#heweb15 or bust

This coming week, I’ll be attending the Annual Conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals’ Association (aka HighEdWeb) in Milwaukee. This is the fourth national HighEdWeb I’ve attended, and the second year I’ve co-chaired the Management and Professional Development track. I thought I was getting off easy this year, as it was supposed to be my first not putting on some sort of presentation (assuming you count the Johnny Cash cover band in Austin back in 2011), but as it turns out I’m also a late addition to a discussion panel during the Leadership Academy on Sunday.

If you’ll be there, please come up and say hi; if you’ve never been, but think three days of web nerdery, karaoke, Cards Against Humanity, and finding your tribe sounds like fun, start saving up those professional development dollars. You won’t find a more welcoming bunch of introverts in the Western hemisphere.

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.

The Serial Effect: Audio Content #casemmw

Notes for “The Serial Effect: Audio-Based Content,” presented at the 2015 CASE Multimedia Workshop in Washington, DC on June 19, 2015.

Podcasts/Audio cited:

Interactive and video cited:

Articles cited:

Additional reading and listening:

And, of course, don’t forget the Serial Effect Spotify Playlist:

Should You Start a Podcast? Some Stats

I handcoded my first podcast RSS feed roughly a decade ago (I don’t remember exactly when we started it, but that podcast, of events in the University of Chicago’s World Beyond the Headlines series, was named one of Wired magazine’s favorite education podcasts back in 2006). Since then, podcasting as a medium has had its ups and downs, but with the runaway success of NPR’s “Serial” last year, it certainly seems to be on an upswing. I’ve been digging around for some numbers about podcasting both for an upcoming conference presentation and to determine whether it makes sense for my current institution to jump on the bandwagon, and thought I’d share them here:

  • Overall, according to the New York Times, podcast consumption “is up 25 percent year-over-year.”
  • According to Edison Research, as of February 2015, 33% of Americans over 12 had listened to some form of podcast, with 17% (some 46 million people) having listened to a podcast in the previous month and 10% (27 million) in the previous week.
  • People who already have a college degree are more likely to listen (perhaps providing a great opportunity to reach potential grad students), but the numbers still break down to 24% (ever) / 11% (in the past month) / and 6% (in the past week) for those without a degree (ibid).
  • As of 2012 (the latest for which I could find age-related numbers) listeners between 12-24 were the largest single audience for podcasts, making up 26% of the audience, with those 24-35 close behind at 24%.
  • Edison Research also estimates that nearly 2% of total time spent listening to audio is devoted to podcast listening, and those who do listen to podcasts listen to an average of 6 per week.
  • Pew just posted some podcast-related numbers as well; they put the number of podcast downloads for 2014 at 2.6 billion (up from 1.9 billion in 2013), and the number of actively hosted podcasts in 2014 at 22,000 (up from 16,000 the year before).
  • Worldwide, Apple says that there are over 1 billion podcast subscriptions in its store.

Clearly, the podcast is a still-growing medium. However, the great part about such audio content is that “the podcast” in and of itself is but one of many channels for distribution. Whether you’ve subscribed to their podcasts or not, chances are you’ve listened to something on, for example, NPR’s website that was *also* distributed as a podcast. Likewise, your audio content could simultaneously live and be discoverable on its own in a Soundcloud channel (as videos are on YouTube), AND be embeddable in your news stories, blog posts, or other online content, meaning that folks who wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to download a podcast are still able to encounter and engage with our content. And of course, all of this is easily trackable, so you can know if people are interacting with your content or not.

Asana as Editorial Calendar

Back in November, during a discussion session at Confab Higher Ed, I mentioned that at Roosevelt University we had started trying to use project management tool Asana as a team-wide editorial calendar. @wrstknitterever asked in the backchannel how we did so.

It’s taken a couple of months, but I’ve finally been able set down some notes on our process as it has evolved.

This post assumes at least a passing familiarity with the conventions of Asana. If you’ve never used it before take a look around their site. Essentially, it’s an easy-to-use, inexpensive (in many cases, free) project management tool that added calendar functionality relatively recently. So while we found that it works as an editorial calendar, it’s also a sneaky way of introducing project management into a traditionally decentralized office.

So here are my hints and tips for using Asana as an editorial calendar:

  • Chances are, not everyone on your team will be as excited about adopting this technology as you are. Start building buy-in from all the people who will be using it as early as possible. Explain to them why an editorial calendar is necessary, demo it for them, make it as easy as possible for them to adopt it, even if it means a little extra work for you.
  • Set up a separate workspace for the editorial calendar. If you use Asana for personal tasks as well, it may mean the occasional double-entry in another workspace, but depending on how many editorial tasks your team is involved in, the workspace can get crowded very quickly.
  • Add each new content “package” as a project. For example, you might have a one-off press release on a new faculty hire as a project, or an entire issue of an alumni magazine, or a week’s worth of multimedia content surrounding commencement, each as its own project. 
  • Each project can then be broken down into tasks, preferably with a due date since you’re building a calendar. For example, “write story X,” “edit story X,” “post video for story X to YouTube,” “post story X to the website,” and “promote story X on Facebook” might be tasks (each assigned to a different team member) for package/project “Story X.” Or, if your project comprises a lot of smaller pieces (e.g, an alumni magazine), you can make each story a task and then create subtasks for “write, “edit,” “post,” etc.
  • If the project is centered around an event, like commencement, create an unassigned task with a due date for the day of the event — that way the event will show up on the “Team Calendar.” The Team Calendar serves as your master calendar, but each team member can choose to see just their own set of tasks, or all the tasks related to a given project, then jump back to the Team Calendar.
  • Use Asana’s attachment and commenting abilities to keep your assets and discussions centralized and reduce miscommunication (as well as the number of emails with 3MB photo attachments filling everyone’s inboxes).
  • Have weekly meetings with as many of your team members as possible to review what’s on tap for next week, and to clean up the calendar. Add new projects and tasks as necessary, and archive projects that have been completed or killed. We do this in a room with a projector and only one person manipulating the calendar, so everyone can see the changes immediately.
Are you using Asana in a similar way? Have additional tips or ways to improve our process? Please leave them in the comments. Asana also has some tips available.

My 2014 Mixtape

Another New Year’s Eve has come and gone, but I’m only slightly past due for the posting of my 2014 mixtape. It probably won’t help your hangover, but maybe give it a listen anyway.

This year’s mix was tougher to put together than last year’s, since while I bought or was gifted over 50 albums this year, only a handful actually came out in 2014—I bought a lot of back-catalog stuff and classic country (Dolly Parton, Pee-Wee King, Buck Owens, etc.). As a result, I threw in a couple of tunes released in 2013 by bands I saw live in 2014 to fill it out (there were also a couple bands I would have added in if they were on Spotify, so you should definitely check out the Jumbo Shrimp Jazz Band and Sarah McCoy if you’re ever down in New Orleans).

Turns out there’s a heavy New Orleans influence in this mix, even without the two artists just mentioned—it includes two acts out of the Crescent City (Big Freedia and Hurray for the Riff-Raff), as well as several tunes that mention NOLA. It wasn’t on purpose, but seems fitting given that the city seems to have become our go-to vacation spot.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and here’s to another year of great music.

What Does the Web Say? #confabEDU edition

I’ll be once again presenting “What Does the Web Say? Thinking about Sound on the Internet” at Confab Higher Ed in Atlanta tomorrow, November 13.

Audio (and video) used in the presentation:

Additional sites to explore:

Making #heweb14 Sausage (Not a Sandwich)

On Thursday, I returned from the Higher Education Web Professionals Association (or “HighEdWeb” if you’re more into the brevity thing) 2014 Annual Conference (#heweb14) in Portland, OR. This was my third HighEdWeb, after getting the band together at #heweb11 and a twofer of presenting at #heweb12 (see my wrap-ups here and here), and, along with presenting this year in the Usability, Accessibility, and Design track, I helped cochair the Management and Professional Development track with Henderson State’s Tonya Oaks Smith (with whom I also had the pleasure of presenting a talk back at #heweb12). From great sessions, even better social events (shout-out to Karaoke from Hell), and a final keynote with Chris Hardwick that brought the house down, #heweb14 was probably the most consistently awesome conference I’ve ever attended.

This was my first time being on the other side of a conference, and I have to say that, despite the fact that I have frequently hung out with the organizers of conferences I’ve attended, I had no clue how much coordinated effort goes into putting on an event of this size. Between the conference and program committees, there were a couple dozen of us involved, all ably captained by Conference Chair Sara Clark of Missouri State. It really is amazing that something with so many moving parts, all of whom are volunteers, manages to run as smoothly as these things do every year. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, consider the fact that from the week before the conference until the day after, the committee sent over 1200 text messages to each other. Not a few of these were just us goofing around with each other, but they also included everything from “Does anyone have a key to the office?” to “My presenter isn’t here yet, what do I do?” Somehow, though, this is all seamless to the attendees.

At the wrap-up, debriefing dinner, Sara asked us to share three things about the conference: something we thought was positive, something that could be improved, and something that we’d overheard from the audience (or “OH,” in Twitterspeak). I can’t think of a better way of summing up my experience then repeating what I said there.

Positive: I think that what sets HighEdWeb apart from any other conference I’ve been to is the fact that it is put together by people who are really there for the right reason, they are having so much fun and are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing, and that is infectious for the attendees.

Improvement: All of those moving parts make for a lot of confusion if you’re not familiar with the processes, so I felt a little bewildered and overwhelmed occasionally. I’m sure that if I’m lucky enough to be involved in next year’s conference, though, that feeling would lessen.

Overheard: I spent much of the sessions in the MPD track monitoring the backchannel on Twitter, and what struck me — and I think this was borne out by Dave Cameron‘s “Human at Work” presentation winning best-in-conference — was how many of the talks that had little to do with the web itself were really resonating with attendees. A conference that was ostensibly about technology turned out to really be about nurturing peoples’ humanity.

At various points in the conference several attendees, some of whom I’d never met, made a point to come up and thank me and my fellow organizers for everything we did to make the conference happen. Really, though, it’s the organizers who should be thanking the attendees for giving us the opportunity to get so deeply involved in something so incredible.

“What Does the Web Say?” Redux #heweb14

I’ll be presenting “What Does the Web Say? Thinking about Sound on the Internet” at the annual HighEdWeb conference in Portland on October 20.

If you’ll be at #heweb14 and we don’t already have plans to meet up, drop me a line… and if you won’t be there, you still have the chance to come see me present this talk at Confab Higher Ed in Atlanta on November 13.

Audio (and video) used in the presentation:

Additional sites to explore: