Out of the hundreds of campuses we surveyed, only 4% indicated WordPress was not an approved CMS choice for their institution. While WordPress has long been heralded as the CMS leader across the entire web, now we have data to back up its widespread use within the education vertical.
Digging a bit deeper, it’s interesting to note that WordPress popularity amongst educational institutions is not a new trend. Over 64% of campuses shared they have been using WordPress for 3 or more years, with 29% reporting a history of using WordPress on campus for 6-10 years or more.
WordPress in academia is maturing beyond primary and secondary web properties to power more complex aspects of campus life.
- Events & Calendars – 53% (258 campuses) of respondents are managing events and calendars using WordPress.
- eCommerce – 37% (180 campuses) are running eCommerce on WordPress, including sales for event tickets, physical products, memberships, and publications/copyright.
- Course Management/LMS – 25% (120 campuses) use WordPress as an LMS.
Other noteworthy uses (between 5 – 20% of campuses) include using WordPress for academic publications & online magazines, research data & publication, HR tools & job boards, campus maps, digital signage, virtual tours, and digital asset management.
There’s no question WordPress is a big player within the education sector. Whether you’re a big university, small college, K-12 school, or other institution, odds are good someone on your team already has experience with WordPress. That’s how the seed gets planted – someone has a small project and uses WordPress because they’re already familiar with it as a CMS.
As the results of that first project are shared, we start to see bottom-up growth within each organization. The more people that have experience and success with WordPress on campus, the more WordPress is brought to the table for other projects until it reaches critical mass and becomes the CMS of choice.
When it comes to digital development and maintenance on campus, small teams are dominating. On average, the campus team only includes 2-3 developers with WordPress expertise. For larger teams, talent is primarily drawn from within the institution’s internal IT team, internal marketing team, or internal departmental team.
It’s worth noting that the survey did not define specifically define what “expertise” means. The data showed many respondents identifying as a “team of one”, indicating their role might be that of a generalist vs a more focused developer or designer.
Still, a sizeable number of campuses are relying on agency partners (19%) or individual freelancers (10%) to handle the design and build of their WordPress installations. It will be interesting to determine if each group (internal team vs agency) is responsible for different projects during next year’s survey, such as whether small internal teams are running the student blogs with an agency responsible for the larger multisite deployment or if in-house teams are handling it all.
Across all teams, we found a common theme when it came to customization and involvement in the WordPress community. Over 67% of our respondents have developed custom plugins and themes on top of WordPress, and over 27% have developed custom web applications or mobile applications via the REST API. In addition to building customizations on top of WordPress for academia, these individuals are also involved in the WordPress project itself through core code contribution, free plugin development, support on WordPress.org, speaking at local WordCamp events, and other avenues.
Campus infrastructure often dictates the size of the team needed to develop and maintain their digital solutions. It’s been our experience that small, dedicated teams are often the most cost-effective option to solve complex problems.
We’re already noticing an increase in organization’s looking outward to find talent that helps them address specific needs, such as legal compliance, user experience, and accessibility. As institutions move towards larger complex systems to address the needs of a more significant user base, we expect to see increased staffing demands for experienced technologist and partnerships with freelancers, consultants, and agencies continue to grow.
Many campuses are running hundreds and even thousands of sites within their network. 32% are running over 100 WordPress sites, with 7% running 1K or more. We collected separate data to break down the number of blogs being hosted – over 38% reported hosting 500 blogs or more, with 14% of them hosting over 1K blogs on their campus network.
These academic networks aren’t just scaling horizontally; they’re also scaling vertically, supporting loads of traffic from students, staff, faculty, and community members. Nearly 40% are running sites with over 100K unique monthly visitors. 15.5% have over 1M uniques, and 5.1% reported 10M+ uniques to their most visited network.
With so many users interfacing with the network, it’s reassuring to see that updates are being performed regularly to maintain the integrity of the sites. 60% of institutions have auto-updates enabled, ensuring they’re always running the most up-to-date version of WordPress on their site, including security patches that are released several times throughout the year. Speaking in a broader sense, more than 85% reported that they perform major updates to their site/network at least once per academic year, with 20% of those respondents sharing that they perform major updates “constantly” to their network.
Given the frequency that updates are being pushed out, it’s no surprise to see that development speed and cost was ranked as one of the top four reasons WordPress campuses chose WordPress as their CMS:
- Ease of Use
- Extensibility and Flexibility
- Open Source
- Development Speed/Cost
As WordPress matures within an organization, campuses are likely to continue the trend of moving towards centralized management. Permissions-based solutions may be explored more frequently as a means of empowering each business unit or department to “own” their content production while still retaining centralized management capabilities.
Possibly most exciting is that the birth of genuine marketing for higher ed is happening right now. There are tools being used that haven’t been in the past, such as A/B and multivariate testing to determine how to best affect user behavior. Content marketing teams are being established, embracing narrative storytelling, personalization, and optimization in new and interesting ways. Instead of one site serving a generic audience, we’re seeing digital experiences tailored specifically for students, donors, alumni, and other distinct user groups within the campus ecosystem.
As web projects become more complex and more digital properties are involved, we’re also seeing changes from the project management side. Traditional, linear project/budget lifecycles that require waiting several years to launch a massive overhaul or redesign aren’t keeping pace with technology advancements and stakeholder demands. To successfully navigate these changes, many institutions are embracing a continuous cycle of improvement, shifting towards shorter release cycles under a centralized system that allows them to retain central control throughout the network.
The widespread adoption of WordPress in academia doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges yet to overcome.
Misconceptions are still a real issue. Despite the number of institutions running massive WordPress networks, 18% of the campuses we surveyed indicated scalability was a barrier to WordPress acceptance at their school. And even though WordPress has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade, over 37% said they’ve received pushback because it’s still viewed as “just a blogging platform.” As we all know, neither of these claims has any validity.
When examining the data on barriers to WordPress acceptance, it’s interesting to note that many of the security concerns stem from addressable issues. For example, just over 42% of the campus representatives we surveyed reported they do not have a vetted list of plugins for their network. Given that data, it’s not terribly surprising that many have experienced a third-party plugin vulnerability. Similarly, 13% are not running the latest version of WordPress. Given the regularity with which WordPress core security updates are released, it’s hard not to wonder whether those not on the current version are also part of the 7% that stated they have experienced a core vulnerability. Even the 26% that have faced compromised user accounts could be mitigated through more widespread use of a secure single sign-on for their WordPress sites.
Once you clear away the misconceptions and addressable concerns, you’re left with the real challenges WordPress is actively working on. Accessibility is a biggie. WordPress announced compliant at level AA for WCAG 2.0 a few months back and this will soon percolate throughout the ecosystem. 33% of campuses surveyed had to make additional tweaks and refinements to meet their accessibility requirements, and 25 campus representatives flat out said WordPress was “not even close” to meeting their needs in this department.
It will be a journey to see how WordPress addresses accessibility needs in the coming years, as well as other hurdles noted by the survey participants, such as building more robust media management, better content workflows, plugin & theme standardization, and increased ability to tie into other campus systems.
WordPress can’t be everything to everyone, but as bigger niches develop, we’ll start to see more tools geared towards unique use cases. Thanks to studies like this, we now have data to back up (or refute) assumptions about how WordPress is used in the education sector.
We’re already seeing complex solutions created using WordPress, like digital signage platforms at a fraction of the cost of proprietary signage software or full academic course catalogs. The REST API has opened up everything from mobile apps to new full scale web applications.
While WordPress core continues to adapt to the needs of its user base, our money is on the community to uncover the next big thing. Because WordPress has such a massive adoption rate, there are new, talented developers joining the community ranks each day. That means more brainpower to tap into, more unique applications being shared, and more talented people building really cool projects on top of WordPress.
Though there are still challenges to overcome, the momentum of WordPress in EDU is undeniable and well earned.
There’s no doubt the data collected in this survey is valuable to WordPress users at multiple levels, but we recognize we’ve still got room for improvement in our questions and data collection processes.
For example, if you take a look at the multi-part question we used to help qualify the institutions represented in the survey, you’ll that it could have been written much better. Since the main part of the question was mandatory, the survey also made the subsection where you could input your URL mandatory as well. That’s probably how we wound up with 4 people participating from Marvel.com and 2 from AdultSwim.com. Now that we know that’s an unfortunate quirk of Survey Monkey, the tool we chose to create the survey, we can go back and fix it before next year’s study.
We also ran into some discrepancies in numbers. In question six, we asked where WordPress was used on campus. Only 54 campuses reported using WordPress for course management/LMS in this section, but 120 answered question thirty indicating which LMS plugin they were using. Oops.
Other areas we can improve include better categorization for multiple-choice questions, including an option for “n/a” or “I don’t know” in more questions, and fewer write-in responses.
All in all, for the first year of the survey, we collected some fantastic data that others can use to make the case for WordPress within their institution.