To someone running a school website, it’s not always clear which developments in the web you need to follow. Many websites are commercial projects and so what matters to them may not matter to you.
One of the most important developments in recent years is the growth of SSL certification. This raises two important questions for anyone running a school website:
SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. It’s the name for the predecessor of Transport Layer Security (TLS), a system that lets computers communicate safely with each other. Though SSL is now redundant, the phrase “SSL certificate” still refers to a public key certificate, an important part of the TLS system.
An SSL certificate is a digital file associated with your website. It has two important effects.
Firstly, it provides evidence that this is the real version of your website and not an imposter using your name to gain people’s information.
Secondly, it is used to encrypt information your users put into the website. This means that, if someone intercepts the information, they will not be able to read it. Only you can decrypt the data and read the message. This is very important when making financial transactions or sharing private information.
You can tell if a website has an SSL certificate in three ways:
Whenever you use the internet, you are sharing packets of information. This might be something seemingly small, like a request for the contents of a website to be sent to your browser. It might be something more important, like details of a bank card. Every time you click on a link or fill in a form, you share a little bit of information and you get a bit back.
For websites without SSL certification, this information is not encoded. If someone intercepts it then they can read the information you have sent. The growth of wireless networks and mobile browsing has created more possibilities for interception than ever before.
SSL is important because it lets people use your website more safely. Those packets of information, however big or small, can’t be read if they are intercepted.
This has a lot of implications for a school website.
One important thing that SSL provides is peace of mind. Not everybody understands SSL or the importance of internet security, but most people have noticed the padlock symbol in the browsing bar. They know that it shows that a site is safer to use.
SSL certification gives reassurance to your site’s users. Internet savvy parents will recognise that you are security conscious and that your site is safe to use. Even those less informed about technology will recognise that familiar padlock logo.
Importantly, browsers sometimes flag up sites that don’t have SSL certification, with a glaring red symbol to show that the site is not secure. This can be alarming for users, whether or not they understand what SSL is. It may not be something you want associated with a school site.
SSL lets you securely share information through your website. This lets you turn the site into an interactive experience, a valuable hub for communication and work.
With SSL certification, you can provide secure webforms for parents to send messages to the school, book events, and keep up on their children’s activities. You can provide online spaces such as e-portfolios for pupils to upload their work and network with their peers. Your website can become a central hub for learning.
You can also use a secure website to communicate with staff. Information and resources can be shared through a secure site.
One of the reasons for a school to have a website is to increase its visibility, both in the local community and in the wider world.
Visibility on the web is increasingly dependent upon SSL certification. Google, the most popular search engine, gives higher search rankings to sites with SSL certification than to those without, as it steers its users towards safer sites. If you have SSL certification, your site will show up higher in the rankings and so be more visible to people surfing the web.
Schools have to consider a factor that most other websites don’t – their role in educating both pupils and parents.
Schools set examples, whether good or bad. If pupils and parents regularly see a school website without SSL certification then they will get used to it. They are more likely to view unsecured websites as safe to use. After all, teachers are expected to know what they are doing, even in areas outside their expertise.
On the other hand, if the school website is certified then parents and pupils are more likely to treat this as the norm. They will ask questions if they see a website without signs of certification. This will make them safer in their use of the internet.
SSL certification isn’t essential for a school website. It’s not yet the universal standard for legitimate websites.
But certification brings a lot of advantages. It lets you make your website more interactive for pupils, parents, and staff. It provides a sense of security for people using the site. And it supports the school’s role as an educator, setting an example in the safe use of information technology.
You might not need SSL certification to get your website up and running, but to create a modern site and set your school up for future success, it’s almost certainly worth the extra effort.