Questions about SchoolCenter school web management tool

My school is considering using a web management solution for K-12 schools called SchoolCenter (www.schoolcenter.com). I would like to hear from anyone who has experience with this company, deployment of this program, etc.
Deb

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Hi Deb, here are some additional school solutions for you to look at: Finalsite, Schoolwires, Schoolspan and of course my company which is called Foxbright. I would be glad to talk with you about the Foxbright solution if you are at all interested.

If you are already well down the path of selecting Schoolcenter I can say that as a competitor I believe they do good work at a reasonable price. We like to think we do a better job but I have not had anyone tell me they they were upset with Schoolcenter.

Best of luck in this process. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I will do my best to help.

Rob Huisngh
Foxbright - www.foxbright.com
Our school district (5 buildings) went to School Center so that every teacher could have his or her own web page without having to learn HTML coding and/or uploading of files to a server. In all honesty, it has not been a success. It is not School Center's fault. Our teachers were given a 2 hour session on how it works and then it was forgotten. Only a small percentage of the faculty have kept their web pages current. Our administration has not mandated that we spend time on it, and it shows.

We only have the web pages. I don't know if School Center also integrates grades and other SMS software. We use a different company for those services.

Since I am being honest here, I'll admit that I am not happy with the static content of School Center. You can upload documents and that is great for students and their parents to access. I used to have multiple web pages with activities from Hot Potatoes and Spellmaster for my students to practice their vocab. Our server died and our tech director chose to replace it with School Center so everyone could have a web page. My activities could not be uploaded onto School Center and that bummed me out. I personally wanted a more active web presence and School Center did not fit my needs. However, most of the teachers in my building were thrilled that they could be "with it" and have their own web page (even if they didn't update it after that initial session).

One last positive comment. As far as I know our tech director has been pleased with the service that School Center provides. He's not happy that few people are using it and updating their pages, but he has had no complaints about the company itself.
Julie, I'd suggest you just get your own website. You can keep it updated and full of all your stuff and won't have to go with a limited school offered page.
My tech guys ended up purchasing space on some server for me and a few other teachers in the district. I can now upload my interactive activities and I'm a happy camper again. I have a link on School Center to my other site. Unfortunately I'm one of the teachers who does not update their School Center site, but I update my other pages several times a week.
Perhaps that is because you feel more control and ownership over your site. Once you go with rented server and Open Source apps, the possibilities are unlimited.

Steve
For my 2cents worth ( I am a webmaster for a school district in Central Iowa) .

There are several solutions that could be administrated in house with your districts IT department
- this would keep cost down. The new Leopard sever integrates email accounts, calendars and wiki accounts with the wiki server set up :http://www.apple.com/server/macosx/features/wikis.html

Outside of the in house IT solutions - there are so many services that are free in places like Ning - Moodle - Even Google
Gmail accounts can share documents, calendars, and post blogs. If people aren't using these I don't see where buying a solution " management system" changes anything....most the tools are out there - paying for a backend , and management system doesn't create content or guarantee use of it. Ask for a six month trail :)
Save a fortune and rent managed server space or a managed server. There are scores of great free and open source programs that you can run on it: Moodle, WordPressMU, Joomla, Drupal, Elgg, Wordpress, MediaWiki, and the list goes on. Email is also easily managed.

An IT department can easily mange this, especially if you go the managed server route because the company takes care of any server issues. Teachers won't need to know a bit of html to run their sites.
Patrick, do you mind me asking what the total cost of your employment is to the district? How big is the school district? That seems to be rather expensive as an ongoing annual website expense.

On the other hand, Steve, I respect your desire to save the district money and many open source tools are great ways for schools to save money. But I would encourage any district to crunch the numbers and look at a managed solution. This can be especially true when you take into consideration the potential for e-rate reimbursement.

IT department heads that I talk with are concerned that they have less money, less people and more requirements. Adding jobs for them to work on and monitor is typically not something that they are looking for.

From my experience, most of these highly trained IT professionals tend to recognize that they personally are not: Skilled Graphic Artists, Management Efficiency Consultants or Certified Communications Experts. Yes, of course some are, but allow me to speak in general terms.

When an internal IT department produces a website with a tool, any tool, they tend to get a website that is well, rather unprofessional. The question I like to ask is: Would a $7 to $50 Million Corporation that has as its focus service and sales (high touch) approve and desire a website like your school website? Well in most cases, that answer is no.

Do these organizations have a full time web developer? Not usually either. Sorry Patrick.

Honestly yes, you can use a free tool and have the IT department produce a website for a school. But I would ask, is that enough?

Many Superintendents and Boards of Education are looking for more today, and in my opinion with very good reason.
You'd have to do more than crunch numbers to make a managed package a better deal that what we do with rented server space and open source software.

Use of inexpensive templates can free you from design considerations.

I was shocked when I discovered how easily and inexpensively this can be done.

Our local BOCES doesn't like it one bit.
We've been using it and I cannot express in public how unhappy I am with it. First, let's look at cost. I could equip at least half a lab for the annual price. Second, the complication, I've tried and worked with many other that have needed hours to get something to work. Third performance. We've had instances where pages would only render correctly in a single browser. Fourth, limitations. I have set up a web server with hundreds of Gs of space, fully equip it with the necessary tools for teachers to build their pages (simply, w/o learning html), provide access for our more skilled staff and provide a path for development so that they could grow as their skills grow (pedagogy doesn't end with students), all without tacking additional costs onto the division's budget.

As for the flash and glow - the only reason that anyone is going to spend any real time at a teacher's website is content. If they are going to play, they are thousands of ad supported sites out there. If teacher's put real content for the students, they will come, but just for the content. But isn't that the reason for putting up a teacher website. That's the only reason that I use mine.

Consider long and hard about the goals and the reasons for teacher websites. If you are just trying to impress the board or a few community leaders, it will be gone soon enough. Design a very nice homepage for the school/district that really looks impressive. Create a solid, usable, sustainable tool for teachers.
We use SchoolCenter (just web tools), and it's...bittersweet. We make it work because that's what we do, but there's lots of frustrations. Other people have pointed out some of the practical problems, so I'll just mention some of the more technical things:
- their WYSIWYG editor (the "Advanced Content Editor") seems to be an older version of TinyMCE. Since it's an open-source project not developed by SchoolCenter, any complaints about bugs seem to be deflected.
- Accessing the Advanced Content Editor is inconsistent. In some places, you can click on a part of the page and go directly to the ACE (Picture and text boxes). In other places, you must first click "Edit Content" to open one window, and then click the ACE button to open another window. I realize that this is because some areas have additional content beyond the ACE, such as the date on a What's New box or the title of a Newsletter box, but the obviously better solution that modern sites use would be to have a WYSIWYG box embedded in the Edit Content window.
- Saving in the ACE can be tricky, depending on which way you had to open it. Possibly, you have to click the save button in the ACE window, then wait while the previous popup window reloads with the new HTML code, then click Done after it has reloaded, or all changes are lost. There are no messages to the user that they need to wait and no message when it 'safe' to click Done.
- There is incorrect CSS code pertaining to font-styles on links. To show this in the ACE, make a few words of a paragraph into a link, then select the entire paragraph, change the entire paragraph's font size, and save the change. You'll see that the font size for the link did not change. Proper use of CSS would be to let links inherit font size. Beyond being proper, inheritance in this situation is the default, meaning that SchoolCenter has specifically added CSS that does this.
- No one (including administrators) is allowed to add JavaScript or embed flash or iframes to any page, effectively preventing any way to interface with other external and internal tools. (This would prevent embedding videos from sites like TeacherTube)
- The statistical tools built into SchoolCenter seem to report incorrect data (and SchoolCenter blocks javascript so you can't easily use high-quality free tools like Google Analytics. The stat tools are based entirely on hits, and don't have numbers on visits, enter/exit pages, external referrers, path through site. Pages with multiple subpages (Calendar, What's New, Document Manager, etc) have inflated hit counts because each time someone (or a search engine) visits a subpage, it counts as an additional hit for the whole page. (Mostly, this is an issue with tabulating search engine bot hits, but numbers for bot/non-bot are not provided for each individual page, just for entire sites.)
- The User Access List is mostly unusable for us because several letters time-out. When we asked about this, School Center said it was because we had "too many users" and offered no solution. Since we can't use this list reliably, we aren't easily able to see when a user last logged in, what page they last edited, and most importantly what pages/sites the account has access to.
- Minor updates/changes/fixes to SchoolCenter happen throughout the year, unannounced in any way and often changing the appearance or function of some component that we only find out about when we start getting emails and calls from teachers.
- Our tech people have basically given up on getting SC to connect with our staff database. Each time there's any update (announced or not) it seemed to break this connection.
- The SC server goes down every day for about 15 minutes while the backup is occuring, and it took me several back and forth emails with SC to get them to move our backup time so that this downtime didn't happen during the school day. It got such a reputation that no one calls us anymore to tell us when SchoolCenter actually is down.
- TONS of usability confusion. Daily at the beginning of the year (but now just every week or two) someone deletes their Document Manager page when they mean to delete a document. To see how easy this is, open a Document Manager, click on a Document to see the "Download Now" page, notice that there are no controls on the page to edit or delete the document. Our users then click "Edit" at the top and choose "Delete this page". The warning alert asks "are you sure you want to delete this item?" ...this is one example of the kind of confusion that we run into all the time as teachers try to use the system.
- General inconsistency with design conventions, even internally. For example, in SC, a blog page is called a Blog, but a Blog post is also called a Blog. So, if you want to blog, first you create a blog, then you post a blog. How am I supposed to explain that to teachers?
- There's no logging beyond the most recent edit to a page, which makes me very wary as an administrator. If one person make a malicious edit, and someone else makes a benevolent edit to the same page after that, there's no way for us to ever know who made the malicious edit.
- The "Store Data" feature of Contact Form pages doesn't seem to work properly. I'll often receive a profanity report and go check the contact form page only to see that there are no emails listed since 2003.
- Design tools are weak. For some reason, we're almost in 2009 and there's still no way for administrators to create or edit shared CSS files. We can change things like "background color" and "link color", but that's it.
- Yearlier this year, our site administrator account was able to post a link with PHPSESSIONID in the url that would automatically login anyone who clicked as the site administrator, with 100% access. Outside of that link on that day, we haven't been able to duplicate it, so we have no idea if teachers have posted links like that throughout our site...which terrifies me.

It's all just how I've felt about working with SC all day every day for a couple years, your mileage may vary. I get the feeling that they had a nice product in 2003 with little competition, but since then they haven't really kept up or made as many improvements as they could have. I say bittersweet, though, because we make it work: we've got 1600~ users, even more sites, and lots of employees and parents think our site is really great...maybe I'm just being a debbie-downer / negative-nelly about the whole thing or I'm just upset because it's "not the way I would do it". Also, their tech support people (the ones you actually talk to on the phone or in chat and who answer your emails) are AMAZING, kind, patient people.

(In case you're curious, I've reported most of these things to SchoolCenter...until I got tired of them being filed as "Inspirations" for future releases and then those future releases not having any of the fixes. I've mostly given up and only report the most serious problems now.)
Just had a chance to talk with a SchoolCenter person who came across these comments (I think). They acknowledged my geeky technical complaints, and I was pretty impressed that they spent the time to look into these things and that they took the trouble to get in touch. Sounds like they're planning some big improvements for usability and fixing the little quirky things here and there.

I said before that their support was amazing, and my talk with them further solidified that. Now I'm pretty interested in seeing what SchoolCenter looks like in a year or two.

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