Granite, seagulls and a surprisingly warm Aberdeen

IWMWIt’s a week since myself, Andy, Sam and Steve Daniels were up in Aberdeen for IWMW 2008. I’ve already blogged about my parallel workshop session, the BarCamp-style sessions and my thoughts about the lack of blogging web teams while Andy has posted his top five lists (#4 worst thing: listening to Alison’s talk).

Everything I’ve written so far is – how can I put this – all about Edge Hill, so I figured it was time to post something that people might actually be interested in!

IMG_3271Unleashing the Tribe

The last plenary talk of the conference was by Ewan McIntosh, a former teacher who now advises on social media in the public and eduction sectors. A video of the talk is available online and a here’s a slidecast for a similar presentation delivered a couple of months ago:

If you’ve got time, go watch one of the presentations, and keep an eye out for the quote from our very own Tanya Byron:

The technology itself is not transformative. It’s school, the pedagogy that is transformative.

Sorry, I’ve brought it back to talking about Edge Hill again!

Ewan’s insight into how students use social networks is really interesting. He says this of how universities attempting to get into Bebo/MySpace/Facebook:

it’s like a creepy treehouse [...] one where adults try to get youngsters to come in [...] learn with my on my Bebo page.

He questioned the need to a Phd when you can demonstrate your experience so easily, citing a video by Johnny Lee demonstrating a really cool way of creating 3D images on a TV using a Wii remote.

Bath Web Services have run a session on managing your professional identity in the past – Ewan referred to persistence on the web – showing someone’s public Facebook profile which is critical of their employer and reminding us that students are probably saying the same sort of thing about universities, lecturers, tutors, even web services! I think we have a role to play in raising the profile of these issues with staff and students and I’d hope we can look into offering something similar to Bath in the not-to-distant future.

Mobile phones are popular. Really popular. Are we doing enough to cater for users accessing our sites in this way? Probably not yet, but we’ll have to offer something to mobile users (and I’ve got some thoughts about what we should be doing… we just need to find some time to do it!). Another cool video clip, this time showing a flashmob in Grand Central Station.

There’s a few other nuggets of information along the way, but I’ll let you find them yourself. Ewan’s talk was definitely one of the highlights of the conference for me and well worth watching.

IMG_3250Look Who’s Talking Now…

It would be amiss of me not to mention Alison Wildish’s plenary session. Once again, the video is online so you can see the presentation in full if you wish. At last year’s IWMW, Alison’s talk developed quite a lot of buzz around the work we’d done at Edge Hill (sorry, all about us again!) so the pressure was on to deliver again.

Instead of following up with more about her views on web services (personalisation, web 2.0, user generated content, blah, blah!), Alison spoke about the move to Bath and the differences to Edge Hill. There seemed to be some feedback last year that Edge Hill had it “easy” and that big/old/research universities have a whole different set of challenges that we simply didn’t have to face. Would she be eating her words now?

It was very interesting to see the comparisons and in many ways we do have it easy! The links between IT Services and Marketing, the focus on the student, and the freedom that we have to develop across web services is great! In other institutions where web services are far more decentralised it can be difficult to ensure high quality and consistency across the site.

The overall impression I got was more positive than you might otherwise assume. Once the commitment is there to manage web services more effectively it becomes possible to start developing all the cool stuff that the web has been promising for the last couple of years. We, I believe, are in that position so the task it to keep delivering!

Ian Forrester on Backstage

Last night I went down to my second GeekUp meet at 3345 Parr Street in Liverpool. If you don’t know what GeekUp is, here’s a quote from the website:

GeekUp is a community of web designers, web developers, and other tech-minded folk from the North West. Our socials take place once a month in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Sheffield they are always a lively place to share ideas and spread a little knowledge.

Ian Forrester.  Creative Commons licenced by Gavin BellThere’s usually a couple of talks before moving to the bar for chat and beer and this month’s talk was by Ian Forrester, the man behind backstage.bbc.co.uk.

Backstage is a community built around data made available by the BBC. It encourages the public to make use of the data for cool stuff and highlights what the Beeb is offering. I’m not going to go into all the prototypes which have come out of backstage or list the feeds and APIs they advertise – you can find that out from the website – but there’s other interesting things going on as well!

Since backstage started, it’s focus has been on feeds and APIs but that seems to be changing now. They’ll soon be starting a fortnightly online show featuring interviews with the tech community, introducing the work people are doing and explaining the web in a bit more detail than BBC Webwise. This will be done on a shoestring, but with help from other areas of the BBC (such as Click) they hope to maintain high production standards.

At a slightly larger scale, backstage are joining up with IT Conversations to record speakers at UK based conferences. Traditionally there’s been a notable US-bias towards this kind of material so it will be great to see a bit more variety to the speakers.

The final thing (that I’ll talk about) is the support backstage and Ian himself are giving for tech events. While living in London, Ian organised BarCamps, GeekDinners and supported dozens of events. With his move to Manchester, he’ll be shifting some of his attention to what the North can offer. There was discussion of starting GeekDinners in Manchester (not as a direct competitor to GeekUp, it should be noted) and other web/tech events in the North are getting backstage support and sponsorship.

So a very interesting and informative GeekUp Liverpool this month, and very different to the last one I attended. There’s a great community of web developers and designers in and around Liverpool and GeekUp can play an important part in bringing people together so I’d encourage anyone with an interest in the web professionally (or even just a strong interest in technology) to pop along to see what it’s all about.

Blogging web teams

We’ve been blogging in the web team for over a year now and it’s become another part of the work I do but some conversations I had at IWMW 2008 got me thinking about the wider Higher Education Community.

Blogging web teams are rare. I suspect you could count them on one hand:

There’s a larger number of individuals who work in web teams who maintain a blog – Gareth Saunders (St Andrews), Matthew Bull (Kent), Michael Webb (Newport) for example – but the purpose of those is somewhat different so I’ll leave them to one side for now.

So back to web team blogging! When I asked people why they don’t have a blog there were a couple of reasons that came up regularly. One was that they’re not used to writing like a blogger and would find it hard to come up with the right type of posts. I can understand that, but there’s no one single type of blog post – variety is the spice of life – and there’s value in short posts, maybe just some links to cool websites or embedding a video.

The other main reason given by people for not blogging is that they don’t have time and I’m less convinced by this argument. Blogging has lots of uses both for the individual and team, and for the wider community both inside and outside a University.

Communicating what you’re doing. One of the best uses of a blog is to talk about what you’re doing within the Web Services team. Informing colleagues of current projects, changes to sites, even reporting on problems that have happened to the website keeps them in the loop and it’s less likely to be a surprise at the end of the day. A blog can complement and support other methods of communication. Many IT Services (or Marketing, or Communications, or wherever-you-are) departments have a regular (if not necessarily frequent) newsletter and often blog posts can be adapted for use there.

Personal Development. Universities are big on staff development and a blog is a great way of sharing knowledge with colleagues and turning some of your ideas into a more concrete form. Social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us can help here by making it really quick and easy to post links to useful resources to a blog.

Community Engagement. Most – if not all – web teams rely on the wider non-highered community to support the work they do. Whether it be a simple Google search to find out what’s screwing your CSS design or plugins for your web framework, the web is full of people willing to help! While consuming this is great, you can get more out of it by actively engaging in the community. At Edge Hill, we use the symfony web framework and it has a great community of bloggers and developers built around it. Part of the community is a blog aggregator so whenever we post an entry tagged symfony it gets sent to the symfony website as well. By contributing back to the community we get much more out of it.

Practice what you preach. For years, many web teams have been promoting the use of blogs within our institutions but how can we do this with any authority unless we engage ourselves? Blogs are now an important tool for researchers, marketing, applicant communications and within a teaching environment and web teams need to be able to advise on the systems and services available and prepare themselves for the demands that are coming from colleagues. If we don’t, then they will go elsewhere for advice and service provision with the potential risks that involves.

Networking with peers. We have the IWMW, some regions have additional regular meet ups of web folks, but often this can be a lonely game. JISCMAIL’s Web-Support and Website-Info-Mgt are useful, but they only go so far. Blogs can open up the highered web community by allowing us to share our experiences on a more regular basis. One of the joys of working in this industry is how willing to share people are and there’s no reason that should be restricted to just a couple of times per year. Together with the suggestion from Alison Wildish for an area to share project ideas and increase visibility between institutions, blogs can really help develop the community beyond the key events.

I’m in danger of this starting to sound like a broken record, so I’ll leave it there. If I’ve missed anyone out from the lists of blogging departments or web developers then please post a comment and I’ll be sure to check you out. If you think I’m talking rubbish, then I’d be really interested to hear about the challenges you think you’d face blogging your web team.

Updates – I’ll add extra blogs below:

IWMW 2008 – a 3ish day blur

For the last few days, I’ve had the pleasure to attend the Institutional Web Management Workshop in Aberdeen with Mike, Sam and Steve. Aside from registration, the event seemed to just fly by, so until I can focus on specific events, here’s a few, hazy, memories.

The 5 Best Things

  1. Ewan McIntosh‘s Unleashing the Tribe keynote speech about social media.
  2. Mike Ellis‘s grounding in thinking about, approaching and doing mashups mostly using Yahoo Pipes.
  3. Meeting such a nice, friendly bunch of people who care about what they do.
  4. The “High Street” on which sits the Machar Bar and the Auld Toon Cafe which sells the most wondeful minced beef pies and chelsea buns you ever tasted.
  5. Experiencing barcamp (if only on a small scale) for the first time, and enjoying every minute of it.

The 5 Worst Things (nothing was really bad)

  1. Stalag luft Hillhead
  2. The drive.
  3. It took me three months to lose about 4 kilos, it took me 3 days, to find them again.
  4. Listening to Alison’s talk and regretting not having worked for her for very long.
  5. As good as the song was, its an absolute travesty that the live train times application from Dawn Petherick, Web Services Manager, University of Birmingham didn’t win first prize in the innovation competition (and I told her so too).

5 (nice) surprisesSunny

  1. Sunshine (even though we were inside most of the time).
  2. Learning doric, the official (unstoppable) language of Aberdeen, even though I never met anyone who spoke it.
  3. I can still run 5 miles+, even with a bit of a hangover….just.
  4. Edge Hill’s events timeline might be considered a “mashup” by some.
  5. Discovering I know a little more than I sometimes give myself credit for.

I know that Mike was threatening to expose the lack of institutional blogging, so I hereby pledge to blog … a bit more than I used to, well every little helps…

10ish five-minute ways to improve your website

IWMWThere’s some speakers to do the conference circuit who recycle the same old material each time they present and if I’m not careful I could turn into one of them! At this year’s IWMW, they held a “BarCamp” session. If you’re already familiar with BarCamps then don’t get too excited as it wasn’t a proper one, but it stole elements of the unconference concept to provide a forum for anyone attending the workshop to get up and talk about something that interests them. The organisers converted one of the 45 minute discussion group sessions into two 20 minute slots and provided nine rooms of various sizes to use.

Since I suggested it, I figured I should support it and put myself down for a session. I was busy preparing for my main parallel session so I didn’t have time to think of anything new, so I recycled my BarCamp North East session and delivered that. In Newcastle I only had a few people turn up so I was very pleased to see the room packed with about 30 people this time (although that included three from Edge Hill, apparently there to give me “moral support”).

I came up with the idea for the presentation after realising there were some really easy things that I’ve added to the site that not many other Universities seem to do. [I should add that I'm not saying we were first or unique with any of the suggestions, just that they're not all "obvious"]. They include things like adding a link tag to your homepage so that the RSS feeds you provide can be easily discovered and wrapping your page footer in an hCard microformat.

It’s pleasing to note that the feed autodiscovery suggestion has got quite a lot of attention. A couple of weeks ago Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus, UKOLN) highlighted the that few Scottish universities were doing this and having already delivered my session at BarCamp North East I wasn’t too surprised, but one of the innovation competition entries showed autodiscovery is quite rare across UK HEIs. Tony Hirst explains the system on OUseful.info then check out the full name-and-shame list.

Edge Hill comes out fine for the feeds we offer on the homepage with news, events and job vacancies listed. There’s a few HEIs who offer other feeds – open days could be useful (and we have a feed available for it through a tag on the events system) – but the one that caught my eye was the University of Warwick’s recent changes feed which allows you to subscribe to find out when the homepage changes. Better still, they have this for every page in their CMS. Where this falls down is when feed readers like Google Reader just take the first feed in the page from those available through autodiscovery thus subscribing you to the recent changes feed instead of the more useful news feed.

You can see the ideas towards the end of my parallel workshop session slides (where I also went through the list) – skip to slide 41 unless you want to read about some of the “stuff what we’re doing at Edge Hill University“!

The other BarCamp session I went to was about Microsoft’s hosted student email solution, live@edu. A few institutions in the UK are in the final stages of deployment – Aberdeen already have some accounts live. Some aspects of Microsoft’s solution seem a bit less slick than Google’s while I was impressed with it’s potential for integrating with other Microsoft systems.

I really enjoyed the experience of presenting and attending the BarCamp sessions and I’d love to see them extended. My personal view would be to scrap the discussion groups, merge them into a solid block – say 2 hours in the afternoon of day two – and make the types of session clearer, whether they’re technical vs marketing or presentation vs discussion.

Other people talking about the BarCamp sessions:

  • Jeremy Speller: “I like the BarCamp idea – quite a lot of pressure to pack interesting stuff in in 15-20 minutes – but I think the format worked well.”

Stuff what we’re doing at Edge Hill University

IWMWA few months ago, the call for submissions for IWMW went out and at the last minute I sent off my idea for a parallel workshop session, “Stuff what we’re doing at Edge Hill University”. I must admit I didn’t really have much idea at the time what I thought I’d talk about other than looking at a few of the sites we’ve developed over the last year and shamelessly use it as a way of finding out what other people are doing in those areas.

I covered applicant communications with Hi, the GO portal and ranted a little about the adoption or otherwise of Content Management Systems. I had about 20 participants in the session and I’m pretty happy with how it went. It was particularly interesting to hear about some of the different ways that Universities are doing applicant communications – information was coming from a range of sources and it’s being integrated into sites in a variety of ways.

My slides are online on SlideShare and embedded below. The last part of the presentation “10ish five-minute ways to improve your website” was repeated for my BarCamp session but I’ll cover that in another post.

Update: a few people have mentioned my session:

  • Matthew Bull: “They seem to be doing a lot of good healthy web 2.0 stuff there, and seem to have been given a lot of freedom in what they do.”
  • Jeremy Speller: “An interactive session – it’s buzzword bingo!!” – my slides are effectively just headings so Jeremy’s notes may fill in some of the gaps for you!

IWMW 2008

IWMWOver a month since the last post on the blog – not good! Well this week we’ll make up for it as myself, Sam, Andy and Steve D head North to Aberdeen for the Institutional Web Management Workshop.

This annual event allows those involved in the provision of web services in Higher and Further Education institutions to get together, share case studies and hear talks from a wide variety of speakers and take part in workshop sessions. I went to last year’s IWMW in York and found it very useful. Myself and Alison blogged about some of the sessions and this time I’m hoping with more of us up there we’ll be able to share even more of our experiences.

If you’re interested in being part of the conference from afar, then the website shows how you can follow using the live blog. I imagine a number of people will be twittering heavily using #iwmw2008 to mark out tweets. Use the new search.twitter service (Twitter recently bought Summize) to keep track of the conversation

Looking through the schedule, there’s a number of sessions I’m especially looking forward to. Alison Wildish (formerly of this parish) is going to be reflecting on the differences between Edge Hill and Bath and whether any of her views (which caused quite a storm at York) have changed with the move. Helen Aspell’s talk seems to have changed at the last minute but will be replaced by a number of interesting speakers. Assuming I’ve got my choice of workshop session, I’ll be going to Paul Boag’s Battling Bureaucracy.

I didn’t get a choice for the other Workshop session because I submitted a proposal of my own so I’ll be busy with that! I’ve just put the finishing touches to the content of “Stuff what we’re doing at Edge Hill University“. I’m hoping to get lots of audience participation to get ideas from them as well as sharing some of the things we’ve been working on here. I’m glad to be getting it out of the way on the first day – I’ll report back (with slides) once it’s all over.

That’s all for now. Check back for some semi-live blogging. I’ll be taking a spare laptop so I don’t repeat the problems from SOLSTICE Conference!