Entries Tagged 'communication' ↓

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?

Fear and Higher Ed Web

Alan Levine inspires as always when he blogged yesterday about the default attitude about privacy on the web in higher education. It’s easy to point to FERPA, copyright, and intellectual property concerns and their role in the development of the traditional authenticated LMS environment. But, there are other concerns that universities have with opening things up, and we have faced them quite boldly at UMW on multiple fronts.

Since before 2001, our web policy has had a few interesting passages in it, mostly related to clarifying the bright line between “official” and “non-official” websites:

“The University of Mary Washington assumes editorial responsibility for official University Web sites and official UMW on-line resources, which are defined as the official Web pages or on-line materials of UMW departments, divisions and other units. For these sites and resources, UMW is the content provider and not a content-neutral “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. You may also find within the UMW domain — signified by the address “umw.edu” or within the range of Internet protocol addresses assigned to the University — Web sites or on-line materials over which the University has no editorial responsibility or control. Such sites include but are not limited to the Web pages or other on-line materials of individual faculty members or students, individual class sites and materials, and the Web pages or on-line materials of student organizations and other organizations not formally a part of the University. For these sites and materials, UMW is a content-neutral ISP.”

This is a perfectly normal and accepted type of policy on any higher ed website. The University is both protecting what is considered official messages AND protecting the first amendment rights of students and faculty. Like may policies, this does not exist to explain so much as to prevent legal action against the University.

The above is much easier to enforce when there is an LMS involved. Once UMW Blogs came online, and the website began to openly link to it, the game changed. Although the letter of the policy is still being followed, the spirit of it — to draw a bright line between official and non-official communications — becomes harder to enforce. How can a university celebrate and share what can be controversial academic debate in the context of its public communications and still maintain control of the message?

I was part of a presentation to the UMW Cabinet with Jim Groom addressing the fear of potential disaster should a student post something untoward. Jim made the argument that, for every possible “f-bomb” that is posted, there are thousands of great ideas that are shared every day online, and showcase the depth of the academic conversation at UMW. He was asking them to take a gamble, and they have.

I do believe that this fear of exposure of possible offending language — or (gasp!) bad grammar — on the part of those managing the public message is a contributing factor to institutional desire to hide academic conversation within authenticated environments. Once the classroom is exposed to the web, it’s in the ether and the bright line between official and non-official seems parochial at best. At worst, it’s a technique to avoid conversation about more complicated issues regarding free speech and what makes a university different from a corporation. If we are peddling the development of free thought and critical thinking, why are we so afraid of exposing just what it is we hope to foster in our students?

I leave you with a video clip that I’ve used in presentations in the last couple of years. It’s a favorite metaphor of mine: the university public website as the ridiculous freestanding tollbooth that anyone can circumvent if they just open their eyes.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Net

We are a proud bunch, we grownups, with our internets and web sites and social networking tools. We’ve bifurcated our generation into the luddites and the tech savvys and turned the whole thing into some sort of religious war over whether technology is frying our minds or determining our future.

My immediate family spans a few generations. I have a 72-year old brother in New Jersey (19 years my senior) who offered to have my 8-year old daughter stay with him for a few weeks this summer. I saw close up how the issue of technology-or-no-technology can polarize people. He did not get a single email of mine, although I told him I had sent a long email with instructions about everything from hair conditioner to websites. He commented to my sister, “I don’t know why she didn’t just hand it to me.” He would not let my daughter use the computer for a video chat with us because that’s the computer on which he does his taxes. He sat dumbfounded as she tried to show him how she uses the web to play with her best friend online in Animal Jam. “I don’t get the point of it.”

When she was leaving for home, she asked me on the phone if she could chat with her friend that she made in New Jersey online, “Not write papers and notes and it takes so long.” Since returning, she has met her on Moshi Monsters, another inane game that provides kids with a pleasing visual narrative around which to build connection. For my daughter, for whom English is a second language, these kinds of environments have helped her, both socially and in terms of language, a lot more than stilted interaction with many of the the close-minded, hyper-protected kids she meets in our immediate neighborhood.

Meanwhile, back home, my 10-year old son learned about geocaching at camp. Now hooked, he, his father, and I have gone geocaching in Charlottesville, apps in hand. It got us outdoors with something interesting to do that connected you to a stranger in the most benign and serendipitous kinds of ways. He hid his own geocaches on Grounds at UVa, and watched online as someone found it and commented. Now there is no spice jar, or piece of pipe, that escapes his voracious search for geocaches to create and plant around town. My son suffers from severe anxiety and a profound mood disorder so debilitating that he must attend a special school. This type of technology connection to the world is a saving grace for him, a source of confidence and mastery that he can pursue at his own pace. Not to mention, it gets him to read and write, learn about geo-coordinates, collaborate with and trust a grownup, and visit places he normally would be too anxious to visit. (We did have one scary incident on the way to a geocache location in the woods, but, I think we were hearing things 🙂

Sometimes it feels as though we grownups in the tech fields are so busy being fascinated by the technology that we can never imagine just how organic it can feel to our kids. And not in the “online learning” hamhanded way that many other grownups talk about computer-aided instruction, with the school-based labs and computer carts and standardized tests that have replaced bubble sheets. For my kids, the kind of connection they have from these technologies is nothing less than a presumption that they simply need to reach up and touch this networked world whenever they want. They don’t view things as devices, or interfaces. It’s more than a cool iPhone, it’s a window to a world they know is there, a biosphere of ideas woven throughout the visual biosphere, connecting our disconnected minds the way the earth connects its waterways, organically, but through the power of language and action.

While parenting magazines fret over “too much technology” and whether our kids brains are being re-wired, our kids are beyond that. Where some see alienation and danger, our kids feel a presumptive connection. Whatever jigamabobs and thingoes they have when they grow up will not matter. What will matter are the open ideas that flow this way and that, no longer encumbered by time and space, no longer hindered by geography. This world they enter is not a scary one at all, and those among us who are frightened, like my older brother, need not be so.

Are their brains being rewired? Yea, probably. But, if it means that at the age of 72 my son won’t fear the unknown and will have tasted the world in all its glory, and my daughter assumes a multiplicity of valid viewpoints and cultures outside of her geographic region, I’d say the rewiring may not be a bad thing.

Hard-core 12-step types have a snappy comeback when people accuse them of being brainwashed by recovery: “Who says my brain didn’t need washing?”


Web Professional Anger

Web Developer snarky tshirts.

Rockin the nastiness in 100% cotton.

I am trying to name an elephant in the room occupied by those of us who work on the web. A recent Twitter exchange with another web professional reminded me that if we are not careful, web professionals immerse ourselves so thoroughly in what we do on a day-to-day basis that we ignore the facts on the ground: people. Those darned people. You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em.

The web is one of those things that works best when it remains transparent: easy to create, easy to find, easy to use. The bulk of what web professionals do every day is with the intention of improving the experience for others. But, the reems of code written, and the subsequent exponential growth of the web, create an environment where so much is going on that, unless you ARE a web professional, you just don’t get it.

Then, the elephant enters. We grow angry, impatient, and sometimes downright nasty about people not getting it. They are no longer people, they are “users,” “clients,” name your euphemism. We want the world to go along for the ride, to keep up, stop complaining, realize that it’s a new world and either lead, follow, or get out of the way. There is humor all over devoted to making fun of that naive world of “users” that we have created. A personal favorite is here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell. A positively insanely funny episode of the IT Crowd called “The Internet” lays this out succinctly:

Then, there are the t-shirts (above).

A lot of this humor is legitimate. People do ask me to fix their home wireless network which has nothing to do with html, css, Photoshop, Illustrator, or any other of the technologies that I can actually negotiate as a web developer. The computer, to the average person, is a black box of magic, and any magician will do. As a community in the aggregate, web developers seem as incapable of grokking onto that reality as those pesky “users” are incapable of seeing that with respect to routers, wifi, and DNS servers, we, too are merely humble clients (who know enough to be dangerous, but not effective). This is one of the reasons why I find web developer conferences so uncomfortable: Half the equation is missing — that is, the actual people that use the tools and environments we are building. I realize that conferences are necessary to exchange information and to grow, but, I’m extremely socially uncomfortable at them. Faculty Academy is the only conference I’ve attended where the people (educators in specific) and the developers meet in a non-judgmental exchange and — surprise! — understanding ensues all around.

I’m not immune to this attitude. I laugh at this stuff, and I complain about “users.” But, it’s not something I hold as a badge of pride. Internally, I do wish that there were a way to exponentially grow compassion within the web development community and, closer to home, within myself.

One point of frustration for me is that I see so many sites not being updated. Since folks have a WordPress installation like no other in the world to work with, I was kind of hoping that they’d catch on to the whole blogging thing. Unfortunately, since we tweaked WordPress so well to make it a viable CMS, posts are not being used so much as pages, and this is starting to wreak havoc on information architecture, which, of course, makes me want to design a snarky t-shirt {“It’s a blogging platform, stupid!,” “Blog for once, will ya? It’s WordPress!”,”Gravity Forms much?” ). DON’T PEOPLE SEE ALL YOU CAN DO, FOR GOD’S SAKE??

So, with all deference to my legitimate frustrations posted earlier this year, the choir I preach to is not the audience with which I’m most frustrated, and for whom I sincerely want to make things better.

When I hear comments from those in my profession, mirroring back to me my own impatience, I begin to wonder if what we are doing is building a better world for others, or for our own aggrandizement, which makes me feel just a few yards shy of noble.

Adventures in Creating an Online Alter Ego

For DS106’s Camp Magic Macguffin semester, I have created an alter ego online so that I can engage in an alternate narrative that  does not bind me to my own online history. All of my online activity vis-a-vis DS106 need to appear to emanate from this person. Having managed permissions on large CMS systems in the past, including Sharepoint, I figured no problem, right? Well, there are no problems, except in my apparent inability to grok the ramifications of what I’m doing. But, that’s what online learning is about, trial, error, trial, error, tear out hair, more error. Eventual solution. Trial, error…

As I fix one thing to make sure that I’ve covered my tracks, another one has popped up. Here is a favorite scene from Abbott and Costello that haunts me during these kinds of experiences (unless YouTube stops me):

With that in mind, here are a few lessons I’m learning. By the way, I performed all of the following steps in the wrong order. What I’m hoping to tell you is how to do it right so you don’t experience what Lou is experiencing above:

1) Start with WordPress.com: You’ll want to create a new WordPress.com account. If you already have one, create a new one with an alternate email address and identity. In my case, I used my Yahoo! account email, and then forwarded that to my Gmail account. These days, by the way, Yahoo! charges you $20 per year to forward. I think they’ve caught on about this new Google thing…

2) Gravatar: Associate your alternate email address with your WordPress identity and upload a new gravatar.

3) Twitter: Create a new Twitter account, and use the same image you used for your gravatar.

4) Soundcloud and other services: Associate them with your Gravatar email account, and your Gravatar identity should carry through.

5) DS106: I needed to create an additional account on DS106 associated with my new identity.

6) Be Mindful: I have to keep mindful of logging into this and that with the right identity. I’ve slipped up more than once, and will no doubt continue to do so, which is part of the fun. The character is in service to the narrative, not to me, so if I mess up, it’s possible that this can be woven into the narrative in some way. I’m not worried, unless I apply for a job somewhere and someone asks me something like, “It says here that you are an unemployed music teacher with a drinking problem who is obsessed with guarding her footlocker. What do you think these experiences could help you bring to this position?”

I’m sure I’m still doing it wrong, and that there are other steps of which I need to be mindful. If you have any suggestions, or have other experiences with online identities that may help, I’m all ears.




Walkin’ the Talk

In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, part of my summer’s intention is to immerse myself into the social media culture that’s all the rage with the young folk. Nothing’s worse than a “we have to have better social media for the university” pronouncement from someone with a Blackberry who relies on Outlook for most of her online conversations. Not that I am describing myself, but due to a focus on the conventional meaning of what a web communications professional does, I’ve been only a hair’s breath away from that. I’ve dipped my toes into social media, but never dove in.

Email is where I have to live for the mechanics of my job. It’s not, however, an entirely habitable space when it comes to conveying larger ideas and for connecting beyond my comfort zone. I have found that traditional web conferences, which are rich in information about technology and trends, tend to not push creative boundaries beyond the immediate group of self-selected web developers, all talented and capable for sure, but not largely discussing what I’d like to be discussing, which is the notion of connecting people and ideas as the goal, with technology as a way to do that. When ideas about effective higher education web communications arise, they are frequently in service to marketing, which implies that the web is nothing more than a marketing space. I believe that this is deadly on the web, particularly the increasingly mobile web, and that universities who think they can formulate an effective social media strategy from a marketing perspective have essentially lost the battle before it is even fought.

Nothing smells more phony than marketing in social media, and the prospective student knows it. IMO. FWIW.

So what to do? Well, to me, Twitter is now feeling like a game of jump rope where the rope is turning, turning, turning and it’s up to ME to hop into the conversation. This past week, I’ve made a point of jumping in, getting back to blogging, creating an alter-ego presence on the web, and participating in conversations about stuff I’m wholly unqualified to converse about! I’m doing this in service to the joy that comes from the connected mind.

This is an entirely different mindset than my familar one which sits in the office and pours over information architecture and page layouts while answering email. Those are mechanical tasks that must be done, for sure, but done in the consciousness that what we create when we create a web presence for a university is not to pander, but to invite, not to preach, but to inspire, not to tell someone to “click here,” but be vulnerable enough to put out authentic experience and deeply held, half-baked ideas, trusting that someone new and interesting will want to jump in and play, simply out of the joy of discovery.

Gotta go check my email now.

Crossing the Academic – Administrative Blood-Brain Barrier.


I had a great conversation yesterday with a faculty member. She later read my recent blog post regarding the need for us to leap beyond our idea of the web as a technology component of our jobs, and to see it more as students see it, which is an integral part of their lives. The faculty member reminded me that administrative staff do not always have day-to-day contact with students in a way that develops relationships and nurtures understanding. Faculty have that opportunity, but staff may or may not depending on their position. As a result, it may be asking a lot for staff to keep up with what students know and do in their everyday lives, contributing to communicative silos and reliance on the way things have always been done. I know for myself that I have very little contact with students, and rely on my academic friends, and daily reading, to keep as up to date as I can.

Her response helped to kick me out of my judgmental state of mind and back into the truth for a lot of our administrative staff, many of whom manage the majority of web sites within the UMW public web presence. Now, where to go with that.

During my years at Lippincott in the 1990s, I learned a lot about effective communications. I learned that a communications plan is NOT an implementation plan — the latter is a component of the former. But, the way we have traditionally trained our web administrators is during the implementation phase. In short, they are taught how to use the tools to do a web page. First Netscape Composer, then Dreamweaver, Contribute, and now WordPress. Although we spent a good deal of time during the Dreamweaver days speaking to information architecture, the current notion of interactive design is so very new, and involves a higher level of sophistication than our training now embodies.

This is largely the result of a lack of time and resources. However, it also points to a myopia of mine, and a fear of mine, in this regard. First, the myopia.

There is so much work that goes into migrating a web system, many late nights, many lines of code, lots of photoshop, meetings, emails, and error de-bugging. My self-imposed silo says “of course everyone is thinking what I’m thinking about the potential of this.” Which, of course, who can? I’m not thinking about Banner course data either (although I know a few folks at the registrar who are consumed with that day in and day out). The point is, these folks have a job, and it’s not mine. So, strike one against me.

Now for the fear I have: Folks within their “silos” feel they command a strong understanding of their audiences, and I hesitate to be an interloper in that. However, as technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and mobile among our students, I fear that there is no administrative staff member who can possibly understand the way students today inhabit technology. I have trouble keeping up with DTLT who are probably the best at keeping up, and that’s THEIR ENTIRE JOB — to not only keep up, but push the edges.

Since 2001 (when I first took this job), the paradigm of the job description for a website administrator has been, essentially, a tacked-on duty in an EWP — we have had few (if any) employees in functional areas whose sole job it is to manage electronic communications with their audiences. Electronic communications involves so much more than it did then. Once confined to email and websites, it’s now one-to-many, many-to-many interaction in multiple directions.

So, how to raise my consciousness and the consciousness of those who need to effectively engage audiences and efficiently exchange information within the media that our students inhabit? Now that the WordPress-as-a-tool horse is out of the barn, how do we train those using it to not just have pretty sites (which is NOT an end goal), but to be masters of their information domain and key contact points for students?

Absent staffing specialists, I believe that this poses a new opportunity for training not on the tool, but on how to inhabit the online space. To that end, I propose the folllowing:

1) DS106: Every staff member who is a website administrator can be required to submit at least one DS106 assignment (which may get them addicted). This should count as a professional development activity. The advantage of this approach is that it costs the university nothing in person hours or resources. It’s our own online, hetergeneous community where people can opt in to join a community learning how to communicate within a networked, online environment. The experience will give staff members not only practice in the core principal of online storytelling, but make them part of a community of students who are using the web the way many students are and WILL use the web to create and express ideas. It makes the staff member PART of that community, instead of only reading about it in the Chronicle 🙂

2) Supervisors Should Require Department Web Administrators to attend Faculty Academy: This year, Faculty Academy is being held on the Fredericksburg campus. For staff members who don’t know about it, it’s an annual FREE conference at UMW that attracts the best-of-the-best speakers in the field of teaching and learning technologies. Although staff members are not in the business of teaching courses for credit, web administrators ARE in the business of teaching students all they need to know to negotiate their college careers during our time here. Techniques used by faculty and instructional technologists are very easily translated into the administrative environment. Indeed, the beginnings of higher education online environments were largely in libraries, so, there is ample history for this notion of cross-pollination. And where do you think we got the idea for WordPress in the first place (HINT: umwblogs.org). Register for Faculty Academy NOW — the deadline is May 11! This should count as a professional development activity.

3) Group Usability Sessions: Conducted by my office, groups of web administrators will be asked to perform a usability test from a student’s point of view on another department’s website and report anonymously. They will be given a series of interactions that a current student needs to perform at UMW, and to see how effectively that student can achieve their goal in a set period of time. This can be done online or in a lab together. I like the idea of doing it online so people can do it in their own time and not feel observed by others. We can then have an online session together to discuss what principles we learned from the exercise.

4) Group Mobile Usability Sessions: Brian Fling of pinch/zoom, an internationally-recognized mobile developer, emphasizes the importance of putting mobile front and center as the PRIMARY means by which we will get information in the future. As a result, the student’s experience of mobile is much more important to them than it may be to many of us, and this will only increase over time. Although we have a way to graphically adjust our sites for mobile using a plugin called WPTouch pro, and although there are more dynamic ways (called “responsive design“) to achieve layout flexibility it is not so simple as a layout change. Mobile is a different experience altogether. In a usability test that Fling did for a BBC site that was supposed to promote their programming, he observed this:

“Users felt that they were in control of their iPad, that it was THEIRS, and that this experience — you granted them access to their brains, their eyes, and they took that trust very seriously. So they said that if they were feeling that they were overly marketed to, that they would remove, close, or delete any sort of application that they perceived to be as marketing and advertising activity. We’d never seen users in a lab session feel so strongly about being marketed to.”

Testing each other’s sites on iPads and iPhones may elicit some interesting discussion about what our department home pages now do from a design perspective (much improved), and what they now don’t do from an interaction perspective (not so good). It’s a new metric for measuring success, and something we need to get a command of.

All this is to say that, to the extent that I am currently frustrated with our level of consciousness about online content, I am equally eager to help raise it (and my own along with it).

Photo: Scan depicting blood/brain barrier (by: Christopher Lewis)

But Can it Core a Apple?

One of my favorite things about infomercials is the way they define the problem that their particular product or service is designed to solve. Using some of the most hilarious bad-acting pantomimes, we see people ineptly struggling to do the most simple tasks. It’s like they occupy a parallel universe where no one can negotiate the perils of their own living room. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2jP3WSQpA_0[/youtube]

These people don’t exist in real life. If anyone WERE that inept, let alone that prone to overblown emoting while no one is watching, they’d need medical attention. It’s the people themselves in these ads that are the problem. They are largely not mindful, and turn their troubles with life outward on the circumstances surrounding them.

If they are tripping on things, why didn’t they pick them up in the first place? If their couch smells bad from the dog, why do they let the dog sit on the couch? If they can’t find their keys, why don’t they put them in the same place every day when they get home? You get the picture. The PRODUCT comes along to solve problems of their own making. Money is spent on some THING that, inevitably, will be as misused as all the other unmanageable things that surround them.

No product can solve a lack of mindfulness, responsibility, and acceptance. It has not been invented yet. There is no widget, lotion, toy, consultant, or app that will make up for the work we need to do ourselves.

I have come across this issue time and time again in over a decade of work in web design. We think the next web authoring tool, or content management tool, will instantly make us all communicators. But, it doesn’t. Even in our current WordPress environment, which is as scalable, extensible, and user-friendly as it gets, you can’t get anything out of it if you’re simply transferring old habits into a shiny new system. Sites that had their slide show set up in October, with a set of static links, that have not been changed or updated are the norm — even with the system we have set up which is “so easy a child can do it.”

We continue to ignore the fundamental problem: we need a sense of ownership and responsibility for managing and sharing content in the online world. It is no longer okay to laugh off managing your website with an “I’m no good with computers!” infomercial-before-ineptitude. There is no computer, and no application, that will turn such a mindset into a creative, engaged, communications machine. It isn’t ABOUT computers or technology or “the web” at all. It’s about valuing clear communications with the people you care about — when that’s a priority, it’s amazing how only a few simple tools can support that mindset.

But, still, we maintain this belief that some new app will take care of the lack of actual creative thoughtfulness, coordination, energy, and — dare I say it — CONTENT that is the issue.

I was at UMW for the Luminis (“EagleLink”) implementation. Then, the Sharepoint (“EagleNet”) implementation. Indeed, I was deeply involved in the development of the interface and content organization within both of these platforms. I’ve presided over the implementation of Dreamweaver, Contribute, and WordPress. So, I know a few things about the impact (or lack of it) made by “systems” on the way people actually communicate in the digital space.

After the Luminis implementation, where this supposedly “dynamic” platform became just an encumbrance on the way to Banner Self-Service, I learned that you can’t BUILD a network, build user input, from a central point. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. And they didn’t — except to get to Banner (which you could get to on the web already).

Sharepoint became Luminis on steroids. It was a hard sell, most of all to me. This is not to say that Sharepoint has no value — on the contrary, it can be a very useful collaboration tool. But, it’s only as good as the collaborators. If you are not invested in sharing information and collaborating in a digital space, applications like Sharepoint, or Luminis, or, dare I say, WordPress are USELESS.

I implore the decision-makers at higher education institutions to think before acquiring more expensive technologies before we solve the problem of our spotty engagement in communicating via the web and new media to our constituent groups. (NB: some notable exceptions in our WordPress community DO exist). University-wide communications is not a technology acquisition problem. It is not a technology training exercise. It’s not a “rally around the brand” initiative. It’s simply an ingrained understanding that we live, largely, online in terms of institutional communications. That simple understanding would have us all tweeting, facebooking, blogging, vlogging, texting, and using all sorts of freely available tools.

The shift has to be away from emulating how we did it in the flesh and in print to doing it altogether differently — not regarding the web as “technology,” but a palpably human space we all inhabit together with a new, engaging and challenging set of rules. I hate to tell you, but the prospective and current student are already there. People like Jim Groom, Alan Levine, Tim Owens, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush are already there. I fear most of us are still are living in our file cabinets, tri-fold brochures, memos, portals, meetings, training sessions, enterprise systems, and emails — all with “matching” web pages inside a system that can provide so very much more with resources we already have. And that is very, very unfortunate indeed.

In closing, to lighten things up a bit, below is the granddaddy of all infomercials, with Ed Norton providing one of the BEST “before” pantomimes in television history: