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Published in Print: January 21, 2009, as Build it Better

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Build It Better

District Web sites are a gateway and a guide for educators, parents, and students, but designing them to work for everyone is challenging.

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This past fall, students, parents, and staff members in the Clark County school district in Las Vegas were on high alert when a gunman was on the loose near some schools. A handful of the district's elementary and middle schools were on lockdown, and police kept parents away for safety reasons.

The district turned to its Web site, sometimes updating minute by minute, to give parents the latest information on which schools remained locked down and when it was safe to pick up their children.

Even when there's nothing unusual happening, the district's Web site gets more than 8 million page views per month from a wide range of users, says Dan Wray, the director of technical resources for the 308,000-student Clark County district. Everyone from parents seeking school data to students looking for cafeteria menus and community outsiders moving to town is pointing and clicking on the site.

School district Web sites are the gateway through which those interested in a district often enter, but designing one that works for everyone can be a challenge, experts say. School officials must consider the wide variety of constituents tapping the site for many different purposes. Sites are the repository for vast amounts of information, but they must present it in an intuitive and organized way. Complicating matters is the fact that there are often many contributors to a school district Web site, all with their own goals and styles.

"The Web site has become the communication medium of our time for schools," says Marina Leight, the vice president for education for the Folsom, Calif.-based Center for Digital Education, which provides technology advice and support to K-12 schools and higher education institutions.

'Pepper the Site With Links'

Districts overhauling their Web sites, or even making small improvements, should first find out just who is visiting their sites and why. In 2007, the 10,500-student Alexandria, Va., school district began a Web site redesign, but the first step was research, says Diane Loomis, the district's Web services administrator. Loomis started with the site's own analytics to determine which pages were most visited and when. The district also did an electronic survey of users to see if they were successfully navigating the site.

"We realized that people weren't finding some things we didn't make prominent," Loomis says. For example, users weren't clicking through the school board page to find board policies and manuals, despite the fact that these items were often searched for.

"We realized we had to pepper the site with links," Loomis says.

Tips

1. Before redesigning or updating a site, do research to determine how users access information on the site. Utilize site analytics, focus groups, and survey information.

2. Stick to a "more is less" approach for graphics. Don't use flashing images, rotating designs, or huge graphic content.

3. Avoid looking dated. Don't use heavy borders around objects or pictures. Instead, opt for a drop shadow for a more three-dimensional approach.

4. Make sure the site is well-organized, based on the way a visitor would use it, not based on school district heirarchy.

5. Don't forget to provide basic information such as the district address, main phone number, and other contact information in a place where it is easy to see or find.

6. Have employees check the site regularly to find and correct grammar or factual mistakes.

7. Build or purchase a good search engine for the site. Google offers a free one for nonprofit institutions such as school districts.

8. Make sure the entire site is a consistent look and feel, including pages for individual schools. Create design templates for those who contribute to the site to make it easy for them to stick with this consistent look.

9. Put school district policies in place to provide guidance to those who maintain and post information on the site, and provide training so contributors understand how to organize information and keep it updated.

10. Be sure to delete dated information.

11. Stick with neutral colors and keep the use of primary colors limited to highlighting and providing flair on a site. Too many strong primary colors are a distraction and can be irritating to users of the site.

Wray, in Clark County, took research a step further when planning for his district's Web site redesign this year—an effort that takes place every two or three years. In addition to using the district site's analytics and a survey, Clark County talked with focus groups and met with parent advisory groups, taking them through various exercises on the district site and other sites. The goal was to see exactly how users searched for information.

"We watched how they got to where they needed to go and how they behaved online," Wray says.

It's critical to understand how a district's audience is viewing information on a Web site, says Aaron Ladage, the communications and Web site specialist for the 20,000-student Blue Valley public schools in Overland Park, Kan.

"It's really easy for people within the district to think of the information hierarchically, organizing the site around the way the district is structured," he says. But many users may not be familiar with that structure or the jargon used by district officials. "If I'm a parent and not familiar with the district, I might not understand how health services falls under education services," he says. "Thinking about organizing the site around the user and not around the district is crucial."

One of the ways to help users find the information they're looking for is with a search engine for the site.

Brigitte A. Bagocius, the Web development specialist for Pennsylvania's 6,500-student Souderton Area School District, says her site features a popular search feature that is like "a mini Google, but just for our site." Some companies offer paid or free versions of these search engines, and Google also provides one free to nonprofit organizations. They're crucial to help users find what they're looking for, Bagocius says.

RSS feeds, which alert subscribers when there's new information in a particular place on the site, are also becoming popular, says Peter H. Tepfer, the technology facilitator and webmaster for the 17,700-student Nash-Rocky Mount public schools in Nashville, N.C. "I've been amazed at how many hits we have on that feed," he says. "I was wondering if people were even going to use it."

Many Moving Parts

School district Web sites also present particular problems for those trying to manage all their parts and pieces. There's the main district site, or the front porch of the school's electronic house. But each school in a district typically has its own Web site, which may include teacher pages and specialty pages focused on athletics or other extracurricular activities. Each of these pages and subpages within a district's Web site may be updated and maintained by different people.

That's why some districts choose to work with a content-management company. An outside company may provide limited assistance, such as establishing methods for organizing the reams of information districts have. Some may go further, providing templates for each Web page and site within the district or even overall design and maintenance.

Aaron W. Henry, the director of sales for Brazos Valley Design Inc. in College Station, Texas, says his company produces SmartISD, a complete Web site content-management system designed for schools. It allows school administrators to update information electronically, drop in pictures or text, rotate images, and create photo galleries, all without the need for high-level technology skills.

Players in the Industry

Bridgeline Software

Ektron

SchoolCenter

SCHOOLinSites

Schoolwires Inc.

SchoolWorld

SmartISD

"You don't have to pay a dedicated Web design person, and can just have your district heads maintain your pages for you," he says. The cost for a year of SmartISD is about $6,000, he says.

Organization is key, says Henry. Research has found that the top left portion of every page is the most important area, based on English reading style, so the most important information should run across the top and left.

The Souderton school district also uses a content-management system, but one Bagocius developed herself. Though she's a Web designer and programmer, others who update the site's pages don't have to be. "Most of our content-management solutions are rolled into our intranet and are the equivalent of filling out a form on any Web site," she says. "We try to make it easy."

A Look of Continuity

Another high priority for some districts is continuity. Though many schools want their Web sites to have a unique feel, experts say it's important to have a consistent structure and look to each page. "A clear branding is the most important thing," says Chris Noonan Sturm, the director of Web services for the 139,000-student Montgomery County, Md., public schools. Though a visitor may click from the district home page to a high school page, there should be design elements that keep them aware they're still in the Montgomery County school system, she says.

To do that, some districts take special precautions. In the Souderton district, a school board policy sets out guidelines for information posted on school Web sites. It covers everything from design requirements to content contributors and student work. "It's pretty specific," Bagocius says, "but it leaves enough room for creativity."

The district's technical policy also provides guidelines on how to treat multimedia such as video and sound files, she says.

Loomis, in the Alexandria district, says most of what appears on her district site is vetted first by the IT or communications department. Each school site must use a template to ensure a consistent look and feel and to push for clear navigation on the site.

In Blue Valley, Ladage has scheduled regular meetings with the 30 to 40 highest-level people contributing to each section of the district Web site. "I tried to impress on them that this is how people are accessing information on the district. It's a first impression," he says. "It needs to be kept up to date."

Making sure information is fresh and timely is an ongoing effort, Sturm, of Montgomery County, points out. Her district's site was launched in 1995, and each manager has added new layers of information, she says. The site now contains a million files. With 800 webmasters in 200 schools and 75 offices, it's a constant battle to stay on top of the site's content. "Deleting is an important component," Sturm says.

Colors Matter

Districts need to worry about more than just the information their sites contain. They've got to make sure sites look good, too. It's important, for example, to choose the right colors for a district Web site and not just slap school colors in.

"If you use a lot of primary colors, like red, it really distracts from the site and will eventually hurt [users'] eyes," says Henry of Brazos Valley Design. "You want to be able to implement your color scheme in a tasteful way using more neutrals. Then you can include school colors as highlights and flares on the site."

To look at the impact of color, Wray, in the Clark County district, showed a focus group various Web sites, but stripped the sites of all colors and asked the participants to identify the ones they liked best. Then he added the color back and asked again.

"When you pull the colors out, then they look at the design elements, as opposed to the emotion that goes with the color," he says.

But all this careful thought and uniformity don't stop districts and schools from getting creative with their sites, says Ladage of Blue Valley. His research found that what constituents wanted was to use the home page to tell stories. So now it contains large photos, and links to in-depth stories about students and the community.

"We really wanted to personalize our site," Ladage says. "We didn't hide the information, but we organized it beyond the front door."

Vol. 02, Issue 03, Pages 16-18

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