Our current grading cycle comes to a close soon and for the first time since I can remember, I won’t have a line of kids outside of my door who want to get a preview of their grades on the computer. This is because our students now have access to their grades and teacher comments on our school’s intranet.

I started building the intranet about a month ago, and I’ve gotten positive responses from students and faculty. In addition to grades, students and teachers have access to a searchable database of phone numbers and addresses. The registrar can enter students’ course requests through his web browser at home, and next fall, students and parents will be able to input this information for themselves. Members of the school community will also have up-to-the-minute access to other school-related data, such as athletic scores, schedules, and daily attendance.

What is an intranet?

“Intranet” is one of those words that you always have to define, because it means different things to different people. I use the word to refer to any data with restricted access, distributed using internet technologies such as a web browser.

Some people distinguish between those resources that can be accessed from the local area network (LAN), and those that are accessible from outside the LAN but still require a password. They call the former an intranet and the latter an extranet. For the purposes of this article, however, I refer to them both using the word intranet.

Why build an intranet?

Two of the biggest questions you should ask when designing a school web site concern its purpose and audience. For whom are you designing the site and what value do you expect this audience to get out of it?

The problem in answering these questions is that most schools have a very diverse audience, including students, teachers, administrators, and community members. While some features might be very valuable to one of these groups, they might be completely inappropriate for to another.

An intranet solves this problem in two ways. First, all sensitive information is restricted. Anything intended for public viewing is placed on the main web site, while the intranet protects more proprietary information. Second, because a well-designed intranet knows its users by name, it can present a personalized browsing experience for each of them.

Not only can security restrictions be placed on certain files, but by using dynamically created hypertext mark-up coding, the pages presented to users can be uniquely designed to offer them links only to the pages that pertain to them and that they have access to.

This expanded access to information presents significant opportunities for schools and technology managers. The first and most obvious advantage is the ubiquitous nature of a web browser. Applications that are updated automatically each time they are run—and that can be run instantaneously from anywhere in the world—can save untold dollars in application development and distribution costs. As personal digital assistant and wireless technology develop, the mobility and flexibility of access to this data will make intranets even more valuable.

The less obvious, but more profound, advantage to intranet data access is the effect that customized, universal access to data has on the relationships among schools, students, and parents.

Imagine having the ability to sit down with your daughter on any given evening and pull up a list of her courses, with links to the syllabi and handouts for each course. Click on each assignment and you can see what grade she has earned. Click another link and you can see a spreadsheet of all her grades in the class, including her current average. Another link displays a list of any missing assignments. Analysis can evaluate grades on specific assignments, weighing them against criteria and objectives for those assignments to identify trends regarding where your daughter needs to spend more study time.

Access to information such as this empowers parents to change behaviors and study habits before report cards come out. It also takes some of the burden off the teacher to catch every student whose average begins to dip and make phone calls to parents before the end of the quarter. Parents can check progress on a weekly or a daily basis. The system could even generate an eMail reminder to a teacher to call a parent when a student’s average drops below a certain level.

Finally, an intranet can facilitate collaborative curriculum development. By converting curricula from flat files to databases with different fields for objectives and activities, teachers who share similar objectives can view what others have done to accomplish their objectives, sharing ideas and projects more easily.

Because access is managed on multiple levels, administrators can read, comment on, and evaluate lesson plans from all teachers or a select group of teachers under their supervision. Teacher observations and evaluations can be linked to lessons, with viewing restricted to that teacher and his or her supervisor, leaving the rest of the lesson accessible to everyone. This gives teachers instant access to all their performance reviews with the click of a mouse.

Further statistical analysis can be done to see how often a given activity was used by a particular teacher, what course or state standards have or have not been met, and how a teacher compares with his or her peers in terms of technology use, cooperative learning, or project-based learning. While this information would be invaluable to administrators, board members, and perhaps parents, it is most useful as a self-assessment tool that could be used as part of an individual’s professional development and goal-setting plan.

What obstacles do schools face?

The idea of school intranets, and the technology that makes them possible, are certainly not new —but for various reasons, schools have not implemented them on a widespread basis. Chief among the obstacles facing schools is the relative newness of information technology (IT) to them. Many schools simply aren’t used to the idea of using IT to their advantage and, unlike business, they don’t see IT as an integral part of their mission. A major symptom of this is the gross understaffing of most school IT departments.

A second obstacle to intranet deployment is the natural resistance to change that exists in most large institutions. People are used to their old ways of doing things, and although the new way might be better, it still requires learning, work, and adaptation. People’s misconception that anything accessed through a web browser is inherently insecure has also been an obstacle.

If school intranets are to be successful, these obstacles must be overcome. School IT departments should consider the following suggestions:

Start small. If you plan to develop a system from scratch to replace your current administrative system, you’ll most likely end up frustrated and disappointed unless you have a full-time development team working for you. Our school is a few years away from the system that I describe above, but I was able to set up a nice little system with a few simple programs that check the identity of users and query various databases. I did this in about three weeks all by myself. In this case, something is better than nothing.

Outsource if necessary. There are a growing number of off-the-shelf intranet packages that might suit your needs. Where things aren’t a perfect fit, you might have to do some development yourself, but an off-the-shelf package might give you the foundation you need to get off to an impressive start.

Make it easier. It takes users about two minutes to open our regular administrative software and look up a student’s grades. They can do it in about half that time using our intranet. While most people will resist change at first, they’ll eventually gravitate toward the faster, easier option.

Move critical data first. Find some information that people need on a daily basis and see if you can port that to your intranet first, with a minimal amount of fuss. Leave the old data in place as a safety net, but promote the new intranet method of accessing them as easier and faster. This is a great way to get people to buy in early.

Be very clear about security. Post a document on your intranet explaining which items are, and are not, available off-campus. Also, explain how documents are secured and, if appropriate, what encryption technologies are in place to protect sensitive data in transit. Create pages that can tell where users are logging in from based on their internet protocol address, and don’t offer campus-only links to users off-campus.

Promote your site. Put a link in an obvious spot on your home page. People will visit out of curiosity and if the content is good, they’ll come back. Campus-wide eMail is another good promotion tool. Where it’s appropriate, you can get good word-of-mouth promotion by involving students in the development of the site. They’ll be proud of what they’ve done and will want their friends to see their work.

As schools continue to embrace information technology, they’ll realize the potential impact that a well-designed intranet offers their community. For our school, anyway, the potential gains of a well-designed intranet were simply too great to ignore.