Tag Archive for webdesign

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.

Drupal.org 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.

Questions

Early Drupal strategies

I am leading an internal team to move the public-facing web site of our PS-12 independent school to Drupal. In this post, I share accomplishments and decisions made so far in an attempt to spread any knowledge that is useful to other institutions and gain your feedback. I consider myself an intermediate Drupal user, so some of the following may seem trivial to advanced users, whereas beginners may find it helpful as they get started. A test site is available for you to view. I have included module and content type lists at the end if you would like to jump directly to them. Many thanks in advance for any advice or feedback you may provide!

Page and News content types

We recently made the decision to give news more prominent billing than we do in our current site. We realized that news is more important than calendar information, for instance. At the same time, we will still require the ability to post descriptive content about school programs that doesn’t change all too often. First-time visitors to our school will still require this, and they are a very important audience. How could we provide for both within Drupal’s structure?

We want to have as many school departments and divisions manage their own site content. Therefore, adding pages to the Book hierarchy or adding News items to one or more sections needs to be as easy as possible. In Drupal 6, Book nodes can be of any content type. This will serve us later, though for the time being I am only adding Page nodes to Books. I did modify the Page content type to allow comments and add fields for multimedia content. I configured Book to automatically create menu items, as we don’t want to trouble our site editors around campus with navigating Drupal’s menu administration pages, which will get quite long in a large site.

landing page

I have included News content by embedding a manual PHP-driven database query in each top-level landing page. Users will click on a primary nav link and find a page with the category outline in the left-hand menu and the news for that section in the body of the page. News can be posted to multiple site sections (taxonomy terms), whereas Pages can only be posted to one place in the book hierarchy. Our web site editor was very pleased to see how easily we could move pages around the hierarchy, even from one book to another.

Will we want to post a single page to multiple books? I am not sure that this is desirable, since users may benefit from a predictable hierarchy (where is that page? what section am I in?). However, we may also find a way to configure this in Drupal, or we could write a script to pull content from the desired node when in a specific page. The ability to insert any node into a book is going to be a great boon if we need to create a custom content type with code to pull content from other nodes.

Book Access has been troublesome so far. I at first assumed that we would want to grant editing privileges at the book level, to those people who need to able to edit that book. However, not only has book access not worked as advertised, but I have also come to the realization that more open access may in fact better serve our purposes. We know and trust our web site editors, and time is precious. Why shouldn’t all users blessed as editors of our books be able to edit any of them? Some institutions have even wikified their entire site. We can mitigate (unlikely) problems by turning on revisions and setting actions to notify the web site editor when changes are made to the books. Presto.

Classroom and team pages

Organic Groups seems the obvious choice for classroom and team pages. Small communities build up around classrooms and teams at our school. Parents want to know news and upcoming dates, teachers and coaches want to contribute content, there are scores and reports to publish, and we want to expose most of this to the public for people to see our school in action.

Organic groups allows us to mark some content as public and some as private, maintain descriptive and news items, invite others into the group, and allow users to maintain short lists of their favorite groups in the site. I will want to further investigate how to set multiple moderators for a single group, suppress other groups from the audience list, and make subscription management easier.

Organic groups could also permit other affinity groups to spring up within the school around issues, initiatives, or interests. Again, it helps enormously that community features are core to the Drupal ecosystem. These features are well developed, well-documented, and widely used, making it easier for us to make our next web site more capable of community strengthening functions.

Media

On our current site, the home page feature image is randomly selected from a set of photos. Each photo has as caption. I am experimenting with enhancing this feature by: 1) using a Flash-based slideshow to cycle through images on the home page; 2) linking each image to related pages within the site, so that it also serves as a navigational element. The test site currently uses MonoSlideshow, but Slideshow Pro also has a standalone version that pulls image information from a XML file and a Drupal module. I would like to take this one step further by writing an extension to automatically updated the XML file based on the contents of a particular image gallery.

Outside of the home page, I am using the Image module, including galleries. I have not yet seen the need to go to ImageCache and appreciate the simplicity of automatic creation of gallery pages. If Image Gallery Access works as advertised, then I will be able to distinguish albums to which ordinary, authenticated users can post from those that are reserved for web site editors. FUpload appears to provide batch uploading that should work nicely for site editors, parents, and students (should I worry about Flash version compatibility?). Missing at the moment is the ability for an authenticated user to create a new image gallery, which would be great if someone is posting sports photos and wants to create a new sub-gallery for each game. If we decide to limit the number of photos posted on this server, then prolific photographers may be better off using Flickr, anyhow.

Embedded Media Field appears to work great, except that I can’t figure out a way to wrap body text around the embedded item. This may be fine for relatively unprivileged, authenticated users but probably not sufficient for web site editors.

I have recently switched from TinyMCE to FCKEditor and am loving it so far. Everything seems to present and work better with FCKEditor, especially embedded images. Do you know of a way to limit file browsing capability to user directories for some roles? I wouldn’t want any user to have access to the primary embedded image store for the site. I would also like buttons and filters to elegantly embed files, uploaded media, and third-party media all within the WYSIWYG interface. I wonder how difficult it would be to write those extensions and make them available to some roles and not others.

Roles

Drupal, as community software, offers the exciting opportunity to invite many different constituencies in our community within the site and provide features such as comments, blogs, directories of people, and photo upload privileges specifically to them. I have created the following roles so far:

anonymous user
authenticated user
administrator
alumnus/a
applicant for admission
faculty/staff member
job applicant
parent
student
web site editor

User Profiles

I haven’t begun to explore this yet. In some cases, the user profile is a critical function. For example, we want alumni to edit their information through the site: contact details, schools attended, place of employment, interest in the career network, etc. Faculty members will have short biographical passages to help describe themselves. This means that some roles will use different profile fields from others — I need to learn how to make that happen, and whether to use nodes for user profiles in these cases. On a related note, real names will need to be visible throughout the site — I have used Authorship for this before and will need to evaluate it and investigate alternatives once more. Authorship does not have a Drupal 6 version at this time.

Commenting

Opening commenting is a really exciting opportunity. We currently do not have this feature in our current site, yet we know that our users have a lot to say, and we want to draw them more tightly into the school community. At the same time, independent schools try to maintain a decent level of control over publicly-available content. Drupal’s commenting system seems perfect for this — allow all authenticated users to see and post comments, allow all web site editors to administer comments, and do not use a moderation queue at all. Done.

One downside I can see at this time is that a blog author may in the future want the ability to moderate their own comments. I’m not sure whether this would require a lot of hoop-jumping-through in Drupal, as compared to a blogging platform such as WordPress.

Calendaring

I have done a little investigation here, not very much. I have set up Calendar and CCK Date. I am finding setting up calendar Views to be bit involved. We will make extensive use of list views of calendar items by taxonomy terms in blocks throughout the site.

The custom content type for Athletics events looks great — opponent (node reference), bus departure and return times, result, score, notes will serve their function well. One glaring omission for Drupal 6 is Time. The last I read, developers are testing a Drupal 6 version. We will need this CCK field in order to have additional times for the day of the event (such as bus departure and return times).

We have yet to decide whether Drupal’s calendar could meet all of our internal, public calendaring and resource reservation needs, or whether we should install a proper calendar server.

Migrating Custom Functionality

We have built over the years a lot of custom PHP and Perl scripts that we plan to migrate into Drupal over time. Many of these will wait until year two or three of the project. They function fine now, and we have to first roll out the core functionality of the site.

Applicants for admission can complete an inquiry form, sign up to visit the campus, and download admission forms online. All of these functions pull data from our Blackbaud database in order to function. We could migrate these (rather large) scripts into Drupal, gaining additional benefits: applicants for admission would become authenticated users and be able to read and post comments, gaining greater visibility into the site.

Our current volunteer signup and management system keeps track of multiple events, caps signups for specific time slots in order to automatically distribute volunteers to where they are needed, and produces summary lists for volunteer coordinators. If Signup can do all this, then we will move this feature to Drupal in a flash.

Job applicants can, using another site, view and apply for jobs at the school. This seems like a prime candidate to move to Drupal, which has better designed file submission features than our current system. It will be key to leverage Drupal to provide good workflow management functions for the human resources office — the ability to flag applicants for certain categories, add notes to applicant files, invite supervisors to review applicants online, and send mass emails to those declined for the position.

Social network sites

Connecting with constituents through social network sites is a hot issue right now for independent schools.We want to meet our constituents where they are, in addition to drawing them into our site. At the same time, we want to leverage existing content and processes as much as possible while making this happen. I am happy to find out about Ping.fm, which should allow us to automatically generate Twitter, Facebook, and other status updates from specific News items that we post to our site. With no additional effort, we will broadcast our news items to our users’ communities and cultivate follower lists around the web.


Content types

Here is a list of content types in our test site so far.

Athletic event
Blog entry
Calendar event
Classroom (node for organic groups)
Image
News item
Opponent
Page (modified to serve as the main content type for descriptive pages)
Team (node for organic groups)

Modules

(so far)

autosave
book_access
calendar
cck
date
devel
emfield
fckeditor
filefield
image
image_fupload
jquery_media
ldap_integration
lightbox2
messaging
notifications
og
print
scheduler
simplemenu
slideshow
token
views

Moving forward with Drupal

drupal icon

We have made the decision to proceed with Drupal to build Catlin Gabel’s next public-facing web site! That means that you get to stop hearing me refer to it as our “potential” next web site platform. In the end, the decision came about through several factors:

Any open source system will allow us to shape the site to suit our needs better than a closed system. I demonstrated, through a test site, that a relatively simple Drupal install could meet the most critical needs that we identified for the web site. There’s nothing like a hands-on test to convince a critical friend.

Taking other stakeholders on a tour of the Drupal site was helpful. People may have an impression that open-source software is less professional or reliable than commercial software. A quick tour of the Drupal forums, modules lists, and handbooks conveys the incredible scope and activity of the Drupal community.

Prior experience with Drupal played an important role. You could successfully argue that we created a self-fulfilling prophecy by using Drupal for so many other purposes and tests. Each experiment has increased our Drupal expertise, to the point that the considerable knowledge we have built played a role in the platform decision.

Prior PHP/mySQL development also contributed to the choice. Before we tried Drupal, even before I joined the school, we had developed a number of useful PHP scripts that expose data from our student information system for teachers, students, and parents to use. It will be easier to convert these scripts into Drupal modules than into, say, Python.

Next steps: hire a graphic designed and a Drupal consultant. I will post more details about these opportunities soon, but feel free to drop me a line earlier if you are very keen on them.

Onward we fly!

Wikify Our Web Site?

What if we applied wiki concepts to our public-facing web site? Could we harness power of the commons to build a better present ourselves to our core audiences? Considering that most of these audiences are people already in our school community, this idea could have potential.

There exist many intermediate steps between controlling all of the content ourselves and opening it up completely to the entire world.

  • Encourage faculty and staff members to manage site content (as we currently do).
  • Include parent and student contributions (as we currently do on our internal web site).

  • Allow any community member to edit a site page, but review the submission before publishing it.
  • Allow any community member to edit a site page and immediately publish it.
  • Allow any member of the public to edit site content.

Could we take a step or two toward a community-generated school web site?

Update 1/9/2008: Dearborn Public Schools (Michigan) has done it.

Learn How To Program

(If you already know how to program, then learn how to program better.)

drupal icon

We often joke that independent schools aspire to be like small colleges. Witness the naming of University High School, College Preparatory School, and University Prep. Here’s a good way to emulate our tertiary friends — develop in-house programming expertise. As colleges and public school systems have learned, in-house programming expertise helps an educational institution develop best fit solutions at reasonable cost. We work in the field of technology. We should learn the tools of the trade and become producers, not just managers.

We are attempting to build the site development capacity to produce our next public-facing web site. Last year, we met with three local Drupal development companies in order to gain some perspective on the size and complexity of our challenge. We learned two critical lessons from these meetings. Local development companies preferred to take on the entire project rather than assist us with doing it ourselves, and we needed more in-house development expertise if we expected to pull off this project ourselves.

We have succeeded in improving our development expertise this year. I have accepted the challenge to master Drupal, especially version 6 and custom module development. I have learned through experimentation, books, forums, and specialized distributions. That’s the beauty of open source. The process is social and constructive. It’s easy to build up momentum. I build test sites and share my experiences through forums, Twitter, and on-campus conversations.

We have also increased our development capacity through hiring. In filling our open database specialist position, we did not count on gaining a programmer, but we were able to do so. Programming is a particularly useful skill in database management, since schools have seen so much growth in database-enabled web site services, such as grades, attendance, directories, reporting, and so on. Add our computer science teacher, and we may now have the capacity to build and support our own Drupal-based site. A particularly compelling web site project might even entice our computer science students to contribute.

The economic crisis has increased the importance of self-sufficiency. A first-class web site is integral to meeting our communication goals, but we should not pay FinalSite or Whipple Hill $50,000 for it. Developing a sophisticated site in Drupal or Plone will provide us with the capabilities and future flexibility that the school needs at a more reasonable cost. The effort we now spend building this expertise will be worth many thousands of dollars in the future.

Can you do it? Anyone can improve from their current skill level and add value to their work. Not so long ago, I moved from full-time teacher to half-teacher, half-academic technology specialist. My colleague in the IT department wrote the school’s first Perl script to collect student course requests. I was fascinated and studied the syntax in the script to write my own first, simple web applications. Two years and one school later, I installed and then learned to modify YaBB, a Perl-based discussion forum system. I then wrote a series of increasingly more important web applications for our school: student announcements system, single sign-on code snippet, community service hours tracker, alumni notes interface, and admission inquiry system. I am still a relatively amateur programmer, but I continue to learn from my peers and improve the quality of my work.

My next challenge is to move from custom, standalone development to configuring and adding functionality to a popular content management system. I now have an expert programmer as an office colleague with whom I can partner and from whom I can learn. If my dream comes true, I will gain collaborators at other schools who wish to share Drupal configuration tricks and develop new functionality for their public-facing web sites. Stay tuned to find out what degree of success we attain.

Web Site Design Portfolio

This portfolio shows major sites I have designed and built for organizations.

Catlin Gabel School (2009-present)
The school’s main, public-facing website provides a complete content management system, multimedia publishing tools, user accounts for students, staff, parents, and alumni, and ties into the school’s student information system. A layer of the site is login-protected, so that community members may publish articles, photos, and videos to the school community.

Catlin Gabel website

Tools: Drupal and Blackbaud, including custom PHP development.

www.catlin.edu

insideCatlin (2006-present)
This intranet web portal provides operational tools for the members of Catlin Gabel School. Teachers provide students with course materials and interactive discussion areas, departments publish commonly-used forms, and individuals schoolwide exchange information such as community service hours and textbook orders. The portal is organized by commonly-desired content and transactions, rather than by tool.

insideCatlin

Tools used: Moodle, Drupal, Blackbaud database access, and custom Perl and PHP scripts.

inside.catlin.edu

Shasta Mountain Guides (2005 – present)
The guiding company uses this site to publish trip information, collect reservations, solicit customer questions, and sell merchandise. Customers may browse through trip descriptions, photos, and testimonials and then book a reservation online, including payment. The co-owners maintain the Backcountry Blog and photo galleries on the site. A live weather feed and equipment lists help hikers plan their trips.

Shasta Mountain Guides

Tools: Drupal, osCommerce, custom Perl scripts, custom graphic design

www.shastaguides.com

San Diego Hat Co (2001 – present)
This web site allows the company to quickly publish an online catalog of hundreds of items to wholesale customers twice each year. Within the login-protected site, customers browse or search for hat styles, zoom in to view close-up detail, and see available colors for each style. The site also includes static pages for company information and an online store for retail customers.

San Diego Hat Co

Tools: Web Site Baker, osCommerce, custom Perl scripts.

www.sandiegohat.com

Maru-a-Pula School (2006 – present)
The school upgraded its web presence with a content management system and custom graphic design (Elavacion, Inc.). I moved the hosting service to the U.S., to improve upon the reliability of Botswana-based hosting services.

Tools used: Drupal

www.maruapula.org

San Francisco University High School (2002 – 2006)
This site provided for all of the public-facing web site needs of this school community: a description of the school program, faculty and staff contact directory, admission inquiry toolkit, alumni profile and notes tools, and Arts department mini-site.

San Francisco University High School

Tools: Dreamweaver, custom Perl scripts.

insideUHS (2002-2006)
This intranet school portal provided the community with communication and information tools: course web sites, athletics schedules, community service project database, independent study project database, community announcements, schoolwide events calendar, student photo directories, online file access, and student discussion forums.

Tools: Moodle, YaBB, phpBB, FileMan, Blackbaud database access, custom Perl scripts.

insideUHS

site snapshot at The Internet Archive (original site no longer available)

Gateway High School (1999-2002)
The graphic design of this site communicates the school’s unique position as a public charter school in San Francisco. Learning Center and People receive high visibility, and student work is featured on the home page.

Gateway High School

Tools: Dreamweaver

www.gwhs.org at the Internet Archive

Audience-centric web site design

Our web site team is attempting to keep our audiences’ needs and perspectives at the forefront throughout our web site redesign process. It’s not easy! We naturally think about the school in terms of our relationship to it, and we have the inside perspective. This often results in ideas for organizing the web experience that mirror too closely the organization’s internal structure.

Although our audience list includes internal constituents, we must remember to pay special attention to the external ones. We started the process by building lists of audiences that we need to reach via the web site. Prospective and current families, students, alumni, and employees topped the list. Next, we used a protocol developed at OneNorthwest to identify the values and needs of this audience as well as what the school wants them to learn/do from their web site experience.

Next, we developed specific “user stories.” We each made up two mythical users and described what they wanted from the site, how they used it, what else we wanted them to learn, and whether they had a successful experience. This exercise was terrific, as it harnessed the creativity of all of the members of our group (techies and non-techies alike) to come up with possible perspectives on using the web site that we had not previously recorded.

Staying focused on audience was pretty easy until we actually got specific with content. Two weeks ago, we started to translate our audience work into actual web site information architecture. How should we organize the content and services on the site to meet the audience needs we identified? Our work immediately returned to a more traditional form, as we started pumping out content outlines that mirrored our organizational structure or replicated existing aspects of the site.

Do you design web sites? How do you retain your focus on the target audiences when you begin to organize content and design user interactions?

What purpose does your intranet serve?

A colleague asked about school intranets the other day. Here is my response.

What purpose does your intranet serve?

The insideCatlin web site provides tools and resources for those members of the Catlin Gabel community who come to school every day, students, teachers, staff, and parents.

What are you using your intranet for?

Course web sites, committee web sites, department web sites, publishing student work to the Catlin Gabel community, sharing photos from school events and trips, online discussions, parent-faculty association meeting recordings, library catalog, volunteer signups, carpool map, surveys, senior project reports, blogs, podcasts, wikis, videos, audio recordings, community service hours, bookstore point-of-sale, IT loaner tracking, online signups for special academic programs, teacher notes on students, curriculum map editing tool, teacher access to student schedules and information, school archives.

What format are you currently using? (ie. Drupal, Sharepoint)

Moodle, Drupal, Menalto Gallery, Follett Destiny, and custom Perl/PHP scripts. Most use a common graphic interface to provide visual consistency when moving from one tool to the next. They also share the same authentication databases (LDAP + mySQL), and two of the three have single sign-on. We provide database support in mySQL, and some scripts read data from Education Edge, our students information system.

How could we use the intranet to help the teachers/ staff/ students?

That’s a pretty big question. An intranet enables community members to continue to interact in rich ways when face-to-face interactions are not possible. So list the types of interactions or transactions you wish to amplify, and then consider whether they would work within an online interface. If yes, then build it, see how it flies, and then promote it heavily.

Off to a quick start this summer

Now that the Celtics have completed their incredible journey to title #17, I may find the time to get back on this blog. Seriously, summer has arrived with a vengeance, and we are flying to keep up with the ambitious schedule of summer maintenance and improvements that we have set for ourselves. Like a Rajon Rondo fast break, we hope to weave through the lane, do that Bob-Cousy-throwback-pendulum-move and then take it to the rim.

The upper school ended the year by devoting a day to the 1:1 student laptop program. I was so pleased that we got the faculty together to discuss the program for the first time in many years, even if fear of student distraction and tech overload dominated the discussion. Some teachers are struggling with students distracted by the myriad online opportunities once they open their laptops. Many are concerned about the effect of so much screen time on the social fabric of the school and active class discussions. Other teachers appear to be handling it just fine. On the more positive side, applications of the laptops to support teaching and learning are widespread and powerful. One teacher summed it up with, “We would never want to go back.” We will review the results of these discussions and prepare further conversations for the fall.

In the middle school, I continued my annual practice of teachers sharing successful technology integration strategies with each other. I find that teachers not already working together in teams do not regularly share lesson plans with each other. The tech share provides at least an annual moment for this to happen, allowing me to step completely to the side. It provides all teachers the opportunity that, if their colleagues can experiment with new applications of technology in the classroom, so can they. Teachers shared their work with digital audio recorders in Costa Rica, trip planning using Google Earth, reflections on literature in Moodle forums, and manipulating images of one’s self in Photoshop.

Today, we started our new web site design process. A month ago, I let go of my previous strategy to upgrade only the back-end of the web site and postpone the redesign to later. This will dovetail nicely with a reexamination of our schoolwide communication strategy. I also have the help of Drew of OneNW, who provides online communications consulting to environmental organizations. He has helped us start this process well-focused on our target audiences, their values, and their roles at Catlin Gabel. This will lead to the development of user scenarios and a detailed design document, which we will share with some part of the school community for comment. We hope to launch a new site a year from now, a site that will offer both the intuitive access to information and useful transactional tools that people now expect from an organization’s web site.

At the same time, I continue to pursue the Drupal experiment. In just two hours’ time, I built a prototype for a human resources site using Views and a Custom Content Type. This allows anyone to create an account, submit a job application, and upload attachments. It also solves many of the problems we are experiencing with our current web services provider for job applications, Ceridian. This tool would be part of our main web site platform, get applicants to a list of jobs in one click instead of three, and allow them to upload multiple file attachments instead of just one. By creating an account, the applicant may return and modify the application later on, for example to upload more attachments.

This prototype does not yet offer all of the desired features, and it appears that I will need to learn Actions in order to add automated email features to the system, for example when the HR director wants to notify at once all the applicants who did not get the job. I am also taking a look at Coherent Access (thanks, Bill), which may provide an easy hand-off from the HR office to the supervisor reviewing the first round of applicants. Since we receive 3,000 job applications a year, this will be a more strenuous test of our ability to host large volumes of content in our own system.

Summer workers have arrived, we placed our summer order for Macintosh computers yesterday, and equipment for audiovisual installations is on the way. Soon, we will be up to our eyeballs in computers to upgrade and prepare for the start of school in August. I went with two units of the new Smart 608i2 — save $900 over the 680i, as long as you don’t mind the lack of amplified audio! The Epson 1825 replaces last year’s 1815p but looks almost indistinguishable in features and form. The summer schedule is tightly scripted. On a good note, we are making more use of scripts to automate installation and configuration than ever before. Stay tuned for a report of whether it actually speeds up the configuration process.

New core switch

Yesterday, our new core switch (Cisco 6500 series) arrived, and our consultants and we took the network down briefly to test the new configuration. It passed the test, so we appear to be on track to put it into production the coming Monday evening. We will need to touch all campus switches and access points to complete the upgrade, another step in getting our entire network infrastructure under warranty and on a predictable replacement schedule.

I am pleased to attend design meetings for the proposed Creative Arts Center. The teachers have come up with fabulous ideas for the arrangement and equipping of new classrooms, which are essential to the future success of the Arts program at Catlin Gabel. The construction of the building depends on raising the requisite funds by April 1, so stay tuned as we hope that the dream will become reality. An early idea for our communications plan is to create a mini-site with a completely different graphic design and blog format to keep people up-to-date on progress toward the goal, inform, and generate enthusiasm for the project.

Yesterday, I launched a new home page design for insideCatlin, our intranet community portal. We added so many new content sections and tools to the site this past academic year that the home page no longer made any sense to users trying to find specific items. The new home page design loads the user’s Moodle cookie and displays links appropriate to that person’s LDAP and Moodle group memberships. If you go there, you will see only the base set of items unless you are a Catlin Gabel community member. They see additional items that only apply to their context in the school. In this way, we provide dozens of links to the home page without cluttering it for any individual user.

For security, a script doing the work lives outside the web directory, and the links themselves do not contain protected content. You actually have to log in before you see substantial information, a strategy borrowed from Yahoo! and other internet portals. I am also raising the visibility of media content — photos from Gallery, and audio and video files from Drupal. Naturally, I have yet to build the audio file queries, and I want to convert video upload from Video to a FLV-compatible format before working on that section. The photo thumbnails look really great, though!

This week, I hope to make good progress on several scripting projects, especially upgrading existing Perl scripts such as the curriculum map, bookstore, and admission inquiry scripts. Then, I have taken on some new projects, such as a community service tracking form and major assignments conflicts calendar. The school has so many needs for data forms with logic and calculations. It’s great that systems like Drupal are designed for this very thing, but I am still finding it a lot easier to creates the ones that require a lot of calculation or close tie-ins with our student information system in Perl rather than in Drupal. I did recently create a senior projects archive in Drupal, so I am learning to move some recording and archiving functions into there. Each senior project entry contains a brief description of the student’s project, their proposal, a link to their project blog, and their final report. This year, half the class did a senior project. Next year, the faculty hopes that all will, so the ability to review past projects and then track current ones will become even more important.

If you haven’t already, go get your $250, 500-seat iLife and iWork site licenses. Pages fills the space between InDesign and Word — our lower school teachers love it. Remember what a similar deal did for Macromedia nearly a decade ago? Kudos to Apple for the move.

I really wish I could write a separate blog post for each of the items above. I am glad I could provide you with a little reference. Do drop me a line if you are engaged in something similar and would like to compare more detailed notes.

Good luck with your summer projects. I hope to see you at Building Learning Communities in July.

Take your public-facing school web site to 2.0 with Drupal

Today, we discussed the potential for Drupal to serve as the back-end of a public-facing school web site. Only a few examples exist out there, yet Drupal continues to gain acceptance as an extremely capable system that is ready for prime-time. Twelve of us shared frustrations with commercial school web site companies who were difficult to work with or insufficiently responsive with new features. To my pleasure, I found that many of my colleagues at this meeting were thinking along the same lines. We know how to evaluate and adopt commercial software. How does one evaluate and adopt open-source software?

We have created a series of tests to determine the potential of Drupal to serve as the platform for the next version of Catlin Gabel’s public-facing web site. Drupal continues to pass each one. This month, I had two successful meetings with Kitty, our web site content editor, and James, the creator of the current web site and thoughtful strategist on school web site design and implementation. I have found to my pleasure that this group working together is far wiser than I could ever be on my own. Now, we are working together to move this project forward.

We held two meetings in the last month to consider next steps for the public-facing web site and think about the strengths and weaknesses of Drupal to meet these needs. We need to move to a new web site platform in order to meet demand for features such as electronic newsletters and podcasts and to better manage the burgeoning volume of content that we would like to display on the site. The Drupal founders, from the early on, appear to have understood the exponentially increasing nature of information. All content units (nodes) are functionally equivalent, flowing through the site like water as the site administrator sets up guides to expose them in particular ways. You classify — not compartmentalize — content, which enables people to find items much more easily.

I am also trying out a conceptual model to seek buy-in from critical stakeholders for this project. One may summarize the model as follows.

Tinker: Over the past year, I have built five CMS sites for different purposes, giving me a taste of content management platforms and eventually Drupal in particular. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Research: I have gone looking through Drupal modules and documentation looking for solutions to functionality I will need to replicate on the new site.

Solicit Expert: We plan to invite a Drupal consultant to give us feedback on the proposed plan and potentially serve as an “on-call” expert when we need help with the tricker components. We trust in our ability to find a Drupal consultant willing to do this, considering that we contract for time & materials for other pieces of our infrastructure, and open-source consultants may be friendlier than most to being collaborators on a site rather than building the whole thing.

Buy-In: I have built a Drupal clone of some parts of our current web site. Many people judge a web site first by its looks, and this helps take the graphic design out of the consideration of the back-end platform. It helps gain valuable feedback on the viability of the new platform. It also includes the most frequent contributors in the process at an early point.

two web sites
Which one is the Drupal site?

Design: Assuming that the site passes the other tests, we will then undertake the design in earnest. We will need to spend much time thinking about how best to replicate current site functionality in Drupal. Trying to keep project scope within manageable limits, we will defer considerations of changing the site architecture or graphic design to next year. This will require a much broader consultation within the school community.

Develop: actual configuration of Drupal and additional programming if needed.

Train: Properly prepare site editors for the new editing interface and assist regular users with any aspects that may work differently than before.

Launch: Off with the old, on with the new! I’m unsure whether this will require much external publicity, since we are not changing the look and feel at this time. Internally, we will want to make the transition to the new editing platform as easy as possible especially for those users who only post occasionally.

Your thoughts on this plan?