Content Gets Wings at HighEdWeb 2013

Statue of a buffalo with wings.

Think a buffalo with wings is wild? Try content with wings.

Last week, the HighEdWeb annual conference landed in Buffalo, New York — known for its friendly spirit, Niagara Falls and, of course, buffalo wings. But, as much as we loved that spicy sauce, it was the wings given to higher ed content that was most satisfying.

The common theme linking our favorite sessions from the conference is the importance of looking at familiar issues from fresh perspectives. From new ways of considering how we build and assess our web content to learning about the importance of intimacy and comedy in our content, there were many lessons on how we can take our digital experiences further. (Just don’t go as far as the Canadian side of the Falls without your passport!)

Got Students? Get Social!

Colleges often struggle to reflect their brand and culture online, yet overlook some of their best — and most authentic — storytellers: students. It’s not about adding a "different perspective" of your school for your audiences, it’s about getting to heart of who you are. Your brand. Your values. Your culture. Your institution.

"Your story is your students’ story," says HighEdWeb speaker Ma’ayan Plaut of Oberlin College. "Got students? Get social!"

Plaut herself is a living example of the power and value of students to help tell your institution’s story. As a student, Plaut shared "a year in the life of Oberlin College" through photos, offering a genuine view of Oberlin College. Now, Plaut works with current students to help their voices shine — and, in turn, Oberlin’s.

The notion of an unedited voice representing your institution is a daunting thought for many staff in higher ed. For these schools, Tim Nekritz, Director of Web Communication at SUNY Oswego, offers sound advice: "Approve the blogger, not the post."

It’s hard to be yourself. But, as SUNY Oswego student blogger Alyssa Levenberg says: "The more I do this, the better I get."

Levenberg shared her experience student blogging for SUNY Oswego:

Blog Me Baby One More Time

In their Red Stapler award-winning session, Audrey Romano and Robin Smail discussed various blogging initiatives at Penn State University. Blogging has tremendous potential for students, including motivating academic performance, developing portfolios, building a voice, and extending the educational experience beyond the classroom.

Romano and Smail illustrated the value that blogging brings to the pedagogical experience by sharing research and first-person accounts of the outcomes of student blogging.

The key is the audience effect: knowing that what you will write will be seen by your peers and make a difference. By writing for an audience and not just for a professor’s assignment, students are shown to create higher quality, better organized content that can help enhance professional portfolios and boost a student’s chance of getting an article published.

In the case of Penn State University’s Education Abroad GeoBlog, the students’ authentic perspectives on their study abroad experiences serves as a uniquely effective marketing effort, since it is driven by passion and not marketing.

Romano and Smail offer a good reminder of how student-authored blog content can serve multiple purposes and how the audience effect may be a helpful motivational factor for our own student bloggers.

The Power of Intimacy

In telling our institution’s stories, it’s tempting to play up the angles that make us look more distinctive or innovative, even if those angles are somewhat exaggerated. Kel Hahn of the University of Kentucky School of Engineering doesn’t subscribe to that school of thought.

Hahn strongly believes that “doing work that honors others produces a lasting ROI that goes beyond metrics.” Case in point? His profile of UK professor Sen-Ching Cheung, whose interest in developing a “virtual mirror” therapy for autistic children stems in part from his own son’s struggle with the disorder. That research, though, was not well funded and thus not fully developed.

In writing the article, Hahn remained true to his subject and let the narrative speak for itself without resorting to maudlin emotion. Shortly after, Cheung’s story captured the attention of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Shortly thereafter, Cheung received $800,000 in funding for the “virtual mirror” from the National Science Foundation.

Hahn says he was able to tell this story the way that he did because of the intimacy he brings to his work. He defines intimacy as a personal involvement and ownership in your work that involves understanding, believing, and practice. “We can’t be superficial in our jobs.” (Check out Hahn’s slides for the whole scoop.)

While Hahn does not credit his story with directly contributing to the NSF award, he believes simply that promoting the good work of good people can help them attract more opportunities and recognition.

[Insert joke here] The serious business of injecting comedy and humour into higher ed content

Higher education is a serious culture. Tradition, respect, and excellence are common words to describe college institutions. Funny, silly, and comical are not. And, indeed, content is a serious business. Anyone who appreciates the importance and value of content knows that!

Yet, in higher ed, do we take the serious business of content too serious? In her HighEdWeb talk, Tracy Playle of Pickle Jar Communications discussed the value of humor and comedy to effectively communicate with (and, yes, entertain!) our audiences.

While humor may appear childish or inappropriate, it is often perceived by our audiences as an attractive quality and one that can breed empathy, trust, and support for what we are doing.

Being funny is hard — and finding the right moments to be funny is equally difficult. However, we can use our “serious” behavior to our advantage, says Playle: “The more serious you are, the less you have to work to be perceived as funny.” She cites “That’s why I Chose Yale” as an example:

If Yale was perceived as a goofy institution, that video would lose comedic value. But because it’s such a contrast to the Yale brand, it makes us laugh. Hehe. Hoho.

Practical Tips for Information Architecture with Responsive Web design

Julie Grundy, an information architect with Duke Web Services, talked about how her team works with clients to develop device- and platform-agnostic web experiences. This requires content planning to remain distinct from the design process. Content modeling is a great method for doing just that, allowing Grundy to understand what the content is, what it is trying to say, and what attributes are associated with it. From there, content has the potential to go anywhere.

Why is this important? More and more, we’re integrating computers into our everyday lives in multiple, unpredictable ways. To enable meaningful messages to carry through in this increasingly integrated world, we need to prepare our content to succeed in any format.

Grundy evoked Karen McGrane’s “chunk vs. blob” dynamic in recruiting us all to Team Chunk, in which a chunk is structured content accompanied by metadata that provides the context to make it future-friendly.

Measuring Web Performance

When people talk about "web performance," it’s typically a discussion about code optimization. However, listening to developer and project manager Dave Olsen’s talk on web performance at HighEdWeb, we saw an important content lesson to be learned.

Olsen talked about responsive web design as responsible web design — catering to our audiences’ use of our website by multiple device types. And, while considering those multiple devices, Olsen says it’s not enough to alter the page layout; we have to consider how your website performs on those devices. Among those performance considerations is, of course, content.

This raises some interesting question for content creators: When you "re-focus" content for mobile users through responsive web design, are you considering the impact of that mobile layout on webpage performance? Are large and long-to-download content types such as photos, video, and JavaScript apps appropriate and effective for mobile use?

It’s likely that many of us focus more on the usefulness of mobile content and less on performance and usability. By missing the performance part of the equation, we risk shooting ourselves in the foot as users seek out useful information on their mobile device but are shut down by slow-to-view and inaccessible content.

Were you at HighEdWeb? What are your favorite content takeaways?

Photo by jasonparis / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Rick Allen and Georgy Cohen

Rick Allen has worked in higher education for over twelve years, helping to shape web communications and content strategy. As principal of ePublish Media, a web publishing consultancy in Boston, Mass., Rick works with knowledge-centric organizations to create and sustain effective web content.

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive, a digital agency based in the Boston area. Previously, she worked in content roles at Tufts University, Suffolk University, and her independent consultancy to higher ed, Crosstown Digital Communications.


  1. One of my highlights was getting to meet Rick and Georgy! :)

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