Faculty Academy Web Site Unraveled: But. Um. Why?

It occurred to me after I published yesterday’s post that I should probably talk about why I think it’s important to do all the things I was trying to do with the Faculty Academy Web site. I’ve already touched on a few or those reasons — mainly the selfish desire to learn more about how WP/WPMU works and to, hopefully, discover some techniques/ideas that I could put to use on other projects. But I don’t want to suggest that putting together this site was purely an exercise; I’d like to believe that there was actually some meaningful purpose behind the experience.

In a former job, I spent a lot of time planing Web sites, thinking about their communicative goals, talking to focus groups and committees about their purpose and how we would measure their success. While I learned a lot from that experience, and I think I was able to put what I learned to good use, truthfully, a lot of it felt like wheel spinning. Talking about what we were trying to do so as to convince ourselves we understood what we were trying to do. Making a science (or a study) out of something that still, for me, often feels very nebulous and difficult to define.

So one of the reasons I love, love, love working on the site for Faculty Academy is that it has a somewhat short life-time (I know that it serves a purpose as an ongoing, permanent archive of the event, but it’s core user functionality is really critical for only about 6-8 weeks prior to the conference). It’s also a small enough conference, with enough returning attendees (most from within my own University), that I have some freedom to try new things and not worry too much if they backfire. Sure, the cfp and registration system needs to work. The program needs to be clear and easy-to-find. Logistical information needs to be accurate and consistent, but, beyond that, there’s a lot of opportunity to play.

This idea of “playing” as a way of building a Web site is, more and more, a much more rewarding way for me to work on sites. I feel pretty lucky that most of what I build online these days has a somewhat short life-span (a semester, perhaps), is done in collaboration with other playful individuals (my colleagues in DTLT and the amazing faculty and students at UMW), and doesn’t contain a lot of “serious,” institutional data that I need to worry about vetting with a huge committee or administration.

That said, I don’t want to downplay the importance of these projects. I just think course management systems, with all of their institutional-looking interfaces and static feature sets have lulled a lot of us (instructional technologists, faculty, students), into thinking that building online experiences within the Academy needs to be a locked-down, top-down, “standardized” experience. I think that’s just antithetical to how we ultimately teach and learn.

So as I embarked on this year’s conference site, I was seeking to build a site that could serve the following goals:

* provide clear, accurate information about the event (that’s a no-brainer)
* allow people to easily register or submit proposals (again, duh)
* provide an online venue for pre-conference interaction and investigation
* provide an online venue for live conference activity and monitoring of conference activities happening in other spaces

True:

* Not a lot of people added tags to program items
* I’m not sure how many people cared that there was a “live” feed of current sessions on the home page.
* As far as I can tell from the Google Analytics, no one viewed any of the archived conference video from previous years that I highlighted in the site footer prior to the event.
* Only a handful of people used delicious to add bookmarks that were tagged “umwfa09.”

But, by no means, do I think any of what I tried was a failure. First, as I’ve said before, I learned a ton doing it. I’m never failing when I’m learning. Second, even if a lot of people didn’t participate in some of the opportunities I provided, I believe a few people had seeds planted that we can continue to nurture throughout the year and at next year’s conference. Bit by bit, we make inroads. And we also model for our faculty, our students, and ourselves a way of building and creating that values learning, creativity, experimentation, and even “failure.”