Learning from Amazon.com

August on campus. The dog days of summer, the countdown till opening. At many large residential institutions, the summer months are marked by visiting hordes of new (eager, anxious, and apprehensive) college freshmen and their parents. They come to campus for summer orientation, a 24- to 48-hour "meet-and-greet" that involves ID cards, information sessions, initial meetings with advisors, and course registration.

The summer weeks leading into the first days of fall classes are also when entering students frequently have their first experience with the campus Web site as a college resource. Although freshmen have often been to the Web as part of the admissions experience, an official user ID and password provide access to a rich array of digital content and campus services.

For many institutions, portal services are a key component of the campus IT strategy for campus services. A growing number of colleges and universities have (or expect to have) portals up and running for fall 2003: data from the 2002 Campus Computing Survey indicate that about one-fifth of American colleges had a working portal as of fall 2002, while another fifth expected their portal to be installed by fall 2003.

Yet even as more campuses install or upgrade portals and offer more and better Web-based services (online course registration, transcripts, course reserves, fee payments, student and campus calendar, etc.), it is increasingly clear that online campus services often lag behind the quality of Web-based services and experiences offered by Amazon, Abercrombie, AARP, and other Web sites that serve students, ages 17 to 67.

Consider Amazon.com: A very intelligent Web site, Amazon gets smarter about me each time I visit. The Amazon home page customizes information and resources based on my past visits. A tab at the top of the Amazon home page is labeled "Kenneth's Store." Amazon offers recommendations based on my prior purchases ("Hello Kenneth C. Green"), and tailors its New for You and Message Center for just me, Kenneth Green. And although there must be hundreds (maybe thousands) of Kenneth Greens in the Amazon database, somehow they manage to present these offerings just for me, Kenneth Green of Campus Computing.

Imagine Amazon as the contractor for the Acme College portal. As an Acme student, I begin my day at the Acme portal to check my e-mail and class schedule. Designed and managed by Amazon, the Acme College portal would be laden with information about campus issues and resources. But it would also be customized just for me, Kenneth Green, an Acme College student.

The Amazon/Acme college portal, My AAP, would monitor my progress to degree, tracking the classes I need to complete my distribution, major, and minor requirements. Additionally, My AAP would notify me that the deadline for class registration for next term is just 48 hours away. My AAP would warn me that there are just four seats left in the statistics class I have been avoiding for the past year. (It might even create an auction for those last four seats!)

My AAP would tell me that 85 percent of the students in my neurophysiology class have already accessed the online readings for the Wednesday seminar. (And My AAP might aggregate student comments about which articles were the most informative and what issues might appear on the midterm!) My AAP would encourage me to attend today's brown-bag lunch sponsored by the Economics Department, reminding me that my macr'economics professor and the visiting speaker were college roommates.

Additionally, My AAP would provide easy access to my campus financial accounts, library account, and current transcript, plus book lists for classes, and information about internship services. It would also provide information about the internship experiences, initial jobs, and starting salaries of recent Acme students in my major and with my GPA.

My AAP would support a student ePortfolio. My AAP would allow me to create links to online, off-campus resources I deem important, including the Library of Congress, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Google.com, and the weekly closeout items posted on Web pages at Abercrombie, Banana Republic, and JCrew.

Much like Amazon, My AAP would attempt to meet me half way—anticipating, identifying, and offering services I might want (a winter coat, a new CD, the latest Harry Potter book) or may really need (the stat class I've avoided for three terms).

Admittedly, some will view My AAP as an online version of HAL, the omniscient, omnipotent, and ultimately out-of-control supercomputer from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey. Others, concerned about privacy issues, will caution against seeding campus information systems with too much data about students.

But in the end the real issue is about service, not data and technology. As a consumer, I don't care much about Amazon's technology. I'm willing to share some data about myself in return for better service.

And for campuses, today's IT issues are also about services: Providing more and better services to support the educational mission of the institution and to enhance the educational opportunities and experiences of students. That said, there's lots that we in the campus community can learn from Amazon.com.

comments powered by Disqus