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Why Drupal is the Right Fit for Higher Ed

by Mediacurrent Team
November 7, 2014

After speaking to dozens of higher ed institutions over the last several years, I’m convinced now more than ever that open source technology, particularly Drupal, is the best fit for these organizations. I know I’m echoing what many in the Drupal community have observed for a while, but I’d like to describe why Drupal makes so much sense for higher ed. I’m stating the obvious but want to take a step back because the obvious is important and is sometimes overlooked: Enterprise technology is difficult to manage. 

At the average U.S. higher education institution, an array of web content management tools are implemented, not by design but by necessity. Colleges and departments need to quickly distribute a lot of information, from semester to semester, related to topics such as research, event management, coursework or recruiting. These organizations tend to have their own technology “fiefdoms” led by a technical director or a web developer working in a silo with little oversight from an executive office. For example, one department may run a proprietary content management system (CMS) while another might run a custom CMS using its own technology stack. This presentation by Stony Brook University (page 4) illustrates the problem I’m describing. Knowledge and talent to manage and maintain these systems is fractured and documentation is typically sparse or non-existent. 

On the other hand, campus CIO’s have the overwhelming task of establishing vision, oversight, and management of technology across dozens of departments and colleges; a task that requires significant time and investment. Standardization on one CMS platform will pay big ROI to institutions that struggle with managing multiple CMS technologies.

Drupal is solving the issue of standardization and disparate content management systems. Here’s why:

  • Systems integration - Drupal offers a variety of web services capabilities in the Services, View Data Export, RESTful Web Services, and Web Service Client modules. Drupal can be configured as a services end-point (receiving calls and returning data to 3rd party systems) or configured to call other services (receiving data from applications such as event management systems). For institutions that publish native mobile apps, these web services capabilities can seamlessly provide content to native apps. Some institutions use Drupal as the master content source in their mobile apps.
  • User account management - Web user management at institutions can be complex, often involving duplicate records when managing users across multiple websites and systems. Drupal can tie into user database systems like Microsoft’s Active Directory or LDAP using the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) module. Or, the CAS module can be used to make Drupal itself the master database for user records.
  • Multi-site - Drupal offers several approaches for configuring on Drupal installation to run many websites. The traditional multi-site approach is the most flexible, providing the ability to store content for each website in different databases and/or sharing MySQL tables like Drupal’s user table. If a requirement is to share content across multiple websites, another approach is to use the Domain Access module, which allows sharing of users, content, and configuration settings between sites. 
  • Mobile responsive user interface - Drupal 8 will release with responsive themes out-of-the-box, offering mobile compatibility without the need to install a new theme. This is especially helpful for mobile content administration.
  • Intranet - Building a college or department’s Intranet using Drupal reduces the talent overhead required to manage more than one web technology for both website and Intranet. You can read more about Drupal as an Intranet solution in an article I wrote last year.
  • 508 accessibility - Being Section 508 Compliant is a requirement at most institutions. These modules provide 508 Compliant features: Text Size for adjusting text and Accessibility for validating a site’s accessibility compliance. Alt-text for image handling is available in out-of-the-box.
  • Content authoring and publishing workflow - Some departments don’t require a lot of checks and balances for curating and publishing content, but for those that do, modules like Workbench suite and Revisioning feature highly configurable publishing workflows.
  • Social and email marketing - Built on the premise of being a social collaboration tool, Drupal extends the “community” concept by offering capabilities for engagement both inside and outside of the CMS. Institutions managing tools like phpBB have the option to migrate forums to Drupal. Furthermore, Drupal excels at integrating with social media and email marketing services. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Pinterest modules are available from the community. Email marketing tools like MailChimp, Constant Contact, and Pardot integrate tightly with Drupal.
  • Flexibility - Departments have different communication needs throughout a campus, dictated by their size and field of study. What works for the business school may not work for the science school.
  • No licensing fees - Proprietary CMS tools like OmniUpdate pigeonhole institutions into annual licensing contracts while offering limited feature options. Drupal’s open source licensing gives institutions a less costly technology solution that offers hundreds of feature possibilities typically not available in most other CMS’s.

Drupal’s modular architecture and customization capability make it a very viable option for solving issues around divergent web technologies that plague many higher ed institutions. Two years ago, Drupal was being adopted by over 70% of the top 100 universities: institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Cal Berkeley. Other notable institutions such as University of North Carolina and Cornell have followed suit. The number Institutions that want to lay a web technology foundation that provides enough options to meet the needs of departments and colleges campus-wide should take a closer look at Drupal. 

More Resources
DrupalCon Austin 2014 Session - Scaling Drupal for Higher-ed Institutions
Higher Education Meet-up at DrupalCon 
The Importance of Content Strategy in Higher Education | Mediacurrent Blog Post
University of Georgia | Mediacurrent Case Study 
Best CMS - Is Drupal Right for Me? | Mediacurrent Blog Post 

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