Strategic Recommendations

We have received the Strategic Recommendations from White Whale, suggestions for large ideas that we should be paying attention to during the Web Makeover project.  The document will also be available here (MIDD username and password required to download)  Below, you will find the coordinating group’s initial thoughts, shared below.

Please feel free to address comments to White Whale and the makeover group, the web makeover group alone, individuals in the groups, or the blog as you deem appropriate.  We will be gathering comments until Tuesday, May 26th, at noon.

What is Middlebury?

The response to this question from White Whale resonated with many of us, especially the statement: “the root of the Middlebury brand, its source and ongoing inspiration, is the community culture, lived daily experience, and personality of Middlebury’s undergraduate students.”

Middlebury’s components and the Middlebury homepage

“The homepages of the component institutions should be the primary channels of communication for those institutions.” – this makes sense, and may generate some good discussion.  We agree that the homepage does not need to tell the whole story, and like the idea of engaging users by telling the story “over time.”

Technology independence and the importance of writing

Appreciated the focus of writing as the key component to a great site. Also agree that we should not rely on specific Web 2.0 technologies.  Would like to see White Whale share their ideas on the editing interface for users.

Blogs dot Middlebury

Agreed with the concept, template designs that can be ported onto other platforms is within scope and part of this project.  More discussion can happen on how this gets implemented.

400 stories

We have started this.  What is the goal of this exercise?  How will this be sustained in the new site?

Midd Search

Appreciate that Search is being addressed early on.  Concerns about the sustainability of custom search pages.

Athletics at Middlebury

Questioning the choice of Picasa.  If we are not relying on specific Web 2.0 technologies, why choose one now?

Turning students into donors

How does this tie into the micro-philanthropy initiative?  Can we add this to the project, or do we need to focus on other features of the site and have this be included in a “phase 2?”

Managing content in an unpredictable environment

Users should not need to know specialized CMS vocabulary.  Also agree that accountability and ownership of the website are goals of this project.

Midd Lab and the language of rugby

This idea needs to be developed. Expect faculty pushback if this is expected to be a driver for interdisciplinary work.  Can this be related to the Commons?  Is this sustainable, do we have the staff?



3 Responses to “Strategic Recommendations”

  1. In general, I think the outline they’ve presented is sound. I’ll focus my response on translating the recommendations they propose into strategies for how this work could be completed as I don’t materially object to any of the recommendations. This is broken into sections to correspond with those in the strategy document.

    Middlebury’s components and the Middlebury homepage
    I agree again here with the analysis about the homepage. The lack of content from the undergraduate college has been a long-standing compliant about the current page, when balanced against the amount of space used to advertise the other programs. I have two recommendations to add to those given by White Whale.

    1. If the homepage will be used chiefly for the undergraduate college, with links to homepages for the other programs, then these programs should have similarly crafted home pages and unifying designs, as is being done for MIIS. This would include the Bread Loaf School of English, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Language Schools (either grad and undergrad as one site, or separate depending on IA choices), and Schools Abroad. This work should be considered in scope of the current design contract.

    2. It would make sense to have an area of the Middlebury home page that is occasionally used to feature content from these programs. For instance: a block of content or video about the Language Schools displayed during the summer, the Bakeless Prize winner shown at the end of the BLWC. This could also be used to show seasonal content that is unique to Middlebury like February graduation, J-Term, important sports victories etc. It would also serve as a place to put campaign notices. I’m thinking of something similar to how we’re currently using the MME area on our home page, which occasionally transitions into an image advertising the Initiative.

    Technology independence and the importance of writing
    I firmly agree with point (2), which says we should be reluctant to latch onto one particular implementation of any Web 2.0 technology and shove all our content into it as these services can evolve and be replaced by those that serve their purpose better. I propose that integration with external services is done only over RSS and not through a service’s third-party API. Using RSS as the platform allows us to quickly move and repoint the content if we want it hosted elsewhere. Deep connections into API’s bind us to those services. We should also check the services to see if there is an export mechanism for our content and, if not, attempt to find a local repository that can hold a duplicate copy of the content.

    I am also interested in hearing White Whale’s reasoning for proposing the use of Picasa to the Athletics department for image hosting. This seems to contradict their recommendation is this section. It’s also true that Middlebury hosts somewhere around eight different image repositories locally. What is not working about these that requires Athletics to turn elsewhere? Could we improve our local services in a way that works for Athletics and helps other departments? Should we consider closing some of the local services and encouraging use of Picasa? If Athletics is using Picasa, are they keeping a local repository of the photos as well?

    I also want to agree with the idea that we allow students to edit web content throughout the website. This should be left to the discretion of the local site editors, but we should not prohibit any department, office, or program from hiring a student worker to help edit content on the site. I see additional opportunities in this area: a J-Term class focused on writing for the web, using past student editors as a pool to draw from for Digital Media Tutors, Helpdesk staff, and graduate interns, etc. We also need to find a way to allow prospective students to create content on some areas of the site and encourage alumni to do the same.

    Blogs dot Middlebury
    I think that the development of design themes for WordPress would fall in-scope of the agreed upon contract for services on this project. If the out-of-scope work is the PHP coding required to translate those designs into WordPress themes, my office would be happy to assume the burden of that labor, rather than extend the current contract. The current sites.middlebury.edu home blog should move to one of these designs and feature more centrally an aggregation of content from those blogs hosted internally and externally (see http://drupal.org/planet) for an example: each post there is a post from one of the blogs listed on the left.

    Further, LIS should lead by example in this. We should consolidate our blogs so that the content is easier to find. In my personal opinion, the LISt blog, LIS Suggestions, Web Redo Blog, Reorganization Blog, and possible several personal staff blogs, should all really be one LIS blog with open authorship permission. The distinction between the types of posts can be handled using categories and tagging, to allow people to find out about all areas of the organization, or filter to those of interest. The LIS blog, or the many blogs about LIS if this recommendation is not approved, should also use the new themes developed by WW/Midd.

    Lastly, we should do an audit of currently active themes and delete any not in use.

    Midd Search
    These are all excellent recommendations and the detail provided is sufficient to form a complete project plan. We will not require WW to develop a prototype of the application. I will discuss with Adam, who has already created a federated search engine for Middlebury in the past, how we can best implement this. I suspect this is a development effort that will involve all three of our web developers, as we want to index many different content sources.

    Athletics at Middlebury
    I renew my recommendation that the Athletics department consider licensure of FrontRush (http://www.frontrush.com/web/), which I believe will be better at fulfilling their long-term goals with recruitment that a local FileMaker application can hope to do. I also believe that the first time a new feature is required for this local FM application, the cost of implementing that feature will excede the cost of a year of FrontRush. Still, if Athletics wishes to remain with their current setup, we can easily create the Get Recruited form described in this recommendation to complement that effort.

    Managing content in an unpredictable environment
    I’ll simply address the three points on their own.

    1. This is actually the only recommendation in the document with which I disagree, as does Mary Backus based on my conversation with her on Monday. However, I suspect that I and she will lose this particular battle. I still think that our online documentation should refer to the objects on the page by their proper names. Why bother re-labeling a “node” as a “block” if you have to then explain what a “block” is anyway? I also think that our training sessions (or workshops for those at Middlebury who are not “trained”) ought to spend some time explaining these terms and how they relate to how the page is displayed. True, not every content author on our site will know, or need to know, exactly what a “node” is, but if one of their colleagues knows and knows how node fields are displayed in relation to page regions, they may be able to help out when others are stuck.

    I still believe that editing content in a CMS is a non-trivial exercise that requires some understanding of the system in order to be done effectively. I eagerly await the UI recommendations from WW, especially any that can allow a user to understand the difference between editing a region of a page and editing the page itself.

    2. This is a feature of the RSS_page module, which we expect to receive soon from Amherst. If not already supported, we will extend this to allow iCal feeds as part of this summer’s implementation work. The flip side of this recommendation is that any content produced internally needs to be available as an RSS feed. This is already true for our blogs, but needs to be made true for Events as part of the R25 implementation project, sports scores, CMS pages (naturally), etc.

    3. Workflow should not exist unless the user wants it to. Almost always on the CMS, the person editing the content wants their change to be live when they save the page. We will make this the default, and allow it to be disabled if the user chooses to keep the revision un-approved for the time being. Additionally, we should be extremely generous with editing permissions. All department coordinators and faculty members should be able to edit all pages in all department sites. All Athletics staff should be able to edit the Athletics site. This is extended to large offices and programs like Language Schools, CSO, HR, Alumni & Parent Programs, and Advancement. The permissions end up being this way in the end (if you don’t believe me, look at the current permissions for Alumni or HR on the CMS), so let’s not hamper our content editors from the beginning. The more people can edit, the more exposure they get on the CMS, the better they become at managing content, the more up to date our content is, the better our site becomes.

    In order to foster a sense of ownership of content, and provide those viewing the content with additional contact information should they have questions, the name of the person who last revised any page on the CMS (linked to their Directory entry) with the date and time of that revision should be displayed everywhere on the CMS. In no case should the name of the person be overridden to show their department instead, since this breeds resentment and confusion amongst other content authors. I’ll note that there is code in the current CMS to do this, which is commented out precisely because some people’s named were going to be overridden to show their department. The reason that was necessary is solved by the recommendation for permissions I included above.

    Midd Lab and the language of rugby
    My first reaction to “Midd Lab” was that the term wasn’t necessarily appropriate for Middlebury. I think of Laboratory when I think of Lab, which is very different from how I think of Middlebury (with no offense intended to the scholars in our sciences departments). However, I think it would be wrong of us to push back immediately for a more “Midd” term, since that has the potential to lead to a design by commitee choice where we’ll end up with something banal like “Midd Dialogues”, which will just make everyone roll their eyes a little bit.

    So instead, I’d ask White Whale to clarify why they chose the term “Lab” in greater detail. I suspect that a version of this explanation will need to appear somewhere on the Midd Lab site.

  2. Quick note on Ian’s last point: “lab” is not just sciences at Midd. There are language labs, arts labs, technology labs, etc. So if it’s framed more broadly, “Lab” works…

  3. Some thoughts on search and the ‘custom search pages':

    – I fully support the addition of a number of faceted search results from the directory, course catalog, calendar, and other data sources in addition to the full-text results. An example WW showed in their initial presentation was great: full-text results down the center, faceted results down the right side-bar grouped by facet.

    – I worry that the custom search pages and auto-redirecting could potentially cause a major usability problem if they are not integrated with the normal search results. For instance, most search terms will display both full-text and faceted results in a consistent manner. If the user then enters one of the 200 customized terms and are then thrown out of the search-results screen directly to a predetermined destination, they may become confused as to where they ended up and not know how to see other full-text or faceted search results.

    A more consistent user experience could be achieved if the ‘custom search pages’ were implemented as additional blurbs that displayed on the normal search results page, above the full-text results. This would allow a plethora of additional information and links to be shown without forwarding the user to a place they weren’t expecting.

    – A separate problem is the maintenance of these custom search pages. Will one person be dedicated to continually updating all of them? Will departments be required to maintain the search pages for terms related to them? If these ‘custom search pages’ are stand-alone entities then it is critical that they be rigorously up to date and capture the breadth of items related to that search term. If they are done as add-ons to the full-text and faceted results then there would be less pressure for them to be as comprehensive for the term they describe as additional results will be automatically available.

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