Monday, September 26, 2011

Design Simplicity... Managing a school web site










I've served as Webmaster for two schools. One school district where I used to work and the other for Burr and Burton Academy, a 9-12 high school where I currently teach.

Refitting the Burr and Burton Academy web site back in 2005 was quite a ride.

As a brand new teacher to the school, I took the job as a stipend position, $1500 per year.


Here's the site I was asked to refit (courtesy of WebArchive.org).

The goals presented were simple:


  • Give the site a new, fresh, modern look. More 'brochure like,' and 'less web like.'
  • Be able to build and manage the site while teaching full-time (and coaching). The site would need to be designed with distributed publishing responsibilities (daily announcements, cafeteria updates, etc). Basically, train others to update their areas.
  • Bring the school 'online,' so to speak, with news feeds and subscription based daily announcements (RSS). 
  • Make the site supportable: Commercial product, documented, web compliant templates.
  • Make the site visible in other countries and on different browsers.
  • Of course, do all this within a budget... which didn't exist.
  • Build the site for a year and then turn it over to someone else.

Porting the new site to web compliant standards across continents was a guiding factor for the site. I chose DreamWeaver to develop the website and a web compliant template and menu system from Project 7. The two snap-ins added up to about $70 dollars. So... I got underway. 

Freddie Templeton and Brian Gawlik helped with content, discussions on color schemes and artwork. Meetings to consolidate data and simplify, web smithing, test runs, installing Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer in various languages.

Streamlining peoples expectations on what a school website could/should be, streamlining content, designing and building it all... hindsight, the $1500 stipend turned out to be about about .70 cents per hour ; )

We struck up a new design. It was bold for back in the day, and ahead of its time. It sported a new contemporary color palate, and simplified menu system.

In our first few presentations, a few folks hated the new design. We worked our way through those meetings, made modifications based on their feedback, and then the Headmaster decided we were ready to roll it out to the Faculty.


To get folks ready for the new look, I showed showed the web movements that Duke, Harvard, and MIT were making toward simple, bold designs and then showed the Faculty our new site.

Here's the outcome of our refit (courtesy of WebArchive.Org).


Seeing the trends that other institutions were on, nobody complained!

At least not at first ; )

Mission accomplished! The Less 'web like' and more 'brochure like' site was set in motion.


Reports came in that the site was much easier to navigate with 'centers' for different groups. Parents, Alumni, etc and many loved the new design which highlighted many photos of students and learning on campus.

Web design is fickle though... and fast moving. Mobile platforms were exploding and making design more complex, especially across continents. Along the way I added more features as inexpensive solution became available:


  • A free Google search box to search the web site.
  • Setup a blog for posting Daily Announcements that people could subscribe to and could be updated (distributed publishing because I teach full-time).
  • Added a news feed from a blog of 'Current Events' to the home page (setup a blog, sync to FeedBurner, add widget on the home page. This... before Google bought FeedBurner and streamlined the process ; ). 
  • Snapped in Google Analytics (gave us a great, and free, data report on usage across the globe). It surprised a good many people just how heavily the web site was used.
  • Added online donations via PayPal for the Advancement Office. Pretty simple... and significantly cheaper than building your own e-commerce system.
  • I chose to put up a ton of student photos on the site into albums of events. For just over a year I made photo albums in DreamWeaver and posted them to the site. Page views of the 'School Photos' page skyrocketed. We received requests to put up even more photos on the site. This proved VERY cumbersome as building them in DreamWeaver took some time. As far as I can tell, we were the first school I could find to publish so many photos. Many schools contacted me to find out how we were doing it. As demands for more photos increased yet again, I needed a solution I could manage in the time I had. I switched publishing photos over to Picasa... and never looked back. Picasa made it easy to update and I trained the school photographer (again, distributed publishing responsibility) to create and update the albums. To this day, the photo section of the BBA site remains thee most heavily visited part of the BBA web site.
I ended up running the site in a part-time fashion for nearly three years rather than one. 

The refit site had served it's purpose. It set a new look, consolidated the web structure and navigation. It also educated many on what type of content should be on school websites and what should not. It educated many on what it took to update and maintain and focused people on streamlining those practices.

With another refit on the horizon, it was a good time to jump out of the Webmaster role in the Spring of 2008. It was getting too cumbersome to maintain in the part-time role and discussions stirred up to refit the site to a new design... again a time consuming project. 

A new refit would also increase demands for porting the site to mobile platforms (cell phones, netbooks, tablet computers, etc). During those three years I ran the site, I used to setup a computer, port the computer to different languages, wade through translations, and see if the content held to form in other languages. It was a fun process for a while ; )

I also used to test the site on two different smart phones for compatibility. DreamWeaver hadn't quite caught up to that development curve yet. A more sophisticated CMS system could handle all that and it would also be easier for others to maintain in-house as the school had no other experienced web developers.

Based on those variables, we chose a CMS company, FinalSite, and Freddie rekindled her role as Web Master. A new, more sharply contrasted design was chosen and snapped in.

The new system is significantly more pricey, especially from the $1500 per year stipend days and about $100 bucks in web templates... But it's more easily managed in-house, more web compliant, and in a CMS system for porting for the into the future.

Where the future will lead? Blogs are becoming a great option for academic institutions. Many colleges and schools are heading the blog path in some very bold, fun designs. 

Web design companies will face new challenges as these blog engines (WordPress and Blogger in particular) continue to become more robust... and basically free. Moving into a blog format though will continue to challenge schools to refine what they want on the web and assign a value to it. Such trials are good practice though and sorely needed in education I think.

Small school, with a relatively simple site? Keep it simple. Blogs are quickly becoming an excellent option.

I just saw Harvard and Duke went through another refit... and I really like the design work at Grad School at Marlboro College are cooking. I've always been a fan of minimalist design.

In hindsight... running the site for three years was a labor of love. I learned a great deal about the school, it's history, how decisions were made, many personalities, and it's evolving organizational structure. It helped me work with classes I taught and to advise projects on basic on through robust web design... And I'm glad my days as school Webmaster are over, especially while I teach full-time and coach!

Thanks for tuning in, AP

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