The Origins and Drawbacks of CMS-Based Student Projects

Nothing says 1990s Internet like Netscape!

This is part one of my three-part series on student web projects and content management systems at W&M.

As an undergrad at W&M in 2002, I completed my first website for an assignment in an American Studies class.  Ten years later, the Web has changed, but I am not so sure if I can say the same for many classroom Web projects.  Publishing content on the Web is far easier today than it used to be, thanks to a category of Web applications called Content Management Systems (CMS).

A CMS allows people to publish content to the Web without much technical skill.  This is great because it allows class projects to focus more on writing and Web publishing.  However, I wonder if we have lost something in Web projects as CMSs like WordPress have become more prevalent.  I think it is time to reevaluate what a semester-long Web project should look like.

Origins of the Content Management System at W&M

Four years ago, I got hired by W&M’s IT department as an Academic Technologist (later landing in my current position of Web Applications Specialist). Part of my job was to figure out the state of academic Web projects at W&M and help our group make decisions about how to support them. At that time, the Web at W&M was in a period of transition. If I remember correctly, Information Technology used to give people their own space on the Web where they could build a site. However, the demand for more complicated sites and the increasing number of website requests caused a problem: we didn’t have the staff or infrastructure to support sites for everyone who wanted one.

In order to help everyone on campus who needed some sort of website, Information Technology started to encourage people to use various content management systems. For many projects, we encouraged people to use WordPress because it was easy to use and easy for us to support. When WordPress wouldn’t do, we also provided tools to manage wikis and web-based surveys.

Content management systems are fantastic for allowing students to work on their presenting their writing, videography, and photography skills on the Web. As Kathleen DeLaurenti pointed out recently, there are a number of reasons why writing on the Web is good: writing publicly helps students become more engaged with their writing, and it helps them develop new skills. Ultimately, a CMS can help you get up and running quickly so you can focus on writing.

Drawbacks of Class Projects That Use a CMS

While I think focusing on writing is important, I believe that four years of recommending that faculty and students use CMSs to build websites has had some negative effects. Namely, they have reduced students’ and faculty members’ abilities to make more complex decisions about using the Web. In order to create sites quickly, a content management system relies on the decisions of the CMS’s developers.

blogs.wm.edu is one of W&M’s most frequently used CMSs.

For example, a typical WordPress-run site on blogs.wm.edu uses a pre-made theme that controls how a person’s writing is presented on the Web. You can choose different layouts, but in order to gain simplicity and speed you sacrifice a learning process and forgo making many decisions that extend beyond those one makes when writing or producing a video. For the most part, when you create a site with a CMS, you focus on things like which side of the page to put an image on rather than larger questions about how to use technology to make new arguments and better engage your site’s visitors.

Providing easy ways for people to create websites is important. However, I think faculty, students, and technologists have gotten very good at creating and supporting simple websites. Students often already have skills that allow them to publish their writing on the Web. (Even if they have never used an service like Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, etc., they most likely have used word processors which now have a large overlap with the interfaces used to publish information to the Web.)

From Information Technology’s perspective, we have gotten very good at supporting the majority of websites. We can help people get a site up and running quickly as long as they don’t want too much customization. There are certainly places where all of us can improve in terms of creating academic websites and projects, but how I see it, the majority of that work is behind us.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series on why someone might want to get away from the CMS-based class project.

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 http://cordulack.net/