Tools to Design a School Web Site

About 4 years ago I wrote an article about the various tools that were available to make a school web site. Back then there were a limited number of options and the idea of having a school blog wasn’t that popular. Obviously things have changed a lot so I thought I’d write a more up-to-date article about the options out there for teachers who wish to design their school’s web site.

 The Old Guard

When schools started designing web sites in the mid 1990s, there were 2-3 options. There was the free option, which was a choice of Netscape Navigator’s built-in web design package and Notepad, where one had to know how to use the language HTML. If the school had Microsoft Office, it was likely they had access to Microsoft Frontpage. Finally, if a school was willing to splurge, they could get Dreamweaver, the king of web design packages of its time. I would recommend to all teachers that these options are best left to the professionals. Using any of these options above will probably result in a functional but old-fashioned and very ugly web site.

Static Web Site Templates

A few years ago, some teacher somewhere in Ireland found a package called WebSiteX5. Its claim to fame was that anybody could design, build and upload a web site in 5 simple steps. WebSiteX5 came with a number of templates and it became very popular with schools. You can still find a number of examples around the country. Unfortunately, the problem with WebX5 sites, with a couple of exceptions, is that they are very samey looking and they lack interactivity, which is almost a basic in web sites these days. Another issue with WebX5 was that the designing and updating of the web site could only be done on the computer where the web site was made. Therefore, it is usually left to one teacher in the school to update the site, which can have huge issues.

Blogs

It’s no surprise to me that most schools in the country are moving towards a blog for their school web site. There are a number of companies offering a blog hosting service, each of them with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. For me the blog is the only real option for a primary school in terms of the fact that they are incredibly easy to make professional looking sites. They also give the advantage that any teacher can update the school’s web site at any time, any where where there’s an Internet connection. These days, one can update their school’s web site directly from the mobile phone, which opens up fantastic opportunities for real-time reporting of events. I’m going to go through some of the options that are out there, what they are and why a school might choose them or not.

WordPress

WordPress comes in two flavours – .com or .org. The easiest to set up is the former where a school can take a web site address SCHOOL_NAME.wordpress.com and WordPress will host the site for free. The second option allows the school to host the site themselves with a company but this will cost a bit of money, around €30-€100 per year. WordPress accounts for roughly 12% of all web sites around the world and is by far the most powerful and most popular host for blogs. WordPress suits school web sites because you can add static content known as “pages” for information such as contact details of the school, history of the school, contact page, etc. Any dynamic content, that is, articles about what’s going on in the school but doesn’t need to remain on the site for eternity, are known as “posts.” Setting up a WordPress.com site takes about 2 minutes once you’ve chosen a “theme” for the site. There are hundreds of themes out there for WordPress.com users and if you go down the route of hosting your site yourself, you have access to thousands. To update the site all you need to do is log on to the site using your username and password, click on “New Post”, write your article then click “Publish.” That’s it – you’re done. In summary:

WordPress.com

Pros:

  • Really easy to set up – takes about 1-2 minutes
  • Anyone can update the site so not reliant on one teacher to do all the work
  • Static and dynamic pages so informational content can stay static on the web site
  • Beautiful looking templates with plenty of personalisation options
  • You can update the site on a smartphone reasonably easily.
Cons
  • Restriction on space. Extra space must be paid for.
  • Some types content cannot be placed on the site
  • Web Address is SCHOOL_NAME.wordpress.com (although you can buy a domain and map the address to it)

Pros:

  • Anyone can update the site so not reliant on one teacher to do all the work
  • Static and dynamic pages so informational content can stay static on the web site
  • You have access to thousands of templates that can all be adjusted to your needs
  • You have access to “plugins” which allow you to do amazing things with your web site, for example, you can link your site up with Facebook and Twitter or you can have your web site translated automatically into most languages of the world.
Cons
  • It’s a little bit tricky to set up initially but once it’s set up, it’s incredibly simple to update
  • If you choose this option, you will need to pay a company to host your site. While this isn’t expensive, it’s something to consider.

Blogspot/Blogger

Google bought a company called “Blogger” a few years ago and has now integrated into its vast array of apps. Blogspot, as it’s now known, has recently gone through some changes that makes their sites look a lot more attractive. Like WordPress above, it allows multiple users to update the site given a username and password. Also, like WordPress, you can have Static and Dynamic content. In summary: Pros:

  • Really easy to set up – takes about 1-2 minutes
  • Anyone can update the site so not reliant on one teacher to do all the work
  • It’s very good at integrating other Google content such as YouTube videos.
  • Static and dynamic pages so informational content can stay static on the web site
  • While there are a restrictive number of templates, the new ones looks very nice.
  • You can update the site on a smartphone reasonably easily using external apps.
Cons
  • Some types content cannot be placed on the site
  • Content that is uploaded is uploaded into Google’s cloud. Our school web filtering service can sometimes have issues with this at certain levels.
  • Your web site is hosted in Google so you’re going to have an address: SCHOOL_NAME.blogspot.com.

Tumblr

Tumblr is one of the newer kids on the block. Its advantage over some of the more established blogging tools is that it is even easier than them to update your blog! Tumblr takes less than a minute to set up and adding content couldn’t be easier. Essentially, when updating the site you initially choose the type of article you are writing before you start – this could be a text-based article, a photograph, a gallery of images, a podcast or a video. Depending on the option chosen, Tumblr makes it really easy for you to add the content. For example, if you choose to add a video, Tumblr simply asks you for the link to the video and does all the hard stuff for you. Tumblr is also known for its beautiful templates and its ease of use on a mobile phone. However because there isn’t really good options for static content, I’d be more inclined to use this for a class blog rather than a school web site. In summary: Pros:

  • Incredibly easy to set up – takes less than a minute
  • Anyone can update the site so not reliant on one teacher to do all the work
  • There are thousands of very attractive templates out there.
  • Updating from a mobile phone is really easy.
Cons
  • There are few options to allow for static content (though it is possible with some know-how)
  • Our school web filtering service can sometimes have issues with some content at certain levels, as it’s uploaded to Tumblr’s servers.
  • Your web site is hosted at Tumblr so you’re going to have an address: SCHOOL_NAME.tumblr.com.

Weebly

Weebly is becoming a web sensation with over 12 million using it now. Weebly allows people to create dynamic web sites with an integrated blog. This makes Weebly very ideal for schools who have a lot of static content. Like Tumblr, Weebly’s selling point is in its ease of use. It uses a simple drag and drop interface so that anyone can design a powerful, attractive looking site quickly, without the need to know any form of programming. One can add content such as contact forms, videos, blogs and audio players by simply dragging and dropping the tools wherever they want them. While Weebly hasn’t become huge in Irish primary schools, I fear that if it does, we will find lots of very similar looking web sites as Weebly is very restricted in its looks. In summary: Pros:

  • Very easy to set up – takes less than a minute
  • One can have a fully functioning site in about 30 minutes
  • Anyone can update the site so not reliant on one teacher to do all the work
  • For static-based content, there is nothing out there better.
  • Updating from an iPhone is really easy.
Cons
  • Web sites can look very samey. You can instantly recognise a Weebly web site.
  • It isn’t extendable. This means that if you wanted to integrate it with another web service such as Facebook, this isn’t possible, yet.
  • Your web site is hosted at Weebly so you’re going to have an address: SCHOOL_NAME.weebly.com.

Google Sites

If you run Google Apps in your school, one of the apps that is available is Google Sites. This allows users to create web sites using Google’s tools. A few schools in Ireland use the service. It’s an interesting package because, on the face of it, it looks very basic and unattractive. However, with some creative designing, one can make some very attractive looking sites. Like Weebly, one can add blog content to a Google site, but it is often stronger for static content. Google Sites also has some tools not available on other platforms such as “filing cabinets”, which allow the user to add files. For example, if I wanted a list of recommended documents for teaching tables, I can add documents, presentations and web links to the file and they can be shared with everyone else. In summary: Pros:

  • If you’re already on Google Apps, it is easy to set up – takes less than a minute
  • Anyone can update the site so not reliant on one teacher to do all the work
  • There are some interesting tools on the site not available on other platforms
  • Very good for static content.
  • Completely free (except for hosting if you choose to do so)
Cons
  • You are quite restricted by the type of content you can add to the site (unless you are able to develop your own)
  • Your web site is hosted at Google and the site is going to have a difficult name to remember
  • The web site is going to look very very basic unless you have good design skills.

Other Options

There are options out there for blogging schools. Briefly, here are a few options:

  • Webs.com – let’s you make very attractive web sites with static and dynamic content. However, most sites look very similar and might date quickly.
  • Zapd.com – let’s you make a web site from your mobile phone in less than 60 seconds. Probably not appropriate for a full school site but a very interesting option for a class blog or a project.
  • Posterous – has many similarities to Tumblr but is more suitable as a social bookmarking site than a school site.

Educational WordPress Options

A few companies have used the power of WordPress.org and have designed WordPress hosting packages that are tailored towards schools. The two best options for Irish primary schools, in my opinion, are Scoilnet Blogs form the NCTE and Edublogs.org. Both platforms use WordPress as their backend but have added features that are specific to primary schools. Both are well worth checking out perhaps even moreso than WordPress.com.
My favourite option, for the record, has to be WordPress.org and hosting my own blog. I use Blacknight as our hosting company for all my sites including the school’s. The reason I use WordPress is because it is really easy for the beginner to use but it is extremely powerful and the geek in me can do all sorts of messing around with codes and plugins. If I was doing a class blog, I would probably use Tumblr. I find it really easy to use and it’s great for simple quick blog posts.

Last Update: Aug 18, 2017  

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2 thoughts on “Tools to Design a School Web Site”

  1. Its a good thing that we can build our own website without even spending a dime. With these social media sites, building a website is like a piece of pancake, no need for technical codes.

  2. I began with html and then progressed to Dreamweaver and now have used webnode.com for the last few websites I’ve done. Much easier and cheap. Thanks for this article – hoping to do a class blog this year so will have a look at Tumblr and some of the others you’ve mentioned.

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