IntroductionThis report emerged out of a semester long collaboration among a group of administrators and faculty to explore the ways that Middlebury can improve its web presence. While few constituents would point to Middlebury's web site as one of the core challenges facing the institution, we view our online presence as an untapped arena of community, participation, and functionality that can better serve the college's array of constituents and campuses. We believe that Middlebury can take a leadership role in using online media to represent ourselves to the world, and better embody the principles that the institution stands for. We realize that such a revitalization of our web presence will have costs; but we believe that the core investment will less be in material resources as much as a shift in the philosophy of engaging the web and a more efficient use of student, staff, and faculty time to make the online community an extension of Middlebury's current practices.
Problems: What doesn't work with Middlebury's current web presence?
Middlebury College has a perfectly adequate website for conveying information about the institution, but we believe “adequate” is not representative of Middlebury. We should note that a website and a web presence are two different things, as Middlebury's web presence is hardly limited to its site. There are "Middlebury"-labeled sites across the web, whether the tagged photos of a current student, a faculty's blog, or an alumni group's YouTube archive. While we could never hope nor wish to control every use of our institution in the online world, we can more effective facilitate access to sites that engage content creators to contribute to our own websites, and create an online community of participation that brings people into our own sites, rather than sends them out into satellite domains.
Beyond our broader web presence, there are some basic problems with our website. It lacks a high-degree of usability, it is not particularly well-liked or fully utilized by faculty and staff, and it seems somewhat restrictive, dated, and stale compared to other higher education sites. But the more compelling problems involve the site's inability to capture the broad range of programs tied to the college, failure to invite active engagement and participation, and its static, text-heavy nature compared to the dynamic multimedia possibilities of the web.
The web does not effectively highlight the quality of scholarship and creative work that our faculty and students produce. We have researchers and artists that are tops in their fields, and students producing groundbreaking work, but the web does not currently share and distribute these works. Some faculty and students do have their own websites that promote and highlight their work, but they tend to be isolated from the main Middlebury website, often lacking clear links and continuity between sites. The effect is that the individuals represented on these satellite websites do not feel like part of the Middlebury online community, and the core website seems overly institutional and lacking personalized presence.
One chief problem is that Middlebury's number of different constituencies is vast and varied - we need to be able to create a web presence that effectively serves all those constituencies, and manages the specific issue of external vs. internal users. Currently, every constituent encounters Middlebury's website through a uniform design, with little customization for the vastly different places where Middlebury's global presence reaches, and little attempt to target to the different uses that various users might have for our site, whether alums or faculty, prospectives or staff.
Our website is frequently out-of-date in content, and lacks many design and usability features of peer institutions
Our website lacks opportunities for participation and engagement, serving mostly as a repository of static text-based information
Our website does not capture the creativity, innovation, and energy that Middlebury represents and produces in many tangible incarnations of pedagogy, research, creativity, and civic engagement
Our website is viewed by many "vested" constituents as serving only as an online "admissions brochure," and thus faculty, staff, students, and alumni use other web services to communicate and engage with each other
What follows is a set of thinking points to build on as we try to re-envision Middlebury's web presence. It is not a bounded set of recommendations to be followed and then abandoned upon completion. The web is not a stable entity, or a problem to be solved; rather, it is a dynamic, constantly evolving medium that needs internal care and updating. We have typically treated the web as a building project, hiring external contractors to design and construct it. We must conceive our web presence more like a garden, needing constant care, upkeep, and maintenance.
Possibilities: What more could Middlebury do on the web?
How can we use the internet to help realize our strategic plan, Knowledge without Boundaries, and our vision to become the Global Liberal Arts College of the 21st Century? Middlebury's current web presence reflects neither the tenets of the college as an educational institution, nor the possibilities that today's technology enables. Ultimately the goal should be to make Middlebury's web presence not only have an appealing design that looks good, but maximize its usability as well, capturing the unique ability of the web to communicate and engage users in a wide range of registers. We offer the following set of keywords that encapsulate the broader possibilities that Middlebury can pursue via its web presence and better capture the essence of a Middlebury education through its online connections:
Our web presence must provide opportunities for participation.
One of the central tenets of Middlebury College is a belief in active learning - we teach students by engaging them in dialog, in creative expression, in community service, and in independent research. Our web presence can reflect this ethos of participation, enabling users to do more than browse through an online print document. Today's online tools encourage the creation of user-generated content, and Middlebury's web sites should reflect the input and contributions of all of the college community. Technologies like blogs, wikis, social networks, tagging and sharing collections, and discussion forums all fit with Middlebury's educational philosophy of active learning and participation. A key effect of online participation is to engage a broader range of members from the community, allowing students, alumni, staff, faculty, and supporters from all of corners of the Middlebury's vast reach to find a place to engage with the ideas and practices happening at Middlebury's many campuses. We imagine that participation will emerge out of the innovations that have already emerged online: blogging by faculty, administrators, and students; interactive online class discussions common throughout the curriculum; virtual worlds that allow for language immersion; social networks emerging in response to campus crises and controversies; online collaborative research across campuses; and even discussion threads branching off various items in our website. We hope to be able to embrace such participatory activities and incorporate them more organically into Middlebury's web presence, rather than seeing them as add-ons external to the primary function of our website. As an institution, we must create clear incentives and reduce obstacles for online participation, following important academic trends in promoting open access research and developing digital scholarship; this will include making some changes in our handbook regarding tenure and promotion, creating clear expectations for student literacies and public presentation of their work, and sets of ethical guidelines for a “digital honor code.”
Middlebury's web presence should foster and extend our community using a broad range of online tools.
The central notion of today's "Web 2.0" is that user-generated content and social networks can create an engaged community to generate materials that exceed the limits of what can be created via a centralized top-down model of dissemination. By creating a robust and participatory online space, we can engage a broad array of individuals and allow them to become part of something bigger, a vibrant and active community that cuts across boundaries of nation, language, time zone, age, and social divides. As a residential college with a global presence, we can harness the possibilities of the web to make the our world both bigger and smaller - fostering connections to overcome boundaries, but reaching out to all constituencies to maximize engagement beyond the confines of our small Vermont town. Middlebury's web presence needs to articulate and simultaneously to represent "Middlebury" as a new brand that stands for a world-wide network of learners and academic partners, with the physical academic-year campus in Vemont being just one node in this network: the other nodes, separated from the academic-year campus either along temporal or geographic lines, include MIIS, the Language Schools, the Schools Abroad (including connections between our C. V. Starr Middlebury Schools Abroad and partner institutions abroad), the four Bread Loaf campuses and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
While we strongly believe that online learning communities will never replace the intimacy of the face-to-face education that is the essence of Middlebury, we can find ways to use the technology of social networks and participatory media as a complement to the crucial interactions that occur in the classrooms and the dorms. We might envision our web presence as offering an Online Commons to compliment our residential commons system - just as the residential commons allows for learning to overflow beyond the classrooms, our Online Commons can extend the reach of a Middlebury education to overcome boundaries of geography, time, and access. The Online Commons can be the central way that we frame our entire community as One Midd, forming ties among various campuses and constituencies.
Our web presence should be informed by the dual nature of Middlebury as the first 'global liberal arts college' by connecting a large number of small, intimate learning communities, where education continues to occur on a face-to-face basis, with instructors and students negotiating the process of accessing, reviewing, analyzing, and producing knowledge in direct communication with each other, while a global network delivers access to world-wide data repositories, with the goal that students have access to local learning in whatever geographic context is the most relevant to the object of their studies. In each "Middlebury" location, students learn from each other, as well as from their instructors, the local population, and the material world. This is the essential part of the college's liberal arts mission and we should not try to replace this aspect of a Middlebury education with the web. The web presence should instead serve as the externalized archive that holds all these small "Middlebury College" communities together in the global network that is "Middlebury."
The technology of the web allows for sites to be customizable, adapted to the specific uses and needs of users and communities.
Middlebury's website can embrace a more flexible design and mode of use, allowing different constituencies to navigate and access the web distinctly. This might emerge in different versions of our site for different groups: an alumni site, a prospective student site, an internal administrative site, etc. Individual units should be free to pursue various design and interface possibilities to best capture the essence of their identity - the look and feel of a site for a visual arts department should inherently be different than the site for facilities; the College Handbook should not appear the same as a site for a student organization. The design of our web needs to reflect different content, uses, and attitudes, not a uniform standard devoid of personality and customization.
We envision another possibility for how the site might be navigated by users: a more flexible system by which each user could create their own personal profile to access content and links specifically tied to their interests and roles within the college. Such a profile-driven system could make Middlebury's website more in line with the current trends in social software and personalized web content, a protocol much more interesting and engaging for younger users, and providing more robust and easy-to-use navigation for faculty, staff, alumni, and other members of the Middlebury community. It could also effectively serve to help share information about events on Middlebury as an alternative to the all-campus emails which now raise problems for many in the community. Given the possibilities of web design and interactions, we need to be sure that the way users engage with the web meets their particular needs and interests, not following a top-down model of homogeneous design and interface.
Middlebury's web presence should embrace the multimedia essence of the medium.
The bulk of our current website can be described as "online print, with occasional illustrations." Our web presence should utilize the broad range of media options that the web offers: sound, moving images, navigable virtual spaces, and interactive graphics along with text and static images. We should seek to communicate information in a manner that feels "digital native," matching the most robust multimedia design in play at other sites, within higher education and beyond.
We should particularly leverage Middlebury's many academic fields that could use multimedia to capture the experience of learning and research at Middlebury: interactive maps from Geography; audio conversations spanning across Languages and Schools Abroad; time-lapse videos of a Studio Art installation; podcasts of author readings from Breadloaf; visual simulations of Chemistry experiments; a visual gallery of documents from Middlebury's archives on Vermont history created by American Studies students; demos of digital vision technologies from Computer Science; an interactive multimedia video from Film & Media Culture. Every academic program and school should be able to devise ways to make their corner of Middlebury's web presence more dynamic and representative of the interactive and lively work that happens in classrooms. Likewise, administrative units can imagine ways to make more engaging tools to communicate their work and opportunities beyond online policies and forms. We need to think of multimedia options not just as nice "add-ons" to make our site more flashy, but as a core value for our web presence - we need to always ask how information can be conveyed most effectively online, and usually this involves opportunities beyond lengthy blocks of text.
These are the pillars that will drive our reimagination and redesign of our web presence into a customizable, multimedia, participatory community. The specific choices, procedures, and practices will flow from this vision, using technology and creativity to realize the possibilities of online media to extend Middlebury's online presence and educational mission.
Plan: How do we move forward to strengthen Middlebury's web presence?
The values of creating a multimedia, customizable, participatory, and community-based web presence should extend to the process of creating and implementing the design as well. Instead of hiring a consulting firm to design a site or sell us a "pre-fab" design, we hope that our web presence will emerge more organically from the Middlebury community. We hope to engage students specifically to marshal their talents and ideas in imagining what our web presence can be - using tools like wikis and blogs, we can create a community around the design and implementation of this project, creating buy-in and engagement from the very start of the process, and hopefully drawing upon internal resources most efficiently and cost-effectively. The site will still be designed, run, and maintained by Middlebury staff, but we hope to coordinate ongoing efforts from various constituents to keep the web a dynamic and innovative presence.
One important issue that must be grappled with is the balance between internal control and open participation - allowing members of our community to participate and contribute to our web sites brings potential risks of incorporating content that is not endorsed by the college. However, the benefits of participation and contributions from the entire community outweigh those potential risks, possibilities exhibited by numerous web projects across the world that corral the wisdom of many users to create a richer and more effective set of resources. We will develop clear policies to monitor and authenticate participation, and we believe that requiring contributions to be tied to a username will eliminate or reduce potentially volatile anonymous content. Ultimately, we believe that Middlebury's core values of dialog, communication, and active learning and listening will be strengthened via a more open platform of participation, rather than a one-way flow of controlled information.
- Create an online hub to foster discussion of this project among a wide array of constituencies and people throughout the Middlebury community, modeling the potential uses of the web throughout the design process.
Assemble a group of students with particular interests and expertise to research other websites and report on what is already being done effectively elsewhere. Empower students at all campuses to become more actively engaged to contribute to our web presence, including design, content updating, and maintenance.
Share our statement with many members of our community to solicit feedback, gather specific concerns and desires for how the web might be used most effectively, and generate a list of individuals particularly interested in working on this project, including faculty, staff, alumni, students, and funders from the full range of Middlebury programs and campuses.
Charge staff members with appropriate knowledge and skills to research various platforms and technical solutions that we might adopt, with an emphasis on open source tools that might be effectively customized and integrated into some of our existing software systems (such as Segue, WordPress, MediaWiki, etc.). One specific solution to be explored is the use of consortia (such as NITLE) to share online resources and platforms through existing or new networks
Devise a staffing workflow that can most effectively utilize the talents and abilities of existing staff members, while ensuring that maintaining our web presence is clearly a staff priority - we need to be sure that there is a clear sense of responsibility involved with the web, and it is not "orphaned" once any new systems are put in place.
Create an infrastructure for a permanent advisory board to oversee web presence to ensure that it continues to serve the wide range of Middlebury's constituencies, and maintains maximum usability.
We've attached a list of stakeholders, and a set of questions to pose to a range of stakeholders to understand the problems, possibilities, and plan for moving forward
A disclaimer – as the internet presents information on every aspect of Middlebury, every department and program is effectively a stakeholder. With this in mind we believe our process will provide opportunities for anyone who is interested to offer input. However, in an effort to be sure certain areas are included, this list identifies those areas.
By area, program or department:
All academic departments
College Advancement (APP)
Project on Innovation, Creativity and Leadership
Spring Student Research Symposium
SGA / Student organizations
Center for the Arts/Museum
Middlebury College Alumni Association
Monterey Institute for International Studies
Middlebury Language Schools
Bread Loaf School of English (including remote sites)
Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference
Strategic Communications Committee of the Board
What impact does our web presence have on you and your role at Middlebury?
What would you change if you were given free reign over our web presence?
What would be the impact of keeping with the status quo for our web presence?
What three opportunities might the web help you take advantage of that you are not currently utilizing?
What three problems do you hear most often about our web presence?
What emerging trends (technology related or not) will have the most impact on your work moving forward?
What do you feel we must do in order to stay relevant/fresh as an institution?
What web sites do you visit/use most often and why? Are there aspects of those sites that you think could be incorporated into Middlebury’s presence?
Posted by Michael Roy on September 25, 2008