Do These Web Sites Work?
Charleston County (N.C.) School District
It's immediately apparent how the information at this Web site is organized: large blocks in the center are surrounded by smaller ones. There's no confusion about where to look. In particular, the message from the superintendent smack in the middle implies, "You are here--welcome." In general, there's an excellent sense of balance and proportion to the design: important things near the top; less important things further down. The links on the left-hand side and the tab along the top form a visual frame; but if you think about it, these features draw on a tried and true method: they're like the tabs of a file drawer--pull up if you need that information. --CS
The site is very deep; there are lots of places to go and things to see--even listen to. The district has included a number of narrated slide shows about the school system that open in the middle of the home page, and close again with a click. Understand that this is an enormous district, but there's no unevenness of quality between different campus Web sites. Many of the introductory school profiles on the district site had subheads about class size and "unique assets" left blank. --CS
Quality of the Interaction with the user
The site treats the user as a guest. Sites can have a tone as much as any other type of information, and the Charleston site--by organization, utility and language --is polite as a mannerly host. --CS
Redundant navigation options, consistent menus and visible search tools make it easy to quickly find specific topics of interest and contact staff members. The site is also "Bobby approved" (bobby.watchfire.com) with pages designed to provide access to users with disabilities, including the use of assistive devices such as readers for the blind. --OD
There's no doubt the site designer and the educators involved in the creation of this site are of one mind about the themes they want to communicate to the community: this district is about learning; this district is about the kids; this district is about recognizing and rewarding good teaching; this district, gentle taxpayer, is delivering the goods. For parents who want to peel back the layers of the onion a little more, there are links to curriculum, health services, technology and school safety. Contact information is current and the links are live. What could be more disquieting than to click on administrative links and have them be rotten. --CS
Creative use of online technologies
The site's "news crawl" feature brings key topics to the immediate attention of users. Although many of the pages include graphics, animations and photographs from district events and pop-up windows, most of the selections are text-based. --OD
The site joins hands with the community by posting information any conscientious resident would want to know: Emergency Preparedness Plans; an interactive district calendar of events; deadlines for various education opportunities and so on. The timeliness of all this gives the unmistakable impression the site is dynamic, not updated once in September. --CS
Oswego City (N.Y.) School District
The opening screen is well organized, with clearly defined content selections for educational resources, study materials, standards, instructional technology and district information. But it would be helpful to divide customized content selections targeted to different groups of users--including students, teachers and administrators--into separate areas. In addition to the district-designed pages where design and content can be controlled, selections include links to numerous pages from other sources, where quality and timeliness vary significantly. --OD
The home page presents choices in a handsome format: buttons on a crescent-shaped organizer yield windows listing subtopics: Study Zone opens a list of major tests. The user never strays very far: the back button or just closing the pop-up window returns you to the home page. Efficient, but frankly, not very interesting. There's no sense of exploring. --CS
Quality of the interaction with the user
Because of the confusion over the audience--kids? parents? maybe teachers?--the interaction seems indistinct. Interaction is not only ease of clicking and navigating: it's the feel of a site, and this one has several personas--none of them quite the same. --CS
The site offers tremendous amounts of information, but while accessing individual topics is fairly intuitive, it would be helpful if the design elements were more uniform from page to page, and the home page included a "how to use this site" feature. The site also includes a variety of search tools including Google-powered search boxes for finding specific topics on the Oswego site as well as on the Web. --OD
If, as a parent, you can hang on and get past the organizational stuff--standards, who's in charge, tests, etc.--and find your way to your kid's virtual classroom, you'll find some charming postings. Many primary teachers have posted their students' work. Also, the Elementary Test Prep Center feature, like a number of others on the site, seems to be boilerplate, provided by the state. That's not a criticism, but it adds to the differences in design and approach on this site. --CS
Creative use of online technologies
While interesting, the multimedia introduction "Welcome to your future" has limited value, and loading a 1.46 Mb introduction is excessive. It is also annoying that paging back from other screens to the home page launches the animation yet again. Similarly, a number of the pages offer multimedia features including speech, music and animation, but they are not integral to the content. The page formats are effective when they are consistent, but in some sections the menus and the page designs change dramatically. --OD
Under "News and Publications" a user can find the 1938-39 yearbook. The pictures are delightful, but one wonders: What would Lara Croft say? --CS
The major site pages are kept current and feature district news, calendars, events and announcements that offer timely reasons for continuing use. However, a number of selections need to be updated, especially faculty pages and pages that still present student work from classes several years earlier. --OD
Web site evaluation panel:
Odvard Egil Dyrli is senior editor and and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.
Chip Shields is a contributing editor and a 20-year veteran educator.
Gary Stager is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.