Credibility is Key to Managing Higher Education Websites

At Pantheon's WebOps Summit, we spoke to two higher education teams using a WebOps methodology to maximize reliability and free up development resources, especially as the pandemic forced university students to increasingly rely on learning online. Read the following article to see the development tools and WebOps methodologies these teams used that allowed them to meet the moment in 2020. 

2020 was a challenging time. Shifting audiences, budgets, and priorities created challenging obstacles to success. In this environment, it’s the teams that can adapt and pivot quickly who are achieving success. Teams without a robust WebOps strategy find themselves in an endless cycle of putting out fires. With WebOps, teams have a foundation of credibility that allows them to have participatory, instead of reactionary, roles in the administration’s digital strategy.

Pantheon had the opportunity to talk to a couple of these digital leaders at our recent WebOps Summit. At the How Higher Education Is Changing session Chris Wu of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) and David Kees of Georgetown University shared how they were challenged by recent changes and found ways to meet the moment.

Changing Audiences

One consistent thing has arisen as a challenge for higher education web teams in the last year — communications shifting dramatically. This often means a huge demand for internal communication as questions about schedules, holidays, classes, and more change rapidly. 

On top of the general shift to internal communications, obstacles unique to each institution require innovative solutions. For instance, OIST is comprised of a large English-speaking community who became trapped on the island of Okinawa when COVID forced them to lock down. To ensure important alerts from the local Japanese news were available to their English-speaking community, the team created a new platform for that information.

Content Management System

We live in a world where communication and correspondingly, content, changes fast. Content Management Systems are vital because they democratize the publishing of that content by enabling non-coders to communicate quickly on the web. In light of this incredible need for rapid online communication, it should come as no surprise that we see for the first time ever, more websites are using a CMS than not.

While it’s easy to spin up a quick blog by implementing WordPress or Drupal, the scale needed to handle the needs of a large organization, like an academic institution, is much more complicated. To allow their WebOps teams to focus on delivering impact, it’s vital that an institution’s underlying infrastructure has credibility to be relied on. If not, the team will spend most of its time in maintenance mode — running from one implementation crisis to the next.


To have the freedom to tackle the challenges at hand, teams must already have in place a robust way to maintain critical dependencies. This allows a team to build the credibility needed to tackle the large challenges facing their organization — instead of being forced into a reactive cycle. Maintaining critical dependencies requires reliability in three key areas: Architecture, Deployments, and Updates. 

Reliable Architecture

There is no more critical dependency than the underlying architecture of a site. If it fails, then everything up the stack fails as well. In light of the pandemic, people are relying on the web to get the critical information they need to work and survive. As you can imagine, websites around health and wellness and emergency communication are seeing massive spikes in traffic. 

Georgetown saw large traffic spikes to their emergency preparedness site from visitors but also from content creators as messaging evolved rapidly during the pandemic. OIST researchers who pivoted to COVID research found their study on creating masks from candy machines went viral, seemingly overnight. 

“Only when Pantheon told us there was a huge spike — more than 20x traffic on a single website — did we realize it.” 

  • Chris Wu, Senior Web Developer at OIST. 

Despite the traffic increase, the site didn’t go down because it was built on Pantheon’s scalable architecture that allows a site to scale up without any down time or migration. In fact, in OIST’s case, the infrastructure was so reliable they didn’t even know the spike had occurred until after the fact.

Reliable Deploys

Deployments should be reliably boring, and not nail-biting sessions of anxiety hoping that things work out. This peace of mind comes from developers having a safe place to reliably test their work.

Chris Wu, Senior Web Developer at OIST, said  “It is very important to us that our deployment is stable and we don’t have to worry too much about DevOps, that’s why 2 years ago we moved … to Pantheon. So we can focus on our users' needs and develop features.” 

The confidence and time savings of a structured agile workflow are invaluable when developing. Pantheon’s integrated version control, testing environments that mirror production, and on-demand cloud development environments empower cross-functional teams to develop, test, launch, and iterate on their most valuable digital asset: The website. Ultimately, this enables them to move fast without breaking things. 

One way OIST increased the reliability of their deploys was to incorporate continuous integration into the process. This process extends the default Pantheon workflow and allows for more advanced testing and automation.

Implementing a continuous integration process can feel very daunting if you aren’t familiar with it, I know — I felt that way and was afraid to tackle this challenge for a long time. Then I learned about Build Tools. Build Tools connects Pantheon with your CI service and external Git provider, which handles the most complex integration parts for you. It also includes Composer support, Automated Testing, and best practice recommendations for your advanced WebOps workflow. 

Using Build Tools I was able to get a new site up and running with Continuous Integration in about an hour. Once the Build Tools installation is done, you’ll need to setup authentication with your preferred providers. Once you have gathered those tokens, then you are ready to get your new site up and running.

You’ll run a terminus command like this:

terminus build:project:create --team='My Agency Name' wp my-site


In this case that creates a new:

  • A Pantheon site

  • A GitHub repository

  • A CircleCI pipeline for testing and deployments

There are lots of configuration options available that allow you to customize the site and providers you want to use. Here are some of the configurations we support:

At Georgetown, two disparate code bases created challenges when trying to keep track of the different processes and schedules needed for deployment. By using two of Pantheon’s tools, Custom Upstreams and Terminus, they were able to homogenize those disparate workflows to decrease the overhead for deployments.

“By utilizing Terminus, we were able to homogenize almost entirely these two code bases.”

  • David “Dash” Kees, Senior Fullstack Developer at Georgetown

Reliable Updates

WordPress and Drupal are amazing open source content management systems, and one of the reasons is the incredible ongoing investments made to them by people across the globe. This results in valuable bug fixes, security patches, feature releases, and sometimes large CMS overhauls. 

These updates are awesome! They are vital for a growing CMS ecosystem but each one brings with it a small risk to existing sites. Will these new changes be compatible with my website? Each release is heavily tested but with infinite combinations of custom code, plugins, modules, themes, and content, there is always a chance something will go awry.

The reliable deployment techniques discussed above work to make this process reliable, but these updates can take time and focus away from more important efforts. That’s why some teams are handing off update management entirely so they can stay focused on the work that delivers the most impact. 

“Managed Updates has enabled us to spend more time on development — with such a small team just keeping Drupal secure and up to date was so taxing that it was impossible to really make a lot of progress.” 

  • Chris Wu, Senior Web Developer


2020 has been a year like no other, but this increased reliance on the web has also created opportunities for WebOps teams to rise to the challenge. The credibility built from maintaining critical dependencies frees up teams to tackle the complex challenges facing their organization. Meeting this challenge, Pantheon offers the infrastructure and tools needed to free teams from an endless cycle of maintenance work and instead, and instead, embrace an effective WebOps strategy.

Hero image by Kimberly Farmer via Unsplash

You might also like: 

Topics Education, WebOps