Suggestions on best practices for school web sites

I was asked for some guidance or suggestions on best practices for school web sites, specifically for a K-8 district. The demographics of the town are such that about 64% of the kids in the public schools are hispanic with a significant number of those students coming from homes where only the children speak English. Additionally, the website would be part of a larger strategy of trying to get out the message that the public schools are far better than most tax-payers and parents would tend to believe.

Just to state the obvious, ask the parents and this does include you with your parent hat on.

A successful web site -- or any information tool -- must to be used by both staff, teachers, parents, and children. So, for example, when a school administrator needs to know when Ms Field's 5th grade field trip is returning to the school grounds the web site is used rather than a phone call placed to the teacher. If you don't have this happening then maintaining the web site for parents and children will be seen, rightly so, as extra work and so will get minimal attention.

Regards the contents, learn from the Lean manufacturing world, and build only what is needed when it is needed. Don't create a grand design, but instead focus on a very few key areas.

There is a tendency to provide a personalized experience for each user -- a kind of "My School" page. For example, Ian Lopez's kids are in 3rd and 4th grades and when he uses the web site its content will be arranged for him so that he sees only content relevant to his children. Don't do this. Personalized experience will make it more difficult for parents to support each other and work together to understand how to make use of the web site. Keep the web site's experience the same for all users.

There is a tendency in these situations to create a top down, administration focused, hierarchical organization of the content. Don't do this. Few organization's can restrain themselves from creating deeply nested structures that, ultimately, require a priori knowledge to use. Don't separate school-wide notices, grade-wide notices, and class-specific notices in the site's presentation. Organize the content by teacher and by day so the user has one page to see all the relevant information. As a general rule, think of your web site as a bunch of one-page reports focusing on a teacher's class and ordered by date. Imagine this page being printed and sent home with the student in the "backpack express" and this student's parent being as informed as a parent using the web site. The relevant Google query here is "situation awareness."

While comprehensive navigation, orientation, and search tools will be needed don't include them in the initial web site. The goal is to have one page and the one page does not need these tools. Instead, the home page is little more than a list of teacher and staff links at the end of which is the one page containing all the content the parent needs.

Lastly, since your audience needs both Spanish and English content then provide both side by side (as is done by the Canadian government). Don't elevate one language over the other and don't segregate them. This is a cost that should not be avoided. Do it right.

There are lots of platforms upon which to run a school site. I find the school-focused ones to be mostly a decade out of date regards their model of community and, similarly, dated regards user experience. What I have presented above can be implemented using Google's spreadsheets, calendars and some custom HTML and CSS. It is not technically difficult.

I am leary of packaged solutions and would rather empower someone to use a small number of flexible tools to craft their own solution. Look around at the uses that FileMaker, Excel and Word have been put too and you see empowerment in action. From an engineering standpoint, the results are often brittle, sometimes factually wrong, or simply scary, but the creator was able to achieve his or her goal without the need for IT support. So create a foundation by having a well considered information architecture, good tool choices, a dash of computational thinking training, and some under-the-covers engineering process and you can let the school do their own thing.

With that said, I feel very strongly that for a period of a few years there needs to be regular reviews to re-calibrate the web site. I would much rather see a school spend money on consulting than on tools. Unfortunately, spending money on "the right tools" always seems like the most direct and least expensive path to take. This is almost always the wrong choice because you are passing off the responsibility of understanding how to communicate with your users -- your school's parents and children -- to the vendor. The vendor's model of your users is at the intersection of all their customers' users. I can tell you that the users of Peace Dale Elementary School in South Kingstown, RI are far different than those of Robertson Elementary School in Central Falls, RI. And worse, the vendor is most likely to offer a solution that enables communication TO your users and not WITH your users.

The following are links to other stuff that I have written about that might help

http://calliopesounds.blogspot.com/2009/04/occasional-user-and-community-web-site.html

http://calliopesounds.blogspot.com/2009/04/less-technology-is-sufficient.html

http://southkingstownrinow.blogspot.com/2009/05/connecting-printed-information-with-web.html

http://southkingstownrinow.blogspot.com/2009/05/advice-on-making-community.html