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!

IWMW 2013 (2)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the first three plenary sessions from day 2 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from my summary of day 1’s plenaries.

Day 2 Plenary Sessions (part 1)

P5: Jonathan Hassell: Stop Trying to Avoid Losing and Start Winning: How BS 8878 Reframes the Accessibility Question

What I want is to strategically embed inclusion into [my organisation]’s culture and business-as-usual processes, rather than just doing another inclusion project.

This quote sums up where people want to be, Hassell said, but in general organisations are scared of accessibility — they don’t really understand it, or they only have one committed individual who does it, or it only happens in specific projects/products; they don’t know what’s in it for them apart from risk mitigation. Accessibility solutions often seem piecemeal — they’re tactical, not strategic.

They also feel like they’re competing for your time with (rather than linking in with) other useful web strategies:

  • mobile strategy (including apps, responsive design, etc)
  • open data strategy
  • content strategy
  • social and search strategy
  • UX strategy

As a result, people tend to do the bare minimum for accessibility, then spend their time firefighting as complaints come in. This is just treating the symptoms: “we need to fix the problem in the process, not the product.” But this is made harder by organisational structure and culture — it’s difficult for individuals to change processes.

We need to reframe the accessibility question, says Hassell, to see it as a business opportunity: by increasing inclusion we can maximise our reach. There are a lot of people out there for whom accessibility is an issue:

  • 11 million disabled people
  • 12 million older people (of pension age)
  • 7 million adults with low literacy levels (< age 11)

BS8878 is a new accessibility ‘code of practice’ which gives a framework for reducing costs and improving quality; it allows you to choose the right guidelines for your product/audience, rather than making you mould your product to rigid guidelines.

Hassell compared BS8878 to other accessibility guidelines — many assume you actually code HTML by hand — most of us don’t any more; instead we need to think about how we can make the best of CMSs and other third-party software that we can’t ‘fix’ completely. Some of that is about the people using them — how can we motivate content creators to do their job better? WCAG 2.0 is good as a ‘roadmap’ but doesn’t tell you if you’ve got there — that’s when you need to do user testing to see if people can actually use your product. Remember the goal is to “build a better website, not just a compliant one.

Further reading:

P6: David Cornforth: Adapting to Responsive Web Design

Get your content ready to go anywhere, because it’s going to go everywhere.

David Cornforth reminded us that we need to stop thinking in terms of “web pages” and how they look, and start thinking about content and how we can achieve content parity between desktop and mobile.

He gave a quick history of how the web used to be (including some nostalgia-inducing screenshots for those of us who remember the days of Times New Roman and blue underlined links!) and how we used to design for different screen sizes, different browsers… and how this became unsustainable as the number of different devices and browsers increased exponentially.

Instead of designing device-specific experiences, we need to embrace the flexibility of the web, and stop making assumptions about the content users want based on the device they’re using (90% of users switch devices to complete a task; 98% move between devices on the same day). We also need to be more iterative and more agile to cope with responsive design.

Further reading:

P7: Martin Hamilton: The inside-out University

Once again we were reminded that the Higher Education landscape is changing significantly and rapidly, with MOOCs and ‘open by default’ being among the key culprits.

Hamilton took us through an array of cutting-edge technologies before asking us whether our institution was ready to embrace this sort of change, or whether it was stuck in the past. He then talked about ‘extinction level events’, comparing the drop in student numbers in the age of the MOOC with the recent failure of businesses such as Jessops to adapt to competition from Amazon.

He then moved on to the main focus of his talk, the move towards ‘open by default’ as a result of a combination of drivers towards openness: funders requiring Open Access publication, funders requiring research data to be made available, demands for University statistics, developments in Open Educational Resources (OER). However, he reminded us that the flip side of ‘open by default’ is the increase in useless information: “you can splurge all this information out, but if it’s not useful, what’s the point?

Hamilton then took us through several interesting Jisc case studies using course data, VLEs, and ‘big data’, before leading into the ‘crowdsourcing a Jisc innovation strategy’ promised in the title. This was an interesting exercise in collaborative brainstorming, though it inevitably leaned more towards voting on existing suggestions (by adding a ‘+’ after them) rather than coming up with new input.

Further reading:

IWMW 2013 (1)

July 1, 2013

I was delighted to be able to go to IWMW 2013 this year. IWMW (the Institutional Web Managers’ Workshop) is an inspiring and entertaining three-day conference for institutional web folk (webmasters, web developers, web managers, web editors… whatever we’re calling ourselves in this job, this institution, this decade); it has been organised by UKOLN, so this may be its last year in its current format now that Jisc have dropped funding for UKOLN. Appropriately for this time of uncertainty, the conference theme was “What next?” — not just for IWMW but for web management, the web community, and HE in general.

I’m attempting to write up all the plenaries and both the parallel sessions which I attended. This will be a relatively neutral writeup, partly for my own record, partly for the benefit of colleagues or other interested people who couldn’t attend; I’m aiming to do some more personal opinion-based pieces on specific bits later.

Day 1 Plenary Sessions

Brian Kelly: Welcome to IWMW 2013

Brian gave us an overview of the current situation in the world of the institutional web: the continued financial challenges we all face (an unsurprisingly prevalent theme throughout the conference) and the changing technical environment.

He also gave us a whistle-stop tour of the history of IWMW, from the first meeting at KCL in 1997 (before the name ‘IWMW’ was coined) through to 2013; it was interesting to see how the buzzwords and focus shifted: web strategy, e-business, web 2.0, APIs, video streaming… then from about 2009 onwards there were constant rumblings of “change”, “managing change”, “uncertainty” and similar concerns — and for UKOLN, of course, all that anxious uncertainty resolved into an awful reality earlier this year when Jisc cut the organisation’s funding and decimated its staff.

With so much doubt about the future, I thought it’d be hard to begin the conference on an optimistic note; but as always Brian’s enthusiasm for the institutional web and the IWMW community was infectious, and without further ado we launched into the plenary sessions…

P1: Cable Green: Open Education:
the business and policy case for OER

Cable Green explained that open educational resources (OER) let us “take advantage of the technical and legal tools of the day to make sure everybody on the planet has access to education“. This balance of the practical and philosophical basis for OER sums up the tone of his talk; he moved effortlessly between lucid explanations of the ins and outs of Creative Commons licences and passionate advocacy for the social benefits of freely and openly available educational resources.

However, as he clearly showed, there are tensions between technology, morality and legality; the technology means that “we are now in a read/write world“, and educators and publishers are still adapting to that change. We now have the ability to share resources at the speed of light, but the law prevents this; Green pointed out that copyright can be a positive thing, but it hasn’t kept pace with the available technology.

Green recalled his own OER journey, from the first time he published his own course materials on the web, inviting people to use them (“it’s free!”) without realising that the institutional copyright statement at the bottom stymied his attempt to give his work away. He discovered that “to get your work into the public domain, you have to die! and then wait 70 years!” — but as educators, we want to share now, not 70 years after our death.

He gave a clear explanation of the Creative Commons framework (“the backbone of OER”), the way the licences are a sliding scale of “how free” something is, the importance of open licensing for internationalization and accessibility (translating and creating accessible alternatives is often prevented by more restrictive copyright) and for customisation and affordability of educational resources (allowing you to modify, modularise, only take the bits you need).

If the marginal cost of producing and distributing digital resources is effectively zero (this was illustrated with figures comparing the cost of “copy” for hand-copying a book, printing it traditionally, ‘print on demand’, and digital copying) then, argued Green, educators have a moral responsibility to share. “Publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources“, and, as Winston Churchill put it, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it“.

His final soundbite or ‘thought for the session’ was this: “the opposite of ‘open’ isn’t ‘closed’. The opposite of ‘open’ is ‘broken’.

Further reading:

P2: Doug Belshaw: Mozilla, Open Badges and a Learning Standard for Web Literacy

Doug Belshaw gave an overview of the Mozilla Open Badges infrastructure and how it underpins the new learning standard for web literacy which is being developed.

Open badges, he explained, are essentially just “images with metadata hard-coded into them” (not unlike Creative Commons licences as explained in the previous session). They’re a “portable credential” which can be embedded in digital content, and they “can accommodate formal and informal learning pathways”, capturing learning wherever and however it occurs. This simple but powerful infrastructure allows any organisation to issue its own badges, and lets users bring their badges together into a single ‘backpack’ or portfolio — breaking through the “silos of accreditation” which currently constrain our qualifications.

Of course, open badges can represent any qualification, accreditation, achievement or statement about a person’s experience, from a university degree to the example ‘Open Badges 101’ badge you can claim from the Open Badges site — or to badges which aim to change behaviour, such as a badge for releasing resources under a CC licence. The value of an open badge comes from how rigorous the criteria are.

Belshaw then moved on from general issues of qualifications and competencies to the specifics of the open learning standard for web literacy that is currently being developed. Mozilla are working on the ‘skills layer’ now with the web community: this is the time to get involved.

Further reading:

P3: Kyriaki Anagnostopolou: Et tu MOOC? Massive Online Considerations


MOOCs are looming large in the HE landscape at the moment; it’s not clear if they are ‘the answer’ (and if so, to what?) but Anagnostopolou’s talk gave us plenty of questions.

She started with some useful facts and figures about: levels of participation in and completion of courses (with the caveat that these ‘traditional’ measures of success may not apply); the costs of running MOOCs (where estimates vary so wildly that direct comparisons are often impossible); the way institutions are currently funding them (usually through marketing or ‘widening participation’ budgets); and the ‘openness’ of MOOCs (the data often isn’t ‘open’).

Then on to the questions, a mixture of practical and philosophical considerations (I’ve only included a selection):

  • Is a MOOC the new textbook? Should we consider integrating MOOCs from other institutions into our teaching?
  • Are we as institutions prepared to be judged based on the online learning experiences that we offer? They’re not necessarily representative of our campus-based courses…
  • As a tutor/facilitator, how do you deal with a 1:8000 staff-student ratio? How do you make your presence felt and make students feel supported in the massive global classroom?
  • Should MOOCs count for accreditation?
  • Will MOOCs change the expectations of traditional campus-based students?

She also raised the questions of how ‘learning analytics’ will work as a new research area, what the business model of MOOCs might turn out to be, and the broader consideration of what education is actually about: is it simply transmission of content or a more holistic experience? Lots of food for thought!

P4: Amber Thomas: Turning our attention to supporting research

Amber Thomas talked about how the landscape of research is changing and how we as digital experts could do a lot more to support researchers (especially early career researchers), as well as giving specific examples from her own department at Warwick.

The funding and evaluation of research has changed: many funders now insist on Open Access publication; a new focus on impact is changing the notion of where research happens and who the end users are; and research data is now a more prominent part of the research process.

Lots of the signs of change are already familiar to us: academic blogging, open lab notebooks, collaborative texts, crowd sourcing, citizen science, open access research papers, public datasets… and they’re all pointing to a more participatory and public scholarly discourse. Public engagement doesn’t just mean putting up information on the institutional website — it can be “the long tail of scholarship“, making research more accessible to all.

The changed research landscape is also more collaborative and interdisciplinary — and there’s a danger that this doesn’t fit well into the fixed web structures we maintain. Research these days is more social: and the social is happening outside our institutional websites. Research is also broadening in terms of what ‘counts’ (no longer just traditional publications but research datasets, code, blogs, slidedecks, podcasts, videos…). More collaboration and interdisciplinarity means that research is happening between specialisms, across departments, across borders, outside the university.

Out of this diversification came Altmetrics, the new movement towards new ‘social web’ metrics for analyzing and informing research and its impact. Within this movement “some fundamental questions are being asked that could change how we manage and evaluate research within universities“. Research footprint monitoring provides a way to collate usage data “from where your research lives and breathes”, and feed this back onto institutional web pages through APIs, feeds, and widgets. (Examples of specialist aggregators of analytics from research outputs include AltMetric, ImpactStory, PlumX.)

Thomas then talked about her work in the new Digital Humanities department at Warwick: the themes and technologies which are emerging in research support (CMSs/databases, visualisation tools, social media, impact and analytics); and the importance of the one-to-one conversation between digital technologist and researcher in the requirements gathering process — and how to maintain that relationship throughout the life of a project. She concluded by saying that the implications for the institutional web are that we really have to get good at the following:

  • re-aggregating distributed content analytics
  • using third party specialist platforms (and related risk management)
  • using data and databases, throughout the research lifecycle
  • preservation and archiving
  • being technology collaborators in complex projects
  • responsive innovation through to service provision

and finally, admitting that we don’t know the answers sometimes!

Further reading:

Get back (Part 1)

May 28, 2012

When I had my first baby, in April 2011, I took a year’s maternity leave — the longest I’ve ever been away from work/study since starting school about 30 years ago. I’ve now been back at work for a month and a half, and it feels like a good time to reflect on things like how my ‘year off’ affected me, how being a parent has changed my attitude to work, and how it feels coming back after such a long absence.

Let’s just clear one thing up: a year’s maternity leave is not a year’s holiday (and thankfully I didn’t get too many jokes along those lines from my co-workers!). This isn’t a parenting blog and I’m not going to go into details about looking after a new baby, but for the first two or three months my life revolved around feeding myself and my baby, changing her nappies, and trying to grab some sleep wherever possible: I felt like I was doing pretty well if I managed to get dressed in the morning (or indeed the afternoon…) and get some food for myself at some point during the day, let alone actually do anything else for myself. After the first few months, once the feeding and changing was basically under control, I ended up spending half my waking moments just walking around to keep baby comforted (and to keep myself from going stir-crazy).

Anyway, it was pretty lonely once my husband had gone back to work (i.e. after the first 3 weeks), and I don’t know how I’d have coped without a) my mum, and b) Twitter. Twitter? Yes: Twitter on my iPhone meant that I could keep in touch with the ‘outside world’, even when I only had one hand free, even in the middle of the night when baby was feeding for as long as 2 hours at a time; I could tweet my despair (and, eventually, elation and ‘proud parent’ boasts as well) and be sure that a friend or kindly stranger would hear and respond. Tweets from friends and strangers provided me with a digital social life; heaps of advice (solicited or otherwise…) on all aspects of baby-wrangling; much-needed laughs; easily-digestible updates on what was happening in my area, in my profession, and in the wider world; and interesting articles to read on the occasions when I had time/energy/awakeness to engage with something longer than 140 characters. Thanks to Twitter I felt as though I hadn’t completely lost touch with my friends, my pre-baby life, my professional life: I don’t like talk of “getting your life back” after a baby (newsflash: your children are actually part of your life), and I wanted and needed to spend time bonding with my baby as much as she wanted and needed me to, but there were plenty of good things about Life Before Baby that I didn’t want to lose completely — and it turns out I didn’t have to lose them completely. I know there are valid concerns that being on Twitter (or SMS, or whatever) all the time does mean running the risk of being only ‘partially present’, and making children feel they’re not getting enough attention … but while this is definitely a real worry with older babies and children, I’d happily bet you a box of doughnuts (within arm’s reach, please, so I can eat them without disturbing my sleeping/nursing baby) that a 4-month-old who’s asleep in the sling or half-asleep while nursing honestly doesn’t know or care if their mum is reading Twitter out of the corner of her eye.

The other good thing about Twitter is that it really only needs one hand: a lot of the time I was limited to one-handed internet use, which was an interesting exercise (perhaps more UI/UX/mobile/web designers and developers need to include breastfeeding mothers in their user-testing groups, though said mothers may be a bit too busy…). While the touchscreen interface doesn’t require two hands for shift-clicking or similar, I was surprised and dismayed to find how many things were massively more awkward with only one hand for holding the iPhone and operating the touchscreen.

Before baby arrived I’d been used to being able to go and do something on my laptop if it was impossible on a mobile, and I’d been willing to spend more time wrestling with bad usability if the goal was important to me. Confronted with enforced mobile-only web access and very limited time and attention span, I found that I was much more likely to give up if a site made it difficult for me to get where I was trying to go. I also found it much harder to write emails: limited to one-finger typing on an iPhone it was hard to avoid top-posting, tiresome to type more than a couple of sentences, and — if I did manage to type something longer — hard to keep in mind what I’d already written when it all disappeared off the tiny screen after a couple of sentences.

(As an aside, the sling I mentioned above — a Moby wrap — was far and away the best item of baby ‘equipment’ I bought. It’s a handsfree kit for a baby! The rare times when baby was soundly asleep in the sling while I was at home were basically the only times I got to use both hands to do anything online.)

Particularly enlightening (and depressing) was trying to fill in web surveys: YouGov, Mumsurvey, and Bounty’s ‘Word of Mum’ panel all produced surveys which were more or less uniformly ghastly on a mobile browser, though I often battled through them anyway for the dubious payoffs of a few more ‘points’ in my account (probably never to be cashed in for any real material gain) and the chance for my opinion to be counted. Page after page of text that didn’t wrap to the smaller screen and had to be scrolled from side to side; ‘text’ embedded in images which didn’t resize nicely; tables which had a choice of zoom between ‘whole table’ and ‘single out-of-context cell’ so I had to keep scrolling back and forth to check I was “agreeing strongly” or “disagreeing strongly” with the right thing; radio buttons so tiny that a baby’s finger would have been too big to click them reliably; and — most frustratingly of all — drag-and-drop ‘put these things in order’ questions which were actually impossible on a touchscreen (these usually made their appearance over halfway through a survey that I couldn’t save and go back to on a non-touchscreen device).

With all the things I was trying to do online, I noticed that the hard bit was contributing and creating. It was easy enough to read my email, read online articles, write short replies, tick boxes on surveys… but writing enough to start an email conversation (let alone make a blog post or write an article) was difficult. I felt constantly frustrated by how difficult it was to find time/hands/energy to write anything, to make anything, to do anything except consume other people’s creativity. This is another place where Twitter really came into its own: it’s easier to feel you’re contributing to a conversation — even being creative — despite only contributing 140 characters, in a medium where everybody’s contribution is limited to 140 characters. It also feels immediate without relying on actually synchronous conversation or realtime attention. I did make other attempts to participate in ‘conversations’ online — I tried to follow IWMW 2011 as a remote participant, with some success, but the chances were high that I’d miss something crucial in a live streaming talk: a tiny baby’s interruptions tend to be immediate and insistent, difficult to defer even for a few seconds. I also took part in some research on how people use Twitter, though I took baby with me to one of the two interviews (she slept through most of it in my sling) and the other interview took place over Skype early in the morning, before my husband went to work, so he could look after baby for the 20 minutes or so that it took. All in all, though, my Twitter timeline was my main outlet for any kind of urge to create, contribute, or even speak. That’s why I say I don’t know what I’d have done without it. A year is a long time to remain silent.