Entries Tagged 'social media' ↓

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?”


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.

DS106 and Tracdat: Perfect Together

Constant back and forth between detail and strategy is one of the things that make my job challenging. I feel most grateful that I have Curtiss Grymala and Pam Lowery to count on for a lot of the deveIlopment and user training work. This allows me to focus more on strategic planning, trends research, testing, meetings (and meetings and meetings), and even some experimentation during the day. Which isn’t to say that I don’t do my own fair amount of user support (I really love the folks at UMW so it’s not a problem), content management, coding, image editing, and the like. It’s just no longer the main thrust of what I do on a day-to-day basis.

The balance between creating tangible product and advancing intangible ideas is a line I am uncomfortable straddling. Last year, immersed in the implementation of a new website, there was no time to think of such luxuries as strategic planning for the Web. The past year I’ve been getting my sea legs with “well, we’ve got the site, now what?”

Enter Tracdat, our institution’s technology tool for assessment and reporting of each administrative and academic area’s activities throughout the year. The past few days, I’ve immersed myself in the narrative of what we planned and what we did and what we have to do. Gathering documents and screenshots together, I’ve tried to represent an accurate picture of what we hoped to accomplish, and what we have accomplished this past year. It’s an anxiety-producing exercise for me.

When Tracdat was getting me down, I switched over to DS106, and my alter ego. There were the intermittent tweets as my alter ego, and tweets as me. Mid-morning, I attended a Google Hangout in full character costume (wig, sweatband, sunglasses), listening to the brilliant Bryan Alexander actually saw fit to respond to one of my questions (what a privilege), horsing around with students, online educators, and assorted Camp Magic MacGuffin aficionados. Pure chaos of the stealthily productive variety.

Following the 90 minute online discussion, I removed the wig and returned to Tracdat. At about 4 pm, after picking up my daughter at school, I went outside and took a photo for the daily create, uploading it to Flickr. Then, I went back and finished up not only Tracdat, but my IE Report for the year (a summary for the Board of Visitors about what happened this year, and what we recommend for next year).

I submitted my final Tracdat report at the end of the day and received a rating of “Awesome!” from our institutional research person. (To the extent that a coherent report in an institutional assessment tool can be considered an accomplishment, well, that’s an argument for another day. Mastering the mundane realities of employment are not so sexy as nailing that final philosophy paper, but it’ll have to do for now.)

I have to admit that in the past couple of years, I’ve watched DS106 from the sidelines, wondering what the heck Jim Groom in a bald wig had to do with higher education. I began to make a connection yesterday between what it means to be a liberal arts institution and the core mission of enabling students to be able to think, a rare skill in our supposedly skill-obsessed world. DS106 appears to require that I develop a nimbleness needed to bounce among the array of digital and creative possibilities in service to advancing coherent ideas.

That would put Jim Groom in a bald wig right in the crosshairs of our institution’s mission of “providing a superior education that inspires and enables our students to make positive changes in the world.”

What a logo that would be.

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.