Centralized Website for Students
My project is a student website that serves as a central point of communication for students at my high school, and as a model for similar centralized websites at other schools.
The website's main feature is that it automatically compiles content from blogs, mailing lists, calendars, and other sources. It aims to be the most complete and accessible information source for a school, and to give administrators, teachers, and students organizations an easy way to communicate with their audiences.
A high school website's most difficult challenge is staying active – most websites become inactive in months, because students realize that they time they’re putting in to maintain the site isn’t worth it.
Most high school websites only serve an individual organization and a small audience. My approach was to create a unified site where content would be easy to find, students could read about organizations they weren’t a part of, and authors could create different types of content. Currently, the website handles these types of content:
- Homework, quiz/exam dates, and teaching materials from teachers
- Announcements from students, clubs, and administrators
- News from the community or from around the world
- Events (on a calendar) from student organizations
Content is categorized by section – for example, “Speech and Debate”, “Chemistry 10H”, “Astronomy Club”, or “Parent-Teacher Association” might be some of the sections. Authors would be given permission to post content in sections by site administrators. For example, a teacher might be allowed to post blog entries and events for a club they advise and a class they teach.
Every year, clubs at my school raise thousands of dollars for charitable causes. Student organizations have completed amazing projects, including managing a debate camp and building a 120-lb (55kg) robot.
Good communication is essential to these organizations. Communication is easy for organizations with officers dedicated to recruiting and publicity, but smaller groups have found it hard to expand, or even to keep themselves sustainable, because they don't have an effective way to publicize themselves.
Most organizations at my school use email to communicate, but emails don't reach everyone, and are difficult to archive. Social networks are often closed and constraining, and don't reach everyone.
Websites are even harder to make successful: domains and hosting cost money, blogs take time to set up, and most importantly, it's hard to create enough content to keep visitors returning. After seeing several websites go offline, I reconsidered how websites were being run and came up with a new model.
I thought of a unified student website that would show students what was happening in organizations that they weren't a part of. I realized that if such a website could integrate with mailing lists, calendars, and other systems that were already in place, it would instantly become a school's best content source. It would provide enough content to keep visitors coming back, which would motivate authors to create more content. That chain reaction that would establish the website as the central point of communication for the school, and transform the way students communicate.
Who will enjoy this the most?
An implementation of the site will launch at my school in September. Our student organizations are remarkably active, and I expect the website to quickly become the predominant online channel of communication for student organizers, such as class officers, club officers, administrators, and members of teams in sports, debate, robotics, and other competitions. Being able to communicate with the student body at large will make events more interesting, activities easier to coordinate, and organizations easier to run.
The site will also benefit students themselves, who will have a new and comprehensive source of information, and a way of communicating among different groups that will foster school unity. It will enable teachers to spread out tests and projects, to reduce student stress.
As the website is improved, it may even become a platform for teachers to distribute class materials, a green alternative to paper handouts that brings classrooms onto the Web.
In my implementation at www.msjhs.net, each student organization has a homepage and a blog, which are accessible from a common navigation menu. (Teachers will soon have their own sections for classes that they teach.) Representatives of student organizations - like class presidents and club officers - are given permission to post content in the organization’s name. The workflow of the website is roughly described by this diagram:
There are several ways to post and read content. Authors can post to a blog, create static pages, and make custom layouts using their browser. In addition, they can blog using email, with a mailbox set up for that purpose. This allows the website to tap into mailing lists as a source of content. They can also post to the website through their own blogs, by configuring the website to parse their RSS feeds.
Similarly, authors can also post to an announcements listing, which is visible on the front page to all students.
Authors can also create events, which appear in a calendar either on the front page or in a section. As with blog posts, events can be created through different channels, like iCalendars, RSS feeds, or Google Calendars. Thus, the website will work with existing calendars.
Readers can access the site directly, through RSS feeds, or by email updates. Each of the ways allows readers to choose which sections to receive content from, so a reader can essentially roll their own newsletter that keeps them up to date with everything going on that concerns them. More involved readers can browse around the website, and explore organizations and events and learn about what is going on around them.
Hardware, Software and Organization
The website is based on Drupal and several powerful modules (plugins) , so it will run on most servers with PHP, MySQL, and SSH access. The software is free and completely open source, and since the website can run on shared hosting, the cost to maintain it starts at around $10/month - low enough to be paid for by students themselves.
To process content, the website uses many Drupal modules (plugins). Mailhandler processes mail received at a POP mailbox and creates blog posts from it. FeedAPI and its add-ons process all other feeds, including RSS feeds for blog posts and iCal feeds for events (mapped from iCal and Google Calendar).
Content is classified using Drupal’s Taxonomy system, which makes it possible to create categories for each event, post, or page. Content display is handled by two powerful Drupal modules – Panels, which creates pages with custom layouts, and Views, which creates custom views like tables, lists, and calendars. For the calendar, the website uses content type made with Drupal’s Content Construction kit.
As of today, 8/27, we've launched the website at our school, and it has been well received.
About 3/4 of the clubs we talked to were interested in accounts on the site, and we currently have about 25 active accounts on the website. School starts in the next week, and that's when we'll also be helping most of the clubs at our school get registered and set up on the site.
We talked to the school principal, and we may set up a simple moderation system where administrators must approve content before it's published. Parents and a few community groups have also talked to us about using the site...here are our statistics:
When I started out trying to create a website for my school, I set out to create a website that would unify content, authors, and readers from all organizations. It was to be a site that attracted authors and readers, that would snowball and transform the way communication at my school worked.
Now, my hope is that by integrating content processing into the website, I have created a site that won't just be excellent once it is established - content processing will make it simple for students to tap into existing content sources and merge them, to start up similar sites at their own schools. Thus, that this website has the potential to become a model that will fundamentally change the way high school communication works.
First and foremost, acknowledgements to Roger Chen for his help with web hosting and Drupal maintenance, and Aatash Parikh of MSJ ASB (our student government) for his assistance with project management. Also, thank you to Tina Tseng, Carl Gao, and the other members of MSJ Web Design and Sarah Li from the Phoenix art and literary magazine for their support.
Acknowledgements also go to Chirag Vasavda and Robin Chang of Mission SOS (www.missionsos.net) for their work on an event calendar for teachers, Raymond Chou of the MSJ Web Design club for creating the 2008-2009 school Club Portal, the members of the 2008-2009 Smoke Signal for their activism, and the Hiveports (www.hiveports.com) team for inspiration and their legacy of a school website.