Role Of Websites In School Growth
By Mal Lee
Websites are a critical element in the ongoing growth and evolution of digital schools.
A recent school consultancy experience with an education authority that unilaterally controlled and limited the use of each school’s website underscored the fundamental and accelerating importance of the school’s website in facilitating and shaping each school’s growth, evolution and, vitally, the desired ecology.
While the school concerned had put in place all the requisite digital technology, the apposite bandwidth and wireless network, the digital presentation facilities in every teaching room and opened the way for bring your own technology, the school had been denied use of the unique website and digital communication suite imperative to creating the distinct, digitally based, tightly integrated school ecology that would facilitate and support the school’s digital normalisation and the continued provision of the desired 21st century education.
By virtue of the central office’s ‘ICT expert’s’ limited appreciation of the critical role of the website in digitally based organisations and the school’s lack of control over a key and increasingly important educational and administrative tool, the school, like all its confrères in that authority, was:
- shackled in its quest to operate as a digital school and create an apposite 24/7/365 networked school community and thereby blocked from fostering the unique ecology and culture of the school and providing the evermore sophisticated web-based learning and teaching opportunities
- unable to create a teaching and learning culture that was digitally based, socially networked and which encouraged and supported all the teachers to naturally use digital in their everyday teaching (the teaching remained predominantly paper based)
- prevented from establishing a unique online and digital presence and relationship with its community
- stymied from using its well-equipped digital classrooms as digital teaching hubs, curtailing each teacher’s and student’s access to and use of the networked world
- blocked from designing the client experience from the outside in
- prevented from providing the online and cloud-based educational, administrative, financial, communication and evaluation services expected from a clientele and society that has normalised the everyday use of digital technology
- prevented from using the school’s website and the associated highly efficient, inexpensive and multi-way digital communications suite to simultaneously provide up-to-date information, ready insight into the school’s everyday workings, automatic school marketing, immediate accountability and instant client feedback
- stopped from achieving the very considerable and growing efficiencies, economies, enhanced effectiveness and synergies possible with fully integrated digital and networked operations
- obliged to waste considerable scarce money
- constrained from pooling its resources with those of its homes and the wider networked community, and so adding to the teaching riches of the school
In brief, the one seemingly trivial central ‘control over’ action, over a resource that costs probably less than one computer, has markedly impaired the capacity of all schools within the education authority to grow, evolve, normalise the digital technology and vitally compete on a level footing with the region’s non-government schools.
While fortunately this strong, whole-of-education authority control of school websites is rare in 2015, the signs are that most schools or indeed education authorities do not appear to appreciate how important and how central the website is to the school’s growth and evolution. Immense attention is given and resources allocated to the technology, but little is accorded the website.
Research (Lee & Broadie, 2014a and Lee & Broadie, 2014b) highlights the imperative for all schools to factor into their plans the design and development of a school website – and an associated digital communications suite – that facilitates, supports and stimulates the realisation of the desired school ecology, and which vitally will continue to assist the total school’s evolution when digital normalisation is achieved.
The lessons of the pathfinder schools in the US, UK, NZ and Australia (Lee & Broadie, 2014a) reveal that each school needs prime operational responsibility for its own growth, control over all the key variables impacting that growth and that the school’s website is as critical to the school’s growth, evolution and viability as are the websites of all other digitally based and networked organisations.
Every one of the schools that had normalised or nearly normalised the use the digital had a school website and an associated digital communications suite central to the school’s everyday operations. They were two of the 46 key variables (Lee & Broadie, 2014) that all the schools successfully addressed in their evolutionary journey. They are as critical to their total operations as are those of an Amazon, Apple, Coles, an airline, a university or the tax office.
Examination of the sites of any of the pathfinder schools or any of the organisations mentioned provides an appreciation that they are increasingly sophisticated, unique and constantly evolving facilities integrally linked to the organisation’s mission and everyday operations.
Westerman, Bonnet and McAfee (2014:44) in their seminal analysis of digital transformation in the business world not surprisingly noted, “…customers do not separate their online experiences from their physical experiences”. Moreover, they underscore a “…compelling (digital) customer experience is the key pillar to digital transformation”.
Websites are most assuredly not the simple, largely static, one-size-fits-all solution promoted by many educational bureaucrats, nor indeed even the beautiful online marketing brochures favoured by many schools. Rather, they are working websites integral to the organisation’s total, ever-evolving 24/7/365 operations.
In every instance, the actual website serves as the carrier of a suite of evolving, evermore sophisticated services, referred to as the digital communications suite for want of a term. Within Collaboration in Learning; transcending the classroom walls (Lee & Ward, 2013), the authors observed, “Your school will need an integrated multi-faceted, multi-way suite of digital communication and collaboration facilities that allows the school to seamlessly, inexpensively and efficiently liaise with all its members and the wider networked world. That is not necessarily as complex – or expensive – as it sounds. Think about what is readily in use outside schools and use that.
“The actual form of the suite will vary with the school size and finances available but it will invariably include an integrating website, blogs, wikis, possibly RSS feeds, Twitter and Facebook access, email communication with every parent and interested grandparent, carer, community member and organisation and regular interactive multimedia communiqués with those interested in the school’s operations.”
One is looking at the following type of scenario:
As the school evolves, as new offerings become available and the old are superseded, as the school each day uses the suite in its teaching, learning and documenting the school’s life, and as the many members of the school’s community daily contribute to its vitality, so that suite of offerings will be refined and evolve.
This is a living, breathing, integral but unique part of each school’s changing ecology that needs to be shaped by the school’s community, for use in a distinct situation at a given stage in the school’s evolutionary journey and most assuredly not by some external ‘expert’.
Tellingly, in a world where society has normalised the use of the digital, the school website increasingly provides a powerful, succinct insight into the school’s evolutionary position (Lee, 2013) and increasingly serves as one of the main sources of information for prospective parents seeking out a school for their children. It is a core marketing facility that remarkably looks after itself without any real aid from marketing personnel. Significantly, as schools move along the school evolutionary stages continuum (Lee & Broadie, 2014), the schools increasingly open their daily workings for scrutiny, lowering the school walls to allow all interested to view their work and thinking. It makes it very easy for prospective parents – the customers – to readily secure an insight into the actual workings of the total school and not have to rely on an online brochure that provides a filtered and often artificial view of the school.
In brief, working websites that strongly impact the total workings and growth of digitally based schools are also becoming a powerful variable in a school’s continued viability, with the Net Generation digitally empowered parents increasingly choosing by way of the website those schools they believe will provide their children the apposite 21st century schooling.
It is most assuredly time for all schools, education authorities and indeed governments to appreciate the critical importance of each school’s web services in the school’s overall growth, evolution and viability and for the external education support agencies to support and not impair, as they now do, the school’s evolution.
It is particularly important that all principals appreciate the core role of the school’s web presence and take responsibility of this instrument in their daily shaping of the desired school ecology.
Mal Lee is a former director of schools, secondary college principal, technology company director and now, author and educational consultant. He has written extensively on the impact of technology and the evolution of schooling.