Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Content Management Systems and E-Learning: Thoughts, New Dimensions / Directions

As mobile applications begin to be an integral part of elearning solutions, it is increasingly important to have a robust, flexible, and easy to use content management system (CMS). Not only will your CMS support the widest possible range of content types, including documents, audio, video, animation, multimedia, and web pages, it should also integrate well with other servers, databases, and systems, including the learning management system (LMS), the student information system, and the various cloud-based servers from which you'll pull content for online programs and courses, including those for online teaching degrees.

A good CMS is easy to use, and the workflows are intuitive and easy to follow, from file creation (with clear naming protocols and directory structure) to file sharing and automated notification processes.

Because the CMS constitutes the heart of the organization and is essential framework, the content must be accurate, the delivery consistent, and it must be easy to manage updates and changes.

At the bare minimum, a CMS should be able to

            * establish easy-to-follow workflows
            * allow the easy importation of files
            * automate notices of changed content
            * maintain version control
            * enable automatic distribution of new docs to defined users
            * facilitate the integration of databases

Many of the content management systems that are used in higher education are built on a content management framework (CMF) that makes it easier to use reuseable objects. A CMF is often written in one of a half dozen or so popular programming languages / technologies:

  • Django-CMS (uses Python, Django or MySQL)
  • Plone (uses Python)
  • Drupal (uses PHP and MySQL)
  • Joomla! (uses PHP and MySQL)
  • Microsoft SharePoint Server (works with .NET Framework, works with SQL Server)
For organizations that do not have a small army of developers and programmers, it is often advisable to go with a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution for one's CMS. They are generally cloud-based, so security protocols and requirements must be reviewed. The solutions include software, hosting, and support with a single vendor.  Some of the more popular SaaS solutions include:

Google Apps (not just for business -- some universities are using Google Apps with great success in conjunction with an open-source LMS such as Sakai)
  • Agility
  • Windows Live (Free)
  • Microsoft Office 365
  • Amazon application hosting
It’s a bit difficult to see how a SaaS solution could work as a flexible CMS since the existing software would have, by definition, a number of limitations. However, there are definitely a number of advantages with having applications that work fairly seamlessly together. For example, Google docs works as a very useful document-sharing platform, and can integrate with Google sites.  Whether or not one of the Google apps works as a relational database, is not immediately evident. It would be interesting to see a Google solution appear as a templatized relational database that walks the user through a series of frameworks that integrate object repositories with applications. These solutions could be customizable “ready-mades” for schools of all sizes and strips, including home schools and very specialized professional development.

Proprietary Software CMS solutions include the following:

This list is by no means inclusive, but contains a few examples of popular proprietary solutions. It is useful to note that most of the proprietary solutions are Rackspace / Akamai ready, which is to say that they are cheerfully cloud-based. Many of the CMS solutions contain easy-to-use interfaces, even drag-and-drop, to make it easy to get started.  Further, some, such as Centralpoint, have incorporated Single Sign On in order to allow the simultaneous log-in to all the relational databases. At the same time, there is data mining capability in the ability to emulate customer relation management functions and develop adaptive and targeted mailing lists.
  • OpenText Web Site Management (Formerly RedDot) - on a Java platform, works with Oracle, SQL Server
  • DotNetNuke - on ASP.NET - on SQL Server
  • Microsoft SharePoint Server on ASP.NET, with SQL Server or SQL Express
  • IBM Enterprise Content Management, with Oracle, SQL, or DB2
  • Percussion Software CM1: Java / MySQL / Derby
  • Limelight: MySQL

Devotees and apologists for OpenSource are passionate, to say the least. They do have a point. There is something rather romantic about thinking that not only do you have the opportunity to obtain software for free (although labor costs always trump licenses in the overall scheme of things). The real appeal of OpenSource is usually the radical simplicity of it. They are ready to go, and are very basic. Unfortunately, if you have special applications, or need more functionality, you may find yourself paying quite dearly in terms of programming-hours as well as time. However, if you have aspirations of developing your own solution or marketing a custom template, using OpenSource could make sense. If you choose Drupal or Joomla!, you definitely will be joining a global army of people who think you’re right on target by supporting the concept of OpenSource. You’ll also be joining the ranks of people who have learned to be patient and, in some cases, settle for a solution that does not quite do what the commercial competition can do.

  • Joomla! (MySQL)
  • Drupal (MySQL, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server)
  • Mambo (MySQL)
  • SilverStripe (MySQL)
  • WordPress (MySQL)
A final thought about Content Management Systems.

A CMS is all about creating a framework that allows the useful and predictable manipulation of schema having to do with digital objects. It’s easy to get lost in the structure and forget that we’re in a time of rapidly evolving delivery systems, and that “going mobile” represents the leading edge of one or more sea changes. So, it’s fairly short-sighted to think of CMS as only relating to content. It has to be delivery-friendly as well, no matter what / how / when the delivery manifests itself.

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