Birkbeck students launch Mammalo – the new “Uber” for on-demand services.

Former Birkbeck students teamed up to start Mammalo – a startup that connects London’s population to hundreds of verified industry professionals.  

Maxime van den Berg, former MSc Management with Business Strategy and the Environment student, and Andrea Armanni were just as eager as many students here at Birkbeck to start their own company. During their studies, they found the time to plan and implement a brand new idea known today as Mammalo.

As a quick introduction, Mammalo is an online marketplace to quickly search and book any professional services. Conversely, if you have any skills that you want to make money out of, you can create a personal profile and list your skill in order to get exposure to people looking for your service.

According to Andrea, “Mammalo is truly a revolutionary platform that we would like to scale globally someday. Until then we are focusing on the expansion here in London and the rest of the UK.”

Starting a business is tough, and Maxime and Andrea recognise the importance of having others to support them on their start-up journey. They are getting involved with Birkbeck’s Enterprise Pathways to give back to fellow Birkbeck students and encourage them to support each other as much as possible. As we learned from them, to be able to start a business you only really need three things:

  1. An idea
  2. A plan
  3. The knowhow

An idea is only 10% of the solution; the execution will determine your success. Carefully consider your business model and competition. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all.

Lastly, knowhow encompasses what you have learned in university, in the workplace and in life. You need to have some basic knowledge to get a company physically started. If you don’t have this knowledge, be curious! There is always room to learn to do what you cannot today.

Maxime mentioned “The thrill of not knowing what will happen but putting in as much effort as possible to make the best come true is what got us started and keeps us going. Not only are we solving an issue for everyone in London but we also get to build the solution from the ground up.”

This is an example of a success story in which students have used the knowledge they have gained to pursue a dream of starting their own company.

So, if you have some time feel free to check out the platform on www.mammalo.com and signup today! They can use all the feedback they can get and would hugely appreciate your thoughts.

Maxime will be coming to Birkbeck to share his start-up story soon – look out for the event details when they go live here.

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Get Talking – our mentoring scheme for prospective and past students

Starting university is an exciting time, but we know it can be daunting too. Lots of students have questions about the years ahead, whether they’re joining university straight from school or going back to education after a break. Speaking to someone who’s been through it all before can be reassuring, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a mentoring scheme where former Birkbeck students are matched with those thinking about starting their studies for a coffee and a chat. It’s an opportunity for prospective students to ask questions or share any concerns they have about studying in the evening, and for mentors to share their experiences of studying at the College, and anything they wish they’d known before starting their courses.

If you’re interested in taking part in Get Talking, either as a mentor or a mentee, please get in touch.

Why I wanted to take part in Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Eleanor Tough, current BSc Psychology student

I initially signed up for the Get Talking scheme because I felt quite overwhelmed at the notion of beginning my degree at Birkbeck and felt it would be beneficial to speak with someone who had experience at the university.

I sent an email to the Get Talking team and was put in contact with a graduate who had completed the same course that I was enrolled onto. After exchanging emails, my mentor and I met up face-to-face. During this meeting, we chatted about how I was feeling, why I had chosen my degree and the potential career prospects I hope to explore when I graduate.

My mentor described her own experiences and was able to fully answer questions that I had, about the experience she had at Birkbeck and how achieving her master’s degree had impacted on her own career.

I also received very valuable advice on how to structure my studying around working full-time and how to make the best use of the support services at the university. This helped me to engage with the full range of services provided at Birkbeck and has absolutely influenced the way in which I manage my own time, current career and personal life.

My highlights at Birkbeck are the course itself, the diverse range of people I have met through studying, the impressive facilities of the university and the support and positive environment that Birkbeck provides.

Why I volunteer as a mentor for Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Richard Harrison, MA Arts Policy and Management graduate

I have volunteered for the Get Talking scheme over the last few years because I enjoy being able to support people who are thinking about embarking on a course of study at Birkbeck, particularly those who are new to higher education. University study is a challenge but also one of the most fantastic things a person can do, and I feel privileged to support people as they consider starting on this journey.

It is a real privilege to be able to support someone in making such a significant decision, and if that decision can be a little bit better informed by alumni like me sharing our experiences, that is hopefully useful to Birkbeck’s prospective students.

In meetings we tend to cover the practical aspects of university study, including how alright it is to feel quite overwhelmed in the first term! (This settles down after the Christmas break.)  I am sometimes asked about my experience as a student.  We are provided with excellent training by the Alumni Office, and are given resources to direct mentees to particular areas of the College for further advice, so when needed, I will share those resources so that my mentees can feel fully informed about the journey ahead of them.

Birkbeck is an incredible institution. It is full of passionate experts who impart their knowledge and share their love of their subjects readily.  I remember feeling thrilled to be studying again, and intellectually stimulated and challenged.  That is, in part, why I volunteer for programmes like Get Talking, so that others can access and feel most prepared for this life-changing experience.

 

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University Mental Health Day: managing student stress

Being a student can be stressful. This University Mental Health Day, Head of Birkbeck’s Counselling Service Charlotte Williams looks at the causes and impacts of mental distress on students, practical tips to manage stress, and where to turn if you need help.

What are the main causes of student stress?

Stress to some degree is a normal part of life, it is only when the amount of stress we are experiencing exceeds our capacity and resources to manage that we can run into difficulty and find ourselves using unhelpful defence mechanisms to try to manage and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of stress.

Many factors cause stress to students including the demands of juggling their studies alongside work and family responsibilities;  relationship difficulties; housing problems;  financial concern;, loss and bereavement; transitions and achieving their academic goals, essay writing, public speaking, exams. However what causes stress really is a subjective matter, what causes one person intense stress can be managed relatively effortlessly by another. It is important to be aware of things that stress you in particular and prepare to take care of yourselves at times of increased stress triggers.

Be aware of the first signs of stress in yourself and make a conscious effort to get on top of it and stop the cycle of stress getting a hold. Often when we are stressed we revert to old coping mechanisms some of which may be outdated and not helpful long term such as drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking more caffeine, eating sugary foods, staying up late, isolating ourselves, ruminating, avoiding matters, obsessing. When the cycle of stress gets a hold we need to break into it and make a conscious effort  to resist falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms and make conscious choices to do things that may help. What helps will differ for individuals but here are some of the key things that can help manage stress.

What 3 practical things should a student consider doing to manage their stress if suffering?

Exercise:

A meta-analysis (Cooney et Al, 2013) showed that exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms, as talking therapies or antidepressants. Another comprehensive study adds to previous evidence suggesting exercise is not just good for reducing symptoms of depression, but may also prevent it.’ (NHS, 2018). Birkbeck University Counselling Service, in conjunction with the YMCA has developed a MIND BODY MATTERS scheme and offers 8 week free gym passes including personal trainer to students suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety. Exercise helps to rebalance the physiological system when stressed and boost natural endorphins to improve mood.

Sleep:

Maintaining a sleep routine is of paramount importance to mental health and managing stress. Taking time to relax before you go to sleep can help the quality of your sleep. Try to go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time each day – 7-8 hours is the recommended amount of sleep but of course this differs for each individual needs. Take a bath to wind down or watch something gentle on television like a nature or holiday programme rather than something that stimulates anxiety such as horror or thriller. If you study in the same room you sleep in, cover your books and desk with a sheet or a screen at around 9.00 each night and take some time to rest before sleep. For more tips on sleep read our self-help leaflet entitled Sleeping Problems.

Food and Drink:

If possible avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it’s a vicious cycle which will make you feel worse in the end. Also try to avoid relying on caffeine to keep you going If you are stressed and tired you need to rest, eat well and exercise at suitable times. Use herbal teas to calm and soothe such as camomile before bed; mint if your digestive system is upset and lemon in the morning to wake and refresh you. Avoid sugary carbohydrates – they will pick you up temporarily but you will soon crash – try to eat a balanced diet – some protein, carbohydrate and vegetables each day at regular intervals and carry nuts and seeds for a boost of your energy dips whilst on the go.

Manage your Mind

When we are stressed our minds sometimes behave in ways that hinder rather than help. Rather than ruminating over the problem, catastrophizing about the future or critically analysing your latest attempts,  take time out to focus your mind on something relaxing and positive. There are lots of apps and websites that offer mindfulness exercises and distraction techniques and links to those can be accessed from the Counselling Service Website Further Resources section. Alternately take a break, go visit a friend and tell them about the problems you are facing and then tell them about the good things in your life, ask them to help you to gain some perspective. Sharing difficulties can help: however going over and over them often doesn’t and is likely to tire your friends so ask them to listen first and then help you to get a different angle on things or a plan going forwards.

Manage your Behaviour

Our behaviour can also be affected by stress, some people avoid the problem, others tackle it manically never taking a moment for fun or rest. Avoidance increases our anxiety about something so breakdown the problem, set a plan and approach the issue step by step reminding yourself of similar situations where you have coped. If you behave in the opposite way make sure you take time out to  visit a friend, go to the cinema, or read a novel to give yourself a break.

Who can a student suffering from stress turn to for help/advice?

If you have tried all of this and just can’t seem to get a grip on the cycle of stress alone it’s fine to ask for help. The Counselling Service runs a workshop each turn entitled Stress Less and a self-help leaflet on managing stress is available for free download. You can also write to the counselling service and ask to meet with one of the counsellors to talk things through and think together about how to manage and move forwards. It may also be worth visiting your G.P to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are indeed stress related and there are no underlying issues.

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Chevening scholars give their tips for a successful interview

The Chevening scholarship scheme is aimed at developing future leaders worldwide, with a competitive selection process for the prestigious scholarship, with thousands of hopefuls from over 100 countries submitting an application each year.

In 2018 Birkbeck welcomed a record number of Chevening scholars. As the interview period for Chevening is about to open, we asked current scholars to reminisce about their experience.

For Panamanian student Esther Alvarado De Leon, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management student, the interview is the most important part of the application process; and preparation is paramount. “My first time applying, I got into reserve list after the interview. I am sure that was because I didn’t have a plan for the interview. My second time applying was amazing! I had a short term and a long term plan. I knew what I wanted them to take from my interview and it felt a lot different, I believed in what I was saying.”

Aleksei Mikhalev, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management student, from Russia, also recommends taking as much time as possible to prepare .“I received an email about choosing me for Chevening interview in February 2018, but I booked my interview date on the middle of April. Therefore I had almost two months for preparation. I spent that time structuring my thoughts, polishing my speaking and presentation skills.”

Familiarise yourself again with your essays about leadership, networking and life goals included in your original application.  “You have been chosen because of what you have written, so it is very probable that they will ask you similar questions,” says Sergio Mendoza, an MA Investigative Reporting student from Bolivia. Your interview responses must be coherent with the points made in your application, but the interview is also an opportunity to develop these, and to show your enthusiasm for your future studies. “The main three questions you should be ready to answer on the interview are why you chose the UK; why did you choose these universities; and what do you plan to do after studies?” says Aleksei.

Is one of the lecturers on your chosen program a renowned expert in their field? Can you link a module with your future plans as a leader? In an interview that lasted almost an hour Filipino student Rogelio explained why he applied to Birkbeck’s Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict MSc. This had involved researching the programme academics’ work and also linking the course content with his future goals as a writer and cultural worker.

How will your studies help you to achieve your goals? Be specific about your plans. What career do you wish to embark on after your study in the UK? How will you’re the knowledge and skills you will acquire strengthen your position as a leader and help you benefit others in your country and community?

“Think where you want to be in 2, 5 and 10 years,” advises Esther. “Where do you see yourself applying the knowledge you will gain during your studies in the UK?”

“Chevening is a program for future leaders and being a leader means having a clear plan for your future and about changing the world around you. You have to show the Chevening commission that you already know what to do, you have a plan how to help your country, but you need some resources, such as networking and knowledge” says Aleksei.

Our scholars all agree; practice, practice, practice; run mock interviews with friends, family, in front of the mirror. But more than anything, say our scholars, believe in yourself and show your passion.

The Chevening programme is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner universities such as Birkbeck.

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At the heart of unions

Trade unions have been and continue to be crucial for improving conditions in the workplace and union learning reps (ULRs) have a special role in promoting and supporting the learning needs of members. As part of #heartunions week, Sophie Swain from Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement department talks about the 10% fee discount for union members at Birkbeck and the launch of a new outreach programme for trade union members interested in studying at undergraduate level.

A long-established partnership with the TUC’s unionlearn has enabled union members who wish to study at Birkbeck to receive a 10% discount on their fees, and last year over 700 students took up the discount. The Access and Engagement department are now underpinning this opportunity with targeted outreach activities for union members to support them in their journey to higher education. In line with the department’s mission to support non-traditional students including those who have low prior attainment or who have been out of education for a number of years, this outreach work will focus on those without an existing undergraduate degree or who are returning to university to gain the skills and knowledge needed to progress into a new line of work.

This new initiative has been developed as a timely response to challenges facing London’s workforce, in recognition of the need to adapt to changes in the workplace. Research by the Centre for London (2018) estimates that up to a third of London’s jobs are at risk of automation, which has a disproportionate impact on low and medium-skilled workers. For these workers, higher education study can be a way of preparing themselves for the changes by equipping them with new skills, knowledge and career prospects. Lifelong learning is at the heart of Birkbeck’s ethos, and for almost 200 years we have offered students access to higher education at whatever stage in life, regardless of previous experience.

Trade unions play a vital role in supporting the learning of their members. In a survey of Union Learning Fund learners undertaken by the University of Exeter in 2018, 7 out of 10 reported that without union support, they would not have taken up the opportunity. This study also highlights the importance of information, advice and guidance when supporting learners: for those without any qualifications, 79% said that they would not have taken part without union support. Therefore, we’re building relationships with trade union learning reps (ULRs) to enable them to inform prospective students about opportunities available to them at Birkbeck.

The Access and Engagement department are calling on colleagues from across the college to collaborate on planned initiatives to support current students from a trade union background, as well as anyone who is interested in delivering informal learning activities to trade union members. We would also encourage admissions staff to share details of the discount and outreach work with their applicants, to ensure that those who might benefit can take advantage of the offer. To get in touch and find out more, please email union-learning@bbk.ac.uk.

 

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Birkbeck’s autumn telephone campaign: meet the student fundraisers

Say hello to Birkbeck’s student callers who will be working on the telephone campaign to raise valuable funds for bursaries, facilities and support services.

The Birkbeck autumn telephone campaign has now begun. A team of dedicated Birkbeck student fundraisers, new and returning, will be contacting alumni over the next five weeks to fundraise for College priorities impacting the student experience and student support. 40% of Birkbeck students require some form of financial assistance, and often this support is crucial to these students being able to complete their studies. Alumni support helps to ensure that current and future generations of students have the best facilities, support, advice and career guidance during their time at Birkbeck.

Tara Millington, Regular Giving Officer at Birkbeck has said: “Our telephone campaigns are a real testament to the generosity of Birkbeck alumni, as well as how engaged Birkbeck students are. Each caller has their own unique reason for wanting to take part in the campaign, and they can receive invaluable life and career advice from alumni who want to share their stories. Each campaign, more and more alumni pledge their support to the College. This makes a huge difference for current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they have the opportunity to speak to donors who can help shape their student experience.

The Autumn campaign will run between 31 October and 1 December – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (t.millington@bbk.ac.uk).

Alex, BA Global Film, fourth year
“I chose to study at Birkbeck because it is a university for mature students, and students working at the same time. I wanted to participate in the telephone campaign because it’s important to fundraise for Birkbeck to continue a high level of education, and to provide funding and help to those who need it.”

Aleks, LLB, first year
“I chose Birkbeck mainly because of the School of Law faculty – they are researching issues and subjects that I am passionate about. I will be receiving mentoring from alumni later in my program, so I think it is important to keep them involved and interested after they leave. I’m looking forward to having an active role in growing and helping Birkbeck through the telephone campaign”

Ayelen, PhD Psychosocial Studies, first year
“I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign to give back to Birkbeck, and to learn about fundraising more generally. I chose to study at Birkbeck because the professors are exceptional – there’s a great Psychosocial Department and fantastic treatment of students. I am really looking forward to having the opportunity to speak to Birkbeck alumni.”

Clifford, BSc Financial Economics and Accounting, first year
Fundraising for Birkbeck is important to raise money for the College’s various bursaries and scholarships, to enable a wider variety of people to change their lives through education. I chose to study at Birkbeck because I work full time, and this is the best place to participate in an evening degree … also, my mum is an alum!”

Edwin, MA Text & Performance with RADA, second year
“I wanted to participate in the Telephone Campaign because Birkbeck has contributed significantly to advancing my knowledge and skills in my chosen field (Theatre & Politics). I want to talk to alumni who have shared my experience, and to hear their stories.”

Francesca, MA Museum Cultures, first year
“I wanted to participate in the telephone campaign to improve my speaking skills – Birkbeck is a great place to study and not a lot of universities do my course. I am most looking forward to meeting new people and being part of a team.”

Hannah, MA History of Art, first year
“I chose to study at Birkbeck as it suited my lifestyle, and the courses elective modules and work placement interested me. Fundraising is important to enhance the student experience, I wanted to take part in the Telephone Campaign as I felt I would thoroughly enjoy being a part of it! I’m looking forward to raising funds for Birkbeck.”

Harry, MSc Information Technology, first year
“I am studying at Birkbeck as it has accessible evening and part-time courses. I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign to improve my understanding of fundraising and to help Birkbeck – fundraising is important to ensure that the university continues to grow.”

Joseph, MSc International Development, first year
I am interested in diversifying my experience as a fundraiser and meet like-minded people. I understand that funding is not always easy to find and it is important for Birkbeck’s sustainability.“

Natalie, BA Linguistics and Japanese, second year
“I applied to be part of the call team as I found the nature of the job interesting, I like conversing with people. What I’m looking forward to most about this role is the sense of personal achievement and growth, contributing to future developments at Birkbeck”

Ngozi, BA Human Geography, second year
“I am taking part in the telephone campaign because it seemed like a good opportunity to learn new skills and raise funds for the university as well as the students. I loved the unconventional layout of Birkbeck – it seems to be the right fit for me.”

Ryan, MA Creative Writing, first year
“I think fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it helps keep us a competitive university and makes current student experience even better. I’m looking forward to reaching out to successful alumni – I really love to hear about people’s personal success.”

Shakeela, BSc Social Sciences, first year
“I wanted to take part in the telephone campaign as I like to speak to alumni and find out about their experiences. It was also a way to meet a variety of students I wouldn’t have met before. I feel fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it encourages continued support for the projects here, some of which I’ve benefitted from myself.”

Thomas, MA Philosophy, second year
“I wanted to be part of the Birkbeck Telephone Campaign to gain experience working in a university and speak to interesting alumni. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it allows people from a less advantaged background an opportunity to study.”

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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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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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