Note: This article appeared in the magazine of the Education International.
Trade union websites, including those of teachers' unions, are about to enter their third generation.
Admittedly, many unions do not yet have websites. This is particularly true in the developing countries and at local and regional level in the developed countries.
Many unions now do have websites, but these are often simple, first generation sites what have been called "online brochures". Most trade unions made their first steps on the Internet with such websites simple, unchanging adaptations of existing text (and sometimes photos) about the union, presented in digital format. Sometimes these were left unchanged for months and even years, and became virtual monuments.
Second generation trade union sites have been more sophisticated and resemble magazines or newspapers much more than brochures. Information is updated on a regular basis. Indeed sometimes, this is done by copying the text and photos of union publications to the web. These sites are a great improvement over the first generation sites as they give visitors a reason to return there might be something new to see.
But even now we can imagine the next generation of website emerging, one in which the differences (already apparent) between a magazine and a website come into play.
How is a website different from a magazine?
For one thing, it doesn't cost more money to have more text on a website. All magazines are limited by space. But a website can have a virtually limitless amount of text. This allows websites to go into a kind of depth that magazine editors can only dream about.
Linking to other resources, internal or external, is infinitely easier on a website. In a magazine article, you can refer readers to a pamphlet or article or even a website but in a website, you can make such references links. Readers are only a click away from more information.
The printing and distribution costs of magazines are extremely high, which means that unions are sometimes obliged to limit circulation of some publications when ideally every member would receive them, or publish quarterlies when monthlies would be more appropriate. On the net, having more readers doesn't add to cost. In fact, the opposite is the case. The more readers visit a website, the more valuable the site becomes.
In part because of the above, the very idea of a website being updated quarterly or monthly sounds strange. In reality, websites tend to be updated continuously, as information flows in, and not according to production schedules. Forward-looking unions are already allowing the updating of sites by a wide range of individuals, each working in their own field, rather than being dependent upon a single webmaster or a small staff, as was the case when unions first set up sites.
Websites allow a much greater degree of reader involvement than magazines. The best a magazine can offer is a letters to the editor column, often limited by space, with letters appearing long after the articles they refer to have been forgotten. The web allows instant responses, published automatically, and the possibility of exchanges between readers and other readers as well as between readers and those who produce the magazine.
Finally, using scripts hosted on web servers and a tool called "cookies", it is possible to create an individual experience for each person visiting a website which is unique something unthinkable with a magazine. When a teacher visits her union's website, it should be able to recognize who she is, and should deliver to her a specially constructed page filled with information which she will find useful some of which she may have chosen herself. At the very least, websites should take into account that people speak different languages and live in different regions and should be able to deliver different content to meet different needs.
When you realize what the differences are between a website and a magazine, you can see some of the features of third generation websites in the making:
- They will include personalization, delivering a unique experience to each visitor.
- They will be rich in content and links, with much more information than that currently delivered in print publications.
- They will be updated continuously as necessary and not according to fixed schedules.
- They will be interactive, allowing readers to add their own comments and open up discussions with other readers as well as editors and writers.
- They will be maintained by groups rather than individuals.
Everything I've described is what already happens on world-class websites today. Visit a site like Yahoo, and every feature I've described is already present and it's been that way at Yahoo for several years now.
But do teachers unions really need the latest, bleeding-edge technology? Isn't it enough to put the text of the union's magazine online with a few press releases to keep the site up to date? Not really. The union's website competes for the attention of teachers who have millions of other sites to choose from. Commercial and government sites, including those of the employers, are already beginning to take on the characteristics of third-generation websites.
To do our job, our sites will have to be just as good.