Rochester, New York, October 14-17, 2007
Beautiful Downtown Rochester
Once more I made the long pilgrimage to upstate New York to attend the HighEdWebDev
Conference, a gathering of some 410 higher education Web developers from
21 states (and a few foreign countries).
Hot topics were home page management in emergencies, social networking software,
and Web 2.0. The following are some personal perspective notes on the discussions.
One of our guest speakers was Michael Dame, Director of Web Communications
at Virginia Tech (WCVT), who described events at Virginia Tech in response to
the mass shooting in April, 2007. Some key points are the following:
- Because of earlier event the WCVT team already had a "lite" version
of the home page ready for use. The page had a minimal number of links, had
no large files, had a visual look created only with CSS, and dedicated the
main central part of the page was to news entries about the crisis.
- As soon as news of the crisis reached WCVT, they warned the Web site manager
to expect a massive increase in traffic, and then prepared the lite home page.
True to the warning, by noon on the day of the shooting visits to the VT Web
site spiked to 20 times the usual amount. Volume eventually rose to 30 times
the normal load and did not fall off for more than two weeks.
- Three public information officers, each in touch with the VT crisis management
center and each with a specific "beat", became the ONLY sources
of information for items on the lite home page. News was not accepted from
any other sources, no matter how high placed or officious.
- The lite home page had only brief news items. Where additional news was
available it was placed on a Details page and linked to the relevant item.
- Everyone on the crisis team was inundated by emails, phone calls, media
requests, etc., requiring constant efforts to stay focused.
- Everything was done with the needs of the students and families in mind.
- A condolences page was created and received 35,000 entries. All entries
were reviewed before being posted (some racist messages were submitted).
- A page was created with links to condolence messages from other higher education
- Staff, including photographers, participated in faculty, staff, and student
events, sending back items and photos for use on the Web site. Faculty member
and poet Nikki Giovanni provided a theme in a speech where she said "We
are the Hokies. We will prevail!" The theme was immediately used in the
- With the tragedy still an open wound, there was a strong desire to begin
recovery, but it needed to be done carefully and not hurried. Plans were made
to use the home page site as a catalyst for recovery to begin healing, share
remembrance, nurture rebirth, and continue to invent the future.
- Guided by the careful (and compassionate) planning, gradually in the weeks
following the shootings the Web site look and feel was transitioned from a
simple mourning look dominated by black, to shades of gray showing Hokies
recovery and remembrance activities, to more colorful designs showing more
normal constructive activities (joggers, students studying, sports, classes).
The WCVT received high praise for its slow and careful transition through
- As final points, Dame recommended regular "fire drills" to sort
out roles and responsibilities and to better understand possible scenarios.
He felt that it was especially important to plan for family matters that crisis
team members will want and need to respond to. Finally, he said that an important
goal of the exercises and planning is to be able to set politics aside when
a crisis develops and to leave matters in the hands of calm, collected (and
Leaves in Western Pennsylvania
Apple's George Cook, a consulting engineer for Apple's education sales division,
kicked off the Web2.0, social networking discussions by first defining Web 2.0
as Web activities involving sharing, media, interactivity, and live presentation.
Then he asserted that success in these activities is determined by the user's
personal outcomes, including socialization, usefulness in the user's context,
engaging to the user, and building connections with others. Focusing on technology
without nurturing these outcomes will be pointless. Sites he felt addressed
the personal outcomes of their users included the following:
Mark Heiman of Carleton College talked
about Carleton's exploration of social networking software. Interest in building
social networking among all Carleton-ites is strong, but how to go about it?
Could Facebook be the social arena?
- Younger folks like Facebook. Older alumni, while very online, do not seem
comfortable in Facebook.
- Facebook offers limited control of branding and limited opportunities to
integrating institution information
- Facebook is too big an arena. Carleton students and alumni like to interact
with each other, not necessarily when mixed in with people from other institutions
- Facebook provides great methods for external content integration, but integrating
content in Facebook with other environments is very difficult - what goes
in, stays in. Content that is put in Facebook is not found by Google - a major
Carleton is experimenting with ELGG, an
open-source social environment with lots of features (tagging, rss, friends,
communities, aggregator, branding). Integration with Carleton's other activities
is the goal (not isolation within a product's garden walls). The trial ELGG
site is at http://elgg.carleton.edu/.
Fall color in New York
Larry Borowsky, who manages the successful sports blog Viva
El Birdos, gave a half day workshop on blogs and online communities in higher
education. Examples of sites we visited and discussed are the following:
- MIT Admissions web portal and community.
One full time staffer and several students (each student is paid $40/month
to post at least 4 times a month) maintain a blog for students interested
in MIT. Visitors can post comments and the
staff or student will respond.
- UIUC Admissions blogs. Similar to
the MIT site, UIUC students post entries
in their own blog on the admissions site. Not comments from visitors allowed.
- OSU Admissions blog.
Essentially a news blog, the OSU site
uses blog software, complete with search, tag clouds, and feed subscriptions,
to post news that might be of interest to new students. Apparently it is not
set up to allow comments
- Stony Brook blog. Done by one
guy using Google's Blogspot blogging Web site, the blog has lively postings
on topics related to admissions to Stony
Brook University. Many posts.
Some observations about these sites:
- Where comment posting is allowed, the comments are often expressive comments
only ("right on!", "amen", etc.), which may not be what
the poster had hoped for. A major reason people post is just to assert their
own existence and viewpoint. More analytical give-and-take is likely to be
of much less interest to many readers. We felt that the value of such expressive
posts should be recognized as a useful and significant social function of
blogs in that it helps build presence and participation in a community.
- Commenters talk to each other, commenting on postings by others, another
process that creates a sense of community.
- Long delays between posts are deadly to any sense of interactive community.
- The students hired to post occasional messages showed real skill in making
interesting entries that evoked many comments.
- Postings that evoke responses have a conversational tone or personal viewpoint
which invites interaction. Institutional, marketing, or sloganizing posts
get few comments.
Larry had some general rules for launching and conducting a blog:
- Attracting a community takes work. Use posters, postcards, or leaflets.
Link to the blog in many places. Mention the blog when talking to people.
- Content should have six characteristics:
- Constant flow of postings - Post something at least
once a week. Long interruptions break the community connection.
- Civil tone - Make respect for a variety of viewpoints
inherent in posts.
- Challenging - Not necessarily controversial. Invite
people to think. Could present a viewpoint that runs counter to conventional
- Connected - Link to other sources of information on
the topic. When presenting a viewpoint, also link to your sources.
- Credible - Posts should have an identifiable author
- Stimulating comments is OK. Solicit imput by asking for reader's opinion,
asking for help, or doing online polls. If things slow down, ask some members
of the community to post some comments to try to "seed" new energy.
- Think about who you envision as part of your community and what will be
of interest to them.
- Close comments on a post after a reasonable period of time. Doing so helps
focus activity on the blog and limits problems with blog-spammers putting
up junk postings.
- Have rules. Post rules of engagement, including a reserve clause that give
blog manager the power to do whatever is necessary to perserve the blog and
its community, including blocking offending users.
Finally, Larry differentiated between the social models of blogs and Facebook-like
- Blogs are like newspapers or conferences. Identifiable authors present
statements in a context where users can respond and interact, providing sources
and connections to related actvities. A very adult model.
- Facebook-like products are more like a bunch of people in a room, milling
around and interacting. They provide an environment where the users is gently
poked about things they have said they are interested in. Expecting people
in such an environment to stop and have a serious discussion is optimistic
at best. It is more about buzzing together.
Much more I could talk about but I will stop there.