A Drupal Story, Part 2


In the first post in this series, I explained some of the history of the Alton College web site; a little about our experiences with developing and maintaining a web presence, and how we internded to move forward with the Drupal platform.

Following this began an intense process of evaluation of the current site structure. Or outgoing site had grown very organically with content being channeled to our developer of the time. Surprisingly, this worked reasonably well for a long time. However, once the volume of content reached a certain level, it was evident that we would soon be left with a cumbersome and confusing site.

From the outset, our marketing team have been key to the redevelopment process, contributing valuable design skills and ensuring that the site accurately communicates our message, as laid out in our branding guidelines and corporate strategy.

In order to understand the structure of our outgoing site, we had to map the content – a manual process, since the implementation included no site mapping features. We turned to the web for help and used bubbl.us, a free mind mapping tool to create simple illustration of our content. We we careful not to over-complicate this process by including every last detail, but instead included only significant content. A key feture here was the abity to share our maps among contributors – our marketing team being the most significant of these. Once everything was included in our maps, it was easy to re-model the structure to fit the design brief and to incorporate new content requirements that were emerging from peripheral discussions that were taking place.

We approached a key stage at this point. As the likely structure of our site begwn to emerge, so too did the need to identify a suitable theme for our drupal installation. Drupal uses pre-built themes of varying complexity. Out of the box, themes are relatively straightforward and easy to customise. Look around the Drupal community though, and you will find advanced examples that enable some really exciting things to be delivered.

But let’s not get too carried away by the opportunities provided by themes just yet – there are design considerations to make. Our marketing team and design consultants had produced a layout that would enable two layers of navigation alongside a flexible area of body content, and our chosen theme must accommodate this and other elements of the design brief. I’ll talk more about content arrangement in a future post.

The final choice? Acquia Marina a theme produced by TopNotchThemes. Acquia Marina enabled us to work with some flexible content ‘zones’ and accommodate our navigation requirements – albeit with a little work to achieve this. We coupled the basic theme with the ThemeKey module, which allows for the application of a specific style (or just colour, in our case) based on your location in the web site. We’ve used a number of modules throughout the site to extend functionality – more about these later in the series.

A Drupal Story, Part 1


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.

Spend a little time with your marketing team

After many months of work, we launched a new website this year. Being immensely proud of this, our marketing team agreed to present to the AoSEC Marketing Group about our experiences and the project outcomes.

The AoSEC marketing group meet regularly in order to help marketing managers from widely distributed organisations share good practice, and to encourage further networking among employees from departments that are typically small – departments in which you might be somewhat isolated.

Having spent a few minutes presenting an overview of the journey we have travelled, questions were opened. And what a lot of questions followed! I was so pleased that the topic we had chosen was relevant to seemingly everyone in the room. Most indicated that they were soon to embark upon, or had ambitions to embark upon, a website redevelopment. Even those who didn’t shared their own experiences of web site development and launch with us.

Most present were amazed at how we had published such a high quality site with such a low outlay. Being fortunate enough to have a development team to hand that can devote time to a large undertaking like this has meant that additional outlay on developer or technical costs has been minimal; we already had most of the skills in house. But maintaining this expertise in-house does have its costs and commitment to staff is paramount to ensuring the expertise gained remains in-house. So too does the use of open source software to deliver a mission critical service, and technical staff are required (assuming that you host content on site) in order to deliver and maintain the platform.

Another important theme that we reiterated was the very close working relationship between the Marketing and IT Services teams. Right from the outset, I began working closely with our Marketing Manager to review future site content. Perhaps this doesn’t immediately sound like something an IT Manager need be involved in, but we found that reviewing and restructuring together enabled us to stay focused upon a clean and simple solution, work within the limitations of content publishing platform, and all the time keeping our design brief achievable.

There is an enthusiastic group of staff among the marketing teams in educational organisations that should not be overlooked. In this, the first meeting I have attended, I have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm for new ideas – even those that involve social media, an area where some can be overly cautious.

On many occasions now – redevelopment of our website, re-branding the College, changing the form of our prospectus and associated materials – working with our marketing team has been an immensely productive and gratifying experience. By their very nature, the marketing team has an involvement with most areas of the College operation; in all those instances when I have supported their work, I have learned something new about the College, our business and our audience.

I hope I have the opportunity to return to the AoSEC marketing meeting one day, perhaps to talk again about marketing activities supported by the IT department, or even newer concepts in marketing like social media. If you have the time, spend a little more with your marketing department!