Digital Transformation Project (DTP) stage 2: improving the school and department presence on the Birkbeck web 

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, shares progress and updates on the second stage of the College’s web redevelopment project. This blog is one of a series of blogs about Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Following the successful launch of Stage 1 of our web redevelopment project (prioritising public-facing recruitment pages), we concentrated on making further improvements to our redeveloped web pages, to continue to improve these pages for our prospective students.

We have now launched Stage 2 of the DTP, turning our attention to school and department content on the Birkbeck website.

  1. Requirement-gathering with the schools

This project began during October and November 2017 with ER and ITS facilitating five workshops, one for each school. The aim was to gain a greater understanding of the challenges and priorities for school, department and research centre content, from the point of view of those working in the schools. The facilitators also spoke about the project, by invitation, at a variety of other school and department meetings.

At the workshops, ER and ITS facilitators gave participants an overview of the website transformation project work so far, including some of the evidence and research behind the work already  undertaken. We then presented attendees with data about how our current school and department content is consumed by visitors (such as the most popular content), and we watched recordings of students visiting the school and department sites and talking about what information they are trying to access and the barriers to completing their online journey with us.

Workshop attendees discussed university websites that they thought handled school and department content particularly well, before we began an in-depth exploration of school and department content – what it does, should do, could do better. Participants were given as much time as they wanted to add notes under a range of headings, including issues with current content, and priorities for school, department and research centre content.

When everyone felt they had got all their points down, the facilitators invited contributors to expand on their notes, generating a group discussion about the topics attendees felt were most pressing, helping to draw out commonalities, outliers and voices. Minutes were recorded to capture the conversations, questions and concerns raised by participants at each workshop and the post-it notes were photographed.

1.1 Workshop discussions – recurring topics across all five schools

Staff across the College shared similar concerns. Unsurprisingly, better navigation and good, up-to-date content constantly cropped up as high-level concerns and priorities. In addition, our attendees talked about:

  • Staff profiles: These are by far the most visited area of school and department content and, thus, demand attention. Much discussion centred on questions of audience, degrees of standardisation and information management – who will update the content and how they will connect with other systems that academics use, such as BIRon.
  • Design: By far one of the greatest concerns for the project across all schools was the visual appeal and imagery of the school and department web content.
  • The web as ‘shop window’: A good deal of time was spent discussing how to showcase the best that Birkbeck’s schools, departments and research centres have to offer. There was a unanimous desire for space to show off news, events, research impact and other activities. Some schools felt that this would help garner a deeper sense of community between students and staff.
  • Showcasing department individuality: Finding the right balance between heterogeneity with the ‘corporate’ site, while allowing the personality of each department to shine through was important.
  • What role do schools play on the Birkbeck web? There were mixed opinions on the necessity of keeping school content. Some participants argued that the school is merely an internal managerial structure that does not have much relevance to the outside world, while others thought we might be missing a trick by not giving space to school-level events, news and rankings. Some consideration still needs to be given to identifying the target audience.
  • Information for current students: there was a mixed reaction to the necessity for having a section for current students in certain schools. Some departments use the current students section for essential information such as handbooks and module timetables, while others do not have a current student area at all (eg Law). This also sparked much discussion of what should be behind the current student log-in area, ‘My Birkbeck’.
  • Maintaining web standards: Finally, many participants were concerned about who will take responsibility for ensuring web content is kept up to date while maintaining consistency and how this will be resourced. Most thought that some collaboration was required between professional services and the school and department-based staff, to ensure consistency across the website while keeping content fresh and distinct.

2. The launch of the Web Working Group

Now that we have completed the initial consultation and we have a good grasp of what staff across the schools are most concerned about, we have begun working with the Web Working Group (WWG), consisting of key staff (academic and professional support) from all five schools.

The aim of this group is for the digital transformation team (comprising the ER and ITS digital teams, and our project managers, Kayleigh Woods Harley and Richard Evemy) to work collaboratively with school / department staff (academics and professional support staff who represent their schools) to redevelop the school and department content on the Birkbeck website, informed by the workshop discussions with the wider group.

  1. ‘Layering’ the new look and feel on to our school and department content

But how best to redesign this important part of the Birkbeck website? The overall look and feel of our school and department web presence will take its cue from the ‘new’ Birkbeck visual identity, which – a year into its life – is now being used extensively by every school and professional service for everything from new architectural designs for Estates to event posters and prospectuses. But what is the best way to apply the new visual identity and digital standards to our school and department web presence?

In previous years, when we upgraded school and department microsites, we did this on a site-by-site basis, which meant it took a long time for the latest design to roll out across our school and department sites. This was obviously frustrating for the departments lower down our list (which were upgraded more than a year after the first upgraded site went live). So, this time, we are taking a different approach. Rather than improve one site at a time, we are going to target specific parts of or topics on each site (eg research information, staff profiles) and, with the guidance of our WWG, we are aiming to go live with the new parts for all school/departments at or around the same time.

This means that ‘old’ and ‘new’ designs will co-exist for the school and department web, but we believe this disadvantage will be outweighed by the fact that the whole of our school and department web will feature ‘layers’ of improvements, which will – over time – eventually take over, until all of the ‘old’ content has been transformed for the better.

After our first two meetings with the WWG, we have not only started to work on two project layers, but we have identified a series of other projects that we will need to tackle:

3.1 Department gateway pages

For many staff, the most important page on a department site is the gateway page (in effect, the homepage of your department). So, rather than start with other parts of our site, we decided this would be our first priority and the first ‘layer’ to be applied.

Our aim is to develop new ‘gateway’ pages for all of our departments (school content and gateway pages will be addressed in a separate ‘schools’ project – see 3.3) that will better enable visitors to access key information, in the new design. To do this, we need to analyse feedback we’ve received from the initial web workshops with schools, the WWG meetings, and our ongoing user testing, in order to determine the requirements for our department gateway pages. We will then share our findings and results with the WWG. After this, we will develop new pages for all of the departments, with a view to getting sign off from local heads of departments (ideally, with the support of the local WWG representative).

Once we have reached this stage, we will apply this first ‘layer’ to our department content.

3.2 Academic and research staff pages

Academic and research staff pages are critical for our users, but currently they are riddled with problems and errors – a lack of consistency in respect of the type of information we present, out-of-date information, duplicate content, concerns about design and layout, etc. This is obviously of great concern to the Birkbeck community as well as ourselves. So, we need to ensure that we make this content as good as it can be.

Among other actions we need to take to improve our academic and research staff profiles, we need to:

  • Complete our analysis of requirements gathered through user testing and the WWG discussions, to inform our planning
  • Develop a comprehensive list of ‘fields’ (contact details, links to personal websites and profile information on academic.edu, LinkedIn, etc.) that apply to all academic and research staff, while providing a mechanism whereby academic staff themselves decide which of these fields should be presented on their part of the Birkbeck website
  • Consider the best way to maintain and update this information
  • Think creatively about how we can ensure that this important information is embedded with other key parts of the Birkbeck web (eg our course listings, where we need to let visitors know which of our staff teach on which courses)
  • Do a better job of rationalising our sources of information to avoid duplicate content updates on the Birkbeck site – so, for example, we need to pull information from BIRon into our staff profiles, rather than providing duplicate (and, inevitably, out-of-date) publication information pages.

After all of this, we will be able to identify the way in which we can implement this project and will discuss this with the WWG. Then we will be able to plan the appropriate stages of development for this project.

3.3 Other projects

We have also identified a range of other projects that need to be addressed in this stage (in no particular order – and probably not a comprehensive list):

  • Department research: this project will concentrate on how we can best present information on a department’s research – their aims and objectives, their activities and their outcomes.
  • Search and discovery: we know that Birkbeck’s search – course and site search – needs to be improved. This project is going to ensure that we make it easier for our web visitors to find the information they need when they are on the Birkbeck web.
  • Departmental student experience: what is it like to study in a department? What is the student experience? This project aims to address these questions and more, to give prospective students a better understanding of what it will be like to study at Birkbeck in a specific department.
  • Student funding: we know that prospective students don’t always find all the funding information that might be relevant to their studies, so we need to do something to make this information both easier to find and comprehensive. That’s what this project is about.
  • Prospective Phd students: we know that department sites are critical for prospective PhD students, and we could improve their experience. This project will look at providing the information that Phd students need in order to make the decision that Birkbeck is right for them.
  • Current students: this project will look at the best way to provide information for current students.
  • Course information: we know it’s important to let our visitors know what courses each department offers, because staff have told us this and the WWG reinforced this. This project will concentrate on how we can and should provide this information.
  • Business services / partnership project: this project will consider how best to make this important information visible to our stakeholders.
  • Schools project: in our workshops, some staff told us that school information isn’t necessary on the Birkbeck web; others told us that we needed to find a better way to showcase school information. With this project, we will need to tackle this and come up with a solution that works for everyone.

We are reliant on the WWG to help us prioritise these projects and to help us to understand the requirements better, so that each project can be tackled on a stand-alone basis and layered successfully across the Birkbeck web.

  1. When is this all happening?

Currently, the Birkbeck school and department web comprises more than 27,000 discrete items of publicly indexed content (ie content available via a Google search). Transforming this quantity of content into something better (all of which will need to be reviewed with much content either rewritten or deleted, in consultation with local content owners) is a massive undertaking, and we are only at the start.

However, this is an important project to us, and we are keen to make progress. So, although we can’t tell you exactly when your ‘old’ pages will be improved, we are aiming to go live with new layers throughout the year and we will continue to use blogs to tell you more about the reasoning behind our decisions and, once we have plotted the timeline, when we are hoping to deliver them.

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Birkbeck Study Skills: play to win

Sal Campbell, a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck explains what Learning Development Tutors do and how students can use the resources available to them.

What if I told you I knew how you could work a little less on your degree and get better results?

Imagine someone wants you to bake them a cake. You know about cakes, having eaten many of them and you’ve been given all the basic ingredients – but not a recipe, because they thought you already have one. You don’t, but you know it involves mixing everything together and there’s an oven involved. Beyond that, it’s pure guesswork. You assume that it must be straightforward because other people seem to know what they’re doing and you’re not going to admit you don’t know the method, because how hard can baking a cake be? So you give it a go, but it’s all a bit stressful and the result is… well, cake-like, but it’s not the best cake you could have baked, compared to if you’d had the recipe in the first place.

Birkbeck isn’t a bakery, but we do expect you to produce essays and assignments with all the ‘ingredients’ – the knowledge and skills we are trying to teach you on your courses – to prove your abilities. This can be a stressful and frustrating process if you’re not familiar with how to go about it, or it’s been a while since your first degree and sometimes this means your ideas and understanding – which is really what your lecturers are interested in – don’t shine through as much as they could.

Across all subject assignments, as well as assessing your understanding of the content of your courses, lecturers are also assessing how well you can perform various academic skills such as how to structure an essay, your use of correct academic English, correct referencing and citation, evidence of critical thinking and so on. We want to know that you can read and understand; that you can think critically; we want to know how well you can articulate and substantiate your own arguments and how well you can write.

These are not personal qualities you either do or don’t have – they are skills that can be learned and the fundamentals can be learned easily and quickly. As a Learning Development Tutor, I think it’s a tragedy when students are clearly motivated, hardworking, diligent and able – in short, they have all the ingredients they need to reach their potential but they don’t know how to go about it. As a result, their efforts miss the mark and they don’t get the grade they are capable of. The only thing missing is a kind of ‘academic capital’; it is freely available information.

Students often mistakenly believe that coming to study skills workshops is what you do if you need ‘support’ and you are not independently able to do your degree – whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Study skills tutors are academic specialists, the methodologists of academia. We are the equivalent of personal trainers for your studies and our whole purpose is to show you how to optimise the quality of your work. Your course lecturers are experts in the content of your degree – they teach you what. We are the experts in how to do your degree – we can show you how to do it to a higher standard and in less time than you can work it out for yourself.

Studying at university is hard work, and it is expensive – so play to win. Use the resources and services available to you to maximise your chances of doing the best you can. Don’t sweat in the library hour after hour trying to work out how to do your assignment, when you can come to a workshop, meet with a tutor, or look at the huge wealth of online resources available to find out what you need to know right now.

Our resources, workshops and tutorials are freely available. Take a look at the Birkbeck Study Skills webpage and Moodle module, the Study Skills workshop timetable and just see what’s available.

So many students I meet don’t realise how much it can help, or how easily and quickly they can access it. Do yourself a favour – just invest a little time in investigating what is available and if it looks helpful, pick three things to look at in more detail. Read what the lecturer feedback says on your essays and assignments and choose one or two things to improve on your next assignment, and look for resources to help with that.

As Birkbeck students, we know you are as busy as you are dedicated, and we want to help ensure that your hard work and dedication pays off. Let’s do this right: the information is there and it works – all you have to do is take a look.

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Journalist uncovers new opportunities at Birkbeck through Chevening Scholarship

Carolyn Bonquin is a 27-year-old journalist from the Philippines. She is currently taking MA Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck after applying to the Chevening Scholarship programmeShe discusses how her studies have opened up a network of opportunities for her career.

I spent most of my childhood in a rural town in Quezon province in the Philippines. Growing up, I witnessed how poverty separated families and sometimes pushed people to do bad things.

Now, 27 years later, I still see thousands of Filipinos living under worst conditions. This motivated me to become a journalist and further enhance my investigative reporting skills — I find it unfair to see other people struggle and live in suffering because of the greed and apathy of those in power.

For seven years, I worked as a journalist for ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation up until last September, when I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Aside from reporting for television, I also produced stories for our radio and online platforms.

I started as a regional correspondent in the South Luzon before I was assigned to the national platform. Crimes, rallies, environment and agriculture are the areas I usually covered until in 2015, I was assigned to the anti-graft beat, which included monitoring of criminal and civil cases against public officials and audit reports on public spending.

My heart is really set on doing investigative reports.  By uncovering under-reported issues and exposing wrongdoings, I hope to affect policy changes and trigger developmental reforms. One of the last expository stories I did with our investigative team was about the alleged human rights violations of policemen in the Philippine Government’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

With the help of data, I want to do more expository reports that will unravel the root causes of poverty when I come home. These are the stories that would reveal corrupt and neglectful activities. This way, I feel like I could help the reported 20 million Filipinos who still live under the poverty line.

Leaving the Philippines amid ongoing chaos and cropping up issues on human rights abuses was a struggle. A part of me wanted to stay but, in the end, I realized that I need a year away to enhance my skills so I can better serve the public.

Aside from funding my study in the UK, the Chevening Scholarship programme is a network of future and current leaders and influencers that could help me realize this goal. After all, what’s not to like about being a part of a network of experts in their own field, who would work together in imparting their knowledge to help change the world?

I found Birkbeck while researching for an investigative journalism Masters programme. When I saw the curriculum, I immediately knew it was the right programme for me. I appreciate how the modules have been designed to fit the current demands and trends in journalism. This ensures we have all the practical skills needed to start (or continue) working after graduation.

I’m also impressed by the diversity of students in our class — from journalists to a podcast reporter to a political science graduate. This provides various insights and ensures mature and rich discussions in our class.

Information security experts and award-winning journalists have presented at our seminars, including Iain Overton and Ewan MacAskill (remember the Snowden files?). This is all just in the first term and I look forward to all the great things I will learn for the rest of the year!

If I could offer any advice to someone looking to apply for the Chevening scholarship or wanting to come to Birkbeck, it would be to know your purpose and your goal. All the scholars I’ve met, and even my classmates at Birkbeck have one thing in common —their hearts are set on doing something that would make an impact on other people’s lives.

It’s important to realize that we are continuously honing our skills and gaining knowledge not only for ourselves, but also to contribute to the development of our society, even in our own little ways.

 

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Launching Birkbeck’s Event Toolkit

Birkbeck staff Siobhan Morris and Lucy Tallentire discuss the new Event Toolkit – a new resource to advise Birkbeck staff and students in organising, promoting and evaluating events. This toolkit will complement the work of the events team, who will continue to organise College-wide events.

Events, Communications, Public Engagement, and Impact staff from across the College have recently designed and created an Event Toolkit to offer general advice for all kinds of events, from conferences and academic workshops, to memorial dinners and book launches. This toolkit will complement the work of the events team, who will continue to organise College-wide events. It has been designed primarily for staff at Birkbeck to provide them with a practical resource to help run a successful event from start to finish, however, the toolkit may also be useful for postgraduate students and interns.

The toolkit is comprised of six sections, each providing a wealth of guidance, top tips and resources for planning, organising, and evaluating an event.

The sections focus on the following key areas: Why and Who, Logistics, Event Promotion, and Evaluation. In addition, the toolkit features a series of case studies designed to showcase best practice, as well as indicate potential challenges that may arise during the planning or delivery of an event. A list of Resources and Contacts is also included, providing evaluation templates, details of key contacts within the College, and links to further information.

More information on the toolkit’s content and layout is available in the video below:

The Event Toolkit team have been delighted with how the resource has been received so far, with comments noting that the toolkit is a ‘fantastic resource, it’s so comprehensive’ and that it contains ‘loads of information but it can be dipped in and out of’.

The toolkit will continue to be reviewed and updated periodically in order to ensure that the information provided remains accurate and up to date. We therefore welcome any feedback, suggestions or comments that you may have. Please get in touch with us through the feedback form in our Contacts section of the website. We hope you enjoy exploring the toolkit!

Explore the Event Toolkit here: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/staff-information/event-toolkit

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The changing role of Birkbeck’s website homepage

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, gives insight into the functionality and strategic design behind our new homepage. Read part one and part two in our blog series about the redesign project.

We launched the new Birkbeck website six months ago and, since that time, one of the areas that has sparked a lot of conversation is the homepage – the ‘bbk.ac.uk‘ page that traditionally would have functioned as our ‘virtual’ front door.

Colleagues from across the College have been very curious about the changes that have been made to the homepage – and rightly so. Along with a lot of very positive responses – about the modern design, clear navigation and sense of purpose for both recruitment and research – some concern has also been expressed. This is understandable – we have made a drastic change from what went before.

So I thought it would be worth dedicating this latest edition of our series of blog posts about Birkbeck’s digital transformation project, to exploring this subject in a little more depth, explaining the evidence and rationale behind the design route we have taken.

The concerns that colleagues on our campus have expressed largely cluster around three issues: long pages; use of large images; and the loss of the carousel – a filmstrip of images that you can click through.

The ‘above the fold’ myth
Some people are worried that the introduction of long pages on content might put off visitors, who they imagine do not want to scroll down a lengthy page. This concern is sometimes expressed as ‘our content needs to be above the fold’.

There is a persistent, outdated belief that all of our most useful content needs to be available ‘above the fold’ on the homepage or people simply won’t find it. Some folk imagine that web users won’t scroll. This was certainly the case in the 20th century when mass web use was in its infancy (and on desktops), but is no longer true.

The term ‘above the fold’ comes from the world of printing presses and ink, where newspapers ensured their best story was featured on the top half of the paper so, when folded in half for the newsstand, the front-page lead story could easily be seen by passersby.  This concept carried over to the web, where people equated the bottom edge of their browser window to the fold in a newspaper. Some colleagues are worried that, a bit like those newsstand customers, web visitors will simply scan the headline and, if not presented with every key messages at a glance, they will walk on by.

This certainly used to be the case, but the web and how people use and interact with it has changed dramatically with the rise of mobile.

  1. The fold has moved – different devices have different viewing screens, and the ‘fold’ on my desktop is not the same as the ‘fold’ on my iPhone. Nor is it the same as the fold on my colleague’s Android phone or the fold on another colleague’s iPad. The relevance of the ‘fold’ as a strict guide for web design – and the injunction to ensure your most important content is above it – faded at the point at which people regularly started using devices other than their computers to access the internet (last year, visitors used more than 6000 different devices to access our website). This doesn’t mean the fold is entirely irrelevant, but it does mean web design in relation to it has had to change.
  2. Scrolling is now normal web behaviour. In the 90s, scrolling was not normal for web users and websites lacked the sophistication of functionality available today.

Here’s what the Birkbeck website looked like in January 1999.
At that time, we didn’t ask people to scroll, but our website was tiny and not even the place most people turned to find out about us. Imagine this – Google was only founded in 1998! Like many other websites in the 90s, it mostly comprised text that was uncomfortable to read on screen.

Now, thanks to the proliferation of devices with small screens that people use to access the web, along with advances in readable screen technology and the advent of social media channels that require you to scan lots of content, people have not only learned how to scroll and read online, but scrolling has become the norm. This means we no longer have to put all of our most important information above the fold – indeed, we’re no longer expected to – which means we can be more flexible when it comes to homepage design.

Where did the carousel go?
Since we launched the new homepage, some people have mourned the loss of the carousel – the sliding set of images that used to adorn the top of the homepage. They are concerned that, with the loss of the carousel, we no longer convey the unique character of Birkbeck at a glance.

When we were working with Pentagram, our design agency, to develop our new homepage, we had long discussions about whether the carousel should stay or go: we were initially resistant to the idea of losing it. After all, it was an efficient way to showcase lots of information about Birkbeck in one space, wasn’t it? Actually, no it wasn’t.

It turns out that web carousels aren’t working for website users, but internal audiences love them. So, while we thought people were finding out all about Birkbeck from the rotating images and messages in the carousel, in fact, our visitors weren’t interested at all: they did not always see them; scrolled past them; went straight to our course finder; or noticed just one image and followed that link. Our carousel was giving us a false sense of security and, as a result, we were not working hard enough to ensure our visitors understood what Birkbeck was about.

This chimed with findings from our customer journey mapping research, where students told us that, even though they trawled our website enthusiastically (some of them claimed to have visited ‘hundreds of times’), they weren’t necessarily aware of our core offering or our ‘unique selling points’, in marketing parlance.

For example, some did not realise we offered evening teaching as the norm: they thought it was just an option and that we were a daytime university. Nor did they realise how well respected we are for our research, both nationally and internationally. Or that our NSS results can really shine. Our researchers told us that we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ and we absolutely needed to do more to share our unique characteristics and our successes with our web visitors, the majority of whom only ever engage with us online.

Our new homepage design

When we commissioned Pentagram to come up with a new web design with and for us, based on our new visual ID, we knew we wanted to showcase Birkbeck effectively. We knew – because Birkbeck staff and students told us – that the Birkbeck website didn’t work for our visitors as well as it might and that it looked dated and staid.

Pentagram took time to understand our objectives, our concerns and the feedback we had received from staff and students before devising this list of design principles to inform our new web design:

  1. Simplify and clear away clutter
  2. Push up content and reduce steps
  3. Connect content and surface a story on every page
  4. Create hierarchy
  5. Don’t be afraid of long pages

We know that people don’t read every word on our homepage – in fact, not everyone sees our homepage but goes straight to a particular page as directed by a search result. But if our visitors do choose to travel down it (and a lot of them do), they will encounter a number of elements that tell them more about the type of institution Birkbeck is:

  • Hero image: this is the big image that loads whenever someone visits our homepage. We have deliberately chosen an image that is both large and striking, because we know this is one way to attract the attention of our visitors and, yes, encourage them to explore. But it isn’t just the size and quality of the image – this image also conveys something about Birkbeck, buttressed by the message ‘Join London’s evening university and transform your life’. And now that we have one image to grab people’s attention, we make sure it works hard. (For example, one of our previous images – a bus driving past the SSHP buildings in Russell Square – tells people that we are in the heart of historical London.)
  • A prominent course finder: we have emblazoned our course search across our homepage, after the hero image. Why? Because the art of a successful homepage is to enable visitors to get to where they want to go, quickly. In the last academic year, people pulled up our course information 6m times, so we know this is important to them. Our course finder makes it quick and easy for them to find our course information – and by including all the level options, they can see that our courses span the breadth of higher education offerings.
  • Research stories embedded across our site: We are proud of Birkbeck’s research profile and know how important it is to Birkbeck staff that we tell people about it. To help us share our research stories more widely, we have embedded news, events and blogs/podcasts on all of our landing pages – not just our homepage – including our course listings. This means our research information – which comprises the bulk of these channels – is accessible almost anywhere people travel on the redesigned pages – and by showcasing our research through these different channels, we are giving people loads of ways to engage with it.
  • Obvious USPs: no more hiding our light under a bushel. Our new image-based ‘statement tiles’ give us the chance to tell visitors about Birkbeck and what makes us unique. On our homepage, for example, we tell people that ‘Birkbeck is different: our classes are held in the evening so you can fit study into your life and build your future’. But this isn’t the only message on our site (because we know that our homepage isn’t the only place people look for information about us) – on our ‘About us’ landing page, we tell visitors that Birkbeck is ‘A leading research university and vibrant learning community’; and so on. If someone engages with our website, they should be in no doubt that we are a unique evening teaching institution with a world-class research reputation, and our statement tiles are designed to reinforce this message.

But that’s not all. In addition to these elements, you will find that we offer routes to destinations across our site through large visual signposts; that accessibility is at the heart of our design and our Reciteme bar means all visitors can access our information more easily; and that our redeveloped pages are responsive, which means they change, depending on the size of the browser you are using to access them, in order to provide an optimal browsing experience.

Is our homepage working the way we wanted?

Two of the objective set for Stage 1 of the Digital Transformation Project were to:

  1. Support student recruitment by making it easier for prospective students to navigate our site.
  2. Better promote our research.

Since the new pages and design went live on 16 May, we have seen a number of results that suggest that we are meeting these objectives. For example, compared to the period immediately before the go-live, prospectus requests have gone up 200%, Open Evening registrations 70% and applications 50%. And we’ve seen a 130% increase in views of our research content.

Of course, we know these results aren’t solely due to the work we did on the web, as these objectives are shared by colleagues across the college, and we work collectively to achieve them. However, we can at the very least be reassured that our website is helping us to meet these objectives and, as we track user engagement with our site (through user testing and the use of online tools like Hotjar), we can see that it is now easier than ever for our users to find the content they need to decide to study with us – and we can also see that they are engaging with our content in the way that we hoped (watch this video of someone reading our home page).

It’s early days and there’s still a lot to do and a lot to learn – but the work undertaken so far has greatly improved the website for our users and who are now able to quickly and efficently find out about Birkbeck and what we offer.

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Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

Further information

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Guardian University Guide 2018

Today’s 2018 Guardian University Guide league tables include Birkbeck, University of London, for the first time, with Philosophy ranking  3rd in London and 17th in the UK, while English as well as Modern Languages and Linguistics feature in the capital city’s top 10.

However, the value of what Birkbeck offers in changing lives is not always well represented in league tables and rankings. Birkbeck remains true to its founding mission of widening access to education for all Londoners and our evening teaching makes Birkbeck uniquely different from all other universities included in the Guardian’s ranking.

Many of our full-time undergraduate students are the first in their families to study at university, or are returning to education after many years of lacking the confidence to do so. The Guardian league tables measure, among other things, the qualifications that students arrive at university with. Across the sector, just 2% of full-time undergraduates begin university without A-Level or equivalent qualifications. But Birkbeck demonstrates an unstinting commitment to accepting applicants with non-traditional qualifications: 35% of our part-time and 21% of full-time students arrive without A-Level or equivalents.

And our students have outstanding success in progressing to further study and rewarding, fulfilling careers, with 95% of our full-time students and 97% of part-time students in employment or further study upon graduation.

Birkbeck’s appearance for the first time in this ranking is a consequence of the College’s innovation in offering three year evening undergraduate degree courses which are classified as full-time.

Many years of hard work have gone in to establishing Birkbeck’s full-time undergraduate degree programme: in less than a decade the College has gone from having no full-time undergraduates to over 3,000. However, like all other Birkbeck undergraduate courses, they are accessible to motivated students without formal qualifications, and most importantly, take place in the evening, allowing students to work during the day.

Birkbeck is a research-led institution and this directly informs our teaching of predominantly non-traditional students but the Guardian’s league tables do not take research metrics in to account. Our scholarship informs public policy, delivers scientific advances, supports the economy, promotes culture and the arts, and makes a positive difference to society. Over half of our research was in the top 20 in the UK in the most recent REF exercise and our 40+ research centres and 700+ research students play a vital role in our success. Birkbeck has corresponding excellence, too, in postgraduate programmes, which have a superb reputation both nationally and internationally.

The College’s world-leading reputation for both research and teaching is well established. Birkbeck has been ranked in the top 250 universities worldwide in the latest THE World University Rankings and has been placed within the world’s elite institutions in a number of subjects in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, published earlier this year.

In the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) Birkbeck was ranked 30th nationally in terms of research intensity, with three departments in the top 10 nationally. Birkbeck’s academic staff are active researchers, many with world-leading reputations, and no fewer than 83% of the eligible academic staff were returned to the REF.

Birkbeck’s track record of opening routes to highly-skilled employment, in particular for students beginning their studies without standard academic qualifications, demonstrates that learning gain is a core aspect of teaching excellence at Birkbeck. Our mission is to make previously unthinkable life choices thinkable and achievable; a transformative impact demonstrated by the core metrics and the high proportion of undergraduate students who go on to postgraduate study.

“We offer all our undergraduate students, of which a sizeable proportion come to us with no formal qualifications at all, rigorous teaching and a transformational intellectual experience, enabling them to achieve a University of London qualification,” said Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

“Since its inception, Birkbeck has offered a distinct opportunity for working Londoners to gain qualifications through evening study. Nearly 200 years later, the College is still unlike any other higher education institution in the UK today – a distinctiveness of which we are proud.”

In issuing its league tables today, where Birkbeck entered the rankings at 113th, the Guardian University Guide noted: “Birkbeck is ranked alongside other universities in the league tables for the first time this year. It has not appeared in our league tables before now because its full-time provision is a relatively new development. The majority of Birkbeck students still study part-time, alongside full-time students. However, Birkbeck remains unique in that all its provision (full-time as well as part-time) takes place in the evening. This needs to be kept in mind when making comparisons with the rest of the sector.”

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Developing digital skills with UpScale

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company Amigo.digitaltechoriginal

I am a big fan of the UpScale programme at Birkbeck, which inspires students to work in the wonderful world of digital technology. Several big brands like LinkedIn, ASOS, JustGiving and MediaMath are partners, offering dedicated seminars to aspiring students. I have delivered a number of workshops focused on the power of Google and online marketing. In this article, I want to share why I believe UpScale is so important, as well as some tips on how to learn digital skills effectively.

I started my career at Google. Besides overdosing on sushi and chocolate, I learnt everything there is to know about Google’s marketing tools, which help businesses acquire customers online. I was also lucky to discover a passion so early. The thing that got me out of bed in the morning was developing novel and effective ways to teach companies about how Google products work. Before I dive into these, it’s worth spending some time exploring why working in technology is a fantastic place to be.

Never get bored

The UpScale programme focuses exclusively on the digital technology sector. Why? The UpScale website talks about employer demand. As the world gets increasingly digital, companies will continue to require and reward people who have technical skills and interests. This is undeniably true. You only have to look at the market salaries for software developers, data scientists and digital marketers to understand that demand for digital talent outstrips supply.

I would argue, however, that there is an intrinsic reason why technology is a fantastic career choice: it never gets boring! By nature it constantly evolves and never lies still. Here’s a clear example. Before the internet, the hotel, taxi, retail and entertainment industries remained largely unchanged. Hoteliers and taxi companies enjoyed oligopolistic privileges so could charge whatever they wanted to customers; high street shops enjoyed healthy margins based on the fact that customers had no other choice but to purchase their goods and services from them; and content producers, movie distributors and cinemas moved in lockstep, creating a profitable triumvirate. Then the internet arrived. And so did AirBnB, Uber, Amazon and Netflix, which have completely transformed their respective industries. It’s mind-boggling to think that two of these companies did not even exist 9 years ago. And none of them existed 23 years ago.

I was given the recommendation to work in digital by a wise CEO of a large FMCG company whom I met at university. He told me to forget the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector as, despite its name, was the “commercial snail”. It turns out that washing powder and toothpaste don’t really change that much.

So if you want excitement and constant innovation, digital technology will not disappoint and UpScale will equip you with the skills and networks to help get you there.

How to learn digital effectively

Having established the significance and thrill of working in technology, I’d now like to outline three ways to learn digital skills effectively. These insights are based on my experience of running several UpScale workshops.

  1. Interactive learning: From the very start of my workshop, I involve everybody in warm-up exercises and thought experiments to get people thinking. I am a big believer in the saying that if you “tell somebody to do something they will forget, if you show somebody they will remember, but if you involve somebody they will understand”. Because digital technology touches every part of our life, I advise students to get together in small groups to debate digital and challenge each other with questions like: why is Amazon so successful? Why is Twitter’s stock price so low? If you had £100k, what business would you set up and why? Why is using data important in decision-making? Which industry will be disrupted by technology next?
  1. Metaphors: I use a lot of metaphors to teach digital marketing concepts. For example, when we look at keyword planning, the bedrock of Search Engine Marketing, I use fishing and football; when we discuss Website Optimisation, I use the metaphor of a great restaurant. Metaphors make new things memorable and familiar. I always advise students to devise their own metaphors for newly learnt subjects and try them out on friends. As the Feynman Technique tells us, explaining something to a newbie is the best way to master any topic.
  1. Get practical: The last part of my workshop is about applying theory to practical exercises. Participants create their own Google AdWords campaign for an industry of their choosing. In whatever technical subject you are learning, there is always a practical application. If you’re learning a computer language, grasping data science or building a Microsoft Excel dashboard, get stuck in by building something. You will be amazed at how much this aids the learning process.
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Improving access to student service information

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer in Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

Birkbeck offers a comprehensive range of services, to give our diverse student community the support and assistance it needs. These services are open to all and almost all of them are free to access. Our students consistently tell us that it is the human touch – meeting an academic at an Open Evening, emailing a Programme Administrator for assistance, seeking professional advice from our Careers and Employability Service, speaking to a counsellor about emotional issues – that makes Birkbeck so special. We are very proud of the willingness of our staff to go the extra mile: we’ve been helping students use their evenings to transform their lives for nearly 200 years now, so we know the challenges and obstacles they face – and the life changing opportunities we offer.

But how best to present over a dozen varied and distinct services on our website has been a particular challenge. In 2009, we launched My Birkbeck, a bespoke, specially designed website that presented these services in one place for the first time, to make reading about, and accessing, them more straightforward. However, in the intervening years, the design began to look antiquated – the pace of digital change is so breakneck that nothing ages more quickly and dramatically than a website – and the content became outdated, repetitive and progressively difficult to navigate. Increasingly, prospective and current students, as well as Birkbeck staff, have become frustrated with the outmoded design and the challenges of finding important and up-to-date information.

The My Birkbeck site was suffering from a proliferation of pages and files, an overload of content and a breakdown in user friendliness. We discovered that the site contained over 1100 content pages, of which 85% attracted fewer than 1000 views in the whole academic year – this is a very low number for a university with nearly 20,000 students. Moreover, well over 30% of the site had not been edited or updated in the past year, while 27% had not been updated for more than two years and 10% had last been updated three years ago. There were even pages that hadn’t been updated since the site launched in 2009. There was also excessive duplication of files: we found 1093 Word, Excel and PDF files on the My Birkbeck site, but the majority of them were copies or new versions of existing files that had already been uploaded – in one case, we found 25 published versions of the same file.

This confirmed that there was too much content and that the majority of it was out-of-date, underutilised and unloved. Although the original site had been impressive, user friendly and well designed, the intervening years had been unkind and, despite the valiant efforts of staff across Birkbeck, the site had become frustrating to navigate and off-putting to staff and students alike.

User feedback commissioned before Christmas confirmed that our students found accessing information about our services confusing and discouraging. They were aware that the My Birkbeck site was separate – in look and feel – from the main Birkbeck website, but they were critical of the site’s multiple failings. Although their perseverance and investigative prowess were impressive, our students shouldn’t have to expend lots of time tracking down information to access vital services.

In 2016 we launched a project to replace the My Birkbeck site, with the following objectives:

  • reduce the number of overall pages to make the site more navigable and user friendly
  • delete duplicate and out-of-date content
  • draw everything together into a single, definitive source of information
  • apply our new House Style and a consistent tone of voice
  • improve content to make it easy to scan and to make the key information, especially contact details, more prominent
  • optimise the content for search, to make it easier to find information via Google and other search engines
  • make it easy to login to online student services, such as our online learning environment, Moodle.

The first step was to meet with all of the key staff who run the services, to listen to their particular concerns and frustrations with the My Birkbeck site, and to work together to present the information in new, user friendly ways. We utilised high-tech tools – post-it notes and felt-tip pens – and asked staff to think about the key questions that a visitor to their services would have in mind. This helped us more intuitively structure the content on the site, giving priority to the most important and urgent questions and tasks. We also asked staff to consider the emotions that students might be experiencing when visiting the site – which ranged enormously, from excitement, optimism and determination to confusion, anxiety and frustration – which helped us adopt the most appropriate and helpful tone of voice when rewriting content. The focus throughout has been on meeting the needs of users and giving them the information they want, quickly and clearly.

The new Student Services site has reduced over 1000 webpages to just 100 – a tenth of the original size. The layout is brighter and easier to navigate, with more images and new, distinctive sections for each service. The content has been completely rewritten, following our new House Style, with an awareness of tone of voice and an emphasis on usability. Key pages from other areas of the Birkbeck website have been incorporated into the new Student Services section, to bring everything students need together in one place. As 30% of all visitors to the old My Birkbeck site were solely using it to access Moodle and other password protected areas for current students, we have improved access to those login areas by making them more prominent.

Overall, our ambitions have been to create a well-designed, user friendly and useful new area of the website, to bring together and re-present information about our impressive range of student services, and to make those services as open, welcoming and accessible online as befits Birkbeck’s ethos.

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Trump trolls, Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement: The internet meets politics

This article was written by Andrea Ballatore, Lecturer in Geographic Information Science, and Simone Natale, Loughborough University. It was originally published on The Conversation

We blame the internet for a lot of things, and now the list has grown to include our politics. In a turbulent year marked by the U.K.‘s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, some have started to wonder to what extent the recent events have to do with the technology that most defines our age.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, commentators accused Facebook of being indirectly responsible for his election. Specifically, they point to the role of social media in spreading virulent political propaganda and fake news. The internet has been increasingly presented as a possible cause for the post-truth culture that allegedly characterizes contemporary democracies.

These reactions are a reminder that new technologies often stimulate both hopes and fears about their impact on society and culture. The internet has been seen as both the harbinger of political participation and the main culprit for the decline of democracy. The network of networks is now more than a mere vehicle of political communication: It has become a powerful rhetorical symbol people are using to achieve political goals.

This is currently visible in Europe, where movements such as the Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement, which we have studied, build their political messages around the internet. To them, the internet is a catalyst for radical and democratic change that channels growing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties.

Web utopias and dystopias

The emergence of political enthusiasm for the internet owes much to U.S. culture in the 1990s. Internet connectivity was spreading from universities and corporations to an increasingly large portion of the population. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore made the “Information Superhighway” a flagship concept. He linked the development of a high-speed digital telecommunication network to a new era of enlightened market democracy.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined volunteer efforts to wire schools to the internet in 1997. AP Photo/Greg Gibson

The enthusiasm for information technology and free-market economics spread from Silicon Valley and was dubbed Californian Ideology. It inspired a generation of digital entrepreneurs, technologists, politicians and activists in Silicon Valley and beyond. The 2000 dot-com crash only temporarily curbed the hype.

In the 2000s, the rise of sharing platforms and social media – often labeled as “Web 2.0” – supported the idea of a new era of increased participation of common citizens in the production of cultural content, software development and even political revolutions against authoritarian regimes.

The promise of the unrestrained flow of information also engendered deep fears. In 1990s, the web was already seen by critics as a vehicle for poor-quality information, hate speech and extreme pornography. We knew then that the Information Superhighway’s dark side was worryingly difficult to regulate.

Paradoxically, the promise of decentralization has resulted in few massive advertising empires like Facebook and Google, employing sophisticated mass surveillance techniques. Web-based companies like Uber and Airbnb bring new efficient services to millions of customers, but are also seen as potential monopolists that threaten local economies and squeeze profits out of impoverished communities.

The public’s views on digital media are rapidly shifting. In less than 10 years, the stories we tell about the internet have moved from praising its democratic potential to imagining it as a dangerous source of extreme politics, polarized echo chambers and a hive of misogynist and racist trolls.

Cyber-optimism in Europe

While cyber-utopian views have lost appeal in the U.S., the idea of the internet as a promise of radical reorganization of society has survived. In fact, it has become a defining element of political movements that thrive in Western Europe.

In Italy, an anti-establishment party know as the Five Star Movement became the second most-voted for party in Italy in the 2013 national elections. According to some polls, it might soon even win general elections in Italy.

The Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi, 37, was elected as Rome’s first female and youngest mayor in June. AP Photo/Fabio Frustaci

In our research, we analyzed how the Italian Five Star Movement uses a mythical idea of the internet as a catalyst for its political message. In the party’s rhetoric, declining and corrupt mainstream parties are allied with newspapers and television. By contrast, the movement claims to harness the power of the web to “kill” old politics and bring about direct democracy, efficiency and transparency in governance.

Similarly in Iceland, the Pirate Party is now poised to lead a coalition government. Throughout the few last years, other Pirate Parties have emerged and have been at times quite successful in other European countries, including Germany and Sweden. While they differ in many ways from the Five Star Movement, their leaders also insist that the internet will help enable new forms of democratic participation. Their success was made possible by the powerful vision of a new direct democracy facilitated by online technologies.

A vision of change

Many politicians all over the world run campaigns on the promise of change, communicating a positive message to potential voters. The rise of forces such as the Five Star Movement and the Pirate Parties in Europe is an example of how the rhetoric of political change and the rhetoric of the digital revolution can interact with each other, merging into a unique, coherent discourse.

In thinking about the impact of the internet in politics, we usually consider how social media, websites and other online resources are used as a vehicle of political communication. Yet, its impact as a symbol and a powerful narrative is equally strong.

The Conversation

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