As a WordPress design and development agency who’s also very involved in our community’s school district we been watching closely for years, what’s happening in the WordPress space around schools and school districts. We watch for and listen to who’s talking about it, who’s implementing it, who’s using it both as their district or schools web platform but also as the teaching platform. I’ll talk about WordPress as a teaching platform later. Here, we’ll just talk about WordPress for schools and district’s own sites.
Full disclosure, we’ve built three sites for our own kid’s school district. One we got paid for, the other two donated. So we’ve experienced up close the challenges school districts face when trying to manage online web development and online communications.
Why We’re Not Seeing More WordPress in K-12
What we’ve observed is that there are many many colleges and universities who’ve migrated away from proprietary and even other open source platforms to WordPress. A couple years ago you could find them if you looked. Today, they’re everywhere. Just everywhere. Why then are k-12 schools and districts not moving in the same direction?
There are certainly many reasons but three primary ones that I believe are in play.
Lack of autonomy
For one, colleges and universities I believe typically have more autonomy than a more regulated k-12 school system in selecting a platform, a CMS from which to build their web presence including all the sub-colleges, departments and individual classes. This has been particularly true given how funding for technology has been structured as some proprietary platforms have worked for and gained “approved” status for funding. Further, for this reason I suggest we’re going to find the early adopters to WordPress coming from the private schools. We have tied the hands of our public schools with regulations in ways private schools are not burdened with. As such our public schools will likely have a harder time moving to WordPress which is unfortunate for the families and communities. Perhaps if we untie our public schools but I digress.
Follow the (subsidized) money
E-Rates. So I am absolutely not an expert by any means on e-rate funding. My observation though is that this funding mechanism is not much different than the time honored Wilkinson Razor model where you give away the razor and sell the blades. Or perhaps a more contemporary model of selling inexpensive printers where the cost of ink will cripple you. But I digress… again.
E-rates allowed school districts to get subsidized hosting with essentially free web development thrown in. At the time of it’s creation in the 80’s, hard wiring a school for technology was expensive and web development was not even on the radar. So what evolved was what amounted to purchasing hugely overpriced hosting from proprietary vendors who would throw in what would otherwise be hugely expensive, proprietary web development. This is likely an unfair simplification but I’m trying to be brief.
The result though was, huge inequity on what was being funded, how and the growth of an ecosystem of proprietary platforms which resulted in the proliferation of the
crappy er, less-than-optimal school and district websites you see out there today. The kicker is that the subsidized development was hugely expensive for what you got. No one minded though because of the way it was paid for through e-rates, the government picked it up, not the district. It was a great deal… other than the fact that most had crappy er, less-than-optimal websites.
This is all past-tense though and e-rate funding has gone away. Schools and districts, particularly those facing declining budgets are now also scrambling because they have to foot the actual costs of web development also.
The safe decision
This is pure, unfounded, undocumented speculation. But based on what I do know to be the case in other industries because I’ve experienced it first hand. When the consumer does not understand the technology they’ll go with what is considered the safest choice. They will decide to go with what others have chosen. Well intentioned individuals, in full integrity and trying to make the very best choice for their school or district but unsure of technology, capabilities, limitations, use-cases, trade-offs etc. will likely go with a market leader, the best presentation (developed by professionals NOT an actual user) or what a neighboring school or district has chosen. It’s safe. Even if it turns out bad and expensive, no one will get in trouble for choosing a poor system in use by so many others. Going another direction requires some insight, confidence and likely a bit more time and investigation.
So, for these reasons and surely others we’ve not seen the same levels of adoption of WordPress in k-12 schools and districts for engagement and communication with their families and communities.
But why WordPress for Schools and Districts?
As long as the CMS is meeting the needs of the school or district isn’t the platform irrelevant? After all, platform selection should ultimately come down to what’s the best platform for a given project.
Full agreement. There are though some important and unique reasons to consider WordPress. I’ll point to only a couple I don’t hear mentioned often. It’s particularly important because your choice of CMS platform will succeed or fail most often because of one single aspect. And that is User Adoption.
Your platform and CMS of choice may have the ability to work miracles but if your staff, teachers, directors and administrators don’t use it, it fails.
If only a handful of key administrators are the only ones trying to carry the load for all the other non-adopters… you will wear these key individuals out.
This is the reason why you see so many crappy k-12 school and district sites. It’s not that the proprietary systems don’t have the capability, they often do. It’s because few are using it and fewer still are using it well. This is why you’ll see amazing demonstrations but can’t find decent examples from client schools and districts… other than their references.
Availability and cost of training
Here’s the thing particularly troublesome with proprietary systems and to a lesser extent with other CMS’s. Proprietary systems and districts rely on the “train the trainer” concept because more extensive training is simply far too expensive. There is only one expert and it is the company who authored their CMS. So your administrators, department heads, teachers… everyone is at least two step away from an actual authority.
With WordPress, given just how pervasive it is in the marketplace there are WordPress “experts” on every block it would seem. Of course not all “experts” are created equal and you would need to vet your “expert”, but help is generally all around you and readily available at a fraction of the price of specialized proprietary system trainers.
Now here’s a thought. And a bit of a tease to when I write next about WordPress in the classroom. Consider this. What if your students were being taught on the world’s single most widely used CMS, and incidentally where there are actual paying jobs. (Who’s hiring DIY Wix & Weebly professionals? Listen… crickets) What if advanced students were actually resources for updating content for over-burdened or tech-phobic teachers, school newspapers and more within a secure environment?
The opportunity for personal use
This may sound off-putting, like taking school property or resources for personal use but this is much different. And it is a distinct advantage you should cultivate and work to your school or district’s advantage.
A key problem with proprietary systems and even other open source CMS platforms is that you are asking your staff to learn something they will only use at the workplace. While certainly concepts can be transferred to other things they may encounter in their personal non-work life the fact is, they’re not going to encounter X platform outside of school.
Now, one thing I am certain of, teachers by habit extend themselves beyond what should reasonably be expected of them for their students. It happens daily. And they will do their utmost to master the technology presented to them for their students. Consider though, what if you were introducing them to and asking them to master something that might also aid them in other non-work pursuits. This is assuming teachers have time and energy for anything else.
Given just how pervasive WordPress is in the world around us, chances are they can use these skills elsewhere. Their church or synagogue, club, association, personal website or blog etc. In fact I’ll wager, if you were to poll your existing staff and faculty, is anyone ALREADY familiar with or using WordPress, don’t be surprised to find that you may already have some existing in-house talent.
The very fact that they’ll have the opportunity to use what they’re learning for personal use is a huge advantage you should cultivate. WordPress by the way is the singly most widely used CMS in the world today. It now represents over 25% of all websites in the world today. For those who are interested, they’ll find other uses for what they’re introduced to.
A Few Examples of School District and Schools using WordPress
- Newark Public Schools – Newark NJ
- Penn Manor School District – Lancaster PA
- Granite School District – Salt Lake City UT
- Alabama School of Mathematics & Science – Mobile AL
- Dillard High School – Ft. Lauderdale, FL
A WordPress platform specifically tailored for Schools & Districts?
- WordPress for Schools – Open Source Web Site Management Solutions for Public Schools
There is much more that could be said but if you’ve read this far, wow. Thank you. If you have other insights or corrections I’m open to learning more.
If you know of other k-12 schools and districts using WordPress, please share.