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 ūüôā

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:¬†¬†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)