Interview - Dallas Seminary
1 comment | Posted: 3 November 07 in Interviews, by Nathan Smith
A few months ago, I had the chance to visit the web office at Dallas Theological Seminary, and meet with the team behind DTS.edu. Recently, I interviewed .NET developer John Dyer and designer Tim Kimberley about some of the cutting edge ideas they are pioneering at DTS.
When did you first realize your calling to attend seminary?
I became a Christian around 1997. I was a MIS major in college. I had always loved working with computers, but during my junior year I remember skipping a class so I could read the Bible. My love for computers had become eclipsed by my love for God and his Word. During this time, I began to sense the Lord leading me to full-time vocational ministry.
I continued working in the computer department of a Fortune 500 company, but I also began preaching occasionally on the weekends. I knew just enough of the Bible to be dangerous. The Lord allowed me to see that it was worth the time to get formal training at a seminary before spending the rest of my life in ministry.
I studied biochemistry and genetics in college (Texas A&M, whoop!) because I had always planned on going to medical school. I graduated from college a year early, so I took a job as a youth pastor while I studied for the MCAT.
The following summer, as I was preparing my medical school applications, I realized that I really enjoyed teaching the Scriptures to those kids, and I wanted to work in ministry more than be a doctor. After talking and praying with some older, wiser men, God made it clear that getting a solid background in the Scriptures would be necessary for a lifetime of ministry.
How did you get your start in programming and/or design?
This is hard to say. In the early nineties I was in middle-school loving my Apple Classic and working with HyperCard. In high school (mid-nineties) I won a state-wide contest for a multimedia program I had made using HyperStudio and Morph teaching people proper weight-lifting techniques. During college I worked for a Fortune 500 company doing all sorts of computer type jobs. My last two years with the company I was a Java programmer. During this same time I played around with my own website in the evening (heLives.com).
I was still a much better programmer than designer. Over time I picked up design principles here and there. In 2003, based on my work with heLives, I was able to land a design job with Dallas Seminary. I never thought of myself as a full-time designer but I decided to give it a shot. The last three and a half years as a full-time designer (without any formal design education) have been stretching, but I now feel comfortable in my skin as a designer.
As much as I loved working with kids, the youth pastor job didn’t pay very well, and I needed a part-time job. This was the mid-1990s and all I had done so far was create a personal web page (with flames made of animated GIFs and lots of
blink tags and Java applets). I thought it would be neat to have a page that had a list of books I was reading, and I found out that I needed a “dynamic” page to do that. I searched around (with a cool new site called Google) and found out about Microsoft ASP.
I learned just enough to make the books list and then a little more to make a site for my youth group. With that one site under my belt I applied for a job as a part-time developer at a local firm and got the job. They gave me projects and I, like most people making websites today, just learned on the job. Later, I started doing freelance work in both ASP and PHP for various companies. Right about the time I was looking for seminaries, a job opened up at DTS and the Lord was gracious enough to allow me to get it.
One thing that has always struck me about DTS’s website is the consistency in branding. The entire site just feels solid and cohesive. How is this governed? Is there a communications department responsible for the school’s visual identity, or is it just managed internally on the web team?
Surprisingly, the web team drives pretty much everything on the site. Consistency in branding, look and feel are intentional aspects to the site. We operate on the philosophy that there can be a fair amount of design and technical variety throughout our site, but every page must feel like it’s in the same family. No runts or red-headed step children are allowed (no offense intended to those who are runts or red-headed step children). It’s cool to give each area of our site a fresh feel, but it must be related to all the other things we have brought online.
In the end, it’s easier to design new things if you’ve already given yourself some boundaries to work within. The biggest challenge within all of this is that we design for a variety of audiences. Our site must appeal to college students who are saturated in social networking sites, it must also remain attractive and usable to our donors who are usually in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, then we also have over 12,000 alumni who use our site and have graduated anywhere from 1924 to 2007.
So, our challenge is to not alienate any of these people while preventing the site from having a multiple-personality disorder. Another big thing is that the overall feel of the site is similar to my natural design style. If I naturally leaned towards heavy grunge but always had to work in a clean style, every design would go against my style. It’s good to stretch yourself, but I think if you’re going to spend several years (40 hrs/wk) designing a site, you better make sure your style fits well with the organization.
DTS does have a communications/PR department that determines several things like the DTS logo, typography, and tag-lines. They also are responsible for various print ads. But when it comes to the website, my team has been given a lot of free reign to create something new on the web. As for the cohesiveness of the site, that’d be Tim’s area. He’s our design pro.
When I was on-campus, you guys showed me some really cool XML and Flash driven presentation tools you’d built. Would you care to elaborate on the both the vision behind this initiative, and the technical challenges of implementation?
Here’s the deal… You should never fire up Photoshop until you’ve spent some time sitting in the jacuzzi of the problem you’re trying to solve. Once you get your mind around the problem, then you can hopefully hit Photoshop and try to fix the problem. For that project the problem was how to make a fast growing online education experience which was similar to the excellence the school is known for in the classroom. The solution had to be very scalable and accommodate more than one language.
John and I spent time talking through how much screen space we had to work with, and then we had to talk philosophy and learning styles. What elements must be on the page to make for a good educational experience? All of these things were conscious factors as I fired up Photoshop. I had to take our ingredients and try to make a dish that would taste good. We wanted the technology to assist, not distract the user.
We realized that Flash and XML were the ideal combination. XML allowed for decent scalability and multiple languages. We use a lot of video and wanted a lot of control over the video during playback. Flash has really moved into the first spot in this area. We are getting ready to redesign our online education system which both John and I are really excited to tackle.
When DTS first decided to do online education, we decided to avoid the correspondence mode where a student reads books and turns in papers, but never sees a professor or interacts with classmates. The administration and faculty really wanted to preserve the classroom experience as much as possible. For the first year, we used a product from Yahoo, but it used Windows Media which only really worked with IE on a PC. When Flash 7 came out, we finally had a tool that was cross-platform.
Here are two screenshots, in English and Traditional Chinese...
The player has three elements:  streaming video some of which is recorded during actual classroom sessions and other parts that are recorded afterwards when the professor wants to add additional material,  a time-coded transcript available in English, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese (and soon Spanish), and  slides from the class.
We have a video team that handles all the video recording, editing and encoding. We send the final video off to be transcribed by an outside company, then it is checked and timecoded internally. The slides are created by our graphical arts department in PowerPoint and I developed a little application that exports the slides into JPGs and creates XML for the timing.
This is one of the most personally enjoyable things on which to work at DTS. I had always wanted to go teach at a seminary overseas when I graduated, but instead God has allow me to create tools to take DTS professors directly to students all over the world. In addition to church leaders all over the US, we have students taking classes while serving in the military overseas and even students in mainland China taking classes in Chinese!
For a demo of the player, please go to: http://my.dts.edu/player/.
Another really cool feature that I was privy to is the DTS equivalent of Facebook, allowing alumni, current students, and professors to keep in touch. What spurred the decision to build your own, as opposed to relying on other social networking sites that already existed? Has this been beneficial to communication amongst remote ministries, such as missionaries?
The response to the alumni site has been great. Many of the alumni love it and we’re hoping some people might even choose to come to DTS as a result, because they know that they’ll always be connected to the school and each other after graduation. No one ever asked us to create the site. This gets back to my earlier comments on the importance of focusing on the problem. We had a meeting one day with the alumni department. I can’t remember exactly what the meeting was about, I think they were pushing us to put something online which has traditionally been published in paper format.
I have noticed that many times someone comes wanting you to implement something. Many of these people have subconsciously taken a problem, created some ‘net-based solution and then approach you to just crank it out. However, that person often doesn’t have enough background to craft the appropriate solution. In this scenario, the alumni department mentioned that the two biggest complaints they hear are alumni don’t feel connected to DTS anymore, and that they don’t feel connected to each other.
My imagination starting swimming after that meeting about how to fix that problem. I asked John if he’d let me spend a few days designing a new alumni site, the goal of the site would be to try to kill the two most frequent complaints from alumni. The alumni department didn’t even know I was doing this, but after a couple days I showed off designs for a new MySpace/Facebook type site. We then had to convince the alumni department (who weren’t very technical at the time) that this was something they really needed.
The reason we didn’t rely on an existing social networking site is because we knew for this to ever make it off the ground it would need to address every fear against it. #1 is privacy. Many of the people using the site aren’t used to being transparent online, so we had to make a site which is very secure and is overly careful regarding people’s information.
Since we know our students and graduates pretty well, we felt like it would be easier for us to design and create something 100% custom for DTS grads. If we pushed an existing system, we thought it would end up not being used. John is also an amazing programmer, so he can create anything I can dream up. That made it possible to create the site from scratch. If I told you some of the ways the alumni site has been used, I’d have to kill you!
Our alumni department has been producing printed directories for years. They asked us if we could create an online directory for alumni to update their information and access their classmates contact information. Instead of just doing that, our team thought it would be cool to make a social network to connect alumni with more than just contact information.
It would have been nice to use something like Facebook or Ning to host the site, but we needed it to be secure. We also needed it to have alumni in the system from day one, rather than wait for people to sign up. The alumni site launched in April 2007 and has been a huge success. We have a large percentage of our alumni already signed up, and it has been a real joy to watch them reconnect and share their various ministry experiences.
Would you each please share your testimony of how you came to saving faith in Jesus Christ?
I basically tried to be a magnanimous porn-star in high school. I thought that would make me feel like the king of the mountain. After living that way for a couple years, I realized that instead of being the king of the mountain I felt like I was under a mountain of manure. I was still successful in sports, school, etc. but inside it was lousy. In college I joined the rugby team and just had several more shovels full of manure thrown on my mountain.
Throughout high school and college I became very aware of God’s existence. I’m not sure how, but I became absolutely convinced of his reality. I knew he saw my every action and thought. Some people taught me about the truths revealed in Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” I didn’t have to clean myself up for Jesus to accept me.
Just how I was, still under my manure mountain, I accepted that Jesus paid for my sins in full. I believed that Jesus conquered sin for everyone on the cross and conquered death through his resurrection. Because he lives, I can live in the new life he provides. I first put my faith in him about ten years ago and I am still believing and trusting in him today.
Neither of my parents were believers growing up. Both came to know the Lord after their college years. Unlike their homes, they wanted to make sure I understood the gospel at an early age. I remember asking my dad (while sitting in our lime-green station wagon, with faux wood trim) how to get into heaven. He answered that I needed to ask Jesus into my heart. So, that night I asked Jesus into my heart, and then I did it again and again for the next few days since it was so much fun!
In junior high, I started to wonder if I was really saved, so I asked my mom how I could be sure. She taught me that if I trusted that Jesus’ death paid for all my sins (past, present, future), nothing could separate me from his love. Both of my parents played important roles in developing my belief and then helping me to understand why I believed.
I guess that about wraps up our interview. Do you have anything you’d like to add before we close? Are there any ultra-cool Dallas Seminary projects coming around the bend that you’d like to mention? ;)
Our new media section has been a blast to design and implement…
The previous version of the site I did a couple years ago and I grew to really dislike the old page. I’m glad we were able to re-design it from scratch and add a lot more features. All of our chapels and other media items are fully cross-linked with tags, authors, etc. We’re hoping it’ll be used by a lot of people inside and outside of DTS.
I’m also hoping to redesign our online education site from the ground up. I’m looking forward to studying all the feedback we’ve been accumulating from hundreds of students taking online classes and try to come up with something that addresses all those issues while also exceeding expectations.
We have two new fun things. First, a small but cool project: I’ve been working on a new campus map using Papervision3D. I used Sketchup to create the campus buildings and textured them using some actual photos. Papervision3D is a fantastic library for Flash 9 and it really makes the map look great…
Second, we’ve revamped our entire media area to better catalog all the audio and video content that DTS puts out. We created a new Flash player that can be embedded in other sites and added more sorting, searching, and listing features like tagging and grouping by series. The mission of DTS is:
To glorify God by equipping godly servant-leaders for the proclamation of his Word and the building up of the body of Christ worldwide.
There is so much great teaching that happens every day on the campus of DTS, and we’re trying to get as much of it out there for people and ministries to use. We hope offering this material extends that mission beyond just students to the entire body of Christ.
Discuss This Topic
Comments closed after 2 weeks.