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August 06, 2009

The management of website content in UK universities - report available

The final report from the Investigation into the management of website content in higher education institutions (undertaken by SIRC and funded by us) is now available.

We funded the investigation for two reasons: firstly, to help the community (particularly those involved with university 'web teams') to understand itself a little better and secondly, to help us understand the space in order that we can think about tailoring our own content management, web hosting and other services to the needs of UK higher education in line with our charitable mission.  I think/hope we've succeeded on both counts.

So what have we learned?  Well, first off, it's a long report, 58 pages, so it's not easy to summarise in a few words.  At the Care in the community session we ran at IWMW a week or so ago, Simon Bradley from SIRC presented these slides, which give a nice overview:

Trying to look past the raw numbers a little, here are my thoughts...

The management of university Web content (and associated provision of Web applications more generally) continues to mature as an area of professional activity and there is a growing recognition of the value that the Web and the Web team bring to the institution. That said, there appears to be a continued emphasis (particularly amongst senior members of HEIs) on using the Web as a way of “marketing the institution to new audiences” rather than meeting the ‘business’ needs of existing members of the institution (lecturers, students and researchers and other staff). Furthermore, despite the growing recognition of value there is a perceived mismatch between the expectations put on the Web team and the level of resources made available to them leading to significant ‘time pressures’ for many teams.

Web teams need to be as good at writing plain English as they are at writing code and the challenges they face are at least as much ‘managerial’ as they are ‘technical’. Given that many Web teams remain quite small that seems to imply that flexible people with a broad skills-base are quite valuable. Web strategies are seen as very important but need to be adopted institution-wide to be properly effective. Sitting at the cross-roads between new media, ‘old school’ university culture and the more hard-nosed world of marketing and business requires good communication skills. Such positioning makes Web teams crucial to the successful functioning of HEIs but can also leave them vulnerable to the kinds of issues and challenges faced by such large, complex organisations. The wide variety of job titles, job descriptions and organisational positioning for those with responsibility for the management of Web content leads to a somewhat confusing picture across the UK as a whole – something that is indicative of a profession that, while continuing to mature, is still relatively young.

Despite the indicated shift towards greater recognition of the importance of the Web in universities, there remains a need for broad 'cultural shifts' in Higher Education. Attitudes and perspectives are changing, but academics and senior management alike still need to develop a better understanding the nature of the web as a context for academic practice, as a platform for sharing knowledge, and as an avenue for economic development.

The use of Content Management Systems is wide-spread, with about half having been deployed since 2006. Major factors in the decision-making process appear to be usability, reliability and scalability while familiarity and popularity are not deemed to be important. In general, HEIs seem reasonably happy with their choice of CMS with the majority not currently considering a change. Where change is being considered, technical limitations and changing institutional requirements are cited as the reason. There seems to be little evidence that the university community takes a particular view ‘for’ or ‘against’ open source or proprietary software CMS solutions.

There seems to be a similarly balanced attitude to outsourcing. Whilst valid reasons are presented for developing skills in-house, it is clear that Web teams are willing to consider outsourcing work to external consultants (e.g. where there are skills gaps) not least because it is sometimes the case that senior management seem to be prepared to take more notice of an ‘impartial’ external view. That said, the survey data does not suggest overwhelming satisfaction with the use of external consultants in the work of the Web team.

It is clear that most university Web teams now monitor user behaviour in some way in order to inform the future design of the website. However, most teams indicated that such monitoring is not comprehensive enough.

Web teams seem to be broadly optimistic about the future of Web content management, recognising several key areas as short-term drivers for development (growing use of rich media and social networking and the need for a more personalised website offering for example). However, there appears to be a more cautious response when asked to consider the institution’s ability to keep pace with the current and future rate of technological change, the implication being that more investment in resources is required if universities are to continue to maximise the effectiveness of their use of the Web in the future.

A big thank you to all those people who contributed to the report, either thru the interviews or by completeing the Web survey. It is much appreciated. The report is dotted with some pretty pithy comments from those interviewed, some of which I've been tweeting over the last few days. Here are two of my favorites:

I think universities have a habit of going “Yes, the web is the future” without actually giving it any resource because it’s seen as being free and actually it’s a huge entity involving a lot of people, underlying technologies, and it needs managing in the same way as any other resource.

and:

I think there are several opposites that I naturally find myself in the middle of with understanding of both; so mediation is an enormous part of the role because I’ve got quite extreme marketing coming in one ear and the usual academic way of just talking in really quite difficult language and sounding very clever for five pages without any paragraph breaks in another.

Happy reading... I really hope people find this report to be of value. Let us know how you get on with it.

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Comments

Great article.
Simon's slides are a little difficult to read.
They seem to use what many occultists refer to as 'flashing colours' which are great if you want to put someone into a trance or induce an epileptic episode, but not so good for reading and absorbing mundane information, IMHO.

Thanks for this Andy. It's nice to see what other HEI's are doing. Got a lot out of reading this post.

A quick nit pick.. Who picked the colour scheme for that slide?! I went cross eyed trying to read it! Pale yellow on bright red :-s

Andy -

Thank you for the interesting post! It's quite interesting how much value higher education is placing on web content. I have been using teacher network websites like http://applebatch.com to help me keep up to date on the latest education news (especially in technology!) and communicate with other educators. It's a free online teacher community and I highly recommend it to you and your readers!

Many apologies for the color of the slides embedded into early versions of this blog post - they were certainly not designed to be yellow on red!

SIRC gave us a PDF version of the slides, which is what we uploaded to Slideshare (from which they are embedded here). For some reason Slideshare mis-handled the transformation of all but the first slide. I don't know why, and I haven't seen this problem before. Anyway - we've now re-uploaded the PPT version of the slides and everything looks hunky-dory.

Phew...

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