In July 1997 a 2 day workshop on Running An Institutional Web Service was held at King's College London. As reported in Ariadne issue 11  the workshop proved very successful. Comments received on the workshop evaluation form indicated that participants would have likely a longer workshop and would have liked certain topics, including web design, database integration and management issues, to be covered in more depth. In addition several participants would have likely more time to be devoted to group sessions.
This year's workshop aimed at institutional web managers took onboard these suggestions. The workshop, which was organised jointly by UK Web Focus and Netskills, was held at Newcastle University from lunchtime on Tuesday 15th September till lunchtime on Thursday 17th September. An initial report on the workshop is given below.
"Brilliant! Useful, informative, friendly. Superlatives are appropriate. I want to come to the next one. We should have at least one a year." - just one of the many positive comments given on the workshop evaluation forms. Other comments received included:
- "Well-organised. Presentations were really interesting and useful. I really appreciated the parallel sessions. "
- "Renewed my enthusiasm for the Web"
- "Well worth attending. It was useful to have the opportunity to discuss problems I thought were unique to my institution and to hear what is going on within the community. I also learnt more about web developments which I just do not have the time to find out about while at work."
- "Really useful it gave me a great deal of enthusiasm & confidence in my job! (It's easy to get demoralised when trying to face all these web issues in relative isolation)."
These comments appear to reflect the majority of the participants' views. The initial analysis of the workshop evaluations forms show that the workshop content was given an overall rating of 4.45 on a scale of 1 (for poor) to 5 (for excellent). No fewer than 28 participants gave the workshop the maximum rating of 5, with 25 giving it a rating of 4 and only 3 giving a rating of 3. Nobody gave a rating lower than this.
So what impressed the participants so much? A summary of the workshop programme is given below.
Workshop Programme: Presentations
The workshop programme included presentations from twelve members of the UK Higher Education community, together with a presentation from a member of the British Council and a commercial design company. Unfortunately the two presentations from commercial companies which were intended to open the workshop were cancelled about half an hour before the start! What could have been a disastrous start was rescued by the flexibility of the workshop speakers who were willing to reschedule their talks. Many thanks to Brian Lantz (UCE), Andrew Aird (Goldsmiths College) and Jon Wallis (University of Wolverhampton) for their flexibility in this matter.
A brief summary of the talks is given below.
- 'Dumbing Down' - Making the UCE Web Site More Accessible  This talk by Brian Lantz (UCE) reviewed the recent redesign of the UCE web site which involved simplifying the website in collaboration with a commercial web design company. The talk, which was updated a few days before the workshop in the light of decisions which had been made, commented on the success of this process and provided pointers to how UCE intend to develop the site, with commercial support over the next 18 months.
- Does Web Content Grow on Trees?  This talk by Andrew Aird of Goldsmiths College, described the reorganisation of the web site at Goldsmiths College into three separate "trees" for external information, internal communications and a teaching and learning web environment.
- Publishing And Devolving Maintenance of a Prospectus  This talk by Paul Downing (University of Bristol) described the approaches to publishing the University of Bristol prospectus in print and online formats The talk included a demonstration of the system for displaying and managing the prospectus content, which is based on the Filemaker Pro database.
- DataWeb: Three Worlds Collide  This talk by Victoria Marshall of RAL described Rutherford Appleton Laboratory's DataWeb service, which uses Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) technology on a Windows NT server and a back-end relational database system. The talk described the advantages and pitfalls of this approach.
- Information Management and the Institutional Website - Promoting and Supporting Organisational Change  This talk by Jon Wallis of Wolverhampton University suggested the need for a methodical approach to support (and survive) the process of organisational change required in providing information on an institutional website. The talk was based on a combination of direct experience of running a University website and academic research into corporate information management.
- "He Left the Course 3 Months Ago?": Web-based Front-ends to Student Databases  This talk by Nick Gould of the University of Manchester described efforts to manage large student numbers by using Web-based interfaces to databases. The system developed aim to allow teaching staff easy access to up-to-date student information such as tutorial attendance and work done records, thus allowing academics to spend less time on "paper-chasing". The presentation discussed the development-time and techniques employed in developing Web-based systems and look at problems such as meeting user requirements.
- Events Online  This talk by Stephen Emmott (KCL) presented an events database that uses server-side XML to let the events content publish itself. Events submitted via either a form or free text are served to the browser in the College house-style - allowing the institution to carry the publishing workload rather than the individual or their department.
- The Use of Online Databases to Manage Student Support and Learning  This talk by Terry Brown of the Faculty of Medicine Computing Centre at the University of Newcastle focussed upon the use and development of Web interfaces to relational databases housing student information. It demonstrated the effective use of current and emerging internet technologies such as HTML, CGI and DBMS and looked at the functions XML and SSL can play in facilitating remote administration and secure access to online databases to support students and tutors. The talk highlighted examples from a number of University and National projects.
- Deploying New Web Technologies  In this talk Brian Kelly (UKOLN) gave a review of the web architecture and described emerging web technologies (such as CSS, XML, RDF and HTTP/NG) which are addressing deficiencies in the web. Brian suggested models for deployment of these new technologies, including the use of more intelligent server software and the deployment of intermediaries as described in the Web Focus Corner article in Ariadne issue 16 .
- The DISinHE Centre - Accessibility and the Web  This talk by Paul Booth of the recently established DISinHE Centre at Dundee University described the work of the DISinHE Centre.
- Publish and be Damned? - Freedom, Responsibility and AUP  Caught between staff and students insisting on their rights to publish on the web and management concerns about appropriate material, what is a "Webmaster" to do? This talk by Colin Work, Southampton University summarised the key areas of risk in putting material on the WWW, identified potential liability and suggested ways of running a WWW service which minimises the institution's (and Webmasters!) exposure while catering for the users requirements.
- The British Council on the Web: An Overview  This talk by Paul Squires of the British Council described how the British Council face the challenge of managing a web service which is distributed across countries throughout the world.
The main themes which emerged from the presentations was the importance of backend databases for storing and managing structured information, such as prospectus and events information.
Colin Work's talk entitled Publish and be Damned? - Freedom, Responsibility and AUP was given the highest rating in the evaluation forms, with an average rating of 4.58, with 35 people giving the highest score of 5 (excellent), 17 giving a score of 4 and 3 giving a score of 3. Colin also achieved equal top scores for his talk at last year's workshop, and was highly praised for the discussion group session he ran on Management Issues.
It is pleasing to report that the next highest-rated talk was Paul Booth's presentation on The DISinHE Centre - Accessibility and the Web. Thirty-two people gave this talk the maximum score of 5 with 20 giving a score of 3. These high scores would appear to reflect the importance place on the provision of accessible institutional web sites.
In third place was Jon Wallis with his comprehensive description (34 slides!) of the use of a web service, warts and all, within an academic institution.
Brian Kelly, the author of this article, gave the next most highly-rated talk on Deploying New Web Technologies.
Workshop Programme: Parallel Sessions
On the Wednesday afternoon five parallel session were held. The aim of these sessions was to provide the opportunity for participants to address certain topics in some depth, and to allow all participants to have the opportunity to discuss and debate issues, and not simply listen to an expert.
Details of the parallel sessions are given below.
This session was coordinated by Andrew Aird. The aims of the session were:
- To enable participants to discuss web design issues.
- To identify a number of different approaches to web design.
- To identify the pros and cons of using external designers.
- To identify how to produce a design brief.
This session was coordinated by Andy Powell and Brian Kelly. The aims of the session were:
- To identify why metadata is needed.
- To review current metadata standards.
- To discuss models for managing metadata.
- To agree on steps forwards.
- To provide an opportunity to see examples of metadata applications and metadata management software.
Web Server Management
This session was coordinated by Andrew Cormack and Helen Varley Sargan. The aims of this session were:
- To provide an opportunity for Web server administrators to discuss topics of interest.
- To describe and discuss models and tools for institutional web indexing.
- To describe and discuss web security issues.
- To describe and discuss caching models and tools.
- To discover how other institutions are managing their web servers.
This session was coordinated by Dave Hartland and David Lomas. The aims of this session were:
- To provide an opportunity for participants to try out a range of web tools which may be new to them.
- To discuss issues related to the provision and support of various types of web tools.
- To advise the UCISA-SG Web Tools group.
- To try out some of the systems described by speakers during the workshop.
This session was coordinated by Colin Work and Damon Querry. The aims of this session were:
- To provide advice, guidelines and practical tips on managing a WWW service.
- To identify key areas where further work can be done at a community wide level, and suggest some practical future activities.
Reports on the parallel sessions, including any conclusions reached, will be given in the workshop report which will be available shortly .
A more complete workshop report and analysis of the feedback is still to be carried out. For now the following comments are made, which are based on comments and suggestions made at the workshop an in the evaluation forms.
- The workshop was clearly a great success and should be repeated next year.
- The workshop should probably repeat its format, with a mixture of presentations and discussion groups, lasting over a three days.
- Shorter, probably day-long seminars and workshops should be held, either on a regional or national basis, on a number of important topics which were identified at the workshop including:
- Acceptable Use Policies and related legal issues
- Information management
- Measurement of "web effectiveness"
- Technical Issues, including web security and caching
- Indexing issues
- Database integration
- New web technologies, such as XML and RDF
- Web Design
- Web Tools
- Support should be given to the establishment of regional groups, such as .gamut . If possible, there should be a mechanism for coordination of regional groups so that, for example, ideas for meetings and perhaps materials could be exchanged between the groups. Possibly UCISA-TLIG  could act as a coordinating body.
- More focussed Mailbase lists should be set up, which will provide a forum for detailed technical discussions on systems such as Windows NT server software.
Further discussion on the workshop, including announcements of the availability of the workshop materials and reports on the workshop will be made on the website-info-mgt  Mailbase list.
- Running An Institutional Web Service, Ariadne 11
- 'Dumbing Down' - Making the UCE Web Site More Accessible,
- Does Web Content Grow on Trees?,
- Publishing And Devolving Maintenance of a Prospectus,
- DataWeb: Three Worlds Collide,
- Information Management and the Institutional Website - Promoting and Supporting Organisational Change,
- "He Left the Course 3 Months Ago?": Web-based Front-ends to Student Databases,
- Events Online,
- The Use of Online Databases to Manage Student Support and Learning,
- Deploying New Web Technologies,
- Intermediaries: Ways Of Exploiting New Technologies, Ariadne 16
- The DISinHE Centre - Accessibility and the Web,
- Publish and be Damned? - Freedom, Responsibility and AUP,
- The British Council on the Web: An Overview,
- Workshop Report
- website-info-mgt, Mailbase list