How to choose the right CMS for Education

About an hour ago I saw a tweet from All-Canadian uber-online edugeek Alec Couros saying

How to choose the right CMS – http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/01/how-to-choose-the-right-cms/

To which I responded

@courosa i think that’s the worst article on that subject I’ve ever read

Now in all of my discussions with folks about online learning, community building and network knowledge construction my constant refreain is always about responsibility. You are responsible for the things that you say, and to pass on the things that you think that you know on to the rest of the folks in your community. It is not particularly essential that you are ‘right’ but rather that you share the best of what you have in the hopes that it helps other folks find their own right… even if that right is by disagreeing with just about everythign that you say… Which is what I’m going to do with this post from “Webmaster Depot”disagreeing, as it were, from my position as an educator/webdude working on the projects that I have.

<--Boring dave CMS background-->
I’ve been smashing around in CMSs for about four years now, starting after I gave up trying to build my own websites by hand. I was on the bandwaggon when Elgg 0.2 came out and wrote some (for me) considered commentary about how I thought it could take a direction that would be better for the kinds of work that I’d be doing. I got out of the Elgg game just around 0.8 when I realized that the concerns that I had were getting worse rather than better… and those projects had spawned two 1500+ collaborative student projects in that wholelly ‘non-managed’ environment, with a user interface that seemed built more to support the technology than promote the user. I think, also, that it is an anti-PLE which also hurt it a bit. I’ve been running Drupal’s for a few years (started as 4.6 was turning to 4.7), manage a 100 multisite installation at UPEI and also help work on a variety of other drupal sites, including http://edtechtalk.com and http://openhabitat.org. This blog is in wordpress and has been since July 2005 (don’t be fooled by the archive, we had a total server crash in 2006 and I repopulated the old posts from googlecache. I’ve also played around with probably 10 or more others (notably mediawiki, which i wont touch anymore)… I’ve also stopped running moodle, mostly for philosophical reasons, as I’d rather a platform designed to be open rather than designed along institutional guidelines that I have no interest in replicating in my classrooms.
<--end of boring background-->

First… and lets face it… the webdesigner depot has alot of ads on this page which specifically correspond to the content being talked about, so I’ll give our friend a break on the way the article is written… we all have to make a living. It’s easy for me to claim I don’t do ads here as I don’t really get enough traffic to make it worthwhile and my RSS feed has been broken for weeks… and I can’t even get around to fixing it. We are not in the same business.

Why you should use a CMS
The main reason for using a CMS is that it makes your content portable. It allows you to easily export your content to relevant places (say send an RSS feed to a community of practice that you find interesting) or export your content to the next-best-thing that comes out three years from now. The pain of using something like dreamweaver (curse you dreamweaver 4) is that that is pretty much what your stuck with. A content management system will also allow things like user authentication and slightly easier content creation, but these are all things with a possible downside. The reason you should absolutely positively be using a CMS is portabillity. Our fearless reader claims that ease of content editing and creation should be your main driving factor… it can be easy… but this can be a curse. Ease of content creation can often lead to a very huge mess… (see most mediawikis)

On the 5 Common mistakes mentioned in my foil of an article
Number 1 and 5 seem to be both suggesting that you should “not trust the IT guy”. That is, don’t choose the supergeeky CMS. While I agree that choosing the most complicated and perhaps the most elegant CMS is not necessarily going to do the job, the top spot on his list of CMSs is drupal, which can be a real monster to set up and administer. We used to have a drupal academy at worldbridges… trust me… it’s not that simple to administer. It can be easy to create an entire website and allow users ‘content creation’ access… but you will not be able to turn ‘adminstration of drupal’ over to most clients. As an educator approaching drupal, understand, it IS the geeks choice. If you are serious about it, buy Bill Fitzgerald’s book and set aside a significant amount of time… it’s worth it if you’re serious about it… but it can be a tough nut.

Number 2 and 3 suggest that you should choose a CMS based on wether the community is large or whether it is small. I guess I can’t technically disagree with that… but you should choose it partly based on the community. More on this later.

Number 4 suggests that you shouldn’t ‘just pick one without researching it’… umm… I agree. But suggesting something that couldn’t possibly be false doesn’t feel like much help really. “pick anything at all!”

His 5 things to look for are
1. Quick and easy installation – no. no no no. Ease of installation is not necessarily connected to success. It can be a suggestion of how much the developers care about their users… it can also be the only thing they focused on. Ignore this.
2. Simple administration interface - umm… no. Good user adminstration… yes. simple can be an illusion. If you are going to go through lots of content over many many years, you want to have the things that you need.
3. Quick and easy extension of CMS for extra functionality - ok. I agree with this.
4. Simple template manipulation – yes.
5. Helpful user community – yes.

What to do if you are looking for a CMS

  1. Ask yourself why you are trying to do this by yourself. A CMS requires server space, at least the vaguest of understandings of how that can work and some idea of security issues on the internet. Find someone else’s CMS and use it.
  2. Ask yourself if getting a CMS is worth the time and money to do a grant application to find someone to help you. If you are very serious about starting some kind of educational project because you have a fantastic idea, the time put into planning a grant application (even if you don’t get it) will force you to really think about what you are trying to get out of it. Hire someone who has done this before, even if its only for one day.
  3. I like to put CMSs into three simple categories based on the CMSs that I think of as being best of breed in the open market right now. Do you want to do a wordpress project, a moodle project or a drupal project. (you could also say ‘a wordpress.com project, a moodlehosted project or a ning project if you don’t care about controlling your data… which i do… but you may not)
  4. If you are debating between two different projects, choose the simpler one. running a CMS is a pain, and it will take you about a year to get comfortable with it. If you plan on doing this for a long time, it is very worth it, but it is a real commitment. Do not let the ease of setup mislead you. Your first wordpress upgrade where ‘things stop showing up’ will probably surprise you, but the ‘white screen of death’ is a very common sight to people who host CMSs
  5. Get your data sorted out. Don’t worry about what it looks like. The biggest mistake that people make is saying “i don’t like how that looks”. One of the cool advantages of a database driven website is that you can move the stuff around and make it pretty as you go along. What you can’t do so easily is tag your data properly after the fact. I still curse my lack of categories on my blog and the lack of CCK organization in some of my drupals. Know what you are going to try and do and get ready for how you are going to use it later.

The three choices
WordPress – It gets a little more powerful every six months or so. I’m not sure this is a good thing, as it seems to be a little more fragile than it used to be (that is, slightly more fragile than a mountain, which is how I felt about it two years ago) It is very easy to install, easy to manage and can allow for a fair amount of flexibility. If you want to get online, and do some cool stuff and manage your own content. This is a pretty nice place to be. All the RSS feeds by category you could want (very useful for sending feeds by categories to other communities), some pretty cool add-ons that allow you to do most things on the net. Handles media well… This is a great PLE.

Moodle – As I mentioned earlier, I don’t really install this anymore (liar! I just installed it to test out a few themes for a friend) but I do teach with it at the University of Manitoba. If you are concerned with security, and want to work in a dark hole away from the nasty outside internets… this is perfect. The security is built in, can be layered and is easy to administer. You can have different courses and things closed to the world and things that are open. Good for teaching (in a traditional top-down approach I would argue… but that’s just me) and good for use with kids as I’ve never heard of the security having been broken into. (no guarantees… but I haven’t heard of it) Not so good handling media, but you can do it.

Drupal – oh the love/hate i have for this software. I use it all the time. I particularly like to teach with it. It allows for very subtle control over content, for, some very interesting monitoring and redirecting of traffic and really can do anything. Of course that’s exactly the problem… it can do anything. My general statement about drupal is that you should probably give yourself two years to learn how to do cool things with it. You are probably better off finding someone’s version of drupal to install and work from… building an educational environment from scratch can be tough… but they are cool. This would be a good thing to go after a bit of cash for. Check out http://youthvoices.net.

Conclusion
CMSs are alot of work. They can be very rewarding… but just ask yourself. Why do I want to become a publisher? If you have a good answer to this question, most CMSs will probably get you somewhere. I’ve worked a great deal with the three above and can pretty much tell you that, if the downsides don’t bother you, they’ll do what you want them to. Given time. And backups. Lots and lots of backups.

24 thoughts on “How to choose the right CMS for Education

  1. Thanks for the CMS tips. I wish I was actually geeky enough to apply them.

    Is it typical for public districts to obsess over security and student safety to the point where usability is hindered?

    It seems to me that the most powerful and secure CMS in the world won’t do a thing if teachers can’t or won’t use it.

  2. @Alan You always leave the most hilarious comments on my blog posts. :) thanks.

    @Joel The geeky thing can be learned. 4 years ago I didn’t clearly understand what a server was… and three weeks ago I built one and got it ready for moving my blog to it in about two hours. It is typical for them to obsess over security, as the main concern in most districts is the ‘lack’ of phonecalls. Most administrations are not encouraged to push limits… there are many exceptions. See eric langhorst and chris lehmann. And yes, powerful and secure mean very little compared to them being used. I like using drupal in my classrooms because I can facilitate co-creation of curriculum, but, really, i could almost as easily use pbwiki.

  3. Actually, one thing I think is horribly overlooked in all the comparisons is the ease of upgrading, having lived through a Moodle Upgrade and just upgraded my MediaWiki. Often you need to be a guru to follow the upgrading instructions and as you mention in your post above WordPress seems to significantly update every 6 months upgrades are needed often.
    (and who wants to be stuck in the dark ages when everyone else is on the latest release – with all the bug fixes).

  4. @Dave. PBWiki came up in another conversation I had today. Our district is a decent size (13,000 students). Is this a reasonable number of accounts to manage with PBwiki?

  5. Wow – I feel like I could have written this. I, too, have wrestled with Elgg and MediaWiki, among countless others. I agree somewhat about content portability, but I have to say I think the other author has a point about ease of content creation being of paramount importance. You can hack any CMS to look like anything else, provided you’re willing to put the time into it, but you cannot make people use a CMS that is hard to create/edit with. For that reason, most of the installs I do for charities and non-profits are WordPress. Just because everything is so easy to do once it’s up and running. I’ve tried Joomla and others for projects because the group said they wanted the extra functionality, but they don’t get used nearly as much or as well as the WP installs. Particularly if you’re trying to create a community, ease of content creation is a high priority…

  6. @virtualmv yeah… the upgrade path is really not something that is taken up in most of these review thingies. In one sense, it’s really tough to talk about because the experience can be really different for different people based on some really subtle differences. Did you get the directory permissions just right? did you ‘really’ follow the instructions?

    @Ian Sure, there are defintely some CMS type creatures where content creation is complicated. With the three that I listed (and many more) than can be hammered to the point where content creation is pretty seamless. I too suggest wordpress first and foremost, and then move out to something like moodle or drupal is people really insist on more functionality. The problem is that people want ‘more’ or really, the chance that they just might want to do more… the planning phase is usually the one that gets dumped because its really difficult to plan when you aren’t super familiar with the options and repurcussions.

  7. @joel I would never personally host real information for something like that out on the cloud. We’ve interviewed the pbwiki dudes on edtechtalk http://edtechtalk.com/EdTechTalk65 and they seem like really nice people… but how can you be really sure when they’ll be there?

    13000. If I had an LDAP connection to their ids… I would connect that to something (i would use drupal) scramble the ids (must be possible, never tried it) and set up a really detailed content management plan through content types and CCK. I would either run out each ‘area’ as a separate multisite (depending on how the admins worked out… one major admin per site… you don’t want competing drupal admins working in the same drupal if you can help it) and then use the site for both front end interaction with parents and for working in the classroom. We tried something like this as a pilot with http://livingarchives.ca.

  8. @dave, @joel:

    13,000 users isn’t a problem for PBwiki, though you probably wouldn’t want to use our general user management interface. We have some specialized power tools that admins who need to deal with those kinds of numbers can access.

    You can definitely tie PBwiki IDs into LDAP, or better yet, simply use LDAP to authenticate access to PBwiki.

    We can’t do too much about reassuring you about our continued existence other than to note that PBwiki has been around since 2005, has backing from a great bunch of investors like MDV and Ron Conway, continues to grow even during this downturn, and that we are frugal as heck and intend to be around for a long time.

  9. Hey Chris. I hope no offence was taken, i think pbwiki is a great service… and, as companies ‘out on the cloud’ that you would be one of my first choices. I’m always just a little worried… and would never advise people ‘blindly’ to go out and choose any service where the actual ‘server’ was not connected to the contract.

    I’d love to see you around for a long time…. is there any way to enter into a ‘power’ contract where some kind of insurance can be given over content backup etc…?

  10. What CMS would you recommend for an online education portal that needs to gather, archive,
    and make avaialable online to create custom online curriculum for professors? Content would include video files (searchable by text), documents in various formats, pdfs, word, audio files etc.

  11. I couldn’t find the word ‘Sakai’ on this page. I wonder why? Isn’t Sakai probably the most advanced and feature rich CMS for education, even beating out expensive commercial products like webct, blackboard?

  12. Do you have any suggestions on CMS that allow entering mathematical formulas and graphs easily?

  13. Hi. Thanks for the article, it was a good read. I am a high school maths teacher looking to set up a CMS for students to access. Which ones do you recommend? I have used Moodle a little bit, but would be happy for any suggestions. A friend has suggested I try Joomla.

    Thanks

  14. I think what really scares most educators when it comes to doing anything online is that it still seems that setting up a website is this big black hole where all your time is going to be spent. Even though a lot of us try to use technology in the classroom, with all the fancy multimedia presentations, writable projector screens etc etc, when it comes to thinking about becoming a publisher people just get stuck and frozen to the spot.

    I’m personally using wordpress for my website and my blog and I can say after a rather steep 1-2 month learning curve, its now become second nature. Nothing more difficult than thinking about how to create lesson plans for middle school kids!

    Honestly, IMHO, getting oneself out on the web is the quickest and best way to influence large numbers of people if you are an educator that is truly passionate about what you do.

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