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Campus Suite Blog

Open Source or Proprietary CMS for Schools?

Posted by Steve Williams
Dec 19, 2014 8:44:50 PM

Does your school district need a new website? You’re not alone. Many districts and schools around the country have been operating for years with sites that are as dated as dusty dog-eared textbooks.

Even worse, they don’t offer the functionality you need from your site. You need something that’s easy to navigate and easy to update. You want a clean design. You want something that plays nicely with social media and makes communication with parents fast and easy.

It used to be that you had to hire an expensive web designer to create something like this from scratch. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case. Most of today’s new school websites are based on a content management system (CMS). A CMS is a base site template that is then further customized to meet your needs. It makes updating easy for anyone, even those without much technical experience.

There are many different content management systems out there for schools. Before you commit to one, though, you need to make a fundamental decision. Do you want an open source CMS or a proprietary solution? Help with this question is explored by Katie Kilfoyle Remis in District Administration magazine. In her article Maximum Web Management for k12 schools, Katie presents several solutions for schools wrestling with this issue.

Why shouldn't we just use an open source CMS?

We get this question a lot. Being in the CMS business, as Campus Suite is, we’re a little partial to the proprietary option – but for good reason. We want to present a fair and balanced piece here, but understand that open source, while on the surface may be attractive because it’s free, might not be the way for schools to go. There's no such thing as a free lunch, right?

Disadvantages of open source :

  • It can be cumbersome to both navigate and manage. Your site can quickly turn into a hodge-podge of plug-ins.
  • You’ll always be in catch-up mode with technology. Relying on the open source “user community” for updates and advancements is chancy at best, risky at worst.
  • It can be more costly in the long run by requiring tech-savvy people to manage it. Staying on top of web technologies requires dedicated web professionals.

With proprietary CMS, you won’t be compromising usability with the endless free options and plug-ins that can bog down a school website.

Advantages of proprietary CMS

  • A CMS that specializes in education websites provides focus. Go with experts accustomed to the web communications challenges of schools.
  • Streamlined for optimal user interface. Targeted features and functionality designed just for schools puts everything you need right where you need it on your site.
  • Outsourcing makes your website provider more accountable. If your website isn’t working well, use the competitive marketplace to get a better product, better service or better pricing.

Here’s a deeper dig into the open source vs. proprietary debate:

Open source systems for schools

An open source system is simply a content management system that is free, so anyone can download it at no charge. Future enhancements and updates are created and distributed by a network of global developers who all have an interest in improving the system. There’s no single owner of the content management system, but rather shared interest among everyone who uses it.

The most famous open source system is Wordpress. You can download the basic Wordpress system for free and host your site with any company. Developers have created thousands of themes, add-ons, plugins, and other features that are available either for free or for low-cost. You can use those features to further customize your Wordpress site.

Drupal and Joomla are two other popular open source web site development systems, but they’re not used as frequently as Wordpress.

Some schools are using open-source systems with great success. Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by using open source software, not just on their website but also for operating systems on their laptops, tablets, and other devices.

Northfield Public Schools in Minnesota used Wordpress to redo their site after a few administrators took an online Wordpress development class. Open source systems have become so popular that Wordpress even has a version completely dedicated to classroom and school use.

While the cost savings of an open source system may be appealing, there’s one important consideration: they’re not finished products. Yes, you can download Wordpress for free. Yes, you can even buy a robust theme that looks great when you demo it online.

However, you still need some coding and development knowledge to make these sites look and work the way you want. It’s likely that you’ll still end up hiring a developer to turn your open-source system into a finished site. Or you and your administrators may spend valuable time online trying to figure out how to make the thing work.

Open source could be right for you, depending on your budget, your skill set, and your overall goals. This quick pro/con list can help guide your decision.

Open source is a good idea if:

  • Your school has resources or employees who are able to develop a finished site from the open source system or a system template.
  • Your school budget is very limited but you can afford a basic template and possibly limited developer help to finish the project.
  • You have the dedication to invest in enhancing, tweaking and improving your website.
  • You are comfortable deciding among the great technological selections of hosting, add-ons and enhancements offered via open source.
  • You have an internal plan to stay updated for bugs, security issues and other future technical enhancements.

Open source is not a good idea if:

  • You have robust design needs. It’s a painful lesson to learn that open source is not really ‘free’ considering what it takes to complete. Basic template sites are cheap (and often look so). For a unique design, spend to get it.
  • You want your website to be flexible enough to evolve and change over time. To do that, you’ll need regular, ongoing support.
  • If you don’t want to rely on a developer for every simple change that you and your staff request. Those changes could be frequent and you could feel like you’re held hostage by your developer’s availability.
  • Your content updates are time sensitive and publishing is not in your control.
  • You wish to own the final design. Template websites in particular have this problem, and you often cannot move the design to another host and definitely not to another platform. Having access to the source code doesn’t mean the design is fully yours. Using the design on other materials may not be permitted. Make sure you own it and not the designer/developer (applies equally to Proprietary).
  • Your web developer(s) are not actually software developers. They may only be experts with certain modules. Developing unique, custom software, debugging, etc. may be outside their skillset and you’ll need to source to the community.
  • You anticipate a site move. Theoretically, moving your website to another developer should be easy. In reality, difficulties in design ownership, customizations, modules and developer preferences often make moves difficult. Additionally, most moves also include a rebuild or at minimum, a redesign.
  • You are unsure you can pick the “right” software. Unless you follow trending news, you may not be aware that software’s community is closing the development spigot and are moving to another platform. The overwhelming acceptance of Wordpress makes it unlikely to disappear for a long, long time and frankly you will be hard pressed to find a reason to choose any other open source.

Proprietary CMS systems for schools

A proprietary solution is a content management system that is designed, developed, and sold by a specific company. You usually must host the site with that company as well. The seller of the proprietary system provides some level of ongoing support.

The benefit of a proprietary solution is that you have a finished product from the beginning. Your provider works with you to make sure the system meets all of your needs and objectives. Many providers of proprietary systems work in specific niches. For example, Campus Suite works exclusively in the education space, so all of our CMS designs are developed to meet the unique needs of school districts.

Another benefit of a proprietary system is that they’re often easier to update than an open source system. Many proprietary CMSs have easy updating tools, like drag-and-drop functionality and word processor-like editing. That means you and your staff don’t have to be technology prodigies to make simple changes. You can simply access the site and drag in the elements that you want.

Finally, with a proprietary system, you can be confident that your site is constantly being updated for the latest features and security protections. You don’t have to rely on downloading the latest open source update yourself. Your provider takes care of all of that for you.

Schools should be in the business of educating, not spending precious resources on being web technology experts.

The biggest consideration with a proprietary solution is cost. You’re getting a more finished product and a higher level of support, so the cost will be greater. However, it’s important to consider all the extra costs with an open source solution. You’ll likely need to hire a developer and you and your staff may waste a significant amount of time trying to learn the system. When that’s all said and done, the cost difference may not be that great.

Proprietary solutions are recommended if:

  • Your online presence is important but you can’t devote internal resources to developing it. You need to focus on your core functions.
  • You want to focus on your website’s content, not its technology.
  • You want a great design and ease-of-use, but don’t require extensive customization.
  • You don’t want to deal with updates, security patches, debugs, and other maintenance requirements.
  • You just want to pick a partner and a solution and let them handle the dirty work of making the site operational.

Proprietary solutions are NOT recommended when:

  • Unless you have complete confidence that your web partner will be around. That usually means a minimum 10 year history of profitability for continuing R&D.
  • It’s outside your budget.
  • You have customization needs that can’t be met with the CMS.
  • The provider can’t give you access to other clients who can give you feedback on their solutions and services.
  • The proprietary provider has little evidence of keeping abreast of the ever changing Google and social media updates.
  • You do not have ownership and access to the content and/or design (applies equally to open source solutions). Many companies will not provide this by default.

Open source or proprietary CMS for schools?

At this point, you probably have a better idea of whether you should look at an open source or proprietary solution. If the decision is still unclear, take a look at both solutions. We’re obviously biased toward proprietary solutions because we’re a CMS provider. However, even we recognize that there are situations where open source is preferred; we just don’t think it’s for schools.

Another way to look at it is that schools should be in the business of educating, not spending precious resources on being web technology experts.

We recognize, however, that there are situations when open source might be the better option. If you decide that open source is the best route for you, lean towards Wordpress or Drupal. They’re the most popular platforms across nearly every industry. That means you’ll find the greatest inventory of themes, plugins, and other customization options with those systems.

If you think a proprietary solution is best for you, make sure you consult with multiple providers. And be sure that those providers specialize in the education space. They’ll be in a better position to understand your unique needs and objectives.


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Posted by Steve Williams

As co-founder of Campus Suite, Steve believes behind every great school is great communication. His tech savvy and passion for design fuel his desire to help administrators understand, embrace and seize the power of web communications.

Topics: School Districts Private schools Higher education Website design

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This blog and other Campus Suite Academy resources are part of our commitment to professional development for school communicators. Please join our forum for sharing the latest technology and communication trends to help schools better engage and improve education outcomes.

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