Build an Education Website: Templates, Design & DIY Setup Guide
So you need to build an education website. Whether it’s for a school, extra-curricular, career advancement – you have a certain “look” (and functionality) in mind. There’s not a lot of budget or defined scope for a professional design firm – so you’re going DIY.
Fortunately, website design has come a long way in the last few years.
Free templates, ready-made designs, and website builders allow anybody to get their website & educational material online. It allows professional designers to think more about brand voice rather than counting pixels.
In the high-churn, cutthroat, rapidly digitizing education industry, this shift has been incredible (think about the rise & domination of MOOCs).
But starting the process of building an education website with an education website template can be a shortcut to some bad website choices.
Starting with a template or pre-made design is like choosing an office building search based on existing office layouts.
Sure – a good existing office layout is great. But it doesn’t really matter if your location, building, lease terms, and expansion options do not make any sense.
Here’s the open secret among professional web designers – web pages are made of HTML & CSS with a few scripts thrown in. This means that…
…any website template can exist on any good web platform.
With that in mind, here’s brief 6 step guide to choosing the right education website template on the right web platform so that you can build the design and functionality that your website needs.
1. Define Your Needs, Budget & Assets
Since any generic template can transform into an education template with a little editing, they are very easy to market (and easy to mislead). It’s important to take stock of what you truly need, what your budget is, and what website assets you already own.
What functionality does your website need? Is it simply a “brochure site” – or does it need to be interactive? Do you need it to be easily edited? Do you want to present lessons, quizzes & tests on the website? Should their be a forum or social network functionality? How many people need to be able to edit the site or add content?
There are no right answers, but it’s important to at least think about them before reading sales features.
Price is powerful, but it’s important to not only pay for value but to also pay for what matters. Think about your household budget. What do you spend money on and where do you cut back?
What is a successful project worth? How much do you want to grow? How long do you expect this website to last? How much is your time worth – and how much will getting your website right save time? How much is your staff’s time worth – can a good website help them?
There are no right answers, but it’s important to at least think about them before shopping for a design/designer/template.
Pre-made education templates can go a long way…but the site still needs to be yours. What photography do you have? What content have you written? What brand assets do you have (logos, fonts, colors, etc)?
There are no right answers, but it’s important to at least think about them before getting swayed by nice mock-ups.
2. Understand Terminology & Options
Website terminology can be daunting – and frustrating with so many companies mixing, matching, & misusing jargon to sell their product. Here are the 5 core things you need to have a website on the Internet nowadays.
A domain is your “address” on the Internet. You lease it for a certain amount of time from ICANN via accredited “domain registrars”. You can buy one now and “point” it to your website later. Many website hosting companies also resell domain names to provide convenience.
Your website is made up of computer files. And those files have to “live” somewhere. Website hosting companies rent space on specialized servers that store & serve your website files whenever someone goes to your website.
A modern website usually consists of a lot of different files. While not 100% necessary, websites usually need software (ie, a “content management system”) to manage all the files – and make it easy for a human to edit & maintain.
There are hundreds of thousands of website software options.
For our purposes, we’ll be looking at WordPress.
WordPress powers more than 25% of the Internet. It has its critics and its evangelists. But it’s still the go-to solution for most education websites.
Here’s the thing. WordPress is kind of like the 4 door sedan or light SUV of website software.
Yes – it is popular. But it’s popular because it fits most people’s needs. It’s versatile, manageable and suitable for so much. If you hear people saying that “WordPress gets hacked” or “WordPress is not fast” – that is like someone saying that “sedans get broken into more often than semi-trucks” or “well, your Honda Accord can’t beat my Ferrari off the line.”
Yes – those criticisms are true..but not. Plus – as we’ll see – there are ways to mitigate/eliminate WordPress’ disadvantages while keeping its advantages for building an education website – especially its “plugin” functionality.
As we saw in the introduction – templates are simply pre-made HTML & CSS (the computer languages that browsers use to yield a webpage). While not 100% necessary, mobile devices and different browsers make good design nearly impossible to do well from scratch. All good web designers use some sort of template/framework to start.
And there is a whole universe of pre-made education website templates that range from free templates to paid to bundled with custom design services.
There is one item to remember about templates. Website templates should focus on design, layout & content presentation – and not on functionality.
Many educational website templates try to do too much. When they bundle functionality with design, you can get boxed in when you go to tweak the functionality.
Website Plugins / Extensions
Plugins / extensions / apps are specific pieces of software that work with your website software to add functions or features to your website.
Possibly the biggest advantage of WordPress is how “extensible” it is. WordPress has a whole universe of free & premium plugins. These allow even small educational websites to have very advanced functionality on their websites. You can build everything from interactive courses to social networks to tests – to anything you can dream up.
3. Choose & Setup Your Education Website Platform
There are a lot of excellent website platforms. There are infinite ways to combine, mix & match the 5 different pieces you need for a modern website.
But this guide would be worthless if it did not actually help you find a template & build a website that works.
We’ve already narrowed the website software down to WordPress. Now we need to pick where your WordPress software will live & how it will work with your templates & plugins.
There are two main options here – “self-hosted” WordPress and WordPress.com.
Disclosure -I receive customer referral fees from companies mentioned on this website. All data & opinions are based on my professional experience as a paying customer or consultant to paying customers.
WordPress is free, open-source, community supported software. You can download it, install it anywhere, and use it however you like.
When you self-host WordPress, you get complete freedom but also have complete responsibility. It’s like owning your own building. You can do whatever you want…but you’re also the one to call the plumber.
That said, installing WordPress with a good business hosting company makes all the difference. A good hosting company can provide the support, security & services that can minimize the risks of maintaining your own self-hosted WordPress.
- InMotion provides excellent support services via phone, chat, email & knowledgebase.
- InMotion operates at a slightly higher price point to focus on businesses (not hobby bloggers).
- InMotion provides WordPress auto-install at checkout in addition to an (optional) free, drag & drop design tool called BoldGrid.
- InMotion can provide custom web design services to minimize the search for a random freelancer.
Upside: If you self-host your WordPress software, you can download & use basically any theme or plugin that you want. Developers & consultants are used to the setup. It is future-proof, and it saves a good bit of money compared to other options.
Downside: You are in charge of technical aspects. Sure – InMotion provides support and consultants can provide expertise, but you are ultimately in charge of everything. For anyone who doesn’t want to deal with technical issues at all – self-hosting WordPress is not ideal.
WordPress.com is a “hosted service” run by the originator of WordPress software. It’s an all-in-one service that bundles a limited version of WordPress software with hosting, software, support, and services all into one monthly plan.
If self-hosting WordPress is like owning your own building, then using WordPress.com is like leasing a pre-built storefront. You can do all the customizations that you want “inside” your building, but the maintenance and boring bits are not your responsibility.
For businesses, I use & recommend WordPress.com for a few reasons.
- WordPress.com takes care of *all* speed, security & technical concerns while still benefitting from the advantages of WordPress software.
- WordPress.com’s Business Plan is expensive, but it is predictable. There will never be a big consultant’s fee for maintenance.
- WordPress.com provides a full directory of premium design templates with simple installation.
- WordPress.com still allows you to install vetted 3rd party plugins – which is huge for a custom education website.
Upside: If you use WordPress.com, then you get most of the upside of WordPress software without any potential technical headaches. You also have the option to export and migrate to a self-hosted version in the future.
Downside: You have a limited version of WordPress – and will inevitably miss out on some functionality and design options – which is one thing to double-check with specialized education functionality.
Your Next Steps
Remember that there is no wrong choice. It all depends on your goals and needs.
4. Choose & Setup Your Education Website Template
Now that you know what you have and you know what you need – you can dive in finding the right pre-made education template for your website.
When you are shopping, keep a few things in mind.
- Ignore the mock-up photography and logo designs. Often, a template will only look a certain way due to the mock-up photography.
- Focus on the layout of a given template.
- Look beyond the homepage. Look at how the subpages and unique pages are presented.
- Remember that any template can be reproduced as a WordPress Theme or template. If you see a Squarespace, Weebly, Wix, Drupal, etc template, it is better to convert that template to WordPress than to lock into that platform simply for the design. Again, that would be like choosing your office building or location based on pre-built office layout. It’s better to choose your building or location and spend money renovating the kitchen.
Self-hosted WordPress Templates
With a self-hosted WordPress install, you have a basically unlimited choice of templates. Here are a few places to look for high-quality options.
- My round-up of WordPress School & Educational Themes – self-explanatory :)
- My round-up of WordPress Theme Frameworks – basically amazing foundational templates that can produce great websites with good photos & colors.
- ThemeForest – a huge marketplace for premium themes & templates. You purchase, download and install.
- MOJO Themes – another huge marketplace for premium themes & templates. You purchase, download and install.
- TemplateMonster – another huge marketplace for premium themes & templates. You purchase, download and install.
- WordPress.org Repository – the official marketplace for WordPress themes & templates. All templates are free to download & install directly into your WordPress website.
If you used InMotion Hosting, then you’ll also have access to their BoldGrid templates that have drag & drop functionality. You can also use their design services to convert a template you love to WordPress + your brand.
With a WordPress.com Business Plan, you can not only upload template choices from sites listed above – you also get unlimited access to WordPress.com’s premium templates. These all have advanced customization options so that you can edit them.
5. Choose & Setup Your Education Website Functionality
Many template & theme makers bundle functionality with design. That can be great – but it can also have downsides.
If your theme has too much functionality built-in, then you are locked into that template. But if you separate out design & functionality, you can easily edit both.
Either way, WordPress allows additional functionality via plugins.
WordPress works out of the box – and needs very little installed on top. In fact, generally the fewer plugins you have, the better.
If you are using a self-hosted site, then I’d recommend installing the JetPack plugin to provide security & backups (along with other fun things like sharing buttons, contact forms, etc).
I’ve also written a round-up of “must have” WordPress plugins here – that includes things like Google Analytics & Redirects.
There are also options for eCommerce like WooCommerce that work well for schools.
Now – what you’ve been waiting for – education functionality.
Here it is important to emphasize writing down your needs. It’s easy to just randomly add things to WordPress that neither you nor your visitors need.
There are a few excellent sources.
- WordPress.org Repository – the official source for plugins. Do a search for specific functionality. Be sure to note the number of installs, rating, and other notes of quality.
- ThemeForest – also an excellent source for premium plugins in every industry.
- WPMUdev – a premium plugin provider that started out focused solely on schools. Excellent course building software.
6. Refine Your Design & Content
Now that you have your design & functionality setup – the fun begins.
The important point here is that whether your website is a brochure or informational site – or an interactive & constantly updated site – maintaining, revising and editing is never done.
It does not have to be time-consuming, but a good website is one that has regular updates and edits.
Editing Your Design
Using WordPress + a good template should make this process straightforward. InMotion’s BoldGrid tool brings drag and drop functionality to WordPress and WordPress.com’s Customizer tool allows for simple click & edit customization.
When planning & editing your site, be sure to keep the features that your customers want in mind. Even if you like a certain look or feel – that might be frustrating for visitors.
For education websites, your content & navigation are the top priority. Your visitors are likely on mobile devices – that means scannable content and minimal navigation.
Marketing Your Education Website
Ahh – now the real fun. There are no right answers here.
But here’s the thing. You can’t do real, long-term brand building without a website. Social networks come and go. But a good website is something that *you* own.
If you lock onto your best customers and identify how they find you, you’ll be able to position your site for whatever comes.
I cover this topic in my guide to planning a local marketing strategy.
Walk through your budget & needs.
If self-hosted WordPress fits your needs, purchase a Business Hosting Plan with WordPress auto-install here.
If bundled WordPress services fit your needs, purchase a WordPress.com Business Plan here.