Site shows a master's touch

County schools' new Internet presence sharper to the eye, friendlier to visitors

September 08, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Not so long ago, school systems didn't have Web sites at all.

But now, the Internet tends to be the first and most frequent means of communication between the schools and the people who need to know about them: students, parents, teachers and even real estate agents.

The Howard County schools' Web site, started about 12 years ago by instructional technology chief Richard Weisenhoff, is going through a major upgrade, as anyone who has clicked on the site recently may have noticed.

A year ago this month, the system hired its first full-time Webmaster, Brian Duvall, a 1992 graduate of Oakland Mills High School and a 1996 Georgetown University graduate. Duvall, who worked most recently as Webmaster for Constellation Energy, is charged with creating an easy-to-use site that will create a good impression.

"We knew we needed to really upgrade the quality of the Web site and make it reflective of the quality of the school system," said school spokeswoman Patti Caplan.

Duvall, 32, took over from Anna Gable, who was publications and Web site specialist. Now, Gable can concentrate on publications, Caplan said, while Duvall runs the Web site.

The results of Duvall's efforts first became visible to the public last month when the new site went live. As Duvall points out, that was only the beginning for a constantly improving site, but already the differences are obvious.

For one thing, that old photo of three little boys pointing excitedly at the pages of a science book is gone, replaced with a changing montage of more modern-looking photos.

The new site is designed to be easy to navigate, even for people who don't know school jargon. In fact, it can be used by people who don't speak English.

On the site's new home page (the most important piece of real estate, noted Duvall), the upper right hand shows links to several languages. When users click on those links, they first learn about services for students who do not speak English as a first language, and from there, the user can navigate a growing bank of materials available in that language.

Other changes: The latest news from the school system now appears on the home page. And words such as accountability, which are considered too insider-ish, have disappeared.

"A parent coming in is not going to think in terms of accountability," Duvall said. Now, if parents want to know a school's test scores, they simply click on "test scores."

Users also might have noticed the new logo at the top left, the "flame of knowledge" created by graphic designer Mark Ambruster of Catonsville. The stylized flame also graces the cover of the new school calendar, and school letterheads are being changed, too, Caplan said. The 20-year-old former logo was seldom used, she said, because it was "very difficult to work with."

Duvall, who lives in Howard County and has two children who are not old enough for public school, said he likes the shorter commute compared with going into Baltimore, and the better hours of his new job.

His corporate background is valuable, Caplan said. "Brian can really speak the language of public relations and communications," she said.

"The fact that Brian was not an educator was an asset," she added. "He was looking at it as an outsider, and that perspective was really helpful."

Duvall has looked at other school system Web sites, in Maryland and elsewhere, to determine what would work best in Howard County. "These days," he said, "users have certain expectations of how things work."

It wasn't always that way.

When Weisenhoff was first creating the site, he did not have that luxury. "At the time, there weren't many places that had Web sites," Weisenhoff said. "I just wanted to put a presence up."

A major challenge for Weisenhoff was getting every school in the system to create a site that could link to the county site.

"A lot of schools didn't have the expertise to do it," said Weisenhoff, who is the system's coordinator of career and technology education.

These days, some school sites are run by parents, others by people within the schools, but there is no consistency. Duvall said creating that consistency is his next challenge.

He is starting with Dayton Oaks, the new elementary school, working with officials there to create a template that other schools will be able to use. That template will accomplish several goals, he said: It will free school staff members to provide content, without worrying about graphics and other details; it will help parents navigate the sites; and it will create a consistent look.

Creating a consistent look is a top priority for Duvall, for aesthetics and for making the site easier to use. Previously, different departments, such as social studies or math, would put their materials on the Web site with no thought about what other departments were doing. Now, the materials are organized the same way.

Another change is less visible. The Web site now has the ability to keep track of how it is used. It doesn't pinpoint individual users, but it can tell which links and pages get the most use and how navigators get to those pages. It also divides users by country, and Duvall notes that visitors from more than 50 countries have visited the site.

This knowledge of how the site is used will allow Duvall to constantly update it. For example, pages that are the most popular will have links on the home page, he said.

"It's all about communication," Caplan said.

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