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 –

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 and 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 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

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.

Rhizomatic Education course – Technical Lessons

This is number two in an at least three part reflection on my Educational Technology and the Adult Learner course that I completed last week. I’m saving the ‘what i learned as a teacher’ post for last, so that I have all the grades finished and a full reflection is possible. For this particular (and probably shorter) post, I’d like to sketch out some of my tech design ideas.

You can now visit the website, I had to remove two students information (at their request) but got permission from the other students to share their quite excellent work with you all, and hope that it in some way contributes to the ongoing discussion of teacher training, reverse curriculum usages and my own discussion on rhizomatic learning. See

Drupal – the platform
The website was built in drupal six. I’ll post a copy of the build here on the website in a couple of weeks once i’ve cleaned it out for anyone who thinks it may be of help as a start for their own educational websites. It was designed as a site for a single class, with all the navigation intended to serve one class in particular and in no way designed to interact with the outside world. I kept the module selection fairly vanilla, just the usual suspects

      fckeditor (with aspell add on, by overwhelming student request)
      userplus (excellent funnymonkey module)

Design approach
I went for an ‘add don’t take away’ design approach to this website. In the first iteration, the students had access to three navigation buttons across the top –

  • my work (view of all of an individual student’s work),
  • my planning page (rebranded my account page, included personal descriptions, course goals and a literacy plan)
  • reflections for review (a view of recent blog posts, sorted by day then by how many comments they had received)

On the side navigation they had the created content button which offered them book, blog and image options. There was an additional sidebar which had the syllabus in it, and eventually grew into the reverse curriculum document, essentially a book with completely open editing rights.

A few other options were added, the contact button and browse by learner (mostly for me) but the students found the simplicity of options and navigation… well… actually they didn’t say anything about it. Which I take as the highest compliment. They were all working in it from day one, and other than two students who registered with email addresses they couldn’t access from inside our classroom, things went pretty smoothly.

URLS (pathauto/token)
I included the day, week, author name and raw title in each of the urls. I just found this the easiest way for me to figure out where i was at a glance of the url and also to use that to sort the content. It’s easy enough to sort in other ways, but i find url sorting to be very tidy… personal preference I guess.

Weird date thingy on the student projects page
You’ll notice on the student projects section that all the pages start with a number followed by a time. I did this (on the spur of the moment) in order to allow the students to choose their presentation day at the same time. They ‘added a child page’ to the book page and were instructed to use the number representing the day of the week followed by the time they wanted. Worked like a charm… not elegant, but… waddaya gonna do. It makes a really nice reference page AND made it so that they could contribute simultaneously.

I used the chatroom in order to give students a way to co-create knowledge during the presentation of other students. If you flip through the pages, you’ll notice chat records. I didn’t, sadly, end up using the chatroom installed on the site. It seemed to work fine, but i just didn’t feel like i knew it well enough to trust it for student interaction… so i used the edtechtalk chatroom. 😛

I put this together pretty quickly, and spent the vast majority of the time worrying about the syllabus and a very small amount of time worrying about the site itself. It could easily be adapted for multiple classes, but I just wanted a sleak simple interface that would give me my few requirements. Simple user interface. Encourage blogging comments. Allow for co-creation of textbook. Allow for student connections via tags. Allow for personal descriptions via profile. Allow for easy browsing.

overall lessons
My instinct with this build was to stay as simple as humanly possible. No frills, and nothing that could break or confuse the students. Want video? upload it outside and copy and paste the code in. Want editing functions? you’ve got bold, a few more (and i broke on the spelling… wow… did they ever want a spell checker). Some of the students really seemed to identify with the site and the work that they were doing. Most of that was them, some of that might have been my teaching… the website did it’s job… stayed out of the way and structured the habitat within which the real work got done.

upnext – my lessons as a ‘person who stands up and tries to help people learn stuff’.

Opensim/Drupal integration for education – proposal and call for help

Well… i’m finally getting my teeth back into opensim and finding that there are a couple of things i’d like to get built over the next couple of months. We’ve already gotten a good start on the automated installer for opensim, but what i’d really like to do now is attempt an integration with drupal. I’ll be keeping my running requirements list for that integration on the openhabitat project page and will hopefully pop a few updates into here from time to time.

What I need
I need two things.

  1. I need a good drupal/opensim programmer. Someone familiar with both platforms who can spearhead the drupal integration (or, if you like opensim integration).
  2. I need some sense that there are other folks in the British Higher Education community who would find this integration compelling for an application to the emerge community for extra funding.

Why would we need this?
Opensim is an opensource Multi User Virtual Environment. It allows you to have much of the functionality from something like Second Life, and you can host it on any server you like, or, if you like, on a desktop in your classroom. The one issue, is that if you would like to tinker with it a little, you currently pretty much have to do it from the command line on the server. What I would like to see is an integration with a content management system (my preference is drupal, but the code could easily be repurposed) so that a teacher can do stuff like track users and install different ‘presets’ for training purposes.

Why would we need this — slightly more technical explanation.
There are currently two flavours of opensim, the ‘grid server’ and the ‘standalone server’. My work with opensim over the last 9 months has led me to believe that the standalone server is far better scaled to the average educational use… but, sadly, much of the work towards creating a user interface has tended to side with the larger grid server installations. Standalones are more manageable, and provide an easier entry point for the ‘average’ person and really allow for alot more functionality.

so… if you’re interested and interested British Higher Ed person (I’m looking at you emerge community or anyone else for that matter) … just send a comment here and I’ll pick up your email address and get back to you. Same goes for if you are that drupal/opensim person out there. If you don’t want your comment posted, no worries, just indicate in the title, and I’ll delete it after getting your email address.

Living Archives – Reflections on an Educational project

Project launch – Monday May 26th – 10am Studio Theatre, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PE, Canada.

Living archives started as a conversation with Elizabeth Deblois about what we could do that might be interesting for the 2008 anniversary of the publication of Anne of Green Gables. She wanted to do something with technology and kids, and I’d been looking for a good project to bring some of the interesting things I’d seen on the intertubes here to the Island.

Outline of the Project
Living archives (video introduction… see all eight pro-videos for full scope of project) is a history project for middle school students headed up by the University of Prince Edward Island. The students searched through local archives and museums for information that would allow them to contextualize 19th century PEI. Following the idea that the creation of materials forces a more profound examination of materials and focuses that research the students were to create a ‘textbook’ in a variety of formats including text, images, video and Opensim. We had three classes of students, eight months and were funded by the Canadian Culture Online Partnership Fund (PCH) and had a fairly large group of project partners all listed at the bottom of each of the living archives web pages. Sometime in the next few months I’ll post a more detailed project management review…
We invited some Seniors, heritage professionals and in french, musicians (Margi Carmichael but the microphone was turned off 🙁 ) and storytellers from the community to come into the classrooms in order to try to bring some context to the research they were doing. They also spent some excellent time in the field at the Archives and the museums as well as coming to the University.

Initial Reflection
We had a number of reality checks on this project, a number of unforseen challenges that forced us to change directions or pull back to our ‘bare minimum requirements.’ The experiences of the community at large talking about their projects and my own edtech project management experience led me to only claim to be able to deliver the bare minimum of what i thought possible… in some cases we blew that away – hundreds of blog posts and images – and in some other cases we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped (peer training videos, opensim). So planning for small, make-able successes and allowing for the increase in scope to happen based on events rather than trying to force it worked out well for us.
The students and the teachers involved have all reported a very high level of satisfaction… even though we forced them a little hard through the development phases of the project. A little more work done on standardizing the language used in the web interface would have saved us many, many hours of pain and misery. There is a sense, I guess, where the scope of this project overshadows the simplicity of its basic structure. Any project like this one (where the development of curriculum and configuration of software and people workflow are done during V.1) should plan for V.2 of the project and actually show how simple it would be to integrate into the mainstream school system. I will write a report that suggests a number of ways that this could happen, but it’s not at all the same as having done it. The NO 1 response we’ve been getting from people is “WOW great project, hardly sustainable though is it.” It could be sustainable, but more on this later.

The Students
This is where the real success was in this project. The students took a very passionate approach to the work that they were doing and got very involved in researching the history. They also became committed to the idea that their work was going to be published and that it mattered how good the writing and the research was. There were several stories in this project where school folks or parents commented on their amazement on how involved the kids were and how excited they were to ‘study’. I really enjoyed the work that I got to do with the kids and was constantly amazed at how quick they were to adapt and how well they dealt with adversity. I was also (though i shouldn’t have been) quite taken aback at how much peripheral knowledge they acquired during the course of their work.

The Technology


Our main platform was based on a build out of Drupaled done by the fine folks at funny monkey. Due to circumstances beyond all of our control, we ended up getting started 4 months late, so things were built very quickly. The key requirement from the platform was workflow. There needed to be a way for the work to start out in a private garden ‘work area’ and be promoted to public. I saw that sense of ‘graduating’ the work as critical to the success of the project. Too often in a straight out blogging project you end up with ‘first draft’ work published to the website and it never gets reviewed as the work feels ‘done’ as soon as it’s published. In our situation publication was something that the students needed to earn. I would definitely do this again. Our ring leader here was a WAC professor and Montgomery scholar from NYU who worked tirelessly with the teachers and students. I’m not sure how she feels about having her name posted, I’ll ask her and update the post if necessary.

The biggest problem we had was in not having a fully refined requirements list at the outset… this was not really anyone’s fault but it really hurt our first couple of months and added a great deal of frustration on the ground. It took us a very long time to figure out that we were missing an efficient and simple teacher interface… we’d done a pretty good job with the students… just not for the teachers. Fortunately, our project manager (saviour) and our teachers persevered. If i had this to do again and I would hire a student teacher to go to the classroom once a week to reinforce the training and report back difficulties with the interface.

This idea of reportage, too, was problematic. When I think of the problems we had – wyziwyg, language standardization, insufficient training in terms of available workflows – a good (read: simple) reporting system would have gone a long way to improving the day to day feelings of all people involved in the project. There was too much distance between development and user and that extra body, that student teacher may have been the missing link that could have pulled that together.

All that being said, we managed to create a french and english version of drupal. We got literally hundreds of posts from the students, the excellent people at PARO digitized many hundred of images (not to mention the job they did facilitating the research with the kids and giving them the research tools that they needed), we created 10 3D artifacts that are available on the website, close to 100 videos, and build on the work that is currently being done in the UPEI library integrating drupal and fedora. We’ve zipped this version up (cleaned of project specific content) and will be posting it soon.

LIVING archives MUVE in Education (Opensim) see detailed reflection here
“Why didn’t you just use second life?” oh wow… am i ever happy we didn’t. First of all, it’s been very exciting to be around at the beginning of an excellent open source community. The opensim people have been hugely helpful, and we managed to get 3 very cool houses built and get the student work inside those houses.
With Second Life you are caught either on the Teen grid (no parents or adults) or on the adult grid (no teens) and, if you have a case like ours, (half of our students were 12) you get nothing. Zilch. So, in moving to opensim we managed to keep all of our data internal, created default student accounts for the kids to use, and now have no worries about possible after effects.
As the opensim with alpha software posts lays out… we had alot of challenges. But, as further work being done (say with openhabitat) is showing, it can be really helpful to have your own, personally controlled virtual world at your finger tips.

Other tech

We bought video cameras (and microphones with short cords doh!) three rear projection smart boards a couple of computers per classroom and upgraded some of our hosting hardware on the UPEI side. Had this project started six months later, I would have bought 20 eeepcs for each school and we would have been cooking with gas. Some of the computers we used were… not new… and crashed if you tried to keep two separate windows open at the same time.

Idea developments

Had some excellent help with this. Funny monkey had a great deal of influence on the webdesign… i take it for granted now because i’m so familiar with it, but the public/private website with a built in eportfolio and video/blog/audio publishing tool is second to none. Elana Langer is responsible for the increase in scope of the project as well as large chunks of the video. The folks at PARO are responsible for giving us the sense of what is possible from a research/archives perspective. Mark Leggott at the library told me about the grant opportunity with PCH and was a great deal of help in writing my first grant. Sandy McAuley was super helpful with the pulling the educational research together and getting the training and Lesson plans planned, and posted. Stephen Downes is responsible for whatever elegance this project has as he explained to me that some pieces of the project were together and that, really, they should all be connected and should look back at each other.

Project management

Bonnie Stewart is responsible for pulling together pretty much every piece of this project. Without her energy, patience and perseverance none of this would have gotten done.

ohzz… There are bunches of people and cool stuff I’m forgetting, but oscar is sick and I need to have my presentation done by launch time. SORRY PEOPLE AND COOL STUFF I FORGOT. ttys.

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