"Buy cheap, buy twice."
It's a mantra I've lived by my entire adult life. Running shoes. Apartment furniture. Jeans. Cookware. You name it, I always go for the better quality in fear of needing to replace it down the road...even if it means initially racking up that credit card bill a little higher than I'd like.
And it's always worked out in my favor — because I know if I don't buy that $195 pair of Asics, my feet will hurt, my ankles twist, and I can't run as far or as fast.
As independent and public schools struggle with getting the adequate budget they need for a new, responsive website, open source solutions — like Wordpress or Squarespace — are an appealing option.
They appear cheaper and simpler. Keyword: appear.
But just as cheap running shoes inhibit my ability to run at my top performance, open source solutions completely cripple the success of schools looking to create an impressive digital footprint.
Let's take a closer look at why these open source solutions are a complete nightmare for independent schools, boarding schools, and public schools alike.
Dangling the Carrot: Open Source Solution Cost is Just a Ploy (At Least for Schools)
Many public and private schools find that the reduction in cost of using an open source solution, instead of a school-oriented CMS like Finalsite, extremely attractive. There's no license or maintenance fees, so the overall cost is substantially less. And of course, they make it look so easy to edit.
Too good to be true? For schools, yes.
Sure, open source solutions are great for your local photographer or cooking blog, but they are not meant to handle larger websites with hundreds of customized pages. The larger the website, the more likely that the cost of implementation and time spent will be equal to or exceed those of a competitive commercial solution.
So you can just cross the concepts of "simpler" and "cheaper" right off your lists of open source benefits.
The Unknown Time Investment Incurs Unknown Frustration and Costs
For schools considering an open source solution, you'll quickly find that it is more complex to implement, maintain and secure. Without a designated designer, project manager, or knowledgeable team, you're committing to an unknown and undefined roadmap, leaving that new responsive website you need in a perpetual grey area with no launch date in site.
In addition to being more complicated than advertised, open source solutions provide complex user experience add-ons and features that may be added to the software, but without the same quality assurance and product management oversight of a commercial software vendor — meaning that schools implementing an open source solution will need to account for the extra time needed to learn, implement, maintain and secure the product.
And of course, time is money.
Unlike school-oriented platforms, which make it easy for an admission, technology, communications or marketing professionals to manage, schools using open source are often dependent on a staff that is well versed in that platform.
So that whole theory of divide and conquer is tossed out the window — meaning production cost is higher, while the time and process is longer. And, since one person is in charge of the design and code, 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.
There's also the poor integration of components. This is where schools really lose time and energy. When an open source updates its platform, there are no promises that your 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).
Hello? Is Anybody There?: The Failed Support of Open Source
A major failure of open source solutions to provide quality support during a problematic situation — such as when plug-ins are not working — is 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.
Because open source solutions are highly marketed as simple, the lack of product support up front does not seem intimidating. However, 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.
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From a Design Standpoint, There's Nothing Special...
Open source solutions are typically easy to use because they're based on templates. Plug and play! But when your prestigious boarding school ends up using the same template as the local bakery...it's hard to define your school as special or unique.
And when open source users try to implement cool design features it's either:
- Too complicated
- Doesn't work or look the way it's intended
- Ends up being an up-charge
So if you can't figure out that cool parallax scrolling effect you wanted? Too bad. There's a reason why "schools" aren't listed in the portfolio of any open source solution's website.
...And if You Want Them, There Are Up-Charges Galore
Want a cooler navigation? Maybe you'd like to use some different fonts that better represent your school's brand. Or, those interior page designs aren't really working with the content you had in mind.
Up-charge. Up-charge. Up-charge.
Open source solutions weren't designed out of altruism. Just like commercial products, open source solutions are a money-making business. Support and features often included in commercial product pricing incur up-charge after up-charge — racking up a bill far more expensive than "free."
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, there is little argument that open source is actually a cheaper, easier, or even free alternative, when you have to account added costs, time, local server hosting costs and installs — not to mention the frequent software updates you are required to maintain on your own.
Open source solutions are a wolf in sheep's clothing — so be sure to do your complete research before making a decision, rather than jumping to an option that seems to be "too good to be true," "cheaper," or "easier."