WaSP Interviews Steve Smith
On His Work With the Notre Dame Web Group
Interview Conducted for 12th April 2006, by Rob Dickerson of the Education Task Force.
Steve Smith, lead Web developer with the University of Notre Dame Web Group, believes in “finding joy in small steps” when it comes advocating standards. After all, it’s no small feat to introduce change within the greater machine of an educational institution. How does Steve and his team face up to the challenge? Steve finds some time amidst his flurry of evangelist and educational activities to tell us a little more about their strategies.
Thanks for agreeing to talk with us Steve. We were looking at your Web site which mentions that you are the lead Web Developer with the University of Notre Dame Web Group. Could you expand on that?
Certainly. The University of Notre Dame Web Group, our department, is placed under the Office of Public Affairs and Communication (OPAC), so our scope involves any Web site with a marketing message. As the lead Web developer, I am in charge of guiding our scope of development, what technologies we use, and our focus on Web standards and accessibility. In essence, I direct ‘the product.’ I oversee other developers, as well as student workers, to ensure quality in Web and University standards. Currently, I am in the process of researching our CAPP and MIS majors and their courses to see what involvement I may have in the curriculum. I am passionate about development and education.
When did the University of Notre Dame start the transition to Web Standards, and how did that transition come about?
Our group was established just over three years ago by OPAC. Before then, Web design and development was operated within the Office of Information Technologies (OIT). OPAC took over this responsibility in 2002 and created the Web Group. The first team consisted of two people: director, Matt Klawitter, and designer, Jim Gosz. Just before the department was formed, these two people attended Web Design World in Seattle, which featured a presentation by Jeffrey Zeldman. They were officially introduced to Web standards. Their minds were made up that this would be the way the Web Group would develop from that point on. Our director made it a policy and worked with the administration to get support. There was little or no resistance. It was at this point that Web standards came to Notre Dame. As Web demands at Notre Dame increased, so did their need for advanced coding and accessibility. Matt hired me to continue this effort and to take it to a whole new level of consistency and standardization. Mine was the very first job description that actually required a background in Web standards.
We are in the midst now of overhauling our University’s main site and taking it to Web standards. We have set this fall as our goal for this milestone. We inherited the exisiting site, which is based on older methods of Web development.
My mission within the group is to grow the use of Web standards into other areas of Web development in the University.
My mission within the group is to grow the use of Web standards into other areas of Web development in the University. There are a few other distributed groups on campus that handle Web development, primarily in the IT department (courseware, HR, finance, etc.), and I am beginning to educate them on the need for development to a standard. There’s still a long way to go, but progress is most definitely being made.
What is the reaction from other development groups on campus when you suggest developing sites that are standards compliant and accessible? Do you encounter resistance when you suggest another approach to Web development and, if so, how does a standards advocate overcome such resistance?
Typically they find it intriguing, but it’s never taken beyond that point. Most of the other development groups on campus do not develop their own tools. They end up purchasing third-party software and modifying it. Unfortunately for the industry, these third-party tools are terribly non-standardized, and our employees can do little to change that. I’m working with a few groups on campus to educate and involve decision makers, developers, and purchasers on the importance of standardized development and accessibility. Ideally many of these problems could be solved at the procurement level.
It seems that there is not so much resistance to Web standards as there is simply a lack of knowledge.
It seems that there is not so much resistance to Web standards as there is simply a lack of knowledge. As a standards advocate, it will take patience and dedication to make a difference. Finding joy in small steps can go a long way toward large improvements.
Non-standardized tools are becoming a major issue for many people in higher education as schools make the move toward accessible, standards-compliant sites. Efforts to improve accessibility and standardize the resulting markup can be lost in software upgrades. How is this handled at Notre Dame?
It’s getting better, but we have a long way to go. Many of the larger internal projects are more than happy to be IE only, Java client-based messes. Working our way into the inner workings of the University will be a long, challenging process. In our group, we avoid this issue by creating custom tools, and rarely, if ever, use third-party solutions. Keep things simple and usable. Meet the needs of the client, and don’t throw in extra features or code that aren’t needed. It’s easy to keep on top of your software when it’s simple to begin with.
Steve, you mentioned earlier that you oversee student workers. Daniel Frommelt from the University of Wisconsin-Plattevile utilizes students, the self-titled “CSS Ninjas”, in his shop. In what way are students involved in the Notre Dame Web Group?
“CSS Ninjas”…that’s great! We employ students through paid internships. The actual program is in its infancy, but our first student worker has gained enough skills so that we have hired him on full time pending his graduation in May. The idea of the program is to begin hiring student workers in their sophomore or junior year at the University. The seniors in the program will help teach them the basic skills of CSS, XHTML, etc., and teach them how our development process works by example (with supervision and approval by our staff). Once these students reach their senior year, they will be personally mentored by our personnel and prepare them for a job in the real world (or with us in the Web Group). We are working now to line up students for next year to continue this process.
What methods does the Web Group employ to recruit students to the program?
Primarily student job boards and word-of-mouth. We find that our students telling their friends the great stuff we’re doing was our best marketing tool to other students who might be interested. In addition, members of our group have close ties to the CS, MIS, and CAPP departments. Students like to work with us and vice versa.
It’s important that students are receiving real world experience with Web standards and accessibility. It appears that this is the beginning of a very beneficial program for students at Notre Dame. Could this be expanded to include additional students or into other areas of the university?
Most certainly. While our focus is primarily the CS, MIS, and CAPP students, our satellite office in the College of Arts and Letters employs a student worker from A&L focused on writing for the Web. As our needs grow, I could see the program expanding beyond development into writing and creative.
Earlier you stated that you are passionate about education and that you are also in the process of researching a couple of the majors offered at Notre Dame and their associated courses with regard to curriculum. The Web Standards Project Education Task Force is in the beginning stages of a Curriculum Project. Do you have any thoughts about how this should proceed?
Professors don’t want to be told they’re teaching the wrong material, or that their methods are outdated.
I think a suggested curriculum is a fine idea, but I believe it needs some careful consideration and research on how to best go about introducing it. Professors don’t want to be told they’re teaching the wrong material, or that their methods are outdated. Some skilled social work is needed in order to successfully implant an updated curriculum into many higher education institutions.
I do, however, believe that professors want to be as effective as possible. Given their familiarity with research, creating something like a research conference to introduce the idea of Web standards into curriculum might be a possible solution.
Do you foresee any potential problems with regard to curriculum change in higher education?
Only if it comes across as “Hey, here’s the right way to teach these kids.” I would be interested in hearing people’s opinions on how to introduce the curriculum to universities (eg. top down, grassroots, etc.).
Thanks again for taking time to talk with us Steve. We look forward to your future successes at Notre Dame.
Thank you very much for the opportunity.
Steve Smith lives in South Bend, Indiana working as a Web Developer for the University of Notre Dame Web Group. He cares about making the web a better place, and is focused on doing that through education. In his free time he writes and develops for his own site, OrderedList.com, enjoys a round of golf or two, picks at a guitar, and spends time with friends and family. You can reach Steve by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by AIM at orderedlist.
- Notre Dame Web Group
- Office of Public Affairs and Communication
- Web Design World
- Jeffrey Zeldman
- Daniel Frommelt
You may view or write comments about the interview at Buzz: Notre Dame Web Group
The Web Standards Project is a grassroots coalition fighting for standards which ensure simple, affordable access to web technologies for all.