At last count, the number of schools in the United States with their own web sites was 8,841. At least, that was the figure as of last July, according to Web 66, an international registry maintained by the University of Minnesota. The number probably is much higher now.

In 1995, the growth rate for the world wide web in education was clocked at 1,200 percent per year. As the sheer numbers increase, that rate would slow down, of course, but web sites are becoming as common as flagpoles for schools across the country. And you don’t need statistics to appreciate the growing importance of the web.

When Newsweek featured domestic maven Martha Stewart and her PC on the cover next to the headline “Christmas Goes On-Line,” it was one more signal to Nora Carr, director of marketing and development for Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, that the internet has finally reached the mainstream. Endorsed by America’s ultimate household name, the world wide web no longer is just a plaything of the elite.

“The internet and the web are not just for white males with BA degrees who make more than $60,000 anymore,” said Carr. “People are using [the web] for shopping, for checking out school districts, for getting any kind of information they need, and that includes information about education. The web has become a mainstream medium, and schools need to be a part of it and be able to use it wisely.”

Many more schools are doing just that, providing internet access to their teachers and students: Seventy-eight percent of public schools in the U.S. were connected to the internet by 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In those schools, 94 percent of teachers and 90 percent of students had access to the web.

With this access, the majority of students and teachers now have an ever-increasing cornucopia of web-based instructional resources available to them. Teachers are pointing and clicking their way to educational research, lesson plans, and online experts, and they’re connecting with other teachers across the country. Students are actively using the medium to participate in learning projects, publish their work online, and build communication and technical skills they’ll use in the future.

But the web isn’t just a static storehouse for good lesson plans. Increasing numbers of school districts are realizing the internet’s potential as a two-way channel to communicate with parents, board members, journalists, taxpayers, and all other members of the community.

“Everyone wants their information faster and more personalized, and [the web] is the perfect answer to that,” said Carr. “It’s relatively cost-effective, and it’s easily updated.”

This month’s special report will help you understand what’s available to your teachers and students on the world wide web. We’ll also give you some starting points for getting yourself on the web, with some pointers for do-it-yourselfers who want to build and maintain their own school web site.

Where to start?

How does a school take advantage of what the web has to offer? Historically, educators have been eager to share their lesson plans, ideas, lectures, and teaching notes online. The web is bursting with “mega-sites,” “clearinghouses,” and “master-lists” of the bounty–much of it free–that exists online for teachers.

For the executive educator who wants to see what’s available for the faculty, a good first stop is the well-known ED’s Oasis, directed by Terrie Grey.

“Our mission is to help teachers use the internet as an integral tool for teaching and learning,” said Grey. “There is a wealth of material online that is readily adaptable, and we are providing access to it so every teacher does not have to become an instructional designer.”

With an emphasis on standards-based curriculum, the site provides links to many web projects for teachers and students. ED’s Oasis also provides a library of lesson plans, opportunities to correspond with other teachers, and support for educators who want to develop their own web-based teaching tools–all at no cost to educators. Through its Master Search Contest, ED’s Oasis provides models and instruction in how to develop educational web sites. Grey and her staff evaluate nominated sites and give suggestions for how to improve them.

“We have some pretty rigorous requirements,” said Grey. “And we have found some truly superlative projects.”

For instance, among the dozens of exemplary projects ED’s Oasis links to is a site called Blue Ice. It’s a seven-week, theme-based science project for students in grade 4-10 that offers a virtual field trip to Antarctica. Students learn about the geography, weather, history, geology, and wildlife of Antarctica. The interdisciplinary program addresses national standards in those topics and helps build creative writing and computer skills.

Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators and the Global Schoolhouse also offer a wealth of web-based instructional resources at no cost.

With countless hours of free instructional projects available, an internet connection might soon be regarded as a teacher’s best friend. Yet while the web serves as a tremendous curriculum resource, Grey said, it also presents new and important challenges for educators.

“There’s the whole area of visual literacy that in the past only the yearbook advisor had to get into,” she said. “We now need to teach students how to communicate in a variety of media, and to be a little more objective as consumers of media.”

That includes showing students how to navigate the sea of information (and misinformation) presented by the web. For the curious student, the web can be an incredible research tool, but anyone who has ever used a search engine knows there are many sites full of irrelevant content.

There are alternatives, however. Fee-based reference sites such as Electric Library, Grolier Online, Britannica Online, and Microsoft Encarta offer expertly written, reliable information that is attractive to educators (see sidebar).

School system as publisher

The first step is to use the web as an innovative teaching tool. This often leads to the next step: leveraging its unrivaled power as a “many-to-many” communications tool. In the past, teaching inside a classroom and communicating with the rest of the world were separate activities. On the web, they can quickly become intertwined–which is not a bad thing.

For instance, posting student work on a web site is a great way to share it with others and also teach students the technical and communications skills they will need for the future. Of course, teachers will need to acquire these skills themselves before they can instruct students in the finer points of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML)–which isn’t difficult to learn, fortunately.

In fact, the web itself is the best place to learn how to build and use it. In a moment, we’ll provide some links that will get you started learning HTML and web design.

Aside from sharing student work, the web can be a vehicle for connecting with parents and others in the community, which is why so many schools are establishing their own informational web sites. To be considered a progressive school these days, you need the right kind of a web presence.

But what is the right kind of web site? It’s one that engages the audience and gets the results you want. A common mistake–made by businesses and schools alike–is to put up a static, brochure-like site that no one wants to revisit.

“That’s a poor use of an exciting medium,” said Carr.

According to Carr, thoughtful planning is the key to developing a web site that is an asset to your schools’ communications program.

“You need to take the time to think through the unique qualities of this medium, and really take advantage of them,” Carr said. Devote the proper resources to your web project up front and think strategically from the start, she advised.

“The web is one more tool in our arsenal of communication vehicles, but it’s a unique and important one. It allows one-to-one interconnectivity that you just don’t get with any other medium.”

With a web site you can personalize information in ways that are not possible or practical using print media or TV. For instance, Cooperating School Districts (CSD), a consortium of 48 districts, has always offered its school members the opportunity to obtain volume discounts by purchasing supplies together. CSD now offers this service through its web site, allowing a more efficient process that users can access 24 hours a day, according to Carr.

CSD’s web site also features an interactive personnel database. Teachers seeking employment can visit the site and fill out a single application to apply to all schools in the St. Louis area.

“It’s getting rave reviews and calls from people all over the country,” said Carr.

Deciding who should build your web site

Starting a web site from scratch requires a certain amount of technical expertise in terms of hosting and programming the site. You can spend a vast amount of time keeping it updated, checking links, and working out all the bugs. And of course that’s all in addition to deciding exactly what you want to say to the world at large, including parents, taxpayers, school board members, and other educators.

One solution might be to use one of the many free web-hosting services open to schools.

That’s what the Novi, Mich., Community School District did. Just over a year ago, Novi’s superintendent and several board members saw the FamilyEducation Network’s school web sites demonstrated at the American Association of School Administrators’ conference. They were impressed with what they saw and quickly signed on.

“We think it’s the perfect way to use the technology we have to link with parents, and help them get more involved with their children and what’s going on in the classroom,” said Debbie Brauer, communications director for the Novi Community School District. “It’s just a great way to keep in touch, especially for working parents.”

The FamilyEducation Network (FEN) started out in 1996 as a mega-site containing more than 8,000 pages of information about child development and education trends. It was recognized by Family PC magazine as the best online resource for parents in 1997 and 1998.

To help schools create stronger links with parents, FEN began offering schools free web site “templates” already linked to relevant content for educators and parents. With 1,100 schools in 500 districts on its network, the solution appears to be working, according to Jonathan Carson, co-founder and CEO of the FamilyEducation Company.

This January, FEN unveiled a new suite of software tools designed to make it even easier for schools to create their own web sites. Developed exclusively for schools, the software provides easier-to-use templates, enhanced security, and greater customization, said Carson.

Novi used the FEN templates to create web sites for each of its seven schools. Teams of members from each building–including the principal, a secretary, a media paraprofessional, and students–work together to update content and make sure the site is running smoothly. FEN provides training and ongoing support to ensure the program is implemented properly. The Novi site is visited by 50 to 100 parents per day.

Although Novi has created site teams, many FEN web sites are managed by one person, a “site editor,” who spends about 90 minutes per week updating school-related information, working with the 26 templates provided by FEN.

The ease of the FEN approach and the fact that it’s free might work well for your school district if you want to have a strong web presence with a minimum of fuss.

Do-it-yourself

Of course, some free services have drawbacks. Most free web hosting services–and their sponsors–are competing for viewers’ attention. And you’re not in control of the content they publish. This can be a problem, as one educator reports.

“ASD [America’s School Directory] keeps saying we’re the home of the Lions,” said Elliott Levine, communications director for Lawrence Public Schools. “But we’re the Tornadoes.”

That’s why Levine took the time to learn how to develop web sites himself. When he was assigned responsibility for his district’s web site back in May 1996, he hadn’t a clue, he says, about what he was doing.

“I had never even seen a school web site before,” said Levine, whose seven-school district serves 3,800 students in Nassau County on New York’s Long Island. He had “zero background” in technology, he reports.

But Levine did have a background in public relations. To build a site that would achieve the districts’ communications goals, he wanted to maintain control over the content of the site and decide when it would be updated. He quickly taught himself HTML and developed a site he now thinks of as “24-hour news channel” about the district.

It was a learning experience beyond compare, said Levine. Planning the web site forced the district to think about why they were bothering to build one in the first place. And that, said Levine, has led to ongoing discussions about the districts’ mission and goals.

“It makes us step back and evaluate constantly,” said Levine. “We know we don’t have manpower and money to compete [with commercial web sites], so it forces us to be creative and try new things.”

Levine pulled in other administrators, students, and even teachers to plan and implement the web site. Although some teachers were at first intimidated by the technology, the team members were encouraged to take risks and make mistakes. The web-building process, according to Levine, fostered a safe environment in which previously reluctant participants “blossomed” and gained a sense of ownership.

Now, Levine says, he doesn’t think he could give up control of the web site to an outside party. That’s partly because of the constant updating required by the site and partly because of the information he’s able to gather by closely monitoring the web site’s activity.

“I see our web site as a 24-hour news channel, and it goes two ways,” Levine said. “It allows us to disseminate and collect information about what’s going on in this district, and we’d be crazy not to use it to our best advantage.”

Partnering with Winstar for Education and its subsidiary, Community School Networks Inc., Lawrence Public Schools uses its internet connections to deliver educational content to its students and communicate important school news to parents.

Lawrence’s audience is diverse. Within the district’s boundaries are the second-wealthiest community on Long Island and the poorest, according to Levine, who pays close attention to the percentage of parents in the community who are online. He knows the numbers are increasing.

For those who want to create their own web sites from scratch, Levine has a few tips to keep in mind.

1. Spend time planning. The most important thing you can do, according to Levine, is to understand the purpose and goals for your content. Whether it’s disseminating news, promoting a campaign, or reaching new audiences–know your purpose. If you don’t know the why, says Levine, “you don’t know who you’re trying to reach, and you might be putting all your effort into meaningless communication.”

2.Start small. “You don’t have to build Rome in a day. Start small, even if it’s only five pages, and do it well. Know the process you followed to make that work, and then go on from there.”

3.Brush up on your communication skills. Levine began by learning to translate the “techno-babble” spoken by many computer users into plain English–so that he could get help from as many people as possible.

4.Get help from as many people as possible. From the beginning, Levine was continually sharing what he was learning with students and other staff members as he worked to get the site up and running. Your site could double in size, and the more people who are in from the beginning will tend to stay involved.

5.Seize the learning opportunity. Motivating students can be a challenge in the beginning, Levine says, but once you’ve harnessed their energy, students can be a huge help and benefit from gaining new skills.

6.Build a diverse support team. Your team should represent a mix of skills, both technical and editorial. “Collaboration is really the key,” says Levine. “It’s important to bring the technical people and the content people together. You need to have a good blend.”