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From the World War to the World Wide HEWEB

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Someone once said "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." General Duke Abernathy said "Knowing is Half the Battle." General Anthony Clement McAuliffe said "Nuts!"

All of these are true. History gives us insight into the human condition and provides lessons for all fields. Let's take a look at some of the stories of World War II - of strategies, tactics, technology, and planning - and how they relate to web design and development in higher education today. By the end, maybe we'll have a few insights on how to bridge the communication gaps between our audiences, our authors, and ourselves.

Someone once said "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." General Duke Abernathy said "Knowing is Half the Battle." General Anthony Clement McAuliffe said "Nuts!"

All of these are true. History gives us insight into the human condition and provides lessons for all fields. Let's take a look at some of the stories of World War II - of strategies, tactics, technology, and planning - and how they relate to web design and development in higher education today. By the end, maybe we'll have a few insights on how to bridge the communication gaps between our audiences, our authors, and ourselves.


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  • Hello, and thank you for joining me today as discuss lessons learned from World War II and how they apply to our everyday jobs.
  • First, a little bit about myself. My name is Jeff Stevens, and I’ve been working in highereded web for about thirteen years now, all at the University of Florida – first with Student Financial Affairs, then the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and now with UF Health, which comprises the six colleges of our Academic Health Care system – Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, Public Health and Health Professions, Pharmacy, and Veterinary Medicine – as well as Six hospitals and several hundred health care clinics, primarily in North Central Florida but also spread across the state.\
  • My position at UF Health is Assistant Web Manager. My primary duties are in content strategy, SEO, and usability of our websites. We Manage a multi-site WordPress installation of some 500 sites, as well as our clinical hospital site, which runs on Drupal.
  • I stumbled into web work sideways. In school, I was a dual major in both history and advertising. While that advertising side worked well for me in my career path, I only rarely got to use my history degree. But I really should have, because there are a lot of lessons to be learned in doing so.
  • We’ve all heard this quote to the point of it becoming a cliche, but it is very true.
  • Hello, my name is Jeff Stevens. Today we’re going to talk about the Maginot Line, and why our home pages are traps. (:06)
  • France was a scarred nation after the end of World War I. Years of trench warfare had led to the death of nearly 1.6 million people, and wounded over four million. As the nation began to heal, one of the most important tasks of the French government was to determine how to best to defend the nation from possible future attacks out of the east. (:30)
  • General Andre Maginot had served in the first World War at Verdun and had witnessed the success of the heavy fortifications there in holding the line. Based on these observations, he proposed a grand plan for the defence of the French border. (:44)
  • Maginot championed the idea of building a series of interconnecting bunkers and heavy fortifications along the border that protected the areas that were not impassable by heavy tanks. These fortifications would be connected underground to a freight carrying railroad that would resupply them, and could hold off an attacking force long enough for the French military to assemble safely beyond the border to repel the attack. Collectively, the entire project became known as the Maginot Line. (1:05)
  • The Line wasn’t actually a line per se, but a series of large and small fortifications, artillery encampments, and barriers designed to provide overlapping coverage in fire power. (1:15)
  • Over the course of years, the line grew, stretching from Switzerland to Luxembourg and the Ardennes forest, and starting again past Belgium to the Strait of Dover. It was perhaps the perfection of the defensive fortifications, a state of the art trench that would be insumountable (1:33).
  • It was a resounding failure (1:36).
  • In just 35 days, the German forces routed the French and marched into the city of Paris, leading to an armistice and the absorption of France into the ever growing German reich (1:48).
  • What went wrong? (1:51)
  • (2:03)
  • The French had built a system that took trench warfare to its logical conclusion. But the Germans had reinvented war. Blitzkrieg, rapid advancement with mechanized infantry, meant their lines weren’t slow moving. Their new advanced tanks were unemcumbered by landscapes that were unpassable decades before, and the Germans slipped through the Ardennes forest and Belgium, avoiding the wall the Maginot Line presented. (2:27)
  • German planes flew over the line unhindered, and unopposed by a French air force, which ad been underfunded in favor on the line. (2:37)
  • The wall was never as foolproof as the people of France had been led to believe. Diagrams like the one here were prevalent in French culture. It was a propaganda tool – to convince the Germans it was impregnable, and to reassure the French people that they were safe. (2:55)
  • Copied, duplicated, and researched. Eager to protect themselves from the Germans, the Czech government built their own version of the Maginot Line. When the Czechs allowed the Germans to occupy the country, the Germans were able to study the defenses and devise ways to attack the fortifications in France. (3:14)
  • Another adage comes to mind: those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it (3:20).
  • Which brings us to our home pages. What can 1940 teach us about them? (3:26)
  • In higher education, the home page has become our Maginot Line. All of us in this room have experienced this. Everyone wants a piece of the home page. They want to be in the slider, they want to be featured in a new site, they want a button or banner of graphic or widget. At each higher level of the institution – department to college to university – the political battle to be INCLUDED gets more and more pronounced. But is this fighting the last war? (3:55)
  • Look at this site. Last month there were nearly 500,000 page views. 115 thousand and change visited the home page. Those are big numbers… (4:12)
  • But over 370,000 went to other pages (3:20).
  • This site, 56,000 home page views (4:25).
  • And 158,000 to other pages (4:30).
  • Our visitors go around the home page.
  • They go over it.
  • Using search engines brings in our visitors directly to the pages they want, not our carefully crafted entrances (4:44).
  • And if they do enter from the front door, they gravitate to the navigation and search function there that get them where they want to go (4:52).
  • We spend so much time carefully planning a home page, that, like the Maginot line, has various overlapping content areas that maximize the exposure of the width and breadth of our schools to the end user… (5:12)
  • But more often than not are not heavily used by those audiences. Please note, I have met my legal and moral obligation to have used this image in my presentation. (5:40)
  • Case in point: our featured sliders. In 2011, Michael Fienen, the webmaster of Pittsburgh State University in Kansas, looked at the efficacy of the traditional school image carousel, or slider, by comparing the analytics of several different schools for event triggers on carousel links. Carousels were often one of the least clicked items on a page, provided that they were only used for delivering news content. If used for definitive call to actions – deadlines, events, etc. – the click through rate was much higher. (6:21)
  • But go and look at a dozen different schools and institutions, and we’ll see the slider is still used for traditional news delivery nearly every time. Higher Education homepages suffer the same fate as the duplicate Maginot fortifications of Czechoslavakia and France – prospective students and other audiences have seen the same thing duplicated from site to site. Familiarity makes user experience easier and translatable, but it also makes the audience complacent and more ready to dismiss those things that appear to be the same as things they have seen before and that they have already decided is not relevant to their interest. (7:07)
  • We need to approach the user needs from many angles, and the home page is just one approach, and often not the best approach. Each pages content, its key words, and flow in the information architecture has to be examined for home it interacts with the rest of the site, for every page is a potential gateway. Communicating this to our clients is one of the most critical strategic goals we can impart. They need to invest as much time and energy in this structure as they do in what is communicated on the home page. (7:27)
  • Carl Smith of nGen Works has described the home page as the lobby of a hotel. While flashy and attention getting – the lobby isn’t where guests want to stay – it’s meant to get you into a room with a view and a bed. Visitors only come back to the lobby when they can’t get what the need from their room or when checking in or out.When his firm begins to build to construct a site, they start at the tertiary pages and work backwards to the top. By concentrating on those pages that have the bulk of the content and where most of the heavier calls to action occur, they meet the sites functional needs for user interaction. Once the tertiary and secondary pages are completed, the necessary content for the home page begins to coalesce. (8:00)
  • Of course, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. (8:05)
  • As surely as there are ineffective types of content on our home pages, there is content that can be wildly successful, and content that has the potential to do so. To find that content, we need to be able to shift to the needs of the audience. We can’t be held to one rigid plan for what goes on the home page. We need to be able to iterate what we post. Change its shape, its size, its location, its emphasis. We need the ability to shift focuses and priorities, and to be able to limit or cut the fat and excess, building ever more lean and focused entrances (8:38)
  • Don’t be this guy. Despite his superior intellect, Khan lost to Captain Kirk because he couldn’t adapt fast enough, and think to fight in three dimensions instead of two (8:53).
  • Space. The final frontier. And also a great segue, because this is what we’re striving for today. Not a home page made of concrete, meant to withstand, unchanging, in the face of what comes. We need something agile, able to be modified, adaptable to changing conditions. Web communications has left its timid earth bound beginnings and entered the space age. Look how much the industry has changed in five years. Look how much it’s changed in one year. Our ability to be responsive and ever-changing to meet our audiences needs have never been easier. All we need is to lead the charge. (9:38)
  • Lesson 2: The Night Witches ()
  • When most people think of Word War II, they think of tanks and halftracks. If they think of horses at all, they think of the Polish army as it faced the German Panzers. But there were no futile cavalry charges against tanks – that was propaganda spread by both the Germans and the Russians after the defeat of Poland.
  • In fact, many armies involved in the war used horses to some extent – the Polish and Russians as mounts for ground infantry, the Germans to move artillery and to moved supplies, and all retained some form of light cavalry.
  • Despite a process of being phased out of most militaries following Word War I, cavalry units saw success in many skirmishes of the war – sometimes in traditional charges, but more often in new support roles for the mechanized infantry.
  • In the spring of 1942, Germany was still poised on the edge of victory on the Eastern Front. In the previous year, they had come within nineteen miles of capturing the Kremlin, and in the summer of the year had advanced on Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucuses. However, they were greatly overextended, and the Russian army had been steadily bringing in reinforcements from the east.
  • And not just men – between 400,000 and 800,000 women were part of the Russian military as they began to push back.
  • This included the 588 Night Bomber Regiment, an all female bomber squadron that flew over 23,000 sorties from 1942 until the end of the war. It was the most decorated female unit in the Soviet Air Force, with each pilot having flown over 1,000 and with 23 recipients of the Hero of the Soviet Union title.
  • But this wasn’t the kind of bomber the 588th flew.
  • Nor was this.
  • No, they flew in this. The regiment flew in Po-2 biplanes, a biplane ordinarily used for training and for crop dusting, first built in 1928. Made of wood and canvas cloth, the plane was only capable of carrying two bombs at a time, so pilots were required to fly several missions per night against the same target.
  • When approaching their targets, the biplanes would turn off their engines, gliding over the target to drop the bombs. The only warning for the Germans was the whistling of the wind over the fabric of the plane. The sound was said to like that of air over a broomstick, and the Germans began to call the 588th the Nachthexen, the Night Witches.
  • The 588th had to go up against the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
  • And the Focke-WulfFw 109, top of the line aircraft of the German Luftwaffe. On paper, a far superior plane to the Po-2 in all respects.
  • Too superior.You see, the Po-2 was TOO slow. The maximum speed of the biplane was lower that the stall speed for the German fighters. When the biplane executed a sharp turn, the German fighters couldn’t turn fast enough to match without stalling and crashing.
  • Their low speed allowed them to fly closer to the ground that other planes, making them far more difficult to spot once they had been overshot. The biplanes canvas and wood frames didn’t show up on radar like their modern counterparts, making them difficult to spot by anti-aircraft positions.
  • Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have.Saul Alinsky
  • Choose your battlefields. Your tactical resources meet success of failure depending on the battlefield you fight on. Horses were great for moving artillery to pound an enemy’s fortification – it saves fuel and freed vehicles for other tasks. Using those same horses to charge the fortified enemy positions? Unless you took them by surprise, it was guaranteed to be an unmitigated disaster.
  • We have many theatres to work in in social media. Heck, we got new ones appearing every day. We simply CAN’T engage on each of them. And we can’t jump ship to the new hotness every time it comes along. Your strategy remains the same, but the tactic has to change – how you deploy your message changes. Facebook is not Google Plus. Google Plus is not LinkedIn. Instagram is not Vine. Your Tumblr is not Pinterest.
  • Concentrate on what you do well, and do it better.
  • Bombing sorties proved incredibly successful for the Allies in the European theatre. But initial losses were high. Fighter escorts couldn’t provide cover deep into German territory. The bombers were too slow to avoid enemy aircraft – and, unlike the Russian biplanes, could not fly at near tree top level.
  • But the allies didn’t give up on the tactic because it was integral to the overall strategy. Instead, they increased the range of the fighter escorts. They added additional armor and armanents to later bombers to make them more likely to repel enemy planes. Ground forces worked to establish closer air support fields for the bombers. And eventually the tactic worked, and worked spectacularly.
  • UF Health has a dedicated social media coordinator – handles the primary accounts, and provides recommendations and consult for our other accounts. We provide a social media toolkit of in-the-can content ideas and contests that have been run by our colleges and other institutions to provides an idea board. We monitor the accounts under our watch and provide analysis and guidance when they do not meet our goals.
  • In addition, we evaluate every new account. They have to get formal approval from our office. They have to identify two coordinators for the account (bus theory), and we are given admin rights as well as last fall back measure.
  • Most importantly, they have to provide a strategy guide as to the goals of the account, how they intend to meet those goals, and outline the resources available in their unit to maintain the account.
  • If those plans and goals are not sufficiently thought out, we direct them to their parent account – all of our accounts are built in a cascading system, from unit to department, to college, or to the health system.
  • Reconaissance, Analyze, Plan. Take time to get to know network. Explore its strengths and weaknesses. How, as a tactic, does it fit with the overall objectives of your institution’s strategy? Can an existing social network fulfill the same basic mission?
  • Be Sure, then go ahead.
  • Adoption of new technologies doesn’t ensure a victory. They can be a hindrance. Marketing, advancement, and faculty are often affected by “Ooh Shiny Syndrome”. The XXXXXXXX is an example of the hubristic thinking of building something immense for the ages. Only two were built, both were unstable, one crashed, and the architect was sentenced for execution.I’m sure no one here has ever seen something similar in higher education.
  • Of course marketers are drawn to the shiny. It’s cutting edge, it’s got pop,zazzle. It gets attention and press. But is it sustainable? Is that app you’ve created or that site going to have the resources in two years? In five years? How adaptable is it to upcoming changes?How many in this room have had a department build a site with a custom css or with a technology no longer supported and had no way of easily exporting the content to a new system?Talk about units that build without consulting – either hiring an outside firm to build the site and then are locked into the technology, or have grad students build custom cms to run their site.
  • Flash was not the Savior of the Universe. Probably most of us in the room thought of it more as Ming the Merciless.
  • Among the most ubiquitous of Flash’s cardinal sins was the flip book, admired by our print brethren. Born of a need to make PDFs something more than they are, we know them as being a potential quagmire of accessibility and usability issues.
  • The tactic is all wrong. We know the better way to deliver the content is to repurpose ads a blog or to send as an electronic newsletter. The strategy remains the same – delivering quality content in a format that reaches the widest audience with the lowest barriers.
  • If you’ve ever used a marketing company for external banner ads, they usually call for creating a unique landing page in their system for tracking purpose. Unless there’s a specific reason for doing this, don’t let it happen. Keep the organic traffic coming to your site, and provide the analytic data the marketer needs to know their campaign is working.
  • At UFHealth, we use a several different external marketing firms for our health physicians and their clinics. Some do use targeted landing pages for specific goals, but for the most part we’ve absorbed as much of them into our site. For the most part, the click through rates for these external marketing pages are slightly below optimal results, and result at best in around hundred patient referrals a month. In contrast, our redesigned website sees patient requests in the mid 300’s per week – in part, we think, due to patient’s need to find out as much information before making a decision. Marketing pages are usually targeted to a brief overview and a call to action, and are generally only a few pages in depth. Those marketers that have mirrored our site with a proxy number show patient interaction numbers closer to our main site – 10-12 minutes on site and reviewing round the same number of pages.
  • Sing the Bismarck
  • Speaking of antiquated biplanes, this is the British Fairy Swordfish torpedo bomber.
  • This was the German Battleship Bismarck. It was the pride of the German fleet. One of only two of her class ever built, the Bismarck made her way from the North Sea to the Atlantic , utterly annihilating the pride of the British fleet, the Hood. She very nearly made it it to the protection of occupied France. Until it ran into a flight for Faireys from the Ark Royal. A successful hit from one of the bombers crippled the Bismark’s steering mechanism, reducing the great ship to moving in a wide right circle, until other British forces were able to close in and destroy her.
  • Without direction, it doesn’t matter how well our sites are coded or designed. They need to have purpose to meet the needs of the organization.
  • Out leaders need to have that same common sense of forward momentum. Motivated teams, armed with a long-term strategy and a series of immediate tactical goals are necessary to make anything happen.
  • Don’t be rudderless. It seems a simple goal, but log into a CASE listserv some time and see how many people ask to see some one else’s strategic plan. Now it could be that some of them are simply wanting to compare theirs with another institution’s, in case they need to consider a minor course correction. But oftentimes it feels likes no one out there has given it much thought, and that’s scary indeed.
  • Being a codebreaker
  • Encryption and codes played a significant role in World War II. In the European theatre, the Germans used an encryption device called Enigma to deliver their messages. Depending on the model, an Engima machine used between three and eitght letter substitution rotors to encrypt a message. As each letter was coded, the machine moved to the next rotor wheel for the next encrypted letter: and after each coded letter, the rotor would move forward a letter, so the next time it encrypted a letter, it was with an entirely different substitution table. This polyalphabetic cypher was incredibly complex.
  • In the Pacific and European theatres, Allied forces used Native American languages to encode their messages. First used in World War I, Native Americans used a code derived from their language, and was undecipherable by the Germans. Following the war, Germany sent anthropologists to America to learn the languages so this couldn’t be repeated. As a result, the American forces deployed code talkers mainly in the Pacific front, particularly Navajo.
  • Thanks to the pioneering work of Polish mathematicians and cryptoanalysts, the Engima code was broken – and delivered into the hands of the French and British, who refined the techniques as Enigma devices became ever more advanced. The result was one of the Allies most important intelligence sources, code-named Ultra. In fact, the problem that arose for the Allies was when to act on Ultra intelligence and when not to, so as not to tip their hand that they had near-unfettered access to the enemy’s communications.
  • Another adage comes to mind: those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it (3:20).
  • Which brings us to our home pages. What can 1940 teach us about them? (3:26)
  • Not only are our sites written with code, but they are written IN CODE.
  • Paradigm
  • Diaspora.
  • Rubric. It took me a week to decipher that this meant headings on a department website.
  • Academics speak in the language they are comfortable with. And often time that language makes sense only to their immediate group, not to the lay person. Actuate example.
  • Mission Statement of the Ages
  • Prospective students.
  • Missing Prospective Students
  • Our job is to break the code in web sites. Free and unfettered access. We aren’t hiding strategy. We’re winning hearts and minds, by being honest, forthright, and communicative.
  • Our job is to reconstruct the bridges between academia and the rest of the world. To put windows on the Ivory Tower for everyone to look in, and vice versa.
  • Which brings us back to the sticky wicket: resources. In higher education, our supply lines are stretched thin.
  • Traditional news units are focused on the press release, not the web page. Most web units don’t have full time content writers – strategists, yes, but they simply don’t have the resources work on all of the sites. Academics are built in the world of their peers, unless you find the one who likes to interact with the general public (hold onto these as long as you can).
  • Our model: Staff and faculty, working with business development and marketing reps, overseen by web services and news and publications. Where budget allows, freelance writers are brought in. No one person accountabe for contact, multiple redundancies and people aware of the changes in a page. Metadata allows us to see who has been consulted on a page and can be reached as a future contact when later refinements are needed.
  • That’s really what this talk is about. Finding a a way to communicate with our faculty and adminstrators. Metaphor is powerful. Now this one might not resonate with the people you serve. Find a common point of reference that will make sense and use it.
  • Find an example from nature and use it with a biologist. Use an example from literature with the English professor. Play to their area of expertise and you’ll find them grasping the ideas faster.
  • So many of our frustrations in talking with administrators and faculty come from misunderstandings – either of technical specifications, strategies, or results. Finding a common point of reference and bridging that divide leads to détente and peace, and opens the door fully for the task of building a mutually beneficial web for all involved.