When it comes to web design, form should follow function. How a site looks isn’t nearly as important as what it does. Many school web sites, however, seem stuck in a print paradigm. Pretty packaging can’t hide static pages and stale information.

“Every week I speak with districts, and some are very proud to show off how much money they invested in their web site with a designer,” says Elliott Levine, vice president of SchoolSpan Inc. “But there’s no updated content. With only a few weeks left in the school year, why is the superintendent’s letter still welcoming [students] back to school?”

Here’s an even better question: If interactivity, relevant content, and fresh, fast-breaking news characterize powerful web sites, why is a message from the superintendent even posted?

Blame our print newsletter and brochure training again. Have you ever seen a district or school-based publication that doesn’t start out with some kind of letter or message from the top administrator?

To help school leaders get out of the online brochure rut, Levine and I have developed a new set of standards for creating and managing school web sites. Published by SchoolSpan and available at eSchool News Online beginning this month, the standards cover content, security, functionality, and interactivity. (See “Building Blocks to Electronic Communication: A Rubric for School Web Development and Management.”)

While I’m a bit ashamed to admit we called it a rubric, the framework can help you measure your web site’s effectiveness.

Interactive features, eMail subscription options, and new content are rewarded with extra points, along with daily updates, emergency notices for parents, and quick download times.

School web sites also earn positive points for having multiple content authors and posting content developed by students and faculty members, limiting PDF use, and keeping essential data within “three clicks or less.”

An interactive, district-wide calendar that allows web surfers to search for activities by school, department, or event type can add a whopping 5 points to your score, while getting picked up easily by major search engines like Google or Yahoo earns another 3 points.

You can also earn bonus points by giving parents secure access to student information; clearly segmenting “news you can use” content for parents, students, and staff; using web-tracking software to guide development; and checking your HTML code for errors and viewing problems.

We also weigh in with a resounding “yes” on the proverbial “should we or shouldn’t we” question regarding the use of student photos.

Web sites need to tell a story, and a picture–whether via digital video or photography–is still worth a thousand words.

Security concerns, while valid, are overblown. You can keep predators from snatching your photos by simply restricting their ability to download or copy images from your web site.

The information students post (often without their parents’ knowledge or consent) on MySpace.com offers significantly more risk than the tame-by-comparison news and photos posted on school or district web sites.

Frankly, it makes no sense to restrict web-based photos that could end up in the daily newspaper or local TV newscast.

Stock photos, while not preferred, at least can add some humanity and emotion to your site–and win you a few brownie points on our rubric as well.

On the other hand, obsolete information, broken links, “under construction” banners, and missing area codes for phone numbers–some of my personal pet peeves–will cost your web site points … and repeat visits.

If you forget to include your mailing address, phone number, or eMail contact on you home page, you’re not going to score as well as someone who makes it easy to contact school officials and recognizes that not all site visitors live in the same town.

You’ll also get fewer points if your news isn’t updated frequently or if you don’t provide administrators’ eMail addresses and work phone numbers.

Heavy use of PDFs and other static pages isn’t going to score as high as a web site filled with drill-down content written and formatted specifically for the web.

Forgetting to cross-link information, or making users visit multiple departments and schools to get information, also costs points.

“Where a district scores on this rubric is highly dependent not on its technology, but on its commitment to effective communication,” says Levine. “Those who have a web site because everyone else has one, or who focus on making a ‘pretty’ site, will be surprised to find themselves scoring less than expected.”

Web users are busy people. Making them dig too deep for data might result in a “failure to communicate,” which is why search functions are increasingly important–and site maps increasingly obsolete.

How can anyone accurately map out a web site with thousands of pages of content published by multiple authors and departments?

Districts that lack web publishing standards or whose web sites reveal a lack of adherence to web publishing guidelines aren’t going to score as well as those whose site pages and content are hallmarks of currency, simplicity, readability, and consistency.

“The goal is to make the content easy for the parent or other stakeholder to find what they need,” says Levine. “Rather than giving staff blank web pages to fill, simplified content management technology can help them publish their information and reduce the time investment on an ongoing basis to ensure the site remains current.”

The bottom line: School leaders need to make the web an integral part of how they work and communicate with each other and with teachers, support staff, parents, students, reporters, and community members.

“We need to develop a plan to make web communication a systematic part of every department, school, and classroom,” says Levine. “Until we harness technology to facilitate the daily communication that takes place in schools, we will never truly exploit the web for it stakeholder engagement benefits.”

Link:

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

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