A Drupal Story, Part 1

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A little over a year ago, a new web site was launched for Alton College. The site had been a year in the making – platform, design and content was all identified as being part of a large redevelopment project.

This is the first of a series of posts documenting our site development journey. In this part: our choice of platform.

If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth reviewing your own website via the Way Back Machine (otherwise known as the Internet Archive). Go back as far as you can – right back to the start of the records. In the case of the Alton College web site, this is February 29 2000. Not a good look, but perhaps about par for the times, certainly among educational organisations who had yet to appreciate the value of a quality website (but then nor had many businesses). You will probably notice a few characteristics that give away the production method – it’s FrontPage, and those buttons are pretty standard and often used features of the application at the time. You can’t really distinguish this business site from those of individual or community sites of the same period, or a few years later.

Fast forward to just three years ago, and we had a great site that was developed and maintained by a very talented developer. But herein lay a problem -we were reliant upon our developer for so many aspects of content production. It wasn’t just the page layout and style that needed a developer hand to make changes, but also to edit the content. In the twilight of the site, a simplified content management system was added, allowing for some text to be edited, however this didn’t enable us to keep as fresh and exciting a site as we would have liked. Time for a radical change.

Between 2000 and 2009 we had learned much; how to (and how not to) go about managing site development, which site features and functions are important to us, and what workflows the site infrastructure must support. A process of evaluation began, and we looked at a number of different products, all of them open source; Mambo, Joomla and Drupal.

Why open source? We already had experience in contributing to the Moodle community, the aforementioned developer had collaboratively contributed to the Chamelion theme and a number of different Moodle features. Open source was also being used to deliver our Individual Learning Plan. You have to invest in open source; it doesn’t come ‘free’, and you should certainly consider contributing something back to the community – whether that be directly in support of the product you happen to be using, or in sharing effective practices with others.

Honestly, there wasn’t much to call between Mambo, Joomla and Drupal; each has their own particular outstanding features. If we had particular needs from certain feature sets, one might have stood out above another, but since our needs were fairly generic, the differences were inconsequential. With this in mind we leaned toward Drupal, having some experience of the platform among our team, and knowing that features like the Content Construction Kit would go a long way to extending site functionality.

In my next post I’ll talk about how we analyzed and re-mapped our outgoing website, and the strategy we began to apply to our content.

TeachMeets and OggCamps: a noob at the unconference

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TeachMeet is new territory for me. So too is the OggCamp. Both are unconference events that encourage leadership and participation from the attending crowd. Thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve been to an ‘unconference’ before, although I’ve wanted to facilitate an event like this and perhaps not yet been confident enough to do so!.

I am hoping to go along to the next in my area at Winchester this month. Teach meets are all about getting teachers together to share their good practices. The idea isn’t that the event is focused upon technology, but I’m hoping to hear from some teaching staff who have had particular successes in the application of technology, with a view to informing some of the decisions we make about the development of ILT. Of particular interest to me are two areas.

Firstly, how are staff incorporating new hardware and software with their practice, and what do they regard as being the key steps toward success? The recipe for swift and comprehensive adoption of new technology is sometimes elusive, and whilst pockets of success are often easy to achieve, embedding throughout the curriculum is far more challenging.

Secondly, I’m keen to understand about how attitudes toward technology within other organisations may be changing. As we move through a period of rapid change, it is my belief that in order for our provision of technology to support the curriculum, things must change. Reading Elliot Masies’ post about second screens got me thinking a little where he suggests that the organisational firewall could become more porous. This might be a controversial suggestion to make to any network administrator. However, as it becomes more the case that our learners will demand more open access to a broader ranger of services while utilising our bandwidth, we need to come to terms with a change like this being more likely, or even necessary. Considered in conjunction with the second screen – a device owned and managed by the learner – there is great potential for us to move beyond our current position.

OggCamp is also something I’ve not experienced, but have heard a little about it from the likes of @tonywhitmore. I have registered to attend the summer meeting nearby in Farnham this summer. Before the event arrives, I’ll need to think about what I want to achieve. Since I’m less technical than I used to be, I don’t really expect to be getting stuck into any really deep discussions about Linux or open source coding. However, I hope there will be enough interest from others to talk about the place of open source in the enterprise, how we reached this position, and what is required form us as community members to maintain our successes.

Getting the message out with Xibo

There are so many opportunities for PowerPoint. Some entirely correct – communicating a concise message, stimulating conversation or thought. Some entirely inappropriate – either by incorrect choice of application, or by content. One thing PowerPoint has done in some organisations is creep into use as a digital signage tool. We’ve made the jump to Xibo – and it’s doing a fine job.

Xibo is an open source signage solution that has evolved from a degree project to a stable and functional information tool. For well over a year now, I have sporadically been experimenting with this promising tool. I think i am finally reaching the tipping point – enough staff are aware of it, and have been enthused by the promise of more information being communicated to students that some more headway can be made.

Xibo follows a client server model. The server requires nothing more than a web server, php and a database (typically mysql). The client currently requires a windows device in order to run, but other versions are in development. I think system could really come into its own when a Linux client is available that could be packaged into a bootable operating system. Picture being able to boot a low end device – an old laptop, perhaps – from a memory stick, and launching directly into the client.

Xibo display screen

I’ve coupled our Xibo installation with a Drupal installation. Why? So I can aggregate RSS feeds into my notices. And for the moment, that’s about all we do; broadcast content from RSS feeds. The Drupal system doesn’t need much preparation work, just install the default package, then start adding content. If you add some taxonomy, Drupal will provide you with custom feeds. For example, we tag articles for display in reception with the word ‘reception’; an RSS feed of all these articles is shown on the display in our foyer area. All other content is excluded, so visitors joining us for a 20 minute meeting don’t see the menu of the day.

Four screens is our total right now, with another on the way. An what a great improvement this is over a PowerPoint model we have used in the past. I have great expectations of being able to stream other content to our noticeboards, since Xibo supports other media like images, video, flash and embedded html in addition to RSS.

If you are haven’t already tried Xibo as a signage tool, why not give it a go – I think you might like it. If you use Xibo already, I would like to hear about your experiences!