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Weaving a Secure Web Around Education: A Guide to Technology Standards and Security
Home
  Table of Contents and Introductory Material
Chapter 1
  The Role of the World Wide Web in Schools and Education Agencies
Chapter 2
    Web Publishing Guidelines
Chapter 3
    Web-Related Legal Issues and Policies
Chapter 4
    Internal and External Resources for Web Development
Chapter 5
    Procuring Resources
Chapter 6
    Maintaining a Secure Environment
Conclusion
Appendices
Glossary
PDF File (1,119 KB)

Contact:
Ghedam Bairu

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Chapter 4: Internal and External Resources for Web Development


QUESTIONS ANSWERED IN THIS CHAPTER:
  • Do the needs of the agency match the available resources?
  • How should agencies determine whether to outsource or develop web sites in house?
  • How does professional development fit into agency plans?
  • What software could be employed to implement the web site?


Introduction

Once the agency has determined that a web site will serve a useful purpose, staff will need to determine how the web site should be built. The needs assessment process will help to determine if resources exist within the agency to match its needs. One goal of this exercise is to see if the site should be created in house or whether web development should be outsourced (developed by an outside company). Additionally, staff will need to determine if the new web site should reside, physically, on servers owned by the agency or if an outside vendor should be hired to house and maintain the web site on its servers. Agencies with existing sites may want to revisit these issues periodically in planning for the maintenance and upgrade of their sites. Agencies need to know if expectations based on an assessment of the needs of the agency match the ability to meet them.

Needs Assessment Checklist

One purpose of the needs assessment might be to determine if the agency has the ability to support a web server, portal, and computer files on its own. The following questions should be considered:
  • Does the agency have funds for servers and the appropriate space to house the servers?
  • Does the agency have staff available to maintain the servers?
  • If staff are available, what additional training will be needed to maintain the servers?
  • Should web content management be centralized or decentralized-that is, will one person/department manage the entire site or will each department manage its own section?
  • What web design skills are on staff?
  • Once the major development is complete, can the existing staff support the system?
  • Will instructional applications be delivered over the web site?
The degree of difficulty in programming grows with the complexity of the web site. Some sophistication is required to build and maintain a web site that, for example, accesses databases containing student assessment scores and develops methodologies for making comparisons of student success rates. Templates can be used to set up a web page or web site, but more knowledge is needed to develop a graphic design motif that will be used to represent the agency on the World Wide Web whenever anyone visits the web site.

Just as a computer needs software for people to use it, a web site needs applications. These applications provide the tools that make the World Wide Web valuable to educators. Additional applications are necessary to protect the web site and the data that may be accessed through the web.


Identifying and Matching Available Resources to What is Needed


Does the agency have the staff to design a web site?

Deciding what to include on the organization's web site is influenced as much by the expertise and resources available as by the desire to provide specific content and services to constituents. At the most basic level, there are vendors able to provide a service that enables teachers and others to post, in a simple format, information about homework, class activities, and a host of other items. A fee may be assessed for the service or access may be free if advertising is allowed on the agency's web site.

There are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that provide templates for novice programmers. These templates require simply that the individual posting the content visit the site with a password for access and then "fill in the blanks" to create web pages.

A school or district with little expertise and limited resources may choose to set up a small web site offering basic information to staff and the community. The site may be limited to information that does not change often, thus requiring infrequent updates and little maintenance. High schools often allow students with enough expertise to help manage the design and content of these basic sites at little or no cost to the school and with minimal time commitment from staff.

A small district, or school, may decide to outsource many aspects of web site support. A major advantage of this plan is that a local ISP can keep the small district web site operational 24 hours per day without making demands on district resources. However, the agency should consider that, often, a basic service plan provides little disk space for expansion and few options, if any, for a database or other interactive features. Additional features and the required technical support may be available for an additional fee.

A larger district with more funding and on-site technical staff may choose to manage every aspect of a complex web site, including databases, interactive pages that allow remote data entry by site visitors, and other advanced features. State education agencies typically operate their own sites and employ technicians to keep the site operational and the pages up-to-date.

There is a middle ground. There are ISPs that will provide any of the services that an agency requires-for a fee. As with most endeavors, careful planning can make all the difference. A needs assessment resulting in a coherent plan will enable web site development and implementation to progress smoothly and provide better results. This is true whether starting from scratch or modifying an existing site.


To Host or Not to Host—That is the Question


Does the agency have the resources to host (maintain) a web site?

The host of a web site is the agency or company that operates the site on a web server. Using an outside hosting service allows many companies to share the cost of a fast Internet connection for serving files. Ultimate control of the web site, however, is achieved when the agency operates its own server.

Little expertise is actually needed to launch a web site, but considerable knowledge and resources are required to operate web servers. States and large school districts may find that hosting their own web sites is the most effective way to enhance their sites with interactive features, such as form submissions, discussion groups, e-commerce, job applications, and customized content delivery for the instructional program.

An organization should consider in-house operation of a web site if the necessary expertise and budgetary resources are available to ensure proper functioning. However, schools and districts can unknowingly expose themselves to serious problems if they do not have properly trained network administrators and support staff. For example, during the preparation of this guidebook, one of the writers came upon a school district web site that inadvertently allowed open access to everything on the district's main server, including access to student records. Properly trained staff would have the technical expertise to prevent such a situation from occurring.

Outsourcing Web Site Development and Maintenance

Along with determining where the web site will physically reside, the agency needs to determine who will design the look and feel of the web pages and who will write the programming code. In many small schools or districts, the web site might be the outgrowth of a single workshop attended by a teacher or a student who has an interest in technology and wants an opportunity to demonstrate his or her skills. Such sites generally start out as basic, static files, frequently without a coherent plan for content selection, file management, or publishing standards.

When resources are not available in the agency, outsourcing the development and management of a web site might be advisable. In some cases, outsourcing can provide a more sophisticated design and more efficient file structure, leading to a higher level of reliability. Because a successful web site attracts more users, web site management should include constant monitoring of the equipment and operation to track site usage in order to identify a need for upgrades. Commercial ISPs are often better able to cover the cost of upgrades for speed and data flow by spreading that expense among their clients.

Outsourcing web development can also give smaller organizations access to highly qualified teams of graphic designers, who can create customized graphics, and programmers, who can write code specific to the organization's needs. Without programming expertise, the organization is usually limited to standard features available in off-the-shelf web design programs. Many of these programs include powerful design options; however, a web design novice may not have the knowledge to apply the full power of the program to optimize the site's speed, graphic quality, and storage space efficiency.

Size is not the only factor in the decision to outsource. Even for smaller districts with few resources, there are situations where outsourcing will not be desirable. In some situations, small, simple sites with static pages may be more appropriate for the school or district than professionally designed sites that will require constant maintenance. As a site becomes more complex, the need for professional help will probably become apparent, and the cost of development and maintenance will increase accordingly. If in-house design and development are considered, it is also important to consider the cost of the superintendent's or school principal's time if he or she is required to work with an amateur web developer.

If an agency does not have full-time information technology (IT) staff members to devote time to web maintenance, a paid contractor may be necessary. A carefully selected contractor, with the appropriate software and knowledge, can track site activity and make changes in an efficient and consistent manner.

Combining Outsourced Services with Internal Resources

The needs assessment often will reveal that an agency has the resources needed for some but not all aspects of connectivity, web design, and server maintenance. For some agencies, it may be more effective to outsource specific tasks, such as initial design and programming, then to transfer management and maintenance to internal staff.


Outsource some services. Keep others inside the agency.

Using outside personnel and equipment at the beginning may buy the agency time and experience, allowing staff to become familiar with web site support. When adequate internal support is possible, the site could be moved onto agency servers and supported by agency personnel. As the complexity of the web site grows, the agency will know if it has the resources to meet the expanded needs.

Because of the nature of web design, it is not necessary for the designers to be physically present on site. Unless state or local policies favor hometown businesses, selection of vendors for web site design, development, and operational services typically draws from a nationwide pool. While this gives the education agency access to a higher level of expertise and a broader range of choices, it also increases the probability that proposals will come from unknown companies or individuals. If any portion of an agency's web site development is outsourced, it is critical that the agency develop a Request for Proposal (RFP) that clearly defines the needs of the agency and the parameters of the contract.


Training and Professional Development

The need for professional development for effective Internet use within an education agency goes beyond training for developers and programmers. All staff members and student users of agency equipment need to have an understanding of the policies governing its use and enough technical skills to navigate the web and use other appropriate computer applications. Because technology changes so quickly, continuous training is helpful for users and is essential for those who maintain and operate the network. Budget allocations should address training and technology-related professional development as a necessary component of the agency's overall program.

Professional development for teachers goes far beyond training in the use of the computers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web. Technology will not be integrated successfully into the school environment until teachers are able to integrate the technology into their curriculum delivery process.

This guidebook does not contain a detailed discussion of professional development for teachers in the integration of the web and other technologies into the curriculum; however, this does not minimize the need. Other Forum publications, such as Technology in Schools and Technology @ Your Fingertips, discuss professional development procedures at greater length.


Internet-Related Software


Software makes the hardware work.

One of the many decisions an agency must make when considering web site development is what software to include. These choices may have an impact on the decision whether to outsource the programming, server storage, and maintenance of the site or whether to host the site in house. Agencies with the sufficient resources to maintain secure servers in house should consider the following software needs before making related purchases.

Browsers and Acrobat Reader™

Two basic pieces of software are essential for reading and downloading files from the web. One is the Internet browser. Nearly all computers purchased include browser software, which permits the user to access and display Internet-compatible graphics and text contained in files written with hypertext markup language (HTML), Active Server Page (ASP), Java, or other Internet languages. Simply stated, the browser is the software that allows the user to use the web.

As the features available in Internet files change from year to year, the browser capabilities and associated plug-in software needed to take advantage of the new features also change. Most browsers offer free upgrades, which can be downloaded from the Internet. It is generally desirable to upgrade the browser software on computers from time to time, so the browsers will operate efficiently with available file types and features.

Some agency-specific programs, such as student information systems and financial packages, are accessed using a web browser. In these situations, it is not advisable to permit upgrades to browsers unless the technology staff can be certain the applications will run on the new browser upgrade.

A browser is designed to access and save web pages; however, not all pages are easily printed or can be viewed in their original format. The second essential piece of Internet software, Adobe Acrobat Reader™, reads documents that have been transformed from a multitude of word processor, spreadsheet, database, and other file formats into a standard Portable Document Format (PDF). The software enables the computer to display the file in its original format and print the file in exactly the same way and with the same quality as its native program. Acrobat Reader™ can be downloaded at no cost from http://www.adobe.com . A full version of Acrobat™ used to create files, can be purchased from Adobe. Other products are available for displaying file formats, but at the time of release of this publication, Acrobat™ is the industry standard.

E-mail Software

Communication by e-mail was one of the first uses of the Internet and continues to be the most popular use today. Browser-based web services available through subscription, often at no cost, enable people to access their e-mail from any computer with an Internet connection. Many people prefer to use an e-mail client, a program devoted exclusively to sending and receiving e-mail messages and graphics. Some of these programs are loaded on new computers or are available through other means at little or no cost to the user.

Browser based e-mail services often contain advertising in the form of "spam," the electronic equivalent of unsolicited junk mail. Spam received through many web-based email programs may not be filterable, since the subscriber agrees to receive these messages when accepting the conditions of service. Another hazard of spam is that it can serve as a vehicle for viruses. E-mail issues, such as whether to permit use of web-based e-mail providers, should be addressed in the agency's Acceptable Use Policy (AUP).

The dedicated commercial e-mail programs are usually more sophisticated and offer greater protection for the user. One of the tasks of the needs assessment process is to determine what kind of e-mail software will be most effective for the agency.

Virus Protection Software

The use of virus protection software is crucial for all Internet users and users of shared files. These programs often come with new computers, but if not, a virus protection program should be purchased separately. As new viruses emerge almost daily, the program should be updated frequently to protect the user and other users who may be connected through a network or included in a list of contacts.

Virus protection software can be purchased for individual computers or licensed for use by all agency computers. This software can also reside on a server, with users able to update the software on their desktop computer over the agency network.

Web Development Software

For agencies planning to launch their own web sites, a means of creating web-compatible files is essential. Historically, programmers wrote original source code to create most web files. Today, many word processors and some office applications and browsers include programs that will automatically generate the code needed to display documents on the web (e.g., HomeSite™, Front Page™, Dream Weaver™, etc.).

More sophisticated software applications that are designed solely for the creation and management of web sites are also available. Among other functions, these programs can create a map of the web site and its links, permit the user to split graphic files for creation of special effects, split web pages into separate panes that permit the display of multiple files on a single screen, and automatically generate code for a multitude of other formatting options.

File Transfer Protocol Software

Internet files are written on a local computer and are then transferred to an Internet server where they are made accessible on the web. Programs that permit the easy transfer of files between local and remote computers without opening and viewing them in a browser are known as file transfer protocol or FTP clients. FTP software enables a remote user to control functions for moving, saving and deleting files over the Internet or other Internet Protocol (IP)-based networks. Some web editors include publishing functions that permit the user to save his or her files at the remote location; FTP software includes features that provide more flexibility and often greater speed for the transfer of files, including files that cannot be handled by the web editors.

Mailing Lists and Subscription Lists

Mailing list software and subscription lists are valuable communication tools, but they have an etiquette all their own and can be a source of misunderstanding and frustration if users are not aware of the potential pitfalls. For example, a frequent source of aggravation is the general posting of subscription cancellations to an unmoderated list. Users should know that there are at least two separate addresses for mailing lists. One is the posting address to which all replies and new messages are posted and from which all messages are forwarded to subscribers. The second address is for the server site where cancellations or requests to change parameters of the subscription are sent. Messages posted to the server address are not seen by other subscribers and do not interfere with discussion topics. Most lists greet new users with a welcome message that tells them how to access various services available through the site.

An effective mailing list server host should send an initial welcome with a description of the procedures and addresses used for public and nonpublic communication through the list server. In addition, it should periodically send out a review of the procedures and etiquette for the site. Responsible subscribers should save the welcome file in a location where they can find it later in case they wish to cancel their subscription or change the way they receive messages.

Bulletin Boards

A bulletin board permits the posting of information to a site that can be accessed remotely by subscribers or others with access to the site's address or Uniform Resource Locator (URL). Mailing list software automatically sends new postings to all subscribers, one message at a time or in a digest format sent at specified intervals. The advantage of mailing lists is that new postings are delivered directly to the subscriber instead of the subscriber having to actively seek them out. Subscribers may be permitted to post messages to both moderated and unmoderated mailing lists. Messages sent to an unmoderated mailing list are posted automatically, while those sent to a moderated site are posted and distributed after review by a human moderator.

Software for a More Useful Server

If the agency plans to host its web site on its own server, it will need software to control the server functions. A resource to assist the agency in reviewing and evaluating server software is available at http://serverwatch.internet.com. The capabilities of Internet-based software continue to progress in step with user sophistication and increasing web site complexity. A few examples of the web site tools available to educators today include software that:
  • tracks access to individual files within a web site;
  • permits remote access to databases for viewing and downloading data in a format that can be analyzed and manipulated;
  • assists school organizations in creating and delivering instructional content via the Internet;
  • tracks the use of curriculum standards; and
  • enhances the actual delivery of instruction within schools and classrooms.
Agency web sites can be as simple as displaying aggregated data in report format for viewing only or as complex as making data available to users for download and analysis. The latter requires a database that is configured for web connection and typically requires special training of personnel managing the database.

Just by having a web site, many avenues to enhance the delivery of the instructional program will be available to the agency. From expanded resources to programs that simulate historical events to self-paced courses, the web can open up a whole new world for students and teachers.

For an education agency with unique needs that cannot be met adequately by commercial software, customized software written by a professional programmer may be a sensible option. This is true when considering administrative or instructional programs.


Purchasing Hardware to Host a World Wide Web Site


The hardware needs assessment enables the agency to determine the complexity of the site.

The minimum hardware needed to host a web site, list server, or other Internet service is reasonably obtainable. The server should have a relatively high-speed processor and a great deal of Random Access Memory (RAM) with any reliable operating system. Web server software is necessary, along with a properly configured router that includes network and security software, for safe remote access to the server. The server should be connected to the Internet through a high-speed portal with an ISP. The connection must include a static IP address and a domain name registered with an Internet registrar, such as InterNIC, Network Solutions, or, register.com.

This minimum configuration will support a small web site with relatively little traffic. As the web site, mail server, list server, or other Internet traffic increases, and as the site itself becomes more complex, the agency will need to consider integrating more advanced equipment into the site. This equipment might include a higher speed processor, multiple processors, more storage space, or a connection with greater bandwidth and more access portals.

A crucial component in the purchase of equipment and software, as well as in the operation of the server, is the participation of a technician who has the formal training and knowledge to maintain a reliable system. Smaller agencies sometimes rely on a knowledgeable teacher or staff member, or even a student, for technology guidance. This approach may be initially successful, but as the web site becomes more sophisticated and, particularly, as the system becomes accessible to the outside world, it becomes imperative that a system administrator with extensive technical training be available to maintain confidentiality of student and staff information, as well as security for the agency's equipment and users.

At a minimum, a person with reliable technical knowledge, as well as a person familiar with an understanding of the legal issues surrounding purchasing and procurement, should review the agency's RFPs and bid specifications before they are published. The more planning and detail involved in the RFP specifications, the more likely the agency is to obtain a quality product at a reasonable price.

Purchasing the necessary hardware is but one essential step. In appendix C, information is provided on how to connect this hardware to the Internet.


Summary

An education agency must consider a number of essential issues before deciding whether to develop and maintain a web site in house. Most critical is the availability of a qualified staff of sufficient size and expertise to carry out all aspects of the Internet implementation effectively. If agency resources are insufficient, it may be preferable to outsource all or part of the operation. Regardless of the outsourcing decision, continual professional development is essential for effective use of the Internet. Issues to be considered in outsourcing decisions include the following:
  • Matching expectations to the agency's capacity. A well-designed web site with static pages containing valuable information is more useful than an interactive site that is out of date or unreliable.
  • Technical staff with the expertise to maintain a reliable and secure system.
  • The resources to obtain a server, server software, and security software for agencies wanting to launch sites that are more sophisticated or host their own web services.
  • If required, specialized software for list servers, bulletin boards, databases, or other services.
  • The ability to upgrade equipment and expand bandwidth as sophistication and use of the site increases.


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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
U.S. Department of Education