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The Complete Guide to Choosing a CMS for Higher Education. Here Is What You Need to Know.

The Complete Guide to Choosing a CMS for Higher Education. Here Is What You Need to Know.

How we learn and how we teach has evolved. As the population and technology change, we have seen where some institutions fall behind; not only in enrollment but in program offerings due to their inability to adapt to sudden or incremental technological changes. 

COVID-19 forced colleges and universities to adopt fully to online learning, but how many institutions had to scramble to make whatever infrastructure they have work for them? As a higher education institution did you have the infrastructure to pivot from in-person to online learning? Most importantly did you identify any holes in your process that restricted the flow of learning with the transition?

In this article, we will look at some pandemic changes, review the important ingredients of the higher education content management system (CMS), and why Drupal 9 might be your best choice. 

One of the biggest challenges to higher education is access. Especially, at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Classrooms have been changing and it became more apparent that the traditional ways of learning, though might suit others, is not the best fit for everyone.No matter how many times you hear it, we are living in digital era and higher education institutions must adapt to adopt modern technologies ensuring their students’ success. 

According to Educase, leaders in education are redefining the value proposition of higher education. Their tasks are geared at reshaping the institutional business models and culture to anticipate and serve the current and emerging needs of learners, communities, and employers. This essentially means that Instead of working to restore higher education to its former glory, they are creating the higher education students and stakeholders deserve.

In order to create the higher education students and stakeholders deserve, we must at least identify some of the major technological issues that are currently facing the industry and provide a way to fix them. 

Here are the 10 IT issues Educause listed:

  1. Cyber Everywhere! Are We Prepared?: Developing processes and controls, institutional infrastructure, and institutional workforce skills to protect and secure data and supply-chain integrity.
  2. Evolve or Become Extinct:Accelerating digital transformation to improve operational efficiency, agility, and institutional workforce development.
  3. Digital Faculty for a Digital Future: Ensuring faculty have the digital fluency to provide creative, equitable and innovative engagement for students.
  4. Learning from COVID-19 to Build a Better Future: Using digitization and digital transformation to produce technology systems that are more student-centric and equity-minded.
  5. The Digital versus Brick-and-Mortar Balancing Game: Creating a blended campus to provide digital and physical work and learning spaces.
  6. From Digital Scarcity to Digital Abundance: Achieving full, equitable digital access for students by investing in connectivity, tools, and skills.
  7. The Shrinking World of Higher Education or an Expanded Opportunity? Developing a technology-enhanced post-pandemic institutional vision and value proposition.
  8. Weathering the Shift to the Cloud: Creating a cloud and SaaS strategy that reduces costs and maintains control.
  9. Can We Learn from a Crisis? Creating an actionable disaster-preparation plan to capitalize on pandemic-related cultural change and investments.
  10. Radical Creativity:Helping students prepare for the future by giving them tools and learning spaces that foster creative practices and collaborations.

Higher Education Content Management System and Website Best Practices

Most, if not all, colleges and universities already have a website or some kind of digital system or presence. To properly and adequately address the task of evolution, let’s do a check of the system you already have in place. Earlier we questioned your infrastructure capabilities, now we want to assess functionality and adherence.

The higher education population ranges from administrators, and professors to students of all varying backgrounds. Ensuring that every corner of the digital campus is covered requires a system that is robust with flexibility, but with a focus on security and accessibility. A college or university population also indirectly includes prospective students, parents and guardians, partners and other agencies interested in services at the institution. 

To effectively meet the needs of this growing and evolving population, you must implement these six best practices:

  1. Prioritize accessibility: Everyone and anyone should have access to your website. It is important that you follow and implement best practices according to the UDL guidelines which offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.
  2. Frequently update content: Keep things fresh, especially for SEO purposes. Current and prospective learners should be able to get new and relevant information about your institution each time they visit your website. 
  3. Monitor website performance: You cannot just create the website and let it sit. You must monitor its performance to allow for changes and improvements to better meet your objectives. Check if links are working, and determine what information visitors are looking at most to allow for retargeting.  
  4. Double-down on privacy: The biggest topic with the evolution and increase in technology is privacy. Offering your website visitors that sense of security is paramount to their return. 
  5. Choose a powerful CMS: More and more higher education institutions are investing in proper CMS’s largely in part due to their comprehensiveness.A CMS offers more than just a website and gives owners and users a better experience. 
  6. Create a website governance policy: Your web development team needs a set of guidelines to maintain consistency with your user experience and user interface. 

What Kind of Technology Do You Need

The shifts in education require more than just a mindset adjustment. A proper CMS is an answer to most if not all higher education technology issues. But Why?

Key Elements of a CMS:

  • No Coding Knowledge Required

  • Easy Collaboration

  • User Roles and Permissions

  • SEO Features and Extensions

  • Security Features and Extensions

  • Predesigned Templates

  • Simple Updates

  • Blogging Functionality

  • Content Scheduling

  • Easy Access

Factors to Consider When Choosing The Right CMS

Selecting the right CMS is a crucial undertaking for any higher education institution. A CMS is software that helps manage, create, or modify content on your website, all without needing any specialized technical assistance or knowledge. A CMS for higher ed acts as a single source for all website information. Marketing teams use it to publish content, create landing pages, and drive more traffic. CMS seamlessly sends leads and inquiries to CRM systems allowing sales teams to instantly engage with new prospects. The right content management system (CMS) is crucial to your organization’s digital success.

What to Look For

As we mentioned, deciding on a system to use is a crucial decision. There are two types of CMS: Proprietary and Open Source. Proprietary CMS is built from scratch and is owned and maintained by the web developer. They also hold the license for the software so this might not be the best option. Open Source CMS  provides the platform for website creation, and permission is granted to anyone in your company to make changes, modifications, and updates. Open source is typically free and open to anyone, hence the name “open source.” From customization to hosting to design, you can have a hand in it.

Open source content management systems are highly recommended for higher education websites because of their functionality, flexibility, and manageability, and is becoming more popular. This essentially makes selecting the right system a tad more difficult because the number of open-source CMS is steadily increasing. 

Open Source’s popularity means that your options are varied. As previously mentioned, higher education websites serve a larger diverse audience, externally and internally. To meet the demands and needs of each section, there are some features that make open-source software more appealing and desired. 

Let’s discuss some of the main content management system for higher education features you should look for.

  1. Customizable, granular permission: Having the necessary tools to grant access to certain roles is key to any CMS. This allows for greater flexibility and security with information. 
  2. Accessible: Successfully meeting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is a top priority.  This works for both internal and external users. 
  3. API-driven: An API-driven CMS can help you meet this demand with more flexibility, performance, and scalability.
  4. Data Connectivity: The CMS must have the capability to connect to different data sources. 
  5. Third-Party Integrations: You will rely on other tools to improve functionality and meet your goals. You need a CMS that allows you to integrate with other systems and tools. Especially other marketing tools. 
  6. Multisite capabilities: Departmental and sister sites will need their own domain and functions. A CMS that allows for this gives the flexibility to choose whether sites share codebases, assets, and/or data, or pull their copies from a shared repository.
  7. Sub-Theme Support: Having a top-level theme and extending it on a per-site basis can help balance university branding with department customization. Each sub-theme would include the latest updates to the main theme while incorporating adjustments, such as tweaked color schemes or handling of special features. 
  8. Granular templating: A higher education content management system should feature rich templating capabilities to keep formatting consistent. 

Align with the best: Top Higher Ed Websites on Drupal

Your higher education website needs a CMS that functions as a fully digital experience platform. When undergoing or contemplating a website redesign we often ask what other sites you like and why. Top universities select the best CMS available. Vardot.com listed a few that we believe that you might find appealing but can also help you. If I were you, I would want to run with the likes of Oxford University, MIT, Harvard, and Penn State.  All these websites run on Drupal, mainly because they include all the features you need in a CMS. 

In our blog post, Your Content Management System Matters: Why You Should Consider Drupal 9, we highlighted that Drupal has great standard features, like easy content authoring, reliable performance, and excellent security. In addition, Drupal is one of a kind due to its flexibility and modularity, which is one of its core principles. Drupal’s tools help you build the versatile, structured content that dynamic web experiences you need. 

In keeping with the core of open source CMS, the latest Drupal 9 software update offers much more than other versions and comes highly recommended with better security, faster performance, more open to integrations, multilingual features, accessibility to all audiences, streamlined content management interface/user experience, sociable and there are no major upgrades to this version. 

Wrapping Up

Whether we like it or not, things are changing. Every single industry experienced some radical shift since COVID-19 became part of our reality. Coupled with ongoing digital evolutions, higher education institutions face an even greater challenge in meeting the demands and the needs of current and future populations. So, how do we address those digital challenges? With an upgrade or total revamp of your system. Strategically take into account your audience, gently read through the list of issues, and learn how to best address them with an improved digital experience. 

None of this will be easy, but taking the necessary steps to improve your digital platform does alleviate some of the technical challenges. 

WDB’s work with the Broad Institute was a creative opportunity we appreciated. We carefully examined each of the content components that make up the Broad Institute’s ecosystem and then assembled them into a user experience that matches the browsing and exploration habits specific to audiences.


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