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UM.Sitemaker: Flexible Web Publishing for Academic Users

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Jonathan Maybaum explains how UM.SiteMaker was designed to fill an important gap in the array of tools to suit academic publishing.

In an article published in this journal last year [1], Editor Philip Hunter observed that the extent of use of web publishing systems in universities is surprisingly low, considering the technical sophistication of most academic environments, and he discussed some reasons that might account for this circumstance. At the University of Michigan (UM), we have developed an infrastructure (UM.SiteMaker) that is aimed at facilitating the use of websites for personal and professional communication by ordinary (i.e., non-technical) academic citizens. Although it has been only a few months since this system was opened for use on a campus-wide basis, we are very encouraged by the rate and pattern of acceptance by both users and local support staff. To my knowledge, deployment of UM.SiteMaker represents the most extensive use of a database-driven system for publishing websites for individuals, at any academic institution. In this article I review briefly the status of different types of web publishing that are characteristic of universities, and then illustrate how UM.SiteMaker was designed to fill an important gap in the array of tools to support academic web publishing.

A closer look at the various types of academic web publishing

While it is probably correct that academic web publishing is an underdeveloped area in general, that is not to say that it is completely absent. I view academic web publishing as consisting of at least three types, each of which is developed to a different degree.

Course websites

A substantially developed type of academic web publishing comprises the construction of course websites, through the use of course management systems. These are special-purpose applications focused mainly on activities that are common among undergraduate courses. Owners of websites constructed with course management systems are typically able to include various functionality, including uploaded resources, course schedules, assignments, threaded discussions, interactive tests and quizzes, chat rooms and whiteboards. Because of the need to protect intellectual property, entry to these websites usually requires authentication and authorization.

Although in most cases the owners of websites created with these systems have the ability to include or exclude specific features, they are generally not at liberty to make gross changes in the organization or appearance of their site. A beneficial result of this enforced structure is that a predictable interface is presented to students who use the system for different courses within the same institution.

Many course management options are available for use at universities, in the form of both commercial and home-grown products, so an institution seeking to implement a course management system will not be limited by a lack of choices with appropriate functionality. However, the total cost of operation of these systems can be quite substantial, as it must cover not only licensing (for commercial solutions) but also robust deployment, integration with institutional authentication and authorization systems, class catalogs and class registration lists, and the cost of user support and training. Nevertheless, because course management is a highly visible and core function at universities, many institutional administrators now accept that the cost of course management has become a necessary expense of doing business, and are willing to support it.

At UM, an internally developed course management system named UM.CourseTools [2] has become the centrally supported resource for course websites, gaining wide acceptance by faculty and students. Because of the availability and success of UM.CourseTools, UM.SiteMaker is not promoted routinely at UM as a solution for publishing course websites. Nevertheless, directors of a few graduate level courses have decided to use UM.SiteMaker for their course websites, presumably because they wanted more control over the organization of their course websites, and did not need specialized course management features.

Unit websites

Another frequent use of websites within universities is for schools, colleges, departments and other institutional units to communicate with their constituencies and with the general public. Unit websites are more heterogeneous in design and purpose than course websites, but they still tend to have certain things in common with each other. For example, a college or departmental website will usually contain publicly accessible pages to list their faculty, areas of scholarly activity, courses offered, contact information for people, press releases and other news articles, and resources such as departmental service units and libraries. Also, the organization of content for a particular unit will be defined or approved by a unit administrator, as will the graphic design elements that denote the unit affiliation for pages in the website.

I am unaware of any applications that have been developed explicitly to support websites for academic units. However, there are many general-purpose web publishing applications that could be used, including those contained in a recent summary of content management systems [3]. Use of these systems as a regular production service for unit website publishing is increasingly evident, and both commercial and open source products have been employed (Table 1).

While growth of the use of commercial products in the academic sector is likely to be limited by their cost, which is typically on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the product itself [3], open source content management systems will probably be adopted in an increasing number of academic settings, where a sufficiently sophisticated and stable staffing environment exists to ensure that local development, deployment and user support can be sustained.

Even though UM.SiteMaker lacks some content management features, and was not specifically targeted to host unit websites, it has nevertheless been adopted for that purpose in some areas. More local growth in that realm is expected, as there are currently no plans to implement a content management system on a campus-wide basis at UM.

Individual and small group websites

The third (and least developed) type of academic web publishing is for websites that contain information generated by individuals or small groups. Despite the importance of the intellectual creations of individual faculty, students and staff, there is usually little institutional support for development of websites to showcase these creations. The most common approach for publishing such websites is to provide users with a location within their home directory in a Unix system that functions as a webserver document root. Many institutions offer training in HTML authoring and some supply methods to partially automate the production of HTML files, but I am aware of none that provide a dynamic, template-driven system for this purpose. The result is that users who have the fewest skills and resources are charged with a variety of technical tasks (e.g., creation of graphics, layouts, navigation, and access controls) in addition to being responsible for the informational content of the website. Because of the importance of individual websites in academia, and the lack of practical solutions to accommodate them, the design goals for UM.SiteMaker have been focused on serving this audience.

What distinguishes UM.SiteMaker from other academic web publishing tools?

From an architectural standpoint, the currently released version of UM.SiteMaker (2.5) is not strikingly different from other three-tier web publishing platforms. It is written in Java, using Apple's WebObjects 5.1 frameworks, and can be deployed on various operating systems, using either Apple's WebObjects application server or a standard J2EE application server. UM.SiteMaker does not require a specific webserver or relational database, although it does require a webserver that can rewrite URLs and a database for which a JDBC driver is available.

Instead, UM.SiteMaker is distinguished by its feature set and user interface, which were conceived to give paramount value to user autonomy and simplicity of operation, and to account for the implications of cultural factors that differentiate universities from corporations. In this part of the article, I will illustrate how this philosophy has been translated into implementation in UM.SiteMaker.

Individual autonomy

There is no privilege that is guarded more fiercely by academic citizens than autonomy. In the context of academic web publishing, autonomy can be defined in both technical and operational terms. For example, the scheme for web publishing that is the current norm at universities (described above) confers a high degree of technical autonomy, in that users have permission to deposit HTML pages and uploaded files as they wish, restricted only by space limitations. However, the great majority of academic users do not have the technical skills needed to take advantage of this publishing method, nor do they typically have available the services of trained staff to perform the necessary creative and technical operations. Therefore, their degree of effective autonomy is quite low.

In UM.SiteMaker we strive to maximize the effective autonomy of users by not only providing individuals with the tools to customize many aspects of their sites, but to do so by means of a user interface that requires little skill or training. In some cases the result was to limit or eliminate certain features, if the user interface needed to control them was too complex.

Extension of user control beyond page content

A fundamental concept in any database-driven web publishing system is to separate content from layout and graphic design of a page, through the use of templates. In most implementations of such systems, ordinary users are intended to have control only over textual content of specific pages, whereas control over other aspects of website organization and appearance are normally reserved for developers or trained administrators. Because this level of autonomy is insufficient to allow a user to design their own site, in UM.SiteMaker we gave site owners a simple interface to exercise direct control of some key aspects of site management beyond editing page contents.

The most important aspect of site management that we made available to site owners is the ability to define the organization of material in their site, which they accomplish by adding links within a self-configuring navigation bar, with each link representing a "section" of their site (Fig. 1). By offering a small number of flexible section types, we have been able to maintain an interface that untrained users can use without consulting documentation [4].

In addition, site owners are empowered to specify the template that determines the graphics and overall layout for the pages in their site, by selecting from a list of choices that are associated with their organizational unit. This feature derives from recognition that users in an academic culture respect the value of consistency, but they chafe at lockstep uniformity. As a result, it is possible for sites within a particular unit to have some individuality in terms of accent colors or ornamental graphics, while still displaying essential elements of the unit identity, or "brand".

The last item that I will mention here is "Embedded Sites", which was developed in response to requests from pilot users who rapidly outgrew the limitations of a website with only a single level of navigation links, and who asked for a simple method for creating hierarchical sites. Our solution was to allow sites to be "embedded" within one another. In addition to providing users with a method for hierarchical content, it also gives them the ability to reuse content in multiple locations.

Sharing private resources

Academic users routinely collaborate with colleagues both within and outside of their own institution, and often need to share information privately. Despite the attractiveness of using a website for this purpose, access control for a conventional website is too complex to be practical for non-technical users. In UM.SiteMaker, site owners are able to create and populate access groups, and apply them to website sections or uploaded files. Internal (UM) people who are entered into access groups use institutional authentication, whereas external (non-UM) people use their Email address as their user ID, and maintain their own password through a mailback mechanism (Fig. 2). In this way, we avoid the need for either site owners or administrators to manage user accounts or passwords.

Furthermore, we have implemented a feature to simplify the whole process of sharing private files, when attaching them to Email is undesirable or unsuccessful (e.g., due to size limitations or encoding problems). Ordinarily, this would take several steps: upload the file, assign access control, make a link to the file, create a user account for the recipient, explain to the recipient how to log in and where to find the file for downloading. Instead, UM.SiteMaker users can click once to bring up a screen that allows them to fill in the recipient's Email address and generate a message that contains a link to the desired file, including a temporary key that substitutes for authentication and authorization (Fig. 3). By this approach, we avoid the need to create a user account for the recipient.

Local administrative control

In academia, autonomy is important for units as well as for individuals. Therefore, we built into UM.SiteMaker the capacity for system administrators to easily create and modify a representation of an institution's organizational hierarchy, thus permitting control of administrative functions to be delegated to staff in local units. This benefits each unit by investing it with the authority to set policies for websites that are associated with it. In addition, individuals within the unit are also helped by enabling them to call upon local staff when administrative service is needed.

It is important to note that we also took great care to simplify the interface used by local support staff for administrative tasks (Fig. 4). These staff people are often key players in the decision-making process of individual users who are trying to determine if they should experiment with or adopt a system like UM.SiteMaker. Obviously, they are more likely to recommend a product if it makes their job easier or if it provides value to their users without increasing their own burden significantly.

How UM.SiteMaker is being used

Perhaps the best way to convey how UM.SiteMaker facilitates academic web publishing is to provide real life examples of its use. Below are short descriptions of different kinds of websites that have been constructed with this application, along with a link to each site (which may, of course, change over time) and a link to a screenshot of each site's home page, for archival purposes.

"CS2 Vector Resource" is owned and managed by Prof. Turner in the Biological Chemistry Dept. His laboratory has created a series of molecular biology reagents (cloning vectors) that are frequently requested by other scientists. This site is a public resource that contains various types of information about the vectors, including descriptions, maps and sequences. (Live site) (Screenshot)

"University of Michigan Trumpet Studio" was created by Prof. William Campbell in the School of Music. This site is updated frequently with information regarding the day-to-day activities in the Trumpet Studio. The form for comments on the home page and the guestbook section were added by Prof. Campbell, with advice from consultants in the UM Media Union. (Live site) (Screenshot)

"Christopher A. Thoms" is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. This is one of a series of graduate student websites that are intended to serve as portfolios of each student's progress towards their degree. The local administrator facilitated creation of this site by creating an example website that contained sample information, and then cloning it for each student. The students were then free to replace the sample information with their own, and to extend or modify the website structure as they felt was appropriate. (Live site) (Screenshot)

"The Way Some Japanese Live Now" was used by Prof. John Campbell to organize and promote a conference that was held at UM in January 2002. The website remains online as an archival resource for materials from that conference. (Live site) (Screenshot)

"Victor Multilabel Plate Reader" is owned and managed by Prof. Richard Neubig, who uses this website as a means of communicating with local colleagues about a shared instrument that is located in his laboratory. (Live site) (Screenshot)

"Social Work Library Staff Manual" is a website owned by Karen Blackford, for the purpose of distributing materials privately, to library staff. Most of the contents of this site are available only to members of an access group that Karen created. (Live site) (Screenshot)

What lies ahead for UM.SiteMaker?

Adoption of the service at UM and elsewhere

The first version of UM.SiteMaker that was intended for campus-wide use became available in late November 2001. Organized user support for the program was announced in mid-January, 2002. Visits to UM.SiteMaker have increased steadily from about 600 per week in November (at which time there were 41 active websites made by pilot users), and are currently at a level of about 3000 visits per week, with 484 published websites (June, 2002). Of these published websites, about 280 appear to be active, as defined by a minimum of 30 hits over a period of 14 days or longer.

We noted that this traffic spiked during the week following the announcement of user support and after each of two campus-wide promotional events (a sidebar item in the official university newsweekly and a campus-wide Email to faculty). These observations are a reminder that the success of a service depends on not only its technical merit, but also on communicating with the target audience about the availability and purpose of the service. In the case of academic users, this communication appears to be most effective when it is repeated regularly in a concise format. Presumably, this is because the interest of any particular user in such a service peaks for short periods of time, when the need for it becomes acute, and is much lower when no "crisis" exists.

It is difficult to predict how high usage of UM.SiteMaker might climb, as we do not have any way to determine the number of personal or small group websites that are currently active at UM, or any model for estimating how many new individual websites might arise with the advent of a service to facilitate their construction. In the absence of a model that applies specifically to this kind of service, we can consider what is known about the phases of technology diffusion, in general. At this point, we appear to be in the "early adopter" phase of the diffusion process, during which time 2.5% to 13.5% of eventual use typically occurs [5]. If this is correct, then usage of UM.SiteMaker would be expected to increase about 7 to 40-fold over current levels.

Throughout the development of UM.SiteMaker we have been contacted on many occasions by people from other educational and non-profit organizations, who expressed interest in providing the service to their own users. Because it would be impractical for our university programming staff to support other institutions, we considered other ways to facilitate the proliferation of UM.SiteMaker, and decided on a licensing strategy. As a result, we made an agreement with Global Village Consulting (Vancouver, BC, Canada) by which they became the developer and exclusive licensee for the product, which they are now distributing under the name "GVC SiteMaker".

Database functionality exposed to users through "Virtual Tables"

The current feature set of UM.SiteMaker is derived largely from needs that were identified by faculty at the time that the project was begun. However, one important need expressed by these faculty that is still unmet is the ability to create and manage simple databases through a web interface. We are now in the process of adding that capability, in the form of a feature called "Virtual Tables". This name derives from the implementation strategy, in which data structures that appear to be database tables to the user do not actually correspond to tables in the underlying database, but instead are instances of "table" objects. We believe that this approach (which is facilitated by extension of the Enterprise Objects Framework that is part of WebObjects) will give us much greater flexibility for further enhancing this feature in the future than if we had to create and modify real database tables.

Some obvious uses of Virtual Tables are for holding research data and laboratory inventories. In addition, though, we also expect that Virtual Tables will also be used to produce address books, image galleries, biosketches, guestbooks and other types of functionalities that would otherwise be difficult for an individual or a small group to create in a shared, access-controlled manner.

Summary

The use of websites for sharing public and private information generated by individual academic users is arguably the most important and yet least well served segment of academic web publishing. UM.SiteMaker is aimed at filling this need, by providing these users with a system that allows them to create highly customized websites without needing to possess or to hire technical expertise. Early evidence supports the idea that non-technical academic users, if supplied with a system that provides a sufficient degree of effective autonomy, will utilize it to create and maintain websites that are effective outlets for their creative activities. UM.SiteMaker might therefore catalyze the kind of "bottom-up" efforts that Mr. Hunter suggested are necessary to make web publishing a way of life in universities, rather than a novelty.

Additional information about UM.SiteMaker is available at http://sitemaker.umich.edu/sitemaker.resources

References

  1. The Management of Content: Universities and the Electronic Publishing Revolution, Philip Hunter, Ariadne, Issue 28, June 2001. URL: <http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue28/cms/>
  2. UM.CourseTools home page. URL: <http://coursetools.ummu.umich.edu/>
  3. JISC TechWatch Report: Content Management Systems, Paul Browning and Mike Lowndes, September 2001. URL: <http://www.jisc.ac.uk/techwatch/reports/tsw_01-02.pdf>
  4. SiteMaker Usability Study, Chassy Cleland, Liyu Cao, Yanyan Zhang, Project for SI-612, April 2002. URL: <http://sitemaker.umich.edu/sitemaker.usability> (available from authors upon request)
  5. Diffusion of innovations, Everett M. Rogers, (4th ed.) New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Author Details

Jonathan Maybaum
Professor of Pharmacology,
University of Michigan Medical School,
Ann Arbor.
Email: maybaum@umich.edu

Date published: 
8 July 2002

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.

How to cite this article

Jonathan Maybaum. "UM.Sitemaker: Flexible Web Publishing for Academic Users". July 2002, Ariadne Issue 32 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue32/maybaum/


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