Web Focus: Report On The Sixth Institutional Web Management Workshop
The Institutional Web Management Workshop series is the main event organised by UK Web Focus. The workshop series began with a two-day event at King's College London in June 1997. The event has been repeated every year since then and, after the first event, was extended to a three-day format.
Overview Of This Year's Event
This year's event was held at the University of Strathclyde. The full title of the workshop was "Institutional Web Management Workshop 2002: The Pervasive Web". The workshop aimed to address issues associated with the management of institutional Web services which are pervasive in so many aspects of our work (teaching, research and administration) as well as in our social lives (how many of us caught up with World Cup scores using the Web?).
This year's event was the largest to date, attracting over 175 participants. But was it the best? The workshop evaluation forms have not yet been analysed (this report is being written just a few days after the workshop finished). However an initial analysis indicates a high degree of satisfaction, with over 20% of the forms received so far giving the event a score of Excellent for both the workshop content and organisation, and most of the other forms giving ratings of between excellent and good. These results reflect the very positive buzz at the workshop and the various informal comments I have received. A full analysis of the evaluation forms will be published shortly  which will provided more detailed insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the event.
A number of new features were introduced to the workshop this year. This follows a review of the feedback from last year's workshop, held at Queen's University Belfast, in which there was a feeling that, although the event was enjoyable and well-organised, the content was somewhat flat . The Programme Committee addressed these comments be revising the format of the workshop, with a mixture of plenary talks and group sessions, providing even more parallel sessions that previous years and introducing a number of new features, all of which are described below.
Opening Keynote Plenary Talks
This year some thought had been given to the role of the plenary talks. The Programme Committee agreed that the first two days should begin with inspired visions of the future from speakers of proven quality.
The workshop opened with a hilarious and thought-provoking talk by Derek Law, University of Strathclyde. Derek's talk had the intriguing title "Are All The Children In Their Bed?". Although the slides for this talk (along with the slides for all of the plenary speakers) are available on the workshop Web site, they will fail to convey Derek's message and his style of presenting. Fortunately a video of his talk is available from the workshop Web site . Viewing is strongly recommended!
Bill Nisen, Chief Executive of the E-Institute - a "collaboration between the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow that aims to better equip Scotland to fight for a world-leading place in the 'new economy'"  - gave the opening keynote plenary talk  on the second day of the workshop.
Bill acknowledged that the Web has become one of the most important information and communication inventions. But he asked us to consider if the Web can store, process and deliver knowledge? He speculated on use of the Web as a knowledge tool and discussed the implication of current trends.
Bill talk was well-received, perhaps, in part, as it allowed delegates to sit back and listen to the vision, without having to worry that this would be something that would new implementing over the next few weeks!
Other Plenary Talks
The main plenary speakers were all Web management practitioners within the HE and FE communities. All had been asked to provide case studies of relevant developments within their institutions, to avoid bland generalities, to be prepared to describe any difficulties they had experienced and, if appropriate, to be prepared to be air controversial views.
Andrew Aird, the Director of Web Services at King's College London, was certainly prepared to be controversial in his talk "Virtually Everything Virtually Everywhere: Pursuing A Radical Web Strategy" . Included in Andrew's rather controversial Web strategy were the banning and MS Word and PDF files, automated deletion of content, banning of Dreamweaver and other HTML editing tools and giving the central Web team ultimate control over the institutions Web site! Andrew did admit that some of his suggestions were rather tongue-in-cheek - and he did not go into detail as he would like his strategy to be implemented. However Andrew certainly ensured the workshop got off to a lively start, and after his talk had finished many delegates asked for the microphone to ask Andrew questions, and to challenge his views. Interestingly, though, some of Andrew's controversial points were echoed in other sessions, with the Technical Issues discussion group, for example, also feeling that use of a centralised Content Management System was preferable to use of distributed HTML authoring tools, and others discussing accessibility issues mentioned the difficulties of providing accessible Web site if there is no central control over Web authoring tools. Perhaps next year we may find that Andrew's controversial Web strategy is on the path to becoming part of a mainstream orthodoxy.
Lawrie Phipps, who runs the JISC-funded TechDis Service, which looks at all aspects of Technology and Disabilities in the further and higher education sectors, gave an update on "Legislation, Disabilities and Education Web Sites" . Within the sector there is quite a high level of awareness of the importance of accessible Web sites, especially amongst those who are responsible for managing institutional Web services. However not everybody was aware of SENDA, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, which confers similar rights upon disabled students against educational institutions as those available to disabled people against service providers under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act. With SENDA compliance becoming law on September, this briefing from Lawrie was very timely. Lawrie also provided a TechDis Briefing Paper on Institutional Web sites and Legislation, which is also available on the Workshop Web site .
It was pleasing this year to have a speaker from the FE sector. Stephen Tanner, Head of IT Services at Colchester Institute, described the approaches taken to the provision of a portal for staff in his college . Stephen argued that many institutions with the educational sector do not have the resources to develop IT services which are tailored to the diverse needs of a wide range of user communities. He feels that we should tell our users that "the silver service is off" and they will have to use the "drive-thru" option, based on the deployment of commercial software.
Stephen's talk was followed by Mark Simpson, a User Issues researcher at De Montfort University (DMU). Mark described the approaches taken to usability testing and design of DMU's VLE, which was developed locally because, according to Mark, of the lack of suitable commercial products .
Like Stephen, Mark has never attended an Institutional Web Management Workshop before. These two talks complemented each other nicely, one looking at a staff portal in an FE college which was developed using commercial software and the other looking at the usability issues of a student VLE in a HE institution developed using home-grown software.
Mike McConnell and Iain Middleton from the University of Aberdeen gave another somewhat controversial talk on "Centralised Control or Departmental Freedom? . Mike and Iain outlined the problems with a developed approach to the provision of Web services, and reviewed the approaches that had been taken at Robert Gordon University and the University of Aberdeen to try and remedy these problems.
Paul Browning kindly agreed to step in at the last minute to give a talk which aimed to pull together a topic of much interest in previous workshops - CMS - and one of interest at this one - Portals. In his talk "Portals and CMS - Why You Need Them Both" Paul reviewed the current state of play with CMSs and showed how a CMS was needed to manage content which would be accessed, perhaps with a personalised view, using a portal .
A number of innovations were introduced to the workshop this year. We provided a panel session which address the topic "Avoiding Portal Wars" . This session illustrated the different approaches taken to the provision of portals by different groups including the Library, MIS departments, the teaching and learning community as well as external bodies such as JISC. The aim of the session was to illustrate the different approaches which are being taken, the different understandings of the term "portal" and to highlight the dangers of different groups within institutions attempting to develop institutional portals in competition with each other. However the lack of time available for each speaker made it difficult to bring out these issues. A panel session is probably worth keeping for next year, but the session will need some fine-tuning.
Another new feature this year were the debates. Two debates were held in parallel: of interest to software developers and other "techies" was the debate on "The house believes that the future of Web in UK Higher and Further Education communities lies in the adoption of open source software" while the managers where asked to consider motion "The house believes that Web Strategies are a waste of time" . The feedback indicates that many delegates found the debates to be fun. The speakers certainly found them a useful way in which to put across perhaps unpopular or controversial views, without encountering the hostility which sometimes occurs on mailing lists. We will probably repeat the debates next year, again with some fine-tuning. Would any be prepared to argue on controversial topics such as "We should ban the use of HTML authoring tools", "Web standards are too difficult and to slow in arriving - let market-place solutions drive the Web" or even "Accessible Web sites are too expensive to develop and the costs cannot be justified"? If so, please get in touch.
To complement the plenary talks (which are very much in the control of the speaker) and the parallel sessions (which have a facilitator who has the brief of encouraging interaction from participants) this year we introduced a number of discussion groups sessions, in which delegates were free to appoint their own facilitator and choose the topic for discussion within a broad area of VLEs and MLEs, Portals, Technical Issues, Web Strategies, Support for Information providers and Design and Accessibility (the session on Career Development failed to attract sufficient interest) . These sessions probably worked well, although a number of participants suggested that a facilitator should have been appointed in advance.
We also provided a small number of briefing sessions, including one's on Web Standards, Interoperability and Learning Standards and Web Sites and Legislation . These seemed to prove popular and will probably be repeated next year.
It was also felt to be important to allow workshop delegates to have the opportunity to organise their own Birds-of-a-Feather session. Rooms were reserved, which could be used if at least 10 delegates signed up for a session. It was pleasing that, following a parallel session on Authentication, a group who had an interest in pursuing the technical aspects of authentication arranged a BoF on this topic.
The final innovation was the "Vendor Presentation" slot . There has been interest in the past from delegates who would like the opportunity to hear out commercial software, such as Content Management Systems. The vendor presentation slot aimed to provide an opportunity for two vendors, both with an interest in the HE and FE sector, to describe their products. The session was held in parallel with other briefing sessions. We are still to evaluate this session.
In all six of the Institutional Web Management workshops we have held parallel workshop sessions, which provide the opportunity for delegates to make an active contribution to proceedings. These sessions have always proved popular, so this year we increased the number of parallel sessions and the number which delegates could choose to attend. Delegates could choose to attend 3 sessions from a total of 24 separate sessions, which included 19 interactive workshop sessions, 3 briefing sessions, a vendor presentations slot or a Birds-of-a-Feather session
Many of the materials used in the parallel session are available on the workshop Web site  and we hope to make available additional materials, including notes on the workshop sessions if and when we receive them.
This year we also made a number of innovations to the Workshop Web site . The workshop Web site is mostly created in XHTML, with an increasing amount of CSS used to describe the appearance of the Web site. We provide a dynamically-created RSS news feed for the site, and are using the Web site as a test bed to developed a quality assurance framework, which includes use of a variety of testing tools. We also provide a description of the technical architecture of the Web site .
We also provided access to the YahooGroups externally-hosted groupware service  to provide an opportunity for delegates to evaluate the potential of such services as well as to provide a mechanism for delegates, speakers and workshop facilitators to host their own content. Although this was not widely used, the infrastructure is in place if it is felt useful to provide a forum for post-workshop discussion.
Following a parallel session on Blogging  we are also considering providing access to a Weblog (or Blog) to allow participants to explore the potential of such systems by providing their own comments on the workshop.
In the workshop introduction delegates were asked to reflect on the effectiveness of previous workshops in initiating cultural change: as the workshop is now well-established it is probably no longer sufficient for delegates to find the event interesting, informative and enjoyable - the workshops should also play a role in initiating significant changes, especially in areas identified as important by delegates in the workshop.
On reflection it is clear that a number of key areas have been identified. At this workshop the importance of authentication was identified in a number of sessions, and it was pointed out that personalised portals will be difficult to implement, maintain and support without a reliable and cost-effective authentication service. It was also recognised that there are no simple answers to this problem, and that solutions were best implemented according to a national strategy based on use of open standards. The work of JISC and Alan Robiette was recognised as important .
Another important area which was flagged in previous workshops was the need for a Content Management System to support the management and repurposing of large-scale Web sites. I think this is an area in which the workshop have had a significant role to play in raising awareness of the importance of CMSs and providing a forum for discussion and debate on the approaches which are being taken.
It is likely that the area of portals is one which has been identified at this year's workshop as important to many in the community, and we will be considering ways in which we can have a significant impact in developments in this area.
Managers Or Techies / Providers Or Users
There has always been a healthy debate as to whether the workshops should focus on the needs of managers or technical developers. Judging from an initial analysis of the feedback, this year the balance has probably been just about right: strategic and managerial issues have been raised in the plenary sessions and the parallel sessions have allowed delegates to choose whether to attend strategic or technical sessions. A strength of the workshop is in providing a forum in which, to use Paul Browning's terms the "suits", the "anoracks" and the "cardigans" (managers and MIS staff, techies and librarians) can get together and gain an understanding of each other's perspectives.
However it is true to say that not many participants representing the user community attend the workshop - the focus is on the various providers of institutional Web services and not on the consumers of the services. We should probably seek to address this gap in next year's workshop, and think of ways in which to attract representatives of the user communities (the "tweed jackets" or the "gowns"?) This may be an issue to explore with the LTSN (Learning and Teaching Support Network). In would be very interesting to hear the reaction from users to some of the suggestions for more central control of Web services which were made at the workshop.
Before finishing this report, I should give my thanks to members of the Programme Committee who not only helped to provide a rich programme, but also played an active role in the workshop itself, through chairing sessions and debates and facilitating parallel sessions. The members of the Programme Committee were myself, Diane McDonald (University of Strathclyde), James Currall (University of Glasgow), Kriss Fearon (University of York), Duncan Smeed (University of Strathclyde) and Clare Rogers (JISC Assist, who was not able to attend the workshop itself).
In addition the workshop Organising Committee ensured smooth running of the workshop, despite the increased complexity with the increase in the numbers of parallel sessions. The members of the Organising Committee were myself and my colleagues Sara Hassen and Jo Stone (UKOLN). However most of the work was carried out by Diane McDonald and David Miller (University of Strathclyde) and, as mentioned in the Workshop Conclusions , particular thanks should be given to Diane and David.
Following the success of this year's event, next year's workshop is likely to have a similar format and take place sometime in June. We look forward to seeing you next year.
- Workshop Evaluation, UKOLN
- Report On The Fifth Institutional Web Management Workshop, Ariadne, issue 29,
- Are All The Children In Their Bed?, Derek Law, University of Strathclyde
- Briefing On Bill Nisen, Chief Executive E-Institute, University of Strathclyde Press Release, August 2002
- Knowledge and .. Preparing the Web for Human Use, Bill Nisen, E-Institute
- Virtually Everything Virtually Everywhere: Pursuing A Radical Web Strategy, Andrew Aird, King's College London
- Legislation, Disabilities and Educational Web Sites, Lawrie Phipps, TechDis
- The Lecturer's MIS Menu: Why Silver Service Is Off And Drive Thru's In, , Stephen Tanner, Colchester Institute
- Designing for Usability, Mark Simpson, De Montfort University
- Centralised Control or Departmental Freedom?, Mike McConnell and Iain Middleton, University of Aberdeen
- Portals and CMS - Why You Need Them Both, Paul Browning, University of Bristol
- Avoiding Portal Wars, Paul Browning, Tracey Stanley, Julie Stuckes and Tony Shaw
- Discussion Groups,
- Briefing Sessions,
- Vendor Presentations,
- Workshop Materials - Parallel Sessions,
- Institutional Web Management Workshop 2002: The Pervasive Web,
- Web Site Architecture,
- Weblogs and Blogs: What Are They? What Can They Be Used For?, Duncan Smeed, University of Strathclyde
- The Future of Authentication for JISC Services, JISC
- Workshop Conclusions, Brian Kelly, UKOLN
UK Web Focus
University of Bath