By Madelynn Coldiron and Jennifer Wohlleb
When it comes to creating a website there is probably only one thing everyone can agree on – the perfect site has yet to be built. Too many clicks here, not enough information there; everyone has a different opinion of what a website needs.
While building the perfect site may be beyond anyone’s reach, if schools and districts incorporate some key elements into their websites, the parents and community members who visit them seeking information won’t leave empty handed.
If there is a high-profile page on a school or district website, it is the calendar – or if not, it should be. This is the place parents check when making family plans, where community members drop in to find out the date of the next ball game or school board meeting, and where students check on club meetings and testing schedules.
There is a not-so-subtle message in the above paragraph: If the calendar does not include items like these, it needs to. What does a school or district communicate when someone opens the electronic calendar and sees:
• Nothing in any of the date squares
• One or two recurring monthly items
• Only athletic events
• Outdated information
• Last year’s calendar
News you can use
Both school and district websites generally are designed with a “news” tab somewhere on the home page. Above all, be sure it is not blank. Almost as bad is sorely outdated news – by definition, if it’s not recent, it’s not “news.”
Shrinking budgets may be responsible for the lack of a centralized staff member to write news items, but there are low-labor ways to come up with items. News can be stripped from school newsletters and announcements and posted on the website. Reminders about testing deadlines or major events like homecoming can be worked up as news items – even if they are brief, they constitute timely information and are better than a blank page.
If manpower is the problem, recruit some students – who are usually more technically adept than the adults who teach them – to be responsible for putting the information you provide on the website. It can be part of a class project or STLP activity.
People who visit a school or district website should not have to hunt through multiple pages to find a phone number and address. Those should be in a high-visibility spot on the home page, and for a district’s schools, this information should be in the same spot on each of their home pages. Directions to a school or central office are a plus.
The same applies to personnel, especially administrators: anonymity does not communicate a positive message about a school or district. It is helpful if a parent knows who to ask for when he calls about special education services for his child, for example. A mother may not want to listen to computerized “press” options when she calls, but would rather save time by plugging in the proper extension – if these were listed as part of the contact information on the website. The names of school board members also should be easy to find.
And for those leaders who take the time to write a thoughtful “message from the principal” or “message from the superintendent” on their websites, don’t forget to include your name and update the content periodically.
While scientists may continue the search for the missing link, many can be found on school websites. Bottom line: If a page has no information on it, do not link to it, do not plaster it with an “under construction” sign, do not say that information will be there shortly. When a page is ready, link to it; otherwise, you are just going to frustrate someone who briefly thought he had found what he was looking for.
Good Web design is in the eye of the beholder, so a hard-and-fast list of rules for what looks good and what doesn’t varies from person to person. But good design helps viewers’ eyes move around a page and easily find what they are looking for. Bad design is stuffing so many things on a page that they don’t know where to look, much less where to find anything.
Keep it simple and don’t overwhelm visitors with too much information in too small an area. Too much going on is almost as bad as a link to nowhere.
In the end, the purpose of a school’s website is to provide information. Put yourself in the position of someone who has never visited the site before and ask what types of things that person will be looking for. Then test the site to determine how easy or difficult it is for him to find it.