If you’re looking for ways to increase the interactivity and functionality of your school or district web site without breaking the bank, you might want to check out the web-based modules offered by SchoolSpan.

Providing the ease of content management at a fraction of the cost, these modules are designed to integrate easily with existing web sites and include interactive calendars, eMail subscription services, alumni portals, online surveys, and electronic newsletters.

School leaders may purchase the modules in bulk or add them one at a time as their budget permits. Annual subscription fees typically cost $5,000 per district, but can start for as little as $1,000 per year.

As a cross between self-publishing and traditional content management systems, SchoolSpan’s modules comprise a hybrid solution that makes it easier to add greater functionality without sacrificing local control.

“This hybrid approach tackles the underlying problems that schools face with self-publishing web sites, as well as problems commonly associated with changing an entire site to a vendor’s content management system,” says Elliott Levine, SchoolSpan vice president.

Using add-on modules, school leaders continue to “own” their school or district web sites. This enables school leaders to change vendors as needed without worrying that their web sites will suddenly go “dark” if they take their business elsewhere.

And, since SchoolSpan doesn’t place its name or logo on your site, district administrators may use the modules to improve their web sites without succumbing to corporate marketing pressures.

“By giving the school the ability to own its web site and change vendors as needed, we alleviate a lot of worry for school leaders who don’t want their sites held hostage if they decide to go a different route,” says Levine, who got his start in public relations and marketing in theatre before heading communications for the Lawrence Public Schools in New York.

By providing the decentralized publishing functions that schools and departments want with the quality and image controls that district-level leaders want, hybrid solutions can help reduce workloads for school and district web masters and IT departments.

Keeping web site information current is an ongoing challenge for most school leaders, who struggle to resource communications, despite rising expectations for 24-7 access among parents, reporters, and other key stakeholders.

The ability of hybrid solutions to rapidly expand publishing capacity while staying on brand and on message is making these solutions more popular.

More and more, parents expect to find breaking news on school or district web sites, while prospective parents are using web sites to determine which areas and schools they’ll consider when buying a home.

While web sites can’t–and won’t–replace good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication, technology can help district leaders manage their relationships with opinion leaders and community groups more effectively.

“Effective public engagement demands strong communication channels,” says Mike Wamsley, superintendent of Alcorn School District in Corinth, Miss. “SchoolSpan has given our staff the tools they need to communicate more frequently and more effectively.”

Outside vendors often can help school systems get there faster, even if they have excellent information technology staffs. “SchoolSpan’s simple interface and easy-to-use functions made our implementation process a matter of days, not months,” says Wamsley.

To help clarify matters further, I zipped some questions regarding SchoolSpan and other hybrid solutions to Levine, a self-taught guru who was pursuing a graduate degree in speech pathology when a superintendent talked him into trying his hand at school public relations 13 years ago.

Here’s what Levine had to say:

Why do you call this a hybrid solution?

Schools keep their existing web pages and update them using their software of choice–[such as] Front Page [or] Dreamweaver. In essence, there is no change to most of their site on basic static pages. Schools add in our modules only to portions of the site, rather than use content management systems to replace the entire site. Most content management companies want schools to replace their entire site. This typically costs districts more and makes the district dependent on the vendor for updates and changes. The combination of self-publishing and content management is more of a hybrid approach.

What are the advantages of hybrid solutions?

Hybrid solutions are cheaper, because you’re using modules for select portions of a site versus using a vendor to replace your entire site. The annual costs are significantly less, typically $5,000 per year versus $15,000 to $20,000 or more. Hybrid solutions also save money because districts don’t incur any start-up costs, which typically average another $10,000 to $20,000.

In addition to cost savings, hybrid [solutions] like SchoolSpan provide a simple set of publishing permission levels that give many staff and students the ability to post content. One level, for example, requires review and approval from an editor before the content appears on the web site. Another level might have full posting authority without review.

Another key advantage for many schools and districts is how seamlessly our modules interface with their existing web pages. School staff members using these tools typically don’t know who developed them and really don’t care, as long as they work effectively.

We don’t place our company name or logo on the sites, nor do we attach cookies to track web site traffic. Many so-called “free” services actually get paid by selling your data to other marketers, while many content management systems require prominent web site placement for corporate or product logos. In our view, the only logo that counts is the client’s.

What can content management systems do that hybrids cannot? Any disadvantages?

Using a larger, more costly content management system can allow for a single source of managing all pages in the site. Our hybrid approach requires schools to use our modules to update content on the tools we provide, but they still must use their current software to update existing pages. Supporting multiple vendors and products can pose more of a management problem.

How is SchoolSpan’s approach different than other web site modules currently on the market?

Most content management vendors just offer a way to create and edit web pages. They do not offer specific functionality tied to K-12 schools. SchoolSpan has 10-plus modules created just for schools. Because our tools are designed by people experienced in school public relations and school web development, we’ve made them intuitive and easily adaptable for a district’s specific needs

For example, West Springfield, Mass., has been using our tools for a year now. They were able to use the newsletter module to take their high school student newspaper online. Students and the advisor are now publishing and featuring a wealth of content for the site.

We also develop and offer tools designed to solve specific problems and issues encountered by school public relations professionals, as well as school and classroom personnel.

For example, the “District File Cabinet” module was created to provide a simple document management system to allow community members to find and download commonly requested materials (board policies, lunch menus, curriculum guides, permission slips, etc.). Our “Teacher Advantage” module was designed based on feedback from faculty wanting an easier way to publish classroom information.

Many vendors are not the authors of the software. In fact, some of the larger vendors are merely resellers of commercially available content management systems. They cannot create new functionality or program new features; they are at the whim of the software publisher. SchoolSpan writes and owns all of the code for its tools, so we can make changes and add new features more easily for clients.

[With] our lower cost, lack of company branding on our tools, and the fact that we write and design our own software, we have distinct advantages over the competition.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

Links:

SchoolSpan Inc.
http://www.schoolspan.com