When good CMSs go bad

I have previously wrote about how it’s a good idea for a university to adopt a Content Management System (CMS), not only to streamline managing content, but also to improve the consistence of the “look & feel” of the site. Generally, having a consistent look is a good thing – it gives an air of professionalism, something that is important about an institution one is considering attending and paying money to.

However, is it possible for a CMS to be counter-productive to those who have to use it? By this, I am referring not necessarily to the readers, but to the publishers that depend on it to disseminate their information. For a university, the publishers of content on the site are usually the professors. Short of the main site that acts to attract prospective student and faculty, a university’s website is mainly used by existing students to get access to course material and to communicate with the professors and teaching assistants. The true measure of a CMS should be how easily it allows the main publishers (in this, case the professors), to put their material on the site and make it readily available in a manner they like.

This is no simple problem. Many professors prefer a simple webpage, that’s plain and to the point – this is especially prevelant in technical courses. After all, it’s the content that counts right? If a student can’t find the important information they’re looking for (lecture notes, example problems), it add a slight bit of frustration that simply isn’t needed when taking a heavy course load.

Take my Queen’s University, my school, for example. They’ve recently rolled out the Apache Lenya CMS in a trial run for the ECE Department. From what I’ve been hearing from my professors, they generally do not like the new CMS. This isn’t so much due to how Lenya works, but rather how it’s been implemented. Take a look at a sample course home page. Though the page very much has the consistency of the main site, some professors are finding this limiting or obstructive. For one thing, the main left navigation always is present, and may be distracting to the main content that is displayed to the right. (This may also be due to the fact that the sidebar doesn’t have a different background colour.) Some professors have complained about this, and others have simply moved their course home pages to their own webspace on the Queen’s server, as seen for this course home page. Some simply prefer a more simplified layout devoid of the Queen’s “look & feel”.

So, is there a solution? I was interested to learn what Waterloo has adopted. Instead of a full-blown CMS, they have adopted templates used through the Adobe Contribute system. Additionally, they offered courses to teach users how to properly use the templates. From what I’ve read, they have lots of custom web applications running, and are unlikely to transit to a CMS because of this. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and in fact, it may be the best for such a large site as a university’s website, which needs to serve many needs.

So, am I doing a complete 180 and advocating the removal of a CMS? No – not exactly. I just think the whole consistent “look & feel” may need to be tuned down. For the course home pages, a stripped-down template containing only the header and footer should be developed and used. This would allow professors to better present their material in the plain and simple format they’re used to, and would give this material front-and-center attention. This would encourage more to use the CMS; after all, if people don’t use it because they don’t like it, then a CMS is no better than a bunch of disorganized web pages.

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