Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Great school web sites

The public school web site is an essential tool for the school. Most schools have one, few have a great one. The main reasons why some school web site are not as good as they should be can be summarised as:

-No clear vision for the purpose of the site
-Poor quality, it doesn?t look good and users have a poor experience
-Not up to date or not complete with links to areas that are marked ?under construction? but nothing ever seems to appear

Does a school need a good web site?
Yes, it is essential. In today's world it is the shop front of the school. Prospective staff and parents often get their first proper impressions of a school from its web site. A school is only as good as its staff and with the majority of advertising being online now prospective staff click straight into a school's web site and ask themselves 'do I want to work here?'. Some may think they don't want staff who are put of by something as superficial as a poor web site but that's defensive, the web site should reflect how good the school is and show it in its best light.

More than just marketing
Some schools, particularly private schools, have clearly paid good money to have a professionally made slick web site authored for them purely as a marketing tool, and as a replacement for the traditional paper prospectus that is a good idea- videos of school life and personal messages from the Headteacher are very nice but this only appeals to a transient audience, the prospective student and family; transient in that they either join the school or don't and either way the marketing work of the site is done. The site needs to be the online expression of a vibrant and busy school, here are some pointers to achieve this:

-It must change, daily ideally with new content appearing all the time, news articles are a good way of keeping a front page fresh but out of date news is an instant turn off
-It must engage the user, be more than a passive experience, tools like polls allow the reader to join in and use the site
-It must be personally useful to each individual stake holder and related;
-It must be possible to personalise the view of part of the site to each individual user

How many web sites?
Some schools end up with several sites, some public others private (perhaps referred to as an Intranet site). There may be the public web site- the marketing and public relations tool and further staff, student and parents' sites. The best system is to use one public site as a portal for all stake holders to use. This way the site gets all the traffic through one initial front page and this can be used to promote the ethos and character of the school. Users should instantly recognise the school through its web site; the school crests, the colours, the mission statement or motto and the plethora of logos schools acquire should all have impact on the first page alongside interesting and up to date news. Schools often try to do too much with their front page, then fail to do the job well so consider carefully the role of the front page and keep day to day business announcements for a specific page one click in.

By using a unique username and password there then are two main ways to personalise the site. Logging in can either increase the users access rights to enable them to access a student, staff or parent specific site hidden behind the public site, but this is not totally personalised as it puts the user in a cohort who can access certain areas together. Better that this a user name and password changes the website to be specific to that users needs, adding in tools on the screen like a dashboard of a car- perhaps a icon to show how many email messages are waiting, a calendar that is specific to the user- showing deadlines for course work they are enrolled in, notices specific to age or role and further 'tabs' to click on to take the user to 'my documents' on the network or 'my courses' on the learning platform.

Plugging in tools
Increasingly schools are using a host of web based tools such as:

-Shared document directories
-Online room booking
-Online fault and repair requests
-Online reporting to parents
-Online data entry tools as part of the Management Information System (MIS) for staff
-A web based learning platform
-Web access to telephone voice mail
-Online access to finance tools

There is no single tool that can offer all these functions but with care each of these tools can be 'plugged in' behind one web portal. Single sign on is a buzzword here, once a user is logged in to the site they should be able to access all these systems and the systems know who is using them so present a view appropriate to the user. This level of slickness does cause one worry in a busy school- data security. Busy teachers do leave computer 'logged in' and walk away from them, perhaps as they help students in class. To protect the security of the system staff need to either lock their screens (in Microsoft Windows this is achieved with ctrl/alt/delete and hit enter) or have the system set up so they automatically log the user out after a period of inactivity like online bank accounts do.

The beauty of web based systems is no data should be stored on individual machines. Stories of government staff leaving a lap top on a train with millions of people's personal data on are horrifying, but if users are only accessing tools hosted at the school via the web this can?t happen.

The best tools in the list above can be tailored in appearance (or 'themed') to fit in with the branding of the main school web site. This may seem to some to be trivial but it isn't. Users need to being able to feel instinctively when they are within the realms of the school site and when they have left it, just as the school gate lets people know when they are on or off the school site so should the virtual school make people feel 'at school'. This is important for ethos with both staff and students being encouraged to meet the expectations of the school even when away from the school site but 'at the virtual school'.

Another buzzword is interoperability, that the separate tools should work with each other, for example the learning platform needs to pick up class lists and timetables from the MIS, the email system needs to pick up user account information from the network. Complete interoperability is a bit of a holy grail, but when choosing new tools ask suppliers about the interoperability with the tools you already have and like using, if would be a shame to throw the baby out with the bath water when buying a new tool.

How do I get a great web site, we don?t have the expertise
Plenty of companies will set up a nice web site, but to keep it fresh a school either needs to keep paying them, which is not feasible or manage it themselves. Secondary schools can justify a full time member of staff to do this, primary schools can work in soft federations to share someone, but they don't need to be an amazing technical wizard; web site authoring seems to many to be a black art but it isn't. Fair enough, piping more than half a dozen other tools into one 'virtual school' may be technical but modern web site tools allow WYSISWYG editing, which stands for 'what you see is what you get' and people with the right permission level can click and icon and literally delete the text there and type a new version.

Many schools use a tools such as Sharepoint, Uniservity or other learning platforms that also provide a web site for this, other choose an open source free to download tool called Joomla. Hosting the web site can also be a headache, the computer hardware that publishes the web site should not be out of the realm of a secondary school, primary schools may again find it best to collaborate in families or with a partner secondary school or a regional strategy from the local authority may include a web site tool, under Building Schools for the Future in England it will.