The Future of School Websites Is Consolidation and Consumerization
Back in the mid-1990s, connecting online was not easy. As a student, my classmates and I decided to build a website for our school and use it to share stories online and find old friends in the area to meet up for beers. We called it an “alumni directory” and were excited to see the posts pile up almost immediately. We had obviously touched on a real need.
Today, of course, social networking tools are much more advanced than the alumni directory we built, but so too are the websites we all use to interact with the schools that play such a huge part in our lives. Nevertheless, alumni directories still exist in the systems we build for schools today. And that got me wondering: What are the features we’re using today that will still be around in another quarter-century? What does the future of digital communication for schools and districts hold?
Focusing on User Experience
Websites of the past were, essentially, digital brochures that people could click through on a computer screen. These days the concern is much more about the user experience and accessibility. Designers are not just asking, “Okay, what is going to look really cool?” but rather, “What is a visitor to this website going to need when they visit? What are they looking for?” Front-end developers are focused on ensuring the sites are accessible to all users and optimized for all the ways we access information online.
Schools also need to market themselves, though. This is not a position schools are used to being in, but today there is much more competition for students, be it from private schools, charter schools, online schools, or even other public schools as a result of greater school choice. Each student enrolled in a school has a direct effect on the school’s budget, so it’s in their interest—and can even be a matter of survival—that they increase enrollment. We all know that educational attainment is linked to professional success, so parents and family members are going to look for the best possible education they can provide their child. As they do that, the website is going to be the first thing they see.
Finding the right school can be a challenge for parents, however, because the news media doesn’t generally report on the successes of local districts, preferring to focus on their challenges and setbacks. School and district websites have stepped into that gap a bit by sharing the good news. Your district’s test scores improving by 15% or the success of your STEM magnet program may not sell a lot of newspapers, but you can get the word out to relevant audiences by posting that achievement on your website.
Like the rest of us, parents and guardians are looking for an experience as seamless and intuitive as those they encounter on consumer apps. If they can’t find what they’re after in a few seconds, they will get frustrated and leave.
Concerns about user experience and marketing are likely to remain central to school and district website design for the foreseeable future.
Beyond the foreseeable future, there may be user experiences that we may not yet have even contemplated. Today we can interface with websites and devices simply by speaking to smart speakers. Twenty-five years from now, data may travel to and from our brains without a physical interface at all.
The other side of user engagement and marketing is security. With more visitors coming to the website and interacting with it, there’s more opportunity for data breaches, either unintentional or carried out by bad actors. Add in the integration of various other systems, such as the student information system or learning management system, and the need for security becomes paramount.
When we talk to district administrators, the first box they want to see checked is security. Many of our customers find us after they’ve had some sort of security breach. They don’t want to deal with protecting their websites, and they often lack the expertise to do so. Using cloud storage, secure connections, encryption, public key infrastructure and other tools to secure school and district data, we’re in a much better position to protect their valuable information.
The trend of schools outsourcing management and security to trusted experts in those areas will keep growing in the coming years. As technology improves, users looking to access the data held by those trusted experts may only remember passwords as a relic of the past, as they gain access through biometrics and other “signatures,” such as their faces, voices, DNA, or even the unique stride of their walk.
The valuable data on district websites could be secured in a warehouse that’s inaccessible from the outside, but then it’s useless to educators who could do good work with it. That data needs to be available to the appropriate users and shareable between services, especially with all of the cutting-edge technology being developed that puts this data to good use, such as voice assistants to AI-powered services.
As a vendor that provides software and services to schools and districts, we always advocate for open data structures to ease the flow of data between appropriate tools. There has been some progress in this area thanks to tools like single sign-on and the work of organizations like the IMS Global Learning Consortium and Project Unicorn, but there’s still a lot of improvement to be made in this area. We expect it to progress in the coming years.
As it does, unique, proprietary interfaces for specific applications may become a thing of the past, with any interface the user chooses to adopt capable of displaying any data the user has access to.
Consolidation and Consumerization
The consolidation and consumerization of online school communications technology are the big, overarching trends in this space. Integrating with the systems educators use daily, such as Google, Microsoft Office365, SIS’s, and social media platforms, has already become the new standard. Worries about user experience, for example, are really worries that a website is not consumer-friendly enough, and interoperability is a key step in consolidating services and software.
The move toward consolidation and consumerization can be seen in things like the addition of payment processing to websites or parental communication and engagement tools. Schools and districts need their communications tools to be as frictionless as possible because, frankly, people don’t have the time or patience to learn several different systems just to get information from or interact with the administration at their child’s school.
They expect everything to be integrated and to work together seamlessly, just like their consumer technology does. And this goes both ways. Not only do the parents need to access what they want easily, but also teachers and administrators need to have the ability to post content just as easily. The simplest and surest way to do that is to use commonplace user interfaces familiar from the consumer world. For example, if you want teachers to upload videos, your upload interface should be familiar to anyone who’s used YouTube, because if they have to go watch a five-minute tutorial before they can upload, they aren’t going to do it. They have lessons to plan!
As consolidation and consumerization continue, the lines between enterprise and consumer systems will erode. Data is data, and the end user will eventually be able to access what they’re after through whichever interface they’re comfortable with, whether it’s designed to run a massive organization or to meet the needs of an individual.
These trends are also about accessibility. Schools and districts need to cater to parents who don’t use technology often enough to be particularly adept with it. Building communications tools is about building communities, and that means welcoming people in, not making them work just to participate.
About the Author
Ali Arsan is the founder and chief executive officer of Edlio. With 19 years of experience working in EdTech, Arsan still loves learning from educators and discovering what makes each school special.