Janell Sims, Assistant Director of Harvard Law School’s Online Content and Production Team, spoke at ContentEd 2017. Here, she talks about how to deal with increasing content demands in higher ed.
Could you start off by giving me a brief introduction to your career and how you ended up working in the education sector?
I got my Master’s degree in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College, and launched a publishing career at Houghton Mifflin, a college textbook publisher. But after a few years, our entire department was acquired by a large corporation and laid off. I used the layoff as an opportunity to move my career path in another direction. I’d always heard that Harvard was a rewarding place to work, so I found a job as communications manager at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I’ve since moved on to Harvard Law School, where I’m focused on the content strategy, design, and development of the HLS site (hls.harvard.edu).
How do you think the demands for content have changed over the years, and how have you had to adapt your approach to content at Harvard Law School due to these changes?
Shift from print to online
As more and more systems and processes move online, the education sector is catching up and adjusting to prioritising online content. Materials that traditionally were printed, packaged, and mailed to students can now be found on the website. Application forms, correspondence, marketing, and event promotion have all transferred to the online space. This has increased the demand for online functionality and support from admins who are typically tasked with creating and editing content.
But having a web presence isn’t enough. Users want more than a glossy brochure on a screen. A university’s web platform should support content sharing and robust designs that signal to users we’re serious about providing a great experience for them.
Until a few years ago, the Law School’s website was on a CMS platform that was difficult for authors and editors to use and provided limited options for displaying and organising content. The selling point of the CMS was that editors would be able to create and produce content independently, without the need for a centralised web team. The problem was, without the governance, expertise, and style consistency that a team would typically provide, web editors were on their own. The CMS enforced bad practices like content duplication, extra-long left navs, and endless link farms. There was no overarching strategy, no formal collaboration, and training only covered the technical aspects of the system. As a result, content became siloed in departments – no one was aware of what anyone else was doing, and the content suffered.
Fortunately, the school realised this siloed system wasn’t working and brought in a web team to try something different. We migrated the entire site to WordPress, a platform where sharing is an integral feature, and editors finally had a devoted online team that could provide the training and assistance they’d had to do without for too long.
Since many departments and offices have sometimes been reluctant to make changes to content, either by moving from print to online, or reworking online content to optimize it to particular audiences, we on the online team have had to build credibility with the content owners and earn their trust as we show them the benefits of producing online content that’s engaging and dynamic. Instead of working in silos, the authors and editors now use the web tools we’ve implemented to collaborate in sharing and repurposing content.
I think that in the past, authors and editors of sites across the internet – and in the education sector in particular – would provide information online, but didn’t put much thought into how the content was organised, or how to prioritise certain content. There might be a website with all the information a user needed, but the duty was on the user to search it out.
As users become savvier and as a focus on user experience becomes the standard, our users expect a site that provides the exact information they need when they need it. They don’t feel they should have to search, navigate, and dig through long blocks of content to find information. Our job is to research and anticipate what our users need, and serve it to them in digestible, delightful experiences.
There’s also an expectation that content should continually be new and fresh, and follow current web style trends. Stale content stands out and users pick up on that. A well-designed site with fresh, updated content reflects positively on the school as a whole. But an outdated site might cause users to question the school’s credibility and reputation.
Accessibility has risen in importance from a nice-to-have site enhancement to a federal regulation, and so making sure our content is accessible to all users has been a priority for us. From captioning videos to adding alt text and header tags, we’re emphasising to our editors that by making content accessible and available to users with disabilities, we’re actually optimising the entire site for all users. Everyone benefits when content is accessible.
Can you share a content strategy success story from your institution?
In our previous CMS platform – the “silo maker” – the content across the site was buried in departmental silos. This was a problem because, for example, every department has their own set of deadlines for students to be aware of, and even if all of the deadlines had been correctly entered into the CMS, there was no way to see them all in one place. During Orientation, for example, students had to keep track of 5 or 6 lists of deadlines from Financial Services, Registrar, Admissions, and so on.
Now that we’re in WordPress, students no longer have to scramble around different department pages to make sure they’re hitting all of their various deadlines. We’ve created a Student Dashboard with a panel that features all deadlines coming up that students need to know about. Each of the deadlines is created by different departments, tagged appropriately, then automatically pulled into this panel. Now students can quickly get cross-departmental info in one glance.
And are there any examples that you have seen from outside of the sector that we can learn from?
In my experience, project management in the education sector tends to move more slowly than in the business world, and can often lead to a “waterfall” approach to projects. This means that projects take a long time to complete, and because waterfall projects adjust course so infrequently, the end product may not be what the school needs. Also, support for existing projects can often be overtaken by a desire for new projects. That’s what happened with our old CMS – after it was built, maintenance became less and less frequent during the six years it was in use.
Because of the limitations of waterfall processes, the IT department at HLS has adopted a version of Agile project management called Scrum, which is a mainstay in many tech and development companies. Our IT department now plans all of their projects on monthly sprint schedules, which ensures that no project goes beyond its allotted team or timeline. The online team used Scrum in our WordPress migration project as well, and the iterative process was essential in keeping the features and functionality lean and efficient. Because we regularly checked in with our user base during sprints, we only built what we needed and didn’t bloat the system with features our editors wouldn’t use. We’ve also planned 2-3 maintenance sprints every year so that the site is up to date with security upgrades, refreshed designs, and enhanced usability features.
I think higher ed could benefit from implementing Agile processes in a variety of projects, from site development to editorial strategy, even planning for commencement, orientation, and reunions. Lean project management means more time spent engaging with your audiences, like students and faculty, and more effort spent on creating better products and services that delight more of your users.
Janell’s session ‘Tunnelling through silos: Creating a community of support to leverage great content‘ featured at ContentEd 2017. If you’re interested in speaking at ContentEd, submit your session proposal for ContentEd 2018 before Friday 15th December 2017.
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