A salute to school web masters

Education is filled with many unsung heroes, including school web masters—most of whom labor anonymously before and after school, at home, and on weekends. School web masters also tend to have the dubious honor of serving as their school’s head technology honcho, which means they get interrupted constantly to handle such eMergencies as unplugged computers, overloaded eMail in-boxes, and crashing hard drives.

So, as summer sizzles out one more time, let’s salute these unpaid denizens of the information highway with a few tips and retorts for their tech-impaired colleagues.

Tip No. 1: When in doubt, turn it off.

No one quite understands why, but most computer mysteries seem to be solved simply by turning the darn thing off and rebooting it. Next time an information systems wizard tells you schools should be run more like a business, remind this person that it says something about the tech industry when switching the on-off button becomes a standard operating procedure for fixing problems.

Tip No. 2: If you build it, they won’t (necessarily) come.

One of the most persistent myths of the internet age is that all you have to do is post a web site and hoards of people will come flocking to it. Now that central office administrators have finally discovered the web, suddenly everything—no matter how trivial, boring, or uninformative—must be posted automatically on the school district’s web site.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard parents clamoring for a detailed analysis of the inclement weather codes or the rubrics used to determine fifth-grade reading competency.

So, if you must build it, at least decode the educationese for the lay site visitor. And, include a plan and a budget for communicating new web offerings to your intended audiences.

Tip No. 3: Meta-tags can result in mega-results.

If your web site doesn’t pop up readily on the most common search engines, you might need to reprogram your meta-tags. These are simply key words built into your HTML source code that enable search engines to find your site more readily. Meta-tags also help determine your listing position and build indexes.

If you haven’t done so already, make sure your web site is registered with the most common internet search engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, MSN, America Online, and Ask Jeeves. It’s also a good idea to play with these search engines from time to time to see what pops up when you list your school, district, university, or organization. Many web masters have been horrified to discover that their sites have been bumped to the bottom of the list, behind for-profit school guides, anti-sites (“My School S—-.com”), and Joe’s School Spirit T-Shirt Barn.

Tip No. 4: Plug-ins are not the things attached to the back of your computer.

Plug-ins are applications used to play audio and video files. The most common are QuickTime, Real Player, Windows Media Player, and Win Amp. Some plug-ins are part of a proprietary software package, while others are downloadable for free from the internet or cost a modest fee ($30 and up). To find out what’s available, do a Google search using “plug-in” as a key word and see what you come up with.

Tip No. 5: The Monkees might be retired, but “Dreamweaver” lives on.

Dreamweaver and Flash, both programs from Macromedia Inc., are quickly becoming the tools of choice for developing cool web sites. However, as my friend and colleague Elliott Levine always points out, it’s the “information highway,” not the “animation highway.”

If no one in your school system but you has the ability to read Flash web sites, leave it alone. And, make sure you test your site on a variety of computers, including the worst in your school or district. Too many web masters forget that just because they have the latest and greatest technology doesn’t mean everyone else does.

I recently tried to check out the web site for a major, upscale shopping center in our region, only to discover that three out of four computers in our office couldn’t access it because the memory-hogging site would only run on the newest operating software.

Tip No. 6: No, Virginia, your computer doesn’t have a built-in drink holder.

Now that more and more CD-ROMs and DVDs simply pop in, and the old trays are getting obsolete, and most people have learned that you can’t stick a business card-sized CD-ROM into a Macintosh without costing your school a lot of money, perhaps we can turn our attention to more important matters, like who stole our extension cords and why that guy down the hall always gets the good multimedia cart.

Tip No. 7: Be careful out there.

As you embark on another school year—one fraught with massive budget cuts, clumsy colleagues, supercharged viruses, expert hackers, overzealous administrators, and other challenges—in the words of the immortal television show Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there!”

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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