Chances are that if you're shopping around for a new website (or are in the market now) you considered WordPress, or another open source solution like Drupal, because of its affordability and popularity. Naturally, we’re pretty familiar with the question: "Why would I go with a company like Finalsite when I can get a free solution like WordPress?"
Since thousands of schools all over the world have gone through this decision-making process and chosen to work with Finalsite, we wanted to outline a few of the key reasons schools opt away from open source and why, even on the basis of price alone, this platform decision is not clear cut.
As one of the most popular content management solutions among bloggers and small business owners, WordPress has a corner in that market but as the largest provider for K-12 web platforms, we’ve encountered multiple reasons why WordPress and other open source solutions like it aren’t the right fit for a school.
Here are a few of the most common and significant issues schools face when they opt for open source:
It's a website — not a school web solution
Maybe your head of school or superintendent is telling you that “we just need a new website,” but after 20 years there’s a huge difference between “just a website” and a web platform. If that’s truly all you need, then a solution like SquareSpace or Wix would fit the bill, which is even more DIY than WordPress. Most schools have long realized, though, that while you can add plug-ins to gain supplemental marketing and communication tools, open source is a BandAid approach to the reality of what schools need: a fully-featured and integrated marketing and communications platform to support all of the internal and external communications, marketing and learning initiatives.
For example, connecting the website to your internal databases, developing a cohesive digital advertising plan, sending emails that automatically pull content from your website and send it to your families, or incorporating website accessibility guidelines and tools — add up to a lot of time piecing things together with open source, whereas at Finalsite all of these components are ready to roll.
Many public and private schools view open source as an obvious way to cut the cost of a school website. After all, it’s “free” — no license or maintenance fees. How nice of all those programmers worldwide!
All of those programmers contributing to open source code spell for a wholly different problem: an inconsistent back-end, plug-ins, and ongoing need for customization, so much so that most schools hire a dedicated individual or contractor to build and manage the website. Open source solutions offer tremendous customization to its templates and functionality, which in turn means a high degree of technical knowledge to maximize these benefits.
So, while the annual subscription of “free” may be enticing, the relative cost of hiring an outside firm or a professional to manage and update the website on a regular basis can approach or exceed the cost of a salaried employee, when compared to a content editor. While the right contractor can be inexpensive, it's equally important to factor in the trade-off of accountability and service for attractively low fees. A side concern is that a contractor isn’t necessarily thinking about ongoing content edits and updates like an employee at the school — they may be accountable for the software, but have no stake in what it says or even how it looks.
Serious data and security considerations
Is WordPress safe? An open source website by definition means that nameless programmers have a hand in your school website's source code and share that same code with each other. While this leads to innovation and continuous improvements, it also means open source websites are constantly vulnerable to hackers.
Drupal and WordPress have seen many cases of malicious code being published, allowing unexpected access to your private information. It doesn’t take long to see what’s possible by skimming through discussions about different hacks and website security compromises on the WordPress platform.
At Finalsite we think about data security all the time. In fact, for the thousands of school websites we host around the world, we protected our schools from over 4 million suspicious daily requests and attacks in 2020!
Plug-ins you wish you could unplug
With open source, the virtues of plug-ins are endless: fun, animated web design elements, e-commerce functionality, integration options, new functionality, and lots more. These additional widgets will get your site working just right, and the plug-ins available to do this are very convenient, easy to add, and oftentimes trouble-free. But there’s a cost to convenience, including security, load times, and issues with updates.
Vulnerability testing isn’t a requirement for open source plug-ins, yet according to a recent report, more than 90 percent of all WordPress security issues are found in plugins and themes. This alone should give one real pause. Again, a WordPress website for a small business may make perfect sense, but for a school with significant data about your families? Not so much.
Issues with updates
Top of the list of complaints from open source administrators is the disconnect between the core platform code and the plug-ins. When an open source releases an update to its platform, current plug-ins may, or may not, work, and have the potential to break other things, invite your website to hacks, and even break the entire website temporarily.
Slow sites, low engagement
No one likes to wait, and while most users may wait 6-10 seconds for a page to load, there’s a strong correlation between page abandonment and slow load times.
Because of the piecemeal nature of an open source website, the aggregate code isn't optimized for speed and performance. The assortment of plug-ins and custom code can hurt website performance. In addition, because open source websites are homegrown, there isn’t a team of people looking for ways to optimize the code, design, and the site as a whole.
Because WordPress is designed around blogs and small business sites, using Wordpress for school websites doesn't allow for the types of granular permissions that a school-specific solution offers. This generally means two things.
For one, it means you’d likely only have a small web team making website changes and updates, which is often counter to the idea of “content management” where many people are contributing to the website’s upkeep, leading to challenges to the website's sustainability.
Second, less granularity means that you may have to give editors access to areas that don’t make sense — putting your website at risk for inconsistent voice and branding, as well as breaking WCAG 2.0 standards.
When there’s a solid foundation of permissions, you can more confidently delegate certain pages to different admins, including layout and publishing rights, and make it stress-free when allowing more people to contribute to your website.
Integration with your student information system
Aside from exposing your data inadvertently through plug-ins that haven’t been vetted or installed correctly, technology departments are constantly looking at data flow and integrity throughout a school or district.
All schools require that they have accurate and dependable parent, student, and alumni data for communications and marketing. Since most every SIS (Student Information System) is proprietary, open source solutions can't directly integrate, which means either no integration at all or lots of manual uploads and downloads by your IT department — a cumbersome and extremely time-consuming task.
A school-specific CMS like Finalsite is already designed to integrate with other school-specific information systems, including key school providers such as Blackbaud, PowerSchool, and others. Integration also means a broader set of single sign-on options to simplify your user experience and issues falling back onto your overworked technology department.
A call for support
When you need support, you need support -- a number to call, a ticket to submit, a person to reach out to. And nothing is more frustrating for open source users when they can’t get reliable support during a problematic situation, particularly when a plug-in stops working and no one knows why.
With time already at a premium, schools depend on quality support teams to handle small and big issues alike, but the lack of product support becomes a crucial issue for schools year-round. And it’s hard to get mad at that inexpensive contractor you’ve come to count on when the site suddenly has a critical issue on a weekend and he’s off in the mountains.
The investment you make in your education website solution should include all costs to understand your return on digital investment (RODI), including hosting, backup, server, disk space, bandwidth allocation, data transfer rates, uptime, server and software upgrade maintenance, server security and maintenance (local installs), and of course content creation and personnel time to manage all aspects in maintaining a website.
When that bottom line emerges, open source is rarely a cheaper, easier, or even free alternative, especially when you have to account for added website costs, time, local server hosting costs, and installs — not to mention the frequent software updates you are required to maintain on your own... and the cost of peace of mind!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angelo graduated valedictorian from St. Paul's School in Baltimore, MD and from Princeton University. Despite getting his degree in creative writing and English Literature, it generally takes some doing to keep him from programming and breaking websites. Just after graduating, he started Silverpoint, and grew it to over 300 schools worldwide before merging with Finalsite in 2013.