Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why legibility is better than transparency

In the political sphere, transparency is a hallmark on democracy.  But in education, transparency, or making all possible information available to all possible users, confuses as often as it helps. For students legibility, or making it  possible for them to read where they are and where they go next, is more valuable than transparency.

Consider these hallmarks of educational transparency--the campus map, the course catalog, and the tuition and fees list.  Colleges and universities place maps showing all buildings on their websites and at key points on campus.  But students, parents, and visitors are constantly lost.  Why? Because the map provides too much information.  No one really needs to know where all buildings on campus are located.  Instead, they need to know how to get from where they are to where they are going, something that maps do only with difficulty.

Similarly, the course catalog aims to encapsulate all information about a campus' curriculum and graduation requirements.  But students consistently make poor choices, misunderstand policy, and emerge from the catalog more confused than less.

And tuition and fees lists aim to make students and their families aware of all potential costs of attending an institution.  But those tables are generally ignored, in lieu of parents asking a straight-up question--"How much will it cost to attend your school."  To that question we have few good answers, since costs of attendance are variable and odd, given the way that schools rarely charge round figures for anything.

Forbes journalist Patrick Spenner gets it right in his recent blog post, "Forget Engagement, Consumers Want Simplicity." There, he argues that marketers who aim to engage potential customers in too many ways--social media, frequent campaigns, personal contacts--instead trip them up.  I find this increasingly true in student recruitment, where improved marketing tools allow us to contact prospective students dozens of times over the three years prior to enrolling as freshmen.  Some students love the attention, but most ignore much of the interaction, or worse, disconnect early in the process.  (Enrollment managers talk increasingly of stealth applicants--students who apply to the college without us knowing about them.  But the truth is that there are few stealth applicants.  There are instead students who were in the recruiting pool at the outset, but disconnected until they ultimately applied.  They are "simplicity seekers" not stealth applicants.)

The best example I've seen recently of legibility (or in Spenner's terms "simplicity") is at Utah Valley University.  At UVU, all major educational buildings are linked, so that you can walk indoors from one building to any other.  UVU has made huge improvements in helping students and visitors get around--not by posting more campus maps, but by simply posting signs hanging from the ceiling at any juncture between buildings.  Those signs include simple information--the name of the next buildings down any possible path, and an arrow showing which hallway to follow.  The boundaries between buildings are simply marked by the purpose of the building ("business' or "liberal arts" for example) being spelled out in the carpet.

Anyone can get around UVU's campus, then, if they simply know three things--that all buildings are connected, that you can find your way by reading signs, and the name of your final destination.

Not all campuses are designed the way UVU's is.  But you can take their principles of legibility and apply them elsewhere by building educational systems with three questions in mind:

  1. What is the campus' approach to the educational experience?
  2. Where are the critical junctures where signs need to be placed?
  3. What is the student's end goal?
It is disappointing but not surprising that few campuses have simple and clear answers to these key questions.  Each school has all sorts of approaches to education--some majors are lockstep, others aren't, some require a thesis, others don't, some place students in internships, others don't.  We have too many critical junctures--between semesters, and years, and when changing majors, and all sorts of application deadlines.  And we aren't very good at knowing what a student wants to major in, let alone his/her overarching educational goals.  Given our complexity, we resort to putting all possible information out there, and hoping that students can find their ways or build a relationship with a wise mentor who will guide them through.  Or in other words, we default to transparency because our educational systems are illegible.

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