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School, district web sites lag behind competitors

School web sites should lead the way when it comes to showcasing student work and sharing school news and information.
Yet most are getting skunked by competitors, many from for-profit entities whose real goal is advertising revenue, not education.
Lack of funding is the reason most frequently voiced by school officials for the current sorry state of affairs.

That’s partly why most school web master positions are still filled with unpaid "volunteers" who might or might not have any background or training for the job.

While school secretaries, media specialists, and parents try to fill the gap, the results are uneven.

Paying co-curricular stipends on par with those received by varsity football coaches would be a step in the right direction. For teachers doubling as school web masters, having an hour or two free from teaching during the school day also would help tremendously, given the amount of time it takes to produce and maintain a high-quality product.

While lack of funding and shrinking school budgets represent significant stumbling blocks, I suspect the real culprit is tradition combined with a lack of vision, however.

Fewer than 5 percent of all high school athletes play at the collegiate level, according to the NCAA, yet we invest millions of dollars annually in supporting these activities, often with the unrealistic expectation that college scholarships are available.

Think what would happen if we poured these same millions of dollars, human resources, and time, as well as parent and community support, into making sure our students really gained 21st-century skills?

As a former college scholarship athlete and high school cheerleading captain, I realize this is heresy. But at a time we’re cutting classroom teachers nationwide, I wonder if these are luxuries we can no longer afford–at least at the current spending levels, with collegiate-style stadiums and Olympic-quality swimming pools.

What if new information technologies became part of the college prep and AP/IB curricula? Would we finally move beyond stale technology curricula focused on keyboarding, PowerPoint presentations, and minimal state tests of computer literacy?

Would more high school journalists start publishing school web sites with more relevant news and information? Would high school yearbooks and newspapers finally go digital, or at least online?

Clearly, my experiences at the Kirkwood Call newspaper with the legendary Homer Hall, a Missouri high school journalism teacher and yearbook sponsor known for tyrannically high expectations, shaped my career choices.

His classes and after-school coaching sessions on editing and layout gave me the skills that landed my first job as a writer and editor. Based on the accolades he received prior to retirement, I’m one of just thousands he inspired.

Today’s Homer Halls should teach their students how to develop web sites, produce podcasts, set up RSS feeds, moderate online video chats, and deploy social media networks effectively. Kids are already using Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, and other sites; why not channel that creativity into something constructive, powerful, and appropriate?

Yet many schools still churn out boring, out-of-date web sites along with print newspapers and yearbooks. Schools also traditionally wait until high school to expand student publishing beyond a cute PTA project once a year (also in print).

Other than tradition and yearbook sales, though, I can’t figure out why so many schools are still doing this–especially given how expensive these tomes are and how imperative it is that kids learn these skills in the information age.

When school newsletters are sent via eMail, the preferred format seems to be a PDF of a word-processing document rather than HTML, and they’re often produced by school secretaries or parent volunteers.

While it’s nice to get a school newsletter eMailed to me in PDF format from my child’s middle school secretary, I’d much rather see something students produce. Why can’t the dreaded and boring technology class that teaches the kids information they already know be used to produce this instead?

I’d like to think that producing something people actually read and use would help prepare students for the ridiculous plethora of state-mandated tests, which are also soaking up valuable teaching time and resources in the pursuit of "accountability."

While I like how TeacherTube and SchoolTube are giving educators and students a safe internet forum for communicating and sharing ideas, I think it’s sad these sites are filling a void we helped create by not recognizing how powerful new media are and by under-funding technology in our schools.

At some point, we have to stop blocking social media sites and start teaching everyone associated with our schools how to use these new tools appropriately.

Nora Carr, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chief of staff for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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