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On Governance

February 10th, 2011 by Bob Crisler



I’ve been thinking a lot, as I drive between the university and my home in Ashland, about Mark Greenfield’s blog post from last month declaring 2011 the “Year of Web Governance in Higher Education.” It reminded me of a long-ago debate on the <uwebd/> list that centered on the phrase “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” in which one position advocated a laissez-faire approach to higher ed web development, in polar opposition to any notion of “web governance.”

Sadly, years later, that debate continues to bubble on <uwebd/>, as if nothing had changed … as if, for instance, the rigid but predictable interface of Facebook had not prevailed over the chaos of MySpace.

The institutional website has never before been more important to the success of the academic enterprise. Indeed, the website is now considered by many to be analogous, if not equal, to the bricks and mortar of the college campus itself, so much so that the U.S. Department of Justice is proposing new rules that will put the websites of colleges and universities on equal legal standing (and risk) with their buildings, as public accommodations subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The legal risk management issues inherent in developing higher education websites have never been more acute. And even outside of those legal risks lie the simple risks of embarrassment; academic institutions are on notice now as never before; we’ve simply got to strive to make our sites better, each day, for all users. Dylan Wilbanks, recently of the University of Washington, experienced a little bottom-of-the-box archaeology on his way out the higher-ed door, which he recounted in a post, “Why universities have websites.” Yup.

So, to governance. Admittedly, the word might strike many, even most, as unpleasant. It goes to the very heart of the academic enterprise: freedom. The question becomes one of balance: how do we offer consistent and easy access to content and at the same time avoid interfering in the speech or ideas that the content describes?

First, to provide an infrastructure that optimizes access to content, more is required, WAY more, than look and feel. Owing to past insightful campus leadership on the subject of web governance, we’ve long since moved beyond templates, taking our first steps into the world of a “platform;” a foundation for web computing.

At UNL, our code, which includes the look and feel of the website as well as many underlying functions, is distributed more widely and deeply than at almost any other academic institution of similar size. The code supports a significant and growing core of functions that goes well beyond the simple construction of HTML web pages that many are familiar with, and perhaps reminded of, when the word “template” is used. There are now many of these functions that are part of each UNL.edu page; I’ll take you on a quick tour through four that I consider most important.

Mobile access to UNL.edu web content is no longer a nice-to-have option. Indeed, it was just announced by the research firm International Data Corporation that smartphones outsold PCs for the first time ever in the final quarter of 2010. Development continues on this capability, but University Communications has implemented a mobile server (m.unl.edu) that repackages UNL.edu content for display on mobile devices, providing that content is served from UNL’s main web host and it’s published ‘according to Hoyle’ in the UNL.edu codebase.

Accessibility of all UNL web pages can’t be guaranteed, as any code placed within the provided page ‘frame’ must be made accessible, but it’s important to note that UNL site code distributed by the Web Developer Network conforms to the success criteria of the coming ADA standards; indeed the UNL.edu homepage conforms to machine-testable standards for web accessibility at the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 Level AA – a mouthful that will form the “success criteria” to be mandated under the law as part of ADA in the coming few years (back to the Department of Justice reference in the second paragraph for more information).

And then there’s Single Sign-on. Once you’ve authenticated to one service through Login.unl.edu, each UNL.edu page that you traverse throughout that web session is ‘aware’ of your login status. This allows you to maintain your UNL security level throughout the browser session, and enter multiple authenticated web services on the site without the hassle of repetitive logins or a plethora of username/password combinations. It’s at once more secure, and much, much easier. And a common authentication service leads to some very interesting possibilities, as it will eventually become possible to ‘mash up’ data from several web services into single interfaces that bring all data elements of any process together: Click, click, done.

Finally, I’ll mention emergency alerting, not because it’s central on a day-to-day basis to accessing content that’s important to the academic enterprise, but because on the very rare occasion that it is central, it may be the only thing that matters. Today, every UNL.edu page stays in constant contact with UNL emergency-alert servers maintained by Information Services and UNL Police. The pages, like a child in the backseat asking “are we there yet?” constantly (every 30 seconds) ‘pings’ the server. Any emergency alerts issued by UNL Police are displayed on any open UNL.edu web page within an average of 45 seconds after they’re issued (from end to end, this is one of the fastest-available channels for distribution of alert messages).

Without a history of web governance at UNL, we would have none of the above. And we would have none of the important and substantial contributions that have come into the UNL.edu codebase over the years from Web Developer Network members in the Department of Mathematics, the College of Business Administration, University Housing, Business and Finance, IANR and many others, too numerous to mention.

Governance isn’t sexy. But think about it: governance is in many ways what makes us free. Without it, our nation couldn’t have gone to the moon or built the Interstate highway system, which gave us new science and engineering and the freedom to move about with unprecedented ease. It gave us the Internet, which has allowed anyone to publish for a worldwide audience. Without governance, this university couldn’t have built the buildings in which all of the amazing and enriching activity of the academic enterprise occurs, or hired the talented professors that lead it.

Governance is the management of things that are important enough to be governed. As the expectations of our students and other site users continue to advance, the demands on our website(s) will continue to grow. We’re going to need more governance, not less. Better governance, rather than none.

Spring is almost here. So let a thousand flowers bloom. But let them be flowers.

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