Universities and web-platforms

Traditionally, university websites have been very hodge-podge and piecemeal, as a result of the many departments and faculties that comprise the institution. This has resulted in pages whose “look & feel” varies widely and can either confuse the reader (humans adjust easily when there are clear patterns) or just come off as looking non-professional. The obvious solution is to adopt some sort of CMS that will make it easier to apply styles site-wide, but this can be a problem in a university setting, where departments and faculties can sometimes be very territorial.

This is why when my university, Queen’s, decided to try out a CMS, it piqued my interest. I read about the progression of this, from the time they had to get input from various sources to when they had to define criteria that a CMS would have to meet in order to be selected. While these are baby steps, in relative terms, it’s a trip to the moon, since what they had before must have been a horrendous mess to keep up to date and to maintain.

There still is a lot of work to be done, however. The vast majority of the pages that form the Queen’s website still lack a common “look & feel”, which I believe is important for an institution. While organizing everything under a common CMS would take much effort because of the training that all staff would require to adjust to such a new system, (not to mention the adjustment the webmasters of each department would need), I think it is a necessary step in the overall evolution and update of the website.

As an example, Queen’s can look at the University of Waterloo’s website, inter-university rivalries notwithstanding. They clearly have a defined look & feel, and have a nice web development blog that seems to be in tune with current web standards, technologies, and practices. (As evidence, look at their standards-based design for their sites.) Most of their departmental and faculty websites also share the same styles, and standards-based designs, at least on their front-pages, as I’m sure there are a few static back-pages that haven’t been integrated into their system.

With more and more universities making the switch to a CMS for easier management, the upcoming changes for Queen’s could not have come at a better time. I only hope that this pilot project does not get stalled or otherwise delayed; ideally, I’d like to see site-wide changes before I graduate next year.


  1. Peter,
    you’ve got the right idea here.
    There are many advantages of having a CMS, one of which is institutional branding. Another major advantage is standards compliant code and accessibility features. As a public institution in Ontario, the latest ODA will soon apply to accessible websites; with this coming, it’s better that we make our content accessible now.
    Having a campus-wide system allows the University to build in centralized features that can be offered up across the board. One example of this is the WYSIWYG editor that enables less saavy users to publish web content, and reduces the IT bottleneck that we saw pre-CMS. Another is easy generation RSS feeds and enabling syndication of content around campus.
    Your department, Electrical and Computer Engineering has been a leader in this area. They are publishing RSS feeds all over their site, as well as combining those feeds into aggregate feeds (repurposing of content) and catching other feeds from campus.

  2. Very true. Accessibility is an issue that is far too often overlooked in website design, but with a good CMS it makes it far easier.

    I’ll admit I have some work to do when it comes to accessibility, but since I am not a public institution nor a company, there is less pressure – but this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t apply good practices for accessibility to this site. In particular, I’m currently looking at Section 508 standards, a US government standard that seems to be fairly well-adopted among websites. But being a public institution definitely subjects the website to more stringent requirements, including wider browser support (even for the older, less used versions) and accessibility.

    The availability of easy to use editors in CMSs is also a big boon to content and web publishing. The bare reality is that most people do not care for XHTML, standards, semantics or anything of that sort – and why should they? Don’t get me wrong; I think those topics are of vast importance. But just as I don’t think journalists should have to know the exact details of the newspaper production process, neither should every web content-creator. I know that’s a contrived example, but it illustrates my point.

    The good news that is many editors now have the ability to produce clean, standards-based markup from an interface that most people can use. TinyMCE is a good example, and is used in WordPress and can be used in Drupal as well. It has improved a lot since its inception, and its layout/look can be completely customized to provide a minimum of styling to a plethora of options, all while maintaining an interface that resembles a word-processor.

  3. Hi,

    Just tracked down this post through technorati ๐Ÿ˜‰

    So you know, University of Waterloo does not use a CMS in the *classic* sense. What I did was to design an easy to use XHTML template and CSS that people can customize. I stuck it into a Dreamweaver Template and made it so Contribute users could easily edit content. Our IT department helped spread the use of the template by offering courses and its use was mandated by our Web Steering Committee.

    The CMS is not any software but a process… we could probably now adopt a CMS software package with a lot less pain than two years ago but that would risk breaking an awful lot of links all at once unless it is done a bit differently. I am not sure we will ever do that… not with the success of specialty apps we have developed.


  4. Hi Jesse,

    Thanks for the clarification. I blindly assumed that some sort of CMS was at play behind the scenes, because of well-integrated most of the university’s sites looked. (And how they all had proper layouts using CSS)

    Come to think of it, the CMS-as-a-process (and not as a software package) may be the closest to an ideal solution for such a big and fractured organization such as a university. Unlike most large corporations, universities tend to be split along their faculty and department lines, with the leaders of each pushing for different solutions and often fighting with each other over funding, etc.

    This is why CMS software can be difficult to implement university-wide. Thus, I can understand your position; plus the freedom for the specialty web apps you’ve developed might be compromised.

    Here at Queens there’s been some resistance to the initial rollout of the Apache Lenya, which has only taken place on the ECE sites. Many of my instructors/professors have complained about the “lack of freedom” in placing content on the site when using the CMS. For example, the sidebar of links is omnipresent, and many people don’t like it. (See here for an example.)

    I’m hoping that they’re expressing their feedback to the web development team at Queens. I’d hate to see something implemented that the majority of content-contributing users don’t like to use.

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