Sam's Assorted Musings / Reflections

Grinnell's Web Presence

About three years ago, the College made the decision to "revamp" our Web site. At the time, much of the material on that Web site was simply removed. Why? Because our Department of Communications seemed to think that the only audience of our Web site that mattered was prospective students and their parents. I will admit that the old Web site was awful and had to be fixed. But we could have done so while still maintaining much of the material. I don't think that prospectives are its only audience. And Communications has come to realize the same.

At the same time, folks also seemed to give up our commitment to providing the campus community with places to publish Web pages, other than the MathLAN Web server. Just in case you've forgotten, here's what our policy says.

Grinnell College supports the free expression and exchange of ideas and opinions and hopes that users of its computer systems will actively explore the possibilities of electronic publication on the World Wide Web. The College encourages students, faculty, and staff to develop and publish WWW pages through its servers (www.grinnell.edu, and www.math.grinnell.edu). [1]

Somewhere along the way, ITS and Communications decided to add an "intranet" that is based on SharePoint. The administration calls it "GrinnellShare", but I call it "GrinCo" because its URL is grinco.sharepoint.com. Now, SharePoint has a purpose; it's designed for groups to collaborate on projects and documents. But the College decided to turn it into a full-blown Web site, with its own "home pages", which duplicate much of the information on the home page of www.grinnell.edu. The College also made it a walled garden - you need a login to access any information that's on it.

Then, someone decided to start moving the few remaining public resources to SharePoint. A few weeks ago, the only way you could access the College's copyright policy was through SharePoint, which I find particularly ironic, given that we intentionally designed it to be adaptable by others. (And by "we", I include myself, since I was one of the committee that wrote our copyright policy, and many parts of the policy were drafted by one of my Tutorials.)

As you might guess, all of this makes me utterly furious. Why? Here are a few reasons.

I (and many other faculty) firmly believe that we have have an ethical obligation to the broader academic community to ensure that these documents are both publicly accessible and publicly indexed (so that they can be searched with one of the major search engines). I regularly see faculty, staff, and students at Grinnell make use of documents that other institutions keep public. For example, in drafting our accessibility policies last year, the task force (and subcommittees) regularly read and adapted the policies of other institutions. That our own policies are not equally available is inappropriate.

But that's not the only reason we should make our materials public. While prospective students and our parents are one audience for our public site, faculty at other institutions, current students, alumni, and prospective employees are also audiences. People judge us on the materials we make available. Candidates consider applying, in part, based on what they can find about support for faculty. I've been told that in the transition to the new www.grinnell.edu, CLS lost most of their materials on helping students find jobs and internships, and so they must point students to public pages at other institutions for some materials. Think of how much better Grinnell would appear to prospective students if the wonderful new resources that CLS has made, which currently appear only on GrinnellShare, were there for prospective students to see.

Finally, I expect that there's an enormous effort involved in duplicating materials from site to site. Why do we spend resources on the landing pages on GrinnellShare, which are available only on campus, when most of the information on those pages would be of interest to prospective students, alumni, prospective faculty, and beyond? GrinnellShare was planned as an intranet, a place for groups to work together on projects. It has somehow evolved into a walled-off Web site. Departments must spend time maintaining two different sites. Information is harder to find as members of the campus community must look on both our Web server and GrinnellShare. It's a stupid waste.

I might mind a bit less if I'd heard one sensible explanation for why we made these choices. But I've yet to hear one. And, given my discussions with folks, I really don't think we have one. (I eliminated the next three sentences because they were too impolite for public posting.)

So, where do we stand? Sadly, the campus lost one of its best advocates for an open Web. At the same time, we keep replacing leaders in ITS and Communications, so there's no continuity of thought. And, in spite of repeated requests from various faculty, including members of our Executive Council, the College seems to be making no progress.

At least we have MathLAN.


Note: The College has not yet officially changed its policies on Web pages. Will some student write to the Webmaster and ask how they can get a page on www.grinnell.edu? (Note, that's not really a serious request. I worry that if anyone pushes, ITS and Communications will undermine Faculty Governance and replace the policy with something horrible, just like they tried to do two years ago.)


My more articulate colleague, Erik Simpson, has written some further notes on these issues.


[1] https://www.grinnell.edu/policies/advice-webpage-authors


Version 1.0.1 of 2016-09-13.