If there's genius at MIT, it rests in a single idea, and you can see that idea in action if you walk down almost any corridor once you get above the administrative offices on the first floor. And what you'll see are a group of people sitting around a table talking. Undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, faculty, research lab managers -- it's a single conversation where everyone participates as equals. I'm sure the same at many other institutions, but at MIT it's the dominant underlying ethos, and a worthy model for all discussions.
I’ve written dozens of emails over the years to academic decision makers, trying to convince them that academic web development matters. Recently I collected them in a folder marked Top Secret, in the hope that Wikileaks would come after them. So far nothing. But the inanity and disfunction of Election 2016 has raised the stakes. We’ve moved far past the world of social media and it’s exhausting triviality, to a world of virtual reality where no masks or special gear is needed. ll the recent election makes it seem like we’ve moved into a world of virtual reality, so the capacity of academic communication to convey facts, to build community and consensus .
To the extent that academics think of web development at all, they think of it as a telephone book. It provides information. And they use social media in the same way they use the bulletin board outside their office. To get people to open their telephone book.
This static idea of what academic web development is has happened for a very good reason. It’s a unique type of development. Normally, web development happens because a client goes to a development shop and asks for a website. That’s what happens in universities too. Discuss, discuss, discuss, and the development shop delivers a website. But the client, usually the marketing-communications team within a department, school, or center, has no idea how to run the website. So whatever it can do on the day it goes live is all it can ever do, until it’s thrown out and everyone starts over.
I can go on at length about all the problems that arise out of this structure, but let me first say what the alternative needs to be.
The unique thing about academic web development is that most universities need thousands of websites that they’re not getting, and these websites are more or less alike in terms of functionality. And delivering those websites has proven to be the challenge. Harvard tried with its Open Scholar distribution (A for effort, A for usability, F for maintainability, and MIT with Drupal Cloud, and both of those have gone off course in various ways
Academic should use Wikipedia rather than Twitter or Facebook as its model.
Stake a claim to a select group of topics or research and stay on top of it. Build a high-quality media library around it. And every six months or so produce an eBook that collects those pages and blog posts and community discussion so that that content can reach beyond your particular website. Google dominates it can make sense of the inane URLs we rely on. We’ve gotten rid of old-fashioned card catalogues and replaced it with Google searches, and have lost along the way the accuracy and power of professionally managing our information.
Let’s have a lookout three case studies.