Webinar Recap: Making the Case for WordPress in Education

Last week, we hosted a webinar on Making the Case for WordPress in Education. Hosted by Jeff Pflueger, Pantheon’s Director of Agencies and Alliances, the webinar’s featured speaker was Shane Pearlman, CEO of Modern Tribe, an agency that has worked with some of the world’s largest brands, well-funded startups, and educational institutions including MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia and UCSF.

Jeff outlined the challenges of website content management on campus, notably satisfying the needs of end users while keeping central IT and brand/communications teams happy. Shane explained why WordPress really is an excellent choice for higher education websites, and even K-12. He shared interesting use cases including cafeteria management, digital signage, course catalogues and of course, the WordPress mainstay, the blog.

The response to the topic was outstanding and there were so many questions that we weren’t able to get to them all in the time allowed, so we thought we’d share the top 10 questions here for your review.​

  1. We are moving from a self-hosted proprietary CMS to hosted WP. We have many custom features—forms, calendaring, password-protected folders and sub-sites, search, and on and on. How confident can we be that we can duplicate or exceed these custom-built services within WP?

    • Shane: The proof is in the case studies.

      "WordPress is the central piece powering web at Washington State University. Our primary installation currently serves over 2 million pageviews per month across 1,000 sites on 50 networks."
      Jeremy Felt, Washington State University

    • I would simply suggest you talk to people who have succeeded. WSU, Boise State, Boston University, Stanford Law, Harvard Law and many, many others power their primary web properties and many other key sites on WordPress. I'd be happy to introduce any serious higher education staff member and help them in their effort to gather the necessary proof they need to feel confident moving forward.


  2. Does Pantheon offer full support of WordPress multisite networks? What plans support this?

  3. How does the database hosting work?

    • Jeff: Pantheon's infrastructure is completely different than traditional hosting. We have a single, multi-tenant, container based infrastructure where each site has dedicated and isolated containers—rather than virtual machines—acting as your application servers. Why does Pantheon use containers and not virtual machines? Read this blog post. As far as your application's database, we use MariaDB, and manage that service for all of our client sites. Like the application containers, the database is also containerized.

  4. Could you provide some examples to use when the opposing statement is "WordPress can't do much for user management"?

    • Shane: User management is a multifaceted term. Do you imagine they are asking about editorial or visitor management?

    • In regards to visitors and site members, there are a number of platforms that use and extend WordPress' user management. BBPress and BuddyPress have developed full forum and social feature sets with intricate signon, permissions and controls for the front end of the site. eCommerce plugins track purchases and history through user accounts. Our own community events plugin allows people to submit events to a calendar, which depend on the settings the admin chooses, can be open, moderated, or require accounts.

    • As for permission and right management of content editors, at its base WordPress starts simply with roles. These roles have capabilities which are easily extended. There are a number of popular solution on the .org repository. We have developed a plugin which allows for the management of user permission by site section, with different roles per section and have been planning to put it on github if we ever get a lull. I believe boston university also has a similar plugin in their list of vetted plugins.

  5. For WordPress, my conclusion is that we have to buy plugins to achieve more complex sites, but then the plugins are not compatible each other. Plugins are independent systems. What do you think about it?

    • Shane: Yes, that is no question a challenge. I have two different sets of thoughts on that. The first is, that's part of what a great partner or a great in-house team does. They look at the different code stacks and they choose wisely. When it comes to choosing wisely, a lot of times when you look at a plug-in, look at the reviews and who wrote them. At Modern Tribe, we spend a lot of time to make sure that our plugins are compatible with the other major frameworks. There are no guarantees that other people will do the same. I think that's an advantage of commercial plug-ins. When there is money and revenue behind something, you have a genuine incentive to go the extra mile.

  6. How can a developer make the case for WP to higher ups when they argue that WP is not secure and not scalable?

    • Shane: The scalability argument is the easier one to solve and the evidence is in the case studies. It's hard to say WordPress isn't scalable, when CNN and Time Magazine are built on it. I doubt we're ever going to send more traffic to our site than them. The security criticism is tougher. There was a time when WordPress was making a transition from blog software to CMS in about 2008-2009. During that time period the community wasn't that worried about security. As it gained momentum, it was an ugly 6-9 months where WP had a lot of issues, at which point they formed a core security team, they fixed most of the issues. Almost any time people search on WordPress security issues, it's almost always something from that era. The WordPress core is extremely secure today. Outside of that, the risks are the same as with any other CMS. If you go pick up random code off the internet and stick it in your system, you run the risk of introducing security issues. We advise you to practice safe plugins. And having the right hosting and development partners like Pantheon, especially if you're going to create a multisite framework. Have a review process.

    • Jeff: We hear this from time to time and we’ve written a piece explaining why WordPress is enterprise ready We believe that these reasons apply to higher ed as well as K-12.

  7. Shane mentioned a paywall that Modern Tribe built for MIT. Was the paywall a custom solution or an off the shelf product?

    • Shane: For this project it was custom. We had to integrate with MIT's chosen gateway provider, as well as their print distributor to manage the shipping tables, their email communications / email marketing platform, as well as the canonical member database we maintained in WordPress. We have worked on paywall / payment gateway experiences using member plugins and WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads for simpler solutions.

  8. How have you had success in keeping multi-site implementations from spiralling out of control with large clients such as universities where the number of sites can be in the hundreds?

    • Jeff: From Pantheon's perspective, both WordPress and Drupal have a way of turning a single instance into what looks like multiple sites. There can be advantages to that. There can also be some downsides when each one of those sites wants to be more custom than the others. What we see a lot of times is that universities start down a path of one size fits all, and then as they begin to customize things begin to spiral out of control. Let's let multisite shine where it's really great and support those use cases but give the flexibility to spin a multisite out, and create a custom upstream, and then create dedicated environments for each website, then each one of those sites can have a life of its own and build on top. So yes, we've seen success with it, and really it's a case of understanding the use case and proposing the right path forward.

    • Shane: Often with universities as well as K-12, governance is a large and complex problem. Make sure you align your philosophy to the needs of your userbase. The challenge is to define the base requirements of control. What can and should people be able to change and what can they not? WordPress has a framework called child themes, so if someone needs to add new features or patterns in a child theme they can, but we retain core code, approach and look and feel at the parent level. This is also the same with certain canonical organizational plug-ins at the parent level.

  9. As Facebook extends its Developer Kit (with third-party plugins, content sharing and management, messaging, search, social, etc.), how is WordPress positioning itself to compete with the facebook juggernaut?

    • Shane: In my opinion, you don't need to compete with Facebook, you need to embrace it. The nice thing is Facebook has an API. With our ticketing framework, we have a sharing plugin that allows you to push and pull events back and forth from your calendar and Facebook. You want the content in Facebook because that's where the students are. At the end of the day, does it really matter if a student fell in love with your school or university via your website or via Facebook? No, as long as your content and the strategy that you have are reaching them. There are a lot of ways that WordPress integrates gracefully with Facebook, for instance Comments. Replace your Comments with Facebook Comments so that every time someone comments on your site, they also share those comments with their network. You have a wide variety of customized tools that allow you to deal with messaging, information sharing, and so forth.

  10. Will Pantheon be at WP Campus?

    • Jeff: Yes, we will be sponsoring WP Campus. See you there!

Miss the live webinar? Check out the recording here and when you’re ready to get started on Pantheon, sign up for your free EDU account.

Topics Education, Multisite, WordPress, WordPress Hosting