Spinning our Web in cyberspace

by Daniel McCabe

Panelists at a recent McGill forum on the World Wide Web cautioned that getting involved in the Web isn't likely to save you money and will almost surely eat up more of your staff's time. The panelists also urged any McGill units and departments who aren't yet active on the Web to hurry up and create a Web site already.

The University is paying closer attention to its presence in cyberspace these days. McGill's home page was revamped last month with an eye towards making it easier to use and­thanks to graphic design work from McGill's Instructional Communications Centre­more attractive to the eye. The University has also created a special WWW Steering Committee headed by University Relations director Kate Williams to deal with policy questions and to watch over the University's Web site.

Other members of the committee include Admissions Office director Mariela Johansen, Computing Centre director Alan Greenberg, Dean of Students Rosalie Jukier, ICC director John Roston and Associate Vice Principal (Graduate Studies) Lydia White.

Speaking at the Web Forum, Vice-Principal (Planning & Resources) François Tavenas said that the World Wide Web has fostered a unique culture of sorts among its chief users­a culture which values total freedom of expression and a rambling creative spirit that borders on anarchy.

Tavenas said that these characteristics were largely positive, but that, as an institution, McGill had to be cautious in how it expressed itself to a world-wide audience on the Web.

"I think we'll have to accept some small limitations to freedom of expression," indicated Tavenas. "What kind of picture do we want to present to the outside world? One of a chaotic, disorganized institution or one of a place where students will want to come to learn?"

Tavenas stated that the Web offered "new ways for organizations to expose themselves to potentially huge audiences. Increasingly, students are searching Web sites to select a university. Industries will use this technology to see if there are any university professors out there who are doing research that matches their interests."

Tavenas believes that, in many respects, the Web is still in its infancy. "It's become the most beautiful invention to waste your time on­more than two-thirds of World Wide Web traffic is wasted on nonsense." But, Tavenas added, students are already using the Web in innovative ways to foster their learning. "The students are already changing the way they learn. Professors will have to change the way they teach as well. My concern is that this change takes place at a speed we can manage."

And while Tavenas is excited about the Web's potential for promoting McGill to a large global audience, he shot down any notions that the Web will be a money saver. "It's a fallacy to think this will effect savings. Maybe in the future we'll require less clerical staff pushing around paper and more specialized staff maintaining Web sites."

WWW Steering Committee chair Kate Williams reminded the audience that official Web versions of McGill logos and crests are freely available from the ICC home page (http://ww2.mcgill.ca/icc) and that the Computing Centre will operate a Web server for any official page. Both ICC and the Computing Centre offer additional services­some free, some not­for departments and units looking to either create a Web site or enhance an existing one.

Williams advised that all McGill Web sites should clearly indicate the person responsible for their maintenance. Graphics should be used cautiously (large pictures take time and memory to download) and the inclusion of personal information or copyrighted material should be carefully considered. Text on a Web site should be brief, punchy and grammatically correct.

"Remember your target audience when you put up a Web site and tailor it to their interests and needs rather than focusing on what you think should be on the site," said Williams, who added that any queries or comments about the McGill home page or about the University's WWW activities could be e-mailed to her committee at info@uro.mcgill.ca.

Williams also urged her audience to try to make as much of their Web site bilingual as they could. "That would reflect our status in the Quebec community and it will make our Web offerings truly unique."

Alan Greenberg said that the World Wide Web's continual growth "is nothing short of scary." A year ago WWW activities accounted for "almost zero" of McGill's Internet traffic. "It accounts for between 25% and 30% now." Greenberg says that sharp rate of growth is almost certain to continue and that the University will soon face difficult questions about financing WWW activities. "We just can't afford the bandwidth growth we're seeing now. Either we'll have to place controls and rules on how we use (the WWW) or we'll have to find some other way to deal with it."

In her presentation, Mariela Johansen said that WWW use among students is often exaggerated, but it is increasing and "the best, brightest and most interested prospective students are certainly using the Web."

She urged colleagues unfamiliar with the Web not to be too hesitant about the new medium. "At the start nobody in our office had ever used the Web and now, after seven months of intense effort, we have a functioning Web site. You can get from point A to point B."

One of the offerings on the Admissions Web site is an electronic application kit. Potential students can download a McGill admissions form, fill it out, put it on a disk and mail it to the University. "This is a way to improve service to your clientele at a fairly low cost." She added that departments will largely be under the "honour system" to prepare professional-looking Web sites consistent with the overall McGill design. "No one at McGill has the time or the resources to police this."

Tom Levasseur, systems administrator for the Department of Electrical Engineering, agreed. "We have links to our students' own pages with a disclaimer saying that they aren't official McGill pages," explained Levasseur. Opening one such page devoted to photos of super models, Levasseur rolled his eyes. "This is silly, but are we going to run around pulling the plug on these guys? I don't think so."

Levasseur recalled one professor in his department who called the WWW "just a fad and said he wouldn't get involved." But other faculty in his department are being more imaginative. A course on operating systems has a Web page with registration information, a course syllabus, a list of assignments and links to other Web sites relevant to the course's subject matter.

Music professor Bruce Pennycook said that the WWW was a powerful research tool his faculty was already deeply involved with. Pennycook said that his faculty offered a popular Web site offering browsers the opportunity to conduct their own auditory experiments and that McGill music researchers were trying to produce CD-quality audio over the Internet.

Management professor Mike Wybo warned against "reinventing the wheel. The expertise to do this is already on campus. In my faculty, we didn't bother with learning the details­we hired two electrical engineering students with those skills. We ensured that we had our information correct, that the data was current and that the links made sense. We looked at the Web sites that are already out there and saw the things we liked. Then we told our designers, 'We want one of these and one of those. . .'"

Wybo said he couldn't see the logic in resisting hiring someone at $20 an hour to do the work, but then taking staff away from other projects who have to learn about the Web before using it properly. "Does it make more sense to have a faculty member doing all this work or a work study student?"

Anyone interested in having a gander at a new McGill Web site might want to check out the University Relations home page at http://www.reporter-archive.mcgill.ca/Welcome/.

An on-line version of the McGill Reporter is one of the offerings on this Web site, as is McGill's most recent annual report, a "reading room" of recent speeches and reports by McGill faculty and a "Dateline McGill" section devoted to University news. We're grateful to public relations officer Karl Jarosiewicz, our local Webmaster, and to freelance designer/writer/ can-do-just-about-anything Eric Smith, for their hard work and creativity. Let us know what you think. Comments or questions about the University Relations site or the McGill home page may be sent to info@uro.mcgill.ca.