The Best Way To Evaluate Your School Website

The Best Way To Evaluate Your School Website

This blog is motivated by a question that has fascinated me for some time: If using a website in schools and classrooms is the solution, then what is the need or problem they are trying to solve?

Mastering technology can be like trying to tackle the many-headed Hydra!

The Hydra of Greek mythology had the deadly knack of resisting being cut down to size by sprouting an extra head or two! Think of poor Hercules and how it took all his strength and inventiveness to conquer the monster.

Though an extreme example, the Hydra’s prolific abilities can symbolise how grappling a challenging situation is not always served in trying to ‘master’ it but in understanding its origins and purpose.

Online technologies take on a life of their own

Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other (2011) makes the point that the more we use online connections, which we niavely first conceived as a substitute for hard-to-have face-to-face contact, the more they become “the connection of choice”.

We discovered the network – the world of connectivity – to be uniquely suited to the overworked and overscheduled life it makes possible… Technology makes it easy to communicate when we wish and disengage at will.

As I read these words, I’m thinking of my first classroom website in 2004 for which I simply wrote the ‘copy’ which I then handed over to website designers to put on to the site.  As I’m writing this blog, I experience the reality of how school and classroom websites now have an easy to use Content Management System with

  • graphics and multimedia,
  • navigation that enhances the ‘user experience’,
  • microsites for departments, faculties, years and classes,
  • newsletter services,
  • apps for communicating with parents,
  • online payment methods,
  • document and homework management system,
  • secure login and
  • a range of training products… and more!

Turkle’s point about the proliferation of online connectivity is particularly poignant as Software as a Service (SaaS) expands. The UK’s Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies’ Directory of Learning & Performance Tools & Services, which publishes its annual 100 top tools for learning, offers testimony to the depth of targeted software development for educational purposes. 

To bring this into an Australian context, IbisWorld industry reports show that Australia’s software publishing industry has grown to $2.1bn over the last five years.

Increased access to high-speed internet has encouraged the development of software to take advantage of cloud computing, along with new hardware, such as smartphones and tablets. Smartphones and tablet software development has increased strongly, with new products being developed to carry out functions that were once the domain of PCs and gaming consoles.

The herculean effort which is now before school leaders and teachers goes to the heart of their professional judgement: how should they deal with an overwhelmingly vast number of digital tools and applications and be confident that they are maximising their students learning?

So what are schools doing?

The Edublogger’s fourth annual report on the state of educational blogging, conducted from November 2 – December 31, 2015, attracted 777 respondents to complete its survey. As Sue Waters reports

We started the annual survey because we’re frequently asked for detailed information to help educators:

  1. Convince school administrators to allow blogging.
  2. Understand the benefits of blogging and how blogs are used with students.
  3. Know more about which blogging platforms are commonly used by educators (and why).

The findings for 2014/15 show that teachers are using

  • student blogs for assignments /assessments (36.6%)
  • reflective blogging (33.7%)
  • blogging for collaboration / discussion (23.5% )
  • blogs for practising reading and writing skills (21.8%)
  • blogs to encourage peer learning and support (19.3%)
  • blogs for the development of digital citizenship skills (17.7%)

What needs are school websites meeting?

Drs Carmel Taddeo and Alan Barnes from the School of Education at the University of South Australia recently published their findings in the British Journal of Educational Technology after reviewing thirty South Australian school websites as teaching learning portals, support for administrative operations and marketing platform to address three questions:

  1. What variables should be examined to establish how schools are using their website?
  2. What constitutes an engaging and useful school website?
  3. What development framework can be devised to assist schools to map their website’s strengths and areas requiring further development?

The study resulted in the following framework for examining school websites

framework

A work in progress

From my readings, the study of the relationship between school websites and a whole school digital learning strategy is still very much in its infancy.  However, Taddeo’s and Barnes’ research, leading on to the drawing up of a development framework, marks a milestone in the evolution of a fast-changing and dynamic challenging area. The terms ’emergent’ and ‘progressive’ productively signal the iterative nature of modern website development which is ‘always beta’.

I am no alone in thinking that the study is very worthwhile.  It brings up to date many of the considerations that early researchers, listed in the bibliography, had begun to observe from 2000 onwards. It has been the basis of the research used to create Education Services Australia’s SAFE SCHOOL HUB.

Education Services Australia is proud to announce that the Safe Schools Hub has won the 2014 International E-Learning Association (IELA) Award for the best e-learning resource. The prestigious awards were announced in Dubai on December 5th. The Safe Schools Hub houses a suite of digital resources to support school communities to implement the National Safe Schools Framework.The resources include a range of digital formats in six key focus areas: an online safe schools toolkit a central online information source for parents a central online information source for students resources for specialist professionals supporting students a professional learning module for teachers and school leaders a training module for pre-service teachers.

However, this is not to say that Taddeo’s and Barnes’ framework are immediately translatable for a teacher wanting to sign up to run a WordPress site tomorrow, nor might a school leader hand over the framework to a school web designer and ask them to run with it.

Nonetheless, the more I consider the ‘Website development framework’, the more I appreciate it as a conceptual framework that relates the praxis of website design and teaching and learning practices. In time, I believe, such research might offer us ways to creatively manage the school website as a site in which the rapidly changing technology gives the whole school community a way to express the pleasure of working together as a ‘community of learners’.