Drupal's Role in Academia

Drupal's Role in Academia

Before the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is today, universities and academic institutions were some of its first proponents and users. At that time, the ARPANET, as it was called, was an important tool for research projects and laboratories to share information efficiently. Thus, the role of the Internet in higher education institutions is evident even in its history.

Now, the Internet is home to a number of rapidly advancing technologies and standards - powering businesses, personal websites and social media. In many cases, the same kinds of institutions that supported the Internet’s growth were left behind, unable to keep up with changes. Nevertheless, their use of the technology is as important to their goals as it was before.

Modernizing and Centralizing Infrastructure

Drupal offers these education and research centers the opportunity to create websites that take advantage of the newest web technologies. These sites are in line with best practices and can be a large improvement from what institutions previously used.

Universities often have immense websites with deep hierarchies. Even for a single department, there are research pages, professor pages, mission statements, requirements, and course listings. As such, the trend has been to allow each department its own sub-site upon which to post content. The main site needs its own pages for admissions, university information, and news. But part of the challenge becomes when numerous sub-sites create a fragmented and decentralized hierarchy.

Having a decentralized system is not ideal. It hampers the ability to update technology and share information. Using a Drupal site would centralize all institution data and allow for easy information sharing. With a single log-in system, users will be able to access whatever they have permissions for without technical difficulties. Administrators of the site can also standardize content categorization.

Institutions Want to Use Drupal

This huge improvement is one reason why so many educational institutions use Drupal. Almost 28% of the .edu addresses use Drupal as their content managing system, more than any other CMS. Many of these are some of the most popular and well-ranked schools in the U.S., such as Amherst College, Duke University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Brown University. Others use it for specific departments, like the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

Institutions prefer Drupal for a host of other reasons as well. It provides an affordable solution to suit their extensive needs. Drupal also creates a consistency throughout their websites and sub-sites - both from an aesthetic and technology perspective.

Independent Content Creation

Drupal can lighten the load on an IT department that must create and maintain hundreds of pages; freeing them to do more productive work. With relatively minimal setup, it would be possible for faculty and staff to maintain an institution’s web presence. For example, department heads would no longer have to coordinate with a web developer or the IT department to add a paragraph to the homepage.

Of course, minimal technical know-how should be expected. However, the nature of Drupal is such that site maintenance and editing can be cooperative. With access to simple guides, it is likely that someone can access the website to assist in the editing process. Even if IT were to be involved, the process of editing or adding content in Drupal is nearly instantaneous.

In some institutions, making changes to the website is not a simple process. Using Drupal might increase the rate at which things are updated, making for a more timely and informative website. An up-to-date site would be especially useful in a research setting.

Existing Drupal Sub-Site Creation

Yale and Stanford are two examples of institutions that have made the technology readily available for non-technical people to make their own Drupal sub-sites. The only reason a third party has to be involved is to review and process the request for a site to be made. Both institutions host these sub-sites entirely for free.

YaleSites gives Yale schools, departments, organizations, labs, and student groups the ability to choose from a few basic templates to begin their site, though custom sites are also allowed. Administrators can add videos, documents, social media tools, and search functionality. They are also responsive, so they are truly modern sites that can be viewed from any mobile device. If help is needed, there are training sessions and videos, a guide, Drupal Group, support forum, and a list of available modules.

Stanford has its own version of site creation, Stanford Sites. Offering even more functionality, Stanford users can even set up their own individual sites, something Yale does not allow. They can also choose between different providers.

A system such as this one is beneficial to many groups of people. For faculty, they have the ability to maintain department resources and customize their site. Students can regularly update group or individual page information to reflect changes, successes, or upcoming events. This independence prevents the IT team and the institution from expending more resources than they have to. It also gives students the opportunity to manage websites, a useful skill to gain for their post-graduation careers.

Stay Connected

Educational institutions want to stay connected with alumni, supporters, and donors. Using Drupal, administrative personnel would be able to craft email messages through Drupal to easily send out to a listserv. Easy email management can already be done without incorporating it into a Drupal site. However, packaging this functionality into an alumni site makes sense. Logging in, they could see previous emails sent and have access to other resources at their fingertips.

On a site specifically for alumni or donors, institution faculty could show content relevant to the audience. This content could be recent research or news using the views module. As an example, a slideshow of images might depict research conferences or activities happening in the student body.

Drupal Teaching and Learning Systems

Anyone that uses Drupal knows that it’s not just another way to create static webpages for university departments. It has the potential to take a much bigger role in education.

One man who wanted to do more with Drupal was Howard Rheingold, lecturer at Stanford and U.C. Berkeley. After trying to incorporate modern technology into his courses by having students collaborate on various internet tools, he decided to create the Social Media Classroom. Built on Drupal, the Social Media Classroom is a Learning Management System (LMS) supplement, not a replacement.

Though he says it is not as fully functioning as other LMS’s, it provides teachers and students with forum, blog, wiki, and chat functionality. Teachers using the Classroom can post discussions, syllabi, lesson plans, and videos. Students can comment on these and talk about the topics covered in class. Contributing to a course wiki is one type of assignment that Mr. Rheingold has found useful. The point of such a tool is to foster a virtual class community by combining learning with social media.

Rheingold is not alone in this pursuit. Penn State University has developed ELMS, a Drupal Electronic LMS for its professors to use as an even more complete LMS. Faculty can manage course activities, post content, and interact with students. This content could becomes a relevant resource for students to check or for students to complete assignments. Each student has an account and they can use ELMS to hand in work for collaborative projects.

GoingOn is a company that has gone so far as to offer similar types of services using Drupal in conjunction with Kestrel messaging. Supporting over 25 institutions, they promise to provide higher educational institutions with an online interaction between students, faculty, and administration – what they call an Academic Engagement Network. These networks are integrated with other LMS’s.

Drupal Support for Education

OpenScholar and OpenAcademy are two distributions of Drupal that allow developers to create academic sites. OpenScholar was created at Harvard and is used to create websites quickly; it providers users with apps, widgets, and themes to choose from. Featured on the Acquia site, this distribution is used by the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton, among others.

OpenAcademy is another popular choice, built by Chapter Three, Pantheon, and the University of California at Berkeley. Using this distribution gives users the functionality to easily make and configure department pages through a drag-and-drop architecture. Publishing and managing courses, research publication, department news, and faculty profiles can be accomplished fairly simply.

A number of modules exist that are also intended specifically for education-related sites. TheQuiz and Quizlet modules, for example, provide teachers with the ability to implement quizzes on a course page. Quizlet takes advantage of quizlet.com content, using its API to search for and add vocabulary. Flashcards can be easily presented. Quiz, on the other hand, is independent and scores are recorded in the database at the end of the quiz.

Organic Groups incorporates functionality similar to YaleSites and Stanford Sites. Users create and modify groups where they can create nodes, blogs, or other content. These groups may be public or require approval to be joined.

Other modules have many other applications, but are useful to an education site. Google Books, for example, allows for integration of Google Books data into a Drupal site. Showing a book that is a resource for a class can be useful for students. Simplenews sends out mail to students or alumni, using Mime Mail for HTML emails. The Flag module is also useful for students to either bookmark content posted by a professor or to categorize items as completed. Its integration with Views means that assignments or content can be easily displayed and sorted through Flag.

Drupal Groups also exist for a range of educational entities, including Drupal in Education,Drupal for K-12 Schools, and Drupal in Higher Education. With so many educational institutions using Drupal, a plethora of useful tools and resources exist for users and developers to rely on.