opened, other, tools, what's up

One More on Generalists

A few days ago, I wrote about the problems with breaking coherent web platforms down to delivering only a specialized kind of content. The kind of attitude that knowledge shall be brought to you by Blackboard, while your marketing website is okay to run on Drupal or WordPress. When technologies are siloed, we not only isolate the teams who end up only managing a specific platform for its specific function (teaching and learning, marketing or research…), but we also exclude many potential audiences from finding out or learning more about the topic.

How little do we know! Here is a question for you: is (TCMP) a research, marketing, teaching and learning website or professional development tool? I would argue it is all of the above! It is written by medical practitioners, discusses various health issues in an open environment, and contributes to the general public’s knowledge and understanding of those issues. Four out of six UBC values are covered here: Advancing and Sharing Knowledge, Public Interest (open blog, written in popular format); Excellence, Integrity, (done by medical experts): check, check, check, check!

It all looks good, but there is a catch: it is very uncertain whether there would be such a buy-in from busy doctors if there were nothing in return. No free lunch, as usual: upon publishing in TCMP, contributors to the site get study credits from the College of Family Physicians of Canada – the body that regulates licenses of medical doctors in Canada.
In my mind, this creates a great symbiosis of sustainable approach to promoting and sharing knowledge with the doctors’ need to keep their professional license! This model (along with many possible variations) is something that should come naturally to the university; the multipurpose, integrated approach should be the standard and not the notable exception to common practices of creating sites that are designed to deliver to one audience only.

It is a great marketing website as well – it has thousands of subscribers, it created quite a buzz in the medical community, it shows up high in Google searches. By driving a lot of traffic to UBC, it promotes the University’s work, excellence, impact and value to the community… and attracts potential students!

The best possible marketing for the university is the work of its people – so let’s make more of that visible. By doing so, we are also helping faculty, staff, and students promote their work and build portfolios and future careers. We are contributing to the public domain and sharing knowledge that would otherwise stay locked behind the secure doors of a closed LMS and then erased at the term’s end.

So, the university’s key engagements – teaching, learning, research, creation, and also, its practical need for marketing and promotion – should all happily cohabitate to deliver on the university’s key values – to connect to the community, make an impact on the local and global scale, etc.

And this is where we go back to our generalist story – generalists are not paralysed by too narrow of job description; with their many different skills are able to draw subtle connections between marketing and research, learning and networking. They can design balanced interfaces, and continually deepen and enrich the interactions around knowledge that is created, nurtured and shared in open, and provide a fantastic opportunity for the university to (besides saving tons of money on waste) promote itself in a more meaningful and community-oriented way, reinvent itself and at least try to find its niche in the new rich online landscape that seems to be reshaping fast and getting ahead of us at an accelerated rate.

blogs, opened, other, tools

Generalists vs. the Army of Waste

In many larger organizations, there is often a push to put things in a certain “order” that administration (non-educators and non-developers) is comfortable with. In the case of higher-ed, especially with its large, cubicle-seated, vertically organized groups, there is a strong trend to divide technology into The student learning management system (LMS) that covers “all” students’ teaching and learning needs, and into The content management system (CMS) that, managed by marketing people, is meant for “administrative” websites. And, of course, research is under a separate VP and thus needs to have its own systems and staff. And so on, for all the lovely silos. The more broken down, the merrier; this system creates more bureaucracy, more reporting and analysis. It is disconnected both from within itself and from its users, so it requires more staff to keep it going, more managers and more analysts.

This approach is a very typical and also very wrong one, as the expertise and resources needed to run and support, let’s say CMS (seen as “administrative” or “marketing” tool, though some of the best research or teaching and learning websites are built using UBC  CMS), are identical to those of an open publishing framework for teaching and learning (such as blog or wiki platforms) and shouldn’t be separated – one general, flexible and robust platform is capable of responding to most web needs. To further complicate things, in the administration’s desire to do things “properly” (like mid-’70s-IT properly) we are introducing too many flavours of unnecessary overhead or waste (Lean terminology), known as learning or web strategists (my title actually, though I wear few other hats), project managers, business analysts, faculty liaisons and many other fancy names.

We work (teach, design, code…) in the environment of rapid and constant change (perpetual beta) and by building so many layers between the faculty member who wants to experiment and embrace change, and the developer who wants to give, hack and create change, we are actually killing the experiment and killing the change itself.  We kill creativity and innovation, while we are supposed to support it. By stripping down web developers to the role of only coding whatever project manager or business analyst requires (and because managers and analysts are not creators and producers, they are not in business of inventing, hacking, dreaming and designing), we kill the much needed seeds of agility and entrepreneurship and we leave very little room for linchpins in us, with hard and practical skills.

That’s the shame, because the best of Web2.0 is telling us that we need to simplify things, not over-plan or over-analyse. Hear the idea, build, measure, learn. That’s why instead of many unnecessary roles, we need developers to be more of the generalists (Scott, thanks for this find) – for typical web company that’s the person that does information architecture, UX, coding front-end, back-end, db, scaling, bit of design; at the university, it is all of that plus bit of pedagogy and learning design. Not a biggy, few months of the right exposure for a reasonably intelligent individual.

blogs, other, what's up, wikis

a glance back

Enej, Will and I have been presenting at the Vancouver WordCamp and then during UBC’s Open Access week and somehow in both presentations we were going back through the history of UBC’s Open Learning Platform (the pilot and non-approved name for UBC Blogs, Wiki, CMS and related apps).

I’ve realized that I don’t really have a documented overview on how we got here, and even worse – what is the current state of the platform and plans for the future.

So, I have quickly put together basic wiki page (see it embeded below) on some (definitely not all) milestones of historic development of our platform. Hopefully, we will work on this page and also add more granular pages on specific and important points and decisions.


  • MovableType based blogs, number of websites running on various technologies


  • WordPress based, Campus Wide Login (CWL) enabled launched, over 700 users/blogs migrated from MovableType
  • Common Look and Feel (CLF) introduced by UBC Public Affairs
  • MediaWiki gets CWL and CLF treatment and becomes UBC Wiki -


  • CWL enabled for hosting websites
  • Around 20 websites on the server by the end of 2009


  • UBC blogs gets new social homepage and social (buddypress) network
  • CTLT and PA partner and becomes UBC CMS and inherits PA’s
  • Minimal WordPress Hybrid theme becomes the parent theme for most of CMS websites
  • Wiki Embed Plug-In developing allowing for UBC Wiki (MediaWiki) content to be embeded into UBC Blogs, UBC CMS (WordPress)


  • over 10,000 blogs and over 500 active, domain-mapped websites. Over 15,000 users of which over 12,000 students.
  • Continual improvement of our platform - the main developments:
    • Solid back-end: partitioned mySQL to 256 databases; Both blogs and CMS have load balancer in front of 4 app servers and master/slave db servers.
    • Extending our UBC CLF theme - almost all sites run on this theme - see manual
    • Writing plugins to support UBC community, under CC license, over 200k downloads from only!
    • Established great user community through monthly larger clients' meetings, end users' support through open web clinics twice a week, community based UBC wiki documentation


  • MediaWiki upgraded to include Visual Editor
  • New WordPress Service -- UBC Course Spaces -- launched in beta.