It happens slowly at first. You hear about somebody at a conference who uses the web to share lecture notes with her students. Then another colleague tells you about this great resource of links that a professor in your field is building up on his site. Maybe one of your coworkers smugly announces he is sharing his thoughts via blog. That last one does it – you’ve got to make the move online, to break free of the official cut-and-paste profile of the department website and develop your own real-time, updated-with-moderate-frequency web presence. But how? Here are some tips to get you started, or to move you along:
1) Choose a self-publishing tool
If you’re daunted by the prospect of getting online, rest assured that some of the most popular tools today barely require technical knowledge at all. WordPress.com and Blogger.com are two sites that offer free space and an easy start online. Just set up an account with a username and password, and you are quickly unleashed on a tool that allows you to name your blog, choose a template, and get going. Once you’re in the system you can adjust settings that regulate whether people are allowed to post comments, modes of archiving posts, and more.
For those with a little more technical bravery and time, the world of HTML and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) allows you to create web pages where you can break out of the templates and find even more flexibility in terms of content and design. Popular editors these days include Adobe Dreamweaver and the new open-source (read: free) systems like Joomla or Drupal. These programs will involve a greater time investment in learning to use them, but really aren’t much more difficult than a word processing program (and use similar toolbars, for instance, you click on B to make a word bold). To become proficient, you might ask your university computing centre if they offer any courses, and if they don’t, suggest starting one as a way to help people like yourself get online.
2) Decide on your site mandate
Once you’ve decided to move online, you need to decide what to post. This decision can be a very personal one, and it involves some cyber soul-searching about what exactly you want to use your site for: to connect with your students? To raise your public profile? To find a new job? To connect with other researchers? You may also want to make decisions about what not to post on the site, for instance whether you want to leave out elements from your personal life like your family or hobbies, to keep the site purely professional. If you’re starting a blog, you’ll want to give some thought about what you’ll put up – random thoughts about your field? Weekly reviews of applicable research? Often looking at colleagues’ websites or sites at other universities can inspire you with ideas for types of content as well as design possiblities.
3) Start posting content already!
Based on sites currently online, there appear to be a few standard categories emerging: bio, CV, publications list, contact information, teaching notes. Yet again, even here there are decisions to make: how much of your CV do you want to include? How often will you update your publications? These are important decisions, but often budding webmasters slow down at step number two, forgetting that the great thing about the web is that everything can be changed! So get the basics up quickly, then work to improve your presence. That’s not to say you should post haphazardly. Figure out a design that works for you, decide on a minimum presence, and then post those elements online. Work out a plan for your subsequent postings and set goals in terms of getting online. Perhaps you’ll post your CV and bio this month, then get a decent photograph of yourself up there next month. You should prioritize time for this project as you would for any other professional development.
4) Update regularly and use social networks to connect with others
You know as a user the sense of disappointment that comes from visiting a site that is totally out of date, or revisiting a promising blog only to discover there hasn’t been any new information added in weeks. You’ve got to make a similar commitment to providing fresh content or at least making sure your static content isn’t out of date. Establish a realistic updating schedule and stick to it. If you’re using the site as a resource for your professional profile, it might be enough to update once or twice a term. If you’re starting a blog, you may want to post more often, but make it a regular schedule you can stick to. Manage your readers’ expectations with a note saying how often the site will be updated.
After a bit of time to establish your routine, let others know what you’ve been doing. The first step is to send an email to all your friends and acquaintances letting them know about your site. Submit your site to be indexed by search engines like Google so that you’ll be more easily found online, and learn how to optimize your pages so they rank highly for relevant searches. Once you’re more comfortable online, make the jump to using social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and the new GraduateJunction.com to find other people and groups that will help advance your research and extend your online presence even further. Once you’ve got an online presence you’re proud of, it will be easy to reach out and connect with others.
Have you built a faculty website you’re proud of? Did you learn valuable lessons along the way or come across an online tool that made all the difference? Share your experience with your colleagues: leave a comment in the forum below!