as reminders.

It’s the pieces I don’t touch regularly that have gotten missed. I found an email from what used to be a separate team in the office that still has both the rush score and transcript mention that was sent out as recently as last January.  And, I suspect, more recently than that still, but have yet to have proof.

Our office is, unfortunately, a bit of a Kraken: multi-armed and sprawling. Such is the nature of a large office with independent functions, much less a large university or a multi-campus institution like ours. We can occasionally collect all our arms, but most of the time a tentacle does get loose. They’re squirmy little buggers.

And no, I’m not going to make the Cthulhu comparison some of you might be expecting.

But back to my point.

Not everyone in the organization is going to be an expert. You’ll always have new staff. Help with managing sites, processes, etc is always welcome. Documentation may be key to keep all your miscellaneous bits in line.

Everything is Miscellaneous, and it doesn’t always flock as neatly as Weinberger demonstrates. Learn to manage your organization’s information, both for the benefit of your own memory and sanity, and to help the new folks on your team.

At a recent meeting, I and a bunch of our decision-makers were trying to make changes to how we use some of our brochures. Costs are rising, both in terms of printing a piece and the cost of postage to distribute them, and budgets are being cut back, so it was time to take that hard look.

And I finally heard one of the sentences I’ve been waiting for out of our Executive Director’s mouth:

People are looking for this information online.”

. . .

Thank you. And darn right they are.

Even putting aside the fact that we created this piece because the colleges stopped printing their own pieces with similar information, there’s the doubles and triples that students get of the same brochure, not knowing it’s in their folder already or that there’s one in the mail to them, etc.

And besides which, they’re getting the information the way they want to already. The related pages in question on our site are our most popular pages. We know people are accessing this information there. Even our Knowledge Base entries show it’s the most popular question people have in mind when they get to our site.

So I presented a mock-up of a new landing page for the subject in question. I poured all the information we had about the subject onto a page and then faithfully trimmed it by half.  I did not go the half again that Steve Krug recommends because–frankly–this was just a mock-up. I didn’t have the go-ahead to spend more time on it, really.

And the first response? “Awfully cluttered,” and “wordy,” to quote the two folks in question. Absolutely right, and I’ll admit it. I could certainly spend more time and cut it back more.

And thank you for recognizing what people want on the web: clarity and simplicity.

Be succinct. That’s my best web writing tip.

This is, however, super difficult to do when you’re dealing with a multi-campus system that’s truly (more or less) integrated in terms of curriculum and admissions. With 12 academic colleges at this campus and another 6 throughout the rest of the other 19 campuses scattered across the commonwealth. And especially when multiple campuses offer majors that have the same name, but are different programs with different curricula and options.

Not an easy task. But one I have to tackle.

But tomorrow. I almost missed today’s post-per-day due to midnight hitting, and that just won’t do, now will it?

My day in brief:

  • Meetings 8:00 to 12:30, some of which were interrupted by three different people looking for me, all leaving tasks for me behind them.
  • Brief hour at my desk for email/IM and lunch.
  • Interview for a programmer position open from 1:30 to 2:30,
  • half-hour of post-interview review, then
  • a good hour of fire-putting-out on our online application for admission–with no resolution.
  • Back to email/tasks left behind.

No way I can answer all the email I got today, nor catch up on what I got previously and haven’t gotten to/resolved yet.

While today was mostly an exception, this sort of thing happens all the time, to one extent or another. And it’s frustrating.

And I know it’s not just me. Other people have similar workloads.

At some point, I’m going to have to call an embargo on meetings, or declare email bankruptcy, or not be on IM, or close and lock my door. Or all of the above. Something. Because otherwise, I can’t actually put into action the things I’m in those meetings for.

We’re down two content people in my office now, so that could be aggravating the problem. But man. Rough Friday.

The web obviously needs some man-hours, and not just in my office. If there are any web folks out there at Penn State twiddling their thumbs (not that I think there are), drop me a line. I sure could use the help.

So this afternoon, an unusual request sent me down a rabbit hole.

A colleague over in ITS asked me what seemed on the surface a relatively simple question: how many students that enroll come from rural environments within Pennsylvania?

During the course of the conversation, I expanded that to include those who visit our website but might not end up enrolling who were from Pennsylvania, since a lot of Penn State’s services also assist those outside of the officially-affiliated Penn State community.  Not to mention that was an easier number to come by, relatively speaking.

To that end, I went to our web analytics and expanded to look over the course of a year. Just on the high end of traffic, it was pretty easy to see the major population centers in the commonwealth. Likewise, by going to the low end of traffic, you could see the less densely populated areas, though this was less accurate. But here we run into the problem that folks from rural environments may not be online, and thus not even making it onto this count.

So what about our enrollment numbers? There’s no checkmark (rural/urban) for us to bounce against, thus the Penn State Fact Book doesn’t list it, nor have we ever run these numbers before. After talking to one of my data-minded colleagues, our best solution was to tap into our sociology folks at the university for a list of “rural” zip codes: once we had that, from there we could run these numbers with some degree of accuracy. Problem is, even a ballpark was tough to come by until we had some definitions like this.

Simple question, yes? Not so very.

Prompted by an excellent post by Shelby Thayer, as well as a meeting today with IntelliResponse, our knowledge base provider, I’d like to dig into what you can find out from and how you can fine-tune a knowledge base.

I personally find it fun and entertaining to track our top ten over time and see how things shift. Yes, I’m a strange bird. I know this and embrace it. But watching “how do I apply” crawl up over inquiries for our academic calendar shows the shift in the year again: that shift in what students and parents are thinking about. Likewise, inquiries for campus tours.

And I was thrilled to see “is Penn State a multicampus system” actually gain enough traction to make it to one of our top tens (the one that people actually type in, rather than browsing the provided questions). Thrilled. Essentially, that means that the message that Penn State is not one place has gotten out there.

But I found, when I looked farther, that “2+2” goes unanswered if someone enters it. Likewise, “campus offer.” And these oversights (my own fault, mostly) are pretty egregious.

Now, those not familiar with the Penn State system might say “huh?” But both those questions should likely point to the “is Penn State a multicampus system” answer, or one like it.  (2+2 is what we call our system of two years at a smaller campus, followed by two years at a larger one to finish an undergraduate degree; campus offer is an offer of admission to one of our campuses.)

As much help as we’ve gotten from IntelliReponse (and we’ve gotten a ton: they’ve been great), you really need someone who knows the institution and office in question pretty much inside and out to evaluate your answers on a regular basis. I’ve found miscategorized questions, questions that don’t get answered, and quite a few that are really just garbage–often someone with a juvenile sense of humor trying to see what they can get the system to answer to pretty ridiculous questions.

The miscategorized and unanswered worry me the most. That said, we’re almost at a 90% response rate, and haven’t been up and running too terribly long, so I’m not losing sleep over it. Yet.

I’ve seen as many misspellings as I think might exist for “Schreyer” (referring to our Honors College), including “shriars,”  “shryer,” and “scyers” (virtually never capitalized, I might add), as well as referral to the aforementioned as “honros colelge.”  I also know the Penn State system is confusing, but I really wish we could get enough info out there that people wouldn’t be so bewildered as to ask “what college is the university campus on?”

I’m also sincerely hoping that “convicted of a felony” does not become a common question to turn up.

Examples aside, paying attention to these and getting them categorized appropriately not only helps your numbers, it helps your community, and that has real results when it comes to customer service. I’ve found that it’s not just prospective students and parents using our knowledge base: it’s also Penn State staff and faculty, some of them internal to admissions.

And people are using it all hours of the day, from all around the world. So rather than staying up until it’s business hours on our side of the world, a student from Thailand or China can get the answer they need right then. Likewise those that are in our time zone and don’t want to pick up the phone or write an email. Not to mention those right at any one of our Penn State campuses.

So in the end, to serve your customer, you have to find out what they want or need and try to deliver it to them in the way that’s easiest for them to use, not the easiest for you to manage, although the two often intersect. Keep in touch with your community and serve them well, and you’ll find the benefit is enormous.

This post started after reading this blurb questioning the need for committees. And I have to say I agree.

My office excels at bringing together committees, or working groups, or what-have-you. In practice, though, the most effective use of everyone’s time that I’ve seen has been in bringing together the two or three people who will actually do the work for the project and having them keep up with each other.

In a lot of cases, this could be done online. Twitter could be used for up-to-the-minute updates. Or, of course, you could use a more normal project management package. A few of us used Backpack pretty extensively for awhile. The subject experts should only be pulled in as consultants to make a good project run.

But the point of committees in our office (often), unfortunately, and I see the need for it, is generally for buy-in. To keep people aware of how the project is coming.

And I really feel it’s a waste sometimes. But there’s a huge culture change that would need to take place to make it all work without them.

Has anyone else actually been in a place that has managed that change? Any tips you can share?

We’re creating our own language here at Penn State.

Then again, people in groups together for any significant period of time do. Does anybody outside of Penn State understand the significance of “BS Breakfast”? Probably not: they’d take it for what it sounds like. Which was, of course, the intent. (BS here stands for “brainstorming,” for those not in the know.)

“Language” may be an overstatement, but it’s at least a code. You’re “in” if you know what we’re talking about.

I’m part of a lot of these communities with their own codes: Penn State TLT groupie (joke!) is just one of them. And acronyms are just part of these codes.

One community with a ton of community-made acronyms that I’m part of is BPAL enthusiasts (keep in mind, with the following links, that their aesthetic is quite dark–don’t be shocked). Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (BPAL) is a Los Angeles-based outfit that creates perfume oils, and it has its own parlance. GC (general catalog), LE (limited edition), CD (Carnaval Diabolique) and the like are pretty common to see in discussions on the topic, as is BPTP (Black Phoenix Trading Post, their sister company, which produces all their non-perfumel goods).

Other communities of a sort are more based on quotes or references. The video Shannon posted yesterday contains a bunch of these. Whether or not you notice them depends on where you spend your time online. One of the first clips is a re-creation of the Numa Numa guy.   There’s also “first!” (warning: expletives, immaturity), commonly seen in comments. See also: Internet Commenter Business Meeting (same warning applies, only way more so. plus offensiveness. plus . . . oh, nevermind–it’s from College Humor, so you should expect as much), which is basically what would happen if a meeting was run like virtually any popular open forum online.

And, of course, if you haven’t yet been hit by a Rick Roll, you haven’t been online long enough, and you certainly haven’t been taking a look all the way through my links. But that may be just as well, really.

Internet Memes (warning: too many warnings than I can list) attempts to collate all these references. It doesn’t hit all of them, but it hits the highlights quite well.

And there’s certainly some mocking of that communal language of references. An editorial in the New York Times today, Lord of the Memes, tells us that to be on the cutting edge, we need to be “not only an early adopter, but an early discarder.” We should go through these products, services and references before anyone else and then get sick of them and dismiss them with disdain should anyone else bring them up. The article ends with “remember, cultural epochs come and go, but one-upsmanship is forever.”

I didn’t discover that editorial on my own. In a rare reverse-crossover reference–real life to online rather than the other way around–someone told me about it at lunch and I looked at it on my iPhone when the conversation waned. There’s some irony there, believe me.

But this is connectivity. Or the cost of connectivity. Or the advantage of connectivity.

The point is, that too is part of your cultural education. So choose your influences wisely–they will become your references, and part of your language. Maybe I should be a bit more selective in mine. 😉

So as of yesterday, I’ve been approved to move forward with some usability testing on our online application for admission. As an excellent bonus, I’ll be allowed to waive the application fee of the students who help us by letting them observe them.

Our Directors Planning Team, which collectively makes most of the important decisions in the office (which I’m a member of), was somewhat characteristically interested in the details. Who are we testing? Just students who visit? Out-of-state students? Students in the different regions of Pennsylvania? Those who visit our Community Recruitment Centers? I took it a step farther to make it clear that breadth isn’t necessarily our aim considering our resources for the project–as of yet, I have no further funding approved–by suggesting transfers and international students. Further than that, we should look at adult students. But if I intend to test 5 – 10 students, there’s no way we’ll hit all these populations. How do we balance my funding, resources, support, and time? Not to mention equipment and travel, possibly?

The easy answer is: we don’t. Keeping it simple and keeping it close to home (so to speak) keeps it feasible. And we’ll get plenty of useful feedback just with that, potentially more than we can change in the time we have. If I get the funding and time I need, though, the equation changes completely.

This morning (during the Spend a Summer Day admissions presentation, I’ll admit, with the caveat that I’ve seen it five times now) I started mulling over my own questions about the project, which in some ways I find more important. What should we ask on a pre- or post-survey? Do we really strip this down to make it fast and easy and not have either? Do I want to publish/speak on this topic and thus slow us down with the IRB process? (No, probably not. What we do now falls under process-improvement and hasn’t required one thus far.)

Should I contact my Usability Engineering instructor from last semester and see if he knows a student who might be interested in helping with this very important research? Do we want to try to include someone with accessibility issues to make the point that we need to work on that end of things? (One rule of usability testing is not to go in with an agenda, so I probably shouldn’t pursue this.)

The questions go on and on.

In the end, we’ll probably end up on the end of a stripped-down version, because doing that way gets it done. Getting ambitious may mean it doesn’t happen, and I’d hate for that to occur. We need to know what real students do rather than continuing to make suppositions.

Wish I had more time to address this today, but this one will have to be quick. Keep in mind most of this is supposition.

Sometime during their search, I bet students looking at colleges and universities are likely to tap into Facebook. While this is still theory, it’s supported by others such as James Howell, in his entry a few days ago.

Unfortunately, right now I don’t expect that Penn State Admissions will be headed in that direction just yet, despite the presentation I made this past spring at our Penn State Admissions conference. The basic gist of that presentation was a suggestion to use Facebook Pages rather than Groups or Profiles for an “official” presence there. The “fan of” dynamic is just easier to deal with. That aside.

So for those students who choose to take a quick peek via Facebook into the ins and outs of a university, they’ll probably breeze through the groups, maybe take a look at some interesting people.

If I were to give some advice to that student, it would be: don’t judge us by a quick run-through, by our more popular groups, or even by our more active students on Facebook, necessarily. Take a moment to search for faculty. Look through staff like advisers, if you can find them. Look through the clubs and organizations with an official presence there. And better yet, contact people. Ask the question you’ve been wanting to of that student leader, that professor whose department you’re interested in, especially if they’ve been active recently.

The head of the Undergraduate Writing Center, Jon Olson, resisted getting onto Facebook for years. The peer tutors he works with created a “Get Jon Olson on Facebook” (or some such title) group. He finally relented recently and has been posting enthusiastically since: status, photos, even video.

It’s a hurdle for faculty sometimes, but I think most of them find that it’s super easy (and maybe even fun). But it does present some interesting quandaries: do I provide advising for the student that contacts me on Facebook, or do I refer her/him to email? That sort of thing. And while they all make their own decisions on that end, I would hope they would at least answer you. So reach out.

Social networks are for interacting, after all.

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