HighEdWeb 2013 Wrap-Up

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Photo by Jeff Stevens

Photo by Jeff Stevens

Ok, so I know I probably should have posted this about 2 weeks ago, but things have been pretty hectic around here. HighEdWeb 2013 happened earlier this month in Buffalo, NY, and, as always, it was an amazing experience. We got to be involved in an AMA (ask me anything) with Steve Wozniak, and we got to meet a fantastic speaker named Scott Stratten (@unmarketing; author of the new book “QR Codes Kill Kittens“). The AMA with Woz was intriguing; he has a very unique personality and an interesting perspective on life, human behavior and technology. The keynote from Scott Stratten was amazingly funny. At one point, I described his speech as “Lewis Black speaking our language.” If you’re a member of the HighEdWeb professional association, you can actually watch his closing keynote online (warning: mullet imminent).

The keynotes, though, are just a very small part of what makes HighEdWeb so amazing. The conference is 3 days packed full of interesting presentations, fantastic networking opportunities, and fun. Here is a quick run-down of the presentations that interested me this year.

  • Blog Me Baby, One More TimeRobin Smail and Audrey Romano – this presentation ended up winning “best of track”. During this session, Robin and Audrey explained how student blogging was initially set up and launched at Penn State, around 2005. They touched on the technology used to make the blogs easy to use and set up, and then dove into the “pedagogical” effects the blogging has had over the years. While this concept is far from revolutionary to those of us at UMW (where UMWBlogs began in 2005, and has grown somewhat exponentially since then), there are still a huge number of schools where “student blogging” really only means that the school pays a handful of “ambassadors” to write about their positive experiences at the school. Instead, the concept discussed during this presentation, and embraced by schools like Penn State, UMW (and, as I later learned at OpenVA, James Madison University), is to use the student blogs as extensions of the classrooms. In many instances, the blogs of students from past semesters even replace the textbook for the class. These blogs are immersive, interactive resources for the classes. These are the kinds of things we should all be doing, but, many have not yet gotten there. To paraphrase the opening credits of The Six Million Dollar Man, “We have the technology; we have the capability to augment our classroom experiences with worldwide interactive resources.”
  • Powerful Content Syndication Across a Network of Higher Ed Sites – Calvin Hendryx-Parker – This one was actually a vendor presentation in the “corporate” track, but was still very interesting. The company leading this presentation, Six Feet Up (not to be confused with the death metal band Six Feet Under or the hardcore band Six Feet Deep), has developed a PubSubHubBub extension to allow you to syndicate content across platforms basically in real-time (thanks to the PubSubHubBub technology, the data are “pushed” from the original source, rather than having to be “pulled” by the consuming services). The tool is called “PushHub”, and is available for free, as an open-source tool. Where the vendor, Six Feet Up, comes in, is they offer services to help you set up and host the PushHub instance. PushHub is definitely something I’ll be looking at in the future.
  • How I Made this Presentation: Using the Tools of the Web to Present About It.Sven Aas – This session was really helpful, and will definitely be something I’ll use in the future. Basically, Sven introduced us to a handful of tools that allow you to create and present presentations with HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Things have come a long way since the days when I created an HTML presentation for edUI 2010, where I had to run a portable WAMP instance and a portable copy of Opera (the only browser that natively supports the “presentation” media query) off of a thumb drive in order to run my presentation. With various JavaScript libraries, you can now run a full-featured presentation in your browser without having to carry anything else along with you. There are even extensions for reveal.js (the tool Sven used to make his presentation – though he did give a shout-out to deck.js, a presentation library that is also popular among presenters) that allow you to share your presentation with your audience, and continue to control the presentation on their devices (so they can follow along with you on their own screens). There does appear to be a WordPress plug-in for reveal.js, but I haven’t yet had a chance to play with it to see if the plugin actually does anything I wouldn’t be able to easily do myself.
  • Placemarks to the peopleGabriel Nagmay – This one was awesome. I knew, after sitting through about half of this presentation, that any small shreds of hope I had for winning “best of track” in the TPR (technical – propeller hats required) track were dashed. Point of fact, this presentation did end up winning “best of track”, as I suspected it would. During this session, Gabe showed us the process he used to easily set up new, custom maps for all kinds of situations. The first example he showed us was a map that was developed by the art & art history department, cataloging all of the art installations across all of his college’s campuses. The way things are set up, his content owners can sit at their desks and manually add new “placemarks” to indicate where things should appear on the map, or they can take their mobile devices and add the new placemark somewhat automatically (he has a “locate me” button built in so they can just press that to add a placemark based on their device’s GPS). The best part of all (especially in regards to the fact that this site is about WordPress in higher ed)? It’s all put together as a WordPress plugin, and he’s released it into the plugin repository. Seriously, if you only get one thing out of this blog post, it should be downloading and playing with the Placemarks plugin.

Those were the main presentation highlights for me from the conference. The biggest takeaway, though (and a large contributing factor to the reason there’s nothing from day 2 in my wrap-up), was the experience I had participating in the HighEdWeb hackathon. Essentially, the HighEdWeb association identified a local charity that was in need of a new website, then enlisted the help of anyone who would volunteer at the conference to put that website together in one night. We began the process at 7 that evening, and finally gave up the ghost (with only a few of us still “standing” – metaphorically, of course, I wasn’t going to even attempt to code while standing up) around 3:30 the next morning. At its peak, I believe there were somewhere around 70 people working on various portions of the project. We didn’t get the site completed, but we did get a huge amount of work done on it, and were told that we got it to a place where the internal team at the charity could pick up the ball and finish it up. I’ll more than likely go more in-depth on this whole experience at some point in the future with its own post, but I haven’t fully processed yet what to say about it.

Of course, everything I’ve mentioned so far in this post is all work and no play. Those that have been to HighEdWeb before know that that’s far from representative of the HEWeb experience. We did have plenty of fun while we were there, too. The official social outings were cool and enjoyable, but anyone can tell you about them. What was really cool, though, were the unofficial excursions people made in small groups. I know there were a lot of groups that journeyed out to Niagara Falls (some even went over to the Canadian side). Within my group, we spent a lot of time in Spot Coffee and at the Century Grille (right across the street from our hotel). One night, the Century Grill even had “baskets of bacon” available at the bar (in place of the traditional bowls of peanuts or pretzels or whatever). The bacon was amazing. It was incredibly thick cut, almost like ham, and just melted in your mouth.

If you’ve never been to HighEdWeb before, you definitely need to plan for next year’s event. If you have been to HighEdWeb before, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

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  1. Great article, Curtiss! I plan to share this link with those who will benefit from your knowledge. Also, I love your writing style. While I did not attend the conference, I feel as if I did.


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