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Think Twice Before Moving Your School to a WordPress Site!

Weighing the pros and cons of a DIY website for your school

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All schools recognize the necessity of a school website today, although many might not utilize the full value of it as a communications and marketing dynamo. But an up-to-date school website is indeed a requirement in today’s highly-connected and digital world.

How and why we manage school websites as we do

Historically, when the Internet first blew into all our lives, the typical school website was developed and hosted in-house by the school’s IT department. Initially, this was a necessity because of the technical requirements of this new and complex innovation. As development progressed, it became more cost-effective and secure to use systems and programs like content management systems (CMS) that were designed and hosted outside of the school. These sites were easier to update and didn’t require the need to know HTML, CSS, server technologies, or programming languages.

Then, in the United States, a federal program called E-Rate began to reimburse schools for a percentage of the costs of website technology. This monetary incentive allowed more schools to outsource their school website design and hosting services to professionals in those fields. Sites became more robust, more secure, and easier to manage. This also freed many school staff IT departments from the responsibility of managing the communications and public relations purposes of the school sites.

However, a few years ago when eRate funding for school websites was discontinued, school IT departments had to come up with the previously funded money in order to sustain their school’s websites. Some schools decided they would not reallocate funds to cover this cost but hoped to eliminate the expense by bringing the website design and development back in-house.

One of the many systems available for the DIY website system is WordPress. This is an open source program that anyone can use, and since it doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, there is no cost for the basic platform. While it was initially designed as a blogging platform, it is currently the most widely used content management system on the web, with over 50% of CMS market share.

All of this sounds like a possible solution, given most schools’ meager budgets. If that were the only evaluation criteria, it might be right. But, is a line item in a department budget enough of a reason to return to the methods we used in 2000? Before you make your next website choice, let’s look at the most commonly used DIY choice—WordPress.

Disadvantages of WordPress

Security. WordPress sites get hacked. In fact, according to 2017 stats, WordPress was the most infected website platform with 83% of the sampled sites. While WordPress advocates will tell you that is only because they are ubiquitous and are easy targets, the real reason is often due to improper deployment or management. Sometimes it is the needed plugin or theme that is poorly coded, but since schools don’t have any option but to use the many plugins, the opportunity for hacking is obvious. As an open source platform, the plugins and themes are developed by different people and companies without any oversight or monitoring—so they can contain bugs, malicious code, or security breaches. To counter this known issue, you can also use plugins to beef up the security. That means you must know what you are doing up front, or you won’t know what you need to add to keep your school sites secure. So, now you need an expert, and you are likely expecting your IT team to handle that as well, right?

ADA website compliance. This is a hot button for schools since they are required by law to make sure their school websites are accessible. There is a lot involved in making that happen, and the complexities increase exponentially when you must develop the site in-house. Once you’ve added the appropriate WP Accessibility plug, you need to understand the requirements of WCAG 2.0 and how to apply them to your site.

Performance. In addition to not having any built-in caching (at the server or browser level), unless you really know your stuff, far beyond what yet another plug-in can provide, there will be page load issues. Also, the use of all the plugins required to make your WordPress site usable will affect site loads as well. If all of your school’s parents are on high-speed Internet, you don’t use many images, and you don’t care how long it takes to load on a mobile device, this might not be an issue. But if you care about search engine optimization (SEO) and your website rankings, you will need to care.

Development. WordPress isn’t an out-of-the-box solution for schools. In addition to the many plug-ins required, you may also need to write complex code for some functions and posts. You’ll require more technical skills than with fully-developed CMS systems. If you need to intensify your website graphics, you will also need to learn some CSS and HTML coding. But, if you would revel in learning some PHP or CSS, you can edit some of the themes and plugs to tweak to your needs.

Updates. Depending on how many plugins you must use, and there will be many, WordPress updates can often make parts of your theme or some of your plugs unusable. Updates will create compatibility problems, so frequent adjustments are required to maintain a functional website.

Management. Unlike a system that is designed to meet all the needs of a school website for a turn-key solution, you get to build your own system. That means someone needs to know what they are doing. That could be you (and you can learn all that goes into best practices of school websites, ADA compliance, intuitive navigation, content development, tone of voice, communications strategies, and more), or you can hire a developer to create a WordPress site for you. In the case of the former, if your passion is to become a website developer and webmaster, great. In the case of the latter, you will have to pay someone to develop that site and will be stuck dealing with all the other issues we mentioned earlier.

No Support. Nope. WordPress doesn’t provide technical support. You can find various support forums where others trying to solve issues have posted questions and responses. Unfortunately, sometimes these forums can leave your problem unsolved and you more confused than ever. If you are a beginner, without in-depth technical knowledge, trying to customize your WordPress platform to fit your needs will be nearly impossible.

Advantages of WordPress

  • Compared to other DIY content management systems, if you are looking for a simple website, it is relatively easy to implement.
  • Because it is open source, if you are a developer, you can modify, distribute, and use the code without having to pay license fees.
  • Like all CMS, you don’t need to be familiar with programming languages (assuming you are not looking for customization of your website).
  • WordPress allows you to rapidly create a website using a pre-designed theme and various plugins.

You will notice that some of the advantages also are disadvantages, depending on your school’s needs. If you love the idea of developing your own website, have the staff to manage and update it, don’t mind staying on top of the updates and changes, site load times aren’t a concern, and you have the budget capacity to pay staff to do the job, WordPress is a viable solution.

But, should you decide to go the DIY route for your school’s website, be sure to factor in the actual costs. Don’t be fooled into looking at a single line item called “website hosting.” Include all of your staff’s time, even if they are not receiving a stipend for this “other duties as assigned” work. If they are doing the work of school website management on school time, you are paying them for it and possibly at the cost of whatever else they were actually hired to do. 

Other factors to consider

Regardless of whether you choose an open source CMS like WordPress, where you will host and manage all aspects of your site in-house, or you a choose a website provider whose products or services provide security, support, and customization, there are some priorities you need to implement. As yourself a few questions:

  • First, consider the purpose of your school website. What is the job it is being asked to perform? 
  • Who will manage your website long term? 
  • If you have a single individual handling the management, what happens if they leave? Is there a single point of failure in your process? 
  • Will training be required each year and if so, who will provide that? 
  • Will those being asked to fulfill these jobs have the requisite skill sets needed, like optimizing images (graphic design), copywriting (grammar, punctuation, tone, word choice), ADA compliance training, public relations, marketing, and the other knowledge required? 

The answers you provide will influence the choice you make in choosing the best website platform for your school. 

To provide today’s parents and your other stakeholders with the level of communication they have come to expect from your school, you need a plan. Your school website can save your school or district thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands, by saving your staff time, improving parent engagement, building trust, providing better customer service, and helping your school earn a respected reputation. It can also increase student enrollment and attract the highest quality staff. Your website platform is just the first step. Handle this wisely and the next steps can move your school toward the ever-important goal of educating our nation’s youth. The communication strategy you implement, of which your website is the central hub, will help you succeed.

The disclaimer 

With 15 years of school experience, we are unashamedly biased in what we recommend to schools. We believe, and have the evidence to back it up, that effective school communications can make or break your educational efforts. We don’t use WordPress for our school websites for a variety of reasons. But, we also don’t ask our schools to do anything at all on their websites that they don’t want to do. They don’t need to be trained on CMS software or know how to make and keep their website accessible, follow website best practices, or even write content. They also don’t worry about staff turnover or the skillsets or training and retraining maintaining their own website would require. 

But hey, that is just us. We are not a CMS; we’re a service. Our ideal school clients’ goals are to keep their school staff focused on their areas of expertise, and they expect us to stay focused on ours. And we believe we can do it for far less than you can keep all of it in-house and with none of the headaches. If this sounds like something your school needs, we hope you’ll reach out to us. Call Jim at 888.750.4556 or request a quote.

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