The 12th annual Institutional Web Managers Workshop (IWMW) attracted nearly 200 delegates, making it the largest workshop in the event's history. Whilst the popularity of the physical event has grown, so too has the remote audience. So this year organisers Marieke Guy and Brian Kelly decided that it was time to start treating this remote audience as first class citizens.
That's where I came in. As live blogger, my job was to amplify IWMW 2009; providing a live commentary via Twitter on the dedicated @iwmwlive account, blogging on the IWMW 2009 blog , uploading video interviews and co-ordinating all the online resources via a NetVibes page  to give the remote audience a more complete experience of attending and to create a digital footprint for the proceedings, complementing the fantastic live video streaming provided by the University of Essex. In this report, I will give a summary of the event as a whole, together with observations about the successes and challenges of co-ordinating all the digital output from an event with experimental formats....
Day 1: 28 July 2009
Chaired by Marieke Guy, UKOLN
There were new features in this year's programme, which Marieke introduced in her opening to the workshop. These included a Developers' Lounge, a quiet area for those wishing to avoid inclusion in photographs and live video streaming, and front-end/back-end strands for some of the plenaries.
Brian Kelly set the scene for the event's discussions by highlighting how student expectations, environmental issues and the social Web are all changing the way universities operate in the digital world. IWMW provides an opportunity to get together and discuss how to move forward with these issues, but in the current economic climate, where university Web teams are likely to face cuts, it also provides an opportunity to discuss how to survive.
To capture these discussions, Brian introduced the #iwmw2009 tag, to be used in combination with short tags for each plenary session (e.g. #p1) to help filter and organise tweets generated throughout the event. Over half the delegates reported that they would be tweeting, so this system would provide us with a rich, searchable record of what was said.
Keith Brooke, Web and Learning Technology Manager at University of Essex, welcomed us to Colchester and to the Ivor Crew Lecture Theatre, which was to be our base throughout. He stressed the importance his department places on the annual IWMW event and was excited to be hosting this year's event, which he and his team did impeccably.
Marieke then got things started by introducing the first plenary...
Keynote Plenary: Headlights on Dark Roads
Derek Law, University of Strathclyde
Derek Law spoke about the uncertainty universities and libraries face as they negotiate the new economic and digital environment, questioning the relevance of the university library, as information and students are increasingly moving to the Web. He noted that libraries are failing in a digital world due to a number of factors, including lack of underpinning philosophy about the provision and preservation of Web resources, the rise of the managerial technocrat, complacency and a failure to engage with e-resources. In a time when large portions of universities' activities could be outsourced to Google, the issues faced by institutional Web managers providing institutional Web resources become even more important.
Derek suggested that increasingly we are moving towards a society that uses images rather than words as cultural reference points. Recording your participation in an event – such as the London bombings of July 2005– comes in the form or a photograph snapped on your mobile, rather than a literary record. He also suggested that we may be moving towards a society where a-literacy becomes acceptable. A-literacy implies the skill of reading and writing text becomes an optional lifestyle choice, and may lead to the possibility of completing a PhD without being able to read or write. Why would you need to write a methodology for your experiment, when you could just video the experiment being conducted and upload it? Law noted that this, and text message shorthand, does not necessarily signal a dumbing down, but rather a change in the way we communicate.
Derek stressed that most institutions seem to be adopting a 'digital overlap strategy' (i.e. cross your fingers and hope) rather than developing sound policies for the creation, maintenance and curation of digital content. Most universities simply do not realise how much digital data they produce each year! Devising policies that manage and preserve that data so that the university remains a relevant centre of knowledge in the digital world is the challenge we now face. In conclusion, Law proposed that institutions need to have a clear policy to generate trust and value in their online resources, ensuring that they are institutionally defined, scholarly, cumulative and perpetual, open and interoperable.
Tuesday night saw the workshop dinner – a great barbecue together with entertainment from a caricaturist and a magician who wowed us at our tables, followed by karaoke until late (for those who could manage it!).
Day 2: 29 July 2009
Plenary: Servicing 'Core' and 'Chore'
David Harrison and Joe Nicholls, Cardiff University
David Harrison introduced Joe Nicholls, who presented this talk which examined the way both students and researchers use technology as part of their working practices. Joe's key point was the need for a holistic approach, with an iterative cycle of communication between developers and end-users to ensure that there is education about tools, enabling users to do their jobs, and an understanding of the users' requirements when developing new tools.
Joe took us through a series of diagrams demonstrating the different layers of IT interaction that researchers go through to do the different parts of their job. This involved identifying 'core' activities and 'chore' activities. He showed how the modern working environment for these researchers involves working across these different layers to complete tasks; an awareness of which is vital to best meet the needs of these researchers when developing new tools.
Joe also explained that we have to take into account external Web resources when considering how researchers and students are working, not just internal services. Understanding how and why these tools are used can help Web managers consider how best to improve their own tools and educate users about best practice, so you are effectively enabling them to work in a modern IT environment. This does not necessarily mean teaching them how to use particular tools, but rather teaching them transferable skills and literacies that enable them to move across tools and work effectively.
As technologists, we tend to focus on the tools rather than the task as a whole, but this isn't good enough in a modern IT working environment. We need to be educating users and learning about their requirements, understanding the benefits of external tools so that we support students and researchers, creating a new, agile working environment that capitalises on all of the tools that will benefit people within the university.
Plenary: Making Your Killer Applications... Killer!
Paul Boag, Headscape
This was a rally-cry to Web managers to think again about their university Web sites and online applications for prospective students. He highlighted the course-finder feature and noted the need for the designers developing these tools to stop thinking in a page-based way and consider such tools more as desktop applications.
Shifting mindsets from page-based to application-based thinking can also be a barrier. Paul suggested storyboarding and taking sanity checks by asking others to test out your application to keep the focus on designing an intuitive, interactive application. He also suggested looking outside HE at commercial Web sites for solutions that will help make the university Web site not only more useful, but also more personable.
Personableness was a big issue for Paul – emphasising the role of the university Web site as a marketing tool. He highlighted the potential for choice paralysis, the need for user engagement beyond Facebook and Twitter, and the desperate need for a copywriter. He did actually stamp his feet at this point! There is a real need for a personable voice for university Web sites, citing corporate world examples, including Flickr, who were brave enough to put up a blog post saying: 'we suck'.
Paul emphasised the need to look beyond HE and to be imaginative in our approach to meeting the needs of the prospective students – thinking of them as consumers and gearing our institutional Web sites to them accordingly.
Following the success of the BarCamps last year, three 30-minute slots after Paul's talk were dedicated to small group discussions facilitated by volunteers. These were informal, interactive sessions where delegates could choose their own topics, exchange ideas experiences and questions.
Following the BarCamps, the programme was split into two strands: the front-end (marketing, communications and management-focussed delegates) and the back-end (for the more technically focussed). Whilst one strand was engaged in plenary talks, the other divided into various parallel sessions.
Front-End Strand Plenary: What Is The Web?
James Currall, University of Glasgow
In his unconventional plenary, James Currall abandoned what he calls 'Lecture 1.0' (lecturer stands at the front, talks for 45 minutes, answers questions for five) in favour of a more interactive, discussion-based session in which he encouraged debate around the topic: 'What is the Web?' The audience could take part verbally or by tweeting using the #iwmwp4 tag, which allowed the relevant tweets to be projected up onto the wall via Twitterfall.
James would check the tweets throughout his talk and respond to them – sometimes conversationally ('yes Mike, I agree,') or sometimes by using the points raised to redirect his talk or provoke further debate. He challenged us to consider what we think the Web is and how we can strip down what we do to the simple level of providing content to different types of users, when they want it, in the form they want it.
As the live blogger, I found this format challenging to report upon, as there was no clearly structured argument to follow or series of problems and solutions to report. I ended up providing sound bites from the discussions, and a little descriptive commentary about what was happening, e.g. 'remote user @RappinRach has asked "is it about portals then?" James wants to avoid using labels for things in this way'.
Remote participants had many access points through which to follow this talk. Some were watching the live video-streaming and interacted via the #iwmwp4 tag. Others could follow @iwmwlive, where I was using the established format of #iwmw2009 #p4, so that my echoing tweets did not appear on the Twitterfall and interfere with the active conversation. This provides us not only with different ways of experiencing the event live, but also with different types of records which can be searched and referenced in different ways.
The format was good for stimulating debate and exchange of ideas, but more interesting than those ideas will be how we handle the records and the experience of the talk for the remote user separated through both space and time.
Front-End Strand Plenary: Hub Web sites for Youth Participation
David Newman, Queen's University
David introduced the HuWY Project, an experimental enterprise designed to engage young people in policy making for Web-related issues at EU level. This project is based on the idea that young people, having grown up with the Web, have a unique view on issues like cyber-bullying and privacy on the Web, but demonstrate little interest or active involvement in the regulatory processes and policy making that is going on within the European Union to govern these issues. The aim is to find ways to connect young people and policy makers, with each group understanding the other, and providing hubs to connect their ideas so their efforts can lead to actual change.
HuWY will first work with young people in eight countries across the EU, providing them with a hub site of materials to get their discussions going. The intention is to allow the young people to go away into their own corners of the Web using whatever tools or services they prefer to discuss the issues and generate ideas. These results will then be fed into another hub, where they will be organised, tagged and phrased in a format that policy makers will understand and can use to inform policy. David invited us to contribute ideas about how we could encourage both our students to take part and our policy makers to listen. Engaging the latter seemed to be the harder of the two! He made the point that young people are politically engaged, but just not in the traditional ways; so we need to look at new ways to get young, digitally native people involved in the political process.
Back-End Strand Plenary: Agile Prototyping in Academia
Dave Flanders, JISC
Dave Flanders was unable to deliver his plenary talk in person, so he recorded a screen cast for us, including breaks for discussion both within the live and remote audience using the #iwmwp6 tag. Dave himself participated using Twitter, so he was able to contribute in real time.
Dave took us through the Agile manifesto and discussed how it could be used in an academic development setting. He promoted various user-focussed approaches to help achieve development goals, useable software and user feedback. This included advocating paper prototyping as a quick way to generate user feedback and refine ideas, and considering how to include users all the way through developments by having the paper- prototypes and wireframes up on the walls so the user is in the room with you.
This was very much a practical talk, examining the manifesto principles and translating them into practical processes that would work in the academic setting, not just the business setting for which Agile was designed.
The break in Dave's screen cast encouraged members of the audience to discuss the issues and any experience they may have had of using Agile. He emphasised the importance of learning from each other and answered questions remotely throughout.
Back-End Strand Plenary: Lightweight Web Management
Christopher Gutteridge, University of Southampton
This talk was full of practical tips to manage the workload of Web services. Chris argued that it is a waste of time and resources to have humans doing jobs that computers can do really well. His department has written lots of scripts to perform basic tasks – particularly monitoring tasks – to help make them visibly more efficient.
Whilst monitoring his department's systems in this way has made it easier to manage theworkload – preventing them from dropping the ball on normal requests – Chris also noted that this practice was going to be especially important in the current economic climate, with uncertainty about jobs. Monitoring was enabling them to build a stock of statistics that showed how much work they do and how efficiently they work. He was concerned by the amount of data people in similar roles in other institutions could be throwing away and argued strongly that they should start preserving that data – even if they don't do anything analytical with it initially. He also recommended monitoring the things beyond your control that cause your systems to become unavailable.
Throughout, Chris kept returning to the point that we are here to facilitate research and teaching. Building the system he described could help you focus on this support for your researchers and students, rather than rushing around responding to cries for help, i.e. continual fire-fighting.
Unfortunately, keeping the output going on the blog meant that I was unable to attend any of the parallel sessions. However, there were plenty of choices for both strands, including sessions on using the social Web to maximise access to resources, practical blog preservation, using Amazon Web services and hands-on prototyping for metadata structures – to name but a few.
Day 3: 30 July 2009
Plenary: How the BBC Make Web Sites
Michael Smethurst and Matthew Wood, BBC
Michael and Matthew develop Web sites for BBC Audio and Music. They took us through their development process for www.bbc.co.uk/programmes - designed to provide a permanent home on the Web for all BBC programmes.
Their aim was to make URIs human-readable, hackable and, most importantly, persistent. They begin their design process with the domain objects (programmes, songs, recordings, etc) and build models based on how these domain objects relate to each other. They don't use wireframes or mockups, but do take the domain model to users to check that they are speaking the same language. They then translate the domain model into a physical database schema that enables them to express the domain model richly in the language of the user.
We were given a tour of bbc.co.uk/programmes to see all this in practice and the opportunity to ask Matthew and Michael about their processes in more detail.
Chaired by Mike Nolan, Edge Hill University
This session featured a short talk by Mike Ellis of EduServe, in which he encouraged developers to stop being 'day-coders' and make development a life passion by getting together more: attending geek meet ups and hack days as ways of exchanging ideas, having a go at new things and making useful contacts.
Mike demonstrated how easy it can be to set up your own events – citing his own efforts in Bath where he instigated popular monthly BathCamp meetings in a local pub, and his new Geek Dads group.
This talk certainly inspired people, and within days Chris Gutteridge started publicising plans for a Southampton-based developer social event in response to Mike's arguments.
Mike Nolan showed several video clips, including 'Hug A Developer' , introducing the UKOLN project DevCSI, which aims to help developers raise their profile.
Mike and Mike then inflicted the live blogger's worst nightmare... a series of lightning debates, each lasting only three minutes in total. The motions were:
- 'Project managers get in the way and should be sacked' – the house disagreed
- 'IT should be moved into the Cloud' – the house disagreed
- 'Web 2.0 is where it's at' – the house was split on this motion!
- 'External design agencies are a waste of time and money' – the house disagreed
- 'Content Management Systems are crap' – the house disagreed
Keeping an accurate commentary certainly required a serious dose of adrenalin!
Workshop Closing Comments and Conclusions
Brian Kelly, UKOLN
In his summary remarks, Brian proposed building on the #iwmw tag as a way of collecting resources together, possibly using #iwmc to represent community. Most of the slides for IWMW are on Slideshare, but such a tag could be used for gathering together all sorts of conversations and digital materials. Brian also highlighted the interesting links between the problems faced by UK and US institutions, calling on Mike from Allegheny College, who spoke about how they use social media to sell the emotion of the college.
Finally, Brian questioned: what is the Web and what is the institutional Web? Do we need to rethink what is in scope for IWMW?
All that remained was for Marieke to thank everyone and bring the workshop to a close. The event blog remained active for a further two weeks to collect feedback and further comments, providing an ongoing record and resource for delegates and remote participants alike.
- The IWMW 2009 Blog http://iwmw2009.wordpress.com/
- The IWMW 2009 NetVibes page http://www.netvibes.com/iwmw2009
- 'Hug a Developer' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lqxORnQARw