Up here in Wisconsin, the snow can fall early and heavy. In the autumn of 2001, the superintendent of my school district, Dr. Robert Slotterback, asked our technology department to come up with a way to allow him and other area superintendents to collaborate on making the decision to cancel school on a given day because of inclement weather.
The director of my department, James Weise, saw the possibility of using a web-based tool instead of the telephone conference system the superintendents had been using. As the district’s web architect, it fell to me to get the system built—before the first snow fell.
I started by analyzing the current system—a telephone conference call among superintendents that begins at 4 a.m.—to determine what worked, what didn’t work, and why. I wanted to understand what the superintendents were trying to achieve through large group collaboration and whether it was even possible to build an online tool that would meet many, if not all, of these objectives.
The school districts of southeastern Wisconsin belong to a cooperative educational service agency, or “CESA,” that serves as a link between the districts and the state. One of the services our CESA offers, which made my initial research easier, is the coordination of a snow day or emergency conference call system. From our CESA, I was able to obtain a list of members’ names and contact information.
The CESA conference-call method met several objectives. It allowed everyone to hear the same information and express their opinions. It didn’t require superintendents to leave their homes, and it left everyone aware of what the others were deciding. Participants didn’t always need to agree, but they wanted to be aware of what the others were doing.
But because of the limitations of its technology, the system was often found lacking. It required one person to be responsible for initiating and managing the conference call whenever it was used. It was hard to communicate when up to 25 people were on a single phone call. Making a decision verbally didn’t allow for the kind of positive collaboration the superintendents desired. Users would talk only when their name was called, so roll calls were required every time information was requested. The only sources of information available to the superintendents in the conference call were other superintendents. For example, they didn’t have a meteorologist in the conference call to advise them how the weather might turn.
Our idea was to replace the conference call with a web interface that:
• Could be accessed by the appropriate decision makers any time they wanted;
• Allowed for the sharing of opinions and decisions of other area superintendents;
• Provided information about weather trends and related news; and
• Was easy to use and accessible from home.
What began as a way to collaborate on snow cancellations has evolved into a full-fledged online survey system. This “Superintendent’s Survey System,” as we call it, is an interactive, online database that uses Microsoft’s .net technology. Because we didn’t have the staff on hand to produce the necessary code quickly enough, we turned to one of our best local vendors, Norhwoods Software Development.
Norhwoods wrote the basic code, which included a dynamically generated map. Our district’s information services department designed the look and feel of the interface and oversaw the rest of the technical implementation.
The first survey topic we designed for the site was the school closing issue originally posed by my superintendent.
Here’s how the survey site works: Each superintendent is assigned a name and password (for obvious reasons) to log on to the site and indicate his or her current school closing status—closed, open, or delayed start. This can be done at any time of day and from any computer with internet access, or it can be delegated to another person easily if necessary.
After logging their decisions, the superintendents then can view the current results on a dynamically generated, colored-coded map of the participating districts. The colored map was requested by my superintendent (a one-time art teacher) so that weather patterns quickly can be inferred based on the location of schools that are closed. Participants also can revise their decisions, and the map colors will change in real time to reflect the new results. The dynamic map shows the creativity of our programming vendor and is something that would have taken us many weeks to create on our own.
To support the decision-making process, we included a chat room that allows the exchange of whatever information the superintendents think is important at the time. The chat service also allows users with only a single dial-up phone line to “talk” without quitting their internet connection. In addition, weather forecasts, warnings, storm path predictions, and nearly real-time radar maps—pulled from the web site of the Milwaukee office of the National Weather Service—further provide a way for the superintendents to see weather trends without logging out of the system.
We had a pretty light winter this year, by Wisconsin standards anyway, and we never had the opportunity to use the school-closing portion of the system. But now we’re expanding the system to allow for polling on many more topics. We also plan to open the system to participation by curriculum directors, technology directors, and others so they’ll have one more tool to exchange valuable information and make better decisions.
Our Superintendent’s Survey System is a good example of an online collaboration tool. At its heart, any online collaboration tool should provide a means by which key people can exchange information in a way that is both easy to do and easy to interpret. Good decisions must become easier to make; otherwise, the technology just makes poor decision-making happen quicker.
Some things to consider when building your own web-based communication tool include:
• Knowing what you want to achieve by the end of the project.
• Understanding the process you are trying to replace or enhance and its strengths and weaknesses. Then, keep the good and get rid of the bad.
• Talking about the project as often as possible, even with people not normally in the loop. This may be counter-intuitive, but in our case some great ideas came from our superintendent’s administrative assistant.
• Working with contracted professionals with whom you have a history.
• Setting clear deadlines and work toward them.
• Keeping your boss informed.
• Not announcing the project’s completion until you’ve thoroughly tested the system. In fact, keep even the beta version a secret if you can.
Keith Murphy is the web architect supervisor for the Wauwatosa School District in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. He can be reached via eMail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bev O’Donnell, assistant to the superintendent, also contributed to this article.