Alternatives to the CMS-Based Student Project

This is part three of my three-part series on student Web projects and content management systems at W&M. See part one, on the origins and drawbacks of CMS-based assignment and part two, on why you might want to re-think CMS-based assignments.

How to Go About Creating a Non-CMS Project

Does the content management system offer too much structure for filling in content?

The content management system is a little like a jello mold in that it offers a lot of structure for content in exchange for less-polished but more creative solutions.  [Image source: jbcurio on Flickr.]

If you are looking to branch out to a different type of Web project, you have a number of options. However, to preserve the sanity and time of both you and your students, I recommend that you collaborate with a technologist of some sort as early in the process as possible. Using something other than WordPress or another CMS in your class will take more time, but you can seek help from us (or people like us, depending on what resources your school has). Collaborating on technology projects is always important, but since we don’t have much in the way of existing infrastructure to support non-CMS projects, getting in touch with someone earlier about your ideas will help things tremendously.

Because we can’t develop custom-built Web applications for your class, we need to work together to find ways to use existing open-source projects to us create your assignments. A good place to start would be by considering the many JavaScript libraries (collections of code that determine how information is presented in your Web browser) that allow you to do interesting things that go beyond the standard writing assignment. Fortunately, you don’t need too much in the way of technical skill to figure out what is possible. All it takes is an eye to what happens elsewhere on the Web, the willingness to imagine how that might translate into an academic project, and getting in touch with a technologist about how you might manage the technical aspects of the project.

What Might This Type of Assignment Look Like?

Instead of asking students to create an entire website, I would like to see more academic Web projects focus on smaller interactions. Journalists and developers working for newspapers have been doing incredible work on this scale recently. They create smaller “features,” rather than an entire site or digital archive, and this stripped-down version of these features might work as a semester-long project.

To illustrate how this different type of Web project might work, I will share with you a recent request I had from a Rich Media Grant. One of the grant recipients saw a video on the Web that she wanted to recreate as a student project. After meeting about this, we figured out that what she wanted was called “Live Scribing” and it would be a pretty complicated project to undertake in the undergraduate classroom. At the time, we decided to bracket this part of the project and focus on less complicated elements in the meantime.

A few months later, I realized that my advice was not the best. Rather than deciding that something would be too complicated for a semester-long project, I should have been a little more diligent. Could we get close to the final product that the faculty member wanted without the amount of work that “live scribing” required?

In November 2012, The New York Times ran a feature about holiday shopping that made me re-think my advice. By using an existing JavaScript library, the feature created a stop-animated video from still images. To do this in the classroom, students would have to produce digital images and then I would help them get things up on the Web to complete the “feature.” This way, students get to imagine how to create a text in a new (to them) form with little technical work.


The way people can publish on the Web has changed since the 1990s. That is no surprise. However, I suspect many class projects have not kept pace with the Web. Currently, publishing writing on the Web can be done with about the same mount of effort as using a word processor. As such, I don’t think it is enough to ask students to put their writing on the Web. Rather, we should start to work together to figure out what new types of assignments we can develop that will help encourage student creativity. Because no one has unlimited resources, if we decide to get away from the CMS, we will still need to use existing open source projects to create assignments. I think JavasScript libraries will provide a rich resource for faculty and students, and to help find ideas for assignments we can look to the innovation happening in journalism. Time will always be a limiting factor for developing creative projects, but if faculty and technologists work together, I think we can get some great stuff done.

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at