Small professional organizations like the Kansas Association of Biology Teachers (50-500 members) face a number of distinct challenges communicating with their membership. As an example, KABT members are spread across a large geographical area, our president and immediate past-president teach about 350 miles from each other. Try getting together for the week-end to coordinate organizational programs with that kind of distance. Our membership includes folks from large urban and suburban to very small school districts that are a couple of hours or more from any major cities. In the past and continuing into today, we have relied on various members leveraging support from their schools or universities to publish newsletters and other hard-copy documents that serve as the foundation for the interaction between members. Today, with the ubiquity of the web even in rural Kansas schools, web-based communication offers a more attractive form of communication. Web-based communication is very inexpensive to produce and distribute, offers attractive formatting and images, and it is timely. Web-based communication is so inexpensive (shared hosting accounts <$10 per month) it can be essentially a non-financial cost for an organization. In the case of KABT the cost of hosting is donated by one of the members. The actual cost is the time it takes to keep any type of web-based communication fresh and up to date. Unlike hard copy documents that may only be produced 4 or 5 times a year a web-presence must be continually updated to be viable in today’s educational environment where time is more precious than ever.
Developing a web presence for an organization like KABT is a challenge and I think we’ve made most of the mistakes. Initiatially we relied on a volunteer who donated not only his time and expertise but also his personal web space. He used a standard html-editor program such as Front-page to create the html code (the language of web pages) and a static web presence. This volunteer was also our newsletter editor and so he put most of his energy into our newsletter and kept the first web page as mainly a contact point for the organization and as a link resource. In the early days of the web it served our purpose. By its very nature though, this web pages format was very limited. Anyone that has created or managed a static html-based web page knows that updating and changing the “look” of such a web site can be a daunting task–especially if the site has grown over time. When I was serving as our high school’s web manager, I worked with a previous web design that required a couple of hours of work to implement even the smallest of changes. If an administrator wanted me to add a new page/link, I would literally have to manually add that link to dozens of different pages. No matter how clean your design and how-well planned, static web sites that have very much content eventually become unworkable.
KABT’s next web presence was again managed and donated by a volunteer–one who worked at the university and had access to his own servers and program assistance. The mechanics of this web page was ahead of its time, utilizing databases to maintain the content of the site and scripting to produce the formatting on the site to create what is known as dynamic web pages. This is an important point to consider, today when starting a web presence and with the tools widely available today it is relatively easy to do. Modern web design works to separate the content of the web site from the formatting of the web site. This has a number of advantages but two are most important. Content that is mostly format neutral can be stored in databases. Since the content is stored in the database it can now be independently called up to the web page through a number of different paths. For example, content describing a member’s presentation at a meeting can show up on the main page, a page dedicated to lab resources, or a page dedicated to meetings–all with only a one time entry of the content. The other advantage to such a system is that the look and feel of the web site is easily managed and changed. In this type of system one can easily change the overall appearance of the website by developing new script to call the content pieces. Changing the look usually means only changing a few scripts. When KABT used this type of web presence we relied, again, on the expertise of our volunteer. Re-writing and designing script, managing databases etc. require a fair amount of skill–beyond what the average biology teacher is willing to invest. For this reason the membership was very dependent on our “web-master”, all of our content had to go through him to be placed on the site. Our web-master made it clear that he had a limited amount of time for creating new content–that would be up to the membership and the board. But like the difficulty every newsletter editor has experienced in soliciting material for the newsletter our “web-master” found that getting new and fresh content was extremely difficult. This led to really well-designed website with an unfortunately small amount of content and so it had little value to the membership.
That brings us to today’s web environment where web-publishing has become incredibly accessible and powerful. There are two web developments that I think really make web site creation and maintenance easy for even web novices–Content Management Systems (CMS) and Blogging platforms. If your school district is not using a CMS to manage all the different teacher, department and school web sites that a district may need then they should be. No other current technology, today, offers such a coordinated, powerful, flexible and useful web authoring system. Once a CMS system is set up, individual teachers or site authors can edit and maintain their own web site in an environment very similar to a word-processing environment. Using a CMS still requires someone to “manage” the CMS itself but the advantages are clear and many for an organization like a school district. Small professional societies might consider a CMS but generally this type of tool provides more power (and hence more complications) than needed for a small organization. I’m going to focus the next article on the Blogging platforms as a a web site/authoring tool that provides most of the advantages of a CMS but are easier to set-up, maintain and redesign. Blogging platforms offer one other advantages that is particularly well suited for a professional organization–they encourage community through interaction. This web site (kabt.org) and also the IABT‘s web site are both constructed on blogging platforms. Choosing this strategy has apparently made a big difference for our organization. After only one year, our web site has more than 130 postings or contributions from 10 different members and comments from several others. The site is currently averaging more than 80 page views a day and is serving its purpose well–as a resource for the biology teaching community. Each week, now, more biology teachers come to our site for news than entire readership for a year of newsletters. More importantly, we seem to have reached a tipping point because the site usage is growing each week. Even if you have a web presence for your professional organization consider a blogging platform. I think you’ll find the advantages worth the switch. The next article will cover the features of a blogging platform and how to get started with your organization’s own blog web presence.