In search of a more open tent…
Higher ed web conferences are great as a function of getting people in the room to talk about their problems and the way those issues can be resolved. I’ve gained so much over the years going to events, talking to friends and interacting with people who have helped me better understand my role in the grand scheme of things.
The biggest problems are the decisionmakers aren’t usually part of the equation, since higher ed web conferences are almost always comprised of people who are the designers, developers & strategists of institutional web presences. In almost every case, these sites are embedded in a different department like Advancement, Marketing or IT, but not by themselves with their own leadership. We’ve been kicking the can of the need for web leaders for a while, but rather than bang on that drum, I want to focus on why we need more integrated conferences.
We can’t go it alone.
Everything higher ed web people do relies on some buy-in from around the campus. Deleting links often take committees or senior signoff. You can’t manage a business this way, much less a presence. But for every person who understands why you need an inquiry form on a particular page, there might be a web person who doesn’t understand the need. Unlike designers & developers building for other purposes, the work in higher education is specialized and in the service of varied constituencies.
So why bring outsiders?
As much as I like discussing big wins, hashing out obstacles and hearing from smart people in sessions, there’s something missing from the roster of the higher ed conferences of now. The formula is pretty much the same. We pay to speak in most cases, keynote speakers try to wrap their mind around higher ed — with not as much avail in a lot of cases — then session speakers (like me) share our experiences and hope the audience gets something out of it. One thing that has yet to happen after a talk, is someone reaching out to ask questions.
I once asked in Michigan in earlier this year, how many people felt like they had someone they could call from outside of the organization to help them solve a web-related problem and only about 25% of the audience raised their hands.
That’s a problem.
There are vibrant development communities that get together for meetups, hackathons and other energetic events that keep people engaged in best practices, experimental tactics and focus on problem solving as a craft. Higher ed needs more of this. Conferences that exist solely to bandy about our issues don’t reflect the need for a wider, more robust presence in larger development communities from people who stay in higher ed.
If things are going to improve and college presidents to ever recognize the need for VP/Chief level digital leaders, the charge will come from recognition of the maturity of the discipline. That means getting involved in the trenches. I know for some people, this already happens and I’m not really reflecting on what’s happening, but what’s not happening en masse. Younger developers need to be targeted, we should be utilizing students more and building more inclusive communities that capture a wider snapshot of the audiences we serve.
Spending a few days talking tactics & solutions on even ground with web developers, designers & strategists from the “real world” of startups, companies and non-profits is the right way to go.