Untangling the university web presence with OpenScholar

This is a guest post from the OpenScholar team at Gizra. A lot of public sector organisations have moved recently to an open source CMS solution, citing the benefits not just in cost but also in flexibility, and its great to see examples of universities following suit. If your university has a similar experience, tell us about it in the comments!

OpenScholar at Harvard logoAs in many fields, the introduction of the web into higher education took place gradually and unevenly. This led many academic staff, projects and even whole departments to build their own Web presence independent from each other, using their personal or department budgets to hire external help and grad students to create their websites.

Naturally, this led fairly quickly to the Ivory Tower looking more like the Tower of Babel in terms of web presence, when universities found out they have scores of sites running on various incompatible environments, increasingly difficult to maintain, update or apply security patches – a situation that is still bogging down many academic IT departments.

Many institutions are attempting to fix this by standardizing on a single CMS system, often an Open Source one. When Harvard University faced the problem, it decided to take it one step further and create a CMS focused on academic use.

As a basis, it picked Drupal, one of the most widely used Open Source CMS solutions, powering civic and commercial websites such as WhiteHouse.gov, The Economist, Twitter’s developer website and many others, which already had a strong academic presence. Harvard used Drupal as the base for its own distribution named OpenScholar, which essentially bundles specific backend modules (e.g. bibliography handling) along with a user interface tailored for users in academia.

As the project progressed, we at Gizra were called in for a short consulting gig based on our experience releasing the Organic Groups module for Drupal, which then morphed into a 3 year engagement, at its peak employing four full time developers on our end and an equal number on Harvard’s.

The result is a system that aims to solve both the content creator and IT admin woes. Academic staff are provided with an intuitive UI for smooth website creation. Templates already incorporate the common (and some less common) elements used in such sites: For example, a professor can sign in and have a basic template created. She can then choose to have a calendar on the right sidebar, a blog in the middle, a bibliography page linked on the footer etc – all with an easy to use drag & drop interface.

For the IT side, this helps reduce the amount of user support required, but more critically the system also provide a single, unified codebase upon which all the institution websites are built. Upgrading to a new version or applying a security patch is done in one place, as opposed to keeping dozens of different environments up to date.

OpenScholar now runs all of Harvard University’s websites – 5120 at time of writing – and is starting to be used at Princeton, Berkeley, Virginia Tech and others. Drupal’s excellent multilingual support is helping it spread worldwide, and we’ve recently helped the Hebrew University in Jerusalem add support for right-to-left text, enabling easy creation and management of websites in Hebrew, Farsi, Arabic and other languages.

Leading Drupal cloud hosting providers Acquia and Pantheon now offer a turnkey solution for easily setting up highly optimized, elastic OpenScholar environments without the need for local installation and maintenance at all. For organizations wishing to keep their servers on-site, we’re collaborating with Zend Technologies on a packaged solution that will allow installing a complete secure and optimized OpenScholar environment locally from scratch.

Following the success at Harvard, OpenScholar continues to develop its core as well as adding more UI elements per professor and department’s demands. An RESTful API is now being developed which will allow easier integration with existing systems as well a smoother and more sophisticated front end.

For more information on OpenScholar, visit the OpenScholar website.