Click Here for Department’s Updated Web Site

By Sean Cavanagh — October 01, 2003 3 min read
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Visitors tapping their way on to the Department of Education’s World Wide Web site were greeted until recently by this visual montage: a red-white-and-blue logo of the No Child Left Behind Act, a chart documenting federal spending on schools, and, at the very bottom of the page, a link to the department itself.

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View the accompanying graphic “Site Comparison.”

That all changed in September, when the department unveiled a revamped home page at the same address, www.ed.gov, which officials say makes access to agency information and research easier than ever.

They also vow that the retooled site will continue to house data and documents generated prior to the Bush administration. Research advocates and public watchdogs feared that the department might purge those materials during the Web site’s overhaul.

“The information was simply archived,” department spokesman Dan Langan said last week. “Nothing’s purged.”

As recently as last year, the department’s home page featured the No Child Left Behind logo, alongside a photo of President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige, with quotes from both over a white backdrop.

That page was a sort of promotional overlay that required Web visitors looking for the agency to click on another link titled, “Visit the U.S. Department of Education website.” Some detractors also had questioned the accuracy of a chart depicting federal spending, featured on that opening page. (“If A, Then B? Showcase Web Chart Open to Question,” June 18, 2003.)

Critics complained the former site was too cluttered, department officials said. The overhaul, which cost $4 million, was aimed at making the site simpler to navigate and easier on the eyes.

“It’s a cost-effective way of reaching millions of people simultaneously,” Mr. Langan said of the site.

Visitors seeking the department’s site now reach the home page right away—a clear improvement over the old approach, several observers said.

Richard Hershman, the vice president for legislative affairs for the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a Washington-based trade organization for research centers and labs, likened the former initial Web page to a “pop-up ad” touting the No Child Left Behind Act.

Nothing Lost?

The Web site’s new look, which went live Sept. 8, is obvious from the get-go. The home page has more sophisticated graphics, including earth-tone backgrounds and a stylized, alternating photos of Mr. Paige and a child, framed by stars. (See accompanying graphic.)

Over the past year, critics raised concerns about the department’s stated goal of overhauling the site’s use of and possibly deleting information posted during the Clinton administration. Others also worried about a department plan to overhaul the Educational Resources Information Center, or ERIC, the world’s largest and most widely used education database system, fearing cuts in services. (“No URL Left Behind? Web Scrub Raises Concerns,” Sept. 18, 2002, and “Ed. Dept. Floats Plan for Overhaul of ERIC Clearinghouses,” April 30, 2003.)

The new department site continues to offer a link to ERIC, accessible by typing that acronym into the search engine on the left side of the home page.

Felice J. Levine, the executive director of the American Educational Research Association, said her Washington-based group has been exploring ERIC and other depositories of important department data.

“We didn’t find anything missing,” she said. “But it’s only been a few weeks.”

The department made a clear effort to preserve material from past administrations, including press releases, speeches, and policy statements, Mr. Langan said—usually by adding “archive” links at the bottom of different sections of the site. Agency officials met with several organizations with concerns about the Web changes, and the department’s position on what to preserve has “evolved over the past several months,” he said.

Still, opinions varied on the accessibility of archived materials. Mr. Hershman credited department officials with listening to advice from frequent site visitors. Earlier this year, he told department officials about a link to archived reports that seemed to have vanished from the site. A few weeks later, Mr. Hershman said, the material was back up.

Still, newcomers to the site might find the new model cumbersome, he believes.

“It’s very hard on this Web site to find older material,” he said. “If you’re not looking for it, it may disappear forever.”

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