From Web “Site” to Web “Experience”

“Jay Collier made the leap (of faith – at that time) to the Web a few years ago. His department at Dartmouth is responsible for 12,500 of the 255,000 official and personal pages composing Dartmouth web presence.” 

Interview with Karine Joly, College Web Editor — March 2005

Since 2003, 65 unit sites are maintained through a lightweight content management system, deployed at Dartmouth after a text-book CMS discovery process. Collier is Associate Director of Web Publishing Services at Dartmouth.

What’s your background? What did you do before becoming a higher ed web pro?

I’ve been a Web professional at Dartmouth since 2001; my primary role is as group leader and Web producer. Prior to that, I post-produced and edited videos at MIT. I was formally trained in media at the Boston University College of Communications and worked at WGBH and PBS at the end of the era when public television was a primary source for non-fiction and arts programming. I also have a graduate degree in human development from the Vermont College of the Union University and Institute.

I’ve always been immersed in a client-relations orientation, so the structure and services provided by Dartmouth’s Web Publishing Services group (reorganized in 2003) differ somewhat from other institutions. Rather than a top-down approach, I see the Web experience more like a movie, with an entry page serving like opening credits, and the real story being told as people drill down to find the information they need. We are not currently involved in the Dartmouth gateway site; our focus is on the deep content.

The asymmetrical Web experience — a highly crafted top-level page and then chaos as one digs deeper — needs to be retired. Distributed publishing — with a consistent context (layout, navigation, text styling), and accurate, up-to-date content originating throughout the institution — is, I believe, a hallmark of the successful next-generation university Web site. Adding time-based notification of content updates, via RSS, will add a new dimension.

What’s your biggest achievement as a higher ed web pro?

Our team implemented a content management system and doubled our client roster within 18 months without any additional staff or budget. We do not have the benefit of large budgets, so our solutions are intended to be simple, efficient, and client-oriented.

What’s the most difficult part of your job?

As a Web publishing group at a small liberal arts college, we are always consciously working to strike a balance between new technology developments, realistic resource projections, and client needs. For example, there are times when we want to implement features and services that we think are exciting, whereas our clients’ needs are more basic. We need to lead, but cannot do so at the expense of bread-and-butter services.

The fact that Web communications are decentralized here has positive and negative aspects. The up side is that we have a great number of unofficial Web experts on our campus, as witnessed by several informal, cross-unit communities of practice, such as our Web Producers Group. We benefit greatly from this diverse pool of experience. The down side is that we don’t have the resources to explore the truly innovative developments that require campus-wide buy-in.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge we face as web pros in our industry?

I believe one of our greatest challenges is convincing campus communicators to stop thinking about “the Web site” and start thinking about “Web experiences.” The Web is not a book but, instead, an immersive social experience. It’s a challenge to change ingrained perspectives without having the resources to demonstrate what you mean. Fortunately, open source technologies and systems, like Weblogs, help do that evangelizing for us.

Of course, we must also fight to keep the Web open by supporting universal standards. We must defend this infrastructure to keep it available as a communications tool for every learner and citizen.

Any good advice to share with your fellow higher ed web pros?

Make sure that your solutions fit user needs. Don’t over-engineer systems or focus on features that editors don’t need. Do what’s necessary and support standards; by the time you really need that bell or whistle, it may cost half as much!

When you start getting myopic, say to yourself, “It’s good enough” and let it go. The work may feel like a compromise, but it’s part of a process wherein each incremental improvement is valuable. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t over craft messages. Our constituents’ hype filters grow more and more effective every day.

Be sure to collaborate as much as possible. Each school has a unique story to tell, but we all benefit when we work together to define a Web language for higher education that challenges the mind, engages the emotions, and enhances social connections.

Learn as much as you can about trends in higher education in this digital age. If the basic role of the institution does shift in a disruptive manner over the next decade, as some predict, we need to be ready in order to help assure the continuing success of our institutions.

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