At Volant we have a long history of working with universities, research institutions and educational foundations to produce project websites, e-learning platforms and even just simple personal sites for academic applications.
Today, the majority of funding bodies want to see that their applicants have at least some kind of outreach / public engagement element to their plans and for many (if not all!) projects, a website of some description is the best way to go. Aside from being easy to customise and update, a web platform (especially when paired with one of our ongoing hosting and maintenance packages) meets many of the requirements for project longevity by default.
But how should you go about thinking about a digital output for your project? Lets consider some key points:
Consider your audience, very carefully
“Consider your audience” is perhaps the most often repeated phrase in just about any field – but when it comes to producing an academic project site it’s more important than ever to think about this one a little differently.
The biggest mistake made by academics is failing to properly consider the needs of their target audience, and this, sadly, is one of the major reasons funding applications can fail. What’s critical to remember is that the content, design and even web address for a site will depend largely on the target audience, so this point needs to be taken into account right from the start.
Of course, the foregoing is true for any project – but in an academic setting the problem can be more complicated. Are you trying to target other academics, or the general public? Is the purpose of your site to make information available to other researchers, or are you trying to produce an educational resource for the general public?
Make a firm decision about your target and stick with it – scholars will of course prefer in depth material with readily available footnotes and links to related scholarship, but this level of detail will often turn off casual readers or those just starting out. For more publically oriented sites, go with a bold and interesting layout coupled with easy to follow text populated with rich content wherever possible.
At the end of the day, believe in your project – don’t be afraid to explain to the funding panel that your website is aimed at the general public and will be targeted as such, they’re more likely to be impressed by your potential impact than distressed by a lack of a bibliography.
When we help clients to make applications for project funding, we always suggest a reasonable amount of contingency funding be included in the requested amount. More than just “pushing your luck” being diligent in applying for extra funds will often be seen in a positive light by a funding committee.
Private sector businesses are easily able to adapt to changes in the web landscape and can add new features to a website as they become available – however an academic project (which may conceivably run over a number of years) can suffer from the inflexible nature of funding models if an addition to the project or change to the schedule becomes desirable. A reasonable contingency fund (which can be clearly signposted as such) will go a long way to keeping a project on track and delivering the best possible end result.
Partner with the right company
As with any project, it’s important to partner with the best company for the job. At Volant we have been collaborating with universities and academics since 2010 and have delivered everything from complex database projects to personal blogs in an academic setting. Since our staff are also all university educated we’re also well aware of the peculiarities of working with the academic setting.
Given the nuances of the academic world, it’s more important than ever partner with a company who can provide the technology you need in the way which allows you to meet the goals set out by your funding body or department. Outside of academia, goals are often fairly simple to meet (increase online profits, drive more traffic or sell more products) but an academic project will often need to meet requirements which are less obvious, such as meeting outreach targets, providing methods for user engagement, integrating into teaching schedules or syllabi or even being ready to form part of a course.
Think carefully about how you measure your success.
One of the major advantages of working within an academic setting is the freedom to set one’s own goals and targets, at least in so far as they can be justified! In thinking about the goals for your academic website, much can be gained by some time spent considering the way in which you would like users to interact with your site.
For example, if producing a general information site for a non-academic audience the usual metrics, such as page views, bounce rate and time spent on your site are probably sufficient to measure your success. If your project is aimed at an academic audience however, overall time spent on each page or user flow throughout your site might be better ways to gauge how well receive your project has been.
In reporting back to funding bodies or your department, the important point is to show that you have chosen a realistic, appropriate and achievable goal and worked towards that in a meaningful way. Creating a site filled with excellent, if somewhat specialised material can be an excellent career builder for any academic – but be sure to be ready to report back with information showing that your site has a high engagement level, even if the total number of users isn’t as large as may be the case for a more general site.