University Web Developers

University Web Developers

I came across a compelling post by Brian Kelly today called "When the Axe Man Cometh" - the Future of Institutional Web Teams.  Be sure to read the links provided in the first two paragraphs.

IMHO - the idea of higher education web professionals losing there jobs will not be limited to the UK.  I have been thinking about and writing about this topic since 2007.  ( see Higher Ed Web Development Gets Flattened, or How I Learned to Stop ... and A Warning Shot Across the Bow.) To put this into perspective, the operating budget at my university has been cut by approximately $40 million dollars in the last 2 years, with more significant cuts on the way for this year.

It's time to renew this conversation. What are your thoughts? What are the implications for our profession when you combine the current financial conditions with the ongoing (r)evolution of higher education?

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I have to be honest, I don't see the need for a core group of trained professionals decreasing over time. If anything, I think that the skillset that core group has needs to advance and shift, but needs to stay cohesive. Only a team of professionals who live the web day in and day out can really properly manage the explosion of web-driven services that our visitors expect and demand. And that demand will only grow as the technology advances.

Consider social media, everyone's favorite buzzable topic. It's nice to have a development team who understands social media. It's VITAL to have someone managing that conversation, even if the management isn't happening on the core site. The skillset shifts from a development-centric focus to a content production focus.

Consider expansion of other web based services, like, say, online learning. Take a look at MIT's OpenCourseWare, and tell me that's not something that's going to explode in the next couple of years. To make that a reality will require web-centric professionals who understand the medium, and who can translate the teaching skills of faculty members into an online experience.

I'm not saying web teams aren't shrinking. In many institutions, I know they are, especially as "amateurs" are given more and better tools to manage their web presences (e.g. CMSes, blog systems). However, and I say this as a web professional myself, I see my skills as more important than ever before; just differently focused.
Mark, you know you and I are frequently on the same page, and share a lot of ideas. However, this is one area that I have to honestly disagree with you (and Susan and Brian).

I think we can all agree that current budgets are creating some forced attrition amongst our web teams. That is true. But, that I attribute solely to our current fiscal environment. That issue will ultimately right itself, enabling us to retool.

And we will retool. Schools are too big, and too protective to be willing to blow away a large part of the control of their web sites. Attempts to outsource or rent resources right now are just reflections of trying to fill gaps that we otherwise can't. There are a lot of things wrong in higher ed. Web governance is one of them. But, the move to a wholly, or mostly out-of-house relationship with the web would require a paradigm shift that I just do not think universities are capable of, now or in the future.

Susan Farrell talks about what happens "when everyone is a web 'expert'?" Nothing. Just because everyone can own and drive a car, doesn't mean they are a mechanic. Sure, individual households don't employ their own mechanic, but businesses whose longevity relies in part on transportation do. Higher ed is shifting more and more to web: classes, tools, documents. The demands keep going up. Will that level off? I suspect it will. But at that point we'll be running at a level that it's just not possible to stake our livelihood on some web commodity broker that's there one day, and suddenly gone the next.

I know I say this as a web professional, but I simply see our roles as too important for universities to give up wholly. That doesn't mean our role won't change. That doesn't mean there won't be some attrition in the mean time - but that comes with the benefit of us improving our efficiencies and getting better at what we do over time.
Let me add one other thought.

When budgets get cut, and we tighten our belts, it is only natural that we cut out the fat. Sometimes that's people. That is hardly unique to web though. EVERYONE on campus feels our pain - we aren't alone in that. When you have to make the most out of every dollar, things get vetted better, and sometimes the folks that don't pull their weight get exposed. You won't see me shedding a tear for those people. Sometimes good people get cut too, and that sucks. But you won't find them #1 on the list.

And in the long term, it does good. It teaches us how to better identify high value individuals. We learn that one highly skilled person is better than three mediocre ones. So in the future, we might have smaller teams, we might not look the same, but in the end we end up better organized and more efficient, and we learn that what we lost wasn't necessarily of high value in the first place.
Hi Mark - Thanks for citing my blog post - and thanks to Matt and Michael for their comments.

I am interested in the differences between the UK and US in where we both may be now (in terms of our funding infrastructure for Web team in HE, organisational culture, etc.) and our perceptions of changes in the future.

In the UK we are all very concerned following the recent change of government and the implications of the government's Comprehensive Spending Review in October, which will determine the levels of funding for HEIs. We have already seen announcements of closures to a number of UK Government QUANGOs with responsibilities for IT in schools (BECTA) and the cultural heritage sector (MLA). The government's pledges to significant reductions in funding for the public sector (levels of 20-40% have been suggested) are *very* worrying and will result in significant structural changes, IMHO.

Note that we have videos (with Twuitter captions) of the plenary talks at our recent IWMW 2010 event which discuss these issues in more details. Chris Sexton, head of IT Services at Sheffield University gives her thoughts on the implications of the cuts at:

http://iwmw.ukoln.ac.uk/iwmw2010/talks/sexton/#twitter-caption

Ranjit Sidhu (who is from the commercial sector) is more upbeat, arguing that the Web is a very efficient and cost-effective delivery channel and that we should be making the case for sustained funding on such grounds:

http://iwmw.ukoln.ac.uk/iwmw2010/talks/sidhu/#twitter-caption

I wonder whether the provision of Web services in HEIs in the UK may become more aligned with what I thought may be the US approach, of greater use of commercial providers, consultants, etc. - although Michael's comments seem to indicate that this isn't the case. This was an idea I explored in a talk on "Are University Web Teams Too Large?" following a talk by Mike Richwalski, Assistant Director of Public Affairs at Allegheny College, at our IWMW 2009 event - see http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com/2009/08/07/are-university-web-teams...

But maybe we aren't really disagreeing. When Matt says "I don't see the need for a core group of trained professionals decreasing over time" I would agree on the 'need' but this isn't in conflict with the view that "I foresee a significant decrease in the number of trained professionals over the next few years". And this is already happening :-(
I have to agree with you Mark, I think we're in for a good deal of hurt in the coming years. Even though the current recession may end I don't see the will to fund higher ed returning anything soon. In fact, as happened in Illinois during the last expansion, I would be surprised to see higher ed continue to receive cuts even in good times. As opposition to paying for services of any kind (other than the military) continues to grow and for-profit schools eat into traditional school's enrollments it is only a matter of time until web teams are reduced along with a lot of other higher ed functions, divisions, etc.
Matt - I agree with you in that the focus may shift from a pure programmer to ability to use/support a wide variety of tools and services (cms, email, blogging software, calendaring software, analytics, searchable databases). There will always be a need for a 'Web team'.

Michael - I agree tightening the belts may not be a bad thing. It allows the best people to shine.

The Web is a revenue opportunity for schools. It engages alumni, donations, participation in events, it attracts prospective students, it allows the campus community to be vibrant full of positive experiences which drives student retention. Managing all of this requires capable people. They are not going anywhere (imho).
Pat Lynch offers his take on this issue as a guest author on my blog - The Fate of Communications Services in Universities. His historical perspective is sage advice for us all.
A "must read on this subject is "A University for the 21st Century" written by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Of particular interest is the idea that:

"Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.'

The core mission of a college or university is teaching (and in some cases research). Web development is not a core mission of a university and is ripe for outsourcing. I was talking with a former student of mine who is the CIO at a large company and he said - "The reality is that a guy like me can come in and do the job of your team for at least 40% less offshore - with equal quality". I have not doubt that this is true and given the economic challenges facing higher ed, this will become a viable approach for many.
I will be joining Seth Odell on Higher Ed Live this Sunday, November 14, at 7:00 PM eastern to continue this discussion. Please join us as we talk about the long term future of higher education and the web. http://higheredlive.com/
The conversation has intensified this week about the future of our profession. I have created a new group on uwebd called the future to continue this important discussion.

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