‘As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck’ – an MSc student shares her experience

Nadia Raharinirina, whose passion for education led her to apply for Birkbeck’s MSc Education, Power and Social Changereflects on her reasons for choosing the College and the support she has received as an international student.

Before coming to Birkbeck, I ran the international exchange program at a local business school in Madagascar. My work gave me a global outlook by allowing me to build connections with overseas universities and meet students from all over the world, sparking in me a desire to learn more about education.

I chose Birkbeck because of its excellent academic and research reputation: the opportunity to study alongside other professionals at a research-intensive university was one that I couldn’t miss. Evening study was very convenient because it allowed me more time for other activities during the day, for which Birkbeck, with its easy access to restaurants, parks and historic locations, is perfect. The College and surroundings are a busy, cosmopolitan place with plenty of history to uncover too.

It takes a good deal of perseverance to apply for a Chevening scholarship, as the process takes a year. It’s exciting to prepare for such a life-changing opportunity, but it’s scary as well as you might not be successful. I’m so pleased that my efforts in applying paid off.

Being a Chevening scholar is one of the most prestigious opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. It has not only given me access to a renowned university in the UK, but allowed me to connect with future leaders from all over the world. Before Chevening, I didn’t know much about the UK, but my experience here has been priceless, not only because of the education I’ve received, but because of the people I’ve met who’ll be friends for life.

Birkbeck offers a range of accommodation for international students. I was attracted to the International Lutheran Student Centre for its vibrant, inclusive feel. For me, it was the perfect place because I could call it home. Students connect with each other through different events and activities, which is exactly what international students need: a local community.

I’ve had a really enjoyable year at Birkbeck. Evening classes allowed me to study alongside a part-time job and other activities during the day. The different workshops were extremely helpful for me as an international student to integrate into the College and reintegrate into the academic world. Birkbeck Talent allowed me to access a range of professional advice and opportunities, through which I found my part-time job. Their advice was so helpful in understanding and preparing for the professional world in the UK. I am especially grateful I can still benefit from their services even after my studies at Birkbeck. The library is a great space to study; it’s very calm with generous opening hours. As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck which allowed me to smoothly integrate into the academic world and the local culture.

During my studies in MSc Education, Power and Social Change, I learned about the dynamics of education in a globalized system, the different powers around it and its transformative potential. I was so inspired by how education can transform something, someone, and alongside my studies, I’ve been looking for ways to implement that. As education is my passion, strengthened by the inspiration of the support and opportunities Birkbeck and the UK gives to its students, I decided to create a platform, Madagrads.com, to encourage students in Madagascar to grow personally and professionally through the different opportunities around them. The goal is to help improve the lives of students in Madagascar and to create a better future for them. In the long term, my plan for the future would be a role as an advocate for education in one of the International Organisations such as the United Nations, to impact more lives, not only in my country, but also globally.

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Venice Biennale: creative research in the floating city

Danilo Reis, BA History of Art with Curating student, looks back at his five weeks as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships.

The five weeks that I spent in Venice as a recipient of the British Council’s Venice Fellowship programme were truly life-changing. The fellowship, offered in partnership with Birkbeck, is an amazing platform for academic, social, and professional development. The opportunity to work at the prestigious Venice Biennale, while also conducting my own research allowed me to gain a valuable understanding of both the unique city of Venice and the Biennale.

From the very beginning, Birkbeck and the British Council offered me a lot of professional support. Birkbeck helped me with the preparation and planning of my research project, while the British Council offered training sessions in London and put Fellows in contact with renowned institutions in Venice, such as The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which ran study trips and tours, the European Cultural Academy, which offered professional advice on our research projects, and the We Are Here Venice project, a really interesting initiative engaged with the socio-cultural preservation of Venice. I really enjoyed working with all of these institutions, and I particularly liked the aims and mission of We Are Here Venice. We were invited by the organisers of We Are Here Venice to actively engage with their projects and visit and work in their exciting studio, which was a really enriching experience.

The social element of the fellowship was another important aspect of this trip. Our group of twelve Fellows was very diverse, which made us stand out from other national pavilions of the Biennale. We all became friends very quickly and made really good friends with the workers of other pavilions. Every now and again someone posts a picture of our time in Venice on our group chat, which is normally followed by the recalling of beautiful memories and lots of heart emojis.

Being around so many creative and inspiring people made me want to engage with my research creatively. I had never been to Venice before so I did not know what to expect. Once I was there, I was amazed by the functioning of the city: the environmental challenges that the city faces, the use of boats as public transport, the overwhelming amount of tourists visiting the city, the particular geography of Venice… all these elements were immediate indicators of the uniqueness of Venice. From this, I started to think about the need to contextualise Venice according to the socio-political frame within which it operates, a subject which is not normally included in the many guidebooks which the thousands of daily visitors to Venice carry around. I felt the need to address this lack of socio-political contextualisation, to bridge Venice with Italy and with the rest of the world, perhaps in an effort to demystify the romanticism of the city. This meant that the themes of globalisation, capitalism and immigration also needed to be explored. Halfway through my stay in Venice, I met with two representatives of the European Cultural Academy. Their advice helped me to focus my research on the topics of politics, culture and society. I presented some of my findings to the British Council in my ‘AlieNation Playbook’. This was a conceptual book which I created by interacting with a standard guidebook of Venice and ‘subverting’ it. Through collage, I expressed my personal feelings in relation to the geopolitics of Venice, with a strong focus on the many issues faced by Venice and society at large.

I really enjoyed the whole experience and I wish I could express how much it meant to me, but it is very hard to express my gratitude with words. All I can say, finally, is that I really do hope that this fellowship programme continues for as long as the Venice Biennale exists. All the experience that I gained from working at a world-class art event, all the friends that I made, and everything that I learned with my research project made this experience a turning point in my professional, academic and personal life. I feel very grateful for having been given this opportunity and I do hope that many more students will be able to benefit from the Venice Fellowships in the future! I would like to say a huge thank you to Birkbeck and the British Council for an unforgettable experience.

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Upgrading our school and department sites: our web approach 

Jane Van de Ban, Birkbeck Web Content Manager, explains the approach the digital project team is taking to the DTP school and department web redevelopment project.

Over the years, we have tried a variety of approaches to develop the Birkbeck website. For example, the last time we upgraded our school and department web presence, we took a linear approach, upgrading department by department and school by school. But this meant that the departments and/or schools at the end of the list were upgraded more than two years after the first ones were done – which was understandably frustrating for the staff in those schools or departments.

Layering our new school and department content across the Birkbeck site 

This time, we’re doing it differently.

Rather than upgrading one department or school at a time, we’re tackling this project layer by layer (each layer representing a single content area), each of which will go live when it’s ready. This means that the same content layer (eg staff profiles) will go live for all relevant school/development content areas at the same time, without having to wait for entire sites to be redeveloped. (You can see the first outcome for this approach in new department wayfinding pages – which are the first priority in this project to go live.)

This does mean that, while the project is ongoing, new content pages will sit alongside old pages. Eventually, as the project goes on and more content areas go live, new content will entirely eclipse the current school and department presence on the Birkbeck website, and we will have a fully new and improved web presence for this important part of the Birkbeck community.

Web Working Group and Digital Project Team 

We know that colleagues in our schools and departments feel their web presence can be improved. That’s why we’re delighted to be working on this project. But we need to ensure that we understand their concerns and priorities. To this end, the central digital team (comprising the web team in ITS and the digital content team in External Relations) is working collaboratively with our schools and departments through two mechanisms:

  • Web Working Group: This group meets on an ad hoc basis – as we have progress to report and new projects to understand – and acts both as a sounding board and a decision-making body to enable us to make progress. This group is vital to our work, and we look forward to working with them throughout this project.
  • School web staff: Content for schools and departments is typically managed by key local web maintainers, who understand school and department priorities and concerns that are key to our web development work. We are working closely with schools to see how we can embed key members of this staff group in the project, working alongside the central team, both so they can receive full training on our new design and digital standards and also so they can act as a vital ‘pipeline’ from our school and department colleagues, to answer queries and implement changes. This also means they can take ownership of the new content as and when it goes live and help to action key updates and amendments. We are very grateful to schools for their willingness to work with us in this way.

Moratorium on school and department web access 

To ensure that we don’t miss important updates while we develop our replacement school and department web presence, from early October, we will need to remove access for school and department sites from non-project staff (so all school staff embedded with the project team will still have access and be responsible for updating their local content) with the exception of the following two areas of content (as we recognise that these are the three content areas for which local staff receive high volumes of amend requests):

  • Academic staff profiles: All staff who currently have access to update these pages will continue to have access to update academic staff information, until we are in the position of migrating the content to its new location: at this point, we will have to restrict access to the digital project team until the new systems are in place. However, we will give schools and departments advance notice of when the moratorium needs to be imposed and will do our best to ensure that the moratorium doesn’t have to last too long.
  • News stories: All staff who currently update news on school and department sites will continue to have access to add news stories, until the point at which the content needs to be migrated to the new content solution, at which point, we will need to restrict access to the digital project team. But, as with academic staff profiles, we will give schools and departments advance notice of when this will happen and will hope this moratorium won’t have to last too long.
  • Staff intranets: some school and department sites have staff intranets. These will also be exempt from the moratorium, until the point at which the content is migrated to its new content location. We will communicate with schools and departments in advance of imposing the moratorium and will figure out a good way to manage content updates in this time.

How requests for amendments will be actioned during the project 

In relation to all other content amends, these will need to be funnelled through the project team (including local school web maintainers, as explained above), ideally using the web support channel on Yammer (Yammer is part of the college’s Office 365 stable of applications and can be accessed by logging into Office 365, then selecting the Yammer app). Requests for amends will be managed as follows:

  • Content amends for accuracy will be actioned as part of our regular Fix-it Friday work and we will aim – depending on the volume of requests and the staff resource we have available on the day – to action all amends on the Friday in the week the amends are requested. We will post responses to requests for amends on Yammer, so you will know when your amend request has been actioned.
  • More significant change requests – for example, content restructuring or new navigation – will need to be fed into the web redevelopment project, to inform the work that is being done there.

This will ensure that we focus on the new developments, while continually ensuring the accuracy of our current live school and department web content.

Digital content sprints 

In addition to the central digital team and the embedded school staff, we have been given a budget to recruit freelance editors to work on this project. Everyone will become part of the Digital Transformation project team and work collaboratively to make progress. We are planning to tackle our content development work in three-week blocks. These will consist of two elements:

  • Planning and discovery: Before we start any of our projects, we will be doing some discovery work to see how people currently find and use the content and to identify relevant subject experts across the college. We will then invite these subject experts to meet the project team in a web workshop to identify the purpose and scope of the project, review an audit of the existing content, look at the way web users currently work on this content and make recommendations on how we should address the content challenge. In some cases, we will do this using user story creation, to ensure that the content we develop is user-focused and serves a user need. We will then put all of this together into a ‘sprint plan’, which will inform the actual content development.
  • Content sprints: The digital project team will develop content to meet the requirements outlined in the planning and discovery phase. This work will be concentrated into two-week periods, called sprints (excluding Fridays, which are devoted to Fix-it Friday tasks and other project team admin tasks). We will use collaborative tools, including Trello and Slack, to ensure that all members of the digital project team have access to relevant discussions and decisions, so the work can be done as efficiently as possible. (Please see Elizabeth Charles’ blog describing her experience of this project approach for an insight into how this works in practice.) All members of the project team will also be expected to join us in sprint catch-up meetings, which will be conducted via MS Teams, which will enable us to make progress, trouble-shoot issues and identify potential blockers on a daily basis. This will also mean that, where we encounter challenges, we can resolve them collectively.

Project retrospectives 

Although we have piloted aspects of this approach in our work so far, this is the first time we are using it on this scale. We need to make sure we get it right. That’s why, as we progress through this project, we will also be reviewing our progress and approach, so that it can develop to meet the specific needs of our project team and improve as we go along. Where we can, we will publish our findings, to share what we’ve learned with our colleagues across the college.

Timescale 

This is an ambitious project and, without additional resource, would normally take a minimum of 2.5 years. However, we need to finish this project much more quickly so, with the injection of additional resource, for which we are very grateful, we are aiming to upgrade all of the school and department sites over the course of the next academic year, with new content areas going live throughout this period.

What happens at the end of the project? 

Once the new school and department web presence has been finalised by the project team, responsibility for maintaining and developing it will be handed back to schools and departments, and local web maintainers will again be responsible for them.

To support these web maintainers, we will make the following support systems available:

  • Digital passport training: all staff who need to work on the Birkbeck website will receive comprehensive web training, the new ‘digital passport’, which will provide essential grounding in all aspects of web work, from learning how to maintain web content, to understanding search engine optimisation and the specific requirements of responsive websites. (School staff who are part of the digital project team will have already received this training.)
  • Quality monitoring: we subscribe to an online quality monitoring tool called Sitemorse, which scans the Birkbeck site each month, identifying usability, spelling and other web issues that need to be addressed. As part of the handback process, local web maintainers will be trained in and then deputed to receive Sitemorse reports relating to their area of the Birkbeck website.
  • Web maintainers’ meetings: we currently have and will continue to host regular meetings for all Birkbeck web maintainers, which is an essential channel of communication for us, enabling us to share updates and also address questions and concerns raised by our colleagues with web responsibilities.
  • Yammer web support group: since we set this up in 2015, our Yammer web support group has become an essential part of our web work, acting as the main communications channel for routine web amendments and updates, as well as announcements relating to systems downtime, etc. This will continue to operate both throughout the project and beyond.

Keeping up to date with the project 

According to our terms of reference, WWG members are responsible for updating their local departments/schools on the progress of and decisions made during the Digital Transformation Project.

However, we are also planning to publish blogs throughout the project to give insight into our decision-making and progress, and to explain what we’re developing and the thinking that informed the development.

We hope this will ensure that you keep up to date with this important project.

 

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‘The Department offered a lot of support’ – a former MA student shares her learning experience

Jahan Foster, a recent graduate from Birkbeck’s MSc Children, Youth and International Development, writes about how her studies opened her eyes to a range of research and literature, and instilled her with skills she’s putting to use in her new job. 

I completed my MSc in Children, Youth and International Development at Birkbeck in October 2017 and enjoyed every part of my experience. Birkbeck attracts students from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and this was something I found unique about my experience, as I was able to meet and become friends with a diverse group of people, all of whom had different professional backgrounds and career aims.

I decided to pursue this MSc having completed an undergraduate degree in Politics and French and then spending several years teaching, both in the UK and abroad. As part of my course my compulsory modules were in International Political Economy of Childhood, Social Studies of Childhood, and Researching Children and Childhood, and I took an option module in Education, Power and Resistances. My compulsory modules were fascinating and I enjoyed writing essays on subjects such as migration and their effects on children and young people. I was eventually inspired in the choice of my dissertation midway through one of my modules, during which we learned about transnational childhoods. This opened my eyes to a range of research and literature I would otherwise not have known about. I developed a dissertation proposal which focused on understanding the transnational and gendered identities of Latin American youth living in London. Having spent several years working in Spain and Latin America, I was interested in the growing size of this community in the UK. To collect data for this research I spoke with nine Latin American young people, aged between 16 and 19 years old, living in Lambeth and Southwark in south London, and learned about their recent migration to the UK, their experiences at school and their life now in London. Conducting these interviews highlighted the challenges of collecting primary data – I had to contact a number of schools and local organisations to try to recruit participants, and also spent time canvassing at festivals and events. However, speaking with these young people was one of the most enjoyable parts of the dissertation process and I learned a number of new skills that made me realise that I would like to develop a career in the research sector.

While I was writing my dissertation, I felt like the Department offered a lot of support – we had dissertation workshops instructing us on how to develop our literature review and methodology plus regular meetings with our supervisors. As part of my course I also took the module, Researching Children and Childhood, which helped me to understand the specific challenges and considerations to make when conducting research with children and young people.

During my MSc I completed research internships with various community organisations, which introduced to me the types of ways that research can be integrated into work at the local level. Since graduating I have been working with a health charity based in south London that gathers the views of people’s experiences of health services and represents them at national and local level. This involves holding surveys and conducting interviews with members of the public, and writing reports on their views. My academic experience has been incredibly useful in gaining work opportunities within the research sector, and the skills I have acquired, particularly in interviewing and writing literature reviews, have been highly sought after. I have been motivated to stay within academia, largely as a result of the great teaching and supervision I received from Karen Wells, and the range of topics and content that I was introduced to during my MSc. I have recently been accepted into a PhD at Birkbeck in their Department of Geography, with my research focusing on understanding the social reproduction strategies of Latin American families living in London.

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Department wayfinding pages: new online doorway into our departments

The Digital Transformation Project team is pleased to announce the launch of our first priority project for the Stage 2 school and department web redevelopment project: namely, a new web wayfinding page for every department at Birkbeck. Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager, talks about the wayfinding page project and its implementation.

Before…

What is a wayfinding page?
A department wayfinding page is the first page someone lands on when they follow a link to, or type in the URL (web address) for, a specific department – eg www.bbk.ac.uk/ems.

Each department wayfinding page enables web visitors to find and navigate their way around department-specific information that answers their questions about what it’s like to study, research, collaborate or work in a department at Birkbeck. It provides an overview of the kind of content that will be available to them and makes it easy to get to key information via signpost links.

How did we identify what was needed for the department wayfinding pages?
At our Web Working Group (WWG)1 meeting earlier this year, we shared an analysis on what people look at on our department sites – staff information and department-specific research content.

With this in mind, our WWG members then identified a range of content they felt visitors needed to access when they landed on a department’s wayfinding page, including staff details, information on the student experience, research centres connected with the department, etc. In fact, all of the types of information that are currently featured on, or signposted from, our current department wayfinding pages.

We then asked each WWG member to design their ideal department wayfinding pages – a useful exercise that showed how much each wayfinding page had in common:

  • A large, visually arresting image
  • Signposts for key areas information:
  • staff
  • research
  • course information
  • study here
  • news
  • events
  • social media (blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter)

Some of the wayfinding pages had additional elements that – in many cases – reflected local priorities – eg:

  • embedded videos
  • a ‘mission statement’ or ‘position statement’ for the department
  • calls to action (eg book an open evening, order a prospectus)

and signposts to:

  • department-related research centres
  • recent publications
  • information on working here
  • student funding information
  • fieldwork opportunities.

Objectives
It was clear that each department wanted to use their wayfinding page to meet three objectives:

  • Make it easy to find top-level content areas (our WWG members, for example, felt it was important to make it easy for visitors to find staff information and research information).
  • Make it easy to find information that is unique to individual departments (eg fieldwork opportunities in Geography and Earth and Planetary Sciences; network-learning in Organizational Psychology)
  • Convey something about the character/nature of a department.

With this guidance and based on the user requirements identified in earlier WWG meetings, we presented a design solution to the WWG, consisting of a department ‘template’ with:

  • a large and striking ‘hero’ image
  • 15 visual signposts (six top-level content areas and nine local content areas)
  • two calls to action: ‘Our staff’ and ‘Our research’
  • a short mission statement for every department
  • embedded news, events and department-specific podcasts
  • a course finder
  • an embedded video
  • a statement tile.

Using this template means that we could develop the wayfinding pages, in a timely fashion, with the resources we had and meet the objectives and requirements provided to us by the WWG.

…and after!

The structure of our wayfinding pages
Once approved, the digital team set to work to create wayfinding pages for each department – a task that took, on average, three to four days for each wayfinding page.

Each wayfinding page comprises the following elements: 

  • Hero image: for each department, we had to find a single, large, high-quality image that is both striking and suited to the area of research (while recognising that it is impossible for a single image to convey everything). It also had to fit in with the overall template and be copyright-free: no small challenge! So, for Earth and Planetary Sciences, for example, we’ve chosen an image taken by the Hubble telescope, to convey some of the exciting inter-planetary research our colleagues in that department are undertaking. For History of Art, we’ve selected a really great image of someone in an art gallery. For other departments, we have chosen more abstract images. Not all images work in that space, so it took considerable time to research and identify appropriate images.
  • Department statement: our WWG members made it very clear that, when people land on a wayfinding page, there should be text that conveys something about the department. So, we’ve written bespoke statements for each department, derived – where possible – from existing text either in the prospectus and on the web – a challenging proposition where these statements can be no more than four short lines (about 10 to 12 words). These, in combination with the Birkbeck strapline, ‘London’s evening university’, provide an immediate introductory overview.
  • Calls to action: on our homepage, we use ‘Book an Open Evening’ and ‘Order a prospectus’ as our two main calls to action. But, advised by the WWG that our departments would want to highlight staff and research, we made ‘staff’ and ‘research’ the calls to action – and added signposts further down the page to further highlight these important areas of content.
  • Course search: we’ve included the College course search on all of our wayfinding pages. Although we’re not currently able to offer a department-specific slice of course results, this is something we are building in the future and look forward to rolling out across our department sites. In the meantime, our web visitors can use this to get to course information relevant to their interests.
  • Signposts to top-level content areas: the top six signposts on the landing pages – the rectangular ones – are pretty consistent across our department sites and signpost the main topic areas on our current department sites. This replaces the horizontal navigation currently available from department wayfinding pages, so visitors can continue get to these topics easily. For images, we conducted a lot of research, looking at images of events in the Birkbeck Flickr library to find department-specific images, where possible – particularly to signpost your staff information. Where this wasn’t possible, we have used other images. In all cases, they are high-quality and optimised for the web.
  • Statement tiles: in our print prospectuses, we feature pictures of academics with quotes that relate to their subjects, as heading pages for the subjects. As they’re so striking and the quotes are so good, we thought this was a good opportunity to repurpose them and to create a visual throughline from print to the web, while also taking the opportunity to signpost the all-important staff pages again. If we haven’t used a staff image, it’s because the relevant staff member (whose picture was used in the print prospectus) is no longer at Birkbeck – once we have a new one available, we will replace it.
  • Local-priority signposts: with WWG guidance that we should use these wayfinding pages to help visitors find deep-level content (reflecting local priorities), we have included nine signposts that point to a range of content areas – from individual research centres, to student funding and local activities, such as Science Week, and facilities, such as the Peltz Gallery. We identified them through a content audit of current department content, finding out what is important by what is featured on the local web.
  • Department video: each department wayfinding page showcases a video that showcases an aspect of the department. For Psychology, for example, we embedded a ‘Day in the life…’ video, featuring Dr Emma Meaburn, one of our popular series of videos that showcase what it’s like to be a psychologist at Birkbeck.
  • News, events and podcasts/blogs: we are currently showing the generic news and events feed, which is updated dynamically. Currently, we can’t restrict the feeds to department-specific news/events, but this is also on our list and will be featured in the future; however, we are showcasing three comment features – podcasts or blogs –that are department specific.

What about the rest of my department’s site?
We know that the wayfinding pages take you to pages in the old design.

Our next priority is to redevelop the research information on our department sites (work on which has already started) and then the study here information, each of which will be launched once we’ve completed them as a ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP), with a view to testing and improving them once they’re available. The reason we’re taking this approach is to ensure that we don’t have to wait for all of the content to be redone before we launch new sites (schools and departments currently comprise around 28,000 content items, so it will take a lot of work and time to get them done).

So we’re launching these wayfinding pages as the first of these MVPs – they will change as we begin to see how our web users interact with them, and in response to improved content being made – and they are the first tranche of the overall DTP Stage 2 project that we are pleased to publish.

What about schools?
There is a separate project to look at schools, and their wayfinding pages, as the research we conducted with school and department staff during the initial consultation meetings showed us that there isn’t agreement on the function and purpose of our school web presence – some people even suggesting that they weren’t needed.

So this needs to be considered separately, once the work has been scheduled in as a priority by our Web Working Group.

Find out more
We are publishing blogs through the Digital Transformation Project, to share our progress with and the reasoning behind each of the developments we unveil.

Read some of our other blogs to find out more: 

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Doing digital better: what I learned from IWMW and ContentEd in 2018

Angela Ashby, Digital Editor at Birkbeck, reflects on what she learned from two conferences she attended with other members of the College’s digital content team.

I attended two web conferences recently, ContentEd and IWMW, which gave me an opportunity to learn new ideas and approaches, and to meet web colleagues who are facing the same problems as we are.

Being in that environment also allowed me to step out of my daily tasks, to assess what is important in a wider sense, to see how good web practice is evolving, and to consider which new ideas we might be able to apply.

ContentEd

The ContentEd conference is the only one in Europe that specifically addresses content strategy for the education sector, which makes it very focused and relevant to the kind of work and decisions that we are making for Birkbeck right now.

ContentEd 2018 took place in London on 14 and 15 June, and was attended by 195 delegates from 67 institutions in countries around the world, including the US, Australia, Finland and the Netherlands. Our digital content team of three from External Relations attended both days.

My takeaways

A lot of inspirational people presented at the conference, including our own Jane Van de Ban. The customer journey mapping that Birkbeck undertook in 2016 (to inform our Digital Transformation Project) is considered groundbreaking by colleagues at other institutions.

Here are the things I’ll remember.

Create once: publish everywhere. Rich Prowse from the University of Bath has revolutionised the content on their website by dividing it into discrete ‘chunks’, labelling them for reuse and publishing them in multiple locations. This seems like common sense, but it is the ultimate in having a ‘single source of truth’ on the web.

Simple language is not talking down to people – it’s respecting them by not wasting their time. Gabriel Smy is a Content Strategist from Zengenti, and this idea of his really resonated with me. Plain English and natural language are vital to make it easy for our users to read our content, both for humans and, increasingly, for machines.

Content needs to be relevant to be useful. Sarah Richards is a superstar of web content – she was the brains behind the revolutionary changes to the gov.uk website. She believes that, in order to be useful, content needs to meet a need. Therefore, she advocates creating user stories for every piece of content to justify its existence: ‘As a … [user ‘type’ or job role], I need to … [task], so that … [goal]’. She has also done a lot of research on users’ reading patterns. Regressive reading (where a reader has to jump back within a sentence to understand it properly) leads to a drop in trust. Jargon leads to regressive reading. The lessons? Ensure your writing is clear – avoid jargon.

Another, unexpected, bonus of this conference was winning a prize of a year’s subscription to GatherContent – an online content workflow tool – which will prove useful for the collaborative nature of our ongoing Digital Transformation Project.

Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW)

This conference was held at the University of York, 11-13 July, attended by 125 delegates, and is more wide-reaching than ContentEd. Its scope includes developers, designers and managers, as well as content creators. My team, along with web colleagues from ITS, had attended the same conference in Canterbury in 2017. Perhaps my most interesting observation was how this year’s mix of presenters and content led to a totally different experience to the year before.

The human aspect was strong this year. Two brave and personal presentations from Alison Kerwin (York) and Andrew Millar (Dundee) dealt with mental health and emotional challenges in the workplace, which resonated with what many of us have been through but don’t talk about.

Birkbeck’s Jane Van de Ban delivered the customer journey mapping presentation here, and again it was extremely well received. As a result, at least one other institution has already implemented ‘Fix-It Friday’ – an idea that we had picked up at IWMW the year before.

My takeaways

Websites are spaceships. The bigger they are, the harder to turn. Gareth Edwards (University of Greenwich): ‘Invisible labour’ can be defined as those insignificant tasks that take you away from your longer-term goals and reduce your productivity. Gareth looked at studies that quantify this phenomenon, and discovered that:

  • The average number of ‘task switches’ per day is 50.
  • If your task is interrupted, it is likely to take 266% of the time it would normally have taken.
  • You are likely to spend 31% of your time on phone calls and email per day.
  • You are likely to initiate 40% of all task switches yourself.

Thinking outside the box. Dave Musson (The Native): Dave introduced us to a number of innovative approaches that other institutions are taking, including using the natural beauty of your institution’s physical location (‘campus porn’), and Clearing gimmicks like chatbots, Pacman-style games, student social media takeovers, and geo-fenced Snapchat filters. Institutions need to stand out in order to make them memorable.

Inertia feels safe, but it’s not. Ayala Gordon/Padma Gillen (University of Southampton): In the web world, staying still is the equivalent of going backwards. We need to adapt to keep up with technology and a changing world.

Avoid ‘informational bias’. Keith McDonald (University of London): ‘Informational bias’ is bluster or jargon that gets in the way of clear communication. Don’t hide the message in unnecessary words/phrases.

Networking

And the learning didn’t end there. Chats with colleagues in between sessions gave me a chance to find out more.

  • As we are launching a project to develop research content on Department web pages, St Andrews has just completed theirs. Looking at their research, their strategy and their end result is incredibly valuable for us as an example.
  • The University of Dundee has recently completed a redevelopment of their ITS pages, getting to know processes first hand, and reducing the number of pages dramatically. We can learn from what they achieved.
  • Website hacks are a real risk. In chatting over drinks, I picked up inside information about two universities that had their websites hacked. Birkbeck needs to protect fiercely against this eventuality.

A number of the same colleagues across institutions attended both of these conferences, and IWMW last year, so networking and knowledge sharing was able to continue at IWMW 2018. There’s a real sense of community in the UK web world that makes us feel connected to higher education outside our institutions.

More generally, both conferences have ongoing communication channels available, so that delegates can continue to build this community through the year. These colleagues of ours are endlessly creative, and their generosity knows no limits.

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Birkbeck Library website redesign; or, my adventures in a digital transformation project

Elizabeth E. Charles, Assistant Director of Library Services, discusses the redesign of the library website. 

Today, we have launched a brand-new Birkbeck Library website, with completely revamped content, navigation and design.

The Library website has been redesigned on two previous occasions: we changed the landing page, but the content remained the same, which is like repainting your front door and landscaping the front garden, but doing nothing to the interior of the house! I hasten to add that this occurred because, every time the opportunity arose, we just didn’t have the time and it was too close to the start of another academic year.

This time, we asked Naomi Bain, the College’s user experience (UX) expert, to undertake some UX testing with Library website users. This told us some things that we already suspected or knew – there was too much text on the Library website, and it was difficult to find information – but, we also learned that the layout was confusing, alongside a number of other issues.

We knew that the main Birkbeck site had been redesigned and restructured and we liked some of the features, as did our users; so, I contacted Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager in External Relations, with a list of the things we would like changed on the Library website. As the Library site is the second most popular section of the entire Birkbeck website (after the online prospectus), Jane suggested that, rather than simply update our existing site, it would be worth integrating it into the new design. She asked us whether we would be prepared to undertake this as a collaborative effort. The Library web editors agreed that this would be a good opportunity to refresh our website, so we said yes!

The redesigned library website

Getting ready

Jane supplied us with a content audit and looked at traffic to the Library website in the past year. This showed us that a large proportion of the Library site was not being used, and it also told us which content was most popular with our web visitors. Jane presented us with a collaborative spreadsheet, listing all the content areas, and her advice on what to do in relation to each area. After the initial emotional reaction, we reviewed the comments and suggestions and either agreed with them or explained why we disagreed with her assessment.

The next step was to come up with a new structure for the Library website. We were invited to a Library web workshop and, using post-it notes and sharpies, we wrote down the most common queries that we get from our users (one query per post-it note). Then we stuck them on the wall, and grouped and sorted them. We then filled in the gaps and took pictures of the grouped post-it notes for future reference. This then became the basis of the Library redesign, alongside the initial, annotated content audit.

Jane then set up a project on Trello – a collaborative project tool – with a list of tasks, organised into columns like ‘To do’, ‘Doing’, ‘To review’ and ‘Done’.

The project

Given the importance of this project to our web visitors, Jane wanted to complete the improvements as quickly as possible and asked if a member of Library staff could be seconded to the project. I volunteered, as I felt I was best placed to answer queries. So, for one day a week, starting in early April, I was scheduled to work on the website.  As homework, I had to familiarise myself with Birkbeck’s Style Guide and tone of voice guidelines, as well as other support materials provided in the digital standards section of the website. I also attended a bespoke training session, run by the External Relations web content team, then prepared to set to work.

Using the Trello project board, I chose the content areas I wanted to work on (everyone works from the same board, which means that there is no duplication of work), and my job was – for each content area – to answer the queries that came out of the Library web meeting, find all of the pages on the live Library site that related to them, then review the content and rewrite it, to meet the digital standards and to reduce the amount of text.

My first task: getting membership under control

I decided to start with our membership information. My challenge was to convert 55 separate pages to one page. Working with Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor in External Relations, who gave me one-to-one training and advice, I rewrote and changed the formatting to match the house style, then experimented with how the information is presented.

Jane then reviewed the new page and wrote a detailed report on the format, the tone of voice, grammar and house style – I felt I had received a C+, ‘Could do better’ mark! I worked through Jane’s detailed report, addressing each point raised and making changes as necessary. This was helpful because it meant I could then review other pages to ensure the same issues didn’t crop up.

The new membership page was then moved to Ben’s list on Trello, to check that it met the requirements for the Birkbeck tone of voice and the use of plain English and active voice. He cut the text even further while ensuring that the content flowed. Then, the page was given back to me, to check that nothing crucial was missing, giving me another chance to suggest other edits.

This process meant that I received a crash course in writing for the web from a team of experienced content editors, working collaboratively, using live content. It is all well and good to read guidance notes, but quite another thing to implement them and keep to the task!

Improvements

Rewriting content wasn’t the only improvement we made to the Library site. We also improved navigation and findability of content:

  • We didn’t duplicate information that already existed elsewhere – we linked to it.
  • Forms to suggest new books for the Library and for staff to request teaching materials were converted into Apex forms and located either in My Birkbeck for Staff or in My Birkbeck for Students. So, Library users do not have to retype personal information that we already hold about them.
  • We also made huge improvements to navigation in two key areas of content:
    • Angela Ashby, Digital Editor in External Relations, reorganised the navigation for past exam papers, which had included a separate web page for each department for each year of exams – amounting to more than 200 pages. Angela cut the navigation down to 26 pages – one for each department.
    • I compressed 232 web pages listings our for databases and online resources into just one page. This was made easier by deciding to move extensive help guide information for each database into a document, which will eventually become a support manual for Library staff on the helpdesk.

Keeping Library staff updated

This has been the first opportunity I have had to fully examine the content of the existing Library website and to undertake a root-and-branch review. I focused on thinking always of what our users want/will be looking for and trying to ensure that they can visit a web page, scan it, easily find what they need, and move on. Helping users to find the resources they need without adding additional layers of unnecessary content was very important. When in doubt, I would look at the website traffic figures, the feedback from the UX testing, and the post-it notes.

After all that work had been done, the slimmed-down website was shown to Library staff and to students who attended a Student-Library Partnership meeting. The response was very positive: obviously, we were on the right track.

Creating the wayfinding page

The wayfinding, or landing, page was the last component of the project. We had more post-it-note sessions with groups of Library staff to consult with them. This enabled us to come up with an initial layout, based on a top-task analysis, to inform the order in which signpost tiles appear.

Then, I built the wayfinding page. We decided to use new photos taken last year, focusing on images of our students using the Library.

Redirects

Before we could go live with the new website, we had to create a comprehensive list of redirects, to ensure visitors following old links ended up on new content. This was a huge task, which ended with 1700 redirects (and, wouldn’t you know, I also got to help with that, too).

Looking forward

We have already requested UX testing to ensure that we have not overlooked anything, to pick up on any issues, and to provide evidence to make informed decisions on any further changes/tweaks to the Library website before the beginning of the 2018–19 academic year.

Conclusion

It has been a challenging and stimulating experience. But, I have learnt a great deal from the External Relations web content team and I can honestly say, I now understand what is required to write for the web in a consistent and engaging fashion. I’ve also learned the importance of optimisation for search and paying consideration to where our users would expect to find the information they are looking for. I also know the whole of the Library website intimately, and I will continue to learn and retain my newly acquired skills, through continuous practice and actively reviewing the content on our website.

My thanks to Jane, Ben, Angela, Emlyn, Steve, Naomi, John and Outi and the Library Web Group and the Library staff for their support and for providing feedback at the drop of a hat.

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Forging a new career through distance learning

James Hale studied BSc Geology at Birkbeck through distance learning after 14 years out of education. He discusses how his degree has helped him transform his life, having gone on to both further study and a new job in the field of Earth Sciences.

I started the BSc (Hons) Geology degree at Birkbeck in 2014 whilst working as a sales consultant for a large, multi-national workshop consumables company. I had worked in sales for over ten years and really wanted a career change, but I had no idea what to do instead of sales. I have always been passionate about Science, Earth Science in particular but I never saw it as a possible career, as I left school with only a set of GCSEs, no A-levels or degree.

After a particularly bad day in work, my fiancée suggested I do a little research into Earth Science degrees. I came across various online distance learning geology degrees but Birkbeck was the only one with accreditation from the Geological Society of London and the only one using Panopto to deliver the lectures. The accreditation was important to me because I wanted to be able to establish a career using the degree and the fact that Panopto was used to record the lectures in HD quality made me feel like I was in the classroom. The staff were excellent, very supportive and clearly understood that many of us in the class had not been in any sort of education for quite some time. For me, it had been 14 years to be exact so naturally I was apprehensive about starting a degree. After watching the recording of the induction evening before the start of the course, I felt very much at ease. By the end of the first lecture I was hooked, my mind was immersed and I was extremely glad that I decided to study Geology at Birkbeck.

I originally started the degree on a part-time basis and transferred to full-time after the first year which enabled me to complete in 2017 after three years. The distance learning aspect benefited me because I have a young family, therefore I needed the flexibility to be able to work on a full-time basis and be able to study around them in the evenings and on weekends.

The degree gave me a strong, renewed sense of purpose as well as the immense personal satisfaction of completing something as challenging and life-changing as a degree. I gained invaluable academic skills such as report writing and data processing, a lot of which are transferable, as well as first-class field skills. The degree has made me employable in a scientific environment, so much so I am about to start work at a major UK university as a Senior Technical Officer – Earth and Biological Sciences. I am also a year into a part-time MSc which I am studying online at a world-renowned oil and gas industry focused University. My overall ambition is to progress to lecturer and to conduct my own research in the field of geology.

I would advise anyone else thinking about studying via distance learning with Birkbeck to go for it! Provided you put in the hard work, you can achieve your goals. The study process is made as flexible and accommodating as possible by the college, the course content is both interesting and engaging, the staff are very helpful and supportive, plus if you choose geology you’ll remember the amazing field trips for the rest of your life!

I can’t thank the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences staff enough for literally helping me change my life.

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Spotlight on: Bio-business

Current and former students of Birkbeck’s MSc Bio-business discuss how the course, which focuses on entrepreneurship and business in the bioscience industry, has impacted their lives and careers.

Sophie DeFries, Bio-business alumna: I obtained my BSc from St Andrews in Cell/Molecular Biology then went on to receive an MSc from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Medical Microbiology. My post-university work experience has been in market research and consulting in the healthcare industry. I began at a market research agency in the oncology business unit solving pharmaceutical client brand strategy needs. Currently, I work for a marketing and sales management consultancy where client projects have a wide scope of therapy areas, drugs, and business objectives.

I was drawn to Bio-business because it’s meant I’ve been able to transition between laboratory-based sciences to commercial/business world of science and healthcare. It’s been useful for figuring out what specifically in the bio-business industry is appealing to me. The number one benefit, I would say, is that the course connected a great group of like-minded, smart, and driven classmates, and London is a perfect city to study in – international and diverse, lots of jobs and networks, and a fun atmosphere.

Developing my business skills has been very useful for working in consulting and understanding business jargon. The fact that the course has a connection between business and science has allowed me to analyse the biotech and pharma market independently and with confidence.

Alba Ruzafa Martín, Bio-business student: I studied Biology back home in Madrid and after working in a lab for one year I decided that “lab-life” wasn’t for me. Then I decided that industry would be an interesting path to follow, so I started to look for a master’s and I found Bio-business at Birkbeck. For me, it was the perfect option. Not only because of the modules on offer but also because I needed (and still do need) to work full time.

For the first year and a half of the master’s I was a sales assistant, but the experience and knowledge I gained through the course has enabled me to get an internship in Imperial Innovations at Imperial College London, where I have been working for the last almost five months.

The best thing about studying in London for me is the number of different people you get to know. You learn something new every day, you can go to a new place every time you go out. I am not going to lie to you, the city is freaking expensive and sometimes it gets a bit hard. But for me, it has been totally worth it.

Igor Smyriov, Bio-business alumnus: I had been looking for a master’s degree in business with a focus on biotech and life science for more than two years before I found the MSc Bio-business at Birkbeck. It had everything I was looking for: the option to study part-time in the evening, the central London location, and a huge variety of modules to study.

I was surprised to find so many highly regarded industry professionals, as well as Birkbeck academics, involved in delivering the modules and have opportunities to network with them.

The opportunity to learn entrepreneurial business skills in the life sciences sector was essential to my choice to study Bio-business. My degree has made me much more confident in understanding the business area of the subject. I was offered a few opportunities to join start-ups as a business advisor, and now have secured a role as a manager, so I have left my lab role.

London is a hub for all-around development and all industries. All world leading companies have offices in London or around it. You have the opportunity to meet and establish good relationships with international professionals coming to London for conferences or meetings.  And because Birkbeck students study in the evenings, you can be involved in daily London life.

Romina Durigon, Bio-business student: I was drawn to Bio-business by the desire to gain a deeper knowledge of the biotech and pharma sectors while networking and connecting with some of the most important companies and not-for-profit organisations in the UK.

I also wanted to understand how innovation shapes science and technology or vice-versa, as well as to study entrepreneurship finance, entrepreneurship innovation and management. This program is enabling me to write a business plan, to learn more about venture capitalist firms, investments, and other major factors impacting the growth or the failure of a business.

Studying both life sciences and business skills has enabled me to explore with more awareness of the various market opportunities and thus thinking more carefully about my next job. Dr Renos Savva, the Director of MSc Bio-Business knows and understands entrepreneurship very well and very often advises us about entrepreneurial skills and attitude. His knowledge together with his previous entrepreneurial biotech experience and advice are among the most important assets of this master’s. I would highly recommend the master’s if you are entrepreneurial or want to be an entrepreneur.

Bio-business students have the opportunities to know about the latest innovative technologies used in academia, biotech and pharma sectors. They have the chance to apply for internships in various companies and thus learn new skills while studying for their master.  More importantly, students will have the opportunity to liaise with the speakers invited to give a seminar and attend career track events where they can connect directly with employers and entrepreneurs.

The master’s has helped me to create a larger network and build new relationships with people that otherwise I would not be able to be in contact with or meet. By liaising with them I have the opportunity to discuss jobs’ opportunities, ask for advice or connect with someone else working in the sector that I most interested in.

Find out more and apply to study MSc Bio-business at Birkbeck. 

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Interacting with the dead

Birkbeck student, author and mortician Carla Valentine describes how she came to her unusual career, and the impact her MA in Museum Cultures has had on her work. 

I’d wanted a career in a mortuary from when I was a young child and, as odd as this seemed at a time before CSI and Silent Witness, I do write about the different issues which came together to send me along that unusual path. Over the years I gained experience of embalming, forensics, post-mortems of adults and the young, decomposed and freshly deceased, radioactive decedents and those with highly infectious diseases, as well as victims of the July 7 Bombings in 2005.

After nearly a decade of working alongside pathologists at the same time as the Human Tissue Authority was being created I became more aware of the variety of ways in which we may encounter the deceased today: in the post-mortem sector, at medical schools for teaching students, and public display (all areas which the HTA now regulate).

Fascinated by the concept of our interaction with the dead in the public arena, I sidestepped from dealing with the recently deceased in mortuaries to becoming the curator of Barts Pathology Museum, part of Queen Mary University London. Although my work now involves human remains around a century old, the basic method is very similar: it’s my job to ‘read’ these human remains in order to find out about how they lived and how they died, then decide why and how this is relevant for a public audience.

I was therefore thrilled when I discovered the MA in Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, which gave me the option to study Exhibiting the Body as a module with Dr Suzannah Biernoff and then carry out an Independent Research Project and a dissertation of my own choosing. Now I work with human remains and research their display at Master’s Level, with my day-to-day work supplementing my studies and vice-versa – it’s ideal! However, my previous career as an autopsy technician was a rollercoaster-ride and I’m thrilled I was able to tell the story in my book Past Mortems.

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