Reaching Eurasia's Students through Web Technology
Hawley, Allison, International Educator
LOCAL WEB SITES WITH INCOMPLETE, inaccurate, or wrong information about studying in the United States are plentiful throughout the 12 countries of Eurasia. Online visitors are often confused and overwhelmed by the diverse choices offered by the U.S. system of higher education and the Web sites claiming to know the "best" school for each applicant. In 2003 the U.S. governments EducationUSA advisers in the region decided to create a Web resource to provide accurate, unbiased, and up-to-date information in Russian, the language spoken or understood by the majority of the Eurasian population.
Virtual Consulting Services
The Virtual Consulting Office (VCO) Web site offers students and their families access to the expertise of senior advisers even if these clients reside far from one of the 57 EducationUSA centers in the region. A team of 10 advisers and alumni of U.S. universities operates the site, which is divided into general information sections, such as admissions and visas, and specific fields of study, like medicine or journalism. Each section has separate pages for news items, useful links, helpful information, and consulting. Students are able to post questions and receive answers from professionally trained advisers within 24 hours. The responses are delivered directly to their e-mail addresses, which are automatically added to the VCO mailing list, and posted on the Web site itself. Since January 2004, the team has answered 218 questions and posted 131 links, 123 news items, and 108 pieces of useful information. Since the Web site opened, it has been visited by 39,976 unique visitors who downloaded 10,856 megabytes of information.
The "forum" and "find each other" sections, designed to bring together people in all stages of the application process and current students and alumni of U.S. universities from Eurasia, are monitored by an adviser to ensure that only accurate information is shared and online visitors aren't misled by their peers. In comparison, in some popular online chat rooms in Russia students tell each other how to trick U.S. consular officers or falsify financial documents.
Templates Offer Flexibility
The Virtual Consulting Office was designed as a Web template that can easily be converted into any language in the world and transferred to a server outside of Eurasia. To complement this online tool used on a regionwide scale, Viktar Khotsim, a U.S. Department of State professional advising leadership fellow, created Web templates for a country-wide EducationUSA network and those advising centers managed by one person. The templates are currently located on one server and maintained with funds from an ETS Advising for the Future award.
The Web sites, which enable advisers to update and post content without a Webmaster, offer a variety of innovations, including multiple mailing lists, a question and answer section, and a special program to count online visitors and compare site statistics to other regional EducationUSA Web sites. The American Center for Education and Research's Web site for Belarus even allows students to receive news and announcements via SMS and view the WAP version of the site on mobile phones. This technology, although not widely used by the general population, is growing in popularity with younger generations, especially students. It allows educational advisers to reach their audience in creative ways, which is important considering the amount of incorrect information on the Internet.
Each of the three types of templates can easily be copied and provided to advising centers or teams of advisers with instructional test content already programmed onto the pages. The test content and administrative centers of the sites allows advisers with only basic computer skills to create their own sites in just a few hours. These templates are available to advising centers worldwide, and Khotsim's goal is to create an entire Web network. Since the EducationUSA logo is already associated with reliable, unbiased information, it's only logical that students will trust the advising Web sites, all of which will look similar in design but offer individualized content. …