Design Your School Portal - Tech Learning

Design Your School Portal

My plate was already full, and yet the superintendent of schools delegated responsibility for the development of the district Website to the district’s technology department. At the time, I had the most experience with Web development, so I found myself volunteering to take on the job even though I had no idea
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My plate was already full, and yet the superintendent of schools delegated responsibility for the development of the district Website to the district’s technology department. At the time, I had the most experience with Web development, so I found myself volunteering to take on the job even though I had no idea where I was going to find the time to do it. Sound familiar?

One of the most difficult challenges facing Web administrators in K-12 education is time. Most school districts do not have the resources to hire a team of individuals dedicated to developing and maintaining a school or district Website. Instead, the duty usually goes to a staff member—a teacher or technology coordinator, for example—who has a knowledge and passion for Web authoring.

Although this seems like a practical and inexpensive solution for the district, the responsibility of maintaining and updating a Website soon becomes overwhelming for these individuals. School Web administrators often have other responsibilities (in my case, teaching, staff training, etc.) that leave little time for Web authoring and Website maintenance. The result: Many school Websites are like static billboards on the Web. They lack interactivity and their content rarely changes, so visitors rarely return.

Our district Website was one of these billboards. But I wanted it to be different. I wanted it to be dynamic, interactive, and full of timely content. But how?

I work as a technology integration teacher for the Barker Central School District, a small rural district located near the shores of Lake Ontario in Western New York. My responsibilities include training staff in the use of educational technologies, helping teachers integrate technology with the curriculum, teaching middle school computer classes, and assisting with the acquisition and maintenance of district computer hardware and software. I maintain a busy schedule, often dividing my time between teaching my classes, helping other teachers with their classes, and taking on a share of the helpdesk jobs that come through the technology department. The thought of having to spend time each day updating the district Website was daunting.

That’s when I learned about Macromedia ColdFusion, a software program that can be used along with Macromedia Dreamweaver to create database-driven Web pages. Learning ColdFusion took a bit of time up front, but in the end I saved countless hours. ColdFusion has provided a way for me to develop and maintain a dynamic Website and still have time to grade papers, troubleshoot computer problems, and help other teachers integrate technology into the classroom.

Getting Started

ColdFusion is a lot of things, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just go with this: ColdFusion is an application server that enables you to output information from a database and publish it on a Web page. You can also use Web-based forms to add, update, and delete database information. ColdFusion is installed on your Web server, and you use Dreamweaver to create pages that take advantage of ColdFusion features.

Using a database to store Web page content has distinct advantages.

  • First, Web content can be added or modified ‘on-the-fly’ by using Web-based forms, eliminating the need to edit the actual Web page file and upload it to the Web server, as now all you’ll need to edit a Web page is a Web browser.
  • Second, content is stored in a database, so users can search the database for specific records.
  • Finally, because you are not editing the Web page file but simply modifying a database, you can maintain an archive of all content that has been published on a specific Web page.

I chose ColdFusion over similar programs because I am a teacher, not a computer programmer. Unlike other Web application programs, ColdFusion is easy to learn. ColdFusion uses a tag-based scripting language, not unlike HTML. Most of the ColdFusion tags are descriptive, which makes them easy to learn and remember. For example, if I want to query a database, I use the tag.

I learned ColdFusion by creating a simple Web application, using what I learned from reading Ben Forta’s books Macromedia ColdFusion MX Web Application Construction Kit and Teach Yourself SQL in 10 Minutes. It took me a few weeks to learn the basics, but in the end, I saved myself hours of work updating static content on Web pages.

Of course, I also had to learn to use a database program. This can be a hurdle for some; it was for me. I didn’t have much experience with database programs and I must admit, I was a bit intimidated. I chose Microsoft Access because it is one of the easier programs to learn.

Michael J. Hernandez’s Database Design for Mere Mortals: A Hands-On Guide to Relation Database Design also served as a great resource. Written in lay terms, the book helped me understand databases and, more importantly, good database design.

Creating Web Applications

In the beginning, I created simple ColdFusion applications that would allow me to delegate the responsibility for content to others, so I would not be overwhelmed with the work involved in keeping a Website updated. In deciding who should be responsible for what content, I let common sense be my guide. Teachers maintain their own list of hotlinks. Coaches write the sports stories, and our public relations coordinator writes the news stories. Sometimes staff members suggest ideas for Web applications, and at other times, I use the “if you build it, they will use it” strategy to coax people into helping maintain the Website.

Because the superintendent insisted our Public Relations Coordinator should review all Web content, one of the first applications I built was a district news application so our PR Coordinator could use Web-based forms to add, edit, and delete district news stories on the Website. The PR Coordinator was able to post photos with each story and could also decide how long stories should remain on the district home page by submitting an expiration date with each story.

Because all the news stories reside in a database, I was also able to create a news story archive on the district site, where users could read stories that were no longer posted on the district home page. The best part of all is that the archive maintains itself. As stories are added to the database, they are also added to the archive. The Web pages update themselves, which is a huge timesaver!

The next application I built was a little more complicated. Numerous teachers had asked me to make a list of favorite hotlinks. I immediately viewed this as a molehill that would quickly turn into a mountain of work as more and more teachers would want their hotlinks posted. It was also apparent that, as the list grew, it would become less and less user-friendly. If you’ve ever scrolled through an endless page of hotlinks, you know what I’m talking about.

So I created a ColdFusion application with which users can search a database of teacher-submitted hotlinks by subject, teacher, grade level, or keyword. Each teacher has access to Web-based forms to add, edit, or delete hotlinks.

Now when students need to view a specific teacher’s list of hotlinks, the students just search the database by teacher. The best part of all is that I do not have to continually update a bloated list of hotlinks. Teachers are responsible for their own lists.

Branching Out Across the District

After creating those first few ColdFusion applications, I realized how much time I had saved, and I also began to see the potential for creating a much more interactive and useful Website. Today, the Barker Central School Website is a vibrant place where you can read current news stories, catch high school sports results, read the latest edition of our district newsletter, browse the district calendar, see what’s for lunch, and search the Alumni Directory for old friends. And that’s just the public part of our Website.

The Website also houses a password-protected area, The Teacher’s Lounge, which is for staff only. Here staff members can manage hotlinks, view and register for district in-service courses, complete professional development evaluation forms, manage a class Website, and add middle and high school sports stories. I also use this area to maintain a district hardware and software inventory, manage the district in-service course schedule, and manage the district Alumni Directory.

The Teacher’s Lounge

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I have also started to create database-driven Websites for teachers in our school. Teachers can use Web-based forms to post class news and upcoming events. They can also post homework assignments and upload files such as class handouts and presentations for students to download. Because the homework assignments are stored in a database, students no longer need to ask the teacher what assignments they missed when they are absent. They can just look at the homework archive on the class Website or use a search tool to find the homework for specific dates.

There’s Always More to Do

I am currently developing a Student Lounge that would be a password-protected area which students could use to add content to the Website. This area of the Website is still in its infancy and at this time houses only one application, Operation Recognition, a program to recognize veterans of WWII residing in the Western New York region and to register them with the National WWII Memorial Registry. I worked with a high school social studies teacher and his students to create a Web application by using ColdFusion to store data students collected on area WWII veterans. Students used Web-based forms to add, edit, and search records. In addition, students used the Web application to generate and print a certificate of appreciation from American Legion Post 425 for each veteran. Finally, we sent database records via email to the National WWII Memorial where they were imported into the National WWII Memorial Registry.

Conclusion

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or even a degree in Computer Science to create a dynamic, database-driven Website for your school. All it takes is a little time up front, a little creativity, and a little ColdFusion!

Laurie Hazard

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