'Aberdeen??!! Make sure you take some woolly jumpers and a sou'wester then.'
Friends are always keen to give helpful advice, bless 'em, but as it turned out, it was a good job that I ignored it, as it was t-shirts every day for the 180 or so who had the privilege of attending the Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW) in the Granite City this year. Three days of glorious sunshine, mixed with stimulating talks, thought-provoking parallel sessions, lively BarCamps, good food and interesting company made for a combination that's hard to beat, despite the allocated (Hillhead) accommodation crying out for an urgent and intimate encounter with a wrecking ball * and the seagulls being on a mission to wake me up by 4.30am.
The theme of the event this year was "The Great Debate", a reference to questions surrounding all things Web 2.0 and the place of such technologies and services within the institutional context (not, as some wags might think, an invitation to discuss whether Brian Kelly's job actually entails doing any real work!).
Following a welcome from Marieke Guy, now firmly established as a very able and worthy successor to Brian Kelly as the main IWMW organiser and conference chair, we enjoyed a brief introduction to the University and the city from Mike McConnell, the University of Aberdeen's Web Manager, who in turn introduced his colleague Derrick McClure, who gave us a fascinating insight into Doric, the dialect spoken in Aberdeen. By the end of this we all knew that we had no hope of understanding the locals, but it was still going to be fun trying! What a welcome change this proved to be from the rather dry introductory address from the VC or some other senior staff member who is usually wheeled out at such conferences and we can only hope that this approach is repeated at all future Workshops.
In the opening plenary, Cameron Neylon extolled the virtues of the open approach to research planning, execution and publication that Web 2.0 tools and services can enable, contrasted with the 'old' and rather closed methodologies that many researchers (and their universities) still seem to favour. Cameron admitted that a culture change would have to take place if we are to see more openness, but a number of good examples were quoted where research labs or individuals are making use of various Web 2.0 tools in their work. These included: Nasa's Phoenix Mars Lander giving updates and answering people's questions using the Twitter microblog service ; The Redfield Lab's use of blogs to give day-to-day accounts of their research ; the OpenWetWare wiki, promoting 'the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology and biological engineering' ; and an interesting example of a research proposal suggested, collaboratively compiled, and submitted in less than a week via the use of a blog, Google Docs and other e-collaboration tools . I'm sure that few in the audience would have argued against Cameron's zealous support for more openness in research and the helpful role that the latest Web tools can play within this environment.
The second plenary was due to be given by Helen Aspell from the University of Southampton but due to illness was given instead by James Souttar and Dean Russell from Precedent Communications, the company that has recently worked with Southampton on their rebranding and on the development of iSoton . I confess that having heard from these speakers before, about brand intimacy, brand engagement and the like, I wasn't necessarily paying full attention, but please don't take that as a comment on the quality of their content! One of the main things that Dean shared with us was the 'SAFE Matrix', which was developed as a way of assessing the impact of different communication tools and techniques within the institutional e-communication context. The acronym represents the quadrants on a graph plotting brand engagement against brand intimacy and stands for Sensory (low intimacy, high engagement), Awareness (low intimacy, low engagement), Functional (high intimacy, low engagement) and Educational (high intimacy, high engagement). An example of an activity was given for each quadrant: a Second Life presence falling under 'Sensory'; a banner advert under 'Awareness'; email under 'Functional' and 'online learning' under 'Educational'. Dean then attempted to explain the use of a 'Critical Success Factors' assessment tool to help in assigning scores to different technologies and features, thus enabling a quantitative comparison that can be used to help guide decision making and to determine priorities in the development of particular Web site features. Each time I've heard this talk I've struggled at this point, as it all seems rather arbitrary to me, but perhaps that's just because I'm a bit slow and my brain doesn't work in the same way as theirs! Dean told us how the University of Southampton had set up a public blog at the time the new branding was released, but of more interest to me was an interruption from James at this point with the observation that Southampton chose after a while to 'bury' the blog much further down within the Web site and that universities may not actually be able to 'do' blogging properly at the moment because the culture of open and public engagement that is required is just too alien. A very fair point, although I think James was preaching to the converted in Aberdeen.
I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling that Mike should have been given a much longer slot, although I admit to being a bit biased due to my background in archaeology and museums. In the Web 2.0 world, we're now in an era where anyone can be a curator, with the public very much involved in the production of heritage material and the sharing of experiences etc. An interesting example of an organisation making photo archives available via Flickr Commons was given (the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney) . We were shown a museum that asks visitors to blog about their experiences and links to them from the museum Web site . And we were encouraged to abandon the rest of the conference to play Launchball, a fun and educational Flash game on the Science Museum Web site where visitors can create and share their own levels with friends .
Claire spoke to us about the use that they are making of the Ning social networking site as part of their 'Develop Me!' initiative . This student retention project aims to provide an online environment in which prospective and new students can access resources and interact with each other and with staff to help develop their confidence and skills, and one aspect of this is the provision of a social networking space on Ning . The fact that the Ning site has just 60 members after two months in operation possibly suggests that this won't be heavily used, but time will tell and Claire was clear about the fact that the site may only have a short life span, with students linking up on Facebook and on other spaces after that. We also learnt about "The Hub" – a place where student services are being brought together, both physically and online .
This year's Workshop had just one slot set aside for a discussion time, in which we were split into smaller groups to consider the future of the IWMW event itself. My group were very firmly of the opinion that the great value of the event is in its physical, face-to-face nature, and that a move to a more virtual gathering would be a negative thing. By all means continue to provide a live video feed and give opportunities for remote participants to get involved, but on no account must the physical gathering be curtailed, as this is where the greatest strength and value of the event lies. It gives busy Web people a chance to get away from their usual work environment and to share with and learn from colleagues from a variety of related but different institutions. It would be a very great shame if this event could not continue as a real gathering of Web professionals (and yes, I would even be willing to stay in grotty student halls if that's the price to pay to keep it real rather than virtual!).
Following the afternoon coffee break we had the first of the two slots allocated to parallel sessions. I found myself in Mike Nolan's very interesting group where he told us all about 'Stuff What We're doing at Edge Hill University'. One of Mike's slides appeared to betray a somewhat irrational phobia of Web content management systems (perhaps arising from a traumatic encounter with Vignette?), an issue that resurfaced during the lively and helpful discussions that accompanied Mike's slides. We played Buzzword Bingo to make us pay attention (which, incidentally, I won, but for which I received no prize except the rather empty sounding promise of a drink next year!). We learnt about Edge Hill's 'Hi' site , specifically aimed at bridging the gap for traditional undergraduate students between application through UCAS and arrival at the University. The site contains a forum for people to ask questions and several existing students are paid to blog on it. Our discussions also touched on student and staff portals, including Edge Hill's 'Go' student portal site, promoted as the next step for users of the 'Hi' site once their relationship with the University has moved from betrothal to marriage (figuratively speaking of course) .
The conference dinner took place on the first evening and was a very enjoyable affair in Elphinstone Hall. The wine, food and conversation were good, and the attempt at dancing the Gay Gordons at the ceilidh afterwards very amusing. My wife and children are right – I can't dance! Walking back to the halls just before midnight with some glimmers of light still in the western sky across Seaton Park was the icing on the cake of the first day. Wonderful.
Wednesday morning started badly, with the dreaded seagulls squawking at dawn and the conference blurb getting the breakfast times wrong, but the pleasant walk down to the University for the start of Day Two soon erased those memories.
I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what David was saying about some of the dangers of adopting Web 2.0 features without careful thought as to their applicability, relevance, usability and accessibility. Despite David's claim to be something of a sceptic/critic when it comes to Web 2.0, in the end he was actually quite positive about the use of these tools and technologies where they add genuine value to a site and don't distract users from achieving their goals, a view that I think struck a chord with quite a few in the audience. An example of an acceptable Web 2.0 feature (in David's book) is the 'Penguin of the Day' area on the British Antarctic Survey site, with its voting facility and RSS feed.
Alison Wildish, back by popular demand following a very good talk last year about her work at Edge Hill, gave the next plenary about her new role in the rather different environment of the University of Bath where she is now Head of Web Services. Alison compared and contrasted the situations at Bath and Edge Hill and sought to address some of the criticisms/comments muttered last year that 'stuff what she was doing at Edge Hill' just wouldn't work at a traditional university. In her very able, engaging and beautifully illustrated style Alison acknowledged the differences in culture, management and priorities between the two institutions but gave us an insight into some of things that she is doing to get this traditional university to take its Web marketing activities more seriously, to develop an online identity, to make better use of existing information and to interact with their Web site users in a more engaging way. We heard about the brain-storming and mind-mapping sessions that Alison ran with her team to clarify their vision for the Web at Bath. A communications strategy was developed to tell the rest of the University about their work and plans and to offer information and training events. A plan for change was presented to the Web Management Board and the VC Group and top-level support was duly secured. The Web team has been reshaped to enable more of a focus on development and marketing/communications activities rather than providing ongoing support for Web applications. One idea that appealed to many people present was the 'Get Creative' week that Alison has planned during August to give her team an opportunity to break away from their usual work and to do something, er, creative, that hasn't necessarily been asked for but that will benefit the University in some way. It is hoped that this will provide an environment in which the team can work together in a new way and that it will help to enthuse and refresh them for the work that lies ahead. While I don't think Alison said anything particularly new or radical, it's certainly good to hear such a well-articulated presentation of a number of the key issues involved in managing a traditional university's Web presence.
Rob, a Programme Manager at JISC, provided an overview of JISC-funded projects that touch on ways in which universities are using and/or responding to Web 2.0 technologies, user-owned devices, user-contributed data, personalisation and self-service applications and systems. I found it a shame that Rob didn't spend longer talking about just one or two specific projects in greater depth, but it was good to know what JISC is funding in this area, and more details, as ever, are available on the JISC Web site . I was interested to hear of the work of the Kuali Foundation, a body that is co-ordinating the development of open source administrative software for the Higher Education sector . Considering the eye-watering costs of many of the commercial offerings in this area, this could well be one to watch for the future.
The final plenary of the morning was given by James Currall from the University of Glasgow, with the tantalising title 'The Tangled Web is but a Fleeting Dream ...but then again...', which you will of course have realised was about the preservation and archiving of Web-based resources. James gets at least three prizes for his talk. One for finding a very relevant passage about the importance of archives in Ezra chapters 5 and 6. Another for being the most mobile speaker, pacing up and down the aisles while delivering his talk. And a third for making the first use of the voting facility in the auditorium whereby each person could press a button to indicate a 'No', 'Yes' or 'Abstain' vote when invited. We were challenged to consider that far more important than 'How?' and 'Who?' when considering Web archiving is the question 'Why?', which in turn should help us to answer the questions 'What?' and 'When?' (how often). Only then can we address the 'Where?' and 'Who?' questions, followed by 'How?' This talk raised some excellent issues which helped to show that Web archiving is not necessarily as straightforward a thing as you might think, especially in the Web 2.0 world. One comment right near the end struck me as being the most important point of the whole talk: 'Don't let management try to turn a policy question into a technology problem'. I suspect that many Web Managers are concerned about the issue of archiving, but their institutions aren't necessarily ready (or willing) to discuss the wider policy issues that ought to be established before the practicalities are addressed. James also had the (dubious?) honour of being filmed by Brian Kelly on his new toy – a Flip Ultra video camera designed to simplify the creation and uploading of Web-quality videos to video sharing sites such as YouTube. The results in this instance can be found on Google Video .
After lunch Stephanie's plenary was a valiant attempt to convince us all that an Institutional Repository (IR) can have a legitimate place among an institution's electronic and Web publication activities. Personally I think it's hard to get away from the fact that many regard an IR at best as a confusing distraction from an institution's existing Web sites and systems or at worst as a dead duck of a system that becomes an embarrassment to the institution by virtue of its cavernous emptiness. While I wouldn't argue against Stephanie's conclusion that an IR can have a role to play, it seems to me that the most important issues are that the institution properly considers the purpose and place of an IR, communicates this to the intended contributors, openly commits to its development and ongoing support, and firmly encourages the full and widespread contribution of resources to it. As in James' talk about Web archiving, the fundamental points are not technical at all, but relate to matters of policy and management.
Before our afternoon tea break we were invited to participate in not one, but two BarCamp sessions of our choosing, each lasting just 20 minutes. The idea here was that at the start of the Workshop any participant who had something they wanted to share or discuss could write a title against a room number on a board in the King's College entrance hall. Those of us who didn't feel inclined to run a group could then just turn up to whichever group we thought sounded interesting. I chose to attend one session about the qualifications required to be a Web Manager, which was reasonably interesting but way too short to allow for thorough discussion and participation, which was a great shame. As that group overran, I chose not to attend a second session except to sit briefly and listen in on the group that had the best venue – under a tree outside Elphinstone Hall – as they discussed issues surrounding the selling of an institution's soul to Microsoft. Sorry, I mean the implementation of Microsoft's 'Live@edu' hosted email service (which I'm sure is fine and dandy, etc etc).
Following a much needed tea break it was time for the second parallel session. Stephen Emmott, Director of Web Services, LSE, gave a presentation entitled 'Tactics to Strategy, and Back Again' which proved to be a very interesting and helpful opportunity to clarify some of the jargon that surrounds Web management activities. He invited us to consider the categorisation of the issues and topics represented by this jargon into 'means' and 'ends', and to explore a slightly different way of looking at Web management issues by using state transition diagrams. The latter involves thinking about subjects (e.g. a Web page) that have states (e.g. draft, published or archived) and the transitions (actions) that take you from one state to another (e.g. edit, publish, archive). Basically this is a way of breaking down potentially complex issues into a series of small steps, and as such is something with which all Web managers are familiar, albeit without necessarily thinking about it consciously in this way. What was interesting was the way in which Stephen then brought some of these ideas together and grouped them, with task (means) and goals, objectives and risks (ends) being seen as falling under project management, tactics (means) and strategies (ends) coming together under operational management, and procedures (means) and policies (ends) categorised as governance. I found this session to be really thought-provoking, and I hope to spend more time soon mulling over Stephen's approach with reference to my own situation at Birkbeck.
On the Wednesday evening we set off on a coach into town, to a drinks reception at the Aberdeen Art Gallery. It was a shame that we weren't able to look round anything other than the main entrance hall, but it was enough to provoke some good-natured debate about modern abstract art and the emperor's new clothes. We then scurried off in smaller groups to various pubs and restaurants in the city centre to enjoy the local cuisine. My fellow Birkbeckian and I had a very good time with the friendly bunch from the University of Kent and a few others at the Old Blackfriars. The Chieftain Haggis was very tasty, as was the cheesecake for desert! Those with more stamina than I headed off to another pub later, while I returned to Hillhead, via Seaton Park. The end of another full and interesting day.
After the hustle and bustle of checking out of our Hillhead accommodation on the final morning and lugging our cases down to King's College (well, OK, a coach did all the hard work), we enjoyed a quite leisurely morning session being shown all the entries into this year's Innovation Competition . Not surprisingly some were (much) better than others, and some couldn't really be described as innovative, but as this wasn't exactly a formal or deeply serious competition with rigorously applied rules, no one really minded. The winning entry was one of the non-innovative examples, although it was certainly creative. It was an IWMW version of the famous song 'The lion sleeps tonight' (a.k.a 'Whimaway', 'In the jungle' etc), sung by Debbie Nicholson, Claire Gibbons, Miles Banbery, Keith Brooke and David Williams, poking fun, among other things, at Brian Kelly's twittering habits . Of the more serious entries, among the ones that caught my eye (and got my vote) were David Mackland's Google Maps mashup tool that enables departments within the University of Abertay to create and maintain Google Maps containing links to points of interest without needing any coding/Web development skills at all ; and Dawn Petherick's live train departures information tool, developed at the University of Birmingham to help students and staff to see this information within the institutional portal environment rather than having to visit an external Web site. This system uses the Association of Train Operating Companies' live departure boards API to pull the relevant data into a portal channel .
This final plenary was widely regarded as the best of the whole event. His talk addressed the issue of young people's use of social networks such as MySpace or Bebo and other 'spaces', the importance of the experiences and collaborations that such networks and technologies allow, and the ways in which educators should respond to these developments that are intrinsic to the lives of the 'Bebo Boomers' who are heading our way. In terms of our use of the Web in teaching and learning, Ewan left us with three questions: what (simple) tools help learning to be remarkable?; how can we create a shared awareness? and; what changes would we make to get small passionate groups creating themselves? I'm really glad that Ewan was invited to give this final plenary, which was so inspiring, informative and entertaining (especially the YouTube video of the frozen Grand Central Station event ).
Obviously there are many things that I have left out, but I hope this has given a fair flavour of the event. By my reckoning the Workshop this year was a great success, giving us much to think about, many ideas to explore and apply, some really productive networking opportunities and the chance to enjoy that apparently rare phenomenon of three continuous days of sunshine and >20°C temperatures in Aberdeen. A big thank you to the organisers for putting together such a good event and to God for the fantastic weather. And long may the Institutional Web Management Workshop continue to be a real, physical 'space' for face-to-face interaction.