Shauna Sibonga, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Higher-education professionals are accustomed to using academic and advising jargon, but sometimes it impedes the experience of our students. In this post, Shauna Sibonga from UH Mānoa discusses how simple instructional design and small terminology changes can make a transfer center website more accessible and student friendly.
The Mānoa Transfer Coordination Center (MTCC) is located at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Recently, we expanded our reach to all seven University of Hawaiʻi Community College (UHCC) campuses and to students from non-UH institutions. That means students from both within and beyond the University of Hawaiʻi system are now supported by our team.
I work with students from one of our neighbor island campuses, Kauaʻi Community College, as well as with the non-UH students. Due to the distance, my advising takes place exclusively online, over the phone, or through email. My students do not physically live on Oʻahu, where UH Mānoa is located, and don’t have the luxury of visiting offices and speaking face to face with support staff. Aside from me, students rely solely on their home institution counselors and online information to complete the transfer process. As such, they deserve the most optimized online tools possible.
I joined the advising field about a year ago, coming from a background of academic coaching, distance learning, and instructional design. As I acclimated to the curricula differences across campuses, advising best practices, and got to know my new team, I noticed something: the student-transfer process is multifaceted. Transfer students need information from offices all over campus—Admissions, Health Services, Student Housing, Financial Aid, School/College/Major Academic Advisors, Veteran Student Services, Student Life, and more. Typically, this means they must click through every department or individual website as they seek information.
As a result, I received questions from counselors, students, and even parents who were struggling with website navigation. I realized then that UH Mānoa, like many institutions, had too many websites! Many inquiries could be answered by a relatively short list of links, but people didn’t know where exactly to look.
Basic but crucial resources like our Transfer Database, Program Sheets, Undergraduate Advising Guide, and others were spread widely across the main webpage, and it was difficult to confirm what tools were available unless one knew the exact search terms to enter. Additionally, the uncertainty of moving from a non-UH school, perhaps from across the Pacific, amplifies the distance experience and further impacts a student’s ability to make informed decisions.
Information should be easily accessible and organized at one site. I began to envision a centralized hub for all matters regarding transfer to UH Mānoa. In an attempt to streamline the transfer process, I updated what was then called Steps to Transfer. This timely update coincided with our transition to an ADA-compliant website template. The foundational content was derived from a combination of transfer advising curricula, documents, and resources developed in our office. Based on discussion and feedback from my team, as well as on my observation of student needs, the new website began to take shape.
Prior to a full launch, however, our team decided to gather student feedback. A colleague introduced me to two of her former Kaʻieʻie students who were now thriving at our four-year campus. (Kaʻieʻie is a transfer program specifically for our UHCC students looking to transfer to UH Mānoa.) I developed a small usability study that included both task-oriented questions intended to test navigability of the new site and open-ended questions to capture the students’ overall transfer experience.
Usability studies typically highlight the shortcomings of a project rather quickly, but even I was surprised at the high level of confusion among students who were simply looking for information. The study gave us insights beyond what an academic advisor would have. We identified the biggest cause of confusion and misinformation: the terminology we used in communicating with students.
Transfer Guides for advisors and counselors are typically alignments between bachelor’s degree requirements and availability at a UHCC. For students, though, the title may be misleading academic jargon.
In the study I conducted, student participants were prompted with this task: “Find information on different ways you can transfer to UH Mānoa.” Naturally, they clicked the Transfer Guides link in our top menu bar. They explained that they thought this link would lead them to a guide for the transfer process.
Instead, it led them to lists of classes for various majors, so they clicked away to explore other parts of the website, often ending up in places unrelated to their purpose. Students repeatedly navigated to the incorrect page, which indicated a misalignment between student and advisor language.
It makes sense that a transfer guide should include information on ways to transfer to an institution. It should provide direction and guidance, both for general education and major requirements, and for practical and logistical transfer matters.
I presented the study results to my team, and we decided to change the titles in our top navigation bar to more accurately reflect the content at each link. Steps to Transfer became Guide to Transfer, and Transfer Guides became 2yr to 4yr Program Maps. We’re now actively removing the phrase “transfer guide” from daily use, and we are in the process of converting our original transfer guide documents to program maps.
This was a simple change, but we would not have known to make it without consulting our subject matter experts—the transfer students.
Since we implemented the changes, I’ve received fewer complaints about our website. I’ve also received more requests for support beyond the copying and pasting of URLs. We are able to spend more time advising and conversing with our students.
Eventually, I would like to conduct another usability study to determine whether the updated website and current terminology are acceptable and functioning in the intended ways, perhaps with a different subpopulation of transfer students. Using those results, we could develop an iterative process that would help ensure thorough and evidence-based changes for the future.
Step-by-Step Advice for Improving Your Website
Assess the needs of your users. Who is your website for, and what do they need from it? The main need is likely to find transfer information, but what exactly? Consider the entire transfer process and what part(s) your website is involved in. What are the most common complaints you receive about it?
Choose usability study participants. We chose students who had successfully transferred to UH Mānoa through the Kaʻieʻie Program, and who were still in contact with us so we could quickly make changes to meet the ADA compliance deadline. For larger participant pools or longer timelines, readers might consider email blasts or social media announcements to solicit volunteers.
Conduct the usability study. Tasks and questions are formed around a website’s ease of use: its purpose, navigation, etc. For example, “find the different ways to transfer to UH Mānoa.” The participant should perform the task and answer questions in real-time and should be encouraged to think aloud as they do so. Consult with an instructional designer if possible.
Collect study results and decide how to make your website more student friendly. Of the collected results, come up with recommendations and prioritize by severity or other external deadlines.
Implement the changes and monitor for future changes as needed.
About the Author
Shauna Sibonga, MEd (firstname.lastname@example.org), currently serves as a Transfer Specialist with the Mānoa Transfer Coordination Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She partners with Kauaʻi Community College in facilitating the Kaʻieʻie transfer program and guides non-UH students through the transfer process. Prior to her role as an academic advisor, Shauna worked as a program assistant for the Learning Assistance Center and an education technologist for the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. She previously studied biology and is now continuing with the Learning Design and Technology department at UH Mānoa.
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