The Mankato Schools put up its district website in 1996 - among the first districts in Minnesota, if not the nation, to do so. I used the Internet Archive to retrieve what I think was our homepage "way back" then. (See graphic.) How times have changed.
About two years ago, I requested that the District Administration magazine review our district website. I enjoyed reading the other school website reviews and thought we could learn a thing or two from an outside set of eyes. Our review was published last month. I'm meeting with the superintendent about it this afternoon. I predict he isn't a real happy camper. Though definitely accurate, the tone was pretty harsh. I guess I asked for it.
While the district site has proven invaluable for public relations, for disseminating information to parents and the community, for providing ready links for students and educators to valuable resources and for displaying student work, it's a holy nightmare to maintain. And at the same time, its importance continues to grow.
We've written webpage content guidelines. We've established a webpage updating guidelines that assign responsibility to individuals. We created easy-to-use forms for teachers to use to create their own webpages. And about a year ago, we even conducted a web usability study. Still stuff slips through the cracks.
Having an older site might be one of the problems. If www.isd77.k12.mn.us were a house, we would have started with a cottage. As the years have passed, we've tacked on a addition here, a bedroom there, a new garage out back. I personally seem to be able to find everything having lived with this rambling structure for so long, so it is hard for me to be empathetic with the occasional user to whom the organization is not so transparent.
Standards for websites have also increased tremendously. Our pages not only need to be current, accurate and informative, but aesthetically pleasing, consistent, and easy to navigate. And include lots o' multimedia according to DA. Prettying up few pages isn't too tough - but changing thousands of pages takes some serious time.
Our district is just now figuring out that if we want people to take the job of building webmaster seriously, they actually ought to be paid for taking it on. Keeping the building webpages organized and current is no longer an amusing hobby for the techo-teacher. Oh, the building webmaster also needs to assume responsibility for teaching individuals how to keep up their own pages as well - and seeing that they do so. Quite a job.
Last year we migrated our secondary school websites to a company that specializes in hosting school websites. The switch has gone well enough that we plan to move the elementary schools and district pages there this summer. This won't be a panacea, but it will move us in the right direction.
Like so much of educational technology, websites have moved from novelty to helpful to crucial. They've become serious business and our level of commitment to them needs to be serious as well.
Had I know this job would be this hard, I'm not sure I'd have taken it!