Focus

A Policy on Paper Could Save Your Web Site

TECHNOLOGY by ELLIOTT LEVINE


If you think that having an acceptable use policy for the Internet protects your school district from any potential harm that can arise in Web publishing, you’re badly mistaken. Almost as dangerous is the belief that such policies are not urgently needed because Web publishing duties are limited to a select few staff members.

In the continuing evolution from static Web pages to dynamic education portals, most school systems are unprepared for the obstacles awaiting them just around the corner. Sites that link to students’ personal pages that feature pornography, school Web pages filled with outdated and inaccurate information, pages that violate copyright laws using artwork and content without permission, ad banners that place consumerism above instruction and anti-education websites created by community members represent just a few of the potential dangers attached to a school district’s failing Web presence.

What lingers in the back of all webmasters’ minds, the nightmare that wakes them up in the middle of the night, is not a concern about if a serious problem will arise. They are worried about when it will happen.


Pro-active Policies
The very reputation of your school system and the future growth of your new media presence may very well rely on one traditional sheet of paper. Web development policies, or WebDPs, can provide your school system with effective guidelines for operating and maintaining the district and individual school Web sites.

As part of an initiative from the National School Public Relations Association last year, school district communications directors began to compile a list of policies and guidelines developed by their colleagues. A few districts have done an exemplary job in developing such guidelines, including the Davis, Utah, School District. Jim Harris, the webmaster at Davis, constantly reviews and updates his policies to address changing issues in new media. Pro-active policies provide a solid infrastructure for the Web site to continually expand, while identifying the expectations and requirements along the way.

Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to create a "cookie cutter" policy that addresses the needs and requirements of every local educational agency, but an effective Web publishing policy should address six key areas: roles and responsibilities, educational value, privacy/safety, copyright, technical standards, commercial sites and services. These areas will identify issues that will soon arise in your district, if they haven’t already.

Six Considerations
  • Roles and responsibilities. Fundamentally, the school system needs to recognize that its Web site is far more than a technology tool managed exclusively by its management information systems department.

    Serving as both a communications and instructional tool, the district Web site needs to be staffed with three key roles. The editor-in-chief, typically an individual with a background in communications and public relations, should be responsible for overseeing all content published on the site, working in cooperation with editorial contributors at each school building and within each department. A webmaster can oversee the technical standards of the site, and the instructional supervisor can provide training in Web development to staff members throughout the district.

    When schools or departments wish to develop their own site, an administrator should assign a staff member within that unit as the local editor and technical webmaster. This infrastructure will keep sites active and provide the necessary checks and balances a Web site requires.

  • Educational value. All content and links to external sites should support the learning process and relate to curriculum and instruction, extracurricular activities or information about the school system.

    To minimize the chance of a libel suit, information posted on the district’s Web site must be accurate and fair and may not harm the reputation of an individual. The district’s acceptable use policy should help determine what is considered appropriate material.

  • Privacy and safety. Respecting the spirit of the Federal Education Right to Privacy Act, district policy should set the parameters for how much information may be published about a student. Using a standard release form when registering their child for school, parents can authorize the publishing of their child’s likeness, name and any school assignments.

    When deciding what to publish, district staff needs to satisfy these questions: Will we post images of students and/or samples of their artwork, writing or other creations? Will we identify children by only their first name or will we allow high school students the right to reveal more information? This leads you into a catch-22, though, as many schools send out press releases to local newspapers with photos and complete identification of students of every age. As local newspapers expand their on-line editions and post these photos with identifications, many school systems will be violating the very policies they established for their websites.

    Schools also must address the hosting and linking of personal pages belonging to students and staff. As they are beyond the scope and control of the school system, these pages are time bombs waiting to go off. Because personal Web pages are protected by the First Amendment, schools are unable to control content on these pages and should not risk their credibility on the editorial decisions of these individuals. Therefore, districts and schools should prohibit links to personal pages of students or staff. Just as important, be sure to create and distribute guidelines that restrict the publishing of any material deemed confidential or proprietary (whether by the school system or an outside agency).

  • Copyright. Although most school districts have policies on file relating to copyright, it is important to reinforce this message for electronic communication. While distribution of material within a classroom may be deemed as "fair use," on-line publishing can be viewed as a public performance.

    The policy should include a statement that students and staff will adhere carefully to all copyright laws in their work on-line.

  • Technical standards. In conjunction with your management information systems department, you should establish parameters on file sizes and heavy amounts of data to prevent overloading your Web servers. To prevent unauthorized sites, determine whether all school Web sites must be hosted on official district servers.

    In the category of "quality of Web life," you must determine how often a Web page should be reviewed and updated (to avoid running the five-year-old letter of welcome from the superintendent who retired last spring). This also means paying attention to navigation (providing links to the main page so viewers don’t get lost in your site) and always providing contact information via e-mail or phone if the viewer has a question or concern.

  • Commercial sites and services. As the collegiate market learned the hard way in the past two years, commercial companies have begun swarming around K-12 schools trying to become their official on-line community, e-learning service or fund-raising solution. I have yet to come across any K-12 policy that addresses commercial sponsorships and connections, although many universities have begun to implement such guidelines.

    Many of these companies create unauthorized sites or fund-raising programs without the consent or even the awareness from the local school system. Some sites can be created by one teacher or parent, while companies such as the American School Directory create Web sites for every school in the nation. While they appear to look like official Web sites, schools may be left in the awkward situation of dealing with a Web site that posts outdated or inaccurate information that they cannot control or having stakeholders contributing to external sites that never donate the money to the school system.

    The policy should address these commercial services, requiring some approval process to oversee the on-line information, fundraising and instruction.

  • Preventing Disasters
    Although we must "prepare for the worst," as one educator stated in a recent workshop I conducted, establishing these policies and guidelines now will enable us to focus our efforts where they belong, on building a dialogue with our communities and enhancing our children’s education.

    Start building your Web development policies now if you don’t have them, and review your existing policies to reflect the changing media. In three years, as technology advances and problems arise, we’ll know which districts created policies … and which ones did not.

    You can find useful information on policies and Web site administration at these sites: Davis, Utah, School District (www.davis.k12.ut.us/websters); Bellingham, Wash., Public Schools (www.bham.wednet.edu/policies.htm); PAPERbasket.com (www.paperbasket.com); and From Now On (www.fno.org).

    Elliott Levine, former communications director with the Lawrence, N.Y., School District, is chief reality officer at rSchool.com, 8550-E Remington Ave., Pennsauken, NJ 08110. E-mail: elevine@rSchool.com