Web Administrator at Allegheny College in PA, Mike Richwalsky has become one of the examples to follow when it comes to podcasts in higher education. While he didn’t attend the Web Communications and Strategies Conference earlier this week at Salisbury University, his institution was mentioned several times as a model in presentations about Podcasts and RSS. Mike answered my questions a few weeks ago, but now seems to be the perfect time to post his interview.
At Allegheny, the web team is part of the Office of Public Affairs. The 3,000-page website is template-driven with PHP and maintained in some areas via Movable Type used as a CMS.
1) What’s your background? What did you do before becoming a higher ed web pro?
I began my career as a higher ed web pro in 1998 at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, PA. I had worked for the IT department as a student, and they took a risk on hiring me to manage the site right before I finished school. It was a great learning experience, as I got to manage a large site for an institution with nearly 10,000 FTE.
I moved on to a few private-sector development jobs, where I learned valuable information about business and managing large-scale projects, but found myself missing the higher ed world. I started here at Allegheny College in 2002 and it’s been a great experience that continues to get better.
2) What’s your biggest achievement as a higher ed web pro?
I have a few.
At Allegheny, my biggest achievement was launching a ground-up, total website overhaul in February of 2004. We reorganized the site, added and moved content, re-designed, adhered standards (XHTML 1.0 Strict), added RSS feeds — the whole works. It was a year of challenges but very rewarding to finally show the public what we’d been working on for a year.
I won two major awards in the private sector site, which were great endorsements for the work I was doing – a Macromedia Flash Site of the Day and a Yahoo! Pick of the Day. Those two awards, which came within days of each other, drove an amazing amount of traffic to the site I was working on, which was a nice reward for the hard work put in on the site.
3) What’s the most difficult part of your job?
One of the hardest parts is trying to fit everything in. We’re doing some really interesting and exciting things here, but as is the case at many small liberal-arts colleges, we don’t have a large staff to manage the site and all the ancillary projects that go along with it.
In our case, we have one full-time employee and a few students who spend 10 hours during the school year and 35 hours a week in the summer working on projects. Could we triple the full-time staff? Sure, but that’s not a realistic endeavor at many institutions. The key is to balance projects and prioritize.
4) In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge we face as web pros in our industry?
I think one of the biggest challenges is the constant change that’s par for the course in the web world. Today’s web is very different from the one of three years ago.
Now there’s blogs, RSS, podcasts, CMS tools, site validation, and so on. If you aren’t on top of these new developments, you can quickly fall behind.
The trick is evaluating which technologies make sense for your school and implementing them with the support of the administration.
5) Any good advice to share with your fellow higher ed web pros?
Buy-in from your campus content contributors is so important. Keeping them involved and informed at all stages of site development (redesign, day-to-day upkeep, etc.) is critical.
At Allegheny, we hold quarterly breakfast meetings gathering all the content contributors from across campus to brief them on new things we may be working on, to get their feedback on the site, and to get their ideas and brainstorm for new and exciting features we can implement. They are the experts in their respective areas, and they know what the trends are and what their audiences want to see in a website, so they’re a great resource for information.
6) What about a couple of good links?
Sure. Let’s get the self-indulgent one out of the way first…
This is a social-software search engine we’re building with colleagues at Vassar College. The project was born at the Social Software User’s Group (SSUG) meeting in January 2005 held by MANE at the Center for Educational Technology at Middlebury College. It began as a simple idea and grew into a fully-functional search tool that acts like a meta-meta search tool, finding search results from many sources, including social software sites like del.icio.us and Flickr, to name but a few.
Not only is it a great source for the latest sports news, it’s a good technology showcase as well. They’re doing a lot of good things there – RSS feeds, video on demand, customization and personalization, and Flash where appropriate.
Don’t leave home without the validator, which is a site I use every day.
Mad Media Studios:
This is a photoblog run by a friend in Victoria, BC. It’s what a photoblog should be – easy to navigate with the pictures being the focus of each page. She’s a great photographer as well.
Signal vs. Noise:
A great blog about design and customer experience, two things higher ed web professionals should be as knowledgeable in as possible.
NOTE FROM KARINE:
Mike answered Dan Karleen’s questions about his work with RSS on Syndication for Higher Ed earlier this week.