Mike Horn

University administrators launched a newly redesigned "utexas.edu" Thursday. The redesign aims to give information about admission and financial aid to prospective students.

After nearly three years of planning, University administrators launched a newly redesigned utexas.edu Thursday  

Mike Horn, director of digital strategy for University Communications, said the redesign focuses on information about admission and financial aid to attract prospective students. Although current students are the primary users of the UT website, they access most of their content through secure portals such as UTDirect, Canvas and Blackboard, Horn said.

“The next biggest audience group [of the website] was prospectives,” Horn said. “Their needs are not being met in the way that we want, and we really focused this redesign on prospective students.”

The website redesign also serves as part of a broader initiative to help current students, Horn said. MyUT, a personalized student portal intended to help increase graduation rates, is tentatively scheduled to launch in the fall.

“It’s going to include some features like integrated calendars, a new mobile-friendly design [and] single sign-on connections to tools like Canvas and other services so you don’t have to login over and over again,” Horn said. “It’s going to become more customizable and provide information relevant to the time of year and your major and interest.”

Administrators first approached University Communications and Information Technology Services to create a new website in summer 2012, Horn said.

Public relations senior Hayley Fick, digital strategy intern for University Communications, said the website redesign tried to avoid mistakes other college websites often make.

“[We would see that a website] looked good, but it wasn’t necessarily responsive or as functional,” Fick said. “We are trying to strike a balance between aesthetics and functionality.”

The new website design uses a template that can be applied to college and departmental websites through content management platform Drupal, Horn said.

Finance sophomore Julie Ding said she experienced problems finding information about specific programs, such as study abroad, using the new website.

“When you’re trying to look up specific information for a program or something, it’s very hard to locate that using the University website,” Ding said.

Lauren Greiner, international relations and global studies sophomore, said she believes the new website is cleaner and easier to use.

“It’s a longer website, instead of just having a shorter scroll distance and all this tiny little text everywhere,” Greiner said. “It just looks cleaner.”

The mobile phone app “Snapchat” launched a new feature called “Our Campus Story” on UT’s campus Friday.

According to a statement released by Snapchat on Oct. 17, Snapchat users on and around campus can view a regular feed of images and videos uploaded by users on the campus. For its first trial of this feature, Snapchat selected UT, University of California-Los Angeles, University of Southern California and Pennsylvania State University. Snapchat launched similar features at Austin City Limits Music Festival, the Electric Daisy Carnival, New York Fashion Week and college football games.

“Our Campus Story was the natural evolution of the Our Story product that we launched at [Electronic Daisy Carnival] this year,” Snapchat said in statement. “Our team heard tons of requests for Our Story at college campuses — so we just had to make it happen.” 

Mike Horn, director of digital strategy at UT, said Snapchat did not consult with or alert the University prior to the launch of the feature, but so far the University has reacted positively. 

“Our first reaction was kind of curiosity,” Horn said. “It’s so new to us that we haven’t developed a formal strategy around it, but it seems like a great tool for students to get a feel for whatever is going on on campus.” 

Officials from Penn State’s and USC’s social media teams said they had not been contacted by Snapchat about the new feature either. 

Horn said Snapchat may have selected the four campuses because of their large base of Snapchat users. 

The Snapchat team filters all uploaded content and removes inappropriate material. The recent feed has included videos of pranks inside University dorms, chemistry experiments, student yoga classes and football locker rooms.

Hugo Rojo, a public relations senior and “pretty consistent” Snapchat user, said he has not uploaded any content yet, but has enjoyed the feed. He said the new feature allows users to witness slices of daily life on campus that they would otherwise never see. 

“With the introduction of Our Campus Story, it’s really providing a lens to the greater campus community to people who normally wouldn’t be able to experience it,” Rojas said.

Snapchat is planning to expand its Our Campus Story to other campus locations around the world.

UT is in the process of redesigning its website to keep pace with a changing technological environment.

The University Communications department conducted a Mobile Strategy Taskforce study last year and found the current UT website fails to meet the needs of prospective students, current students and staff.

Mike Horn, director of digital strategy for University Communications, said the site is lagging behind modern standards.

“As with most websites, the time has come for refreshment that meets the demands of current consumers,” Horn said.

Horn said the Senate of College Councils is collaborating with them throughout the process. Legislation proposed by the senate calls for the inclusion of a website redesign consultative student committee and an online student handbook. It will be discussed in the general assembly Oct. 10 at the Legislative Assembly Room in the Student Activity Center.

Siddharth Sridhar, a math, Plan II and economics senior and a member of Senate, said he helped write the most recent policy regarding the committee and handbook. Sridhar said the current website leaves a negative impression on high school students that are looking into UT for the first time.

“The current format is really old, it looks like it’s out of the ‘90s,” Sridhar said. “If a prospective computer science major looks at the home page, they will wonder, ‘Do I really want to go to UT?’”

Computer science junior Andrew Shewaga said he finds the site difficult to navigate.

“I would imagine that someone with less experience wouldn’t be able to find what they’re looking for,” Shewaga said.

Sridhar said the new website needs to produce a better student portal and home page.

“We put these two together because it all concerns access to information,” Sridhar said.

Horn said the current website fails to meet the needs of various audiences and the various platforms they use to access it — particularly a youth population that increasingly accesses the site using smartphones.

“When the current site was built, mobile access was not a significant issue,” Horn said. “Designing for mobile is still relatively new and there are few [people] on campus that have expertise in this space.”

Horn said UT will need external expertise to accomplish this feat.

“In order to complete a project of this magnitude quickly and produce the best user experience, we deemed it best to seek an outside vendor,” Horn said. “We are still taking bids and evaluating proposals [but] we hope to be able to launch the responsive site before the start of the 2014-15 academic year.”

UT’s online experience needs a makeover. The UT System Board of Regents attempted to address this problem in 2011 when they invested $10 million in the popular course planning and course review website, MyEdu. They hoped to provide students with a more efficient and user-friendly tool for planning schedules and staying on track for graduation. But whether the investment was worthwhile is debatable. And although complaints persist about MyEdu’s lack of integration with UT’s course schedule, as well as the website’s frequent crashes, an initiative within UT-Austin has begun that’s going to show the regents how a first-rate university solves problems — and it does not include throwing $10 million in taxpayer dollars to a site that still fails to fulfill its basic function two years after our initial investment.

On April 26 Mike Horn, the director of Digital Strategy for University Communications, joined by colleagues in Information Technology Services and the provost’s office, presented a new vision for UT-Austin’s online presence to the Strategic IT Advisory Board, which includes UT President William Powers Jr. Horn’s idea was to create a uniform online experience for UT students using online UT services. The idea for the initiative emerged from the Mobile Strategy Task Force in Communications, which emphasized streamlining UT’s online presence into a more mobile-friendly form, but the project has since expanded into a complete overhaul of UT online, including a redesigned homepage, registration, admission and student services experiences.

UT President William Powers Jr. and the Strategic IT Advisory Board endorsed the initiative on April 26. Horn’s team has collaborated closely with David Laude, senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management in communications, Carolyn Connerat, associate vice provost in the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, as well as associates in ITS, student affairs and the president’s office, to make this new online experience incorporate all of the essential elements of UT’s online services. Connerat explained that when using UT online, “You’re going to all these different websites that seem to be separate. And so the goal is to bring these together using the newest technology and the newest design, to make it a really cutting edge experience for our students.”

Supporters of the initiative believe that the project’s success will not only increase efficiency and productivity, but will also set the standard for what a major university’s online presence should look like. As the regents face mounting criticism for their stated goals of making UT more accessible and affordable, as well as their continued failure to solve our problems in a way that seems fitting for a university striving to be world-class, the widespread support for the initiative shows that we’re not ready to settle for average here in Austin. Our priority is being the best.

The wheels are already rolling on this. Although nothing is going to replace the $10 million haphazardly given to MyEdu by the regents, we can finally rest easily knowing this problem is being solved. It is a big problem, however. Horn and his colleagues have their work cut out for them. Even so, I have faith that within a year or two, our registration system will have a much improved interface with a modern layout and a more user-friendly and integrated system

“Everything that we’re doing here is about improving the current student experience, and we also really want to help sell the story of UT so that we continue to get the best and brightest prospective students as well,” Horn says. That sounds like a way better idea to me: Leave MyEdu and the regents in the dust. Their understanding of “world-class” leaves much to be desired.

Adams is a government freshman from Aiea, Hawaii.