As the internet matures, education-related web sites have to become more sophisticated in order to attract and retain site visitors.

Once satisfied with static pages and sporadic updates, today’s web users expect information-packed, easy-to-navigate sites with keyword searches, pop-up menus, and other interactive functions.

Yet, while expectations are increasing, budgets and staffing aren’t. Building and maintaining true service-oriented web sites requires vision, teamwork, and a wide range of skills.

To find out how school system web managers are handling this challenge, I interviewed Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ Jason Martin, who helped retool and redeploy the education service agency’s award-winning web site. A remarkable team effort, the Nassau BOCES web site contains about 750 pages and attracts more than 10,000 unique visitors each month.

Headquartered in Garden City, N.Y., Nassau BOCES serves 56 districts, providing staff development for more than 34,000 educators and continuing education services for nearly 6,000 adult learners. Nassau BOCES also touches the lives of thousands of students each day by providing special, early childhood, arts, and alternative education services.

Here’s what Jason, the agency’s web manager and team leader, has to say about creating relevant, user-friendly web sites:

Q: What are your goals for the Nassau BOCES web site?
A: The overarching goal of the web site is to provide up-to-date, accurate information about Nassau BOCES programs and services to the various audiences we serve, including educators, school district administrators and staff, students, parents, school board members, and our own employees.

Q: You already had an award-winning web site. Why did you undertake such a major redesign?
A: Our primary goal during the redesign process was to improve the site’s navigation. We addressed this by doing away with haphazard links and buttons and by establishing a strong navigation system. Our main navigation bar, which now consists of six buttons, appears near the top of almost every page on the site. The secondary navigation tool is a menu that runs vertically down the left side of almost every page on the site. This menu changes as you move from one area to another.

Q: Was branding a consideration in your redesign?
A: Aside from consistent and prominent use of our log, we did not approach the web site as a branding opportunity. However, as we develop and refine our brand, future iterations of the site will reflect it more clearly.

Q: How do you address your various audiences’ needs on your site?
A: We developed four areas that are audience-specific: School Districts; Teachers, Students, and Parents; School Board Members; and Nassau BOCES Employees. These areas are linked to our home page and provide easy access to a variety of web pages and sections on our site. We typically don’t develop unique content, but use these areas to help visitors navigate what’s already available on the site.

Our WebEvent calendars were implemented with educators in mind. On some days, there may be a dozen events, workshops, and training sessions, all sponsored by different branches of our agency and hosted at multiple locations. The calendars help us pull this information together and make it easy for our customers to find what they need.

The search engine we use, Atomz, records all of the keywords entered by site visitors. I’ve added several pages to the site in response to frequent searches for terms such as “certification,” “teacher salaries,” and “LPN” (Licensed Practical Nurse). For example, although we no longer offer an LPN course, there’s a page on our site dedicated to LPN training.

Q: How do you get employees involved in creating and maintaining your web site?
A: We started with a group of web liaisons, who are volunteers from each of our nine departments. They helped shape the web site when we decided to host and maintain it ourselves, and they continue to provide guidance and leadership for the site. (Our web site had previously been hosted and maintained by an outside firm.) There are currently 16 web liaisons, and I meet with them every other month.

I also teamed up with Barbara Behrens, our communications director, to create a second group for the content managers who handle day-to-day maintenance of our web site. This group meets monthly and has about 23 members.

Q: How do you maintain quality control with so many different people involved on a daily basis?
A: I provide all of the web liaisons and content managers with page templates that conform to our site design. Whenever a new page is needed, this template is used. I also provide training in FrontPage and offer guidance on developing site architecture, maintenance, and other issues. Lately, I’ve been focusing more of the training and meeting discussions on “best practices” when building a new area. For example, we’ll discuss how to go about organizing information into categories so that it can be easily navigated.

Q: What software packages do you use?
A: To develop the site, we use Microsoft FrontPage, Microsoft ImageComposer, Adobe Photoshop, WebEvent, Lyris ListManager, and Atomz Search. For tracking and research, we use WebTrends Reporting Center, eBusiness Edition.

Q: What are your top tips for fellow web masters and school communicators?
A: When it comes to the web, many people confuse design with information architecture. It is critical to gather, organize, and structure your information before delving into design. Form should follow function.

Also, always keep your audiences’ needs in mind. Continually ask yourself what you want to say and to whom. This will help you clarify your message.

I’m currently considering the adoption of a database-driven content management system. With such a system, all of my organization’s key information would be stored in a central database. This information then would be pulled out of the database “on the fly” as it is requested by site visitors. A major benefit to this kind of system is that I could maintain key information in one place. If I update it once, I automatically update my entire site.

Q: Any other surprises or “ah-hahs” you’d like to share?
A: Building (or rebuilding) a site to meet a certain design specification is difficult, especially if you want your site to look the same in all major browsers. I stumbled my way through browser-compatibility issues with much trial and error. The best advice I can offer is to keep your design as simple as possible, and consider using Cascading Style Sheets to ensure that your typography is consistent from one page to another.

Q: Okay, that leads to one more question. What is a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS)?
A: CSS is technically a programming language, albeit a relatively simple one. It is similar to HTML, but not identical. CSS allows you to add functionality to HTML by customizing some of the behaviors of an HTML page. For example, you can dictate that all links on a page will be purple until they are clicked, at which time they turn gray. There is much more to CSS than this, but I use it strictly for text formatting.

Some web development software will generate CSS code for you, just as they do with HTML code. I hand-coded my style sheet, with help from a book called HTML 4 for the World Wide Web, Fourth Edition: Visual Quickstart Guide. The author is Elizabeth Castro and the publisher is Peachpit Press. It’s a great book for beginning and intermediate web developers. I still use my copy often.

See these related links:

Nassau BOCES

Jason Martin

Nora Carr, APR