Introduction To Drupal For Schools

I presented this talk today at the BAISNet meeting on open-source software hosted at Lick-Wilmerding School. Some of the links point to internal, password-protected resources. Contact me if you would like a tour.

In the early days of the web, schools designed and developed their own web sites. Then we purchased professional graphic design and content management systems. In recent years, full-service companies have sprung up to deliver schools a complete solution. This is one possible — but not the only — modern solution for a course web site. How did we move so far away from managing our own web sites? Is it possible to turn back?

With a little DIY spirit and open-source software, it is possible. Open-source content management systems have matured and arrived. They are now a viable choice for a professional, modern, effective school public-facing web site. In a time of cost consciousness, it is imperative for us to learn this field and build our own web sites once again.

We know how to evaluate and tell other people about commercial software. Read the company’s sales materials, ask other schools for references, review a live demo or an existing site, determine the terms of a contract, monitor the site as it is developed/delivered, contract with a trainer. After the site is launched, requests tweaks/new features as desired.

The open-source ecosystem is very different from the familiar landscape of commercial software. Open-source software does not have huge advertising budgets. You won’t see The Network or The Trusted Voice or taste tests.

The key to evaluating open-source software is to enter the community and try the software. Take Drupal as an example. You can search the forums for helpful community members, view everyone’s support issues, browse hundreds of community-contributed modules, read community-authored user and developer guides, read case studies by real users, join affinity groups, and build a test site to evaluate the suitability of the software for your purposes. Hire a Drupal developer or another if you like.

You may have concerns about running your public-facing web site on open-source software. That’s all right. Start with lower-stakes projects and get to know the software and the process well. Build up your own familiarity and comfort level through experience. has over 350,000 registered users. Version 1.0 was released in 2001. The current version is 6.9.

Peer schools using Drupal include Burke’s, Seattle Academy, Billings, and Meridian. College Prep uses Plone. Notable, Amherst College runs its main, public-facing web site on Drupal.

Other options: Plone, Joomla, WordPress

Once you go through this process and become a convert, how do you convince others? It may help to guide your school colleagues through a "lite" version of the steps you experienced. At Catlin Gabel, we formed a committee of ten major stakeholders in the web site project (admission, development, human resources, technical staff). I added to this group a parent who also works for an organization that provides technology consulting services to environmental organizations. We redesign our web site about once every six years. Drew redesigns organization web sites as his daily work. One of the most compelling answers was, "What about all of the R&D that companies put into their products? Open source communities probably devote a hundred times’ R&D into their ‘products.’"

Social Features

I pushed Drupal at my school because of its emphasis on social features. The White House has a blog. The Vatican has a YouTube channel. 40-somethings are joining Facebook in droves. Now is the time to introduce social features to your public-facing web site. Drupal is built around social features. Blogs, RSS feeds, tags, media support, and a powerful content management system are all strengths in Drupal.

Education-specific Drupal distributions: Social Media Classroom, DrupalEd, FunnyMonkey Commons. Will we see a distribution specifically for a school’s public-facing web site? Shall we create it together?

At Catlin Gabel, I first launched a community intranet portal to facilitate anyone’s media publishing. This site is organized around media types. All users may post articles, audio files, movies, and calendar entries, maintain a blog, and build an electronic portfolio. We also host other community content here, such as a carpool map, school archive, and summer jobs bulletin board.

With this experience under our belts, we are now taking on our main, public-facing web site. We plan to fully integrate community features throughout the site, not just in a dedicated section. Our constituents seek to engage with the school through its web site. Middle and upper school students seek authentic representations of student experience at the school. Commenting on all News articles. Making comments visible to all registered users. Providing user accounts to faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, applicants, board members, and friends of the school. Approved "site editors" will be able to edit all static pages (not restricted to own department). Every user will have a blog, and blog content will be aggregated by topic (tags or content searches). Existing newsletters will fold into the blog and news functions.

Specific Features of Drupal

Drupal has a very small core and then hundreds of contributed modules. Let’s take a look at the core.

  • River of news
  • RSS feeds
  • User profiles
  • Search
  • Blog for each user
  • RSS aggregator
  • Forums
  • Commenting
  • Contact forms
  • File upload
  • Taxonomy (tagging)
  • Hierarchical content type (book)
  • Menu, theme, and content independent of each other
  • Revisions

Now let’s take a look at some commonly-used contributed modules:

  • Content Construction Kit (CCK) — page, news item, calendar event, athletic event, trip, curriculum map entry …
  • Views — define criteria to select content and then a format to display it
  • Calendar — control over categories, display formats
  • Image — image galleries, embedded images
  • Organic Groups — classrooms, clubs, teams, affinity groups
  • Notifications — email subscriptions by content type, keyword, or author
  • WYSIWYG editors — button-level control, link buttons to custom code
  • LDAP integration — same username/password as your other network systems
  • JavaScript functions (jQuery) — usability enhancements (AJAX)
  • Wiki — wiki markup if desired, otherwise revisions + editing rights + diff
  • Page functions — print, email, PDF

Fine-grained control

  • Position of administration functions
  • Per-item control of menus (user and administration)
  • Role definitions and permissions
  • Per-field control over content definitions
  • Ability to embed PHP code and write custom modules (Blackbaud integration)

Exciting additional features demonstrate the Drupal community’s ability to integrate promising new technologies.

Getting Started

My journey: insideCatlin, public-facing shadow site, Shasta Mountain Guides, 3D Cell Explorer, San Diego Hat Co, summer school registration, test installation for new site

Lessons learned: start small, grow gradually, distinguish yourself with modern features, don’t just talk about open-source, rather provide hands-on demos.

That’s it for this session. Will get into specific site design issues in the second session.


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