School websites – Brochure or Community Builder?

We’ve had an interesting week with weather in Invercargill, to say the least.  A friend talked with a 70 year old local who said she hadn’t seen snow like this in her life time.  So, regardless of what you view as the cause – global warming or freakish weather pattern – nature has a way of interrupting your daily routines.

When we woke up on Monday morning the media were reporting several schools were closed because of concerns about roofs collapsing.  When I arrived to school at 7.45 there were three staff and the principal fielding phone call after phone call.  The question was obvious, – “Are you open?”  It became quite comical at one stage.  They would say they answered the question over forty times – before I arrived.
So… I suggested we put something on the website, which I did.  Then we sat back, continued to field phone calls and watch the web stats (a great new addition to the blogger armory).  The thing that staggered me, when you look at the comparison of the stats, was how few people thought to check the website.  Here was my tweet on it the next day.  Ignore the first (last in tweetville) post about Ping.  I just thought that was funny.

There are three questions this raises for me.
 – Are the parents of our community not as digitally tuned as we like to think?  Most of our community uses the internet for banking, shopping, entertainment and, yes, even learning.  But do we use it for instant information?  I thought we did.  Why not with our school?
 – Do the parents visit the website?  Is it gathering some readership since we relaunched it?  The screenshot below shows that it’s getting, on average, about 30 to 40 hits a day.  I’d say that, yes, some momentum IS gathering speed and word is getting out there – we’ve had some good feedback.
 – Should schools take some of the hit for their websites poor community support?  I have seen school site after site set up as a static, online brochure.  They are great for prospective parents and teachers looking to see whether they’ll apply for that position.  But, as a community service and a place for communication they are quite redundant.
So, I think the scepticism of what a school website will provide is quite valid.  Why should a community take the time to visit a school site for up to date information when I can just call the school – or the Principal, which happens more than you would know.  What are the reasons for websites being so neglected and underused for the people they should serve?
1.  Time  – Anyone involved in education recognises the squeeze for time that is happening in our schools; a crowded curriculum, increased parent expectations and now a National Standards regime that will have us double up on assessment and reporting.  A teacher I really respect once said that we should always make time for the things that we value.  He was talking about using efolios in the class room and how we should give the students time for reflection and making comments.  I’d suggest that, if we really value creating and caring for a genuine learning community then some allocation of time for up-keeping a website would be critical.  Communication, celebration and sharing should be the aim of every school website.
2.  Expertise – There is a growing group of teachers in our schools who are quietly developing some amazing skills in working with blogs and websites.  It isn’t really that hard – kids are doing it, after all!  Does your school have someone who create, manage and drive the fresh content on your site?  If not, perhaps this should be a consideration when recruiting new staff.  
3.  Cost – Lots of the static websites that I see are created and managed by a third party source that costs the school a setup and monthly fee.  This can easily be eliminated with the free services we can access now.  Our school’s website uses Wix as it’s launching platform (it has a kid friendly interface and interactive element) that connects with blogger and some google sites – all of these are free!  The only cost is the time that’s given to work on them… and there’s not as much release as you would think.
4.  Desire – How much vision and drive does your school have for a fresh, dynamic online presence?  I think that a website has a lot of potential to help build a community of learners – which is what many of our schools aspire to.  Communication is a big part of that but it takes committement and perseverance.    Every school just needs one person with the motivation, interest and drive to keep taking those photos, uploading video and updating newsletters and notices.  
I think that schools have some work to do to build up the trust of their communities.  People will become followers and users of a school website when they know that it will be useful, up to date and relevant. 
It’s a big challenge!
NB Our school’s next steps are
 – update our BOT information (exciting, I know)
 – upload our student voice page – a class project to see the school through student’s eyes
 – continue to build the written content of our students.  I want to the website to be student driven and managed as much as possible.  We have a team of gifted students who are keen to be our journalists and photographers.  I think we should be taking advantage of this authentic audience!  But that’s another post.

4 thoughts on “School websites – Brochure or Community Builder?

  1. Chur Mark, nice read. Crazy weather for you guys!? It must be really exciting for your kids (mine are yet to have an encounter with the snow!).

    But yeah, I hear what you're saying, Coley St's website is run by spike@school and yes it is like a brochure… boring. Why would a parent look at something that stays the same???? Boring.

    So it was refreshing to see Russell St's website more like a blog page where posts from all over the school can be made and posts can be commented on. Learning can be shared at a school level.

    But would people turn to it in case of emergency?



  2. Hey Nick. Yeah, I'm suggesting that people would think, 'Oh, there's and earthquake! Let's rush to our school blog.” lol. BUT, if they are wondering if a sports evemt is on, or what should my child bring to the science night tonight? They should be able to check with the website before going for the phone, shouldn't they?

    It's about building some trust with the site and that takes a lot of effort and time.

    I always RSS's site. They were a bit of an inspiration for me when I set up Riverdale's site. You must be enjoying it there? Coley st was pretty stand out, too. I'll have to pick your brains about some inquiry questions I have sometime soon.

    Thanks for the link on your blog! Big ups!


  3. This is an interesting post Mark. In this digital age and with my inquiring mind, I frequently visit school's websites. It's a disservice to the school when they are either a) out of date or b) static. I agree that we need to work hard to ensure our websites are an update, engaging view of our schools. I am thankful that I have had feedback which said, they could get a 'feel' for our school from the website and that it was very community orientated.
    Am enjoying your blog thinking.


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