The Colorado School of Mines has two main campus websites: http://www.mines.edu
(our outward-facing marketing site for prospective students and their parents) and
http://inside.mines.edu (our larger, inward-facing website where day-to-day information
of interest to the campus community is found).
Both sites are maintained primarily through the aid of something called a
“content-management system” or “CMS.” (In fact, for reasons of security and branding,
we use two separate-but-similar CMSes, one for each site.)
These content-management systems can be accessed through any web browser, by
anyone with a CMS account. They have been in place for several years and now hold
more than 20,000 Mines web pages, created and maintained by approximately 270
different Mines employees.
Why have we chosen to build our main websites in this fashion?
Large, modern, university websites like ours face a number of ongoing challenges. For
instance, how do we put tens of thousands of pages of crucial information online in the
first place? Who will do the work? How many web workers are needed? How much and
what kinds of training does someone need to do a good job? What happens when that
person leaves the university? Who wil quickly take his or her place?
Also, how do we keep al pages looking more or less alike? How do we make sure they
have a “family resemblance”? This is an issue of branding, consistency, and
professionalism. Do al pages use the same fonts, logos, and graphical elements? When
a visitor sees a Mines web page, does she immediately know that she’s looking at a
Mines page? And, having observed the way the page is constructed, can she then
easily guess how to navigate the site? Is the site logical and consistent throughout?
Finally, after a website is in place, how do we keep the information on its many pages up
to date?
A CMS answers many of these questions.
Traditionally, websites have been constructed by highly trained individuals with an
elaborate knowledge of “hypertext markup language” (HTML) coding and access to
complex and expensive web-editing software like the commercial product Dreamweaver.
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It is no exaggeration to say that one can study for years to become proficient in these
technologies and tools. Training one such individual may cost thousands of dollars, all
told. These highly trained professionals command relatively high salaries.
Such individuals typical y construct web pages from scratch, laboriously designing the
website and developing its “look and feel” over a period of weeks or months. After a
website is constructed in this manner, it must be uploaded to a web server, usually one
running the Linux operating system. So, in addition to constructing the site, the web
professional must know how to upload it to a particular directory on a particular server.
Even then, the website may not yet be available to the outside world until the expert has
edited various access and ownership permissions to make this possible. Again, relatively
esoteric knowledge of Linux commands is often required.
By contrast, a CMS eliminates most of these issues in an elegant and simple manner.
Basic CMS skills can be learned in half an hour with no prior knowledge of web page
construction. Creating a new page with complex and sophisticated graphics is a matter
of a few mouse clicks and choosing a pre-made design from a selection of
professional y-created templates.
Editing an already existing page is even simpler:
1. Log into the CMS via any web browser.
2. Navigate to the page in question.
3. Open the page in an editing window that resembles a typical word processor.
4. Type words.
5. Save the page.
That’s it. There’s no need to specify fonts, font sizes, font colors and other graphical
elements. There’s no need to write the HTML code for headers, footers, left-hand
menus, or right-hand sidebars. When the page is saved (a matter of a couple of mouse
clicks), the CMS takes care of al the elaborate formatting behind the screens. The
edited page is immediately available to all via the World Wide Web, completely,
consistently–and professional y–formatted.
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To illustrate, here is a page being edited inside the CMS interface:
In the content-management system
Note that aside from specifying a few names and labels, there's very little to do here.
Simply typing in words is enough to produce a polished, professional result. Click the
“Save” button and the page is formatted automatically by the CMS itself (see below).
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Here is the same page after it was saved and published to the web:
The resulting page on the web
This demonstration page took literally a minute to create.
Because the CMS is relatively easy to use without previous experience, many more
people can be quickly trained in its use. Rather than a few highly trained professionals
entering information into a huge website al day, a large number of quickly trained staff
can do the same work in minutes each per day. Thousands of Mines web pages were
created this way, by hundreds of different people.
And if someone leaves a department, it is easy to hire someone on campus with
previous CMS experience, or even to train a new employee from scratch. The
department can be back up and editing web content in hours.
While our web content is admittedly not always up to date, using a CMS means that it is
more likely to be current. Since each web staff member–typical y a program assistant or
even a student worker–wil maintain just a smal , circumscribed fraction of our entire web
presence, that person can be very familiar with its content. Where a few individuals
could never hope to keep tens of thousands of pages up to date, hundreds of individuals
(each with much smal er areas of responsibility and far more intimate knowledge of their
own department) can do so much more easily. When using a CMS, out-of-date pages
are more likely to be caused by a breakdown in process within a department than by the
CMS technology itself. In fact, a distributed CMS system with many workers, each
supervising a limited number of pages, is the best way to keep content up to date.
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As noted above, the two largest Mines websites are maintained through a
content-management system. However we have many more small sites–institutes,
working groups, collaborations, programs, and even several departments–not using the
CMS. Some of those departments use special HTML templates provided by CCIT that
appear identical to comparable CMS pages. To look at them, you would swear you were
looking at a CMS page. In terms of appearance and branding, those departments
adhere closely to our graphical standards.
However, such departments will eventual y run into issues of website sustainability. In
departments with a single expert familiar with HTML and web servers, what happens
when that person moves on? Who takes his place? In some departments, no one can. In
that case, there is often a crash program to move the old HTML website into the CMS on
short notice. Or, less often, if there is sufficient expertise in place, the department may
continue to edit its website in the traditional fashion for some time. At this time,
departments have been granted this option.
Much more worrisome are the many department, program, and institute websites that
look nothing like official Mines web pages. While they may feature a Mines logo
somewhere on the home page, and may even attempt to use the school’s official color
palette, these pages are typically amateurish in appearance, problematic to maintain,
and hard to navigate. These sites are prime candidates to move into the CMS.
The process of moving an HTML site into the CMS is not a complex one. And it is
described in detail in the new CCIT manual, Moving Your Website into the Mines CMS.
But, in broad strokes, the process involves a few simple steps:
1. Via Helpdesk, tell CCIT’s Client and Web Services team about the proposed
structure of the new website. This general y means listing the labels–the
sub-categories–that wil be seen in the site’s left-hand menu tree. Once we know
what the structure wil look like, we wil create a skeleton site in the CMS with all
needed behind-the-scenes components in place. Graphical y, the site is
substantial y complete. Al that remains is to add specific content.
2. If necessary, a representative from that department or institute will require a
half-hour of training in basic use of a CMS: Creating, editing, formatting, saving
and publishing pages. That’s all it takes to get started.
3. The departmental representative will then open new CMS pages one at a time,
cut and paste text from the old site to the new site, move documents and images
if necessary, create any needed links, and save the pages.
4. Once the new site has been fully migrated to the CMS, we wil change some
server settings and visitors to the old website wil see the new website instead.
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While on first blush this process may seem intimidating, in retrospect it is often found to
be quite straightforward by the department involved. CCIT has helped migrate many
sites into the CMS over the years and the process is now well understood, almost
If working in a content-management system has so many advantages, why do people
sometimes resist the transition? There are a number of reasons cited, some more and
some less convincing in our view.
1. It’s a lot of work to move to a new CMS site. True, there is some cost in time and effort
to learn and use the CMS, and to migrate a site into it. But this is a one-time cost. A
simple website can be migrated in a day or week; more complex websites, a few weeks.
Going forward, we believe that the CMS actually makes editing a website far easier and
faster. It certainly makes a site more sustainable.
2. But I already know how to edit HTML pages the traditional way. It’s too much trouble
to learn a new system. Understandably, many people who study advanced web-editing
techniques for years are loathe to throw away this hard-earned knowledge. For them,
maintaining HTML code by hand is easy. They can do so in a few minutes per week and
(if they use our standard Mines templates) their pages look fine. There is merit to this
argument. But what happens when this person leaves the department or the school?
Who is there to take their place? In many cases, we have found, there is no one.
3. Sure, the CMS is okay. But I like editing HTML because it lets me be creative and do
things I can’t do in the CMS. Several Mines websites have utilized special fonts, bright
colors and graphics, pul -down menus, and other features that you don’t see on official
Mines web pages. These websites are creative. But another word for “creative” is
“nonstandard.” When the goal is a consistent online presence, the the more “creativity”
(i.e., variation) that is allowed in a website, the less it looks like an official “Mines page.”
So, for these and other reasons, Mines’ main websites are maintained via CMS. We
encourage CMS use as by far the best way to create and maintain graphically
sophisticated and consistent web pages with a minimum of effort.
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