Tag Archives: wordpress

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.