I’ve covered nonprofits and government sites before, but educational institutions (whether public or private) have their own needs and definitely merit a dedicated article. What follows is a list of essential features for educational web sites, and then some discussion of the list (as well as some discussion about things you may be surprised that didn’t make the list).
10 Most Important Web Site Elements for Educational Web Sites
- CMS / site infrastructure / hosting setup
- Accessibility (e.g., catering to ADA, etc.)
- An “about us” page
- Departmental and course information
- Contact information — staff, teachers, and administration
- Google maps / directions
- Event calendar
- Social media integration
- Custom scripted features
In the above list, I put the CMS (content management system) / site infrastructure / hosting item at the top because I believe starting with the best foundation is essential. It’s much easier to develop or expand a web site if the underlying structure is well planned.
Privacy policies and accessibility are important for schools for similar reasons I gave in my discussion of governmental web sites. So, instead of repeating this information, I recommend reading my piece on government web sites next. (And, for some educational sites, you may want to look into COPPA compliancy, while I’m on the subject.)
So, now we get into the content of the web site. I pretty much always recommend a nice, thorough “About Us” page for any web site. Schools are no different, and this gives a nice opportunity to state the mission and values of the school.
You know, one thing that would really help out a lot of visitors to this page (and I say this from many years of experience as a marketing director who sometimes worked with schools) would be a well-organized set of school logos in various sizes, formats, and resolutions. So many visitors (including many students) are looking for this very thing during their visit to your site!
Departmental and course information probably varies a good bit depending on the type of school we’re considering here. Elementary and grade schools are probably less organized in this way. But, interest areas start to become important in high school, and this information is absolutely critical in a college / university setting.
So, you have to start with that and then expand outward in terms of the level of detail included (the “higher” the educational context, the deeper the information needs are). That’s true in general, as well. For example, colleges and universities would have financial areas on the site (again, ranging in complexity from simply stating fees and various policies all the way to providing calculators, etc.). We’ll get into those advanced features later.
Now, here’s a tangential thought you may not expect from a web development company: I actually don’t think most high schools and colleges should hire web development companies for the design and development of the site. Instead, I think these sites in particular should be student-developed, perhaps merely overseen by a development company in order to provide guidance. So, all of this is just my opinion and advice — not a sales tool for me to develop high school and college web sites. (But, again, I do suggest that students should have guidance during the effort.)
For contact information, more is better. I’m not a big fan of generic “firstname.lastname@example.org” addresses because, over time, they tend to be forgotten about, which is bad customer service. But, I think schools should make it easy to contact individual faculty and administration members. Of course, where emails and other means (e.g., texting) are concerned (esp. w/ respect to student-teacher communications for high schoolers) a school may also need to promote various protocols and policies. There are some super solutions out there, such as Remind.com, that cater to this exceptionally well.
Maps and directions… yep, get them on there. Spend some time on this if it can be at all tricky to find your school or get there easily. Tons of people absolutely need this information — visiting prospective students, visiting sport teams from other schools, parents, vendors, etc.
I didn’t really discuss school clubs or sports programs above under content, although those are certainly ubiquitous parts of student life. Each provides a good reason to have a school blog, if you like, as you can use the blog to post notices, news, event information, sporting results, etc.
The administration could make good use of blog functionality as well (e.g., for posting notices, lunch menus, school closing information, etc.) I’m sure some clubs and sporting programs are so significant that many (esp. in college settings) probably have their own dedicated web sites. But, I was really just reminded of sports and clubs when thinking of an event calendar, which I view as a Top 10 component of any educational web site.
Clients approach me fairly regularly about online calendars. I have to say that, as features go, calendars are actually rather tricky because you’re dealing with dates, which is inherently a complex type of coding. For that reason, it’s generally advisable to select a prepackaged solution to any web site’s calendaring needs. Probably the simplest solution (one used by quite a few of my clients) is the good old Google Calendar option. With Google, an entire calendar (with many great features and functions) can be embedded with a single chunk of code — as easy to put on a web site as, say, a Youtube video. The downside is that it’s tougher to customize the look of this (although it is possible). From there, there are numerous calendaring options available (some embeddable like Google, others standalone applications), depending on your needs.
Unlike other public sector entities, social media is going to be huge for schools. At the lower levels (say, junior high through high school), it’s unavoidable that students are going to be engaging in social media, so this is an effective way to help communicate with the student body. (Although, as I mentioned in my public sector article, I don’t think a school should require participation in such sites. Rather, the school’s own web site should be the official “venue” for online news, announcements, etc.) Social media sites for schools are great for all of the “extra” / fun stuff — e.g., live-tweeting a basketball game, linking out to an article in the local paper that mentions the school, linking out to suggested reading materials, etc. Social media may also be viewed by colleges and universities as an increasingly important recruiting tool.
Speaking of recruiting… As these lists are meant as general, your school may have its own priorities for the web site. For example, colleges and universities definitely have recruitment in mind, which means that this informs the strategy and features of the site. For example, a web site concerned with recruiting would probably have a lot of promotional video and photo galleries. And fortunately for them, there are probably arts, communications, media, and marketing students who would love to help, possibly even for course credit.
Lastly on our Top 10 Essentials list is the broad, mysterious “custom-scripted features.” For this item, let your imagination run wild. These days, there is really no limit to what can be accomplished via a school web site. This includes providing online student / parent services as well. (For many of these types of things — especially if the site is to be integrated with a school’s other systems — it often IS advisable to hire a professional development company instead of allowing for student-developed functionality.)
One final addition not mentioned above (which I think isn’t essential, but is definitely a great opportunity) is ecommerce. No matter what your school happens to be — from kindergarten through university — the school almost certainly has logo merchandise for sale, which can be a super fund raiser opportunity. This is a highly complex area with a ton of merchandising, fulfillment, systems, and financial policy considerations. But, it’s still a super-great functionality that any school should consider.
Well, that’s about it for the absolute Top 10 items. Certainly, there are other great web features as well; I was mainly concerned with the essentials. I suspect that there are administrators, lawyers, and IT folks who may scoff at some of what I’ve mentioned here. After all, it would be very easy, and quite a shame, for any school to preemptively disallow some of the functionality described above. Rather, I think administrators and legal teams should approach any issues with the expectation that these services need to be offered in today’s world.