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!

Use our data

I mentioned previously about some of the feeds we’re providing for news and events and said at the end of the post that we’d be doing some stuff for the Institutional Web Management Workshop. Well it’s finally time that we have to firm up what that stuff is!

Edge Hill – along with the Universities of Aberdeen and Bath – are sponsoring the workshop’s Innovation Competition. For this we’re letting people know what data we have available for people to use in the creation of innovate, lightweight demonstrations of web technologies.

For the Big Brief we’ve restructured several of our systems to allow information to be extracted in different ways. Now as well as viewing web pages, you can use our data the way you want to or access in more machine-readable forms.

Several of these feeds we use internally – for example, the JSON feed of events is used to populate the calendar in the sidebar to show what days events are on.

It’s all work in progress so we’ll be adding more formats in the coming months but I’m really looking forward to seeing the ways people can use information from the website as part of the innovation competition.

Choice Part 7: Bite the hand that feeds you

RSS Awareness DayI meant to blog about this last week but bank-holiday-weekend-fever caught up with me. 1st May was RSS Day – aimed at raising awareness of feeds and how they can be used to stay connected to websites that interest you.

I’ve blogged before about the topic and said then we’d be introducing more feeds in the future. Well we have – you can now subscribe to feeds of news, events and jobs so you can stay right up to date with what’s going on at Edge Hill. In most cases there are multiple feeds available allowing you to narrow down to just what interests you.

If you’re new to feeds then this video from the folks at the Common Craft show to see how they work and can benefit you:

To justify this post being part of the “Choice” series, I should probably say a little more about the developments in the new site. We’re providing feeds initially for areas of the site that are now in databases. The jobs website has been like this for a while but news and events are now structured properly to allow us to create a feed directly from the database. We’re using a plugin for symfony called sfFeed2Plugin which allows easy creation and manipulation of feeds and saves us from having to worry about the finer details of the Atom specification.

We’re going to provide more ways of using our data in the way you want in the future, including some stuff for the Institutional Web Management Workshop in July so stay tuned for more about that.

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!

Amazon Web Services

Building Highly Scalable Web Applications

I was very interested to see Jeff Barr from Amazon on the list of speakers. It’s good to see the corporate world represented and I’ve been very interested in some of the stuff coming out of Amazon.

Jeff’s presentation was about how you can use a variety of Amazon’s services to produce websites that scale storage and processing power quickly and easily. I don’t know of any universities that host their websites externally – I suspect very few do, most having the resources to host internally. I think that’s probably right most of the time – off the shelf hosting doesn’t provide the flexibility you need to produce modern web services and co location is expensive compared to hosting internally. But that’s not to say we should just ignore third party services and I can see a few areas where they could be useful.

So onto the services that Amazon can provide! They make use of spare capacity in Amazon’s massive server farms which they sell on. S3 is a system for storing data. Services can push up data where it’s stored redundantly and can be retrieved via a number of methods. Charges are applied based on amount of data stored each month plus data transfer in and out of Amazon’s servers. One possible use for a service like this is an image gallery – storing high quality original images which could be 10MB each yet are downloaded very little. While disk space is quite cheap, it’s definitely an area that can benefit from economies of scale so it’s worth doing the sums to determine the best place to store several hundred gigabytes.

What S3 does for storage, Amazon EC2 does for processing power. Based on Xen, each virtual machine is equivalent to a 1.7GHz machine with 1.7GB RAM and 160GB disk. It’s billed by the hour so allows very quick deployment of servers. I wonder if there are some services that we provide which are only used occasionally yet take up space in racks 24/7 – could these be virtualized to EC2?

The Paris Hilton effect…

My abstract for my “Let the students do the talking…” talk at this years IWMW took me all of ten minutes way back in February and on Monday I realised why. Standing in front of my peers in York I realised I truly believe in and am passionate about what I say. Listening to Paul Boag’s presentation on “Social Participation for Student Recruitment” yesterday further re-enforced my view that we need to be in these arenas and ‘go with this flow’.

I started my presentation by stating that when I questionned “will we still need a corporate website?” in my abstract for the session I hadn’t given serious thought to the audience (of HE Web Managers!) I would be presenting to and I genuinely meant it. When I started talking it felt a little like do or die… I’d either get nods of agreement or a lot of criticism.

Thankfully on the whole (up to now at least!) it’s been the former.

So what have I been saying?

Well to sum it up I guess I’m saying lets encourage our students to talk about us (our University), lets not worry so much about what they say and lets concentrate on the experience we’re providing for them.

Let us also evaluate how necessary some of our services are for students.

We make many assumptions as a University – we assume we need to hand hold our students and we assume we need to provide them with a range of services. Do we? Is everything we provide adding real value? Or can they get better elsewhere?

I have a view, and this may be controversial, that only half of a students experience at University is about the teaching and learning. Yes it’s why they are there but it’s not always why they got there and it’s not always why they leave. So let’s not ignore the “social” and/or informal side of things… lets encourage and develop it.

We know more and more people are online and more frequently too. We can see the age at which children are developing web skills and identities is becoming younger and younger and we can see the rise in social networking and participation so we need to be watching and learning from these trends.

During my talk I highlighted some of the approaches we’ve developed at Edge Hill and I shared our experiences with them and have been encouraged by the amount of positive comments I’ve received in relation to them.

But are we doing anything special?

Well actually I don’t think we are. We’re simply learning from our students and listening to them. In many ways our Web Service is like the “perpetual beta” because we’re working away but also keeping an one eye on the web from the sidelines… ready to change and adapt as the online world does. And one thing is for sure – change it will.

IWMW 2007: Day 1

I had good intentions to blog my experiences of IWMW but it’s been a busy couple of days so I’m going to attempt to review the first day before I forget too much of it.

From individuals to networks and sustainable communities?

Steven Warburton – the token academic – talked about communities, digital literacy, digital identities and many other things that often get forgotten in the rush to do cool stuff or the technical details.

Let the Students do the Talking…

Next up was our very own Alison Wildish. I think I’ve heard her talk about these issues a few times before (like every other day!) but it was very interesting to see the reaction from other people and feedback generally seems to be good. All the videos are available streaming online so there’s no excuse for not taking a look.

Parallel Session: The Eternal Beta

Phil Wilson from the University of Bath talked through the idea of the Eternal Beta – that services should be released even if they’re not perfect and using development methods that encourage rapid iterations to software. We seem to have followed a lot fo what they’re doing – using subversion for source control, wikis and ticketing systems for example – and I’m keen to make the next step in some of the agile / XP techniques.

In particular it was interesting that they’re using Pair Programming on a regular basis and for all new projects. The idea is that two programmers work together – one types and the other watches for bugs, suggests code and so on. While on the face of it this might seem like an inefficient use of manpower, it actually leads to better quality code with fewer bugs and gives more developers a good understanding of projects. Bath’s development team consists of seven people so it will be interesting to see how it works for three.

Discussion Group: A Greener Web

The discussion group wasn’t really directly related to the web so struggled a little to have a clear direction. There was talk about recycling, power usage the pros and cons of working from home. Paul Cheeseman has been talking about some issues on the Core Services blog, and our recent trialling of virtualization has potential for reducing power consumption so it was good to see we’re making the right noises at Edge Hill University.

That will do for now – Alison has her own round-up of events written ready to publish in the morning so it will be interesting to see how our views of sessions compare!

Countdown to IWMW 2007

Tomorrow I’m off to my first proper conference since I started at Edge Hill – the catchily named Institutional Web Management Workshop 2007. I must admit I’m not sure what to expect but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens! I’ll be taking my laptop so if I get a spare second I’ll try to post a few blog entries.

Part of the workshop has been the Innovation Competition. Real Life, work and lack of inspiration got the better of me so I was only able to submit a few pretty basic entries but check them out. The How to find us one is something we’d talked about for a little while but the Google Maps API has just got good enough to do it nicely, with driving directions and postcode lookups. Hopefully over the summer it can be tidied up and make its way onto the main site.

A question of confidence?!

I will be giving a presentation at the IWMW in July entitled “Let the students do the talking…” and in advance of this Brian Kelly (UKOLN) asked me to write a blog post relating to my talk.

When I submitted my abstract back in February I was thinking of social networking and collaborative tools and how these could be utilised within our University from both a marketing and student support perspective. At the time my experiences were very positive and like many others, I was enthused by the buzz surrounding what we label Web 2.0 and excited about what this could mean for us. I still am but a number of recent issues have led me to tread a little more cautiously.

I firmly believe that as a University we should be moving towards user owned technologies. The bulk of our students (and staff) join us with a range of skills and preferences and whilst we still have to do some hand holding, the majority know the services they like to use and engage with so I believe we need to adapt accordingly and allow and encourage their continued use.

  • Use gmail for your email? Use it for your Uni email too.
  • Don’t want to wait for email and prefer IM? Sure no problem, that’s available too.
  • On Facebook? We’ll plug you in through our portal so that you see any changes alongside the key messages we need you to see.

I still believe this is where we need to be but I also know this kind of step change is not be without its problems. Why? Because we loose some of the control. We can’t guarantee gmail’s up-time (although I’d be pretty confident it would work 24/7). We can’t moderate things like Facebook (just look at the outcry caused at Keele) so we potentially loose the power to manage some of the internal issues, without then appearing in the public domain. Naturally that’s a worry for any organisation but is it a big enough worry to prevent us from moving forward? I don’t believe it is.

We have more to gain in terms of a competitive edge by being in these spaces. User owned technologies and collaborative tools in a University environment are niceties at the moment and an added benefit but it won’t be long before they are the expected norm. On the internet word of mouth, user reviews, recommendations etc. are proving more readily available and more popular than our “corporate” offerings so the more we engage with and allow these things the more we can use them to our advantage.

How?! Well going back to my presentation title we let the students do the talking. Put the tools in the hands of the people that use them. Let them decide how to use them, how much/little to engage, what they say, how they say it. If we concentrate on providing the experience we claim to do then (which is what we’re all about) then we should move in this direction with confidence.

Recent posts on Brian’s UK Web Focus blog indicate my thoughts are echoed by others too which is encouraging. So whilst I’m treading carefully I’m still convinced it’s in the right direction…

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