Why Are Public School Websites so Bad?

While Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon above is mocking university websites for deficiencies in design, the same could be said of many public school websites. A few years ago, my kids’ school website only worked in Internet Explorer. It was the most terrible design you can imagine, done in Front Page I think, with all the most important information buried or even out of date. The reason for that was that the media specialist, who had a full time job running the library, teaching classes that visited the library, and working with teachers, was also tasked with running the school website, and she didn’t have the time or the expertise to do so. The school now has a technology specialist who runs the website, and it is much better than it was. However, it’s still not close to being a slick-looking as some of the private school websites I’ve visited. I think several factors may influence a school’s website design, and the deck is stacked against public schools:

  • Private schools have to market themselves. They’re competing against every other private school in their area, and they have to allocate funds to attracting students. Part of their marketing is a good website. The first step in exploring a school is most often taking a look at their website, and if it’s bad, the family might never even move forward with an application. Information needs to be easy to find, and the site itself must be easy to navigate. It should look professional and give visitors a sense of what they might see in the school.
  • Private schools often hire outside web designers. Public schools tend to assign the task to employees or students, with mixed results. Sometimes you get someone really good who knows what they’re doing, but designing and running a website is a big job, and employees are often stretched too thin to do a good job. A variety of designers cater to private schools. Contrary to popular belief, private schools are not necessarily swimming in money, but they do need to spend money on good websites because of marketing.
  • Public schools seem to communicate more via email, telephone, signage, paper, and snail mail. They probably don’t have a real reason to duplicate all of that information on a website, although I would argue that they should if they want someone outside the community to find the site useful. For instance, we’re moving to Massachusetts this summer, and my husband complained that the public schools’ website in the area we’re moving to was quite difficult to navigate. I tried it out, and he’s right. The district website attaches a frame around the website for the one school I looked at, and navigation was impossible. I never could find a faculty directory.
  • Sometimes the appropriate staff (a technology director, specialist, etc.) floats among several schools or even a whole district. Because private schools are independent, they have to hire faculty and staff to cover these areas (or outsource some of it). Otherwise, they won’t have it. If they don’t have technology faculty, they run the risk of being behind the times and therefore losing potential students to schools that spend more on up-to-date technology.

Asking technology faculty to float is a horrible idea. Each school should have a dedicated member of the faculty who works with teachers to integrate technology. I don’t say that because it’s my job, and I need job security. I say it because I think it’s true. Otherwise, you’re going to have more difficulty getting faculty to integrate technology. You will always have the dedicated teachers who spend their own time learning how to use technology on their own, but if you are trying to make a real school-wide shift, it’s not going to happen if your faculty doesn’t have someone to help them. It’s no wonder public schools can’t dedicate more time to making their websites attractive and user-friendly. They don’t have the personnel, and the personnel they do have don’t have the time.  However, websites are an important communication tool, and in the year 2012, it is not asking too much to have a website that visitors can enjoy using to learn more about a school. Many free and cheap CMS’s exist to help schools (which doesn’t solve the time issue). A good website should be something to which schools dedicate time.

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