I’m just back from a WPCampus 2017 conference in Buffalo, NY, and while far smaller than better known conferences such as Educause or HighEdWeb, I got a dose of what’s new, with some direct implications for digital scholarship. Here is an admittedly anecdotal set of trends:
- Stories vs. Content. Larger trends around digital storytelling have redefined the web experience, from structured access to content (think menus/submenus) to opportunities to experience stories—as one commercial example, check out Airbnb on your mobile device or glance at the featured image above, from a related Forbes article. Digital scholars (e.g., Barber 2016) and higher ed tech organizations have taken notice, and understandably so, since what is the process and outcome of scholarship but a narrative? And how better may we communicate the process and outcomes of our work—spanning the sciences and humanities—than via stories? Though content still matters, stories package content and make it more meaningful. Digital storytelling then offers a full range of modalities—written word, graphical figures, maps, images, audio, and video—as we tell our scholarly stories.
- More vs. Fewer Authors. Higher education websites are generally authored by a relatively small number of people—say, public affairs/communications staff—to keep content accurate and high quality. But what if content is no longer the only thing that matters? And what if we want to share not just one or two hero stories (paralleling the common web emphasis on hero images), but a rich diversity of scholarly stories emanating from student and faculty work across a higher education campus? Well, somehow we need to let people tell their own stories. And we need to train them to do this well. Lewis & Clark’s digital scholarship multisite (ds.lclark.edu) is our starter answer, with help and training sites to get them going. But admittedly, the challenge of turning student and faculty scholars into storytellers, let alone accomplished digital storytellers, is a daunting one. We did a very simple foray into this territory spring semester 2016 with first-year and upper-division students, and though I personally am impressed by the (largely text-only) posts, others may claim that the quality is inconsistent. There is but one answer to this challenge: we must diversify student communication skills to include, yet move far beyond, the beloved term paper. We must prepare a new generation of storytellers.
- Design vs. Templates. Here is where my step-by-step story gets technologically intriguing. Most higher education websites today use templates—predetermined designs, with fields for title, content, etc.—to ensure consistency and branding, and for good reason! But are you really going to ask scholars to tell stories, then tie both creative hands behind their backs, presenting them with a boring sort of Madlibs-esque fill-in-the-blanks template? Yes, it achieves consistency and avoids bad layout—entirely justified in certain cases—but no, the storyteller cannot be overly stifled, or the result will underwhelm. Here is where some beautiful solutions now exist in the WordPress world, largely as a result of page builder plugins such as Beaver Builder, which arguably have revolutionized the web by putting design power back into the hands of the content creator vs. the web developer. One highly intriguing plugin solution for telling scholarly stories is Aesop Story Engine: just check out the examples here (e.g., a set of stories on the African-American experience by journalism students at Penn State) for evidence of the power of putting design back into the hands of the content creator. (Yes, one needs some sort of wrapper around this unique content to retain an institution’s branding and navigation, but this can readily be done.)
There are already many examples of institutions using WordPress multisite to encourage digital scholarship—as but one good example I bumped into at the conference, see scholarly sites created by students and faculty in NYU’s Gallatin School, just a small fraction of NYU’s five thousand-plus scholarly WP sites. But quite a few others out there still look like the WordPress blogs of ten plus years ago.
When shall digital scholarship move fully into the possibilities of today, approaching websites as opportunities to tell and experience stories, building broader capacities among multiple student and faculty authors to do so, and giving them appropriate design, and not just content, control? Those institutions of higher education that seize these opportunities may readily stand out among their peers, because stories are what move people, and digital storytelling preserves and extends this timeless truth.