Why Running A University Website Using WordPress Is Not Up For Academic Discussion

Why Running A University Website Using WordPress Is Not Up For Academic Discussion

An introduction to WordPress in Higher Ed.

School and university websites are about as challenging of a web design and development project as you could ever take on. A university website not only has to attract and recruit new students, it also needs to serve the individual needs of existing students, facilitate the distribution and exchange of information for faculty and staff, and promote fundraising and donation campaigns to alumni and the community at large.

As you can imagine, creating, managing, tracking and providing up-to-date content about courses, job openings, events, admissions, accommodation, research and development, social activities, discussions, and so much more across different segments of what ultimately must operate as a unified digital presence, can become very complex and extremely time-consuming.

Fortunately, universities and colleges, large and small, can manage all this quite easily if their web presence is built using the WordPress open-source platform.

WordPress powers over 30% of all websites worldwide. In fact, more websites today run on WordPress than any other platform. According to WordPress.org, almost 3.5 million schools, universities, colleges, and educational or learning institution sites worldwide are powered by WordPress. This includes sites at many prestigious universities like Harvard Law School, Cornell University, MIT, Duke, Vanderbilt University, the University of Berlin, Georgetown University, the University of Texas, and almost 50,000 other institutions for higher education worldwide.

Harvard Law School
Just like Harvard Law School, many university websites are now powered by WordPress!

To learn more about some of the top universities that use WordPress for their websites, see this article:

WordPress provides many features that make it the ideal platform for running a large university or college website, including a built-in content management system (CMS) and the ability to allow faculty and students to run separate websites for unique purposes such as discussion boards, college news, magazine websites, and learning management solutions to deliver courses online on their own servers using a multisite network.

As we will see in a moment, WordPress is not only an ideal platform for web developers to build amazing-looking, functional and sophisticated enterprise-scale websites, WordPress also makes it incredibly easy for university administrators, faculty members, and students to add media-rich content, collaborate on projects and assignments, and keep their information updated.

It is no wonder, then, that more educational, academic and learning institutions are turning to WordPress to power websites for schools, colleges, and universities.

Having said all this, however, there are a number of challenges that all large universities, colleges, and educational or higher learning institutes face when it comes to setting up and running an effective web presence. We address these challenges below and provide cost-effective solutions and links to useful resources and additional information that will help you understand and navigate through these challenges, and even provide you with a sound blueprint and strategy for building, growing, and managing a web presence for a large university, college, or educational organization.

And if you prefer, watch a video overview of this post here!

Challenge #1: Flexibility & Cost

One of the main challenges of choosing a platform and planning a website for a large university is flexibility.

A university website is a complex digital ecosystem.
A university website is a complex digital ecosystem.

A university website is a complex digital ecosystem. It is an interconnected amalgamation of different platforms that need to communicate and share information organically with different user groups (e.g. staff, faculty, alumni, and students), with different sections serving different purposes and performing different functions. And each of these sections and functions needs administration, management, and special access privileges.

For example, a university website may comprise of the following subsections:

Fixed Content vs. Dynamic Content Sections

Sections like an ‘About Us’ page tend to mostly contain ‘fixed’ information that is unlikely to change – perhaps with updates only every so often. In contrast, most university departments need to regularly publish and update ‘dynamic’ content in areas like news, research findings, program deadlines, etc.

Typically, traditional ‘websites’ are used to deliver information via fixed content pages, whereas ‘blogs’ are used to deliver dynamic or changing content. WordPress lets you set up sections under the same installation and domain name that can perform as a website, or as a blog.

Using the Harvard Law School website as an example, the site’s ‘About Us’ page comprises of a web page that has mostly fixed content…

Harvard Law School website - About Us page
Most of the information on this page is not going to change that often!

In comparison, the ‘Harvard Law Today’ section displays dynamic news articles, which are published on a regular basis and administered separately by different university faculties, departments, or individual lecturers, functioning, therefore, more like a ‘blog’ …

Harvard Law Today - Featured news WordPress blog
This section of the university website displays dynamic content, like a blog!

Information Delivery vs User Engagement Sites

Although most popular content publishing platforms allow you to set up both fixed websites and dynamic blogs under the same domain, no other platform can help you create a website that is as flexible and cost-effective as WordPress when it comes to delivering different types of information and allowing users to engage and interact directly with this information.

For example, consider what it would take to code and add a ‘Calendar of Events’ section to an existing university website …

Harvard Law School website: Events calendar
Harvard Law School website: Events calendar – https://hls.harvard.edu/calendar

Or develop and incorporate a separate program to add, update, and display current information about a curriculum or a catalog of courses and academic programs…

Harvard Law School Curriculum Page
Harvard Law School Curriculum Page – https://hls.harvard.edu/academics/curriculum

Now, multiply the time and development costs to build and integrate additional sections like:

  • Faculty or student directories
  • Student discussion boards and news bulletins
  • Private access to forms, services, and members
  • Online courses and online course content delivery platform
  • Content uploading/delivery/messaging/support
  • Career and job boards,
  • Handbooks and documentation sections for university policies, admissions, submissions,
  • etc.

Developing each of the above sections and then integrating these seamlessly with an existing website would be a very complex and expensive undertaking…unless you start with a platform designed to be modular and dynamic from the outset.

Setting up a network of modular and customizable sections = the smart, effective & dynamic way to build and manage a university website!
Setting up a network of modular and customizable sections = the smart, effective & dynamic way to build and manage a university website!

WordPress is that platform. WordPress is built to be modular, dynamic, and completely customizable. Because WordPress is an open-source software platform, it allows developers like WPMU DEV to create new functional extensions and ‘plug and play’ add-ons (called ‘plugins’) that behave like apps on a mobile phone, making the entire WordPress ecosystem versatile, flexible, scalable, and cost-effective.

The flexibility and cost-effectiveness of WordPress also extend to areas like template design and website navigation.

WordPress uses a unique ‘theme-based’ approach to web design, which allows users to change the entire look and feel of a website without affecting the underlying content and while preserving all of its functionality, like enhancements, menus, navigation sections, internal and external links, etc.

Planning and designing a website for a university using WordPress, then, is kind of like having shapeshifting abilities. WordPress gives you the freedom to start wherever you are and build whatever you need within your budget, add new sections whenever you need these as things grow and evolve, and then modify and customize anything and everything, anytime you need to, without losing any of the internal content, linking, or navigational architecture.

The best way to understand what a WordPress theme is and how it behaves is to imagine a ‘skin’ covering every element of the website that is visible to users. You can change a WordPress theme in a couple of clicks and the entire website’s appearance and layout will be completely transformed without affecting the organs, muscles, and bones of the organism within.

WordPress, however, lets you take things even further by allowing you to fully configure and customize both the exterior (web design) and the interior (functionality) of your web presence.

This flexibility and versatility makes WordPress the most powerful and cost-effective web platform available for building a large university website. You can start with ‘off-the-shelf’ themes and plugins and then add, remove, modify, enhance, and expand any and every aspect of the site as your organization’s needs grow and evolve.

For example, if we compare different university websites built using WordPress, you will quickly realize after looking at just a few sites how flexible and cost-effective the WordPress platform really is.

We’ve looked briefly at the Harvard Law School website. Let’s contrast the HLS site with some other university websites, like Boston University’s admissions website

Boston University Admissions website - powered by WordPress!
Boston University Admissions website – powered by WordPress!

Or the Nicholls State University website

Nicholls State University website - powered by WordPress!
Nicholls State University website – powered by WordPress!

Or, the University of Manitoba News site

University of Manitoba News site - powered by WordPress!
University of Manitoba News site – powered by WordPress!

As you can see, no two websites powered by WordPress need to look alike using the same template, or behave in the same way using the same limited applications or functional elements.

One of the benefits of being an open-source program is that thousands of highly skilled professional developers (like the team here at WPMU DEV) have helped to build WordPress into what it is today.

But the power and flexibility of WordPress doesn’t even end here!

If you go back and study the above sites in more detail, you will see that some of the sections of these university websites were not built using WordPress. WordPress is so flexible that it can be installed separately under the same domain and then customized to display a seamlessly integrated web design that will match an existing section built using a different web platform (e.g. Drupal), while retaining its unique functionality.

To learn more about why WordPress is the obvious platform of choice when it comes to website flexibility and cost considerations, see the articles below:

Challenge #2: Hosting And Site Management

As we’ve just seen, a university website is a complex digital ecosystem. WordPress makes it easier to plan, build, host, manage and maintain a website for a large university, college or school of higher education.

Here are just some of the reasons why:

Planning A University Website

Ideally, you want to fully plan out your website before you begin to build it. This includes all the website sections, web pages, web design (including color schemes, page layout, site navigation, typography, etc.) and other important areas such as digital administration (i.e. who is ultimately responsible for looking after all aspects of the web presence, including domain names, software licenses, etc.), digital management (web hosting, website and content management), and digital marketing (content, promotion, SEO, traffic, etc.).

WordPress lets you change anything on your website ... at any time!
WordPress lets you change anything on your website … at any time!

The open nature and scalability of WordPress means that you don’t have to be so rigorous and meticulous with your website planning, as you can easily add, change and reconfigure just about anything and everything on your web presence at any time. This allows you to build an effective web presence that is responsive to the needs of your users, instead of building a fixed website that will require spending additional time and money later to redesign, fix, or improve.

Building A University Website

Building a website for a large university with WordPress can also be a flexible, scalable, and modular experience. WordPress allows for multiple installations of the platform under your domain using subfolders or addon domains (such as “yourdomain.com/site1”, “yourdomain.com/site2”, or “library.yourdomain.com”, etc. ), a ‘multisite’ installation (one installation with multiple self-administered sites and a super administrator to rule them all!), or a combination of both.

For example, the illustration below shows how four separate installations of WordPress under the same domain (YourUniversity.com) can be set up for different uses (e.g. main website, news site, private access/membership site, and a multisite installation for separate faculty websites):

A university website can comprise of multiple WordPress installations for different purposes.
A university website can comprise of multiple WordPress installations for different purposes.

Each of the WordPress installations shown in the example above can support sites that can expand with unlimited subsections, including WordPress Multisite.

What is WordPress Multisite?

Multisite is a core WordPress feature that allows you to create and run a network of sites on a single WordPress installation. With Multisite installed and activated, each site can have its own separate users and content editors and can be run for their own purpose (e.g. as a website or blog for each university faculty, school, or division), and everything is controlled by a ‘Super Admin,’ who can create new sites and set up accounts for individual users, and install, manage, and control which themes and plugins are made available to all other sites on the network (note: site administrators cannot install or make changes to themes or plugins on their sites, only the ‘Super Admin’ can do this).

Running a WordPress Multisite installation, however, has special requirements, which is why we recommend using our Enterprise Hosting services if you are thinking of setting up a university website with WordPress Multisite.

To learn more about WordPress Multisite and why nobody does multisite better than WPMU DEV, see the articles below:

Hosting A University Website

When it comes to planning, building, and running a large university website, hosting is one of the most important technical considerations, especially if a network of sites and multiple WordPress installations will be used in your configuration.

In addition to fast, reliable, and secure hosting, large enterprises like universities, colleges and schools of higher education or other large learning institutions need to look at cost-effective enterprise-level dedicated servers and 24/7 technical support.

As WordPress is the world’s most popular and widely used platform for running CMS (Content Management System) websites and blogs, many hosting companies now offer enterprise-level dedicated WordPress hosting support and services.

In addition to having technical WordPress hosting expertise, the dedicated WordPress hosting team you choose to look after your site or network of sites also needs to have expertise in areas like WordPress security, development, and design.

Traffic can spike around the first day of classes or special events, and your website will be critical for your community should the unforeseen emergency or natural disaster occur. For these reasons, wherever you host your websites, you will want to ensure load balancing, auto-scaling, redundancy and more. You will want to ensure that at least some of your web presence is hosted ‘in the cloud’ or off-campus as well.

Here at WPMU DEV, for example, we provide fully dedicated WordPress hosting to thousands of universities, colleges, and schools through our unique CampusPress solution.

CampusPress - A complete hosting solution for universities, colleges, and schools!
CampusPress – A complete hosting solution for universities, colleges, and schools!

CampusPress has been used since 2005 to power WordPress Multisite networks, websites, learning platforms, course blogs, ePortfolios, student projects and more for educational institutions, faculties, departments, schools, districts, and student organization sites around the world.
To learn more about the benefits of hosting your university site with our expert WordPress hosting services and solutions, visit the sections below:

  • WordPress For Education (CampusPress)– Discover why thousands of districts, schools and universities use CampusPress and why you should too!
  • Dedicated WordPress Hosting – Learn about our unique WordPress hosting services, including support, features, plans & pricing, enterprise-level hosting, security, optimization and backup automation solutions, site migration, access to our all-inclusive membership plugins, and more!

Managing & Maintaining A University Website

Managing a large university website can seem like a complex and overwhelming undertaking, but with WordPress, it doesn’t have to be.

WordPress comes with many built-in features that allow even non-technical users to easily manage and maintain a network of sites. Some of these features include:

  • A central administration area (called the ‘WordPress Dashboard’) with easy-to-navigate menus, admin toolbar, and help sections.
  • One-click and/or automated software, plugin, and theme installation and updates.
  • User roles and privileges (see next section) with individual user logins.
  • Customizable and configurable menus.
  • Customizable and configurable sidebar, header, and footer layouts.
  • A new modular architecture called ‘blocks’.
  • And many other automation features.

Speaking of automation, when it comes to managing WordPress sites, we recommend using The Hub, our streamlined site management solution.

The Hub - Complete WordPress Site Management Solution.
The Hub – Complete WordPress Site Management Solution.

The Hub makes managing every aspect of running multiple (unlimited, actually!) WordPress sites incredibly easy, including 24/7 access to support and exclusive members-only community, plus access to a central dashboard where you can generate reports, update core software, plugins, and themes, monitor site uptime and performance, run security scans and audits, perform backups and even improve your sites…all from one place!

To learn more, visit The Hub section.

Challenge #3: Site Administration, Content Management & User Training

Imagine your university website is all set up. Your network of sites is now up and running on a reliable, fast, secure, and optimized hosting environment and you have the peace of mind of knowing that, should anything go wrong, an entire dedicated team of WordPress experts is available 24/7 to help things keep running smoothly.
All that would be left to do now is:

  • Administer your sites,
  • Manage your content, and
  • Train users responsible for looking after the above areas in how to use WordPress effectively.
WordPress Site Administration, Content Management & User Training
WordPress Site Administration, Content Management & User Training

WordPress Site Administration

In the previous section, we touched on some of the requirements and built-in features of WordPress for managing just one or a network of sites.

To administer a WordPress website, however, also requires having access to specific privileges and permissions that other users shouldn’t have, like the ability to change login passwords, install or delete software, make global changes that affect page layouts, navigation menus, web design, etc.

WordPress addresses this challenge with a built-in system of User Roles & Permissions. Every WordPress installation includes a fundamental set of ‘out-of-the-box’ user roles with special privileges and permissions. These include:

  • Administrator – These users have access to all administration features and privileges on the site and can perform all the necessary functions associated with running the site.
  • Editor – Users assigned this role can review, edit, approve, schedule, publish, and manage their own and other users’ posts and pages.
  • Author – Authors can publish and manage their own posts and pages.
  • Contributor – Can write and manage their own posts, but not publish them.
  • Subscriber – Subscribers can only manage their profile and access specific areas of the site (assigned by an administrator) when logged in, that is not accessible to general site visitors and non-registered users. Typically, this role is used for customers or registered members of a membership or directory site. In the case of a university or college website, this role would be assigned to users like students, staff, or alumni for accessing or editing private/personal details, but not contributing content to the site.

Note that in WordPress multisite installations, the additional user role of ‘Super Admin’ is created. Super Admins have access to all sites on the network (administrators can only access their own site), including access to all backend features and can perform all functions.

WordPress Content Management

Some of the challenges of managing content on a WordPress site can be easily solved using the Roles & Permissions feature described above.

Every role below ‘Admin’ except for ‘Subscriber’ is essentially involved in managing content published on a WordPress site. This makes it easy to run a digital publishing department of any size, including an enterprise-level network of sites, such as the one that would be required by a large university or college.

For example, sites set up to publish information specifically related to all the various faculties, schools, departments and even student organizations, can assign roles and privileges to individual staff members, lecturers, students, alumni, or even third-party users like outsourced publishing departments, digital marketing service providers, professional or freelance content writers, etc.

This not only allows subject experts to author or contribute content to one or more sites providing university sites and blogs with user-generated content, it also allows groups of users like editors to edit, format and style the content, add links to other related articles, internal pages, or external sites, and other sections of the university’s digital ecosystem.

WordPress is made for creating, editing, and publishing media-rich content. Users can type or paste in text and compose, edit, or format content of any length, insert headings, images, videos, audio files, tables and other content elements using a visual editor or ‘blocks’, retrieve older auto-saved revisions, organize the content into nested pages, assign categories and tags, add excerpts, allow or disallow comments and replies, password-protect posts or pages or make these private, save the content as a draft or schedule to publish these at a later date, and so much more.

Additionally, WordPress makes available many plugins that are specifically made for advanced-level content publishing, including plugins that allow publishing departments, content calendars, content schedules, and content collaboration to be set up and run remotely, third-party integrations with various content services and service providers, and plugins that allow administrators to modify or customize user roles and permissions.

When it comes to creating, publishing, and managing content, therefore, WordPress provides universities, colleges, and large educational institutions with unlimited possibilities and configurations at every level of the content creation and publishing process.

WordPress User Training

The last challenge of running a large university website is training users to effectively manage and use the site. Fortunately, WordPress is easy to use and, thanks to a large community of enthusiastic WordPress developers and end-users, there is a whole lot of information available online on how to use WordPress and all its features, including detailed step-by-step written and video tutorials, podcasts, training manuals, guides, tips, and documentation.

Get Your University Website Running On WordPress

If you have been tasked with setting up a website for a university, college, school, learning institution, or even a large organization with a network of sites and a seemingly complex content publishing structure, then hopefully this article will have helped you understand just some of the many reasons why your site(s) should be running on the WordPress platform.

To recap:

  • Over one-third of all websites around the world are built with and powered by WordPress. This includes millions of websites and blogs worldwide, and over 3.5 million schools, prestigious universities, colleges, and educational or learning institution sites. Top universities host their sites on WordPress and we host thousands of CMS websites and blogs and learning platforms for schools, districts, and universities on CampusPress.
  • WordPress is built using open source software, which makes it completely scalable, flexible, and customizable. You can build just about anything you can imagine with WordPress, and once you have built it, you can then easily add new functionality, or change anything and everything at any time. We provide many award-winning premium plugins that are currently enhancing the functionality of hundreds of thousands of WordPress sites around the world.
  • Some of the main challenges of running a university website include flexibility and cost, web hosting and site management, site administration, content management, and user training. Fortunately, WordPress comes with many built-in features that can help you address these challenges. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of WordPress site owners choose our services and solutions (like dedicated WordPress hosting, site management, optimization, security, marketing, plugins, and support) to manage and grow their WordPress sites more effectively.

We hope that you have found this information useful. If you are new to WordPress and don’t know where to start, we recommend setting up a WPMU DEV account and trying all our services for FREE for the next 30 days, 100% risk-free! Click here to get started now…

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Martin Aranovitch
Martin Aranovitch Martin believes that we can all live sustainably in a WordPress-centric digital universe and spends most of his time taking copious notes and creating epic tutorials to prove his theory. Before joining WPMU DEV, Martin authored many WordPress training guides for beginners.
University websites are a complex beast, but WordPress can save the day. What is your favorite university website and why?