Perspectives

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A strategic approach to complex educational organisation websites

June2019 Audit in June 2019 of an incomplete Teacher page

School Districts and educational organisations in the United States face many of the same issues – tight budgets, large personnel cohorts, tens of thousands of students, and thousands of teachers. They face logistics issues with busing kids, have to display frugality in using taxpayer money, need to tell the many success stories provided by their students and teachers, must keep parents in the loop, and face the daunting prospect of communicating catastrophic events like school shootings or extreme weather.

One would imagine that school websites would be considered key infrastructure and that they’d be adequately staffed. You'd be wrong. Many would get a failing grade if they were evaluated. Other districts risk litigation daily due to poor online practices that are unlikely to change unless they are forced to do so at enormous cost.

Integrated Media Strategies has worked with a lot of education organisations and assisted them with a range of strategic and tactical marketing, communications and related questions. My background with national news media - which requires the technology platforms with which they work to be reliable and to assist the workflows inherent in deadline-driven newsgathering and publishing - has provided insights useful to the challenges faced by educational organisations. While school systems may be educational institutions, when it comes to their digital information and news content distribution, many haven’t realized that they function as publishers. 

As a result of this disconnect, the platforms they choose for their website content management systems (CMS), coupled with the workflow processes they should have in place – and frequently don’t – along with the capacity or staffing needed to manage high-volume content throughputs, are often woefully inadequate or badly selected.  This results in a plethora of poor outcomes.

  • Here are some of the systemic errors I have seen during recent project work with a local school district with which I am working. While these are pulled from this district, they represent fairly common shortcomings that can be found at other educational organisations.  The issues they face include:
  • Pages that are out of date - some by years - that should be current and up to date
  • Typos, grammar and spelling errors in content - many on teacher pages, which creates significant negative perceptions and raise questions about the quality of education that teachers that can't write can be expected to provide to children in their classrooms
  • Embedded files that are unreadable on mobile phones
  • A mishmash of fonts, styling, pictures, tables that aren’t ADA friendly, and other web blunders
  • Calls to page visitors to go to offsite to staff personal websites
  • Unsafe web practices in which risky embedded file types are being used
  • Unsafe forms in which personal information is being sought from parents with no thought of data security
  • Busy work that include one sentence ‘news’, with no further qualifying information, to meet a quota for content
  • Personal, religious and other non-professional content
  • No systemic structuring of the site content to easily afford filtered searches; instead search produce hundreds of results to queries that should produce only a few, making site search functionally useless

When one digs deeper, what is commonly found is that people with no background in website development – let alone complex site development – were involved in leading the project. Additionally, junior communications staff with little or no management experience or strategic insight were used heavily to implement the project. As a consequence, the sites that emerge appear OK in the beginning, but rapidly become unsustainable. Compounding the problems created by a poor selection of a CMS are process and workflow inadequecies.  These school districts lack detailed style guides; clear statements on who is responsible for what, when;  buy in and common ground regarding which senior staff - such as principals or department heads - need to take responsibility for their sections of the site; and routine, calendared reminders to check certain types of content and update it. These shortcomings are functionally unsustainable to maintaining a site with a high turnover of content and rapidly turn school sites into a monster riddled with errors where you will find pages that are out of date – often by years – and staff who don’t know what’s been posted, when, by whom and whether anybody other than the original author saw it before hitting the button ‘Publish’.

During an audit in which Integrated Media Strategies was involved, I asked why automated site notifications weren’t used to ensure the site could be managed for professional content output in near real time. The answer I was given was ‘because we’d be swamped.’  The alternative - being blind to what is on the thousands of pages on the site - is worse, and a recipe for litigation against the school, the superintendent, and the board.

To be sure, district websites are large, complex and can be unwieldy beasts. A significant issue is that schools' systems are talked into using proprietary Content Management Systems that are bundled in with other technologies that they need, like rapid push notification systems via email, text and calls to parents. These bundled contracts result in districts being held hostage on poorly selected 'bargain' platforms without the native functionality built into open source platforms like Joomla that are much better suited for the scalability needed by a district that may have 40+ schools and thousands of teachers. 

Replacing a failed site at this scale is expensive and time-consuming, but often, it is the least worst option available. If the site CMS has limited functionality that is staff time expensive, uses a poorly structured layout and architecture, and the content has become out of date and isn't natively mobile friendly, it is simpler to start over with a clean sheet.

Sometimes it is only when the threat of litigation occurs that it becomes apparent to administrators, board members and superintendents that serious attention must be paid to their dysfunctional sites. Even when audits raise serious questions about content issues on hundreds - sometimes thousands - of pages, these are not acted upon until the superintendent or Board is forced to do so by either embarrassment or the threat of litigation. Unfortunately, the cost of a lawsuit is frequently much higher than fixing the site in the first place; and often the end result is that the site must be fixed on top of bleeding resources for legal fees - hardly a good outcome for county taxpayers.

Integrated Media Strategies has counselled educational organizations to begin with a thorough planning process that engages department heads, principals and other leadership members. Heads of schools and departments need to understand that they will be held accountable for reviewing content on their corner of the site once it is built and be required to ensure changes are made to rectify errors. Other process questions should be identified early during planning with a clear understanding of prioritization and capacity to maintain it once it is rebuilt.

Once planning has been accomplished, a site structure should be planned that will allow for both a good visitor experience as well as be underpinned by technical functionality that makes the lives of school staff easier, not harder. The site CMS must have features that make staff more time efficient, especially for regular review of out of date content and with near real time content management.  Since filtered search is a must on large sites like these, content categorization and compartmentalization must be built in from the beginning so that site searches are able to limit results to within logical and relevant areas for meaningful outputs.

Only then should the site be built. 

While this is occurring it should occur in parallel with the development of staff systems, style guides, training, and procedures being put in place so that the new site can be updated sustainably with fresh content that is complete, accurate, professional, and which has been reviewed – as a requirement - by more than just the author hitting ‘SAVE’.  This may seem like an obvious series of statements, but there are many schools systems that do not have these practices in place and the impact can be seen in the quality - or lack thereof - on their sites. Without a content management system in place that natively makes the review process time efficient AND having systems in place that require accountability for content posted AND agreement on content style, large school district sites quickly devolve into a minefield of professional embarrassment.

The district I was auditing had none of these in place, which was why they turned off automated change notifications. They did not have the capacity to keep up with the notifications because the CMS did not allow for structured, specific notifications to relevant, responsible users. They did not have the capacity to keep up because no systems were in place to take responsibility for checking content as it was being posted by a second pair of eyes. They did not have the capacity to keep up because they had no best practices around departmental compartmentalization where the head of the department or school took responsibility for that section of the site. They did not have the capacity to keep up because the quality of the writing was poor and edits took too long. They did not have the capacity to keep up because the quality of the writing was not informed by a rigorous style guide that specified how various types of content should be written and why. They did not have the capacity to keep up because they were understaffed and lacked the experience to strategically manage up and convey the risks incurred by poor quality content being posted in the dark. And they did not have the capacity to keep up because the superintendent didn't choose to resource the department. So they turned off notifications. 

If you are a school system encountering issues such as how to sustainably manage quality content production or need a site audit with recommendations for sustainable, quality, outcomes, don't be like the school district mentioned in the paragraph above.  It is possible to have a high quality site with effective staff practices and workflows that allow a district to put its best foot forward.  Improved outcomes for sites like these include better and more effective communications with stakeholders that include parents, the local tax base, county economic development agencies, students, grant givers and others.

Integrated Media Strategies can help you. Contact us.

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Tuesday, 25 June 2019

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