Popularity a mixed blessing at Education site

The Education Department's World Wide Web site offers a plethora of data and tools for students, educators and other parties interested in U.S. schooling at all levels. But this may be a case where the demand for information exceeds an agency's level to provide it, according to a recent study.

In the report, made public last month, researchers at Syracuse University evaluated Education's Web site (www.ed.gov) from four perspectives: internal management organization, Web management policy, technology and usability.

The department is doing "a really excellent job" in Web management policy and site usability and "a pretty good job" with technology, said Syracuse professor Charles McClure, who participated in the evaluation. But Education has room for improvement in internal management, particularly in terms of having the manpower needed for keeping up with the public thirst for information, McClure said.

"They're going through huge growing pains," he said. Specifically, Education's Web site "lacks adequate staffing and resource support for current operations," the Syracuse study (iis.syr.edu/webeval/) said, "and this condition is likely to worsen dramatically as demands for Internet support grow."

The Education site contains links to such nuggets as how to find money to pay for college or whether fourth-grade girls, on average, score higher than boys on reading tests (they do). The site includes an interactive budget calculator for students and enables members of the public to apply online for direct loans to consolidate their education debt.

But with the growing interest in this kind of information, Web managers at Education are on the verge of being overwhelmed by their duties. The site handled close to 9 million page views last month. A year earlier, the site handled half that amount - 4.5 million page views monthly.

The day-to-day workload makes it difficult for Web managers to focus on such goals as making the site easier to navigate or making it possible to conduct more student aid transactions online.

"We don't have infinite resources," said Keith Stubbs, who manages the content for Education's main Web site and is director of Education's Resource Sharing and Cooperation Division as well as co-chairman of the department's Internet Working Group. "We have about the same resources as last year, and we're trying to do twice as much."

In addition to nine staff members for the Web site, Education gets help from Web site contractor Allied Technology Group, Rockville, Md.

To help make management of the site easier, Education officials hope to enlist assistance from program offices within the department. Stubbs said the approach will not decentralize Web management, as it is done in other agencies, including NASA. Rather, Stubbs wants to get more input from Education workers while keeping the Web site's management centralized and focused.

Stubbs also said staff members continually work to improve the site's search function and "A to Z" topic index because many visitors turn to these two functions to find what they want. Moreover, officials are trying to make the site more "customer-centric" by replacing bureaucratic terms with layman's terms, he said.

The Web site runs on two Sun Microsystems Inc. servers operating on the Solaris 2.6 platform. Education uses Netscape Communications Corp.'s Enterprise Server Version 3.5 on the site and also uses Open Text Corp.'s BASISplus as its database software. However, Stubbs said the department plans to move to another database product, Microsoft Corp.'s SQL Server running on a separate Windows NT platform, in the coming months. Stubbs also said the department uses a software product from HydraWeb Technologies to balance the load on the two Sun servers.

Users agree that there is room for improvement - room for more up-to-date data - but say that the site still is very helpful.

Frank Balz, vice president for research and policy analysis at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, uses Education's Web site to pull statistics he needs to track trends and issues in education.

Information Balz gets from the site has been available electronically for years via computer tapes or diskettes, but the Web site enables him to access data instantly and pass it along to Capitol Hill or to reporters who have called his organization.

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