What old Web blokes worry about

Most people will tell you that men are getting old when they become uncontrollably grumpy (count me in!) and think the Police is staffed by school kids.  Me?  I worry about buildings.  When you visit an institution where two buildings are named after people you knew, you’re on the home straight.  So here at the University of Essex for IWMW I’m alarmed to find Albert Sloman and Ivor Crewe immortalised in stone.
Albert Sloman, the founding VC of Essex, was Chair of the CVCP when I started out in the HE game.  He had been “one of the few” and had a great line in Bigglesspeak.  “How did the meeting go Dr Sloman?” “Well Jeremy, as we used to say in the RAF, any landing you walk away from is a happy one”  And he’s not wrong.
Ivor Crewe was a later VC and a panelist when I was with the Overseas Research Students Awards Scheme.  I remember the senior staff getting so excited about us having a “big name” on the ORS.
As far as the conference is concerned, I arrived fashionably late but very much enjoyed Derek Law’s session – you have to have a digital overlap strategy apparently (keep your fingers crossed;)).  Later, in a parallel session, Mike Ellis and Tony Hirst were brave enough to treat us to some live mashup examples.  I particularly liked their work with Google Docs Spreadsheets as a screen scraper – very cool.  It’s a bit of a Google Docs week really – this post is being written as a Google Doc and my workshop with Russell Allen tomorrow is Google Docs too.  And I’d never used it at all before.

UCL on iTunes U: one year young!

It’s a year today since UCL (along with the OU) became the first university outside North America to publish content via Apple’s iTunes U mechanism. In retrospect, as we knew in our hearts at the time, we simply weren’t ready. And yet it hasn’t really mattered. Things have gone wrong and things have gone right but we still have what we set out to achieve for the most part. We started off very small – no more than 100 odd pieces of content since when we’ve published more than 1300 new pieces. We’ve kept to our aim which was to publish new material every week. We’ve kept to our aim to maintain the quality of material and presentation of the site. And we’ve kept to our aim to make use of the “private” facility to integrate iTunes U with Moodle courses.

So far so good, but what lessons have been learned and where are we going with the project now? Here’s a rough summary:

  1. UCL on iTunes U is part of a larger online media programme at UCL. What we didn’t have a year ago (largely due to lack of resource) was a proper Prince-ified project. We now have an Online Media Programme Board overseeing three project stands: lecture capture; iTunes U and online media (largely Flash delivery to Moodle). These are all bound together by a backend workflow engine – Apple Podcast Producer. We also have real people with real time allocated to these projects. When we started people who already had day jobs did all of this as well which had serious implications for the throughput of work.
  2. Although we’re pleased overall with the “churn-rate” for new material, resource has been stretched to make the most of this. Coupled with weekly publication of material was a subscription email service very much along the lines of Apple’s own “New Music Tuesday” (though it was usually New Stuff Wednesday for us!). The problem was that the Comms people didn’t really have the resource to write weekly newsletters and our people had precious little time to brief them sensibly about what was coming up. Now that we’re hiring an iTunes bod and Comms are upscaling their plans for the digital lifestyle we intend to relaunch “New Stuff Wednesday” very soon. The other resource stretch was the reality that every “course” and frequently every item required its own artwork. We had been very careful with the original design, but UCL’s only full-time Graphic Artist is booked for months ahead. The Web Services guys had to dust off their Photoshop skills and follow the graphic “rules”. This was less than ideal and another reason we were granted funding for an iTunes bod. Hmmm…bit of iTunes, bit of Photoshop? I should have applied!
  3. When Apple provision iTunes U you get a public site – the one everyone can see through the iTunes Store – and a private one that is only available to authenticated users. These private sites can be used for a variety of purposes. We’re concentrating on the provision of supplementary course material lInked into Moodle courses. Typically Podacst Producer workflows are used to output Flash, m4v and mp3. The Flash is used as a stream within the Moodle course page for online viewing while the mpegs are fed to iTunes U for download. Occasionally the private site has seen other uses. For some years we have run a Classics course jointly with Royal Holloway which is videoconferenced between the two sites. We’re now recording the v-c sessions and making these available via the private site for revision.

So, with a combination of catchup for last year and new ventures for this, we won’t be complaining about lack of work…

The fall and rise of London University Web groups

Those who’ve been in the Web game at a London HEI long enough to know better will recall that there was once a group called .gamut who met regularly to consider issues relevance to the London university Web scene. The guy who organised that group left his institution and no one was brave or foolhardy enough to take it on so it withered. Over the years at many IWMW sessions a number of us talked about reviving .gamut but life for most of us got in the way.

I was therefore delighted to be asked to a London Web Network session this week. The session was organised by the University of the Arts London at the Arts Club in London’s West End. This was one of a series of network sessions organised by topic and hosted by the UoAL. It was great to see old faces and new from LSE, City, Kings, Birkbeck and of course UoAL. Others had been unable to make it but had expressed interest for the future. Three of us had actually been to a .gamut meeting – and I’m talking 10 years ago. UoLA attendees were unaware of IWMW so we brainwashed them – potential delegates!

The initial meeting covered the perennial favourites – how many in team, placement of team in hierarchy, Web 2.0ish stuff and content management.

Everyone was enthusiastic about meeting again and we agreed for now to continue to meet in that rather nice club, but to distribute administration by passing organisation from institution to institution each meeting.

Certainly worthy of the UoAL to kick this all off – so many thanks to them. But what shall we call it? .gamut.2.0? Perhaps not :)

On the CASE

Last week I gave a presentation at a one day seminar “Beyond the hype: Getting the most from your web presence” organised by CASE Europe in Docklands – the first time I’ve done something for them.

The session began with Pamela Agar (Imperial) and Alison Wildish (Bath) looking at ways to maximise research using the Web. Both described their sites as works in progress as far as this is concerned, but there seemed to be a lot of right thinking being done. A lot of talk about research exposure. The importance of citations and opportunities for collaborations plus additional funding were key to Alison’s work. She showed some wireframes for the work they’re proposing. I like the way material buried in the site and the publications system was being surfaced in the new proposal. Pamela was looking at the way Imperial are homing in on their core research business as a generator of top news stories. This really made sense. She described how the role of the comms officers at Imperial has changed from one of generators of static stories for press releases to in-house reporters handling their own digital media. Many interviews with academics are now being done on the fly with Flip Video cameras – cheap and cheerful and claimed to be of more than good enough quality for online news. Very interesting. All of this goes onto YouTube with the quirkier stories posted to Twitter to generate further interest.

Favorite tweet: @danwiggle: Great stuff about research on the web at #casebth from @pamelaagar and @alisonwildish. Am feeling some nagging resource-envy though!

Stuart Brown (Open University) gave us a good Twitter workout. There were some great one-liners in this: “Your brand is not what you say it is – it’s what other’s say about it”, “Twitter isn’t just for weirdos” (that’s a relief!), “Twitter is not a broadcast medium” (I questioned this as I still think it makes a great emergency alert system – better IMO than SMS). I need to have a look at http://twinfluence.com/ a scary tool that will probably tell me things I don’t want to know. Stuart recommends a six-month plan for approaching the introduction of social networking tools in institutions. Shorter timescale and you haven’t though about it, longer and it may have passed you by.

Favourite tweet: @PamelaAgar: Good point! Remember to leave enough characters spare in tweets to make retweeting easy! #CASEbth (a point she promptly forgot…)

Other Favourite tweet: @MikeNolan: Wonder whether #casebth will trend, and if so will it be one of the fewest numbers of people to do so? Weren’t getting irritated were you Mike?!

Jane Van de Ban (Birkbeck) provided a masterclass in writing for the Web. Users are ruthless so to help them be ruthless when writing. A few solid myths busted in this talk. Three-click rule? Dead. No scrolling? Dead. Beautiful design? Dead. Well she didn’t actually say that last one – her argument was that users don’t care what your site looks like as long as they can get the content they want. What she did say – and I couldn’t agree more with this – was that vanity publishing should be dead. Writers should be thinking about what the users want to hear, not what they want to say. So, as we all know, content is king. An inspiring talk.

Favourite tweet: @AlisonWildish: “Don’t waste words and don’t waste my time” – Jane Van de Ban on content #casebth

Oh and then it was some guy called Jeremy Speller from UCL talking about iTunes U. A few technical hitches and me trying to be too clever with the live stuff, but I hope the audience got the drift. I gave the potted history of iTunes U and podcasting and then went through the process of setting up with iTunes, pointing out some of the gotchas along the way. Certainly interest in the audience and a few who are working with Apple right now – so watch that iTunes space. Those going to IWMW2009 in Colchester in July may wish to catch the “Time for iTunes U” session which Barry Cornelius of Oxford is doing there.

Favourite tweet: @AlisonWildish: Amazed that Duke University (US) gave iPods to all students in 2004 #casebth

After lunch James Mellor (Portsmouth) and Suraj Shah (ChameleonNet) gave us tips on international student recruitment. Interesting to note that Portsmouth are providing prospectus material optimised for location and working on translated material. They’re having predictable problems with character sets within their CMS but seem confident that they’ll get there. James explained that the translations are being provided as much for parents/funders to learn about the institution as for prospective students themselves. Segmentation in Google Analytics is being used to inform International Office decisions. Suraj took us through some worked examples targeting individual courses and countries through current student bloggers, microsites and other forms of engagement. All solid stuff, but some of the marketeering was completely over my head (a lack on my part I assure you – nothing wrong with the presentation!!)

Favourite tweet: @jeremyspeller: Interesting problem at RGU – only Nigerians want to be student ambassadors! #casebth (OK – sure someone else twittered something interesting, but I just like this story!)

Nothing had really prepared us for what happened next. Tracy Playle invited us to stand and read from the screen in unison – oh yes! All to do with us not being passive and promising to take away and implement something at our own institutions. There was also a slide where we were supposed to promise to buy her a drink afterwards. Funny – no one read that one out. Tracy talks about developing engagement using innovative tools and techniques. How do you sell these things to the management when there are no case studies to rely on? Position yourself as the unassailable expert!! Ah…so I’m not the only one whose been kidding everyone along with that line for years…oh well. A very useful set of Twitter tools on the slides – some obscure and meriting investigation. An interesting use for Twitter favourites too – list positive feedback and link back to it. An excellent and engaging speaker.

Favourite tweet: @nanoamp: RT @ellielovell: @tracyplayle Pickle pledge? Thought the drinks were on you this evening @hecomms social #casebth

Sadly I had to miss the last item and get on my way home. By all accounts a very good Skypecast from Montreal, including Ball State University Webinar – the inspiration for the Edge Hill Hi site according to Alison Wildish.

Additional resources (including slides) at http://www.he-comms.co.uk/. You’ll need to sign in or sign up to get the material but hey, why not – they’re a likeable bunch.

The Anti-Portal kick-off

In advance of IWMW this year I wanted to get some ideas before the conference about the kind of things participants would like to see in the Anti-Portal workshop session.

So – step up to the plate! Have your say! Add a comment here and Russell and I will try to discuss and work the ideas here first so that we can address top topics on the day.


Brian speaks…

Comparison between Cameron Neylon’s and Ewan McIntosh’s presentations – one research one learning but all concentrating on the individual.  Example of London bombers  / loss of keys to show that twitter/networks have “real”  value.  Slideshare as example of profiling the event in a 3rd party environment.  Check out beaveroftheday.com

In discussion about next year – so no news there then…!

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