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Field Notes from the Digital Prairie

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Higher Ed: Professionalize Web Content

(cross-posted on Medium)

Back in Ye Olden Days of higher ed websites, they were usually relatively simple affairs. Someone (almost always in IT) set up a web server and became, by default, the fabled “webmaster,” responsible for the whole shebang, from hosting to code to content updates. Sometimes, depending upon the size of the school, this happened multiple times on a given campus, as each college, professional school, and department began to realize the vast potential inherent in the web. By the time I graduated from college in 1999 and started my first job on the web, schools had started to recognize that running a successful, institution-wide website would take more than one person, and a centralized gatekeeper to the posting of new web content seemed more and more like an unnecessary bureaucratic bottleneck.

Sometime in the early 2000s, a hero arose: the content management system. The CMS would open content production to all, realizing the democratic dream of the early web. No longer would small departments be subject to the monarchial webmaster; instead, the power of the crowd would be harnessed, institutional efficiency would be increased, and we’d all live happily ever after.

Fast forward ten years or so, and most higher ed websites are, to put it bluntly, a mess. New pages sprout up like weeds, full of astounding mutations of conflicting voice and tone, contradictory information, and baffling formatting. Countless person-hours are lost to Byzantine information architecture, students are left unsure whether their important documents have been submitted, potential donors abandon their donation forms in frustration before hitting the “submit” button.


How did we get here? Under the guise of the great and terrible “other duties as assigned,” the CMS very often put content management and production in the hands of smart, capable people… who have little or no training in, interest in, or understanding of the web as a medium. The office of what used to be the “webmaster" was left putting out fires, retraining CMS users (and then retraining them again each year), and desperately trying to steer a boat in which dozens or even hundreds of content editors were rowing at wildly varying paces in opposite directions. 

Sadly, as Tim Nekritz has pithily pointed out, a "content management system creates neither content nor management nor a system." The web was a technology problem, we thought, so we dedicated our scarce institutional resources to technological solutions. But when we fail our users — when students can’t find accurate financial aid information, when administrators get lost in Kafkaesque redirects between departments — the problem very rarely lies in our technology, and almost always in our content.

The solution, or at least part of the solution, is to start treating content production — and I use “production” here in a broad sense, including not only writing but also engaging content at the levels of strategy, presentation, multimedia integration, information architecture, and so on — as a field in which we need to start investing human resources as well as technical. 

In short, our content should be produced by content professionals.

Content production has what I think of as all the hallmarks of a specialized profession. It requires:

Special skills: Because people read differently on the web, writing for the web is different than writing for print. This is especially the case if you are dealing with academics who have been charged with creating web content. Academic prose is intended to promote deep engagement and complexity of thought; web content is there to help users get things done. Beyond writing,  web content production requires thinking in multiple dimensions. In addition to the length and height of the printed page, it adds the depth of hyperlinks, embedded media, and so on. Remember the episode of the Simpsons where Homer gets transported into a 3D world? That’s sort of what moving from print to the web is like.

Specialized knowledge: How many of the people creating content in your CMS know what “semantic code” is, or why it’s important? Or know how search engines work? How to optimize images for multiple screen sizes? This medium changes so quickly that it’s difficult (if not impossible) for those of us who love it and spend all of our time in it to keep up with the state of the art. How can we expect those for whom it is not really their job to stay up to date?

Special tools: At its core, the web is still just HTML and CSS (with, more often than not, some JavaScript on top of it). The CMS makes these tools more readily accessible to the layman, in the way Home Depot makes the ability to do electrical work more accessible to any homeowner; but in the end, you’re almost always going to get better results with someone who really understands the tools they’re working with than with the handyman special. 

Moving higher ed toward a professionalization of content production may mean a recentralization of that function, but I suspect that many of the folks currently charged with this work won’t object too strenuously. There are a lot of people out there who thought their departments really needed a website... until they got one, and realized what went in to keeping it up. How much more efficient it would be, both for our employees and especially for our users, to let people concentrate on the jobs they’re trained in and good at. Let teachers teach, administrators administer, and let web professionals run your website.