Author Archives: Alison Wildish

Vacancy: Head of Web Services

I will be leaving Edge Hill in the New Year to take up the position of University Web Manager at the University of Bath and as a result a vacancy has arisen for a new Head of Web Services at Edge Hill.

Full details can be found on our website however I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some key facts about the position and provide some background.

In the last twelve months it’s fair to say Edge Hill’s Web Services team has had some good press. The Hi applicant site was a huge success (soon to be featured in UCISA’s Best Practice Guide for Communicating with Users) as was the Go portal developments (designed for our students). We’ve also been talked about in HE Web circles and peers are interested in our vision and approach.

More exciting projects are imminent. The Corporate Website is currently getting a re-vamp to ensure we utilise new technologies to communicate key messages to our prospective students and we’re building in more functionality to key applications such as the eProspectus (course search) and News and Events.

So there is a lot going on and the successful applicant will get to work on a variety of exciting projects and with a talented and committed Web Services team.

I have been incredibly proud to have worked at Edge Hill University and seen it’s growth and success over the last few years and I look forward to hearing of it’s continued success in the future.

If you’re interested please don’t hesitate to contact me for an informal discussion on 01695 584780 or email alison.wildish@edgehill.ac.uk.

Less buzzwords, more content

We’re very open about our web developments and always welcome feedback, particularly from our users, but we are naturally disappointed when we hear we’re not giving people what we want.

We arrived at the office this morning to the following comment on my blog post ‘Where to stop?!’ from an anonymous user:

Zzzzzzz.

Less buzzwords, more content. Give us something we can use; not look at. We’re (students) not bothered about blogs. We don’t care about tech news. We can get that from more important places. This is a university web site. Give us university content. Live access to our files in a decent way. E-mail from POP or ATOM. RSS feeds of our coursework updates and changes. Loose the Blackboard and Web CT and start giving us information that we need. We’re not looking at it, we’re using it.

Whilst the comment doesn’t explicity reference Go (our student portal) I assume that’s what it relates to and in response (as buzzword-less as I can make it) I’d like to highlight the following.

The Go portal is not a finished product/service indeed non of our Web Services are. Once we put something in the public domain we seek feedback from our users and we continually build/adapt/enhance it to ensure it’s doing what YOU want. University blogs are fairly new for us and at present we only have a number of bloggers within the community – so whilst the usefulness of these might not seem apparent right now the more our community grows the more interesting they’ll be for a wider group of people. In direct response to the user who added the comment I’d also like to add that you may say students aren’t interested in blogs – but then you did just read and comment on one! 😉

I completely take the point about more university content and can confirm this is what we are striving to add. There are plans to pull in feeds from WebCT/Blackboard and even direct from the Student Record System but these are third party systems so understandably adapting these to be accessible in the same way as our university resources is a little more time consuming – bear with us. New features will be added all the time. The overall aim of our services is to make everything more accessible and easier for you and not just within the Go portal we’ve developed. Longer term aims are to have our content pushed out so that our users can decided how/where they access it from. Again we’re working on these things so keep an eye on this blog to see where we’re at.

All of that said we are confident we are providing some great features already. The new version of Go is due to be rolled out fully later this month and it’ll give all students easier access to Mail, File Storage, Discussion, Community, Library and WebCT/Blackboard. Performing Arts students are already piloting new services which give them a bespoke (course specific) area which allows them to submit assignments, get module updates and notifications about their course. I would argue that the services we’re offering are purely about content and we look forward to building on them in the future.

Fear of Facebook?!

I had an interesting discussion with Brian Kelly (from UKOLN) earlier and he alerted me to an article in The Independent from last week entitled “Networking sites: Professors – keep out“.

As I will be speaking at the forthcoming “Exploiting The Potential Of Blogs And Social Networks” event next month I was interested to see what all the fuss was about so I read with interest.

The article highlighted a number of perceived issues with University staff getting involved in social networks. However I tend to disagree with the majority of them!

Last year we launched the Hi – Applicant website. It’s not ‘a Facebook’ but it does have features which allow applicants to chat (unmoderated!) to each other, view others profiles and form communities. Our staff got involved in answering queries (both formerly and informerly) in topics ranging from ‘am I entitled to a bursary’ to ‘what’s your favourite soup’ and we didn’t witness a revolt as many would expect. Why?! Well I believe it’s because we were open about University life, we gave applicants the freedom to discuss what they liked, how they liked and when they liked. We encouraged them to ‘be a community’ and it worked well for us.

I view Facebook in the same way. I don’t think we should be telling people to use it but I don’t believe we should discourage it’s use either. Yes some students may be outraged that their lecturer ‘be-friended’ them but others may think it’s pretty cool to be able to see a ‘real life’ side of the person who’s teaching them. It’s all down to individuals preferences and Facebook really does mean you can pick and choose. You don’t have to accept a ‘friend’ invitation, nor do you have to join a group but the fact is you can if you want to.

I do wonder why there is such a perceived fear of Facebook. I even struggle with the issue some people have with using it to store information. I wouldn’t advocate using it store all your files and photos but if it’s a medium to share copies of these then great. If Facebook want to claim the IPR on the copy of the information you put on their site – no problem. I can do what I want with my ‘original’ copy so I don’t have an issue.

Facebook is great because it’s evolved. It’s not a prescriptive site. It has developed the way the users have wanted it to and so why worry so much about how our students are engaging with it?! If they are then cool. Let’s get in their and do some stuff too but if not then we’ve plenty of other channels to go on.

I’d never advocate a Facebook (or any other social networking site) route for all communications or learning but as a complement to everything else I am prepared to Feel the Fear but do it anyway…

Where to stop?!

I’m currently working on some project plans for our website. We have undertaken a project, along with Corporate Marketing, to bring together all of our communications under the same umbrella (same design, theme etc). In theory the concept is great, we’ll be working with some great creatives and it gives us an opportunity to really look at our communications and what we want from them. In practice however it’s difficult to know where we should stop.

Alongside the creative developments we’ll be using the opportunity to do a lot of development work on the site; re-developing our eProspectus, news facility and embedding some of the Hi features into the Prospective Student area but in terms of what we ‘could’ do that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The website is an ever moving target. I don’t believe we ever feel that we have completed a job. The launch of the site is really the beginning of it’s life and we need to be constantly switched on to ensure it is doing it’s job correctly which is to inform and engage our users.

The possibilities for the Edge Hill site are endless. The success of Hi has taught us many lessons about the positive way in which less formal communications are recieved. We know from Go feedback that the personalisation and customisation aspects are of benefit and so we really want to embed the lessons learnt into all new development projects. However the project needs a plan and the team need targets so a line must be drawn somewhere.

So for now we’ll concentrate on our Prospective Students – getting them to the right information as quickly as possible and ensuring they engage with the content and come back! So back to the plan…

Work with us…

We are currently looking for a Web Applications Developer to join our team.

Full details about the post can be found on our website but I just wanted to add a few words about Web Services and where we are going.

Why join us?

At Edge Hill we’ve taken an innovative approach to Web Communications and our sites reflect this. The Hi Applicant Community website demonstrates our use of web 2.0 technologies and our commitment to opening up communication with our users and keeping informaton clear and simple.

We’re also committed to developing services based on user requirements and our Go portal (to be re-launched later this month) reflects this. Students (and staff) will control the information in their own portal based on user preferences.

Why do we want you?

Our applications team is growing. Under the leadership of the Web Applications Project Manager, Mike Nolan, the team will be re-developing our corporate website in coming months to create a much more functional and usable interface for our users. Building on from our experiences with the Hi site we want to ensure that we can serve information to the user dynamically and position our website as the best in the sector.

We are looking for a strong, creative developer to work on these projects to ensure we can meet our targets. Our projects are creative and innovative – we are quick to adapt and flexible enough to change when required – we want someone who can work with us in this fast paced environment.

Why Edge Hill?

We’re the fastest growing University in the Country. We are flexible and innovative and when it comes to the web we’re doing some really exciting stuff. We’re a growing team and we have a clear vision of where we want to be.

If this sounds interesting to you then read the job description or contact me for further information.

Alison Wildish, Head of Web Services – alison.wildish@edgehill.ac.uk

Case Conference Presentation

In July I delivered a presentation at the IWMW in York entitled “Let the students do the talking…” and yesterday I travelled to Edinburgh to deliver a varient of this at the annual CASE Conference.

I was slightly anxious about telling Marketing and PR people to put everything in the hands of the students but was delighted at the positive response I had to what I had to say.

After speaking with colleagues who attended the full event it seems the Web 2.0 buzz has well and truly captured the imagination of those in the Marketing and PR world and people do seem read and willing to embrace the online trends and work with them.

I believe my slides will be available on the CASE Conference website shortly but for anyone who wishes to see them they’re on slideshare too.

One thing that I have taken away from both conferences is that our ‘hybrid’ approach to a Web Service (with my own role informally split between IT Services and Corporate Marketing) is quite unique but it’s really worked for us and has allowed us to develop services from different perspectives.

Honesty is the best policy…

Earlier this year we launched a website to allow our applicants to talk to each other and our current students. The idea behind it was to create a virtual community of applicants and to allow real students to answer questions about life at Edge Hill. The site is public but only applicants and/or students can contribute. The site we call ‘Hi’ has been a success for us. It’s given us a medium to update applicants with key information about joining us and for students to answer questions/queries directly. It’s not edited, not censored… it’s for applicants to use as they wish.

Last week we saw an example of it doing what it does best! A-level results day and students flocking to the site ready to secure their place and make new friends. Great we thought – result!

Yet with the positives came the negatives. A thread started about students being declined on-campus accommodation… and it didn’t sound good. Clearly we had some disappointed students on our hands and that concerned us.

We’ve made no secret of the fact our applications have risen phenomenally since we acquired University title in 2006. Infact it’s something we’re incredibly proud of but an increase in student numbers has meant whilst we can accommodate most requests we cannot guarantee on-campus accommodation for all first years (see the EHU2020 website for details on our plans for the future). Although applicants are informed of this it’s naturally disappointing news when they find out they haven’t got a place. So they turned to the site – the site we gave them to use as they wish – and shared their frustrations…

However negatives can be turned to positives. We’ve been thrilled to see the site being pro-actively. Firstly from our perspective it’s been great. We’ve been able to respond to individuals quickly and provide them with much needed advice and support. We had already arranged House Hunting Workshops on-campus but by using the site we could inform applicants about these and allow them to use the ‘secure’ off-campus accommodation finder to look for rooms. We’ve also seem some really positive and pro-active applicants too. One particular applicant found a seven bedroom house and started a new thread to get room mates! So people who had never even met before could sort something out together – exactly what a community site should encourage.

In July I gave a presentation at the IWMW entitled “Let the students do the talking…” so you may wonder if I still feel they should?! And my response would be ‘absolutely’. No Uni is without its problems… we can’t pretend everything about starting University will be seamless and effortless but we can ensure we offer our applicants excellent support and the best way to understand what they need is by listening to them!

Controversy over YouTube videos

Last nights Panaroma on the BBC posed the question “should child ‘fight videos’ on the net be policed?”. The programme highlighted a growing trend for young people posting videos featuring violence and bullying on the site. Much of the content was horrific and disturbing and it is right we are asking questions about if this is appropriate content for the internet but should we be looking to companies/websites to police everything?

I’m not convinced.

User generated content sites are great because ‘we’ choose what we want to see. If collectively we all like something it gets a better ranking so more people can see it. It’s a great viral tool too so it’s easy to spread the word if something is ‘cool’. On the same token if we are offended or disgusted by something ‘we’ can ask for it be to removed. Simple.

Except it isn’t simple.

Like anything else these sites are open to abuse and in my view posting videos of children being bullied and beaten is clearly wrong. However I don’t necessarily think we should go all out and ask for sites to moderate everything… ‘we’ the users should be doing that. The problem here is so many young people like these videos, they are incredibly popular so the tools in place to remove these aren’t being used because young people enjoy them. Therein lies the problem.

The issue here is a ‘moral’ one. Why do young people film these things? Why do they want to see them?

It is a sad reflection on our society that this kind of violence is seen as entertainment to so many. The internet doesn’t make people behave in this way, it merely gives them a forum to share things. Rather than looking at sites to ‘censor’ this content surely we should be looking at ways to educate young people that filming a fight or bullying is morally wrong. Or be able to prosecute/discipline people who are involved.

The web doesn’t make society the way it is. It is merely a window into society. Without wanting to sound melodramatic it’s society we need to police (educate!) not the internet. Censoring the content won’t prevent it from happening.

The Facebook debate goes on…

Everywhere I turn people seem to be talking about Facebook (I know I’m very guilty of it). From a University perspective it’s creating a lot of debate – How much should we encourage it’s use? Should we be plugging into it? Can we reprimand our students if we find information we don’t like on it? And then there is the view ‘well it’s just a fad so why bother worrying about it’.

Just as we’re getting comfortable with the concept of Facebook and making decisions about how much we wish to engage with it… they change something else and we have a whole host of ‘new’ things to talk about.

Today the headline is Social site Facebook buys Parakey! Basically Facebook have bought an internet startup called Parakey which is causing TechCrunch to ask Could Facebook Become The Next Microsoft?.

So could it? Is that where it’s heading?

I’m not convinced it’ll be the next microsoft but in terms of huge growth – yes I can see it happening. The great thing about Facebook and it’s developer platform is that ‘we’ the users create most of it’s usefulness. We’re adding, linking, building applications and we’re making it more useful for ourselves. We have few constraints. If it doesn’t do something you want it to do then you can build your own application and plug it in.

It looks like Facebook’s aim and direction are clear. So how will we respond? Well I for one still maintain they are the site to watch… and watch I will.

Edge Hill innovators!

Mike and I have just returned from the Institutional Web Management Workshop in York during which he picked up second prize in an Innovation Competition! Congratulations Mike!

The Innovation Competition is a new feature of the workshop and I personally thought it was excellent. It gave us all a chance to see what ‘cool’ ideas other Universities could come up with and it gave the developers a chance to get ‘techy’.

Mike submitted three entries all of which can be seen on the UK Web Focus Blog run by Brian Kelly. Congratulations to Sebastian Rahtz who won first place for ‘Alternative course discovery using calendars and maps‘ and to Adrian, Claire, Joel, Brian, … for the most creative approach to the competition – Life On Sram!