Web Focus: Institutional Web Management Workshop - The Joined Up Web
"One of the best workshops I've ever been at"
"I return because it is by far the best way for me to find out what I need to do in the coming year at my site"
"The workshop gets better every year and I never fail to learn something new."
"A good mixture of web/techie people and communications/PR people. Important to have both for this type of event"
As can be seen from the quotes given above the Institutional Web Management workshop was very highly regarded by the workshop delegates. But what is this event and why do people keep coming back?
The annual Institutional Web Management workshop is the main event organised by UK Web Focus. It is aimed at members of institutional Web management teams in the UK HE (and now FE communities) and provides an opportunity for delegates to update their technical skills, find out about developments within the HE/FE community and on Web developments more widely and engage in discussions with their peers within the Web management community.
This year's event was the fourth in the series. Details of the workshops is given in the following table.
|Date||Venue||No. of Participants||Workshop Report|
|16-17 July 1997||KCL||95||Ariadne, issue 11|
|15-17 September 1998||Newcastle||100||Ariadne, issue 17|
|7-9 September 1999||Goldsmiths College, London||124||Ariadne, issue 21|
|6-8 September 2000||Bath||148||Ariadne, issue 25|
Institutional Web Management: The Joined-Up Web
The theme of this year's workshop was "The Joined-Up Web". The workshop aimed to ensure that institutions used "joined-up thinking" in the provision of their Web services. This should include joined-up thinking at a strategic level within institutions (are groups which are evaluating Content Management Systems and Virtual/Managed Learning Environments working together, or do they not know they each exist); at a technical level (are you developing systems which will interwork with other systems, are you using open standards, such as XML?); at a national level within HE / FE (are you exploiting centrally-funded developments such as those provided by JISC) and at a national level with other groups (are you aware of related development in the public sector, or within your region).
In addressing these issues the workshop included talks giving an overview of national developments and case studies of innovative Web services which provide evidence of joined-up thinking.
The workshop attracted 148 participants - the limited imposed by the size of the lecture theatre. Over a dozen people were on the waiting list in case of last-minute cancellations, which provided an indication that there is scope for the workshop to grow to perhaps 200 participants.
A brief summary of the presentations is given below. Note that access to the slides can be obtained from the workshop Web site . In general a summary of the talks will not be given: readers are encouraged to view the speakers' slides. Where possible, quotes from the workshop evaluation forms will be given.
John Slater opened the workshop by reviewing E-Learning Developments . John was described as a "Good speaker. An interesting session with many good points". His talk provided "Useful insight to the likes of JISC".
Chris Harris continued the overview of national initiatives by describing HERO . Chris provided background information on the need for a high-profile portal to UK Universities. Unfortunately the live demonstration of a prototype of the HERO portal could not be given due, it was later discovered, to reconfiguration of servers at EPIC (the company who are developing HERO). A brief demonstration was provided on the final day (with, amusingly, a mobile phone ringing in the middle of the summary announcing that the service was now available again) which appeared to convince at least one delegated who initially said commented "Good presentation but topic not new - surely just another gateway?" but after seeing the Web site added "Once I saw the demo I changed my mind - not just another gateway!".
Following the two opening talks which described important new national initiatives, we then heard from two speakers who reported on innovative developments within their institutions.
Andy Price's talk entitled From Shredded Trees To Mobile Phones, The Awful Truth About Digital Convergence!  gave an entertaining insight into the holy grail of digital convergence. By this Andy, the Head of Corporate Communications at the University of Teeside and former Head of New Media at North East Evening Gazette, was referring to the use of backend databases to provide a single neutral storage of content which could then be reused in multiple media (print, Web, WAP-enabled mobiles, phones, etc.) without significant manual effort. "Don't employ a 'repurposer'!" to manually convert electronic information from one format to another, Andy urged us. Andy made us aware of difficulties in deploying this approach, such as cultural barriers and pockets of resistance within our institutions, and encouraged us, as did several speakers in the workshop, to win the support of senior management. This support appears to be the case at Teeside, who were an early (and possibly the first) UK HEI to have a significant WAP presence  (illustrated below).
Figure 1: The University of Teeside's WAP Site
Although Andy is new to the HE community and was attending his first Institutional Web Management workshop, his talk was much appreciated by the workshop delegates: in the evaluation forms he scored the equal highest rating of 4.14 (1=poor, 5=excellent) with no fewer than 24 marks of 5 and 21 of 4. Thanks for your contribution Andy!
The next speaker, Cliff Sanders, gave a talk entitled The Personalised University  which was also based on an innovative institutional development to their Web service.
As shown in Figure 2, the University of Ulster provide a personalised interface to their Web site.
Figure 2: University of Ulster Web Site
The service relies on use of a central database to store course information, news, etc. Plans for the future include integration with other media (such as WAP, digital TV, etc.) and deployment of the Zope content management system.
Mary Rowlatt, the final speaker of the first day, reported on developments in the public sector and considered synergies with the HE and FE communities. In her talk, entitled Local Authorities and HE/FE: Finding Common Ground on the Web  Mary described how Tony Blair's aspiration to ensure that everyone has access to the Internet by 2005 will impact both central and local government.
The second day of the workshop began with a local speaker, Greg Smart, talking about Self Evident Applications . Greg, who works for the MIS department at the University of Bath, argued the need for 'self evident applications' which can reduce the local support requirements by being obvious to use, specific to local requirements and useable by a Web browser. There is a need for a single repository for the data and to separate the business logic from the data. At Bath this is being achieved through use of JSP (Java Server Pages) and EJB (Java Beans). Use of XML and XSL enables the data structure to be made independent of the presentation. This approach has been used to access the local finance system and will be used shortly for an ambitious online registration project.
Later on in the morning Tony McDonald described a Newcastle Case Study . Four consortium partners are working together to develop a networked learning environment (NLE) for their medical / biomedical schools. The NLE is based on the Zope content management system and makes extensive use of open source software, including Python, PHP and MySQL. In order for the system to be scalable integration with student and course information held by the MIS department is essential (indeed helpful lecturers who provide course information in HTML format can cause difficulties).
Two speakers made a case for not attempting to provide every aspect of Web site development in-house. The author of this report, Brian Kelly, gave a A Controversial Proposal  which suggested that use of externally-hosted Web services could provide valuable resources for over-worked and under-resourced Web teams. Although some delegates were concerned that such an approach could result in wholesale out-sourcing of the Web development team or that dependency on externally-hosted services could be problematic for mission-critical services, there appeared to be an awareness that such services could be valuable, and, indeed, that, though use of JISC-funded services such as Athens and Mailbase, the HE community has been using externally-hosted services for some time.
On a related subject Martin Belcher gave a talk entitled Out To Tender: Commissioning A Web Site . Martin made the case for buying-in expertise for Web site development in order to make use of expertise which may not be available in-house and in order to concentrate on your Web team's strengths and institutional priorities.
An update on developments in the area of security and authentication was given by Alan Robiette, JISC's programme director for JCAS (JISC Committee for Authentication and Security). Alan's talk on Security and Authentication Issues - Where Are We Heading  reviewed developments in these areas - which are of critical importance for a joined-up Web which embraces several communities and provides access to confidential information such as student records. Unfortunately Alan did not deliver any solutions! He described how current systems such as Athens have provided valuable solutions, but in limited areas. JISC have a working party which is looking at a more flexible, standards-based solution, with the code name Sparta. In addition JISC are closely monitoring developments in the US and in areas such as digital signatures.
Finally mention should be made of Professor Ian Halliday's talk on The WEB and the GRID: Science and Society . Although initially asked to talk about deployment of electronic forms between Universities and Research Councils, delays in the release meant that it was not possible to give a talk on this subject. Instead Professor Ian Halliday gave a fascinating review on developments in networked services in the particle physics community since CERN first invented the Web.
The Parallel Sessions
In all four of the Institutional Web Management workshop the parallel sessions have always been very highly regarded. The parallel sessions provide an opportunity for participants to participate actively in the proceedings, through discussions, group exercises or hands-on exercises. In last year's workshop feedback indicated that participants welcomed more opportunity for discussion group and hands-on sessions. In response to this suggestion this year in addition to four half-day sessions, we also provided four sessions which lasted for 90 minutes. Participants could choose either one half-day session or two 90 minutes ones.
The Content Management Systems half-day session  was led by Paul Browning (University of Bristol) and Mike Lowndes (Natural History Museum). This was the most popular of the parallel sessions, attracting no fewer than 35 participants (although the limit was meant to be 25!). The aims of the session were to: (i) gain a better understanding of Content Management Systems (CMS); (ii) highlight pros and cons of buying proprietary software or developing solutions in-house; (iii) review the criteria which influence the choice of a CMS and (iv) see if there is consensus for packages for which CHEST can negotiate deals for the HE/FE community.
The main recommendations which emerged where:
- Web developers should be aware than CMS is a concept, not a product
- The community should specify its needs/expectations of a CMS system and focus on the most appropriate products/solutions
- A consortial deal should be considered in association with CHEST
- These issues should be the subject of a working party, possibly a UCISA Software Group evaluation project
The Joined-Up Web half-day session  was led by Greg Newton-Ingham (University of East Anglia), Justine Kitchen (RDNC, Kings College London) and Pete Cliff (UKOLN).
In order to provide a "Joined-Up Web" there is a need:
- To improve communication of needs, of experience and of evaluation across the community
- For cultural change at some levels
- For cross-searching across a range of dispersed databases/ data providers
- To join up the real world of students e.g. Hotmail with the academic world of information provision, assessment and administration
- To address technical issues for joined-up systems include plug-ins, software versions, operating systems, etc.
- To recognise user feedback such as (i) multiple sign-on is a turn-off; (ii) users don't want or need to see the workings of joined-up systems and prefer invisible, seamless interfaces; (iii) user choice, familiarity, brand loyalty, direct access are still desirable, and there is a need for parallel routes to resources and (iv) since branding oftens reflects quality, there is a danger that seamless interfaces which could render resources 'brandless' will devalue the users' perception of quality resources
The main recommendations which emerged where:
- A need for dissemination of information on relevant projects to the Web management community.
- A need for a Web site containing information on projects, initiatives, case studies, etc
- JISC should continue development of Sparta.
- JISC should ensure that dissemination on joined-up technologies is widely disseminated.
- JISC should continue development cross-searching mechanisms.
The Implementing E-Learning Using A Virtual Learning Environment half-day session  was led by Mark Stiles (Staffordshire University).
The workshop began with a presentation of the issues involved in implementing the use of a VLE (or Learning Management System) at an institutional level and was followed by small group discussions which discussed the issues as they affect the delegates' their own situations. The interest in this session can be gauged by the hour's extension at the end of the 3.5 hour session during which the delegates looked at the COSE system.
The Selling Mugs to Masters' half-day session on e-commerce  was led by Andrew Aird (Goldsmiths College).
In the session potential uses of e-commerce within institutions were identified. This was followed by a report on a pre-workshop e-commerce survey which indicated much interest in e-commerce but only two examples of use of an automated on-line payment system. A case study of an online payment and booking system for a conference at Goldsmiths College was given. This was followed by a presentation from TrustMarque who build online payment systems. The session concluded with a group exercise in which participants designed an e-commerce site for use in HE.
The main recommendations which emerged where:
- There was a strong sense of the need for co-ordination at a national level
- There may be a need to issue digital certificates to HEIs centrally
- There may be a need for an education kitemark as a seal of approval for e-commerce activities
- There may be a need to set good practice guidelines
- There may be a need to create a portal on the lines of HERO
- There may be a need to establish joint ventures e.g. 'The UK Uni Trading Co'
- There may be a need to provide statistics on e-commerce activities within the community
- There may be a need to address fraud issues
The Working With HERO 90 minute session  was led by Brian Kelly (UKOLN). Sarah Austin and Quentin North, the producer and technical architect from EPIC, the company which has been commissioned to develop the HERO portal to UK University Web sites, reported on developments to HERO and gave a demonstration of the user's view of HERO and a summary of the different ways in which information providers will be able to upload and manage their own institutional information.
The 20 participants in this session very much appreciated the opportunity to see a prototype of the HERO portal. The main recommendations focussed on the need for more communications between EPIC, HERO and the Web management community, who will have a key role in ensuring that institutional information is provided by HERO in a timely and resource-efficient manner.
The main recommendations of the session were:
- Web managers should find out who their institutional HERO contact is and establish communication channels.
- EPIC's details of information requirements for HERO should be made available online as soon as possible, and institutional Web managers should be made aware of its location.
- Institutions should make themselves aware of the various ways of providing information to HERO and the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches.
- Epic and HERO plc should look to arrange additional events aimed at the Web Management community,possibly on a regional basis.
The Automated News Feeds 90 minute session  was led by Andy Powell (UKOLN).
In the session participants reviewed the requirements for news information both within their institution and external news. Andy Powell then described the role that RSS (Rich Site Summary) could have in providing an open standard for defining news feeds. In a hands-on exercise the participants created simple RSS files which described news resources on their own institutional Web sites. A UKOLN-developed script then processed these files to create a Web page contained links to these resources.
Towards the end of the session, Brian Kelly demonstrated how a simple RSS file could be processed by a service such as My.Netscape.
The session concluded by reviewing the unstructured and manual approaches which is currently taken to the provision of news in many organisations. RSS was proposed as a solution and it was suggested that a discussion about its potential should take place on the website-info-mgt Mailbase list.
The final two sessions complemented each other by addressing management and resourcing issues for institutional Web sites.
The Anarchy Versus Control in Web Site Management 90 minute session  was led by Malcolm Raggett (SOAS). The session was attended by 25 people. Malcolm Raggett gave a 10 minute presentation then led a discussion on management issues faced by the delegates. The issues raised were:
- Communication and Coordination
- Many delegates felt isolated and found it difficult to communicate with their departmental Web coordinators. Mailing lists and meetings were noted as only partially effective.
- Many institutions do not attempt to quantify or cost their Web work. It was felt that this led to it being undervalued and invisible. If senior management support is to be forthcoming then a more business-like approach would be needed to managing the Web site.
- An institution-wide strategy towards Web development is lacking in most institutions, however locally-produced authoring guidelines are increasingly in use.
- Maintenance of Sites
- The size of institution sites is growing to the point where maintenance is becoming very difficult with existing resources. Some areas are moving to a database driven approach to ease site maintenance and allow a site to become more scalable. The need for a database to be structured was noted, with a potential advantage that this could impose a useful discipline on some users! Nobody could identify a totally data driven institution; each had a mixture of database and HTML files.
- Pull versus Push Information
- It was acknowledged that, as intranet sites grew, the expectation that users would explore and find the information they want was not being met. Some form of "push" approach to providing information is becoming necessary. Perhaps a form of "My Intranet" (a technology discussed on Day 1 of the Workshop) is increasingly needed. But how is it designed and implemented effectively?
- Management Practice
- A number of management issues were raised concerning the demotivation of staff working on Web sites. The need to maintain individuals' commitment, the need to consult staff, the style of management, how to handle users who don't agree with an imposed page style, individuals' time management, and getting senior management support within the institution were all discussed. It was felt that training would help all of these issues. In particular, the issue of senior management support was believed to be a serious brake on successful Web development.
- Institutional Mind-set
- A number of delegates reported the difficulty of changing the attitude and approach of those staff, especially academic staff, who have been producing Web pages for a number of years; their approach often being to continue working in the same way rather than adopt newer technologies and practices. In particular, it was felt that the principle of process re-engineering should be taught. It was also felt that the idea of publishing initially in electronic form and re-purposing this should get more credence.
All of the recommendations are for training to be made available, by JISC Assist or others, as follows:
- Senior management need training in assessing the benefits of electronic delivery of material
- Senior management need training in devising strategies for institutional Web/e-publishing
- Middle management need training in general management principles (training that is often available locally) as well as Web-specific training in costing and making a business case
- Webmasters need training in communication skills, promoting teamwork in a distributed environment, and time management skills
The "Princes, Paupers and Progress" - Resourcing Your Web Site 90 minute session  was led by Miles Banbery (University of Kent at Canterbury).
Initial talk by Miles Banbery outlined how to (a) get more money; (b) use that money well; © gain user support by providing a professional service; (d) set up unconventional deals with others. Three discussion groups then discussed (1) professionalism; (2) efficiency and productivity and (3) financial resources.
Recommendations for further action were:
- Establish a set of incremental or modular qualifications for Web/e-publishing professionals
- Issue guidelines of Good Working Practice for Web/e-publishing professionals and offer training
- Offer middle-management training in communications, teamwork, customer relations and project management
- Offer training in creative ways of getting and using financial resources, including writing bids and proposals, negotiation skills and sources of information about funding
An accompanying exhibition was held on the morning of the final day of the workshop. As described in the exhibition details  a small of commercial vendors were present, together with stands from a number of JISC services.
Although the exhibition provided a useful opportunity for the delegates to find out about the latest developments from JISC services (including the new JISCMail service ) and obtain information on software products of interest to Web Managers, the evaluations forms indicated that delegates felt that the exhibition had not developed since last year's event, and it might be more useful if it provided more live demonstrations, and perhaps greater involvement from the delegates themselves, giving, say, brief presentations of interesting work at their institutions.
Andrew Aird, the chair for the final day, asked me to summarise what I considered to be the three most important aspects of the workshop. These were:
- We need to work smarter - and we are
- We need to move away from a file-based and HTML approach to Web site development and make greater use of Content Management Systems and backend databases for storing data in a single, neutral format. Speakers such as Andy Price and Tony McDonald have shown how institutions are making use of this approach, and the benefits are becoming apparent.
- We shouldn't try to do everything ourselves - don't be afraid of outsourcing
- We have limited resources available and need to prioritise use of those resources. We should not be afraid to consider buying in expertise or make use of externally-hosted Web services.
- We have a strong community - let's build on it
- The UK HE Web Management community has a very strong sense of identity and community, as can be seen from the support provided on lists such as website-info-mgt and the contributions which have been made at the Institutional Web Management series of workshops. Let us build on that.
I would like to give my thanks to my colleagues on the workshop organising committee. Paul Browning (University of Bristol) and Andrew Aird (Goldsmiths College, University of London) not only helped in organising the workshop content and identifying speakers (with Paul coming up with the theme of the workshop and the name "The Joined-Up Web"), they both also found time to act as facilitators for two of the half-day parallel sessions. Helen Sargan (University of Cambridge) also helped in organising the workshop content. Unfortunately Helen (a speaker and workshop facilitator at last year's event) could not attend this year. Finally special thanks to Joy Fraser, UKOLN's Events Manager, who worked so hard behind the scenes in ensuring that the workshop ran smoothly.
- Workshop Programme,
- E-Learning Development, Presentation by John Slater
- HERO, Presentation by Chris Harris
- From Shredded Trees To Mobile Phones, The Awful Truth About Digital Convergence, Presentation by Andy Price
- WAP Service, Teeside
- The Personalised University, Presentation by Cliff Sanders
- Local Authorities and HE/FE: Finding Common Ground on the Web, Presentation by Mary Rowlatt
- Self Evident Applications For Universities, Presentation by Greg Smart
- The Joined up Web - Newcastle University, a case study, Presentation by Tony McDonald
- A Controversial Proposal, Presentation by Brian Kelly
- Out To Tender: Commissioning A Web Site, Presentation by Martin Belcher
- Security and Authentication Issues - Where Are We Heading, Presentation by Alan Robiette
- The WEB and the GRID: Science and Society, Presentation by Professor Ian Halliday
- Content Management Systems
- The Joined-Up Web
- Implementing E-learning Using A Virtual Learning Environment
- Selling Mugs To Masters
- Working With HERO
- Automated News Feeds
- Anarchy Versus Control in Web Site Management
- "Princes, Paupers and progress" - Resourcing Your Web Site
- Workshop Exhibition
UK Web Focus
University of Bath