IWMW 2013 (4)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the plenary sessions from day 3 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from the summary of day 2’s last three plenaries.

Day 3 Plenary Sessions

P11: Richard Prowse: IWMW and the birth of a content strategist

Richard Prowse talked about the need to put content at the heart of the website, and to get the three sides of the content story (Communications, Design and Developers) talking to each other.

If we can’t solve the problem of managing content, we’re not going to be able to engage with people in meaningful ways. However if we make our content findable, engaging, and useful, we can not only engage with our audiences but also reduce the workload of our support staff. Both of these things are part of the value of our content: it can make us money (by getting more students in) and save us money (by saving staff time). And structured content (and breaking content up into smaller reusable chunks) allows us to “create once, publish everywhere” (another time/money saving).

We also need to understand how target groups actually use the internet. Prowse gave us some useful statistics to bear in mind:

  • 22% of Brits only use the internet on mobile devices
  • 36% of Brits have no internet at home

Mobile is important; but so is paper. We know that our mobile strategy can help from a ‘widening participation’ perspective, but we may have to return to paper to reach certain groups (particularly low-income groups) who might not be online.

Why is fixing content so hard? Because it doesn’t stand still while we try to fix it. “Fixing content is like trying to perform heart surgery while the patient is running a marathon.” However we can articulate the problem, have a conversation with the people responsible for the content and things will start changing. Content strategy does offer us a solution, by giving us a toolkit for better communication — it’s all about communication. We also need to enthuse our users and content creators about content — and remember that everyone has experiences to bring to the table to enhance our understanding and improve practice.

Further reading (books):

P12: Dai Griffiths: The University in a bind

Like many of the plenary speakers, Dai Griffiths reminded us that the operating environment of universities is changing, and universities have to work out how to tell a coherent story about how they’re responding to the change — and the institutional web is at the centre of that hurricane, it’s a key player in the telling of that story. He went on to identify some of the conflicts and ‘double binds’ faced by universities.

We can either use the REF to boost the status of the university, or use open access journals to boost visibility. We need to publish to attract research funding, to attract students, to be useful… and because that’s what academics do. OA ticks these boxes, and can transform impact; but the institution controls the ‘target journals’, the accepted places to publish. Griffiths asked us “What’s your institution’s policy?” — but many of us in the audience weren’t sure.

Next, the question of MOOCs and the “disaggregation of HE”. Griffiths quoted Jimmy Wales on MOOCs: “…unless universities respond to the rising tide of online courses new major players will emerge to displace them. … it’s also been slower than anyone would have anticipated.” Online courses are a threat but also an opportunity. Again, Griffiths asked us what our institutions’ policies on MOOCs were, and whether they have a coherent story about how those developments fit into the institution’s identity — again, nobody in the audience seemed very sure of the answer!

Another contradiction was between “supporting students” and “balancing the books” — “how do we keep supporting the whole potential student body when university budgets are under pressure and costs to students are increasing?” Trying to widen participation but also save money.

Griffiths asked if these were just contradictions or “double binds” (a pathological situation — discussed in the study of schizophrenia — in which you are given repeated contradictory instructions, the instructions are reinforced by an explicit or implicit threat of punishment, and you’re not allowed to discuss the contradiction or leave the situation).

The next ‘double bind’ he identified concerned performance indicators — key performance indicators (KPIs), key information sets (KIS), etc. These cascade through the system, managers create targets for those below them, employees can’t question them or avoid them, and the institution can’t bypass them without putting funding at risk. Indicators and targets create a de facto representation of the system they intended to measure. Factors which are not measured are not candidates for consideration; and this may get out of step with the view that marketing or teachers have of the institution. It’s a pessimistic view… but an accurate one?

We need to insist on using data to ask questions about the institution’s identity, not just to report compliance.” Questions we need to ask are:

  • How can we do what we do better?
  • How can we do what we do differently?
  • Given these changes, what now is the University?

Griffiths asked: is your institution capable of asking that last question? Is the question prohibited by a double bind? Is that why our jobs are so hard?

Further reading:

P13: Neil Denny: The delicious discomfort of not knowing: how to lead effectively through uncertainty

Neil Denny told us that it’s OK — it’s exciting! — not to know what the future has in store. He exhorted us to do more stuff we don’t know how to do (to get outside our comfort zones); to “get artisan” (adopt a mentality of deliberate design); and to “envision success and and temporarily suspend the need for a successful outcome” (we’ve never succeeded because we’ve never finished!).

I’m not going to attempt to summarise his talk in detail, just share a couple of his thought-provoking soundbites:

People say they are looking for answers when in reality they are looking for someone to tell them just how little they have to change.

People don’t resist change itself, only the loss within it.

Further reading:

Conclusions: Brian Kelly: What next?

I’m not going to try to summarise Brian’s summary of the event, but I will note that he also talked about possible directions for the future of IWMW, and ended on a note of cautious optimism for IWMW and for the staff of UKOLN (follow their progress at the UKOLN Diaspora site: http://ukoln-diaspora.org.uk/). It feels a bit glib to say “hope to see everyone at IWMW 2014”, but I think there’s still a place for the event and I know there’s still a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm in the IWMW community, so… keeping fingers crossed!