Keep Up or Fall Behind
- By Rama Ramaswami
New CMS features and functions are driving true innovation in content management, and enabling information access, sharing, collaboration, and tracking on a scale heretofore unimaginable. Does your system measure up?
THE DREADED WORDS “EASY ASSEMBLY” can fell even the bravest of us. But in the case of content management systems (like course management, also known as CMS), vendors are living up to the promise of bigger, better, stronger—without a proportional increase in user-unfriendliness. The latest systems offer bravura functionality as well as ease of use: Now web analytics, blogs, wikis, podcasts, streaming video, geomapping, and portal creation all are within reach of even the nontechnical user.
No surprise, then, that higher ed institutions have taken this flexibility and run with it. As their information and collaboration needs increase, colleges and universities are finding that they need to manage content in much the same way that a commercial business does.
“Enterprises are creating more documents, collaboration artifacts, and records than ever before,” reports a recent study by the Cambridge, MA, technology consulting firm Forrester Research. “This explosion of unstructured information— such as documents, e-mails, and web content—often results in chaos if the content is not created, tagged, versioned, controlled, and managed in a consistent manner.” The ability to impose consistency on unstructured content, and be able to edit and manage that content without expert technical help, is precisely what has drawn universities to the newer, flexible CMS solutions.
As their information and collaboration needs increase, many institutions are finding that they need to manage content in much the same way that a commercial business does. Have you modified or changed your content management model lately?
University of Virginia: Template and Go
For Sue Haas, co-director of enterprise systems at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, ease of use was the single most important factor that drove the school’s selection of a content management system. After looking at several vendors, Haas settled on CMS400.Net from Ektron. (Darden admits roughly 300 students into its entering graduate program; its parent organization, the University of Virginia, has more than 20,000 students enrolled in its undergraduate and graduate programs.)
“We were very impressed with the web editor,” Haas says. “We wanted to get consistency in branding and also have the ability to get editors from various departments to use it. The .Net technology was a big deal because we are entrenched in Microsoft. The developers on campus are very familiar with it.”
In fact, the content management system was critical to the revamped website that Darden launched in September 2006 as part of a branding campaign. According to Ken White, Darden’s vice president for communication and marketing, the site “has tools other b-school websites simply do not possess. First, the site has been planned to be audience-centric. Everything is designed and written for the external visitor, who, in many cases, is a prospective student. Most b-school sites target people who work for, or attend, the school—a group already familiar with the organization.” The upgraded site offers blogs, streaming videos, podcasts, and other interactive features. Thanks to the new content management system, each unit, office, or team at Darden now has the flexibility to update its own content as necessary, without relying on—or waiting for—the work to be done by any other entity.
“We have developed templates in the CMS for this purpose,” says Haas. “We have oversight along with the marketing and communication departments, and we audit content at random throughout the year to make sure that the branding, images, and logo are consistent. There is a pool of approved images. We’ve ‘templatized’ everything so that we can easily pull in content from different sources, and the web editing system is WYSIWYG [what you see is what you get]. All of our editors are trained to hyperlink, insert images, and so on, and we have given them documentation. If they have questions, editors always have the option of asking my team.”
Haas notes that the CMS is not linked to the college’s course management system, although integration is fairly extensive otherwise. “We’re very diverse in our systems,” she says. “All of our systems are integrated; for instance, the CMS is integrated with student applications. There are so many different components, but we need to have those differences. Microsoft SharePoint is wonderful for collaborative work, for example, but not great for content management. So, we integrate them all, but we basically write interfaces or .Net scripts where we might need them. The new version of SharePoint does offer content management, but we’re happy with Ektron and don’t want to change.”
Web analytics, blogs, wikis, podcasts, streaming video, geomapping, and portal creation are now integrated within new CMS products. Can your system handle these new functions?
Wofford College: Doing It All
Wofford College (SC), a private liberal arts institution of 1,250 students, is another Ektron client. Administrators there find CMS400.Net a highly flexible, multipurpose tool.
“It can do almost anything,” says Laura Corbin, Wofford’s director of news services. Like Darden’s website, Wofford’s site features blogs, podcasts, videos, and interactive functions such as maps. The CMS went live in August 2006, and building all the content behind it “was a huge project,” says Corbin. “It took us three months last summer, working 10 hours a day. Currently, there are close to 15,000 pieces of content in the system, and it’s a lot more cost-efficient than pieces of paper.” Her team expects to finish up this summer.
BUILDING THE CONTENT behind Wofford’s website (which features blogs, podcasts, videos, and interactive functions such as maps) took administrators three months last summer, working 10 hours a day.
Previously, Corbin explains, Wofford had a “mini site” that could be updated only to a limited extent, and mostly manually at that. With the new CMS, “content is driven by databases instead of static pages,” she says, adding, “We’ve implemented Web 2.0 into the fabric of our site. When you change content in one place, it automatically changes in another. You also can set an expiry date. It’s a much more manageable and dynamic system.”
According to Kyle James, the institution’s webmaster, about one hundred publishers on campus now use the content management system. “All have their websites inside the main site,” he notes. “They update them on their own, and so the control of each site is in each department’s hands. There is an approval chain for every department, and when that is completed, the content comes to us for approval.” He adds that the content rarely has to be edited, since individual publishers usually are conscientious about upholding image and content quality.
Still, James says, it took the various departments some time to understand the extent of control they had over the content: “A lot of them still don’t realize they have this ability,” he admits. But with a small staff of two full-time IT professionals, three programming and support workers, and two student employees, Wofford found that it was just plain smart to turn over most of the CMS tasks to campus editors and publishers. “It frees us up to be innovative,” he maintains.
Innovation, in this case, has led to an award: The Wofford Office of Communications and Marketing was recognized earlier this year by the Council of Advancement and Support of Education for excellence in overall website design. It also has led to a “continual, ever-growing process” of refining and updating content, according to Corbin. She adds that because of the system’s flexibility, the college has bought an unlimited number of licenses for publishers, enabling a variety of people and departments to participate in creating content. “In some departments, students are the editors,” she points out. “It’s a great campus job for a student, and a great addition to a resume.”
In the process known as single-instance storage, a system retains a single copy of content that multiple users or computers share, thus eliminating data duplication and improving efficiency. Does your CMS platform aggregate content so that when users access it, they all see the same file?
Pushing the Envelope Perhaps the most imaginative use of a CMS is Northwestern University’s (IL) integration of two systems, to consolidate content and establish a common content repository. Northwestern, a private institution with an enrollment of about 17,000 students, integrated the Xythos WebFile Server content management platform with the enterprise web applications in the Blackboard Academic Suite. The result is a unique combination of technologies that is customized for faculty and student needs with regard to collaboration and document management.
NORTHWESTERN’s integration of the Xythos content management platform with Blackboard enterprise web applications is facilitating collaboration and document management for faculty and students.
According to Keith Kohls, technical specialist for Xythos, the company’s open-standards-based document and content management solution serves as a common content repository into which unstructured content and data can be placed. “It’s content that ends up on a flash drive, or whatever. Northwestern has found a way to integrate all the information.” As Kohls explains it, “Xythos is where everything is, while Blackboard is the entry point for the user to dig into the information.” The Xythos platform aggregates content (for a math department, for instance), so that when users access it, they all see the same file. This process is known as single-instance storage, or a system’s capacity to keep just one copy of content that multiple users or computers share, eliminating data duplication and improving efficiency. “Access is easy, but the secondary step of managing and tracking it is more important,” says Kohls. With its ingenious system, Northwestern has done both. The system is the brainchild of Brian Nielsen, project manager of faculty initiatives in the Academic Technologies department at the university. The department, a unit outside the main IT group, is charged with evaluating new and innovative technologies, buying and testing them, and moving them into the mainstream campus community. For nearly a decade, the university had been looking for an effective CMS, according to Nielsen. Early on, he saw the potential of Xythos “because of the degree of openness that it provided.” In 2003, the Academic Technologies group bought a license for the software, strictly for faculty use. “Our deployment was different than for a universitywide tool,” he says.
The very first project was in support of the engineering program. “Every freshman participated in design and development,” Nielsen recalls. “Everyone had a Xythos account; there was a directory structure for each team, as well as shared space. As they developed projects, course coordinators began using the system. Administrators were able to distribute common handouts. The handbook for the course was distributed that way.” Next came the really innovative part: delivering Xythos-based materials through the course management component of Blackboard Academic Suite, which Northwestern had been using since 1998. Nielsen explains that his group used Blackboard’s Building Blocks, or application programming interfaces (APIs), to pass on a credential for Blackboard, to Xythos. This allows a student to jump from one application to the other without another login. Course administrators upload multiple files and directories into Xythos in a single operation, and students can access the content through Blackboard.
Many school websites target those who attend the school or work for it—groups already familiar with the organization. Yet, today’s website should be designed and written for the external visitor, who, in many cases, may be a prospective student. Is your website audience-centric?
Northwestern built this interface on its own, Nielsen says. Then, “Blackboard ultimately adopted Xythos as part of its system. We don’t need Blackboard’s content system, which saves us considerable money. With our innovations, we can develop course handouts for multiple versions and multiple sessions. We have used it in other Blackboard classes: undergraduate engineering and calculus have been wins for us.”
Using Blackboard’s APIs, he says, Northwestern has enabled access to content resident in Xythos, through a single link. “There is no precedent for this. The information now is available in any Blackboard course. We’ve documented how it works, but we haven’t pushed it heavily. Instructors love it. They can create a folder full of readings and create a single link to that folder. The material can be in any format, including HTML.” To enhance security, a time-stamped link allows access only for a very short period—a period of usage even briefer than the time frame built into the Xythos system.
Requests to use the Blackboard-based content delivery system have come pouring in from various departments, Nielsen says. Administrative units, for example, ask for file-sharing capability that goes beyond sharing by copying files to a hard drive. Undergraduate advisers find the system exceptionally useful for sharing documents, and science lab faculty “rave about it because it allows collaboration with outside colleagues in a secure way,” reports Nielsen. “E-mail is not reliable for large files, and as for FTP, not every end user can set it up, and there are firewalls.”
Right now, says Nielsen, he hasn’t measured the cost savings of the system, but admits that “demand exceeds supply.” To truncate the learning curve, the Academic Technologies group offers faculty extensive training and demonstrations of Xythos’ capabilities, which he believes are “not immediately apparent to most users.” Among the hidden gems: the ability to edit and manage files collaboratively on remote web servers, versioning, and document sharing with users who don’t have access to Xythos.
BUYING A CMS
Top 10 Factors to Consider
WITH SO MANY—and increasingly affordable—applications to choose from, it is all too easy to make a decision based solely on price. But price often blinds buyers to other considerations, say the experts at Hannon Hill, an Atlanta-based content management software provider whose clients include Duke University (NC), Carnegie Mellon University (PA), and Vassar College (NY). Hannon Hill content management pros recommend doing the following before buying a system from any vendor in the CMS space:
- Ask whether the price includes all the features you will need. Many vendors will not inform you up front that the functions you require are only available at an additional cost. Make sure that you understand exactly what you’re paying for.
- Obtain input from non-technical users. If you allow the IT department to choose the system, you will lose one of the major benefits of the purchase: the ability to place more control in the hands of non-technical users who will create the content.
- Consider the institution’s future goals. Don’t buy a CMS to fill a highly specific, short-term need; do look for one that provides as much flexibility as possible.
- Understand access permissions for assets within the system. Which users need access to the system, and what level of control do you want them to have? For example, you wouldn’t want editors to break the design of a template or update the pages of departments that are not their own. Investigate the types of access permissions that the CMS offers.
- Evaluate the level of product support. Despite their seeming ease of use, content management systems are highly complex applications that need troubleshooting from time to time, so make sure help will be available when you need it.
- Factor-in search engine optimization (SEO). All that money you’re spending on a CMS is wasted if online consumers are unable to find the site because of poor search engine optimization. Pay close attention to the content management system provider’s SEO strategy.
- Ask if you’ll be locked into specific content formats. Although HTML pages are the most common format, online users are beginning to access the internet through other means such as mobile devices that do not handle HTML very well. Consider: Should your CMS be able to support a variety of formats?
- Ask if you’ll be locked into pre-defined templates. You may lose an all-important benefit—flexibility—if you buy a low-end CMS that requires you to use prebuilt templates that come with the system. Consider: Do you want your CMS to be able to support any type of design and layout?
- Ask: Is the system standards-compliant? The CMS you’re considering may offer great features, but if it’s not written according to universal standards, you may have trouble integrating it with existing systems.
- Test the CMS in your own environment. After you’ve done the research, watched the demos, and asked the questions, get a trial license and take the system “home” for a tryout. This will give you a much more realistic idea of the performance you can expect.
Another valuable benefit is the ability to troubleshoot and correct data in real time. Nielsen points to a project in which psychology researchers were videotaping young children to test language-acquisition patterns in various countries. All the tape coding was performed at Northwestern, and when overseas collaborators sent in their videos, coders were able to view them immediately through the Xythos/Blackboard system, to check to see if the data had been collected and recorded properly— just one more argument in favor of integrating technologies and going beyond the traditional functions of a content management system.
::WEBEXTRAS :: Improved content management has everything to do with institutional performance at Broward Community College (FL). Learn how colleges and universities are maximizing their content management systems to beef up their web portals.