In search of the perfect CMS

One of my New Year's resolutions was to use Moodle for everything. It's very possible to build entire sites with a huge community interaction component without much coding.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

One of my New Year's resolutions was to use Moodle for everything. It's very possible to build entire sites with a huge community interaction component without much coding. Forums, blogs, you name it. Moodle actually represents as much a content management system as it does a learning management system.

Which is great...I've already used it to set up a learning and teaching site I'm developing and am migrating another aging site of my own from straight HTML to Moodle so that I can do some community development and share content more easily. That being said, Moodle has a few areas where it struggles. One is polish. It's one thing to use it for a community of educators or for guiding constructionist learning activities. It's something else to use it as a forward-facing site for more general consumption, as a school might want to for clubs, organizations, community outreach, an online yearbook, or even for teacher-student interactions.

Because in addition to perhaps not being as pretty as the average school committee member might want, Moodle is also a bit heavy. It helps to understand the pedagogical underpinnings of its design and to remember that it was meant to be an incredibly robust learning tool. It just happens to have features that lend itself to interactive, Web 2.0 sites. For many teachers just setting foot into blended and e-learning activities, it's daunting. Sometimes, it's just important to share or quickly build out a website for an event, an initiative, or simply to give teachers a communication channel that doesn't involve Facebook (despite some encouraging trends, teacher-student interaction via mainstream social media remains a sore subject for many communities).

This is why we have content management systems. Such systems, most notably the big three of WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal, aren't just blogging platforms but can be used for creating rich, content- and user-driven sites, perfect for a classroom where all of the available activities in Moodle can obscure what many teachers want to do: Post homework assignments, share readings, and promote student interaction.

I've used WordPress and Joomla! extensively (both ZDNet and the WizIQ blog run on WordPress) and they're both easy to use and install. Without some work, though, they tend to feel fairly "bloggy". This isn't always a bad thing, but if you're looking for something that comes out of the box feeling like a website (that also happens to be pretty and support posting and sharing a variety of content), then WordPress and Joomla! can feel a bit limiting, taking too many steps away from the complexity of Moodle and towards an overly simplistic blog.

Drupal gets away from this and is probably the richest of the big three in terms of being able to roll out a relatively turnkey, interactive website, but lacks the sheer volume of pre-made themes and templates that are available for WordPress and Joomla! It also has a steeper learning curve which is basically transparent to end users but might be off-putting to the motivated teacher (or overworked system adminstrator) just trying to get together a website that her school can use easily.

As I've been looking at other content management systems for another project (one which, quite frankly, needs to appeal to investors more than a Moodle-driven site ever could), I've had time to think about the qualities that would make a particular CMS especially useful in a variety of school settings. Ease of use for end users is, of course, the #1 consideration. Ease of installation and hands-off, maintenance free operation for admins is #2. Aesthetics follows close behind. If this is something that school committee members or accreditation teams will be viewing, it needs to look slick and professional without anyone having to break out Dreamweaver.

Flexibility is #4. Admins and users should be able to become familiar with the CMS and then apply to a variety of projects and sites. Freedom (as in both beer and speech) is #4. There are too many good platforms that are free and open source to have to pay for anything in this setting.

At the moment, I'm leaning towards Concrete, but this may end up being too technical for mainstream use. I feel like Goldilocks - I need a CMS that's juuuust right!

So what do you use? Do you just use Google Sites and/or Google Docs? Blogger? WordPress? Your SIS? Another LMS? How are you promoting connections online between schools, teachers, students, and the community at large? What's your platform?

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