Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness.
GUEST COLUMN | by Ralph Lucci
This summer, my 10-year-old nephew is enrolling in a “Website Design” class at our local museum’s summer camp program. I’ll be tagging along to gauge how he and his peers prioritize and shape their personal interests and how they’ll share and solve for each other’s experiences.
Like many kids his age, he’s already a masterful navigator of all things digital – fluently moving about interfaces on his iPad from screen to screen and application to application. It’s effortlessly second nature, and he often plays the role of teacher, imparting his expertise and intuition upon adults.
The K-12 “website” of the future feels more like a personalized, one-on-one engagement engine centered around the relevant interests of its unique users.
He’s not necessarily the primary audience of his school’s website, but maybe he should be. Perhaps he could reveal a thing or two about how to shape a successful user experience for today’s audiences.
Then and Now
How much has the educational arena changed from a generation ago? The term “blended learning” refers to the use of technology alongside traditional techniques to support and motivate students to achieve more positive results. While books, worksheets, and paper handouts are still technically “mobile” tools of education, teaching materials can now live in the cloud and include all the modern marvels of digital and social media. In progressive school systems, these online resources are available for one-on-one teaching sessions, peer chats, and even self-study lessons; a vast leap from the days of chalkboard lectures, note taking, and take-home assignments.
According to Blackboard, 52 percent of American 9th-12th graders are taking tests online and 77 percent of parents consider the effective use of technology as important to their child’s future. This seems to afford opportunities for more relevant and targeted web-based learning and supportive experiences – opportunities that more and more will involve students directly. But how are these tools accessed, engaged and managed? What role do parents have, and where might there be overlaps?
Unsurprisingly, not all things are created equal in the world of education. In fact, you might be hard-pressed to find a greater scale of disparity across the web than that of K-12 school websites and their educational tools and resources for students, parents, and teachers.
Expectations and Challenges
Maximizing the potential of the web for K-12 schools is a noble effort rife with technical and user experience hurdles. It’s unfair and all too easy to criticize websites that clearly suffer from the emblematic challenges many municipalities face – namely the aggregation of bolted-on features, “Frankensteined” third-party components, and droves of rogue links. Many schools’ sites, despite honorable efforts, are antiquated or hamstrung for any number of reasons. Those fortunate enough to have technical departments skilled in the ways of the web may still have to employ or configure off-the-shelf tools that need to be relatively secure, template-based, and easy to use for novice internal contributors. It’s easy to see how the very characteristics that solve for these obligations present restrictions, lack flexibility, and leave little leeway for ingenuity.
The worst culprits are archetypical; websites that attempt to provide every bit of content to every possible audience at once. A clear indication of this plight is a homepage containing a kaleidoscope of logos and badges, one for each legacy or proprietary system that only handles one aspect of data or information at a time. These systems often require logins, are hard to amalgamate, and don’t allow for fluid integration – so users often jump in and out and across a school website to access or share information.
Ask a frustrated parent (and there’s a wide spectrum from “very savvy” to “complete neophyte” users) to critique a school website and they’ll often talk about having to work too hard to find and access material that’s relevant to them, or that a website is just one of a myriad of tools/places/platforms they’re required to engage and manage. The same goes for teachers.
How Can Schools Address These Challenges?
One way to begin is by truly listening to users. Common themes amidst the feedback can be summed up in two simple points: relevance and efficiency. It’s not about access to everything; it’s about easy access to the right things.
In an ideal world, the recipe for a successful school site is one that mixes ingredients that advise, inform and serve a community or district (perhaps one-part marketing, two-parts utility). These groups represent unique dynamics between students, parents, teachers and administrators – and an effective website should highlight and market these particular strengths. But it should also provide efficient utility and foster dialogue. School profiles are richer when all of these users share their experiences and paint a broader picture of participation in a collective.
In that sense, the “public facing” content of a K-12 website can and should promote the fun and engaging events and happenings surrounding school communities, especially for site visitors that want to browse and learn about the culture. But the same website shouldn’t make constituent users (with routine goals and repetitive tasks) hunt and scour for information they need. A successful website’s priority should be maximizing relevance – centralizing and streamlining items of interest – by making content available as efficiently and fluidly as possible. This material can be assembled and customized for unique needs, and ideally delivered across any digital device for consumption.
In some cases, this is already being done indirectly. “Parent portals,” requiring authentication into secure environments, emerged from the need to access and protect sensitive student data, but they actually provide an antidotal opportunity and model user-experience. “Personal” portals serve as intranets/extranets of sorts, and can piece together schedules, calendars, assignments, lesson plans, discussion threads, faculty information, dismissal notifications and other resources in such a way as to make them highly relevant and personalized. Ideally, this approach would let users weed out clutter and noise and prioritize elements to reflect only what’s desired.
Of course, passage across various tools with a single sign-on would be the most efficient means to traverse a school’s ecosystem, but at the very least, the portal concept provides a focused “home base” from which to depart, navigate and return. Allowing for the customization of resources can be an elementary way to conscientiously serve respective end users. By having a hand in shaping their own experiences, users are given the power to manage their changing needs. Even as schools gravitate to popular, well-known unified platforms like Google Classroom and other emerging tools, there may always be a need to bridge gaps between disparate features and functionality. Moreover, teachers would also benefit from a flexible and centralized base from which to engage and disseminate.
In these ways, the K-12 “website” of the future feels more like a personalized, one-on-one engagement engine centered around the relevant interests of its unique users – following in the footsteps of individualized education programs and growing into bigger shoes.
Ralph Lucci is co-founder and user experience director at Behavior Design, an award-winning boutique interactive design studio, He has worked with the University of Michigan and the Cooper Union, among others, to evolve their web sites.