Microformats and University Web Sites
I have been thinking lately about how the whole Web 2.0 movement will affect University web sites. A lot of attention has been paid to Web 2.0 in terms of marketing to the “millennials” and public relations, for example see Karine’s excellent series about RSS at collegewebeditor.com. I am more interested in what Web 2.0 can do for me, however— I have a mountain of information I am responsible for, and constantly on the lookout for any tool that can help me manage it more efficiently. The most intriguing new technology to me right now is microformats. And my interest seems timely, because today alone there were at least 3 articles about microformats in my feedreader. I have to admit that I was skeptical about microformats when I first heard about them a year ago. I didn’t quite see their relevance to me, I think in part because they were really focusing on social software at the time. The emphasis was on XFN and VoteLinks, which were probably highly relevant to most of the blogging crowd in the audience at SXSW, but not to me. I am an antisocial blogger, without even a blogroll to use XFN on. But after spending some time reading through microformats.org, I realize there are several microformats out there that have the potential to benefit an institution, if, and this is a big if, the tools get built to take advantage of them. I’m going to go over a few of them and how I see them working for us university web folks. If you have more ideas or brainstorms, by all means comment and share.
hCard is probably the most widely supported microformat at the moment in terms of tools available to consume them. hCards are analogous to vCards, holding contact information for individuals or institutions. The applicability of hCard to the university is obvious— the contact information in our footers, our phone and email databases, and the ever-present “Faculty & Staff” pages in academic department sites could all benefit from using this microformat. It would be great to be able to grab an hCard for my address book when I finally figure out who in HR can answer my question about benefits. The Firefox Tails plugin can recognize hCards on a site and if you’re on a PC, TailsExport will download them to vCards that you can use in your address book. It would be great if more browsers had plugins to do this; Jon Hicks proposes one for Safari here. There is even an hCard Creator that will build an hCard using information you enter, making it very easy to convert information to the correct format.
hCalendar is another microformat that Tails and TailsExport can comsume, and also another with obvious translations into the world of higher ed. It would be extremely helpful for me to be able to export our academic calendar, complete with all the one-day holidays I always forget about until it’s too late to plan a trip, into my iCal or gCal. Or how about dates of paydays from the fiscal calendar? There are also campus events, athletic events, fundraisers, etc. A prof could even put a calendar together for her course, leaving the students with no excuse for forgetting when assignments are due.
hResume is a draft that has some interesting potiential. One of the projects we’re always trying to get off the ground is a Faculty Expertise Directory; a place where public or the press can go to figure out who to consult about earthquakes or Native American culture, etc. If faculty published their vitae on their personal pages or their department’s web site, a parser could be written to search our site for hResumes and populate the faculty expertise directory based on information in the “skills” field. A directory that populates itself sounds like heaven to me. Which leads me to the next microformat.
Rel-directory is a draft that “is specifically designed for building a directory in a distributed manner and for making links to any directory listing explicit.” We, like many universities, have an A-Z Index of web sites that is the preferred navigation method for people on campus. It is a nightmare for me to keep up to date. But if the authors of those web pages used rel-directory on links to the page of the A-Z index that they should be listed in, the magic parser could go through and find the sites for me, and pull the directory information from the handy hCard that they have published with all the contact information. There is not much advantage to publicly displaying a link to the directory, and this may be a stretch of what this microformat is designed for, but it is fun to think about.
There are a few other microformats out there that would be extremely easy to implement and potentially have a payoff somewhere down the line. Adding rel=“home” to links back to the main homepage or homepages of sub-sites can be done in a snap, and these could be used someday to produce on-the-fly site maps. Adding rel=“payment” to links to online giving sites is easy and could potentially cash in (pun intended) on future technology that highlights ways to support site authors. Rel-license may be useful for disambiguating copyright issues for images and other materials used in class. XOXO which is used to mark up outlines, can find many homes in the halls of the university. There are also working groups on rel-citation and meeting-minutes, which our sites would eat up. There was some talk on the UWEB-D and WASP Education Task Force listservs about coming up with a microformat for course content. I’m not sure where this discussion went— if you know, please leave a comment and fill me in. While I think a course content microformat may be too ambitious, I would really love to see a course catalog format. What other microformats would you like to see? Any ideas on other ways to use the existing ones? And, who wants to tackle writing a few parsers so these brainstorms can become reality?