Web schooling required

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Schools are back, at least in the northern hemisphere, and I have been seeing how they use the web. I have returned to their sites periodically over the years, and must report a surprising lack of progress. Given the likelihood that many potential or current students and parents will turn first to the web for information, the poor average standard is surprising. Fortunately, a few beacons shine that others may follow.

I have in particular been researching British secondary (high) schools for my daughter. They all have open days in the next couple of weeks, which it is essential for prospective parents to attend. Yet of the six whose sites I looked at, three had no information on the days, and were badly out of date. I won’t name them, both because it would be invidious to single them out and because I don’t want to ruin my daughter’s chances, but the one I am looking at now has nothing at all on admissions, a calendar that “will be updated shortly” and exam results a year out of date. Not comforting.

I cannot judge the failings of non-UK schools with such accuracy, but I have been looking around US high schools, and have found a fair amount of competence, but little exciting. A typical example is Menlo School in Atherton, California (www.menloschool.org), which is a clean site with lots of well-presented information on admissions, students life, courses and the like. Adequate, though no more.

So what is fun in the rather unwhacky word of high school websites? Well, four years ago I raved about the site (www.ttsonline.net) belonging to Thomas Telford School in the English Midlands, a City Technology College described by inspectors as ‘remarkable’. One reason is that owns a company that provides online courses to other schools – you can read a sample of its curriculum on the site. You would expect its website to be advanced and when I looked at it in 2002, it was: a newsfeed from the BBC site, and a television channel for example, and much more. State of the art, plus.

But no longer. The site has changed little, and is starting to feel jaded. The news feed is still there, the television channel is there – and very good it is too. Weekly broadcasts aimed at pupils,are professionally produced, with encouragement and admonitions from a senior teacher and an assemblage of whatever has been happening in sports, drama and so on. Unfortunately the technology – Real Player in a small window with no speed options – no longer says, as it did in 2002, that this school is seriously advanced. I would have thought the video was a natural to turn into a ‘vodcast’ – a video podcast that can be viewed on many mobile phones. As any student will tell you.

The school’s one attempt at tapping latest technology falls flat. An online course is marketed on the home page by a cartoon man who comes to the life at a click and starts talking. I am usually impressed by such Flash-powered videos, because they remind me of the moving pictures in Harry Potter’s Daily Prophet, but this one is definitely not cool. Time for Thomas Telford to pull its online socks up, I think.

Another school site I was raving about, this time back in 1999, was Lauriston Girls, one of Australia’s best-known schools (www.lauriston.vic.edu.au). No disappointment here. It’s jolly modern.

Ignore your own gender (if necessary) and click the Girls Only! section. This leads not to an intranet (that is a separate), but to an excellent section aimed mainly, I would guess, at potential students. Much of it is written by girls at the school, and is in effect a set of blogs. Lauriston is however a decorous place, so they are not called blogs but diaries. You can choose from five pupils, ranging from Helen in Year 7 (‘My favourite animal is the dolphin and I love to play tennis’) to Angela, a school captain. This is taking the technique used by companies such as Cadbury Schweppes (www.cadburyschweppes.com), which runs blogs on its graduate recruitment site, and applying it well to a younger audience. I wonder vaguely if there are any dangers in this, given the reputation of the internet, but I assume Lauriston has thought them through.

The Lauriston Interactive Tour is also slick. Here you can click around maps of the two campuses, zooming in on particular areas, and seeing photos. Much of the site is Flash-powered, which I would normally say is a no-no. But if you are trying to appeal to young people, it adds a certain zap factor, so probably makes sense.

If this is all a bit modern, for you, try the articles by a US psychologist who is founder of the National Association for Single Sex Education. His views are, as they say, aligned with those of the school.

Of course if you want really old-fashioned, you have to go to a proper English public school, preferably Eton College. Except here (www.etoncollege.com) you may get a surprise. Click The Eton Diary, and you will find list of events for today and tomorrow, for every week this term, and for every weekend. In other words, unlike my daughter’s putative school, Eton believes its ‘stakeholders’ really will turn first to the web.

That is just the start of the practical fun on this excellent site. The New Boy Guide, which ‘is intended to tell you something about the school before you arrive, so that the learning process will be that much easier’, fulfils its task admirably. Start with a Flash-powered tour of the school, learn about the Eton Day, look at the maps, then settle down to learn the glossary. Not many schools need one (let alone as a main navigation item), but with ‘half’ meaning ‘term’, ‘sock’ meaning to give something, and ‘slack bob’ meaning a boy who neither rows nor plays cricket, Eton is not like other schools. After that the new boy can use the FAQs to find the Eton Boating Song, and lull himself gently to sleep. If that’s not worth £24,990 a year, I don’t know what is.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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