A Drupal Story, Part 3

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Parts one and two covered some of the evaluative and design aspects of the Drupal story. It’s worth touching on the open source aspects, particularly with a view toward the ongoing costs involved in delivering open source solutions.

Drupal is neither mine, nor Alton College’s first open source venture. In 2005 we began implementation of Moodle as a learning management system in replacement of Learnwise. Around the same time we also embarked on a Beacon funded project to transform our paper based progress monitoring system into what has since become known as our Individual Learning Plan (more commonly referred to by the ILP acronym, as in many organisations). Both products could be delivered using open source platform tools, both could be developed actively in-house, but both also required that a team of technical staff supporting them would be required to up-skill in order to meet the changing support needs each would introduce.

None of the decisions involved were easy to take, and at no time did we take them lightly. I recall lengthy and heated debates about the benefits of open source, and (from my perspective) the seemingly impossible task of deploying them in an organisation that did not old the requisite skills needed to support, maintain and develop them. I am pleased that Helen Foster, from one of the teams involved at the time rightly convinced us that Moodle was the right choice. Helen has since gone on to become a key part of the global Moodle team. Without her influence, our present position might have turned out to be very different indeed.

Making the right decision for the long term presents many challenges. Unless you are already familiar with some key open source products, adoption can be daunting. To be honest, some of those longer term challenges still affect our projects; keeping everything up to date being one key concern for us, something which for which the difficulty is amplified when you consider all the modules and some custom code we have applied. Drupal does a great job of keeping you informed of when updates are required (much like many other products today), but once you start extending functionality with modules, things can quickly become complicated. I’m not sure we’ve mastered the perfect management technique yet.

Don’t be put off though. Once you understand the business risks associated with open source, it becomes a simple case of planning how you will effectively manage the systems you choose. The benefits of open source are clear, as long as you are sure of your commitment and expectations.

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