Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Net gains

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How well used is your website? What demand is there for its content? How can that information help communication with parents? Nigel Pressnell looks at how web usage tools can enable schools and colleges to derive greater benefit from their online presence.

Kathmandu 2, Richmond USA 1. Turku Finland 1, Dublin 13. No, not the scores from the latest international football fixtures list but visitors to our school's website in the last few weeks.

If your school is anything like ours, a mixed comprehensive of 1,200 students, you too may have had more than 3,000 visits to your school website in the last three months from 280 cities around the world.

Each of them, on average, viewed two or three pages, remained on the site for about a minute, and a respectable 40 per cent came back for a second look. But how should we interpret this data and, more importantly, what is the impact of our web content on our community closer to home?

No one can deny the growth in internet use and the impact it has had on all walks of life including education. Its attractiveness as a medium with which to engage with learners has been stimulated by government initiatives such e-learning credits and funding for laptop learning.

The trend seems set to continue with the real-time reporting targeted for September 2010 for secondary schools. Online reporting requires schools to have secure online access so that parents can see information on their child's progress, achievement, attendance, behaviour and special educational needs at any time. We may find the goal ambitious, but surely most of us welcome the rationale behind engaging with parents and carers to extend home-school collaboration in children's learning.

In recent years school leaders have become ever more sophisticated in measuring educational outcomes and impact. Qualitative judgements are relatively easy to obtain from observation and surveys but harder-edged quantitative judgements are more difficult. The ability to be able to determine the number of visitors to your website and how they are navigating through it begins to offer schools firm data from which they can draw conclusions on this particular aspect of their overall effectiveness.

Hidden behind the scenes on most web servers and available from your internet service provider (ISP) are web usage tools. It depends on the platform being used to host the service but tools such as Webalizer and Google Analytics are pretty standard and should be provided free.

Webalizer, with its simple interface, is a good starting point to understanding the demand for your school or college's web-based content. At The Arnewood School we use Google Analytics as it gives a greater depth of information. However, unlike Webalizer, Google Analytics requires additional coding to be embedded in each webpage.

Overview of trends

Google Analytics is a free online tool that allows schools to put some science behind their online marketing and learning strategy. As well as giving an overview of visitor trends, the service allows users to see who returns to a site, where they are located, and even take an educated guess as to which organisation, if any, they belong.

Developed as a business tool, Google Analytics facilitates a school's understanding of how its online presence is being perceived by visitors. It presents the results in a visually attractive way and allows results to be exported in a variety of formats.

To maximise the benefits of web media, we need to make a conscious effort constantly to publicise and draw attention back to the site. Successful organisations with a strong web presence are effective at advertising their website as well as their product - think which online insurance comparison websites spring to mind.

Of course, natural phenomena can also bring visitors to your website. In our case, heavy snow on 3 February last year brought nearly 300 visitors to our website on just one day, with 788 hits. This is compared to the usual 20-50 visitors we might expect daily.

Of our visitors, 57 per cent of them look for the school using a search engine. Most use Google, Yahoo or Live by typing in the school's name in one form or another.

Of the 27 per cent of people visiting the school's site from links on other pages, known as referrals in Google Analytics, the majority find their way to our school from the local authority website, Times Educational Supplement (TES) website, or Facebook. Visitors are global and even domestic traffic comes from across the whole of the UK.

The challenge for any website is to keep visitors engaged for as long as possible and have them move from one page to another. This may well be stating the obvious, but is counterintuitive to web-users. In common with other web content providers, we find that many users remain on the site for only a few seconds. In our case 60 per cent remain on the site for under 10 seconds. Our bounce rate - users leaving the site from the same page as they entered - is about 52 per cent. This is not poor web design but a feature of the transient nature of web-browsing.

Navigation and accessibility

Besides the school homepage, the most popular pages with visitors are 'about our school', 'vacancies' and 'news'. The most popular pages for first entry to the website, known as landing pages, are those on the school's laptop scheme and our school. The alumni page has had only two visits and both viewers left from the same page without progressing any further.

An equally helpful feature in Google Analytics is the overlay feature which shows which links have been followed on a particular page expressed as a percentage. This is a helpful feature if you wish to monitor the navigation through your site and accessibility of particular pages, for example, subject-based learning content.

Better still for the purposes of judging usage of learning content is the functionality found in many commercial learning platforms. At The Arnewood School we use the local authority platform which has various reporting tools within its administration utilities. This allows the user to identify who is using the platform, how often, and the content which they are viewing and much more. In our specific case, as we record all homework set online, it allows heads of department and senior leaders to monitor the appropriateness of the tasks being set.

A simple analysis of our year 8 shows that over a typical week log-ins for students peak at 320 for two days mid-week and tail off over weekends. Parental access for the same period is relatively low and illustrates the work that we need to do with parents ahead of real-time reporting in September 2010.

Given the pervasive nature of the internet and the growing influence of e-learning, school leaders will need to be ever more knowledgeable in their understanding of what represents good value in terms of time and money spent on web-based marketing and learning. Webalizer, Google Analytics and learning platform usage statistics are all good places to start making judgments about the effectiveness of your school or college web content.

As we strive to involve parents more and develop stronger notions of family learning, what really matters is that children feel their parents or carers are supporting their education and that they are interested in what they are achieving. We know that where parents have frequent and clear information about their children's performance at school it has positive learning outcomes.

The philosophy of parental engagement is not one that is confined solely to e-learning but clearly information technology has a significant role to play in supporting and clarifying channels of home-school communication. To this end it makes sense that school leaders understand how web content is utilised so that schools are better able to plan the wider innovations associated with personalising learning, and move towards stronger learning outcomes for students at all levels.

Nigel Pressnell is deputy headteacher at The Arnewood School in New Milton, Hampshire.


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