As I've mentioned in previous AV Technology columns, the school in which I work has embarked on a much-needed redesign of their website. As part of a small group overseeing this process, which began in January and should result in a first phase going live sometime in early June. While my web skills have been adequate for the relatively small projects I've completed over the years, this is my first exposure to a redesign of a large-scale site with literally dozens of stakeholders. The stakeholders include individuals ranging from the executive level down to junior faculty members; all of them want their needs heard and considered, which is of course as it should be. In any event, it is a significant learning experience.
Early on the process included a detailed and thorough inventory of all web pages and assets that exist on the current site, and an evaluation to decide which of those assets will be moved to the new platform and which will be archived or deleted altogether. It was during that evaluation that the group discovered a surprising number of web pages and mini-sites that actually exist off the school's grid, so to speak.
In other words, there is content that exists within the school's directory structure, but does not appear to be linked directly from a known page. Most have been in folders that date back at least three years, and in some cases much more. The content is live, but is not part of the existing CMS (Content Management System). One of these is not even on the university's servers—it is hosted elsewhere. That one does, thankfully, open in a new window or tab within a browser, which is good news indeed because otherwise it would take a visitor away from the school's website with no way back in, save the Back button.
So from whence did these outliers come? In many cases, they were generated by faculty members who got tired of waiting for a staff person to give them what they wanted, but lacked the skills or time to do it themselves, so they found a skilled student. In other cases they were created by faculty who had the requisite skills themselves, along with the necessary access, and they simply went ahead and did the deed. It is likely the case that in both instances the calculus between asking permission and asking forgiveness came down on the side of forgiveness.
Here is where there could well be dragons. The first decision to be made: Do we move the outlying content to the new platform in its current unlinked state, do we move it and attempt to integrate it properly into the existing content, do we archive it, or do we delete it altogether? Anything other than the first option will of course require consultation with the content creator, who may or may not be amenable to the change. Do we attempt to coax and cajole the creator into "getting with the program?”
Kick the Can
For now, the decision was to kick the can down the road; we'd leave these things in place, only repairing broken links but otherwise importing it all into the new system. There is a position to defend here, but not today.
In an ideal world, the new site would allow stakeholders to generate and post their own content, but does that allowance hold for entire mini-sites or just simple pages? Even if there are templates, style guides, and a webmaster to ride herd on the entire business, even if we're able to maintain consistent branding across all sections of the site, large and small, who will actually do the work? What will be the vetting and review process?
There is budget for a webmaster, of course, although there is talk of partnering with another modest-sized school to share that particular load. At this point it is not a problem, given that the building of the site is still underway and will be for many weeks. Still, the issue of managing user-created content appears to be a thorny one in what is otherwise a free-wheeling academic environment. Whether we can provide the canvas on which faculty members can express themselves, at least to some extent, while both keeping them in the fold and maintaining a consistent brand experience, has yet to be revealed.
Steve Cunningham is an associate professor of practice at USC’s Thornton School of Music.