Building a Better Web Site
An Arkansas teacher with some experience overhauled her district's offering using existing software. One Connecticut teacher with a passion for involving students in running and fitness activities, did it using HTML. A technology expert, also from Arkansas, used the latest tools to build his district's multi-featured pages.
What did these three people all accomplish? They created or improved their school district's Web site. But that is about the only thing these three have in common. Their skill levels are as diverse as the difference between a school band and the New York Philharmonic.
Three of every four K-12 schools with Internet connections have Web pages, according to a recent report from Denver-based Quality Education Data, called Internet Usage in Teaching 2001-2002. This figure is up from 67 percent the year before.
However impressive that number sounds, consider that most of these sites are used simply to convey teacher, school and community information. The only instructional applications reported for 22 percent of the sites were for homework assignments and homework help. So even though districts throughout the nation have established a Web presence, the educational potential of school Web sites is barely being scratched.
Although new school Web sites will be developed in the year ahead, even greater numbers need to be revised and updated. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at three different ways to create engaging Web pages that heighten what staff, students and parents can expect from a typical school Web site.
There are countless technology roads to developing school Web sites, including the use of Web-building software products such as Macromedia DreamWeaver, Microsoft FrontPage and Adobe GoLive.
Many Internet service providers host school Web pages, and there is also free space through commercial sites such as Geocities (www.geocities.com) and Angelfire (angelfire.lycos.com), though some insert ads and use popup screens that may be objectionable.
A growing number of schools also put sites on their own servers, and there are companies that design and host school sites, such as Finalsite (www.finalsite.com) and Update Software (www.updatesoftware. com). In more than one third of the cases (37 percent), district technology staff employees maintain the school sites. Teachers maintain nearly one in five sites (18 percent), while students take charge of 5 percent of such sites, according to QED. In addition, 21 percent of respondents indicate that "other" parties maintain their Web pages.
Tolland (Conn.) Public Schools (tolland.k12.ct.us)
Carol Goodrow, a teacher in the Parker Memorial School, was so motivated by the Web pages she learned to do for her first grade class, and her enthusiasm for getting kids involved with running, that she decided to link the two interests on her school site. The result was a creative student-centered site about running that grew to become KidsRunning.Com (www.kidsrunning.com) that is now sponsored by Runner's World magazine. KidsRunning includes stories, columns, training tips, curriculum suggestions and interactive activities promoting the sport of running, with opportunities for students to publish online essays, poems and art about their experiences.
In discussing her success, Goodrow says she started by writing about her classroom programs, and kept expanding and adding areas such as an advice section done collaboratively with a youth-coach volunteer. Goodrow estimates that site development has cost her less than $200 so far, but adds, "I must be the only Web designer in the world who still doesn't use a Web editing package, since I do everything in straight HTML." She uses Adobe Illustrator for graphics though, and thinks she may eventually invest in DreamWeaver. But regardless of the tools, she says, "I teach my students that you become a runner by running, a writer by writing, and a reader by reading So I became a Web designer by designing."
Hot Springs (Ark.) School District (hsprings.dsc.k12.ar.us)
Brandie Wilson, a new teacher hired to revise the district Web site after serving as Webmaster for Henderson State University, strongly supports the use of Web editing packages so teachers and students do not have to learn HTML. Her advice in selecting an editor is: "Make sure that you have someone on board who is able to fully support new users until they are comfortable." She continues to do staff and student workshops with FrontPage, which the district had adopted earlier, but is making the transition to DreamWeaver, which she feels is easier to use, more affordable and almost as powerful.
Before starting development, Wilson visited other school sites for ideas, and listed features she wanted to include. She then prepared a template so that all the pages would have a consistent look, and used Microsoft PhotoDraw to design logos. She also developed pages for her own class, and puts teaching materials online in PDF for easy printing. She even helps students develop their own sites. "When students know that their work can be viewed by the entire world, they devote extra time and effort."
Rogers (Ark.) Public Schools (www.rogers.k12.ar.us)
The Rogers Public Schools has outstanding technology support, and pioneered its first Web site an amazing eight years ago. Gary Day, director of technology, and Tena Reese, technology staff member, organized a committee of district educators to develop a site that would be functional for both classroom and community use. The pages were originally done in HTML, and later with Netscape Communicator. The district recently introduced the Adobe products GoLive, Photoshop, Illustrator and ImageReady. Day says it "takes some of the pain out of complicated graphic-intensive pages."
The district now has its Web server on a Linux system, and uses tools such as Perl to do automated and customized Web pages. For example, teachers can send homework assignments to an e-mail address, which turns them into Web pages automatically. The staff also uses the technology with students to develop sophisticated Web projects that have won national competitions such as ThinkQuest (www.thinkquest.org). Since the on-site technology staff does all the site development work, there are no additional costs.
The technology staff says that the biggest payoff for the site has been increased internal and public communications. For example, everyone is kept informed about school announcements in a timely fashion through the site's news scroller. But according to Day, the key to success is the staff mindset "of always looking for ways that the Web can be applied to solve a current problem, or provide access to a new resource."
The following are simple to complex education application examples and ideas-in categories that admittedly overlap-that are implemented among the schools cited in the "Exemplary Sites" section:
Example: Pueblo High Magnet School in Tucson, Ariz., offers a virtual tour of the school, complete with photos and QuickTime movies (edweb.tusd.k12.az.us/pueblo).
School resources also include links to district schools, messages from administrators, academic standards, district policies, calendars, staff directories, faculty profiles, student handbooks, daily announcements, technology plans, acceptable-use policies, school maps and state education initiatives.
Example: Tesseract School in Eagan, Minn., regularly features the writing and projects of its students from grades one through six
This area may also include curriculum descriptions, online lessons and student assignments, learning activities, tutorials, simulations, homework references, teaching units, student projects, links to educational Web sites, online courses and links to library resources and virtual museums.
Example: Ligon Middle School, Raleigh, N.C., helped found MidLink, an online magazine with worldwide contributors and readers (longwood.cs.ucf.edu/~MidLink).
Related ideas in this category include links to pages for student organizations, team records and schedules, school newspapers, excerpts from plays and music
performances, award announcements, and resources for alumni.
Example: The students at University Park Elementary School in Fairbanks, Alaska, wrote colorful online stories about ice carvings, sled dog races, riverboats, and life in Alaskan villages (www.northstar.k12.ak.us/schools/upk/upk.home.html).
Other community resources include links to information on area attractions, community celebrations and special events, local directories, online community tours and recognition for businesses that donate goods and services.
Example: The Marple Newtown School District, Newtown Square, Pa., provides separate Web pages for the school board to report on policies and upcoming meetings (marple.net/schools).
Related resources include forums for parents on school issues, links to educational magazines and newspapers, and information for school volunteers.
Example: The Clark County School District in Las Vegas, one of the fastest-growing systems in the United States. It posts job opportunities on the Web for administrators, teachers and support staff (www.ccsd.net).
Other professional resources include links to grant opportunities, workshops, conferences, sources for lesson plans and professional associations.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.