Digital Transformation Project: progress report

Birkbeck’s digital team is upgrading the Birkbeck school/department web presence, to provide entirely new, refreshed content, including new images, and improved navigation. With five school sites, 18 department sites, 21 microsites and over 32,000 content items – pages, images, files, events and news stories – all of which need to be reviewed and upgraded – this is a huge undertaking.  

Jane Van de Ban, Digital Content Lead, tells us about the latest developments.

Following a directive issued by the college’s Web Working Group, we have prioritised department-related research content. We are pleased to report that, with the latest release, this project has now (almost) been completed.

What’s new?

We have done a lot to get us to this point, namely:

  1. New annual event and event series information

Our schools and departments offer a vibrant calendar of recurring public events, from school weeks, to annual memorial lectures, to seminar series and more. Most (if not all) of these events are free to the public and showcase the huge range of research that is undertaken by our academics. But it hasn’t always been easy to find out about the full range, as our events calendar is packed, and the information was scattered across our website, siloed on separate department sites.

We have brought this information together and make it far easier for the public to see these events.

Want to see more? 

Don’t see your event series? If you are a member of staff and responsible for either an annual event or event series, hosted by Birkbeck, please raise a query on Ask, so we can investigate.

  1. Updated research centre content

We know how central research centres are to the research activity undertaken by our departments.

You can find information on a number of research centres in places other than the Birkbeck website – which means they are out of scope for the Digital Transformation project. But where we found research centre content hosted on either school or department pages, we knew we could present this key information better. We redeveloped these (which also involved migrating publications information into BIROn and events information into the events calendar), got them checked and signed off by content owners, and then put them live.

2.1 Want to see more?  

Need a new research centre web page? If you are a member of Birkbeck staff and want to talk to us about getting a research centre resource like the ones shown here, please raise a query on Ask in the first instance and direct it to Ollie Berman.

  1. Research networks, groups and societies

All our schools and departments facilitate networks of academics with common interests, which are less formal associations than research centres – but are identified by a range of names (clusters, groups, societies, etc.).

It is clear that, even with different names, these networks have a lot in common, in that they provide a focus for specific research activity. Because of their similarities, we decided to bring them together and provide much more targeted, bespoke pages to highlight what they do.

3.1 Examples 

  1. Guidance for prospective MPhil/PhD students

We know, from analyses we have done on how people use the web, that prospective MPhil/PhD students are more likely than any other student group to look at pages on department sites. And we found that a number of departments provided guidance to help these students in their recruitment journey.

We have created bespoke wayfinding pages for prospective MPhil/PhD students, which give easy access to a range of sources of advice and guidance. In addition, where we found them, we have embedded relevant department videos providing targeted advice to help these students or provide an insight into department research.

In most cases, these pages not only replace but improve on existing content on department sites, and those pages have been redirected to this new content.

4.1 Want to see more? 

  1. New research wayfinding pages

There are two main reasons for visitors to look at academic department content: to find out about the staff and to find out about the department’s research. We know this, because for years we have been monitoring the way people use the Birkbeck website – staff and research always come top when it comes to the departments. But, having analysed the research content on our department sites, we know that we have not always made it easy for visitors to understand what research means for individual departments.

Building on the work we’ve done throughout this project and as the final big task in this stage of the Digital Transformation Project, therefore, we have now created research wayfinding pages for our academic departments (with the exception of Computer Science, which is out of scope for this project, and the School of Science, because we ran out of time to complete their pages). Now, when you select ‘research’ on a department wayfinding page, you will find pages that:

  • showcase the full range of research centres and networks department academics belong to (including interdisciplinary working groups)
  • provide easy access to related research information, like department staff pages, staff research interests, department publication lists (on BIROn) and the support offered to staff by the Birkbeck research office
  • signpost department-specific event listings, so visitors will find it easy to sign up for your next event.

As with all our wayfinding pages, these pages can expand and contract, as new research initiatives or sources of information come onstream or end.

5.1 Have a look 

  1. What you won’t find

In analysing the current content to inform our redevelopment work, we have realised that some of our public content is problematic. So, mostly, you won’t find the following – and I’ll explain why:

6.1 Duplicate course information

Some departments have long included course descriptions on their sites – and we understand that this stems from a desire to ensure that our prospective students have as much information as they need to make the right decision about studying. But having course information on department sites is problematic, because:

  • If content is included in more than one place (ieit is ‘duplicate’ content), it will get out of sync (because it represents an additional maintenance load), and we run the risk of providing inaccurate information, with no way for prospective students to gauge which is the correct source. For example, in analysing the content currently located on department sites, we found information provided on more than 12 degrees that are no longer offered. (On the course listings, programmes that are withdrawn are automatically taken down through an existing workflow.)
  • The Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) requires universities to provide accurate and complete course information to prospective students ( We have always aimed to ensure that our course information is both up-to-date and accurate: we do that better if course descriptions are only located in one place.
  • We know where people look for information on our site, as we monitor usage through Google Analytics. So, we know that prospective students don’t expect to find the information on department sites – they look at our course listings for course information. Providing key information elsewhere makes it harder, not easier, for them to ensure they have all the information they need.
  • Duplicate content pages undermine the ability of users to find course information, because – if Google perceives what they consider to be content that is substantively the same, they will only show one of the pages in their results. Having one destination improves the ability of external visitors to find all their course information through search.

For all of these reasons, we have taken the decision to remove this duplicate content from public view and ensure we have a ‘single source of truth’ in our course listings. To this end, we have reviewed the course information on department sites and integrated all ‘added-value’ information into our course descriptions. And we have now redirected department course information to the course pages, so the department course pages are no longer publicly accessible.

6.2 Information on current MPhil/PhD students

A number of departments include information on their current MPhil/PhD students. We understand how important this information is to our colleagues in departments. However, in looking at this information, we found that very many of these ‘current’ students are no longer current – having completed their degrees, in some cases, years ago. Moreover, we are now subject to GDPR regulations, which stipulate that we need to have proof of explicit consent where we publish personal information.

To ensure we are GDPR-compliant in relation to PhD students will involve a significant amount of work and effort, something we don’t have the resources to address. However, there are plans in the pipeline – once our new academic staff profiles go live – to expand the new resource to include PhD student profiles.

Considering all this, we have therefore taken the decision to remove this content from public view by redirecting these pages to new information. And, in the meantime, we have signposted the ORBIT resource, where you can read published PhD theses for each department.

Updates? If your course description needs to be updated, you should contact the Digital Publications Officer in External Relations, who can help you.

6.3 Current research projects

Birkbeck is, quite rightly, proud of its research reputation and the world-class research that is undertaken by our academics. But, right now, we’re not showcasing this as well as we could. Our academics are engaged in a huge range of research projects – both funded and unfunded – covering the breadth of the disciplines, but if you look at our website, it seems we are only telling people about a fraction of this work.

We know people want to know about our research – in a recent survey of alumni, for example, 38% of respondents told us that this is precisely the information they want to read. And our Development team tells us that potential funders want to know about the research our academics undertake and how it will contribute to society. For these reasons, we are developing new research project overviews, curated and developed by professional writers, to ensure that we provide a good introduction to this important area of our research work.

This work is ongoing, and we will be in touch. In the meantime, we have removed current research project information on department sites from public view (as much of it referred to completed research projects).

Where we have found information on current research activity hosted on external sites, we have signposted them – but this is an area that will be developed further.

6.4 Local event information

In analysing department research information, we found detailed event information all over the place – and, in most cases, it was out of date, yet still being presented as a future event.

Detailed event information needs to be included in the Birkbeck events calendar, *not* on local content pages. This makes it easier for your audience to find this information – and also means that you will retain the details for future reference.

If you need to publicise an event, you can enter your event details in the events system in My Birkbeck for Staff.

6.5 Journal articles

We have to stop using the Birkbeck website as a file repository, because it slows it down and causes usability problems.

All journal articles, conference proceedings, working papers, etc. need to be included in BIROn – which will make it easier for people to find this important collateral.

If you need help with this, please contact Paul Rigg for information and support.

  1. Future content developments

The aim of this stage of the Digital Transformation Project is, ultimately, to take down all of the remaining school and department pages. Future content to go live includes:

  • Information on labs: We have developed new lab pages for the School of Science, replacing existing content on school and/or department sites. These new pages are being checked and, once approved, should go live on our site, replacing the current pages (many of which are out of date).
  • Research project overviews (see above).
  • Revised PhD funding information: Currently, it is impossible to find the full breadth of PhD funding available to our students. In this project, we aim to make that experience easier and have developed a resource to improve the prospective student experience. This is due to be sent out for approval and checking, after which we will replace all of the current PhD funding information on department sites and redirect them to new pages.
  • Prospective student information: We need to ensure that prospective students who come to department sites can find relevant information as quickly and helpfully as possible. We will be working on this project, once we’ve had a chance to finalise the research offering.
  • Remaining information on department sites:To enable us to finally take down the department microsites, we will do a final sweep of all of the remaining content and either develop replacement content or jettison it, depending on its currency and value.
  • School web presence: All of our school sites need to replaced. What that looks like and the function they meet is yet to be determined, following consultation with relevant staff.
  1. Related / future projects

Other projects that are either being undertaken or are in the pipeline include:

  • SSL: We need to implement improved security on our public-facing web. SSL will deliver this and is in the process of being added to our site (you will know when that change has happened because our URL will change to
  • New and improved search: Our course search and site search are being replaced by Funnelback.
  • New academic staff profiles: Following extensive consultation, our academic staff profiles are being improved. All being well, these will go live during the summer.
  • Research student profiles: Once our academic staff profiles are in place, we can look to develop profiles for our PhD students.
  • Sharepointproject: External Relations and ITS have launched a joint project to improve access to our staff-facing information, using Sharepoint.

You will find out more about these and other projects as they develop, as we will aim to publish information here on them.

  1. Project team changes

Jane Van de Ban, Digital Content Manager, and Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, are leaving Birkbeck, after a number of years.

It has been a pleasure to work on the Birkbeck website and we look forward to seeing how it develops in future.

If you have queries about the Birkbeck website, please contact Ollie Berman (, Head of Communications, in the first instance.

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Reflecting on an internship in Public Engagement

Simon Watt reflects on his six month internship project managing the Public Engagement Awards, working with the Birkbeck Public Engagement Team

Back in October 2018, I joined Birkbeck as their second Public Engagement Intern. I have spent all my adult life working in public engagement, usually in relation to science, in some form or other, but this was my first role working embedded within a Public Engagement team in a university.  As such, this post at Birkbeck offered me the excellent opportunity to expand my knowledge of public engagement with research within the higher education sector and to work with a group of people that I like and whose work I greatly respect. Birkbeck has a strong tradition of socially engaged research and a commitment to its historical mission to connect with a wide and diverse range of people outside of academia. This mission is precisely why this was a university I wanted to work for; very few places have such a sense of social responsibility and a desire for equity of knowledge at their core.

My role was centred on the Public Engagement Awards.  This project was now in its second year, having been initially developed by the team with last year’s public engagement intern, Rhea Sookdeosingh, who has since moved on to another role within the college as a Public Engagement & Events Coordinator in the Department of History.  Rhea left the project in a very good state and I hoped to build upon her legacy.

The awards exist for many reasons.  They seek to acknowledge and celebrate the ground breaking public engagement projects being conducted by researchers here. They allow us to take the public engagement pulse of the college and take a snap-shot of how the research conducted at Birkbeck both affects and is affected by the outside world.  The ceremony itself acts as a fun means of putting some of our champions of public engagement all in the same room so that they have the opportunity to reflect on their own and each other’s processes, learn new approaches and possibly meet new friends and potential future collaborators for the first time.

It felt a real privilege to be behind the scenes and shape the awards so that they might act as an incentive to take public engagement seriously and help improve how people here interact with the wider public.  By redrafting our application process to reflect what best practice looks like, changing the prizes we award with the aim of upskilling our researchers or furthering their capacities in other ways and working on the visuals used throughout to better show off engagement achievements, we have pushed for a more holistic approach that benefits not only our researchers but those they work with.  I hope the awards continue to flourish.

The scheme culminated in the Awards Ceremony at Mary Ward House where, over wine and nibbles, the shortlisted researchers swapped stories and revelled in their success.  You can learn more about the winning projects and the night as a whole here.

By far my favourite aspect of the scheme was meeting the researchers along the way.  I was continually surprised and impressed by their raw enthusiasm and desire to make the world that little bit better through their work.  It was terrific to learn of what they were doing and help their future projects prepare before they take flight. Understanding what they were doing now was the first step to suggesting how they might scale up their efforts and what other avenues might be worth pursuing.  It should come as no surprise that our department, which helps researchers and our research culture grow by building mutually beneficial and respectful relationships, also benefit by building such relationships ourselves with as many people as we could.

I feel greatly indebted to the people of External Relations, Development and Alumni and the Research Office who have not only provided solid support and expertise throughout these last six months, but made my time here such a joy.  In particular I owe thanks to Mary-Clare Hallsworth and Katy Glazer, as the Public Engagement Team, who aided and abetted me all the way. They have changed how I think in many ways and helped me grow in confidence with regards what my opinions and expertise are worth.

I will continue to make my own engagement projects and help others with theirs.  I am, as ever, keen to collaborate.  Please get in touch.

Contact the public engagement team:

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Astrea’s Women in Leadership Agenda panel gave me hope

Kayleigh Woods Harley from Birkbeck’s Strategic Programmes Directorate discusses the Astrea network’s recent International Women’s Day event, and what it means to take a collaborative approach to tackling gender inequality.

One month on from International Women’s Day, what, if anything, am I hoping for? LinkedIn Editor Felicity Menzies commented that “the one change I’d like to see in the workplace is a shift from fixing women to fixing the system.” It echoed my thoughts exactly on the reasons why we needed a cross-College panel event on the Women in Leadership Agenda. The big question is: how can the system be fixed? It’s a huge question that no one in any industry I’ve come across has sufficiently answered.

As a grassroots initiative, Astrea is a professional development initiative for women working in professional services and support roles. Managed and run by nine women who volunteer their time away from their normal jobs in External Relations, the library, project management, student advice, admissions, administering schools and departments, dealing with student complaints, and all manner of other roles, Astrea is grounded in the Birkbeck ethos of striving for better, of goodwill. But its existence alone does not equal gender parity.

The gender pay gap is a worthy subject within the world of gender equality but of course it is merely a symptom of underlying discrimination and unconscious bias within organisational structures. It affords us a picture of what may be happening under the surface. According to the gender pay gap report 2018, Birkbeck’s women earn only 90p for every £1 that men earn doing jobs of equal value. Women only occupy 45.2% of the highest paid jobs in the College. This is expected to make Birkbeck one of the better examples in the higher education sector (last year Birkbeck had the 11th lowest gap out of 135 HE institutions), but there is still a long way to go, and it is this last leg of the journey which is the hardest to travail. And it by no means tells us anything about the ethnic pay gap, the disability pay gap, and many other types of pay inequality. (Birkbeck has recently published its latest Equal Pay Audit.)

Astrea continues to receive College funding to host 6+ internal events each year. Yet there has never, until now, been an event open to all staff: women, men, professional service and academic staff. Judging by the range of women and men in the audience, there is a desire across Birkbeck to engage with the problem and seek ways of overcoming inequality, including at management level.

Kicking off the panel event on 8 March, the College Secretary, Keith Harrison, confessed that there was much more that Birkbeck could do to attain gender equality. This theme was picked up by the panel members themselves, expertly chaired by Birkbeck’s own Communications Manager Bryony Merritt, comprising two academics and two UK politics-affiliated people: Jane Holgate, Professor of Work and Employment Relations at Leeds University Business School; Luke Holland, a communications consultant who recently worked for the Labour party; Birkbeck’s own Professor of Geography, Rosie Cox; and Deborah Day, a senior civil servant who also champions women’s digital skills. While all acknowledged that workplaces had changed for the better during their careers, they also pointed out that there is still a considerable distance to be travelled and all had a different take on how that should be achieved.

Deborah offered some stark views on the world of technology. While women comprise half the British workforce, technology, the bedrock of our daily lives, is predominantly a male industry. Technology firms are just not recruiting enough women. This results in products and services that are inherently designed to disadvantage women, creating a worldwide digital gender divide.

Jane has worked in male-dominated industries throughout her career. She began in the heavy-drinking macho culture of the print industry and is now one of only 9 female professors (out of 100) in her faculty. Actively involved in trade unions and conducting research into their historical development, Jane sees grassroots networks as the most valuable asset for making a difference to individual women’s lives, especially when considering intersectionality.

Luke, being the only male representative on the panel, offered his perspective on Labour’s achievements in getting true representation in Labour’s elected members. Luke advocates men and women making a strong case for equality in their workplace, raising awareness and calling out injustices where they are seen. It also requires mentoring, monitoring and accountability. The Welsh Labour party has legislated for its goal of becoming a “feminist government”. Even if it is a goal that is doomed to failure, it should be pledged anyway, because equality should be a guiding mission for all organisations.

As an expert on gender and work, and co-founder of the research centre Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality, Rosie had some positive things to say about Birkbeck’s internationally-recognised research on gender and its guiding mission. But she pointed out that there are many things the College can do to improve: it’s not about “fixing the women,” it’s not about a deficit model, and it’s certainly not about simply ticking boxes for Athena Swan. She called on leaders to recognise that good intentions are simply where the hard work really starts; the next step is to push for real change, even if that change is disruptive. It is important to take an intersectional approach, since white middle-class women have recently begun to see benefits but their BAME counterparts are still being left behind. Rosie also highlighted the benefits of equality at all levels. She argued that if an organisation is not promoting staff based on merit alone, then the chances are it is discriminating against all manner of characteristics, whether protected or not. This would include discrimination against unconventional people, or those who do not conform to Western standards of attractiveness, male or female. At heart, the equality agenda is about building an organisation that is utterly fair, that serves everyone’s interests, even if they don’t think so.

The depth of the discussion on the panel, carefully managed by Bryony, reassured me that I am not alone in believing that real change is not yet upon us, but also hope that things may be changing. Momentum, awareness-raising and a shift in attitudes are all contributing to the demand for change, and recent reporting on Birkbeck’s equality pay measures shows that there is ongoing investigation into the causes of the pay gaps and potential solutions to them. It simply remains for us all to maintain pressure in our workplace to ensure that it results in positive actions.

If you attended the Women in Leadership Agenda panel event, please leave us a comment and let us know what you thought.

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Maximising your impact through creativity, visioning and design

The Director of Human Resources at Birkbeck, Charlotte Croffie, challenges us to be creative and listen in the latest Astrea networking event. This blog was contributed by Kayleigh Woods Harley, from Birkbeck’s Strategic Programmes Directorate.

Glancing around the hot and sunny room at Gordon Square, I realised I had never seen such a well-attended Astrea networking event in my time since becoming a facilitator. There were around 45 people staring back at me as I gave a brief introduction to Charlotte Croffie. I took my seat amid the anticipation.

There could be no higher authority from which to draw than Buddha, and that is exactly where Charlotte began: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With humour and insight, she reinforced this message, moving on to the theme of creativity in one fell swoop. We considered how Michelangelo created his masterpiece David. She outlined the steps from selecting a block of marble, to chipping away in small increments until all that was left was David, appearing as if conjured straight out of the sculptor’s imagination from the inert stone.

We were asked to step outside of ourselves and draw or write down what we thought people saw when they looked at us. There can be no more difficult question than this; the ability to get out of our own head and peer at ourselves is something that everyone wishes they could do. I looked down at my blank green post-it, touched the pen to my lips, thought. After a moment, I wrote:

  • Young
  • Colourful, happy, positive, cheerful
  • Proficient and efficient

Those who had chosen to draw instead of write their answers were asked to show their hands. Only a handful of people had. It demonstrated how few of us are willing to step out of our comfort zone. We needed to start challenging ourselves to step out of our default position more.

Next, we were asked to write down what we wanted to achieve. I wrote:

  • Friendships and networks
  • To feel like my work is worthwhile – for others and myself

Being part of Astrea is one way for me to meet these personal goals, and so far it has not failed me in reaching them.

In the largest segment of the afternoon, we worked in small groups to take on one of three roles, A, B, and C: A – articulate what you want to achieve; B – listen; C – observe. Those who became ‘A’ took on the challenge of speaking non-stop for two minutes about what they’d written. The listener was forced to listen without speaking, while the observer noted the interaction, the body language and tried to interpret what was happening.

If you’ve ever done this exercise before, you’ll know how revealing it can be. For some, it revealed how little we truly listen to others because we assume we already know what they are going to say. Being unable to respond to the speaker was deeply uncomfortable, but also liberating to hear what is really being said. The natural temptation to ask the speaker questions was very difficult to override. It showed how deeply ingrained are the learned behaviours that we adopt from a young age into adulthood.

Charlotte taught us that active listening is a key skill for coaching. You must learn to override those natural instincts to interrupt, to comment, to reassure, and allow the other person the space to expand on their thoughts. We were encouraged to practice this often with a trusted friend or colleague. Learning to coach and being coached are both ways in which we can learn to unlock our potential through creativity. Creativity requires that space and time we don’t often find at work because we are constantly busy and feel under pressure.

Charlotte shared her roadmap for changing your default position and doing things a little differently in the future:

  1. Map your default position when approaching a task
  2. Plot your journey – challenge yourself
  3. Take stock – how will this be perceived; what are the strengths and potential drawbacks?
  4. Move to the next stage – is it propelling or hindering you? … next steps
  5. Future-proof – tweak, shift, reinvent
  6. Do it all over again.

It all begins with that first step of mapping your default position. It all begins with a realisation, a thought, just like the Buddha said. With a little perseverance and possibly the help of a friend, it can transform us.

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