Oh, What a Tangled Web...

Oh, What a Tangled Web...

Web content can be unruly. Here's how campus webmasters are using content management systems to gain control.
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We've all seen those college websites that make no sense. They are afterthoughts or the end result of ill-conceived student projects. There is no consistent color scheme from page to page; the fonts vary. The only area that received a professional design's tender, loving care was the homepage, but the links there lead to a maze of information that is dated, or hard to navigate. Worst are the websites with information that contradicts itself. Ever hear of a college that posted different tuition prices on its web pages? No one is willing to name names, but more than one higher ed web manager swears it has happened.

It doesn't have to be this way, say the developers of content management systems. They have created browser-based software systems that manage web efforts. Websites, they say, are gateways. Potential students visit to take virtual tours. Students log on to review the course catalog, register for next semester, pay tuition, or simply find out about the weekend social scene.

The website is the "face" of the school, notes Dong Chen, web developer and architect at Bowling Green State University (Ohio). It is part of the branding effort. Two years ago, the public university, which is home to 20,000 students on two campuses, brought in a content management system to bring order to its website. The decision was part of a larger collaboration between the CIO's office and marketing and communications. At that point the website was "a mess," suffering from an inordinate number of users who imposed varied graphic and text styles. "Some pages looked like BGSU. Some didn't say anything. People would come to the website and not know where they were."

Thanks to a CMS program called Rhythmyx by Percussion, and global stylesheets that are part of the system, the website (www.bgsu.edu) now has a consistent look that features a recognizable color scheme on its main pages. About 25 CMS users on campus can update information and add pages, but they no longer have access to the main server. Instead, they publish information that is reviewed by a designated web editor before it goes live.

CMS systems work behind the scenes, keeping track of all pages and their respective links to other pages. They also store information, allowing users to re-purpose it at some future date. They disallow gonzo designers in disparate departments from changing design elements--keeping crucial information off limits to all but a webmaster. CMS users in academic departments might be able to, say, change their course descriptions, but they won't be able to replace the school logo that sits in the upper left-hand corner with a photo of the new dean. Something as critical as a tuition price change can be updated simultaneously on all relevant pages, leaving no room for error. The same is true for a changed URL that may appear on a number of webpages.

CMS tools came on the scene as the internet started to grow in the late 1990s. They were introduced to solve the common problems almost every webmaster faces. Webmasters lost control when websites grew from several pages to several hundred, then to several thousand. Many who didn't have software assistance to automate functions were left to hand-code every text and design change.

In academia, even the website page counts at small-sized colleges and universities grew into the thousands. Is CMS the answer for campus webmasters?

The early adopters think so.

Gonzaga University (Wash.), a private religious school with 8,000 students, installed a CMS in 2002 after first trying to manage web operations through a homegrown solution in its central office. Many IHEs at first take the "do it yourself" approach to web management, says Wayne Powell, CIO and associate academic VP. While the site (www.gonzaga.edu) was attractive enough, it grew too slowly.

In their impatience to load new material, other offices hired their own website development staffers, creating a decentralized web operation with pages and pieces that had no common identity. By 2001, officials came to the consensus that things had to change. A campus team eventually selected Microsoft Content Management Server for CMS.

Gonzaga paid $25,000 for the software, and pays an annual maintenance fee of $5,000 to maintain and upgrade the program. An estimated 70 CMS users on campus can post their own material, provided they receive CMS training and are provided a CMS password. Additional applications have been incorporated into the CMS. They allow Gonzanga to do such things as accept online credit card payment for continuing education programs.

In 2001, Baldwin Wallace College (Ohio), a private IHE with 3,000 students, installed PageWizard, a CMS offered by LeepFrog Technologies. Having CMS allowed the school's website to balloon from 750 pages to 6,000, says Susan Rouault, director of web administration. Eventually about 100 users were trained to use the system--specific personnel in academic and administrative departments were given passcodes so they could post new course information, specifics on admissions, information on students organizations and more.

The CMS offers users three standard templates in which to work. They choose which page layout best presents their content and related hyperlinks. This CMS, like many others, is designed so that the user's interface is like that of a word processing software program. Boldfacing or italicizing a word does not require knowledge of HTML or XML coding. Such commands are built into a toolbar.

Users, however, are locked out of access to the logos, colors and standard graphics that are part of the overall website (www.bw.edu). When Rouault, or someone in the main office, wants to replace a logo or a piece of information that appears in many places on the site--such as a telephone number--she can input the change and be assured that it is simultaneously made on all related pages.

Such CMS systems are installed at 300 or so IHEs, estimates Michael Stoner, principal of mStoner, a Chicago-based consultancy that has installed CMS systems at three dozen colleges and universities since the mid-1990s.

"On one hand it was great to have all those
pages, but I had to remind everyone that they
also have to maintain the pages."
-Susan Rouault, director of web administration, Baldwin Wallace College

This group of vendors includes Vignette, Ingeniux, Documentum, Ektron, RedDot Solutions and Serena Collage. Setup costs can range from $20,000 to $80,000, depending on the vendor and the number of users, notes Ty Glasgow, president of BigBad, a web design and development firm that recently helped Fairfield University (Conn.) relaunch its website, and that has worked with Smith College (Mass.), the University of Notre Dame (Ind.), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and 30 other IHEs. Of course, fees can climb higher, depending on the system. Chen reports that Bowling Green paid $250,000 for system setup.

According to information published by the consulting firm Gartner, Stamford, Conn., the average price of a web content management system in 1999 was $500,000. In 2003, it was $150,000. Today, mid-market CMS systems fall into the $50,000 to $100,000 price range.

Vendors often charge an annual licensing or maintenance fee, which is usually 15 percent of the initial setup fee, adds Glasgow. Rouault, for example, pays about $10,000 annually to use the PageWizard system. A host of other schools are using various web-publishing programs that allow users to create and edit content and that include some CMS management features. Macromedia's Contribute would fall into this category, says Glasglow.

Publishing webpages is, in some ways, no different than publishing printed pages. There are authors, editors, designers and publishers. Those who have CMS on campus say that designing a workflow--figuring out who will do what and when--is the first step, and in some cases the most important one.

The first question to answer is: Who should have access to content management system?

At California State University Channel Islands, only identified webmasters in each division use the CMS system. Neither faculty, nor students, touch the system, says Peter Mosinskis, coordinator of web services for the relatively new Cal State IHE. His university, in operation, since 1998, installed Serena Collage as a CMS system in 2003.

"It is unrealistic to expect an administrative
assistant to learn a complex tool in order
to update a website."
- Michael Stoner, principal, mStoner

"We had to develop accountability and decide who would be responsible for what," he explains. Various departments are responsible for certain pages. Those departments, in turn, select staffers who upload content and place them in a staging area. Other editors then sign off on the new pages and give the OK to publish.

Baldwin Wallace has a similar system. After the various staffers in their related departments make their changes they post their pages. Rouault reviews all page changes on an approval screen before publishing them to the website. The only exceptions are some sports pages that are updated on weekends when games are played.

Still, the setup is not flawless. People are the real power behind CMS. People aren't perfect, which is why it is possible to find pages with graphics that haven't been updated in two years, or forms with contact information for employees who have long-since left the college. Rouault may not have time to update all 6,000 pages on the site, but she does identify pages that have not been updated. She reminds the department heads and student group organizers that their pages need attention. "I am affectionately known as the webnag," she says.

"On one hand it was great to have all those pages, but I had to remind everyone that they also have to maintain the pages."

Her remark sums up the downside of CMS. It is not a panacea. People have to stay on top of the system.

Consider CMS the new CRM, suggests Jeffrey Veen, partner in Adaptive Path, a consulting group based in San Francisco. CRM, or customer relationship management software, was hailed five years ago as the answer to all business problems. It could track and analyze all contacts with a customer, including website visits and e-mail messages. Customers were analyzed by demographics, income, how much they purchased, and their favorite buying times. With costs running in the millions, these systems weren't cheap.

Strapped companies looked far more skeptically at CRM software after the dot-com bubble burst. Sure the software was powerful, but it can be effective only if the people using it are properly trained to use it and to analyze the results.

"My biggest piece of advice is to think of CMS as a process and not software," says Veen.

Stoner prefers web-based CM systems that are easy to use. That's because many colleges and universities assign standard updates to administrative staff. "It is unrealistic to expect an administrative assistant to learn a complex tool in order to update a website," he notes. "The training curve for the end user has to be fairly shallow."

Clients will next have to struggle with integration, says Stoner. More and more, CMS systems are being linked to course management systems--the other CMS on campus--and portals. Too, library systems, which run on their own database software, may soon be integrated into the campus website or portal. Finding the tool that will manage website content, academic materials--including lectures, rich media and bulletin boards--and portal information is no doubt the next campus IT assignment.


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