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The best website for your school

For a number of years I had a specialization I didn’t really seek out: designing websites for educational use. It started when I was consulting for the Small Business Development Center at Cabrillo College and created a career-research website for Cabrillo. Then a Cabrillo teacher hired me to make an interactive website for his class. This was in the late-90’s and as far as I know, distance learning was hardly talked about yet.

From there, I started to help the various schools I was involved with create better websites and more efficient electronic communications. Then I started doing similar work for for-profit educational businesses. Until recently, I still had clients hanging on, but since my life has been going off in a different direction, I am now only keeping my pro bono work for schools we’re involved with.

Over the years, I noticed how really awful most schools’ websites were, and how chaotic and complicated their communication systems were. Whenever I could, I’d help a school try to work this out, though there was almost always a lot of resistance. I won’t tell you how long it took me to get one school to use a single calendar that could be jointly administered.

Since I am now officially free of my paying clients, I thought I’d try to reduce my experience to a few tips that educators can use to make their electronic communications better and more efficient.

Websites:

1) Your website is your face to the world.

Perhaps, when I started doing this in the 90’s, a school could say that their website (if they had one) was superfluous. Now it’s almost always the very first contact parents have with your school or program. And it amazes me how many schools leave this very important entry point to uncommitted parents or incompetent semi-professionals. You need to take your website very, very seriously. It should meet the needs of all your “clients”: current parents, prospective parents, prospective staff, and even alumni. And as a journalist, I can’t emphasize how important it is to have good, well-written information on your website. Journalists who get lost in a maze or find outdated information on your website may just choose to feature another school in their articles.

2) Your website showcases the sort of education you offer.

If your website is boring, your school looks boring. If your website has lots of typos, your school looks ineffectual. If your website has outdated information, your school looks like a place where things only happened in the past.

3) Your website is flexible.

Don’t think of your website as one thing: consider all the ways you can use it to reach your community. The front page should have clear links for the different types of users: parents, students, staff, community.

4) Your website does not have to be fancy.

Have you ever gone to an educational website and faced a 30-second flash extravaganza that you had to sit through? Music that blared out of your computer without warning? Lots of pretty pictures but no information? It’s frustrating and off-putting. Get to the point and get there quickly.

5) Your website is informative.

What do people want to know when they go to the front page? Is that information front and center? It amazes me how many schools don’t have their address and phone number on the front page. And schools that, for example, list an e-mail address that no one is in charge of responding to (true story), or have contact forms that don’t work (this on a website for a Cabrillo College program for kids that I tried to use a few weeks ago).

6) Your website is dynamic.

If you aren’t willing to keep the website up-to-date, don’t put current information on it! But really, you need to make the commitment to make your website dynamic. The public is going to use it, whether you want them to or not.

7) Modern web tools are easy to use.

My last paying client was a school that I’d built a website for years before. We built the website at that time in a way that required knowledge of web design to edit it. Last month, I transitioned them to a Google Site. OK, it’s not nearly as pretty as the original website I designed, and it doesn’t have the cute animations an artist mom made for the original site. But now the staff has direct access to all the information. They aren’t depending on remembering to tell me when something changes — they own the site and they go in and make the change. I really encourage all schools to look into Google Apps for Education — the set-up was quite easy and the maintenance couldn’t be easier.

Communication:

There is no reason why a school needs to communicate via the old-fashioned monthly print newsletter anymore. Electronic tools are free, easy-to-use, and can be adapted for the few “off-line” parents you might have left. Here are some tips:

1) Don’t make an e-mail address optional on your registration form. Declare that you communicate electronically and demand an address. Lots of parents will leave this blank if you give them the option. (Of course, always include a checkbox for “I don’t have access to electronic communication and will need paper copies or access to a school computer.”)

2) Create ways for the school to communicate both formally and informally. A blog or discussion list allows parents and teachers to exchange informal information. In these days of budget cuts, a blog by a teacher about an upcoming project might just tweak a parent’s memory that she’s got the materials you need in her garage. Formal communication needs to be teacher-controlled and trustworthy. If you have an online calendar, it must be correct and show schedule changes on a daily basis.

3) Some staff will be very resistant to change. When you make the transition to electronic communication, it has to be non-optional. Resistant staff eventually come around…. or retire! 🙂

4) You can create so much good feeling in a parent community by keeping everyone connected with what’s going on in school. Photos, student projects, descriptions of events… anything you put up there will give them confidence that your school is a vital, exciting place for their kids to be.

5) Online information is free. Nothing you can do about it — free information is here to stay. So rather than fight it, use your website to give away as much information as possible. Don’t make parents come to the office to get a piece of paper they need — make it available online. Recommend web tools. Have your librarian (if you’ve still got one) blog about new books in the library. Draw your community in, and use all these great new tools to build even better education and community for everyone.

 

Posted in Culture, Education.


One Response

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  1. Jennifer Gress says

    Wonderful post Suki. I agree completely. There are wonderful tools. Google sites can work. The latest Joomla! version 2.5 (what I work with) has access control levels where certain users/groups of users can access only their category of “articles/pages” making it less confusing for the administrative side of the website world. This is great for schools.

    Communicating electronically can save the school a lot of money. And there are fantastic ways to integrate this into the site. I love that you brought it up.

    I also really appreciate everything you stated about the content of the site. Thanks so much for this great post. I hope all schools find it! I’ll be sending it to educational folks I run across.

    Thanks, Suki!



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