PHP North West Conference Review

Dangerously close to going the whole of November without a blog post so I thought I’d catch up with a quick review of the PHP North West conference last weekend.

London has had a conference for a number of years so it was about time there was one up here so myself and Andy made the trip into Manchester to take part. The conference was organised by a few people from the PHPNW user group but it was better run than most “commercial” conferences I’ve been to.

Welcome Keynote: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) – Derick Rethans

I must admit I wasn’t too impressed by this. At times it came across as a bit of a rant towards certain technologies without going into details about when they might be of use. For example sIFR was shown with a buggy version of AdBlock where it didn’t show any headings – yes, potentially a problem but for some it may be worth the risk.

MySQL EXPLAIN Explained – Adrian Hardy

Very good session giving an overview of how to use the EXPLAIN command to find out what MySQL is doing and help optimise your queries.

Regular Expression Basics – Ciarán Walsh

Basic introduction to regexps. I’m still looking for a text editor that supports perl style regular expressions in a logical way – Notepad++ does very odd things with line endings.

Index and Search, options for PHP programmers – Zoe Slattery

I think some people were expecting more of an introduction on how to use Lucene to add a search engine into your site but I found it really interesting.  My two take-home points:

  • Lucene on Java + JIT is 50 times faster than Zend Lucene!
  • Java Lucene has a cool standard analyser – picks out things like email addresses and company names like “AT&T”

The Power of Refactoring – Stefan Koopmanschap

We should do more test.  Really.

Twittex: From idea to live in 7 days – Stuart Herbert

Following Twitter’s announcement that they’d be stopping SMS delivery of updates to UK users, Gradwell spent a week working on a system to fill the gap.  The result maybe wasn’t as popular as they’d hoped but the experience seemed invaluble.  It’s a lot like Bath Web Services’ Get Creative Week.

Panel Discussion: State of the community – Ivo Jansch, Steph Fox, Scott MacVicar and Felix De Vliegher

The conference ended with a panel discussion.  Maybe not of immediate relevant to the work we do but everything talked about with trickle through.

I’ll leave it at that.  Congratulations to the organisers on a great event.

Image by skoop.

A CASE in point

A week and a bit on from the CASE Europe Annual Conference 2008 in Brighton and I thought I’d give a summary of some of my thoughts both of the conference itself and my reflections on some of the issues raised.  First a round-up of CEAC08 activity from across the web:

It’s worth noting that the above people represent just five six out of around three hundred organisations present!

Where’s the technology?

I was genuinely surprised by how little certain technologies had been adopted.  Twitter was bring used by four or five people –  a few more if you include social uses – that’s around 1% of delegates.  I know microblogging is still in the “early adopter” phase, but still.

I saw no one using a laptop during a session.  This may be because it is often seen as rude, possibly because of the lack of power sockets in most rooms, or maybe because of the lack of wifi (more about that in a second!) but I’d have liked to have seen more people with them out.

The entire conference venue was covered by two commercial wifi providers – BT Openzone and iBHAN – charging between £10 and £15 per day for access.  I have a FON router at home (thanks to Paul Cheeseman!) and so in return for sharing my internet access, I get access to other users’ connections, and more importantly, I get free access to BT Openzone hotspots!  That’s the theory at least – in reality I was able to connect fine on Tuesday and Wednesday morning and then it stopped working without explanation.

This isn’t the solution though – I don’t expect everyone to go and buy FONs – what is needed is for the conference to arrange for free (or very cheap) wifi direct with the conference venue.  This would be a great thing to get sponsored by one of the exhibitors – far more useful than the four laptops someone had set up as the “internet cafe”!

There’s a place for web managers

One thing that came apparent when chatting to Alison Wildish was how few “web” people there were with a more traditional background.  While there were a number in areas like digital marketing and digital media there was an almost complete absence of the IWMW-crowd.  I’m not saying CEAC is for everyone – it’s not going to lead the way with new technologies – but that’s not the point. This conference can inform web managers about how the “advancement” professions can make use of new technologies and make sure they’re prepared for the demands on their services which are sure to come.

Web skills for mar-comms professionals

There were a few things that came up again and again in the sessions I attended.  Everyone running a web-related session felt obliged to give their recommendations for web tools to use:

  • Google Trends
  • Google Alerts
  • RSS Readers
  • AideRSS
  • Twitter: Not one that I heard anyone recommend really, in fact there were some slightly snide comments about it from some people, but I believe microblogging has a place in communications both many-to-many and institution-to-many.
  • “Web 2.0”: blogs, wikis, podcasts and all that jazz

I agree with Robyn’s sentiments from their podcast that some of this is stuff we already know, but certainly at Edge Hill we’ve still got a long way to go.  In Web Services we need to not just do it ourselves, but help other teams across the University to make the best use of web technologies.

Viadeo or Viadeon’t?

Viadeo was CEAC’s online social network presence.  Viadeo was one of the exhibitors and they provided n online community area as part of their site.  The process went something like this:

  1. Sign up for an account with Viadeo
  2. Go through complex profile setup procedure involving several unconnected pages
  3. Waste 10 minutes attempting to find CEAC community
  4. Eventually find group and sign up
  5. Search for a few people you suspect might be using the site
  6. Never go back again

Okay, maybe this is a little harsh, but I’m not sure Viadeo offers anything particularly exciting, the range of services which CEAC attendees are likely to use, or fits in well with anything that people are doing on the ground already.

Here’s three better ideas:

  1. Create a Facebook group for the more informal side of the conference.  People can post pictures, links, messages.  Heck, Ellie Lovell will even run it for you.
  2. Use LinkedIn for the serious stuff.  While I was writing my previous blog posts I searched for speakers to see what online presence they had.  Very few had blogs (disappointing, but that’s a post for another time!) but most had LinkedIn profiles.  People are happy to share these because it’s all about what they do professionally and not pictures of them down at the roller-disco on Friday night.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s also what’s happening in the real world.  Alumni teams are already looking at LinkedIn as a way to engage with the University so why not use it here as well?
  3. Finally, promote a microblogging system.  Twitter will do, or whatever else is popular this time next year!   The important part isn’t the name, but to encourage an active back-channel.

And on to 2009…

Next year’s CASE Europe Annual Conference is coming to Liverpool at the brand new BT Convention Centre. Details of the venue look fantastic and it’s certainly handier for me – no 6 hour train journeys!  Would I go again?  Yes, I think I would.  As far as we’ve come, in many ways we’re just beginning to realise the potential of the web for marketing the University, communicating with our stakeholders and improving the student experience and it’s important to stay in touch with what Corporate Marketing colleagues are
doing on the front line.

That’s all for my series of posts about CASE Europe Annual Conference 2008.  Thank you for reading (you have been reading, right?!) and maybe I’ll be back next time…

PHP North West Conference

phpnw08 PHP Conference 22/11/2008London has had a PHP conference running for a number of years – Andy and I attended the last one in February this year – but there’s not been anything up North so far. That’s all about to change with the creation of PHPNW and the announcement of the first (of many?!) PHP North West Conference to be held in the conference-centre-formally-known-as-GMEX (Manchester Central) on Saturday 22nd November.

Lorna Mitchell does a much better job of explaining it than I could:

Lorna Mitchell – PHP North West from oreillygmt on Vimeo.

Something that might be of interest to our students is that there will be a number of concessionary tickets available so keep an eye out on the conference website for when tickets are released.

I also popped into Manchester on Tuesday to go to the PHPNW meetup – a chance for PHP developers from across the region to get together and chat.  This time as well as a quick update about the conference, there was a short presentation about version control systems.  This is something we already do using subversion but it was interesting to see nontheless.

Anyway, it’s good to see the North West tech community continue to grow and I’m looking forward to going to PHP North West Conference 2008.

CASE Europe Annual Conference: Day 3

Day three of CEAC 2008 in Brighton…

Breakfast Roundtable: Web + Marketing = FutureAlison Wildish (University of Bath)

Alison guilted me into getting up at silly O’clock for her roundtable session. So I once again dragged myself across the city for breakfast and interesting conversation. Also at the session were Pamela Michael (Imperial College), David Poteet (New City Media), “Mister” Roy Bayfield (Edge Hill University) and someone whose name I didn’t catch from the University of Amsterdam. Trying to eat and think before 8am left no capacity to take notes but it was interesting to get alternative input into the kinds of discussions we have on a regular basis with a more tech-focused community. One thing to look up is Hyves, the most popular social networking site in the Netherlands.

Internet Search – the journey has only just started – Richard Jones (Yucca)

If search engines were at a school disco… Google would be the cool kid, Yahoo would be having a breakdown in the bathroom and MSN would still be trying to pick an outfit.

How users are using search:

  1. Wireless has released the computer from the study
  2. Many search instead of navigate (even for obvious things
  3. Users are using human phrasing more often (so write an FAQ section to get direct matches)
  4. Search length is increasing – from 2.4 words inn 2006 to 4.1 words in 2007
  5. Google search (with personalisation and history) is replacing bookmarks

Number four is pleasing to see and important for better targeting the “long tail” of organic search results.

Brain dump time:

  • Google are expanding – do you have a Google Earth stretegy?
  • Google Trends – add regional keywords
  • XML Sitemap – “shows Google there’s a strategy behind your site”
  • Paid search
    • Very technical but great for improving your English skills!
    • New to brand
    • No delay
    • Ad copy can be tailored
  • Google Quality Score: Keywords | Landing Page | Ad copy
  • Costs can fall over time with improving Quality Score
  • Run a test campaign to establish keywords
  • What keywords are competitors using (view HTML source)
  • Look for untapped slang/media terminology
  • Page titles
    • Include your own name
    • Tailor to individual titles
    • Not too long
    • Learn from PPC ad copy
  • Love the spider – consider a mega footer
  • Site architecture – ensure everything is 3-4 clicks away
  • Avoid multiple web addresses – 301 redirect
  • Resources
    • Google Alerts
    • Google Trends
    • Google Insights for Search
    • SEO for Firefox and rank checker
    • Yucca Blog – blatant self promotion 😉
  • The Future
    • Historical Search
    • Mobile / location
    • Question based
    • Long tail gets longer
    • Google product deep linking

Creating and delivering award-winning projects and campaignsRoy Bayfield (Edge Hill University), Amanda Gregory (Heist), Emma Leech (MMU)

I picked this session out because I was interested to know more about the process that goes on for awards like the CASE Circle of Excellence award that Hi recently won.

Roy started our with talking about some of the reasons for and against applying for awards:

  • Why not?
    • Time
    • Giving away your best ideas
    • Awards process is flawed?
  • Why do?
    • Good for business
    • Good for morale
    • Build team spirit, confidence, internal credibility
    • Sharpen practices
    • Create good habits – metrics, ROI, planning, process
  • What makes award winning project
    • Statistics and supporting evidence
    • Detailed planning
    • Brilliant creative
    • A great idea or a new slant
    • Good write up
    • Solid budgets with ROI evidence
    • An integrated approach

Amanda was clear about her input into the process:

Brown paper bags with cash in them are welcome

And on Heist submissions:

  • Based on SMART objectives
  • “If you follow the instructions you will be short-listed” – apparently this is a very important point
  • Give details of budget – not simply ” the project was within budget”
  • Strangest things affect judges – one prospectus smelt funny

The second half of the session was more practical – looking at some of the things MMU had done.  Emma also went through some of her experiences and the benefits applying for awards had brought her and her team.

My thoughts?  Seeing the results from winning the CASE Circle of Excellence award has highlighted some of the benefits and it was really interesting to see the process involved.  I wonder, however, whether the way web projects develop doesn’t necessarily fit in with what the judges are looking for.  How does “release early, release often” relate to budgets, ROI and an integrated approach?  I think it can, but maybe I won’t understand how until I’ve been through the process myself!

Harnessing technology to enhance your marketing and recruitment processes – Maggie Frantz (Hobsons)

After attending Rebecca Avery’s breakfast round table session I was in two minds about going to another session about the web by someone from Hobsons!  After deciding last minute to come to this one I joined just as Maggie was reeling off a load of statistics.  I asked for a copy of the slides so I may blog them in full, but for now, here’s some of them.  They’re about what applicants would do:

  • Would download a customised online prospectus
  • ~60% would customise a page
  • 63% would ccommunicate with a current student
  • 63% would read a student blog
  • 83% would read a faculty member blogs
  • 45% would subscribe to RSS feed (I’m really surprised this is so high)
  • 71% send instant message to college site
  • 82% respond to instant message inside a website (i.e. popup message inviting to chat)
  • 59% take a mobile call
  • 49% would like to receive an SMS mesage

The next page of my notes is frankly not particularly interesting… similar to much that I’d heard before during the week.

Skipping through them, we get onto how CRM can be used to help:

  • Enabling platform
  • Tailoring communications
  • Web portal
  • Interactive, customised experience
  • Underpin Web 2.0 activities
  • Address ROI concerns

This was backed up with a couple of examples from Liverpool and Aberdeen Universities.  Interesting to see how they’ve used Hobsons products.

Maggie’s final thoughts…

  1. Start with communications objectives and assess which tools appropriate
  2. Experiment with Web 2.0 tools
  3. Empower student ambassadors
  4. Fullscale CRM or at least a communications plan
  5. Address ROI question for Web 2.0

Is the brand-driven culture of the commercial sector appropriate to HE?
Sue Cunningham (University of Oxford), Paul Drake (University of Gloucestershire), Tracey Lancaster (University of Birmingham), Peter Slee (Northumbria University), Chaired by Martin Bojam (JWT Education)

Final session before the closing plenary was a panel debate on the level to which brand should be applied in HE.  I was impressed with Peter Slee’s arguments and two points about brand:

  • Have a clear brand proposition
  • How do you follow this up and deliver?

This to me seems to encompass the important aspects of what we can learn from the best of the commercial sector – being clear about what we offer that is different to others, and ensuring the best possible student experience, matching the expectations that we set.

To be honest, much of the discussion was too heavy for me after a few very long days and it was far too hot in the room.  The “brand is good” argument won the popular vote but I’m sure it’s not the last we’ll hear about the matter.

Closing Plenary: Leadership and team-building in a transcultural marketplace – J. Frank Brown (INSEAD)

Drawing the conference to a close was frankly one of the most obscure talks I’ve ever heard (and I watch TED!)  There were some interesting anecdotes, but even after listening to it and reading the abstract I’m not entirely sure what the final point was!

And that was that!  Well, not quite – there was the gala dinner to come and Mister Roy dutily collected the Gold award for Hi to much whooping and hollering…. but you don’t want to hear about that!

I’m hoping to write one more post summarising some of my thoughts and linking to other people’s comments about the conference, so if you’ve blogged, or tweeted (and not used #ceac08) or otherwised published, leave a comment and I’ll include you in the roundup.

CASE Europe Annual Conference: Day 2

Second day of CEAC 2008 in Brighton and it was an early start to walk a few miles across the city in time for the breakfast round tables at 7:45am!

I attended a session titled Technology for Higher Education run by Rebecca Avery from Hobsons. There were six of us and Rebecca had prepared a number of questions to form the basis of discussion. A number of examples of institutions using different types of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were given with everyone chipping in their own experiences. For my part I talked through the Hi applicant website and some of our other forays into “Web 2.0”. I attended another session on day three run by a representative of Hobsons so I’ll talk more about that later!

Why the student experience is unmanageable and what this means for marketingPeter Slee, Northumbria University

Great session covering the process of attempting to manage the student experience. He covered so much it’s hard to put it across, but I’ll do a notes dump:

  • Compared the decision process to that of choosing a gym:
    • Surroundings
    • Facilities
    • Staff (support, fitness programme)
    • Clientel
    • Cost – affordability and value for money
  • Most students have a pretty acurate view of support, what frustrates them is mismatch of support; e.g. VLE engagement, timetabling,
  • Three issues
    • Conflicting expectations
    • Conflicting motivations
    • Conflicting service levels: This is the easy one to address! (there’s no excuse for cancelled lectures, cardboard sandwiches, grumpy receptionists)
  • Who are their students? They’re not, local, working class, underachievers! They are 75% middle class, above average grades, and only 40% are local.
  • A chart was circulated showing what types of people deviate from the mean for drop-outs – some surprises, some not. Mature, international and clearing students more likely to drop out so this year they’ve not accepted anyone through clearing, but have accepted more “near misses” – someone who wants to come to the university with lower grades is better than someone who doesn’t but chooses through clearing.
  • Develop a sense of belonging: no college/hall means course is the centre of the community. No freshers week (instead apprentice year); every building has a learning hub; 2nd/3rd years act as learning mentors; attendance monitoring.
  • Friends
    • 9 students from across faculties and departments engage with applicants
    • Spaces within social networks
    • VIP web pages
    • Improved conversion rate
    • Lower drop out rate
    • Running for three years… yet this was the first I’d heard about it!

Listening to our users: how Imperial used “mental models” to guide their redesign – Pamela Michael, Imperial College and David Poteet, New City Media

  • Goals of redesign
    • Enhance reputation
    • Find information
    • Reflect the brand
  • Mental Model idea from Indi Young
  • 39 one-to-one interviews over a six week period
  • Research page features a tag cloud… but still not live… hold up at backend, still discussing statistical model
  • Search is really popular – Pamela didn’t know which search system they’re going for (not Google) but it does fancy stuff with publications
  • Oracle CMS
  • Internal blog (not launched until 6 months into project); user guide attached to payslips; banner on old website informing of change 2 weeks before live
  • Added Google Analytics to new site; track usage and show how homepage features drive traffic to other pages (1000% increase in some cases)
  • 65,000 visits per day

Turning MySpace into YourSpaceHotCourses

A couple of chaps from HotCourses, the makers of WhatUni and a few other websites spoke about the web. Brain dump time…

  • Don’t be swept up by the hype – got the impression he wasn’t a fan of Twitter!
  • 12% trust Facebook and YouTube compared to 62% of people who trust Amazon (I think this was in a particular market (16-18 year olds)
  • 37% of Year 12 and 59% of Year 13 students would be prepared to join a University group on Facebook.
  • WhatUni has a gadget allowing you to pull reviews into your site (Southampton may be doing this already)
  • Facebook groups:
    • Keep up to date
    • Content is king
    • Keep it visual
    • Be open – show students what they’ll be getting
    • Students would click a link on the University website to a Facebook page
  • Video: three types
    • Frivolous but of value
    • Students and departments
    • Dull but worthwhile

Branding Online: Engaging with Job seekers and Potential Students in a Digial World – Andrew Wilkinson, TMP Worldwide

Andrew’s useful take on employer branding talking first about how some of their clients had raised awareness online. RBS, KPMG and Yell created an area in SecondLife where potential recruits could come along, be matched to a suitable employer and engage with them. I’ll be up front – I’ve never “got” SecondLife – and I think as with many things, they gained more exposure from the fact they were first and featured on BBC News Online than people actually stumbling on them naturally.

Another innovative approach which I think has a bit more potential is in-game advertising. GCHQ placed adverts inside X-Box Live games which presumably helps target otherwise hard to reach audiences.

46% of people have accessed the internet over a mobile phone. This is possibly a little higher than I’d imagine and I’d be interested in knowing more about frequency of access and the types of activity they undertake. With products like the Apple iPhone gaining popularity this is clearly a growth area and “mobile” is on my to-do list for Edge Hill.

He then went through a bunch of information about how people search for jobs online, how people are more likely than in regular searches to page through results looking for brands they know. Very few universities place posts with online jobs sites. Those that do make very little use of extras such as buttons or adding their branding to pages. on the other hand is very popular but still very few universities take advantage of the extra branding that can be placed on job pages.

Jobs search sites aren’t the only way people look for jobs though. I was really interested to hear that people use Google directly and that through paid adverts you can quite effectively direct traffic to relevant jobs on your own website. I’ll be looking at the SEO of the jobs website to try to get more organic results for searches like “jobs ormskirk” too.

Andrew then went on to apply some of these thoughts to the area of student recruitment. He admitted himself that this was a new area for him but it was quite refreshing to hear someone cut through a lot of the complexity we build up.

Buzz, Brand and Budget – Helen Aspell, University of Southampton, without the chaps from Precedent

After missing her at IWMW 2008, I finally got to see one of Helen Aspell’s sessions! As is the trend these days, very little text on the slides so you’ll have to cope with my scrawled notes.

  • Web 2.0 is about people and gossip
  • Technorati, bloglines, blogpulse, google alerts to track not just your University but notable alumni and professors
  • WhatUni provides XML feeds
  • Not engaging with Facebook institutionally but they’re paying SU to do so, student ambassadors in that space as well
  • Flickr – School of Art but not corporate images
  • Select technologies through the SAFE matrix. Might work for them but I’m less convinced – bypasses the gut instinct that is often required
  • Hobsons Ask product, soon to make ratings visible on site and do some interesting stuff with tracking response satisfaction
  • 16 subscribers to news feed, would like to know what they’re using for that figure – mentioned bloglines but surely FeedBurner is more accurate?
  • When launching their new website they had a blog – 435 comments, many quite negative
  • Focus on what to measure rather than how
  • No common reporting metrics – MeasurementCamp
  • iSoton

And that was day two! Tune in next time for all the excitement of day three!

CASE Europe Annual Conference: Day 1

A leisurely walk from University of Brighton Pheonix Halls kicked off the first day of CEAC 2008. Check-in was painless and lunch was great before descending on the main hall for the opening plenary. Conference Chair Trisha King (Birkbeck College, University of London) welcomed before handing over to Juliette Pochin and James Morgan for a bit of a sing song.

The four tracks – fundraising, alumni, marketing and communications – then split with me following communications for the track plenary and the first session of the day. Tara Brabazon, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton spoke about why universities need to engage with the media. She’s a bit of a character, and the fact she presented using an OHP and a large ring-bound stack of cue cards was a sign of what was to come. Tara’s ten tips for academics engaging with the media was useful:

  1. Be clear about why you’re talking to the media
  2. Select media platform
  3. Write down sound bites
  4. DO a background check on journalists
  5. Use emal to answer questions wherever possible
  6. Listen to producers before going on air
  7. Don’t allow yourself to be ghosted… ever
  8. Be conscious of how the web works – local is not local
  9. Focus on building strong and reliable relations with great journalists
  10. Never speak out of your brief

All this was, of course, backed up by amusing anecdotes from her time spent in higher education in the UK and Australia.

Continuing in the communication track, I went to “Where’s our news going? Media is transforming and so are its audiences – the vision for the future of news” by Fran Unsworth, Head of Newsgathering at the BBC.

I’m a big fan of a lot of what the beeb does and it was very interesting to get an inside view of some of the challenges that face them. Fran’s talk was jam-packed with statistics like the fact that ITV’s News at Ten has dropped from 10 million to 2.7 million viewers in the last 20 years. Their own services have been affected too – the 6 O’Clock news has dropped from 8 million to 4.3 million viewers since 1990. Online sources have grown though with the web being the second most popular source after TV for the under 30s.

Engagement with the wider community was particularly interesting with questions being raised about political bloggers tendancy to mix fact with opinion (I think we’re looking at Guido Fawkes here). On the other hand the BBC are more willing than ever to feature “citizen journalist’s” photographs, video and commentary. I do wonder though, whether in the rush to be first with the pictures on screen, there is sufficient scrutiny of the reliability of these sources.

Finally for this session there was an interesting comment about the increasing willingness to put BBC content out through alternative sources such as Google, iTunes and YouTube. This is something which comes up time and again inside HE teams, but if Auntie is doing it, then there must be some merit to it!

The evening reception at an art gallery was brought alive by beach balls being thrown from the balcony onto the crowds below… followed shortly by the sound of glasses smashing to the crowd. I felt sorry for the staff chasing dashing around trying to sweep up the mess. Evil stare of the night was when I (only half jokingly) asked someone “so, what exactly is the point of fundraising?” We web folk are somewhat outnumbered so maybe that wasn’t the best idea!

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 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!

PHP London 2008

A belated writeup on last week’s PHP London Conference. Andy’s already written a post so I don’t feel too bad!

As it turned out we split the sessions so I’ll just cover those Andy’s not mentioned. First up was Stefan Esser‘s PHP Binary Analysis. It was looking at using complied PHP bytecode to debug and audit your code. Probably of more use to people doing detailed security audits but some interesting ideas that I’d like to look into when I get a bit more time.

After lunch Marcus Bointon presented Mail(); & Life after Mail(). He started early on by quoting a blog post from Hacked:

I Knew How To Validate An Email Address Until I Read The RFC

Anyone’s who’s ever tried to send email using PHP’s mail() function will know the lengths you go to to get things working. Even then you’re probably doing it wrong. The solution is to use a library to handle all the standards compliance for you, something that symfony provides through the PHPMailer library.

Marcus went through a bunch more libraries and compared some of the features they provide so it will be interesting to look into what’s best for our needs.

More interesting for me was finding out about return paths. This is what happens when an email bounces and with a bit of server side magic it is possible to handle errors better. It’s quite a complex task to do properly so I’m interested in a good hosted service which can be used for both one shot emails like user registrations for batch mailshots. Apparently there’s a few services out there but I’ve not seen any with a really good API.

Final session I went to alone was My Framework Is Better Than Yours? presented by Rob Allen, Toby Beresford and Ian P. Christian. Each gave a short presentation on their framework of choice – Zend, Code Igniter and symfony – followed by a panel discussion. It was clear that each has its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Zend is good for components to pick and choose which aspects of a framework you need. It can often be used with other frameworks too. This can also be a downside is they’re maybe not quite as integrated as other systems.
  • Code Igniter is lightweight and some might like that it runs under PHP4. Personally I think this is a disadvantage. Someone in the audience suggested there was a way of turning on HP5 mode but I can’t believe this does more than activates a few extra features. Coding for PHP5 is an attitude shift and I don’t see how they’ve done this while retaining compatibility.
  • symfony, well I knew a bit about that already 😉 Pookey did a pretty good job of presenting it.

During the panel discussion there was a comment about the criminal use of the term MVC to describe the frameworks. It got the attention of the room and there’s quite a lot of talk about this on the interweb. My view is that it doesn’t really matter whether a framework sticks rigidly to some design pattern if it provides the features that you need. I’m interested in getting things done, not in the theory of system design.

That’s all from me – check out Andy’s summary of the other sessions.