FAQs: the goose barnacles of higher education

In the Middle Ages, even so-called learned men believed in the bizarre duality of goose barnacles and barnacle geese. Noticing that floating barnacles bore great resemblance to local waterfowl, they put 2 and 2 together, and got 22: These animals they dubbed barnacle geese certainly must spring from the fruit they called goose barnacles when the time was right. The two things looked so similar that despite any real evidence (correlation is not causation), it seemed a stout conclusion.

While science has moved past this, I can’t help but notice that we create our share of goose barnacles in higher education: We see what we think perfectly reasonable from our perspective even when it doesn’t resonate with the real world. I’d put the curious creatures known as Frequently Asked Questions/FAQ pages near the top of the list.

Yes, this happened at a school you may have heard of.

Yes, this happened at a school you may have heard of.

Have you visited any college FAQ pages recently? On many, you’ll find a lot of questions, but not necessarily ones that students actually, you know, frequently ask. Not all are as outlandish as “What is the mission statement of the college?” (sorry I’m not making that up), but many FAQs are simply the result of administrators deciding what they want to communicate and working backwards by creating answers then writing questions people would never ask.

Some content experts would like to see FAQ pages eliminated from college websites entirely. They raise a good point: If your website is really good at providing answers within its pages, users will find the answers they need without an FAQ. This is a noble aspiration, but in reality users want quick answers, and many colleges (like ours) have to rely on content editors (more than 300 on our campus) to maintain department, program, office and section websites. In a perfect world, you can somehow find a way to clean up a 20,000+ page website, but in an imperfect world FAQs may remain at least a temporary evil until you can miraculously heal your college’s digital body.

If internal forces still necessitate FAQs, at least make sure they involve real frequently asked questions. Since our office maintains and monitors social media channels frequented by prospective and incoming students, we see questions they ask may bear no resemblance to FAQs maintained by offices and programs addressing future students. How to reconcile fiction and reality? Take notes and set up meetings. For example, I met with the Orientation office and showed what our students actually asked was completely different than the program’s posted FAQ. I worked with offices and staff to add questions that were asked and remove questions that they even admitted they hadn’t heard asked in years.

But we went a step further. If a question came up over and over that wasn’t adequately addressed on oswego.edu, we made sure that main or primary pages (not just FAQs) were updated to address these questions. No, this shouldn’t be rocket science, but it seemed like a revelation to some folks.

I can’t emphasize enough: Listen to your customers. Our Class of 2018 Facebook group bubbles with earnest questions, many of which we have answers to — including some that a few students, honestly, haven’t seemed to have looked for on our site (where the info is prominently featured). I’ve sometimes taken a deep breath and reminded myself saying “let me Google that for you” would be a bad idea, but at the same time our customers’ experiences (which may include not using our website much) are our reality.

How can we bridge this gap? Ah, that will be the topic of my next next blog installment, which involves lots of listening and tapping student creativity. Stay tuned.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “FAQs: the goose barnacles of higher education

  1. Pingback: Potential students have questions. Provide answers. Get creative. | InsideTimsHead

  2. Pingback: Potential students have questions. Provide answers. Get creative. | Educational Policy Information

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