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But, you can’t know if your higher education website is rock-solid without checking it.

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What the heck is a Content Management System?

What the heck is a Content Management System?

Website Content Management

We start our series on operating online education websites with a discussion on Content Management Systems (CMSs), as online education, training and course providers use these extensively to manage and present web content. Our recent survey of online education websites identified the following use of CMSs:  

  No. Of Sites Percentage
Websites specifying a CMS 1,147 28.4%
Websites not specifying a CMS 2,891 71.6%
  4,038 100.0%

Table 1: Proportion of Online Education Websites Using a CMS

Approximately 30% of the over 4,000 sites we surveyed clearly identified which system was being used to manage the site's content and format the content for presentation on the Internet:


  No. Of Sites Percentage
Drupal 291 25.4%
WordPress 152 13.3%
Typo3 151 13.2%
Joomla! 149 13.0%
Plone 36 3.1%
Microsoft 33 2.9%
K-Sup 24 2.1%
Sitefinity 19 1.7%
Contensis 17 1.5%
Concrete5 14 1.2%
Miscellaneous 261 22.8%
Total 1,147 100.0%

Table 2: Market Share of CMSs for Online Education Websites

In practice, a new class of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) CMS products is emerging, in which the CMS and hosting are provided as a package.  Three of the more popular services are: Squarespace, Weebly and Wix.

We will confine our discussion to traditional server-based products because SaaS users – who will derive many benefits from their choice – will find their implementation options for our recommendations quite limited.  

CMS’s popularity derives from their usefulness in accomplishing the following: 

  • Administering website content: images, video and written articles
  • Providing content authoring/formatting capabilities
  • Offering a collaboration framework for multiple content authors
  • Establishing a structure for content presentation
  • Giving a framework for a website’s technical underpinnings
  • Insulating content creators from the ‘nitty gritty’ of the Internet

Moreover, the depth of capabilities is complemented by the fact that the leading products manage very large websites and are software licence free.  We see that large, sophisticated education websites are run using the four market-leading products identified in our survey, for example: 

Drupal: University of Oxford, EdX and Open2Study.

WordPress: Udemy, NovoEd and Futurelearn

Typo3: University of London, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and Universität - Trier

Joomla!: LearnSkills, Università di Pisa and Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences


While a CMS’s core functions support basic website operations, eco-systems have evolved to supply free and paid add-ons (also known as “plugins” or “extensions”) that considerably extend the base functionality.  Moreover, many of the non-CMS SaaS providers, from email campaigning to online payments processing, have ensured their products work with the leading CMSs. As a result, CMS-based websites are highly functional. 

Furthermore, well-structured frameworks for developing templates complement the core functionality to achieve sophisticated webpage layouts, largely without the need to be able to code.  Basic templates are free, but more functional templates are relatively inexpensive.

CMS users can also take advantage of workflow management to control reviewing, publishing and automatically expiring content.  This control allows, for example, online retailers to show different “count down” content prior to a planned event by setting publishing start and end times, without involving a developer. These workflow features can prevent errors or dated material from being on a site.

The open source nature of the prime CMSs means that a vast implementer and developer eco-system has evolved.  This forms a pool of resources readily available to CMS users making development, implementation and management financially sustainable.  Additionally, as open source software, CMSs can be changed and tailored to specific requirements as needed.

Overall, there are compelling reasons to use a CMS and the evidence supports this conclusion as a high proportion of online course providers have chosen to implement their websites this way – we have done the same thing.


You cannot expect free software to be updated, upgraded and modernised at the same pace as SaaS products or, possibly, commercial enterprise software applications.  Equally, many developments are not driven by user consensus, but by the specific requirements of small user sub-communities.  In addition, the delegated and distributed nature of open source software development can lead to poor continuity between successive software revisions.  Although, in practice the success of the CMSs mentioned above has been, in part, from their lack of continuity problems.

CMSs rely on plugins to provide much additional functionality.  However, there is no formal approval or release process for plugins, so their post-installation behaviour can be unexpected or unpredictable.  It may also be the case that an essential or desirable plugin is the work of a ‘one-man band’: with attendant issues of support and upgrade continuity.  Therefore, you should exercise due diligence before installing.

These weaknesses can be mitigated by the Internet “review” mechanism, which allows prospective users to read real-world experiences from others who have invested time rather than money in the software.  Additionally, the leading CMSs and others have sufficient adoption that their core developers are software professionals using best practices.

Making Sure You Are Set Up Appropriately

Any project relying on software implementation and management has a number of elements that require careful consideration, and a CMS is no different:

Selection of the core system and plugins.  We will assume that you have already completed this process, if not, then at the very least ensure you have defined your requirements and do your research [link].

Implementation.  This phase includes deciding to in-source or out-source (both staffing and hardware), setting a budget and establishing time frames, as key tasks.  Again, we assume you are well past this stage.

Management and Development.  We have divided our discussion into four parts, and we have tried to confine ourselves to CMS-related issues.

Performance.  The two communities to consider are your 'customers' and your internal users or content providers.   CMSs make the latter community more influential than it might otherwise appear, as slow systems make for reluctant or recalcitrant users. And, if your users are not happy, your content quickly becomes stale.  Performance monitoring with third-party services giving quantitative data combined with qualitative data from formal surveys will identify performance issues.

Security.  CMSs are no worse than any other Internet-accessible system for security exposure; as high-profile “hacks” reported in the news demonstrate.  On the one hand, CMSs are a ready target for malintent, as the software is open to inspection for potential weakness.  On the other hand, the open source basis of the leading CMSs means weaknesses are usually rectified as quickly or faster than commercially licensed systems.  This openness reinforces the need to be informed of software updates and to have systems and processes in place to test updates before making them live on public services.  This approach equally applies to the core system and site-specific plugins.  As with performance monitoring, third party organisations offer security testing and patching recommendation services. 

Conformance.  One of a CMS’s great advantages is the ability to delegate content management.  But, delegation comes with the risk of losing site consistency, perhaps from overzealous use of typefaces, colours or in-document structure. Procedures for reviews help manage potential ‘anarchy’, by keeping sites self-consistent and quickly identifying errors.  More than the marketing benefit of conformance, is the ability to meet legal or regulatory requirements that may have changed since the site went live.  For example, within the European Union, site owners are required to alert users to the use of cookies [LINK].  In other jurisdictions, sites must place specific contact details on every page or provide details about the organisation behind the site.  

So far, we have deliberately avoided the subject of search engine optimisation (SEO) – tuning your site to get the best possible impact with search engines.  SEO is sufficiently important that it is best covered as a separate topic – even within the context of content management systems. In practice, SEO conformance covers understanding search engine requirements (to achieve organisational marketing goals) and implementing consistent site configuration to meet SEO needs, which includes the technically arcane and the tediously trivial.

Housekeeping.  In our experience, few people relish ‘housekeeping’, least of all when the server crashes and the “it's the only copy we've got” data is lost.  Housekeeping is more than performing back ups or ensuring adequate disk space or bandwidth, it covers systematically monitoring users and content. CMSs can make housekeeping more complex as they allow multiple users and departments to manage content, so that images, video files and dated articles can appear on live sites leaving visitors to see inconsistent, inappropriate or incorrect content.


We are proponents of CMSs to manage dynamic websites – the choice of which one is a complex exercise and specific to an organisation’s requirements. CMSs have many options for setting up the core functionality and the use of plugins creates an additional layer of complexity.  It is important that the impact of different parameters is well understood by content creators and curators alike, as inappropriate choices may hamper subsequent SEO efforts or impair the user experience.




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