Internet Tips

School Web Site Development
By:Anne Hirsh

A school website can be an informational hub for current and potential students, staff, faculty, parents and community members. The type and size of the school will determine the website's needs, and staff size may determine how complex your site is, as it will require ongoing maintenance Website development should include consultations with professionals who have experience in school website design and development, but staff and faculty members should be a part of the process.

Domain
All websites, regardless of the entities they represent, need a domain name and hosting. The domain name is the basic web address where people can find the site, such as "yourschool.com." Public schools and state or community colleges often use specific domains for all schools within a district or state, so check with your district office if you are developing a public or state school site. Only accredited post-secondary schools are eligible for domains ending in .edu. Other institutions generally use .org domains.

Content
For your end users, the most important part of your website is its content. Hand in hand with this is the ease with which users can find the content they require. School websites generally require content areas that offer information for current students, such as schedules and syllabi. Information for potential students is particularly important for colleges and private institutions, such as admissions requirements, tuition and fees. Community information might include an event calendar with fundraisers and performances noted, while parent content for schools serving minors might include policy reminders and conference days. Arrange the content by category in a logical manner and have people from each potential user group test the layout on a sample site and give feedback.

Back End
The back end of a website is the interface that is used to place data on the site. The most important feature of this is the content management system (CMS). There are a wide variety of content management systems available, both free and paid versions, and each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Free and low-cost packages systems require moderate to advanced programming knowledge to set up. Higher end systems are customized for your school's needs as part of the fee. CMS interfaces are intended to allow non-technically skilled users to add information, images and links to the site, so test out several to see which ones the staff finds easiest to use before settling on a system.

Hosting
Any domain must be hosted on a server with enough space to accommodate all of your website's data and enough bandwidth to allow multiple users onto the site at the same time. Public schools may have dedicated hosting through the school district. Private institutions must purchase hosting from a web hosting provider. Do not purchase hosting until you are familiar with your site's needs and expected usage. Most hosting companies allow you to upgrade your hosting package for storage space and bandwidth, but this requires additional fees that may not suit the budget around which the website was planned.

Security
Any sensitive information on a website, such as faculty addresses, test scores or fee payment pages, must be secure. SSL encryption is the standard method of web encryption for this purpose, so check with the hosting company to see if an individual SSL certificate is part of the hosting package and make sure it is activated on the sensitive areas of the site. The back end of the site must also be secure so mischief-makers don't get into the site and make unapproved changes. This means limiting the number of people who know the access passwords and keeping any printed password information in a secure location. Consider changing the access password monthly or any time you have a staff change.






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