edweb09 facilitated by Headscape

May 20th, 2009

The edweb09 workshop was held over two days, 14-15th May 2009 and was facilitated by Headscape, a web development company based in Hampshire, UK. The workshop was aimed at those web managers working in the UK higher education sector and covered four distinct topics: usability, accessibility, content management systems and writing for the web. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend.

The workshop was a first for Headscape who are better known for the Boagworld web design podcast. Paul Boag is a well known speaker in the user-centred web design field. As well as hosting Boagworld he also regularly presents at conferences world-wide. I had last seen him speak at @media 2008 and was pretty familiar with his style of delivery. Chris Scott , Headscape’s MD also presented a session at the start of the second day bringing a little bit of variety to proceedings. All the while 80s pop-star and Paul’s podcast sidekick, Marcus Lillingtonwas taking copious notes.

This was not the type of workshop where attendees are encouraged to partake in group activities involving flipchart paper, marker pens and stickies. Paul and his colleague Chris to delivered four presentations whereby delegates were invited to comment from our own perspective along the way.

Day one began with lunch and then two workshop sessions. Then we went back to the hotel, had a few drinks, a very tasty meal and ample opportunity for networking. The second day started early with the concluding two workshop sessions before ending with lunch and then home. So, effectively just one day of workshop spread over two days. I’d not encountered this format before but I think it really worked quite well.

I found it really useful to get a perspective on how traditional universities were dealing with the same issues that offer daily challenges to the distance learning institution, The Open University, where I work. Other delegates were from Bath, Keele, Strathclyde, Oxford, Exeter, Aberdeen, Edge Hill and City university. Some of these people were Headscape clients and others, including myself, were not.

Most useful to me was the first session on becoming a user-centred institution. Although we undertake usability testing and focus groups as a matter of course, there is still a lot more we could be doing at the Open University to ensure a consistent and meaningful user experience. Paul offered a few techniques that I’d not really considered before such as opposing traits and flash tests. He also offered some useful advice on constructing a good usability report.

The other sessions were also very interesting. I discovered that many academic institutions are opting for the Terminal Four content management system. I’d never even heard of it! I liked the web writing session, especially the idea that an institution should have it’s own personality and it should be possible to create a ‘persona’ for the university. We have brand guidelines but nothing as specific as doing that. I wonder if it would even be achievable across the plethora of sites and services across the Open University. I think the Headscape team were quite taken aback when they discovered the breadth and depth or web-based services within our institution. Particularly poignant was the issue of disability. The Open University has upward of 10,000 students who admit to a disability. We simply cant pay lip-service to accessibility. Because a great deal of our offering is online and our large number of students it cant be a case of fixing things to be accessible as and when students complain about them!

It was great to have the opportunity to discuss common problems and issues during lunch and other breaks. Headscape scheduled the workshop to break over two days with an overnight stay at a rather swanky hotel in Romsey. Headscape HQ is located in a tasteful barn conversion deep in rural Hampshire, a nice change from the bustle of a big city.

I do think that they went over and above the call of duty by providing a taxi service from Southampton airport to the venue. Also the hotel wasn’t the usual Travelodge fair either. People working in Universities are not accustomed to staying in what amounted to a rather swish boutique hotel with a nouveau cuisine three course meal. Workshop, meals, hotel and taxi for an inclusive cost of less that £300. All of which gave the impression that Headscape, despite this being their first workshop, were something special. Paul, Marcus and Chris are three very likeable chaps who I’m hoping we’ll get the opportunity to collaborate with in the near future.

For those who attended the workshop, I mentioned that the Open University was involved in a range of interesting social networking activity at the moment. Here are the links to the things I mentioned:

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