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Exploring Web Site Use by Western Australian Schools

- Jadanne Heuchan, Sun Microsystems Australia
- Sean McGuire, KPMG Australia
- Jayden Kahl, Fremantle Football Club
- Jamie Murphy, University of Western Australia

Abstract

This paper uses Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 1995) to explore web site adoption by Australian primary and secondary schools. A content analysis (Krippendorf, 1980) of features on thirty-nine randomly selected Western Australian schools found two main uses of the sites -- marketing the school and communicating with the school's community.

The majority of schools -- especially private schools -- used their web site for promotion, providing brochure-type information to prospective parents and community members. Fewer schools used their sites for communication, providing up to date information on school activities targeted at parents, students and staff. The results suggest that social pressure and competition -- especially for public schools -- fuel web site adoption. Schools seem to use their sites in an unstructured process that fails to consider the web site's role in marketing the school and communicating with interested parties.  

This exploratory study provides theoretical benefits by establishing benchmarks of web site adoption (Misic & Johnson, 1999) as well as discussing web site adoption phases (Hanson, 2000) and their implication for the digital divide (NTIA, 2000, 2002). Practical benefits include a snapshot of web site features in Western Australian schools and a comparison of public versus private school sites.

Introduction

Schools can use the Internet via a range of World Wide Web and e-mail applications targeted for students, parents, staff, potential students and the community. Research has shown that the adoption and implementation of new technologies, however, occurs in stages and levels of commitment throughout an organization (Fichman, 2000). Of those schools that have sites, some may have simple stage one sites (Hanson, 2000) that act as a static online brochure while others have a stage two site with database applications or possibly a personalized stage three site. Yet, if the school fails to answer e-mail, the Internet adoption is superficial and incomplete at best (Heuchan et al., 2000).

If the schools use web sites to deliver education, the adoption takes on even greater significance for the school's survival and the student's learning (e.g. Chapter 8 in Brown & Duguid, 2000). At the same time, some question if a school's Internet adoption is nothing more than a fad (Tabor, 1999) or a misallocation of valuable resources (Murphy & Massey, 2000; Stoll, 1999).

While educators and interest groups debate the merits of Internet adoption and implementation in the US (Segrest et al., 1998; Selwyn, 1999; NTIA, 2000; Gandel, 2000; NTIA 2002) and Australia (Applebee et al., 2000), about one in seven Western Australian schools leapt into cyberspace by building web sites. This paper takes a small step towards exploring Internet adoption by analysing web site content to investigate how Western Australian schools attempt to use their sites as a marketing and communication tool with students, staff, parents, prospective parents, prospective students and the community.

The literature review draws on diffusion of innovations to explain organizational adoption and implementation of technology. Next, the methodology outlines content analysis, sampling and data collection. The results and conclusion discuss the study's findings, which are followed by limitations of this study and recommendations for future research.

Literature Reviews

Diffusion of Innovations

From early 1999 to early 2002, the percentage of Australians online doubled to 54% and the percentage doubled in the US as well, to 58% (Nua 2002). This rapid, albeit unequal (NTIA, 2000, 2002), Internet adoption has established web sites as a new tool for communication with consumers (Hoffman & Novak, 1996; Hofacker, 2001). Similarly, educational institutions use this new medium to communicate with students, community, current parents and prospective parents.

Web pages are another measure of Internet growth (Murphy, 1998). Based on the number of Western Australian schools and school web sites, (http://edsitewa.iinet.net.au/schoolslist.html), fifteen percent of Western Australia's schools had web sites in August 2000 and the number had more than doubled by April 2002.

Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 1995) helps explain this rapid Internet growth pattern. Applied to a variety of new technologies, this theory describes how individuals and organizations adopt innovations over time. For interactive media such as the Internet, Rogers (1995) suggests that the adoption rate will increase rapidly until reaching critical mass -- a majority of the population adopt the innovation.

The concept of critical mass coincides with Metcalfe's Law, which states that the utility of the Internet expands geometrically by the number of users (Hanson, 2000). An earlier communication medium, the telephone, exemplifies critical mass and Metcalfe's Law. There was little value in owning a telephone when few people had phones, but the utility of phones grew as more people had phones.

Organizational Diffusion of Innovations

Researchers have subsequently extended diffusion of innovations from individual adoption to organizational adoption, noting that it is less applicable for organizations than with individuals (Rogers, 1995; Fichman, 2000). The five stages of organizational adoption -- agenda setting, matching, redefining/restructuring, clarifying and routinizing -- occur in sequence, such that later stages should not be undertaken until the earlier stages have been settled (Rogers, 1995). Organizations however, may overlook the requisite planning in steps one and two and subsequently face implementation problems in the latter three steps (Wildemuth, 1992).

For radical innovations, such as the Internet, organizational adoption may be unstructured and unroutine (Rogers, 1995). DiMaggio & Powell (1983) propose that a desire to improve performance drives early adopters and in times of uncertainty, organizations imitate group norm setters. Thus, inefficient strategic choices are common amongst early adopters (O’Neill, Poude & Buchholtz 1998). Furthermore, bandwagon theories (Abrahamson & Rosenkopf 1997) argue that organizations adopt innovations based on the number of adopting organizations not the innovation's technical merit. As such, organizations adopt innovations not on merit, but due to the social pressure (Rogers, 1995).  

Gerwin (1988) posits that technical, financial and social uncertainty within an organization fosters unstructured adoption. This is likely the case for many Australian schools. Technical knowledge of the Internet provides a barrier for many teachers, preventing adoption (Gandel, 2000). Financial uncertainty is likely, due to the resources necessary to set up and maintain a site without the guarantee of a profitable return on this investment in time and money (Gandel, 2000). Stories of paedophiles in chat rooms and inappropriate web site use (Mendels, 1999) fuel social uncertainty. Due to these Internet uncertainties, schools may be adopting web sites through an unstructured decision process (Mintzberg, Raisinghani & Theoret, 1976).

The Australian Governments’ push to implement technology in schools also helps explain Internet adoption by Australian schools. The Western Australian education departments’ Technology 2000 program (http://www.eddept.wa.edu.au/t2000/) and Victoria’s Online ACE publication (http://www.acfe.vic.gov.au/publications/online/Online.pdf) exemplify these initiatives to bring more schools online.

Hofacker (2001) identifies four possible web site functions -- communication; selling; providing content; and providing a network function -- of which the first two seem most applicable for schools. Thanks to the cost, time and reach advantages the Web has over traditional media (Hoffman & Novak, 1996), schools can use their sites to communicate to target markets within and outside the school community. Private and public schools can sell themselves to prospective students and parents of students. Given the content on their sites, how are Australian schools using the web?  

Methodology

Content analysis, “a research technique for making replicable and valid inferences from data to their context” (Krippendorff, 1980, p. 21), was used to investigate the web sites of Australian schools. This unobtrusive and context sensitive technique can process symbolic forms, thus making it relevant to the exploratory nature of this study McMillan (2000). 

This August 2000 study examined a random sample of 39 (13 private and 26 public) Western Australian web sites, chosen from a list of 168 Western Australian school sites. A preliminary review of ten sites and subsequent consultation yielded a list of 11 common features: under construction notices, presence of an email address, physical address, mission/goals, parents and citizens information[1], up to date information, enrolment information, external site links, search function, navigational site maps, and date of the site’s last modifications.

Two researchers reviewed 28 active sites. Explicit instructional training and pre-testing ensured a consistent inter-rater reliability; Cronbach’s alpha was 0.9958.

Results  

Is anybody home? Is there a home? Just over forty percent, or 11 out of 26, of the public school sites were inaccessible due to incorrect URLs or incorrect page loading. All 13 private school sites worked. Of the 24 active sites, eight percent of the private schools and 27 percent of the public schools had an under construction sign on the home page. This poor performance, coupled with little site updating suggests that many schools developed their sites as a one-off activity and failed to use the sites on a continuing basis.

Selling features aimed at attracting new students to the school were similar to an information brochure given to prospective parents. But sites contained only basic details and were updated irregularly, if at all. About one of two sites had been updated in the year 2000. Over three fourths of the schools listed their physical addresses and over two thirds included school goals or a mission statement.

Private schools were far more active using the web site for selling. Six in ten private schools included enrolment information on their site, but no public school contained this information. Private schools included their street address more often, 92 percent versus 67 percent and mission statements were more common in private schools, 77 percent compared to 60 percent. These results make sense, as public schools are free for Australian students. Still, fee-paying overseas students can attend public schools as well and public schools do compete, albeit informally, for gifted students. 

Features to facilitate school communication included e-mail, P & C newsletters, links to external sites and search tools. These features seemed aimed at existing parents and students, rather than towards prospective parents and students. All active sites had email capabilities. Just over one in five sites included a P & C newsletter and three in five included external links. Only three of the 24 sites included a search function or site map. Public and private schools showed little difference in their web site use for communication.

Conclusions

About one in seven Western Australian schools had web sites in August 2000 compared to almost one in three by April 2002. This compares to about 40% of the Australian population online in August 2000 and 55% of Australians online in February 2002 (Nua, 2002). It seems safe to conclude that more Australians will turn to the web for school information and that more schools will go online

Of the sites surveyed in August 2000, private schools used their sites more effectively than public schools. All surveyed private school sites worked compared to only three out of five public school sites. While most schools used their sites for communication, private schools also leveraged their sites as a selling tool. Private school's better use of their web sites may lead to a "digital divide" between the online images of private and public schools.

Though links to external sites, email addresses and P & C information were common, advanced features such as search functions and sites maps were less common. The absence of staff email addresses, class work and online enrolment forms on almost all sites suggest that schools are in the first of Hanson's (2000) three web site stages. This lack of features combined with sites that fail to work, suggests that schools take an unstructured adoption process and have yet to integrate their sites into school activities.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

This research used a small sample of West Australian schools. Future research should utilise a larger, stratified -- primary and high schools -- sample, drawing from all Australian schools sites to increase generalizability and examine the use of technology across different levels of schooling. Similar research in Asia-Pacific countries such as Singapore, Indonesia or China could explore cultural differences (Hofstede, 1980). Comparing school sites in these and other countries could explore the role of Internet penetration in a country (Nua, 2002) as well as the Internet's role in socio-economic development (Madon, 2000).

Several behavioural measures merit further investigation. A longitudinal study could examine how school technology use evolves over time. What changes, if any, have occurred on the web sites? The use of email by teachers, students, parents, and prospective parents should shed light on how different school audiences use the Internet. Server log files, which track visitors' web site behaviour, could show navigational patterns, popular pages, landing pages, referring pages, etc. (Murphy, Hofacker & Bennett, 2001; Randolph, Murphy & Ruch, 2002).

Finally, are there digital divide implications in the adoption of technology by private and public schools? Selwyn (1999, p. 229) argues that if left to commercial market devices, "then education Internet use may well run along more profit-oriented lines while, at the same time, marginalizing educational interests . . . such developments will increase educational inequalities between institutions, students and teachers." The US Department of Commerce found that for lower-income students, schools are the main means for going online (NTIA 2002). For example, future research could investigate what impact a schools' web site -- or lack of a site -- has on student perceptions of the school.

References

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[1] Parents and Citizens or P & C resembles the Parent Teacher Association or PTA in the United States


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