Why go CMS?
by JC Elgin
In June, our technology director decided that it was time to try out Joomla. This meant that in the coming months, ready or not, I would be diving headfirst into the world of content-management systems.
Most districts do not have a full-time Webmaster. In nearly every district around us, Web authoring falls on the shoulders of the technology director. This is where content management is a real game changer.
In content-managed environments, there is a fundamental shift in the role of Webmaster from gatekeeper to visionary. End users generate content. The content is then reviewed, categorized, and published by designees within each department. The designees can then select key news items and forward them to the Webmaster for consideration for the front page. The Webmaster can focus his or her Web-site time on new features, designs, and functionality and not on formatting and editing.
With content management, we can empower end users with communication tools like Web sites and blogging while maintaining accountability with peer and administrative review.
The time has never been better to get started with content-management systems. Since many of these systems are open-source, they tend to have a longer development cycle than commercial software. The early versions of Joomla and Drupal raised legitimate technical concerns about security, compatibility, and usability. These technical concerns caused CMS to fall by the wayside.
Development did not cease, though. We now see Joomla and Drupal sites everywhere. Both products are out of their infancy and ready to hit center stage as Web-site solutions for schools. In both the Joomla and the Drupal camps, development has shifted from fixing technical problems to developing value-added features. Both platforms have been tested under fire and are ready for your district.
The first step in integrating CMS into your district is to understand what it can and cannot do. CMS is great at handling articles. Where it will offer challenges is in embedding media and integrating third-party scripts and pages that do not conform to the normal site template. Both Joomla and Drupal interact well next to static pages and other content. You can have static pages in the same file system as your Drupal or Joomla installation and reference them without causing problems in the content-management system. You must be prepared to maintain a few static pages that handle tasks that CMSs are not designed to handle.
In one instance, our district used static pages with streaming media. Joomla doesn’t have a seamless way to manage videos yet, so the district opted to write a small PHP script that integrated an open-source media player. We have a link in our Joomla site that tells the PHP script which video to serve up, and the script plays the video. This small problem in Joomla was easy to work around and was a fair trade-off for the benefits of CMS.
The next question that always arises is “Why Joomla? or Drupal? or any particular CMS?” For our district, the choice was simple. Our technical assistance center, which provides our Web-hosting services, told us it would provide technical support with Joomla installations. It didn’t forbid any other CMS, but it wouldn’t guarantee any help with it either. Our TAC uses Joomla for its main site as well as many Web applications it’s developed and operates. The best thing to do is ask your TAC or hosting company if it has a preference or any resources with one CMS over another. Also check with schools that you work with and see which CMS they use.
To use CMS, you must know CMS. Find a machine, install your favorite flavor of Linux, and download Joomla. The beauty of the development server is that it won’t take much to get up and running. A run-of-the-mill desktop machine will load up Ubuntu running a LAMP server. When you have your development server running, go through the features, functions, and workflows of Joomla. Practice your skills, prototype your site, and perfect your design!
When our district migrated our site to our production server, we kept our prototype server up and running and turned it into a Professional Development and Resources intranet server. We can now offer our district users more resources and on-demand professional development while still having a “playground” for new Joomla features before launching them on our site.
Keep training in mind too. Bring key users on board early. Give them access to the development server to learn alongside you. Train your users before your production site launches. This will secure a smooth transition into the CMS site. Working with your key users, develop a workflow and procedure for the new site. Who will be editors and publishers, and who gets author privileges? Who can post content to the home page? What happens if content isn’t up to district standards? These are all points to ponder throughout the process.
CMS is only going to get better. The technical problems have been resolved, and now, with each release, great new features are being introduced to Joomla, Drupal, and others. Some techies would say to wait for the next set of features, but CMS is ready now. It is revolutionizing the ways school districts do Web sites and will free your district Webmaster to lead with vision. Don’t wait for a certain feature; get CMS up now and enjoy the innovations when they come.
JC Elgin is a technologist in technology and professional development for Shelby City Schools in Shelby, Ohio.