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6 Reasons Plone is Great for Higher Ed

August 7, 2015

Many academics in technical fields use Python (the programming language) because of its extensive math and science libraries. Python is also a popular language for teaching introductory computer science at top-ranked universities in the U.S. Less well known is the fact that Plone, Python’s most feature-rich CMS, is extremely well suited for academic websites. Here are 6 reasons why.

1. Security and Workflow

Plone’s advanced security model and strong workflow system make it particularly well suited for sites where many content editors collaborate to maintain a website. This is typical at universities, where staff and websites are often organized in hierarchies. Plone administrators can assign roles that define editing and workflow permissions to different groups of users, so some can add and edit content while others review and publish. These roles can apply to the whole site or to sections or to individual pages, making it easy for a work group to collaborate on content. Tracking and auditing of who did what, when, provides accountability. Plus, Plone has an excellent security record with a minimal number of CVE (Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures) entries compared to other systems

2. Accessibility

Universities, particularly those that are publicly funded, need to ensure that people with visual or motor impairments can use their websites. Plone was the first CMS to be compliant with the W3C’s WAI-AA and the U.S. government’s Section 508 standards for sight and motor impaired individuals, and out of the box it continues to meet or exceed these standards, including WCAG 2.0 compliance. The latest released version (4.3) also has reasonable support for  WAI-Aria. Interactive JavaScript functionality comes with fallback modes that work in any browser. And even better accessibility features are coming soon in Plone 5 (but that’s a story for another day.)

3. Enterprise Search

University websites are often broad and deep, and it’s important to provide excellent search capabilities so users can find what they’re looking for. Plone provides basic search out of the box, but add-ons provide integration with the state of the art Solr open source search engine. Solr makes the power of enterprise search accessible to organizations that could never have afforded it 10 years ago. In addition to ensuring highly relevant results thanks to its excellent algorithms and tuning features (including synonyms, spelling suggestions, and metadata, content type, and phrase weighting), Solr can combine search results from disparate data sources. For example, a departmental website’s search could provide results from the website plus research databases and external sites that faculty or other groups have created. For more specialized searches about academic subjects, Plone provides an excellent environment for defining content types with detailed technical metadata. With the help of another add-on, such metadata can be used in faceted searches – see for example the search for Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks.

4. Faculty Directories

Academic institutions typically have need of a personnel directory, with different levels of access (to telephone numbers and email addresses for example) for internal versus external users. The Plone add-on Faculty Staff Directory implements the typical academic organizational model – faculty/staff/student, department, committee – and integrates these groupings with Plone security, making it easy to assign personnel different editing permissions on different parts of the site depending on their department or committee. It captures lots of academic profile information and provides a place for faculty to add their own web pages and other content. It has been honed for use at universities since 2007.

5. Bibliographies

All academics accumulate bibliographies of published work in their field, and provide relevant references when they publish their own work. The venerable Plone bibliography add-on (born circa 2005) lets content editors publish bibliographic references on their websites. For a great example, see The University of Minnesota Press’ extensive bibliography of references about the MMPI (a personality inventory test), which can be browsed with a faceted search. Ten years of development has resulted in a ton of features and a whole family of related add-ons (we created one to support Citation Style Language two years ago.) There’s even an integration with Faculty Staff Directory that allows faculty to easily add bibliographies to their profiles.

6. Sub-sites

Plone makes it easy to create many sub-sites within one installation. There are several add-ons that provide this feature, the most popular being collective.lineage. This is great for giving a university’s many schools and departments a degree of autonomy while administering all the sites together. Each department can have its own staff, content, and visual identity, while easily sharing and linking to content in other departments. Administrators have just one Plone installation, with a global set of add-ons and configurations that enforce consistency.

Some Examples

Many universities around the world use Plone (which supports 40+ languages out of the box) – here are a few of my favorite examples.

  • Smeal College of Business

    Penn State’s Smeal College of Business

  • Universidad Nacional de Córdoba

    Universidad Nacional de Córdoba

  • Dumbarton Oaks

    Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

  • UC Davis College of Agricultural and Engineering Sciences

    UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

  • Notre Dame College of Engineering

    University of Notre Dame College of Engineering

One Comment


  1. Accessibility in Plone 5 | Jazkarta Blog

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