Entries Tagged 'faculty' ↓

Academic Research Publishing: People Get Ready

I’ve been thinkin’ about it, readin’ about it, and talkin’ about it for a while, as has Rosemary Arnesen, our esteemed and visionary Director of UMW Libraries. In the wake of launching our faculty aggregation interface, we are looking to expand faculty metadata to include their research publications. This is a technical challenge within the current paradigm of commercial journal publishing, but not insurmountable.

There is no one “feed” or aggregation of the multiplicity of journals to which one could type a faculty member’s name and get all of their publications. Current library subscriptions, and their online feeds, are all independent. Proprietary systems and faculty names, spellings, are not predictable across these  systems. This necessitates what is referred to as a mediated or curated data layer: Faculty self-reporting of publications with links to their online versions.

As our librarian posited, some type of feed from our FAAR reports may serve nicely to begin to capture publications as they are reported on by faculty without adding yet ANOTHER interface that faculty need to enter to aggregate their data. As long as a feed exists, we can capture it in the faculty aggregation layer, and I am very excited to work towards this during the coming year.

The current academic research publishing environment is shifting under our feet, and it’s all to the better. I say this while being married to a neuroscientist who was published earlier this year in the Journal Nature, with all the prestige that comes with it. I am painfully (read PAINfully) aware of what it means to his career to have such a feather in his cap, and what he needed to do to get this done.

But I despair at a model where the blood, sweat, and tears of a person as earnest as my husband, and as our UMW faculty, is bought and sold in order to be legitimized by a commercial brand’s imprimatur. This is not the same conversation as “Wikipedia will solve everything” and I’m not talking about doing away with peer review — I’m talking about academics and their peers really owning the content and the conversation, not giving it all away to large publishing houses.

Conversations about open journals are happening more and more, and places like UMW are well-positioned for this conversation. On the library front, SUNY just cancelled its exorbitantly expensive subscription to the ACS journal archive in favor of aggregating from other less expensive sources. The costliness of access to commercial journals to resource-strapped libraries cannot be overstated. Open access journals are growing in number, and, should the quality of research therein meet consistent standards and rigor, these journals will pick up steam in terms of legitimacy, just as the commercial journals have.

I would love to see UMW, with its forward-thinking approach to online publishing, consider our own in-house peer-reviewed, open, online journal. We have the Aubade literary magazine and we should begin to consider aggregation and tagging there. “Metamorphosis” is a COPLAC journal of outstanding student research work, but why doesn’t UMW create its own flagship student research online journal as a virtual (and longer-term, cumulative) partner to the Student Research Creativity Day? As part of our digital initiatives, we have talked about an online repository. I believe this notion of a journal needs to be part and parcel of this conversation. Let’s not just deposit our work, let’s bring it to life with peer review, online commentary, student citations, the works.

I guess, all this is to say, isn’t the university itself, writ large, not a legitimizer of scholarly research in its own right?

(Still, it was WAY cool that my husband was the first neuroscientist at UVa to get published in the Journal Nature — part of me may always be old school). Notwithstanding, Curtiss Mayfield has something to say to you:

 

What’s Wrong with our Home Page

I am going to go out on a limb and speak to something that gnaws at me regularly. You know, that kind of staying up at night wondering about the conversation you COULD have had if you had the presence of mind, or the courage, to have had it. Believe it or not (for those who have worked with me and know how obnoxiously outspoken I can be), I do hold back my opinions a lot for many reasons, mostly related to job security 🙂 But things gnaw at me sometimes nonetheless, and I’ve reached a point of feeling like I’m doing a disservice to UMW without raising an issue. So, consider this issue raised.

Steve Greenlaw (one of our more outstanding faculty members, in case you didn’t know) sent me a link yesterday to a story about the new home page for Ozarks Technical Community College (screenshot below):

This hearkened back to a conversation I had with DTLT years ago. Jerry Slezak (another UMW hero/genius now leading Information Technology Services) suggested at the time, as we went round and round with discussions of home page designs for the new Teaching Center, simply suggested that a search box would be the most effective tool to get people to what they want. We joked about simply redirecting our umw.edu url to Google — that it would be more efficent.

This is a seductive idea which places efficiency above all, and gives the driver’s seat over to the site visitor completely. Indeed, designing home page navigation is a crap shoot at best, frequently driven by internal politics and assumptions about “what students are looking for.” And, believe me, at UMW, I have learned that students are looking for whatever the content is that a particular stakeholder comes to me to complain about not being sufficiently visible on the home page 🙂 Okay, I’m being harsh, but there is more appeasement than design, more compromise than art, more smoke/mirrors than science, involved in this notion of a “splash page” to introduce the University to the wider world. It’s just a fact.

Knowing this, I can see where the Ozarks folks may have arrived at this solution. They used actual science — the stats on how folks navigated their site using primarily the search box — to inform their bold choice. But, although clever and efficient, I am not so sure about its utility at a more complex institution with multiple colleges, where programs may have similar names, and  where content creators are highly decentralized, as they are at most larger institutions (and at UMW). That’s putting an awful lot of faith in your search algorithm, Google search or otherwise, as well as in the ability of the content creators to get the right stuff in the right places, and then have the metrics bear out so that the most relevant stuff in the more obscure categories of information come out on top. I think this could have been effective at Mary Washington College prior to 1999, when the Stafford campus opened and introduced a set of redundant content owners, more than one campus, degree program and prospective student audience. Search for “registering for classes” and you could have been sent anywhere because there were dual functions on both campuses.

When I came along in 2001, sorting through the redundant content on the James Monroe Center site, and having endless arguments about who owned what function (read: web content) became a staple argument that kept on going until CGPS became a campus, and organization of student service functions was better defined. If there had been only a search box for a home page during those days, I honestly don’t know if the phones ever would have stopped ringing with complaints and confusion.

Assuming my above argument addresses why the home-page-as-search-box model may not work for UMW from an efficiency/customer service standpoint, what exactly is the beef I have with the more conventional home page we now have? In a word: SEO relevance. Ask any SEO (search engine optimization) expert (and the world is LOUSY with them these days) what is the number one way to move your rankings up and keep them up and they will tell you: CONSTANTLY CHANGING CONTENT THAT IS CONSIDERED RELEVANT BY RECOGNIZED AUTHORITATIVE WEB SITES. Period.

Here’s where I lose my job: For all of our redesigning, we have bowed to the pressure of the print-design mentality of a nice “cover” to our university that will succinctly capture the essence of UMW. We argue about the brand platform elements, and how the images and their captions convey a message about the Great Minds brand. We are not serving the needs of our SEO, but of a good print marketing campaign: consistent messages. SEO does not care about consistent marketing messages — it cares about interesting, dynamic content competing for daily air-time with larger institutions. Google doesn’t care that we are a liberal arts institution and we are awesome. It cares about what we are doing NOW, TODAY, and whether it’s any different from last week. Because if it’s not, our rank drops.

Google does not rank our home page based on whether the picture of that student and a pithy caption capture our essence. It cares if the picture of that student is essentially a headline about NEW story, posted as a newspaper would post a story, dated and attributed to an author. It cares that we regularly have new stories featured in the main content area which, for all intents and purposes, is our big photo rotation area.

Do we have news releases? Yes, but they are at the bottom of the page. Would they make great splash photos? Well, mostly not, because what it takes to get a great splash photo is a photo journalist on staff 24/7 who can capture incidents as they happen in high-quality images. High-quality images mean waiting for our once-a-month photographer to take photos of features that are scheduled ahead of time. The images that come out of breaking news are frequently stock photos of faculty, or of campus, because it’s what we have.

So, what am I saying? Well, perhaps it’s that where I don’t think a single search box would work, I’m not convinced that coming to a home page with a big-honkin’ image and caption is really useful from a user, or SEO, perspective. And I wish I had the nerve to say it when we were doing our re-design. But, the beauty of the web is that it’s fungible. If we have courage, we can tear this thing up and do it again.

In essence, I would like to see less print-think both in design AND in maintenance of our site. Constant changing home page content is not constantly updated canned photos and captions — it’s actual stuff going on day-to-day. Which gets to UMW Blogs and our new faculty content aggregator — who knows what up-to-the-minute content we’ll have access to in a few months? Our home page could actually look less like a book cover, and more like an open book. Ain’t that higher ed anyway?

Academics Front and Center on a Public University Site

The joy of being at UMW for so long is that knowledge of the institution becomes so granular, layered, and subtle, that you can begin to delve below the surface and pick apart how to make it all work. The UMW website has been an iterative laboratory of ideas for me, barring a 3 1/2-year period where a re-org moved the website to a different office. Each redesign I’ve embarked on– 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2010–has been done with more than the goal of a design facelift. At each stage, I’ve tried to join together messages about the University in a coherent whole, doing the best I can with the resources and tools available.

Barring 2004, which was largely a cosmetic and URL update for the purposes of our name change from “Mary Washington College” to “University of Mary Washington”, each re-design has included upgrades to authoring and site management tools to expand content management of the public site to areas deep within the institution. By 2007, when I handed the site over for maintenance to the new Webmaster, we had 210 web administrators on the academic and administrative sides with nearly ALL using a single look and feel in a single system. Not to brag, but, I don’t see a lot of Universities achieving that.

What seemed impressive to my contemporaries at other institutions was the consistent look and feel at all levels. But, in all honesty, although that was the agenda from the powers that be, it was not MY agenda. I wanted to build a culture of awareness for each user to feel like a responsible steward of public information given our role as a public institution. I evolved into this way of thinking after having the privilege of participating in interminable Thursday-morning DoIT meetings with the likes of Chip German, Gardner Campbell, Martha Burtis, and Jim Groom.

Enter UMW Blogs and WordPress, and a new way of web authoring at UMW, moved the “node” of information from the department to the person. What resulted was amazing open conversation on all the remarkable disciplines at this rich jewel of a liberal arts and science university. By 2008, the institution had the courage to link to UMW Blogs from its home page. But this was just dipping our toes in the water of truly exposing what was happening on our campus.

When I returned to my role as Webmaster, and later Director of Web Communications, in July 2010, the institution was once again poised for a redesign. But, redesign with all this rich groundwork already laid would have to reach to an even higher purpose: to turn an exposition of an IDEALIZED UMW to a public conversation with the REAL UMW.

The fact is, UMW Blogs is the most effective web tool for telling the world about what is really happening with teaching and learning here — our core mission. It’s more powerful than any beautiful and easy-to-navigate website can deliver. Through WordPress, FeedPress, and Banner web services, we are finally building a public web presence that is flexible and PERMEABLE. The goal: to expose real-time academic activity as THE driver to make anyone interested in coming to a place that graduates 21st century critical thinkers who can compete in the global information economy. Martha Burtis characterized this as (paraphrasing): “Not online learning, but learning online.”

Over the next few months, please look for the rollout of the following features on UMW public site to enable just that to begin earnest:

  1. Banner Web Services Plugin: Through a core plugin, we are developing a way to consume real-time public data from our Banner systems. Banner data standards for departments, faculty, courses, and disciplines are essentially built into the taxonomy of the WordPress networks, enabling aggregation of information from many points to many different locations. Thanks to Enterprise Application Services for creating all of those nifty web services for us!
  2. Faculty Professional Pages: Each faculty member will be able to write their own online bio (proofreading still available), publish and aggregate all of their blogs and social media to a single web page on the PUBLIC WEBSITE, and have their current courses and department affiliations, including any UMW Blogs related to current courses, automagically appear on the same page. A sample faculty member will look like this:New Faculty Aggregation Point
  3. Majors, Minors, Courses of Study: Banner data enables aggregation of catalogue data, blogs, videos, news releases, faculty, and social bookmarks for each discipline. Each discipline’s feed is controlled by that department.  This gives a real-time snapshot of what’s happening at UMW in that discipline right now, as the department wants to showcase how it teaches within the discipline. It also gives an apples-to-apples, in-depth look at all disciplines in one place, looking something like this:
  4. FeedWordPress: With all of the above in place, DTLT will work in a standalone installation of FeedWordPress to curate, slice, dice and combine feeds for consumption anywhere on the UMW Multi-Network from UMW Blogs sites, and back.
  5. University Taxonomy: We’ve played with this a bit, and have a version of it in place on the Document repository, but we have not institutionalized or developed a final UMW Taxonomy tool that all sites and blogs can use to categorize their content so that it can be aggregated with other content on the site. How this plays out under the hood is unknown. We will need faculty and staff input on what those taxonomies should be.

If you are still reading, I thank you for hanging in with me. This thinking began in 2008, and this actual development has been going on in our office for months now. Jim Groom’s post last week gave me the kick in the pants I needed to start writing about it in more concrete terms. He’s useful that way 🙂

Oh, and yes, Curtiss and I would be happy to put together developer and user documentation once the lion’s share of this work is complete. Curtiss Grymala has released all of his UMW plugins to the WordPress codex, and we thoroughly support the culture of open source development.