No matter their size, universities must cater to a wide array of audiences: faculty, students, staff, administrators, and the general public. The quality of these interactions — an in-person visit, a phone interview, or a website visit — can greatly influence each person’s ultimate action.
But sometimes a university needs to communicate one clear, reliable message to different communities, including news and events around campus, and given recent events, to information that helps keep everyone safe and healthy.
So how can this difficult task be achieved?
The answer: Create Once, Publish Everywhere (COPE).
The COPE Principle
COPE is hardly a new concept. Pioneers like NPR anticipated the need to make content available to any platform and device. As a radio platform, NPR realized that some interfaces may not even have a visual element. Smart speakers, for example, present information very differently than a website or a phone app.
This same challenge is faced by the website developers working in the higher education field. Developers can’t anticipate how the information that they let loose into the world may be consumed by multiple audiences who use a wide array of devices and platforms. In order to solve this challenge, developers must distribute unformatted, highly structured content for any application.
Formatting, in this case, describes how content looks. In a world where content may be used on any number of different — even unanticipated — devices and applications, it doesn’t make any sense for developers to dictate how content should look. What it means, in a nutshell, is that the content is not styled. It is up to the client application to apply all styles and formatting.
However, for content to be truly useful, it must be structured. In other words, content must be delivered so the receiving application can determine what the content is about, the kinds of resources that come with it, when it was created, and other metadata.
Publishing content is achieved via client applications interacting with an Application Programming Interface (API). Think of an API, in this example, as a menu of the content available from the central content management system (CMS). In this way, client applications have a way to ask for, and receive, specific types of content from the central CMS, and display in any manner required.
Resources provided via an API can be filtered or sorted in any number of ways, allowing the applications of different departments or branches, to query for content specific to them. This helps to clear up ambiguity, reduce duplication, and provide unified messaging across a multifaceted organization
Using the COPE Principle at Universities
Now let’s see how the COPE principle can benefit universities.
Remember, these institutions are communities composed of members who share values and resources, and rely on each other. Like any community, members will have different approaches to challenges and their priorities may not match up. While one department wants its blog published, another might be waiting to update its course calendar.
In an ongoing project of several years, idfive, in conjunction with Howard University’s central web and digital strategy team helped Howard University build a system to distribute events, news, and faculty information and an alerts system via a central open-source Drupal CMS. This ambitious project helped begin to centralize common content for the university, as well as provide standardized ways that information that information is accessed and displayed.
Though initially the spirit of intellectual freedom made some understandably skeptical of centralized control, stakeholders were won over by advantages of the APIs — mostly due to the promise of a reliable, single point of entry for distributing information across the university.
As a result of this project, the number of visible faculty and staff profiles more than tripled, from about 200 to over 700. This was accomplished by promoting awareness and adoption throughout the university, as well as building easy ways for departments to include faculty profiles from the tool, on to their own department sites using the tool.
Decoupling also came in handy as the university responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic began to emerge, Howard recognized the need to distribute clear, consistent information to bring the university together and keep everyone safe.
As part of the original effort, idfive also built an alerts system that appeared at the top of different university web pages to direct students, faculty, and staff to information about the university’s response efforts, including information about transitioning to online classes for the semester. This helped Howard provide clear, consistent messaging across all sites, as they all shared the single source of truth.
Distributing resources from one source across a campus community improves efficiency, raises awareness, and increases reliability of the information. It helps bring the community together, without encroaching upon the independence of stakeholders. And in an emergency, it can help ensure the safety of community members.
Dan is equal parts front-end developer, back-end developer, and Rockies adventurer. He tackles intricate websites with unparalleled focus and believes that technology should be the solution to — rather than the cause of — problems. Dan understands that projects don’t end at launch and that follow-up and reflection are essential to constant improvement. How he stays on task while living in the middle of a wintery paradise? We will never know.