Is Drupal a good CMS for Education organizations?

Sep 06, 2022
By Anastasia
Drupal

Education is an age-old industry that traditionally relies on the time-honored in-person classroom-style learning. With the advent of web technologies, the industry has been disrupted as courses can now be built and delivered on-line to a global virtual audience.

This digital transformation had been slow, its merits and legitimacy much debated…until the onset of a global pandemic. The focus of this post is on evaluating if Drupal is a good Content Management System (CMS) choice under the new education normal.

Education under the new normal

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According to UNESCO, approximately 1.3 billion or 82% of the world's enrolled students were out of school due to school closures at the peak of COVID-19 around April of 2020. With the world grappling with COVID-19, on-line classes were no longer merely a social experiment; in some places, they became the only game in town.

The COVID pandemic provided the education industry with many valuable lessons learned:

1. Global adoption

During the 3rd World Higher Education Conference in May of 2022, Professor Asha Kanwar remarked that "one silver lining during the pandemic has been the global acceptance of distance and on-line learning.” Moreover, UNICEF recommended that countries must rely on multiple learning channels to reach more children in the event of school closures due to a pandemic, wars and environmental emergencies, and that expanded access to digital solutions is a key long-term priority to reduce learning vulnerabilities.

Even in ordinary times, the effective blending of digital technologies into non-digital lessons has been widely recognized as being enriching to students' learning experiences.

2. Inclusivity

School closures exacerbated the issues faced by disadvantaged learners. An inclusive education system provides extra support services needed by disadvantaged learners facing educational inequalities due to factors relating to gender, disability, learning difficulties, or other sources of socioeconomic disadvantages. COVID-induced school closures entailed that learners with special needs had to be educated at home without the support services normally offered in schools. This resulted in severe disadvantages to the special-need learners and their families during COVID.

3. Learning motivation

Home-based learning during COVID accentuated the paramount importance of students' motivation, engagement, and interest in their own education.

Pedagogy tells us that students are best motivated by authentic learning situations, where they can transfer the knowledge and skills learned to their everyday situations. Without that, they view their education as being boring and outdated. The OECD called for significant changes in the classroom including 'what students learn about the world and other cultures, the opportunities they have to practice what they learn, and how teachers support this learning…'

The idea of self-directed learning dovetails with the increasing focus on learners and authentic learning situations, and has gained recognition particularly in higher education. Under self-directed learning, students set their own learning goals and regulate their own efforts to reach those goals. Self-directed students are more engaged and motivated than otherwise under a predefined curriculum because the knowledge and skills acquired are more relevant to their unique interests and problem contexts.

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4. Personalized scaffolding

While self-directed learning is generally credited for increasing students' motivation on learning, it undeniably puts additional cognitive demands on them beyond those required to learn the subject matter at hand. To mitigate the risk of overloading self-directed students, educational research has been done on ‘scaffolding’ which involves providing assistance to students on an as-needed basis, fading the assistance as their competence grows. Personalized scaffolding is an active research area on automatically generating scaffolds, including learning goals, that are personalized for individual learners.

5. Outdoor learning

During COVID, schools that remained open mitigated the risk of virus transmission by reducing class sizes and spacing out student desks. Reports indicated that some schools, including those in higher education, adapted by offering classes in outdoor settings. Besides lowering the health risk, outdoor classes offer interesting possibilities in institutional space management. Yet, it opens up new challenges in that outdoor classes will hasten the support of new technologies. It remains to be seen whether outdoor classes will become permanent fixtures in the education landscape.

6. Teacher training

Dr. Tony Mays, renowned education specialist, remarked, "Transitioning from an emergency mode of remote teaching to a more sustainable longer-term engagement with on-line, distance, and flexible learning, requires that we provide continuing practical professional development opportunities for teachers, rather than overwhelm the already overworked teachers with too many new theoretical constructs.”

UNICEF seemed to concur with the above comment. From research done on education responses to COVID in 127 countries, UNICEF concluded that there was a lack of support for teachers in the use of technology for on-line teaching during COVID school closures. A key UNICEF recommendation was that professional development for teachers should include the management of virtual classrooms, the improving of on-line presentation techniques, and the effective blending of technology into lessons.

In addition to formal teacher training, mentoring is well regarded as a powerful tool in supporting teachers' professional development.

7. Expanded role of parents and siblings

COVID school closures mean that students learned at home without the usual learning support provided by schools. In many cases, the role of parents and siblings expanded under home-based remote education to include varied levels of active tutoring and supervision.

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8. Data privacy

The move to a decentralized learning environment during school closures resulted necessarily in more data, private and personal, residing in out-of-school locations. France’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer raised the need for appropriate regulation of on-line educational institutions to 'ensure adherence to rules on the collection, management and use of data, especially the personal data of children and youth'.

9. Capturing feedback

Ready or not at the time, as a response to COVID lockdowns, remote learning was deployed around the world in an unprecedented scale with very little lead time. Now that COVID is morphing from being a pandemic to an endemic, the education industry needs to take a step back and examine what aspects of remote learning worked and what needed improvement, in order to better prepare in the event of a future pandemic and to optimize a blended learning environment in ordinary times. A key UNICEF recommendation is to conduct further applied education research for learning and sharing what works during the pandemic, and for developing practical ways to improve teacher training, content production, parental engagement, and to leverage the use of technologies at scale.

Is Drupal a good CMS for schools?

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Global acceptance of on-line learning has become an established fact during the pandemic. A critical component of an on-line learning platform is the CMS. According to a 2020 study, the top two CMS's used by US universities and colleges were WordPress and Drupal, making up 40% and 19% respectively of the institutions surveyed. Larger institutions (as measured by student enrollment) favored Drupal over WordPress. Stanford, MIT, and every Ivy League school used Drupal.

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Below, we discuss various factors that affect how Drupal fares as an education CMS under the post-COVID new normal.

Rich digital experience

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The key to improving learners' motivation in on-line learning is to provide them with a rich digital experience. Can Drupal provide a complex enough learning experience for learners to keep them engaged? 

Drupal itself is transforming from being a Content Management System to a Digital Experience Platform (DXP). A key goal of a DXP is Personalization: the ability to tailor system behavior, based on data analytics, to provide unique user experiences. This feature aligns well with the industry trends of self-directed learning and personalized scaffolding.

Drupal is able to integrate an ever-growing list of functionalities—digital asset management, social media integration, chatbots, forums, calendars, e-commerce—onto its platform, making it an engaging on-line learning environment. The modular architecture of Drupal makes the adding of user experience modules easy.

Extensibility

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Drupal is known for having a strong software core which can be easily extended using third-party modules. Extensibility is key to future-proofing learning platforms as new innovative applications and technologies become available, e.g., AI and Machine Learning, and Blockchains.  

A Drupal-based learning platform can leverage high-quality community-supported learning applications. One example is Opigno, a Drupal-based Learning Management System (LMS). Opigno is able to integrate modules in e-commerce, Customer relationship management (CRM), group chat, video conferencing, Single-Sign-On, data analytics, etc, onto its Drupal-based platform. 

Another example of a Drupal-based learning platform is Geogebra. In the realm of technology-enabled teaching of mathematics, Geogebra allows teachers to create interactive geometry lessons and student self-learning materials. In addition to creating your own resources, you can also access Geogebra’s repository of over 1 million free math classroom resources—activities, simulations, exercises, lessons, and games. 

Remote learning ushers in new options for learning venues—students’ homes or even outdoor locations—as well as additional stakeholders—parents and siblings—that take a more active role in students’ education. The result is a greater variety of devices, beyond just desktop and laptop computers, that require access to the learning platform. The good news is that a Drupal-based learning platform can be easily extended to support mobile devices, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, digital signage devices, etc.

Security

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The Drupal community has a dedicated security team that pounces on any discovered vulnerabilities in order to release timely security updates. To further enhance security, third-party security modules are available to install on Drupal websites. Drupal’s heightened security awareness provides better protection of students’ personal data in remote learning.

Accessibility

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Drupal prides itself as being an inclusive community, and has built-in accessibility support since 2011. An ongoing goal of Drupal is to ensure that all features of the Drupal core conform with federal accessibility regulations and guidelines.  Accessibility-compliant websites enable physically challenged students to participate fully in on-line classroom activities in ways that are on par with those not living with a disability.

Supportive open-source community

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It is no secret that, for open source projects, strong community support ensures regular software updates and ongoing feature innovation. Besides software benefits, a strong community generates user benefits from peer collaboration and support. There are many existing Drupal groups that are dedicated to promoting the use of Drupal for education websites. If you can't find an existing group to join that suits your particular needs, the Drupal community makes it really easy to start one yourself. As noted above, the roles of teachers, parents, and siblings have expanded in digital learning. A supportive special-purpose community can provide the needed training and mentoring for them to fulfill their expanded roles.

Lower total cost of ownership

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Drupal is free and open source: anyone can use and change the software without paying a license fee. The caveat is that institutions lacking in-house I.T. resources need to outsource the work related to software customization and installation of major updates. Free community resources such as support forums, on-line training, and third-party modules also contribute to the lowering of the overall cost of ownership of Drupal. The savings generated can be allocated back to improve the quality of on-line education in other areas.

Summary & conclusion

Emphatically, Drupal is a good CMS to use for educational institutions. It is no fluke that 71% of the top 100 universities in the US use Drupal. A Drupal-based education website will give students and staff the rich digital experience they come to expect from a modern on-line presence, all in a secure and accessible environment. In addition, there is no licensing cost for using Drupal. In a world of stretched I.T. budgets, it is a welcome relief to be able to spend the saved dollars on actual curriculum improvement.

Five Jars has extensive experience building Drupal websites for various industries including the education industry. We are aware of the digital challenges educational institutions face in the post-COVID era. Please contact us to embark on your digital transformation journey.

Anastasia
IT marketing specialist with 6+ years of experience. She is passionate about new technologies combined with the humanities and in her free time studies HTML & CSS. Anastasia is delighted with the Drupal community and enjoys watching the popularization of open source.

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