The Changing Role And Purpose Of The School Website

pic-1By Mal Lee.

The role, purpose and importance of the school website is changing at pace in those schools globally that have moved to a digital operational base, are on track to normalise the use of the digital throughout and which are rapidly creating their own unique, tightly integrated digital ecosystem.

The digital evolution that is transforming every facet of these schools is profoundly impacting those school’s websites, fundamentally changing its nature and form, moving the website from its traditional peripheral position to being core and critical to the school’s everyday operations, teaching, growth, evolution and enhanced performance and productivity. The time has come when all schools and education authorities need to recognise that change and the profound implications that flow at both the school and education authority level. .

In the traditional highly segmented and insular paper-based school, the website has been viewed as but one of the many largely discrete parts of the school, largely peripheral to the everyday teaching. In many instances it has been window dressing – sometimes very high-quality window dressing – but in the main it has done little to enhance the pedagogy or student learning. Crucially, the online experience has been viewed as separate from and lesser than the physical.

In marked contrast, within digitally based schools an apposite, dynamic, ever evolving, working website is central to virtually every operation, including the school’s 24/7/365 teaching. Indeed, without that website schools cannot create their desired digital ecosystem and successfully realise their shaping educational and digital vision.

Try to imagine how organisations like Apple, Amazon, News Ltd or the Tax Office could operate without their websites and readers will begin to appreciate how critical they are to the workings and growth of digitally based schools. That fundamental difference needs to be understood and the discussions begun at the school and system level on what is required to move forward.

As Westerman and his colleagues observed (Westerman et al, 2014), societies that have normalised the use of the digital no longer differentiate between the online and physical experience.

If a school wants to remain as a traditional paper-based organisation focused on readying its students for paper-based external examinations, those discussions on the website are not needed. If, however, a school’s desire is normalise the use of the digital and create a digital school ecosystem that will educate each child for today, then the conversation becomes necessary to decide what is to be done.

Interestingly, ask any school leader or educational administrator why an apposite website is critical to the successful whole-school embrace of bring your own technology (BYOT) programs or the evolution of the school’s ecosystem and it is likely only a handful could tell provide an answer. Moreover, ask a software house to create a website for a digital school and it is likely even the best and more prescient will still prepare a polished offering for the traditional mode of schooling.

The article aims to begin remedying those shortcomings and to highlight the core, multifaceted role of the school website – and its associated digital communications suite – in the digital transformation and evolution of schooling.

The Traditional Website

For the last 15 to 20 years, the school website has been largely peripheral to the school’s everyday workings and in particular its teaching. It has been primarily a static source of information, a marketing tool and possibly a gateway to the inner teaching of the school that necessitated password entry. The closed classroom door was retained when the school went online. In many education authorities globally, websites have been ‘cookie cut’, with their operations tightly controlled by central office bureaucrats and external ICT experts. Schools were invariably given little say in their form, even at a time when schools were being given greater decision-making powers and were obliged to shape their own growth. Even today, at least one Australian education authority still prohibits schools having their own website, while other authorities and their ICT controllers continue to micromanage the nature and workings of the school’s site.

Invariably within the school one individual has had responsibility for maintaining the school site, ensuring it was not ‘spoilt’ by other staff; although that said one will find schools where the different operational units, like the library or student support services, also operate their own website, separate to that of the school. In many schools, particularly independent schools, the site is maintained by the public relations/marketing unit, who ensure the desired image, with the apposite Pepsodent smiles, is always to the fore.

A quick scan of a cross section of school websites (primary and secondary, state and independent) – including the award winners – highlights that most are still primarily sources of information, some very polished, some very dated. A Google search of the ‘purpose’ or ‘importance’ of school websites indicates that even the more reasoned, such as the University of Florida website (http://fcit.usf.edu/websites/chap1/chap1.htm) still underscores the largely peripheral, information-providing role.

The choice of the award-winning sites appears to have far more to do with looks, design finesse and interactivity than functionality and how the facility contributes to the realisation of the school’s educational and digital vision.

Significantly, most will also be closely ‘guarded’ sites, with community access to any teaching materials restricted by password.

Emergence of the Working Website

The first schools that moved to a digital operational base and began their digital evolution in the mid-2000s have continued the ongoing transformation and evolution of the school’s website that, as indicated by Lee (2013), mirrored the school’s evolutionary path and which saw its shift from a peripheral to a core role.

The website, like those in all other digitally based organisations, plays a central, multi-faceted role. It assists to enhance the school’s culture and ecosystem, furthers the school’s growth and evolution, enables the school to interface with the networked world and is being used integrally in every facet of the schools’ 24/7/365 teaching, integration of all school operations, educational and administrative, and the ongoing enhancement of the school’s efficiency, effectiveness and productivity.

The website increasingly became the interface for the school’s community and a medium that facilitated the integration of all the school’s operations in and outside of the school walls.

These are dynamic working sites that are being updated and added to virtually every minute of the day by all within the school’s community, be they students, teachers, parents or community members. The focus is very much on the work to be done, educational and administrative, and using the site and associated digital services to do that work as expeditiously, simply, effectively and productively as possible and, where possible, to have the technology simultaneously perform multiple roles and to automate the tasks at hand.

While rightly concerned to project a professional image, these are 24/7/365 worksites where sections might at any times appear as messy as the physical classroom. To appreciate what is meant by ‘working’ websites, readers can look, for example, at the websites of The Gulf Harbour School (http://www.gulfharbour.school.nz) or that of Broulee Public School (http://www.brouleepublicschool.nsw.edu.au). These sites employ a template service that makes it easy for all of the teachers and students, along with interested parents and community members, to publish to the site. Long gone is the sole publisher controlling all uploads, but not a quality controller astutely ensuring unnecessary mess is removed.

They are multi-purpose entities where the website provides seamless access to a plethora of online facilities and services, removing the divide between the school’s physical and online offerings. While reference has been made to the ‘website’, that is partly a misnomer because, as apparent in both the aforementioned sites, there are links to an ever evolving digital communications suite that includes such diverse services as an emailed school communiqué, an online survey facility, advice on new teaching programs or resources, the online advisement of student absence, Twitter, Facebook and the facility to instantly inform parents of a critical incident, like a death. Indeed, as a colleague has suggested, it might be opportune to find another term to describe the role played by the website in a digital school.

The sites are modular in nature, with the schools using a mix of free and leased online services, able to quickly discard superseded modules and replace them with a new, more apposite module.

Critically, both of these sites are open for anyone to view. Parents, grandparents, interested educators, education authorities or prospective parents all have open access to the day’s teaching, being able to readily view and, if they wish, comment on the work. The schools have had to do their homework and have permission to reveal the children and the work, but that is just part of operating within a digital and networked world, collaborating with one’s community. The closed doors are opened and teachers and children can proudly reveal the work done.

Simultaneously, and without any extra effort by the teachers or students, the schools are using the website – through blogs and wikis – to enhance teaching and learning, to enhance the school’s ecology daily, to collaborate with and inform the students’ homes, to account for the school’s work, to receive instant and continual feedback and to automatically promote the school.

They very much appreciate that the school website provides an invaluable actual insight into the school’s thinking, aspirations and daily workings that cannot be replicated by even the best marketers. The website affirms, by virtue of its intimate ties with the school’s total operations, that the school and its teachers are working within a higher order, tightly integrated digital ecology that simultaneously addresses the many variables that enhance student learning.

Of note is the number of parents globally who now make their choice of school after scrutinising the open working websites of the digital pathfinders; Net Generation parents who can explore the natural workings of the school without the public relations spin and experience first-hand the unique digital ecosystem the school has created. The need for a specialist web/PR unit is diminishing.

Conclusion

This type of school ecology and culture and the use of a website that will further its growth takes, as the many previous articles underscore, years of astute and concerted effort to create. That said, to create that unique, ever evolving, digitally based ecosystem, a school will need to build the creation of the apposite website and complementary digital communications suite into its planning from the outset.

 

Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.

 

For a full list of references, email info@interactivemediasolututions.com.au

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