I read with optimism a recent article in the New York Times that discussed a general reduction in the practice of web surfing. According to the article, people are abandoning search engines–and the serendipitous wanderings in search of information that accompany them–in favor of four or five mainstream information sources.
I found this news encouraging, not only because the thought of healthy, active people spending a Saturday afternoon in front of their computer screens seems depressing, but also because it is an indication that the novelty of the web is beginning to wear off. Soon we will see the extent to which the web’s true impact on society will match the hype.
While this change in behavior may be bad news for online advertisers and dot-com startups, schools generally have not depended on random web surfing to bring viewers to their sites; their “captive audiences” have guaranteed that visitors will return. Nevertheless, the end of the web’s novelty gives schools and businesses alike the opportunity to reevaluate the business case for their web presence and identify ways to make their sites meet the needs of their organizations more effectively.
The advent of the web’s popularity and the explosion in school connectivity in the mid-90s created the idea that all schools needed a web page. Not having a web site meant that your school lacked vision and innovation–that you were desperately behind the curve technologically. Regardless of what was on the site, schools scrambled to get something up on the web to demonstrate to their constituencies that they were keeping up with the curve.
This mad dash to get online fueled a number of dot-com startups that would create school web pages (sometimes without the permission of the school), leaving school leaders to decide why they needed a web page only after the page was on the net.
The first school web sites, much like the first business web sites, were collections of static pages used to publish information about their organizations. Schools would include basic information about their philosophy and mission. Visitors might find driving directions, and alumni might find information on upcoming events. Many teachers and curriculum coordinators also saw this as an opportunity to publish student work and add a level of authenticity to student projects by creating an instant audience outside the classroom.
While some of these sites demonstrated exceptional innovation, they often were based on the premise that web-surfing was and would continue to be a popular pastime for most people–and that simply attracting visitors was a valid goal in itself.
Publishers believed that people would find students’ work by randomly searching the net for a particular topic. Viewers then would send comments to student authors, making the students feel like they had made an authentic contribution to the body of knowledge on the topic. Others believed that the school’s alumni site automatically would attract former students.
As the newness of the web begins to fade, however, it is becoming clearer that–even on the internet–if you build it, they may not come.
The question now becomes: How can schools make the best use of their sites, given the change in how people now use the web? To answer this question, school leaders must reexamine their goals for their web sites, and publishers must clearly identify the different audience groups they are creating content for.
Clearly, some of the goals that schools have had all along will continue to be applicable. Schools will still strive to connect their students, parents, and alumni to build a sense of community. Teachers and school web masters will continue to compile lists of links to appropriate research materials that suit their students’ needs, functioning as a sort of “quality control portal” categorized for specifically assigned projects.
To some extent, information such as school contacts, driving directions, budgets, and bond issues still will be presented to the public, but school leaders should realize that their core web audience is not the wandering web-surfer who stumbles across their site to see how the football team did last Friday or what the cafeteria is serving this week. A school’s core audience consists of students, teachers, parents, and alumni. School leaders will need to recraft their web sites to target the interests of each of these groups, presenting appropriate, useful information in a way that is easy for each group to find what it wants.
Other goals, while noble in concept, are not going to be met by many school web sites the way they are structured. While publishing student work on the web will attract the occasional visitor, these visitors will be few and far between.
If your goal is to give students the experience of publishing to a wider audience, you should promote the students’ work via eMail to a peer group or discussion list, encouraging people to send comments to the students. If your goal is to inform, as in the case of a student newspaper, you should send a broadcast eMail promoting the site to the publication’s target audience. Tying these publications to existing traditional methods of communication, such as an alumni newsletter or other correspondence, will help your target audiences find appropriate information on your site.
Some school leaders might find new goals that are uniquely geared to the medium of the web, such as posting administrative applications like grade books, attendance, and scheduling. Tying these applications to back-end databases and creating different types of interfaces to them can make them useful for parents and students, as well as administrators and teachers. Automating eMail distribution through thresholds and triggers can help you reach out and draw the target audience to your site, instead of hoping viewers find it on their own. Other new goals might include the distribution of licensed software.
By reevaluating goals and better identifying target audiences, school leaders can redesign their web sites to serve their organizations and communities more effectively. By making changes now, as changing attitudes toward the web become apparent, schools can keep themselves ahead of the curve and prevent the perception that their web site goals have not been met or that their online publication efforts have been a waste of time.