Tag Archives: highedweb

A successful conference that discussed failure.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Intended or not, that was a major message coming through for HighEdWeb 2017 (#heweb17) that rocked and inspired hundreds of attendees in Hartford. The conference itself was a tremendous success — and one that, perhaps paradoxically — addressed the idea of failure, and why it’s part of the process, more than any other gathering I can recall.

A moving and magnificent keynote by actor, author and content creator Felicia Day especially drove the point home. Day — who pioneered successful crowdfunding for entertainment and has brought the enjoyment of a fun nerdy character to everything from her project “The Guild” to “Supernatural” to “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong” to the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” reboot — was honest in how many times she took the wrong path on the way to an amazing career.

“Mistakes are rewarding,” she said at one point. “They are the best thing you can do.” She added that people are more successful when they risk failure instead of moving cautiously toward what they consider guaranteed success.

Day added we should treat ourselves as our own research projects — the key is to discover ourselves, as “the greatest tragedy is to not be who you are.” She has coped with anxiety and a desire to be perfect, and learned along the way there should be no shame to reach out for help, whether via a support group or counseling or anything that can bolster our mental health.

She said her own daughter serves as a kind of inspiration: We all have some joy in our lives we wouldn’t have if not for mistakes. Lose the regret, Day advised, and instead of dwelling in negativity, live a good and kind life that shows that being different, even being nerdy, is cool.

I had the honor of asking a question in the resulting audience Q&A, which essentially said that, yes, this really inspired us, but how can we bring the similar attitude — mistakes are OK and fuel success — back to the sometimes risk-averse atmosphere of higher education? While acknowledging that Hollywood was very risk-averse, which is why she independently funded so many wonderful projects, Day noted the idea of doing pilots the way the TV industry does is a great solution. Doing a pilot project, no matter how small, that shows something can be done is a useful first step to larger projects that can help our students, our colleges and our world.

One thing is certain: Bringing the honest, intelligent and engaging Felicia Day as a keynote speaker was by no means a mistake.

Theme warning

Presentation slide: Get permission to fail

Unfortunately, I don’t even realize which presentation featured the slide Amy Wolf shared about getting permission to fail, but it perfectly encompasses something that came up a few times.

In her session that won the Best of Conference award, “The Art and Science of Collaboration,” Day Kibilds of Western University discussed using lessons learned and avoiding past mistakes can develop collaboration and drive winning projects. All with a “Game of Thrones” theme, I should add. In short, she encouraged us that if think about worst-case scenarios (like zombie White Walkers overrunning the Seven Kingdoms) to motivate stakeholders to work together, if we have the right players to have honest and healthy discussions, and if we acknowledge institutional mistakes and/or inconveniences, projects can be turned around if treated as an opportunity for learning.

Unknowingly, I joined the trend as I presented “7 Habit[at]s of Social Media Storytelling.” (Thank you to Donna Talarico for the marvelous recap!) And I’m not just saying out of realization as I developed the presentation I had taken the wrong approach — don’t base it on channels but on content and process instead — and had to practically rewrite the whole thing, nor because I goofed in thinking I could get it completed in just 45 minutes (sorry).

Nope. I’m happy that the presentation included a slide that read:

You will fail sometimes, but that’s OK.

The only people who never fail are people who never try.

And this #heweb17 wonderfully encouraged us to try, fail and try again. It’s really the only road to success.


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#heweb16 shows it’s a caring community

Not only is HighEdWeb (#heweb16) probably the greatest conference for higher ed web professionals in the world but we were reminded yet again today that it’s a very caring community.

As Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code — which provides computer science and technological learning opportunities to girls of color ages 7 to 17 — gave a moving keynote on the importance of supporting technological opportunities to all, Chris D’Orso of Stony Brook cared enough to go to the Black Girls Code website and make a donation of $16 (in honor of #heweb16) to support the cause.


And that in itself is lovely, but what happened next showed how truly beautiful the people at #heweb16 are.


And it continued …


(I also gave the $16, but was only one of many.)


Until the giving spirit was everywhere in the room:


I lost track of how many people donated, and I’m not sure how much total money we raised, but I’m completely sure of this: #heweb16 is an awesome community and I am so blessed to be a part of it.

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‘Our little group’? On being a nerd and being inclusive.

“This is a song about how little groups of people will make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel stronger …” — Peter Gabriel, “Not One of Us (Live)”

One of the drawbacks of today’s hypermarketed and ubertargeted and supersegmented society is the loss of inclusivity as people seek those people who think and feel and act just like they do. Of course, this is nothing new as high-school children have been walled off from “the cool kids” and separation by caste and/or class goes back ages. But as Peter Gabriel sagely points out or as former outcasts Nirvana sang about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song that arguably changed the course of music and pop culture — the idea of of “our little group has always been and always will” suffuses society. (And that the teen elitists that line was about would sing along was grand irony.)

Too much passion?

Years ago, the NHL and its broadcast partners attempted to help clueless fans like me by adding a blue dot where the puck was to make it easier to follow (and went a bit far by giving a red comet tail on a hard shot, but anyway). Some hockey fans and purists were aghast. The league sold it as a way to draw in casual fans, but that dreaded c-word just made it harder for traditionalists to take. Maybe if the league had sold it as being for older fans or those with poor eyesight, the reaction could have been better — it’s hard for anybody to despise accessibility measures on their merit. Maybe it still wouldn’t have worked, but who knows? (Happy to report we recently wrapped a Hockey 101 video meant to let students who aren’t hockey fans learn more about the game.)

A dirty little secret to many might be that I have become a big fan of professional wrestling. Yes, the winners are predetermined and it’s a soap opera for guys or whatever you want to say — but it also features a lot of amazing athleticism and great storytelling. (I could write a blog or presentation on the topic of “what professional wrestling has taught me about storytelling” but maybe another time.) I’ve done some writing and commentary on fan site Cageside Seats, which is generally full of great and supportive people who have respectful debates (which itself dispels one stereotype of wrestling fans) but it has its share of those with disdain for casual fans. “WWE is doing this for the casual fans,” the argument more or less goes on some booking decision or character, “when they should reward us smarks and hardcore fans.” (Smarks = smart marks, i.e. people sucked in by wrestling while acknowledging its staged nature.) These people would despise casual fans who tune into John Cena on “Good Morning America” but who didn’t earn their cred by watching indy shows in bingo halls, or something. They mean well, but they need to understand their brand of fandom isn’t everybody’s level of fandom.

With any sport or passion, the idea that people with a more casual interest than you are less worthy of enjoying your thing is silly. Without casual fans, you can’t grow hardcore fans. They don’t offend your fandom or passion. That would be like an advertising agency saying, “nobody will love this product as much as we do, so we shouldn’t even advertise it.”

Rise of the nerds

This topic comes to mind as I prepare to leave for HighEdWeb 2016 (#heweb16), a conference for those who work in higher education web communications, also affectionately known as “nerd camp.” Nerds and dorks and geeks and former outcasts find validation with others like us. Levar Burton is one of the keynotes, which tells you plenty.

fullsizerender-6We generally were the uncool kids in high school, or at least certainly not the cool kids. But a funny thing happened along the way — kids who went into computer science or math or other scientific pursuits started making money and driving the new economy. Nerdy became the new sexy, and while TV shows used to depict nerds as uncool and poorly dressed kids with big glasses who were the butt of comedy, today a show celebrating nerd culture like “The Big Bang Theory” can become a cultural sensation. “Freaks and Geeks” remains respected and loved despite not being a hit during its brief run. Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former #heweb keynoter, is respected and admired. Doctor Who has been a huge nerd, yet he is adored across the globe.

Whereas The Beatles exuded cool, acts like The Replacements embraced awkwardness and dressed like nerds and Nirvana’s uncool coolness turned the pop culture world on its head. It got to the point that even the some of cool kids in high school tried to rewrite their internal biographies to being the pariahs in high school.

And so, for a few days in Memphis at #heweb, the outcasts will become the incasts, we will salute the freak flags that fly and in general much awesome will take place.

My nerd is not your nerd

But I offer one request or caveat to #heweb16 attendees, and those in these situations in general. Not everybody is your level or kind of nerd. Not everybody has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Not everybody knows every corner of the Marvel universe. Not everybody has seen every obscure film that you can quote from memory. And that’s OK: My nerd is not your nerd. Remember this, and be inclusive. Being an outcast once doesn’t mean that you need to make others who don’t share your interests or ardor into outcasts. This isn’t a competition, it’s a conference.

Many times, I’ll probably have to nod my head and smile to something I don’t understand or, if I’m brave enough, simply say I don’t know what somebody’s talking about. And many times, people may not get my insider or obscure references. With any luck and grace, I’ll know to stop and explain something to include them in my strange world.

I was at a (non-#heweb) conference years ago, where some of us were singled out by organizers as “team Tweet” or “the cool kids.” I bristled. I am fortunate to have been going to these conferences long enough to know some awesome people, but I was once that person attending his first #heweb and knowing nobody and feeling like a complete loser because everybody seemed to know more than I did.

So while I’m so humbled and happy to be heading to “nerd camp” in Memphis, I hope I can be one of those pushing inclusivity. Many of us know each other already but, if you’re new, please don’t let that stop you from getting to know us. We were in your shoes too. And if you’re one of us who has been to many #heweb conferences, please do your best to help others into our circle and feel comfortable. Being a nerd is a badge of honor now, but not a license to put those who aren’t your type of nerd — or even not a nerd at all — in an outcast circle we once (or sometimes still) called home.

Be kind and be inclusive. It’s something any good nerd would do.


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#hewebmi top takeaway: technology is nice, but collaboration is key.


HighEdWeb Michigan (#hewebmi) staged an outstanding conference earlier this week, and the theme I took away from it more than other involved the importance of collaboration.

Perhaps that sounds a strange takeaway from a conference about web communication in higher ed, but then I’ve always viewed the web as a huge gathering of people moreso than a mosaic of technology. Perhaps Ron Bronson of Eastern Wyoming College put it best in “Unboxing Yourself: Reaching Out for Professional Growth,” when he encouraged everyone at the conference to share what they know with others. At its most basic level, isn’t higher education about sharing knowledge, about collaborating? Whether it’s teachers sharing what they know with students, students sharing helpful information with each other, or teachers sharing what they find works well with other teachers, collaboration’s roots run deep in the history of American education … the trend of establishing specialized departments and info-hoarding silos is much more recent.

A wonderful keynote speech by Kristina Halvorson (co-author of the much-cited Content Strategy for the Web)  set the tone, emphasized many times, that working together on anything from creating great websites to telling compelling stories to attracting marvelous students (which, come to think of it, are all related) is the true key to success in this business. Christopher Ankney of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business discussed how to build engaged (and engaging) communities; Shawn Sieg and Matt Snyder, from U of M’s human resources department, probed using social media to motivate internal audiences; Aaron Rester from the University of Chicago Law School pondered the dream web org chart; while Nick DeNardis of Wayne State, Kyle James of NuCloud and I explored how colleges and vendors can work better together.

Other fine sessions looked at tools and tactics — such as Wooster College’s Alex Winkfield on how to launch a video operation on campus and #pancaketweetup co-creator Lane Joplin on social media analytics — but even these pointed out how no one can do their job alone. Bronson also noted a need for clarity in our jobs and how we see ourselves, with two of my favorite quotes from the conference: “There’s no space in the calendar for doubting yourself” and “You don’t have to be the best ________ in the world. Just be the best YOU.” Fantastic advice.

Coming back from the conference, I already have two collaborative blog projects in mind, plans to finally launch our use of Vine in a way that connects our huge Oswego family to campus plus designs on creating a group that will champion better web content across our ecosystem. I’m also more determined than ever to get folks across campus to work together on not just their piece of the puzzle but the bigger lifecycle picture — the journey from prospective students to alumni — and how to make that more seamless.

“Don’t think about how you’re communicating as channels,” Halvorson said in the opening keynote, but instead as “touchpoints across a lifecycle.” Let’s all collaborate on making the lives of today’s prospective and current students, today’s and tomorrow’s alumni and everyone working on campus as successful as possible. Let’s tear down the silos and make this a huge barn-raising instead … where we work together to build something awesome.


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what a johnny cash cover band can teach us about project management.

[Daniel Laird photo]

Strange things happen sometimes. Like going to a conference in Austin and winding up in a Johnny Cash cover band, as took place at HighEdWeb11. But the experience also offered lessons on some factors in successful project management.

Behind the scenes, group members secured a surprise slot on the stage at the Highball club in Austin, rewrote songs by the Man in Black to reflect working on the web in higher ed and handled all kinds of logistics required to bring it all together. We only had one practice in advance, and that didn’t include all songs or all members. But it came together, somehow, because of four strong aspects to the project:

Social. Communication took place through a secret Facebook group. I was the last in, invited because Georgy Cohen knew they needed a bass player. Earlier, members had collaborated on reworking titles on Cash classics and sharing new lyrics they penned (one of my faves being from “Frames and Tables Blues,” formerly “Folsom Prison Blues”: “I bet there’s rich folks working in a fancy CMS/I bet they’re drinking coffee, not cleaning up this mess”). In hindsight, we probably could have used a Google hangout to practice a bit more in advance if we could have somehow coordinated schedules.

Passionate. It certainly reflected a labor of love for a group of devoted Cash fans with varying levels of musical talent. Granted, it’s much easier to bring passion to something this fun and crazy as opposed to, say, building a web portal. But if you can focus on the positive results that can come from any project, that can help you become excited about the outcome.

Democratic: Aaron Rester was the ring(of fire)leader, but ideas and suggestions came from many group members. We each brought our own skillset to the mix and the group collectively figured out how to pool our talents.

Flexible. When you only have one practice in a hotel room (apologies to any neighboring rooms), you figure you’ll have to adjust on the fly. And we did, such as when Larry Falck stepped up to take on vocal duties for “Get Tweetin” (“Get Rhythm”) which included his suggestion via Facebook to change keys and chord structures on the day of the show to accommodate his vocal range. Because the project was social, passionate and democratic, we could easily be flexible.

Between-song transitions could have been smoother, and I played the first verse of “Frames and Tables Blues” in the wrong key, but the surprise performance was exceedingly fun and very well received. We ripped through seven Cash covers and (for the absurdity of it) Rebecca Black’s “Friday” without major incident to a crowd that really seemed to enjoy it. We even had folks clamoring for an encore, which is tough since we didn’t know any other songs. If that was our biggest problem, I’d say it was a success … thanks to some sound principles of project management.


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keep austin — or wherever you are — weird: 4 lessons from #heweb11

Many people may have heard the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” promoting the Texas city. Less known, but what we learned when in the city for HighEdWeb11, is its true meaning: The ubiquitous T-shirts read “Keep Austin Weird: Support Your Local Businesses.” The city (any city) would be much less interesting if its corner grocery stores were supplanted by SuperWalMarts, eclectic eateries usurped by Applebees and quirky cafes succumbed to Starbucks.

It’s a lesson we in higher ed need to heed. Not just because of anticipated increased competition from online schools, but because we’re sometimes our own worst enemies at what we do. Here are a few lessons, related to Austin and higher ed, from the many great sessions.

Be nice. Austin’s reputation as a friendly city proved well-earned. Bartenders, baristas and bellhops alike are incredibly nice, and complete strangers struck up conversations with us. Alana Riley’s project management presentation included plenty of good information, but I especially liked her discussion of being positive and nice. Psychology shows, she noted, we think better when we’re happy. “It doesn’t take much for someone to feel appreciated,” she said. “And it doesn’t take much for someone to feel unappreciated.” Have you made your co-workers, students, friends and/or loved ones feel appreciated lately? If not, why not?

Be yourself. Austin embraces its weirdness, its quirks, its offbeat charm. Karlyn Morrissette’s oddly titled “What Colleges Can Learn from the Insane Clown Posse” taught us, among other things, the controversial performers got where they are by knowing who they are and following through. Too many schools, Karlyn observed, try to be everything to everyone which makes them nothing special. (She also had a great line about colleges extolling their exclusivity: “Why do you brag about all the students you don’t educate? Brag about those you do educate.”)

Be interesting. Austin gave us a food truck festival, a Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebration, a nightly event where people watch bats swarm a bridge, live music everywhere and more. Colleges are inherently interesting places, so why do so many things (committees, university politics, acronym mania) paint such an uninteresting picture? We should focus on the engaging things going on around us and promote them any way we can. Georgy Cohen, whose “Carrying the Banner: Reinventing News on Your University Website” earned best presentation honors, discussed how evolving technology allows us to tell so many more interesting stories about intriguing people in new ways, and to share them widely.

Be about people. With apologies for tortured grammar, my point is that people matter most. The nice folks in Austin do customer service so well in large part because folks seem so interested in people and in helping them. Keynote speaker Chris Wilson reminded us that, despite the technology, what we do is really about finding ways to help people. Web 2.0 is not about technology, he said, it’s about caring for the people who use our site or comprise your community. Or, as Mike Petroff noted in a session on customer service via social media: “You have to out-care your competition.” What a great goal!

It was such awesome city that we were sad to leave Austin (or “Awestin,” if you prefer). Wouldn’t you want your campus to be one where people — from the future students bowled over by tours, visitors to special events and especially alumni — are sad when they have to leave it? That’s where the web and social media come in, providing a way those who love our campus never really leave, as they remain a part of community. We miss Austin already, but it gave us so many great lessons that will live on.


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#hewebvc: a conference about doing awesome stuff.

To briefly summarize a main thread of last week’s HighEdWeb Regional Conference at Vassar College (known to us Tweetheads as #hewebvc), it promoted doing awesome stuff. Appropriately enough, it was — presentation for presentation — the best conference I’ve ever attended.

Keynote speaker Kevin Prentiss of Red Rover set the tone with his definition of engagement: Do awesome stuff + get it online + share it with people. Or, if a really cool tree falls in a forest, hope to get it on video and shared via YouTube. Kevin also talked his ongoing project to create “a new student union” via online directories where students share photos, interests, tags and links. Think Facebook, but more localized and less evil. The conference really started me thinking about doing more with content aggregators.

Mallory Wood at St. Michael’s College talked about the awesome stuff her college does with YouTube. No media is richer than video, and with the ever-increasing popularity of YouTube, Mallory finds an outstanding and eager audience of prospective students engaging her videos. She discussed and showed clips from both their in-house DIY videos and the winner of a student video contest.

Briee Della Rocca of Bard College at Simon’s Rock championed strategic objectives above chasing the latest shiny apps. Briee spoke from an alumni relations perspective, but her advice on using social media channels for what they do best and how to increase interaction were on the money for everyone. And her digital magazine finding clever ways to create engagement will definitely do awesome stuff.

Rick Allen of Babson talked about the importance of content strategy in Web communication. View yourself, Rick advised, as a publisher of deliverable (and awesome!) content moreso than a marketer. It’s challenging because content is massive, political and time-consuming, but it’s worth it. FAQs too often exist as a last-ditch cover for poor content strategy and development. Coordinate institutional messages!

Oh, I presented at the end of day one about having students play key roles in your social media efforts including blogs, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. In sum, students are our most authentic, most dynamic, most powerful resources … and they should receive the tools and support to do awesome things. (Here’s an entry with links to some of the things I mentioned.)

Day two began with the inimitable Robin Smail of Penn State discussing authenticity in social media. You best reach authenticity by learning not to control everything, listening in social media instead of using it as a bullhorn and getting everyone involved. Doing awesome — and authentic — stuff works best when everyone feels comfortable and part of a team.

How do we know if people are finding — and, more importantly, engaging with — our awesome stuff? That’s where a presentation by Jessica Krywosa of Suffolk University came in handy. Jess noted raw numbers (i.e. hits) don’t mean a thing without context of what is happening offline. The best question to ask in analytics is not “how many people visited?” but “how many people took a desired action?”

Jake Daniel of Ithaca College discussed institutions finding their brand identity (voice) in social media. Those running awesome Facebook or Twitter accounts should talk like a person (not a machine), provide a friendly institutional voice and find clever ways to simply communicate complex ideas. He posited friendcasting — one-on-one conversation — is much more valuable than broadcasting in social media.

JD Ross chronicled awesome stuff happening with Hamilton College’s Class of 2014 Facebook group. Since students are there to interact with peers, administrators should facilitate, not manage, conversations. Hamilton promotes it frequently during student contacts in the admissions cycle. JD discussed sustainable options, such as turning groups over to students or making available after graduation as alumni groups.

I found every speaker relevant, engaging and informative. I enjoyed seeing — and drawing ideas and inspiration from — all the awesome stuff happening in higher education. I think we all benefit from our field gaining and sustaining a “wow” factor. Thanks for everyone who coordinated, presented and attended!


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