Teaching “Content Management” and adding up changes

Posted by on Wednesday October 21 2009

One of the reasons that I post so seldom here is that oft-noticed problem of being over-extended. If you are going to MCN 2009 in Portland next month (and I hope you are), you’ll notice that I am involved in workshops on Cloud Computing, and a very special project of mine, “Project Management.”

But, not even MCN has been the real focus of my alleged copious spare time. I’m going to be co-teaching a class in “Web Publishing and Content” this spring for Brandeis University’s Graduate Professional Studies. We have had a lot of fun trying to figure out the content for the classes, such that we can cover everything from IP on the web to metadata and findability to what a CMS looks like and how you build it, and on to social media (your CMS as hosted by the rest of the world).

It is a lot of fun trying to encapsulate what I know, pared down to, “enough for a student to absorb so that he or she can dig more deeply if inspired; and won’t be blindslided by something critical if that’s as far as they go”. It is also depressing to see how few useful books or web resources are available on the subject. I intend for us to help fix the lack of web resources as we get happy with some of our class notes and can make them public without fearing total embarrassment. With luck, people will read some of them and suggest improvements, even. What a concept.

The last book with “Content Management System” in its title was published five years ago? seven years ago? All of the ones we’ve gone through still think of concepts like “FTP” as relevant. If you are not a systems administrator, or an aging geek, I would suggest that not only don’t you know the term, you don’t know that when we say that, we really mean “oh, you would never use FTP today–that would mean sending a password in clear text–you’d use FTP over SSH, or SFTP”. But you don’t have to know that because when you upload files to a current CMS, be it something simple like Blogger, or something much more complex like Sharepoint or Alfresco or Drupal or Vignette you aren’t going to use any explicit protocol. You’ll either drag and drop your files, and some application behind the scenes will use WebDAV or something similar to move copies from your computer to the CMS; or you’ll use one of those familiar “browse” boxes to locate your file(s) and then some behind the scenes script will ensure that your “stuff” got uploaded.

This is a good thing. When we can teach “Content Management” instead of “database-backed websites” we’re really saying that we have designed systems smart enough so that users can focus on what they really want to do–get a website up, or manage their digital assets, or their collections–without getting distracting by the clunky-seeming tools we used to build much of that infrastructure. So, I still use SFTP most days as I build new tools, or set up new pieces of our CMS puzzle. But the people who specify how those systems should work, or who actually manage our content? They know all about what they write about. They know about writing for the web (hopefully) and how to tweet. They know what metadata needs to be captured so that next year we know where the original TIFF is stored whence came this year’s JPEG–and what rights we have to repurpose it, and so we know who has used it where so far, and how many people have viewed it. That’s some of what managing content and web publishing is all about, and we’re really going to have fun writing a course that addresses the subject instead of trying to teach people how to build one out of bits and bytes, ftp-ing unmanaged files that will forever sit somewhere with no CMS to say whether they are needed any more.

In our course, we’ll focus on Findability, and Multimedia, and Writing for the Web, and even Web 2.0–the stuff that really matters for Content Management in the 21st century.

I think that this class, and the way we are approaching the subject, illuminate the difference between techies–our inner (sometimes outer) geek–the person who is more interested in how something was done than in what actually needs to be done–and our non-techie sides–the place where most of us get our actual work done.

One day I’ll even be done writing the notes–hopefully, before class starts.

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