The 9 Biggest Problems Schools Face When They Choose Open Source
Angelo Otterbein

If you've been in the market for a new website in the past few years (or are in the market now), chances are you considered WordPress, or another open source solution like Drupal, because of affordability and popularity. You can imagine that here at Finalsite we regularly get the question: "Why would I go with you guys when I can get a free solution like WordPress?" Since more than 5,000 schools all over the world have taken the time to make this decision and work with us, we thought it would be helpful to outline the key reasons schools opt away from open source and why even on the basis of price alone the decision is not clear cut.

WordPress is currently one of the most popular CMS solutions among bloggers and small business owners looking to grow their online presence. However, there are multiple reasons why WordPress and other open source solutions like it aren’t always a good fit for the education space. From difficult website management to security, we've outlined the nine biggest issues schools face when they opt for open source.

1. It's a Website — Not a School Web Solution

In some ways this first one says it all. If you need “just a website” then it probably makes sense to use a solution like SquareSpace or Wix, which is even more DIY then WordPress. But the problem most schools face when opting for open source is that they realize quickly that they need far more than a website. While you can add plug-ins to gain supplemental marketing and communication tools, open source is a band-aid approach to a much bigger problem: schools need an all-encompassing marketing and communications platform to support all of the internal and external communications, marketing and learning initiatives. 

For example, connecting the website to your student information system, developing a cohesive digital advertising plan, sending emails that pick up content from your website and automatically send to prospective families, or adding a tightly integrated live streaming service — all require a lot of work and time if you try to piece it together with Open Source, whereas at Finalsite all of these pieces can be added with just a phone call.

2. The "Low Cost" Comes with Other Expenses

Many public and private schools find that the reduction in cost of using an open source solution very enticing. There's no license or maintenance fees, so the overall cost appears to be substantially less.

However, WordPress and Drupal’s inconsistent back-end, plug-ins, and need for customization require most schools to hire a dedicated individual or contractor to build and manage the website. Open source solutions offer a considerable amount of customization to its templates, meaning the technical knowledge needed to edit them can be overwhelming to those not skilled in coding.

So, while the annual subscription is low or even free, the cost of hiring a professional to manage and update the website on a regular basis can approach the cost of a salaried employee, or more in some cases, depending on experience. Certainly a contractor can be found to cut costs, but then it's important to factor in how you might then trade accountability and service for low fees. In addition, hiring a contractor for work means website updates won't be made at your convenience, leaving out-dated content on your website for long periods of time.

In addition to the added cost, you'll find it much more difficult and time consuming to get web pages approved, since not everyone could be involved with the process at once.

3. Your School's Private Data and Security is at Risk

This is undoubtedly the biggest issue with open source. When you opt for an open source website, it means that anonymous programmers have a hand in your school website's source code and share their code online with one another. While this is a benefit to developers, it leaves your website vulnerable to hackers.

Because of the nature of open source with Drupal and Wordpress, the platform has seen many cases of malicious code being published, allowing hackers to gain access to your private information. There are also dozens of threads and online discussions about different hacks and security compromises occurring on the WordPress platform.

Fact: In hosting thousands of school websites around the world, we have protected our schools from over 4 million suspicious daily requests and attacks in 2020!

4. Plug-Ins Come With Their Own Set-Backs

In order to get the design elements you want, extra security you need, and additional widgets to get your site working just right, you'll need to install a lot of additional plug-ins. While these plug-ins seem very convenient and often an easy add-on to build a highly functional website, they have their own set-backs including security, load times, and issues with updates.

Security

Many open source plug-ins haven't gone through a thorough review for vulnerability. As a matter of fact, according to a recent report, 52% of all WordPress security vulnerabilities are caused by plugins.

Issues with Updates

One of the biggest complaints from open source administrators is that updating the primary code base doesn't also automatically update your plugins. When an open source releases an update to its platform, there are no promises that the current plug-ins will continue to work. Being outside of the open source company, they have the potential to break, and you need to have someone on your team who can fix it (or at least try). Again, this makes your website vulnerable to hacks, and can actually break your website temporarily.

5. Slow Load Times Hurt Engagement 

Page load speed affects your school website's traffic. While most users will wait 6-10 seconds for a page to load, page abandonment increases as load time increases.

Because WordPress is a piecemeal website solution, your website code isn't written to be optimized for speed. Rather, the assortment of plug-ins, custom themes, and custom code can hurt website performance.

In addition, because you're launching the website on your own, you don't have a project manager or designer to walk you through best practices for increasing site speed, such as resizing and optimizing your photos for the web or removing redundant code.

6. There isn't a Permissions Hierarchy

Because WordPress is set up to be a blog or business site, it doesn't allow for the same kind of granular permissions that a school-specific solution offers. This results in two different scenarios:

First, you only have a small web team making website changes and updates. This small team oversees everything — from coding to website updates. This makes it difficult to get timely updates done quickly, especially if website management isn't your only responsibility.

Second, you may be giving many people 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.

However, when you have a permissions hierarchy in place, you can delegate certain pages to different admins, provide publishing rights, and more — making it easy to allow more people to contribute to your website, without putting it at risk.

7. It Doesn't Integrate With Your Student Information System

Vulnerable data isn't the only issue schools face when opting for open source — a lack of consistent data can be a huge hurdle for your technology department.

Schools depend on having the correct parent, student, and alumni data for marketing and communications. Because open source solutions can't directly integrate with your SIS (Student Information System), all data will need to be manually edited by your IT department — an extremely cumbersome and time-consuming task.

When schools opt for a school-specific CMS like Finalsite, they are able to integrate all their systems with key school providers such as Blackbaud, PowerSchool, and others, as well as provide single sign-on options — creating a better user experience for constituents and your technology department.

8. Support Doesn’t Exist

A major frustration of open source users is the lack of quality support during a problematic situation — such as when plug-ins are not working. This poses a major issue for schools.

Already strapped for time with a never-ending to-do list, schools depend on quality support teams to handle even their most minuscule issues. The lack of product support becomes a crucial issue for schools year round, whether it's when something in the code breaks, or there is a bug in the software. That great, inexpensive contractor you count on may not be there when the site suddenly has a critical issue on a weekend.

9. Your Website Looks Just Like Everyone Else's

If you're looking to create a fresh, new website, an open source solution isn't the route you'd want to go. Because all open source websites are built on templates, there's a chance your school's website could share a design with a local bakery — or even worse, a competing school. 

While Finalsite offers a theme library that we continuously update, we also have a full team of talented designers who not only update the theme library themselves, but also are there for custom design solutions when the need is there.

Key Takeaway

The overall analysis of your web solution investment must include all cost factors to measure the total return on your digital investment (RODI). This includes all the components for: hosting, server, disk space, backup, 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.

Taking this into account, open source is rarely a cheaper, easier, or even free alternative, especially when you have to account for added 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!


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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.

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