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Seeing through the portal

As schools increasingly become wired, the need to manage information electronically is crucial. University Park-based Schoolwires has developed a solution with its Academic Portal.

As schools increasingly become wired, the need to manage information electronically is crucial, as is the ability to connect a school to parents, teachers, and students. University Park-based Schoolwires has developed a solution, its Academic Portal, that’s currently being used by 431 schools in 15 states, with a particular concentration in the mid-Atlantic region. True to its devotion to teamwork, the Schoolwires gang pitched in together to answer some questions about the portal and its power.

What exactly does your Academic Portal do?

It makes creating and updating a district’s Web site easier than editing a Microsoft Word document. Because the Schoolwires technology allows for content contributors from all aspects of the technology spectrum, administrators, webmasters, teachers, parents, and students are using the portal to share everything from homework assignments to cafeteria menus to school cancellation information to sign-up forms to athletic schedules and event calendars.

Why is it important to keep a site consistent from school to school?

When conducting extensive market research, founder Ed Marflak discovered that the Internet was filled with home pages from teachers, coaches, and parents who knew the value of communicating online. Unfortunately, without a school district initiative in place, each site was piecemeal, separate from the next grade or sports activity, and thousands were out-of-date. The bottom line was that school districts had no control over communicating its academic value to the community that gave it support.

What kind of training does Schoolwires provide? And how does the company tailor its training materials for a range of teachers?

Schoolwires training is very much role-based. If the trainee is to be a director, then all site director training is via online sessions, which delivers the necessary “intimate” (one-on-one or one-on-two) training and strategy session. For section editors, normally teachers, the Schoolwires model is “train the trainer.” Often Schoolwires is contracted to provide this type of training onsite–or, gaining in popularity, via video conference.

For these sessions, we provide a “quick start” guide that we use when training teachers which steps the teachers through how to set up their section. This “quick start” is a very simple tool, which includes suggestions. During this training, trainers and students spend a little time browsing training and demo sites, as well as district sites, to give them ideas for their own sections

We usually spend the second half of these sessions doing individualized hands-on training, allowing the teachers to create their own content. During this time, the advanced users rise to the surface, and we are able to provide additional information to them.

What kind of challenges do you think schools facing right now in terms of using technology to do administration and management?

Technology is only as beneficial as its level of acceptance and use. Schoolwires’ technology team deliberately pursued a platform that would allow every dimension of contributor to participate, within district set guidelines, with the specific goal of distributing the workload so that teachers, students and parents could get about the business of improving education.

The Schoolwires Academic Portal solves the “not enough time” factor because information can be updated in real time from any computer anywhere in the world; the budget constraints are eased for districts that do not have a fulltime webmaster or deep development staff and if they do, now they can tackle tasks that have long been on hold; and the district site, as well as teacher home pages, club news, and sports calendars, can be updated by anyone who can type.

How does the company upgrade its products and training–in other words, how do you determine what will be needed by schools in the future?

From the beginning, during our pilot phase, Schoolwires had always actively engaged the user. We instituted a threaded discussion group for one of the early editions of the Schoolwires product so we could learn from the interaction of the teachers and administrators who were testing and making suggestions. Schoolwires will always be a company that seeks candid feedback.

Before each development cycle, we survey our districts with a list of potential features that have been suggested by current users through personal conversations with our training and support staff or through the many Users Group Meetings we hold throughout the year. Our users are able to rate the features while providing feedback on features that might not be on the survey. The results heavily influence the features that will be developed into the next releases.

Many schools are in a continual budget-crunch. How do you make technology cost effective for them?

A district will have to spend time and money on a Web site if they want to be competitive and showcase their school’s achievements while communicating to their constituents.

Just looking at the first level of cost-effectiveness, Schoolwires is Web-based, making it an IT department’s dream. No hardware or software to buy, lower costs, faster implementation and greater operational flexibility. Because of our on-demand model, upgrades are virtually transparent and seamless to our users. We rigorously test the release and make the upgrade for them.

Additionally, the Schoolwires Academic Portal qualifies for e-rate reimbursement–a big bonus to districts.

What is it that you like best about the company?

Edward Marflak has created a dynamic, creative environment in which an incredible team has been forged together for the sole objective of delivering a Web-based solution to help school districts. This furthers the achievement of their students while closing the gap between parent, teacher and administrator–to inspire young minds to achieve and positively impact our nation’s future.

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