Building a website can be a very rewarding and frustrating experience. On one hand you have the frustrations – not knowing what to do and not having someone to chat through ideas with, or ask for guidance if you get stuck. I remember one site I was building and needed to setup the site using a HTTPS security certificate (which I had never done before). I spent a solid hour researching and trying different possible solutions – none of which worked. I eventually gave up and decided to go for a quick cycle to clear my head. 5 minutes from my house I had an idea and when I got back tried it, and it worked! But we also have the benefits. I love setting up sites – designing them, working through ideas and improving them.
Then there’s what the site can bring – the purpose you built it. Like this one, I love education technology and writing about it. The benefit is both for me (enjoyment) and hopefully you the visitor/reader (enjoyment/learning). I know education technology and its use in schools has been a professional area of interest to me since I studied it during Masters study in 2007. For many other teachers there isn’t the same level of knowledge, confidence or competence and so my aim in building this site is to provide assistance to teachers to be intentional in their use of technology; be able to use technology to enhance their teaching; to provide assistance to teachers in developing a curriculum that aims to provide access to learning content to pupils outside of scheduled class time; to provide assistance to teachers in maximising learning time in class by utilising online learning.
Why Use a Website Builder?
There are two reasons:
You’re a teacher and you are maybe convinced of the benefits of putting together a site for your classes and are now exploring the options (which is great), but the first thing we both know you don’t have a lot of is time. And so this is where a website builder comes to the front of the queue – it will save you time.
The second thing you might not have a lot of, is skill in designing websites. Which is fair enough if you’re not an ICT teacher.
And because you don’t have a lot of time, you can’t invest it in learning how to design websites the way industry professionals do. It’s a vicious circle.
And so this is why you use a website builder! We want to make use of a platform that will help us create a site without having to learn the code or the design principles needed to create visually appealing sites. So a website builder really appeals to the non-IT teacher or seomeone who doesn’t know HTML generally but who wants to put together a website for their department or for their classes and also doesn’t want to devote a large amount of time to it.
How does a Website Builder work?
A website builder works by taking the coding out of making a website. The same choices are made in respect to layouts, fonts, margin and padding etc. but there is no HTML knowledge needed.
Most website builders work on a drag and drop basis – you move the elements you want into position and fill with the relevant content.
So a website builder works like this:
- You pick a template that best fits your needs from your website builder’s library or theme..
- Edit the built-in elements of the template/theme and add your own content (such as images, video, social buttons, and text) to personalise your site and make it your own.
- Publish your site!
What You Need in a Website Builder
- Ease of Use – we expect a learning curve, but it has to be achievable. Thankfully, most are easy to use, but some of the more powerful platforms have a greater learning curve
- Templates and customisations – we don’t want our site to look like every other website, we want it to be creatively unique. There is a scale to how many templates there are per platform and this will limit how individual your site looks.
- Easy to update – you don’t want to spend a lot of time going throughmultiple screens to make small changes. Platforms like WordPress are set up to make the changes once they’re saved, saving you time and effort.
- Mobile compatibility – around half of all web traffic is made by a mobile device, meaning that you want your site to have mobile compatability so that it’s easy to read when on a mobile/tablet screen.
- Specialised tools – these are things like plugins that do specific tasks to help your website run; be more secure; more interactive etc.
- Search Engine Optimisation tools and Analytics – this is how search engines find you and rank your site for the topics your content is about. Analytics tell you about who visits your site; when and what device they used; as well as how long they stayed on your site for.
- Affordability – how much does it cost to host a site on the platform you choose? There are some free options, but there may also be a scaled availability of features – paid subscriptions will get you more. This also covers the cost of the web domain name and your web hosting. Pick your budget, research for any hidden extras and stick to how much you want to pay.
What Website Builders Are Available to Use?
There are a number of website builders that are available and they have a range of functions and features that may or may not appeal to you. The slightly more complicated options will offer a greater amount of functions/variety to allow your website to do more.
To get a bit technical, this really comes down to sites that are more static versus sites that can be fully dynamic. This goes into the working of the HTML code and would be visible in comparing Google sites to WordPress.
The video below will show the workings of a Google site that I use for school compared to how WordPress works, which I use on this site. While the layout may look a little more confusing, it gives me the ability to work with a more interesting and visually appealing website and so while the learning curve is steeper, the payoff is also greater.
The website builder platform we will look at is Google Sites. For those of a certain age, this might remind you of Yahoo! Geocities which let millions of people build their own websites. The results were often quite ugly and so the comparisons with Google sites almost continue. The layouts are basic and it will do the job, but there will always be that “sites.google.com…” in the first part of the URL. You might not care about that, but it’s nice to have your own URL to direct visitors to!
The video below will help you get started with Google Sites:
Like Weebly, I have limited experience using the Wix platform. My main exposure to it has come this academic year, using it with my Year 12 Business Communication Systems pupils who have had to create a website in a Controlled Assessment. Despite not having a great basis of knowledge about using the site, have found it pretty easy to use, and it’s the closest website builder tool that would come close to competing with WordPress.
Don’t get me wrong – because I am so familiar with the WordPress platform, it is a distant second, but for teachers/readers who want to set up a site with minimum fuss and have an easy learning curve, it is a site worth considering – but you need to make sure it has the functionality and ease of use for you to make a good site that meets your needs and aims.
The video below will help you get started with Wix:
Oh…I am trying with Weebly, I really am!
This is one website builder that I struggle to like. I will admit there’s a fair amount of professional snobbery coming through – and I know I have to deal with that, but I’m not sure if I can get over it!
Don’t get me wrong – there are some great looking sites built with Weebly, a list of the top 25 is found here. And from a professional standpoint I get it – professionals don’t have a lot of time to spend on their own site – because they’re busy doing their job for other people, so this does make a lot of sense. Let’s put it down to my own snobbery and I’ll deal with it myself.
Onwards with the review!
Weebly makes website building very easy. I have used the platform this year with my Year 11 pupils and certainly, there is a gentle learning curve. I have worked through this platform and taught my pupils how it works – a five page website could be up and running in a couple of hours. I will appreciate that you may have more content than five pages, but as a starting point, the site will be up, launched and running in one sitting. That’s a very good return on a small investment of time.
If you want a site that can be put up quickly and looks decent, then Weebly might just be the solution you’ve been looking for!
One final comment I would like to make on this topic (and it applies across the board) is to invest in a domain name. I think it looks much more professional to have a specific domain name that will cover what you are doing. There will be a cost to this which I appreciate not everyone will want to make, but it can help to build your own branding and develop your school as a centre of excellence in that subject area if word begins to spread about what you are doing.
The video below will help you get started with Weebly.
With WordPress we come to the website builder platform I use to manage this site. I use WordPress for most of my ‘straightforward’ websites. I also use Moodle for two other sites (but that’s another story for another day). I have also built and maintained sites on SquareSpace, but WordPress is my favourite – it could be the familiarity but there is no avoiding the powerful functionality that WordPress has.
WordPress has been on quite the journey since it started. As a platform, users can now edit the webpage on the webpage and not using the backend tools as in previous versions. There will be people (like myself) who find working their way more preferable to working with the frontend view, but equally, there will be people who prefer the ability to see what they are designing as they design it. The beauty is that the platform allows both types of users to work their way and get the job done.
The WordPress platform is pretty powerful to begin with, working dynamically to republish your site everytime a change is made, making the updates automatically which is one of the real attractions to why nearly half the web is powered by WordPress. The use of plugins that perform specific tasks to make your site more functional – these can vary from security, SEO, contact forms, email marketing, ecommerce, analytics and thousands more.
The video below shows you how to get started with WordPress:
I used SquareSpace to develop a site for a customer in 2019 (I think it was, but it was during lockdown at at any rate) and I have maintained a church site using SquareSpace.
Speaking as a web designer, I would not have chosen the Squarespace platform for either because of how the two sites were to be used. Squarespace is a great platform for a static site of a company that does not change its website content very often. As the two were going to be updated often, the way Squarespace works would have increased the time taken to complete a web task. For example – when you create a new page on WordPress, it will import all the site data automatically – logo, navigation, etc. where as on SquareSpace you have to create each new page and add it to the navigation or link it into the site wherever you want it to be. This information was true at the time and I am happy to report that Squarespace have developed their platform to now add these things to your page automatically – leaving you to get on with creating your site content.
Having reviewed the platform again (and reminded myself of a lot of things) each template limits you to a set colour scheme. If I want to customsise my theme, I would like to do this to the full extent – and this included choosing my own colour schemes. It is a constant annoyance that when designing my website, I am limited to the colour choices that someone else has made – it doesn’t make for a good relationship with the platform when your own website cannot fully represent your aims/brand because of colour scheme limitations.
Squarespace offers a limited number of templates to choose from. That means nearly all Squarespace sites will look the same as they are choosing from a limited number of templates.
The organisation of the site seems under-developed also. Everything in the side menu seems to be constructed without thinking of how the end user works – finding normal content (like the CSS) is an epic journey that Frodo or Bilbo wrote about. As a website designer (and teacher) I will want my site ordered in a way that lets me work without restrictions or making simple tasks difficult – Squarespace to me seem to want to invoke chaos. The two are not a great match, but I doubt they’ll mourn the loss of my custom too much, if at all.
Despite the misgivings I might have for the platform, as a website builder the process is relatively straightforward and there are no bad looking sites. I did enjoy working with Squarespace, it was the points I got stuck on, where trying to do things for a customer that the platform couldn’t fully manage. The templates (while limited in choice) are all well designed and so any template you choose will make your site look really well.
The video below shows you how to get started with SquareSpace: