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Why Drupal Is the Smart Choice for Higher Education

February 7, 2023 10 minute read
Princeton, Stanford, University of East London, University of Dundee — the world’s top schools build better .edu sites and create great digital experiences with Drupal
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For today’s higher ed leaders, creating A+ digital experiences is far more complex than just emailing a list of required textbooks and watching first-year students fill up lecture halls armed with the latest MacBooks. A university’s ecosystem and audience is vast, incorporating prospective students and their families, current students, faculty, and alumni. Each has different expectations about their interactions with a higher education organization, and they encounter this information across many types of devices and channels. That means it’s more important than ever for higher education websites to be accessible and responsive to visitors who may view an interactive campus tour on a tablet, seek university news on message boards, or request an application through their smartphones. 

A digital platform that can adapt to your institution’s strategic initiatives helps schools connect with multiple audiences. Today, Drupal is the most widely used content management system in higher education, with 71% of the top 100 universities relying on the open source content management system to drive their digital strategy. Drupal is the preferred CMS for higher education because it provides the most flexibility for creating and managing various kinds of content to suit the needs of diverse groups and audiences. Drupal’s intuitive content management allows faculty and educators with non-technical backgrounds to easily create and publish quiz materials, course descriptions, and lesson plans. Meanwhile, Drupal’s commitment to making content easily accessible and visible across multiple platforms and formats is useful for prospective and current students and families who need essential information about the enrollment processes, financial aid, personal accommodations, on-campus events, and much more. 

Let’s find out how Drupal and Acquia support the world’s top institutions and universities in building better websites and creating digital experiences that are educational and engaging.  

Building more accessible experiences from application to graduation  

“Education is education, and it’s the right of every human being,” activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai once said. It’s one of higher education’s greatest principles — that learning should be available to everyone. Across the world, students come to schools with different accommodation needs, native languages, and access to technology. U.S. schools participating in federal financial aid programs are required to make reasonable considerations to ensure their web content is accessible. The internationally recognized Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) offer a comprehensive standard for accessibility, with different levels to consider:

  • Perceivable: Can everyone “see” this?
    • Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia.
    • Provide text alternatives for non-text content.
  • Operable: Can everyone operate this?
    • Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
    • Help users navigate and find content.
  • Understandable: Can everyone understand this?
    • Make text readable and understandable.
    • Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
  • Robust: Can all devices use this?
    • Maximize compatibility with current and future user tools.
    • Write good code.

 

Activist groups have filed lawsuits against hundreds of higher education institutions, such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and New York University, for failing to meet these standards. Some cases have resulted in costly consequences, including monetary fines, legal fees, and damage to brand reputation. 

 

To ensure your projects are accessible, consider these tips in the areas of accessible content, design, and development:

Content

  • Content should be written with clear and concise language. It should be short and explanatory so a screen reader can speak it back to the user who will understand exactly what the content is about.  
  • Images should be labeled with alt text and titles. Although “IMG001.JPEG” may roll easily off the tongue, it doesn’t relay much relevant information about the image on the screen. Ensure your CMS has fields for text so authors don’t have to rely on embedding text on images (in other words, images of text), an accessibility violation.
  • Make sure to include meta tags that make sense. Provide context and name your links based on the content they link to. Avoid using “click here” links.

Design

  • Low-vision and colorblind users require sufficient color contrast between foreground (text or graphics) and the background.
  • Being able to consistently navigate a website is important, especially for low-vision users and those who use screen magnification to display a small portion of the screen, as they often use visual cues and page boundaries to quickly locate repeated content. You don’t want your navigation and menus to change from page to page.
  • Be sure your accessibility efforts translate across different devices and breakpoints.
  • Clear layout and organization is key, again, for providing a consistent experience.

Development

  • Review the checklist for WCAG 2.1 in development and make sure nothing was missed.
  • Avoid unnecessary repetition, extra or useless words, and dynamic URL strings in your URL structure; URLs should help describe the page they point to.
  • Use semantic markup and make sure that your markup elements are used appropriately. Using headings in the wrong hierarchy is a common mistake, for example.
  • Try to make sure your CMS requires admins to add alt text when images are uploaded.
  • Check for editorial workflows that create structure and enforce compliance. Provide help text to authors to create consistency when they’re entering content. For example, help text can guide authors to add a specified number of tags on a page and separate each with commas.

 

For institutions that generally have tight budgets and limited faculty resources, the idea of facing a high profile lawsuit or manually auditing thousands of text, video, and audio files is daunting. Thankfully, Drupal is equipped with features that support all of today’s website accessibility standards, such as helping screen readers understand web pages, choosing font styles and colors that meet compliance guidelines, and allowing content editors to easily add alt text and descriptive tags to images. 

 

Picking your dream school with better personalization

You’ve likely heard the claim that “college is the best four years of your life.” Society idealizes the college experience as one of adventure, self-growth, friendship, and untapped potential that students will look back on for decades to come. As tuition continues to rise and more schools increase their focus on culture by offering everything from indoor wave pools to study abroad programs that span from Argentina to Antarctica, higher education institutions must work harder to differentiate themselves and connect with prospective students. This is why it’s more important than ever for universities to offer exceptional personalized experiences. 

Take, for example, the University of Dundee in Scotland, which wanted to increase international recruitment, partnership, and income. Providing accurate information about entry requirements and academic equivalencies between countries would be critical to helping prospective international students apply. The university wanted a simple mechanism to let a visitor choose their country and the qualification they wished to study, and then present clear information about the required grades for acceptance. 

Working with creative branding and strategy agency TPXimpact, the University migrated its site content onto Acquia CMS and implemented Acquia Personalization to ensure the right content and data would be provided at the right time. Now, prospective students can easily understand the requirement equivalencies of 85 countries directly from the course page rather than having to decipher and convert the requirements of their country to UK standards themselves. The use of personalization based on applicant journey stage and geotargeting has led to impressive results, including a 220% increase in bookings for “open days” when prospective students can visit and experience student life on campus firsthand.

Today's students are under intense pressure to find a place that suits their needs socially, academically, and financially. As future generations demand more personalized experiences from their digital pathways, it’s the responsibility of higher education leaders to show prospective students that they understand them on more personal, intimate levels. Drupal easily integrates with personalization tools like Acquia Personalization, so you can give prospective students exactly what they’re looking for and quickly become their top-choice school.

Mastering multisite management 

Higher education has an acute need for a multisite solution. How many websites does the typical organization have – 100? 1,000? More? Having worked with hundreds of higher education IT professionals, we’ve seen the number of sites they manage reach daunting levels. Based on our analysis and looking at a cross section of public, private, as well as large and small schools, an average institution will have close to 2,000 websites. At the low end of the range, we’ve seen customers with around 300 sites while the largest had over 50,000.

How does a single institution rack up so many sites? It’s surprisingly easy when you consider the number of departments and groups within a single institution. Each site can have a different audience with different needs, and each can have different maintenance requirements and different business goals associated with it.

Of course, large sites get the most attention: the main .edu “flagship” site and other high priorities, including admissions, alumni, athletics, academic departments, and so on. Then, there are sites that don’t require a lot of time and attention but must be maintained and supported, such as faculty sites, research sites, HR sites, and foundation sites. Lastly, there are sites that may still be live, like one spun up for a long-forgotten alumni reunion from years ago.

The first step to achieving digital excellence and getting the sprawl under control is to centralize the management, governance, and deployment of all school sites. Without a mechanism to centrally manage the expanse of websites, schools are hindered greatly in their ability to drive a coherent and high impact digital strategy.

The number of sites a school has will continue to increase and with it, the cost and complexity of managing and supporting them. This problem won’t resolve itself. If anything, it will only get worse as new functionalities arise, new integrations required, rebranding occurs, and new security and accessibility concerns appear. Such changes pose a threat to an institution’s ability to deliver on its digital strategy, which grows in importance every day.

Fortunately, Drupal’s multisite functionality allows users to centrally manage an university’s primary website while simultaneously allowing each department autonomy over their content. Drupal allows content editors and site owners to update and edit many sites from a single Drupal codebase, which reduces the overhead of handling code across multiple sites or having to devote time and resources for updating customized, one-off sites, like that dusty alumni reunion site from ages ago.

Additionally, Acquia Site Factory offers a centralized platform to build, manage, and update a university’s portfolio of sites. Using Drupal and Acquia Site Factory, Rice University centrally managed the dissemination of emergency safety information across its ecosystem of 280 sites in the midst of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. This ability helped the university to inform the community and offer support to potential victims and first responders. 

Continuing education

Colleges and universities are sprawling content-creation engines with decentralized control and distinct budgets serving multiple constituents. This, along with the organic growth of websites throughout campuses, has put most colleges and universities in the position they’re in now: in need of serious digital transformation. Leading institutions are already working to build their future digital strategies with Drupal as their CMS of choice.

For more examples of digital transformation stories in the higher ed space, check out our e-book, “Success Stories from Higher Education: Building the Next Generation of Digital Experiences."

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