Why Public School websites suck

I recently read an article, which was posted in 2010 but is still fairly accurate in 2014 about public school websites. Most public school websites do "suck."

However the author Michael Turk makes a valid point.  He says:

"It’s easy to just blame and mock the public school systems for having sadly outdated and poorly designed websites. Whether you want to go after individual schools, IT departments, or the districts themselves is your choice.

But the reality is a bit more complicated. Most school personnel have little or no idea how to construct or maintain a website, nor do they have the time to learn. Their time is spent doing, among other things:

  1. Teaching
  2. Wrangling students and parents
  3. Trying to fulfill an ever-expanding and ever more contradictory set of expectations from communities, districts, states, and federal agencies
  4. Keeping up with a huge amount of paperwork

You can add many, many more duties and tasks to this list."

There are many dilemmas with creating optimal public school websites and so it is understandable that there are so many BAD websites for school districts.

Dilemma #1: Funding.  Many schools have limited budgets and yet they require deep functionality to support their needs.  In the end they have to accept the limitations of their budget and what web developers can actually do within their budget.   A common vendor response to a request for functionality is "Maybe we can phase that in after July 1."

Dilemma #2: Lack of Internal Support Staff. So many schools have staff that are already taxed with their time trying (with lots of caffeine) to meet the everyday responsibilities of their jobs.   They are not web designers.  They are highly active teachers or Communications specialists.  The idea of being given yet another job to build a website is another crazy making request on top of the other crazy requests that they are already meeting.   So the obvious choice for them...

Dilemma #3:  Let's get the IT staff to do it.  Often the Board of Education dictates the redesign effort.  The City or County can help support the cost.  And so when the gavel comes down and it is decided that there WILL be a new website by December 31, it is not uncommon to pass this responsibility on to the IT department.  After all, "Websites use technology and IT people know about technology and so they must know how to build a website, right?"  Well, this is not often the case. The IT folks do set up entire computer networks.  They can remotely log into your computer, take it over and fix your problem.   But just because they can fix your computer does not mean they can or want to understand how to build a website.  And why should they?  They are just as overworked as the teaching staff.

Dilemma #4:  Internal Politics.  It's true.  It's not just for corporations.  Meeting the needs of many cooks will often be a challenge to deciding on the winning bid, the winning design, the winning functionality solution.  Getting a strong project manager for the project is going to be important to monitor personalities and politics. Especially when there is a fixed deadline to meet funding requirements.  And there also needs to be a strong project management focused vendor to help with this process.

Dilemma #5:  Little to no usability research.  Many websites are created without proper usability research and analysis.  Choosing the right vendor that you can work with and working with a solution that seems like a fit is one thing.  But to build a website without surveying the needs of users and spending adequate time to develop wireframes and information architecture prior to development of the CMS is a recipe for another short-lived website that will need to be developed again in less than 3 years.   And sadly you probably will not have the budget then to do this.  So it is critical to do it right the first time.

Dilemma #6:  One size does not fit all.  And it may not fit later either.  There are many proprietary public school website software solutions with modules that "pretty much" serve the needs of most schools.  There are two problems with this mass production solution.   The first problem is that while there are some common needs for schools and school districts, EVERY school/school district has different needs.  Different third party applications (e.g. lunch payment programs, job applications) that need to be tied into the site.   Different web site architecture needs.  Different branding.  So to pull a solution "out-of-the-box" may require so much customization that the cost is too high for your budget--even if you "phase it in later."  The second big issue with proprietary solutions is that you are locked in.  You are locked into a vendor who has the keys to your car.

Despite the inherent challenges to redesigning a quality and high value website, school and school district sites don't have to suck.  Planning a realistic phased approach with a strong project management-focused vendor will keep your costs in check.  Surveys are an inexpensive way to get information on the needs from parents, students, community and staff.   Mapping out the architecture prior to development is time well spent so that you do not have to redesign the structure of the website later.  Make sure you have adequate staff to keep the project moving on your end.  And carefully evaluate vendors to make sure that they are designers, and architects and not just software "implementers."




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