Who is working with Drupal? (I am — here's why)

Well, I’m finally caught up in reading these blog entries, so I’m taking my turn to post about my proposal. I hope this isn’t too late to get some response and maybe interest in participation this weekend. In short, I’m working with Drupal on my course websites, and I’ve developed some practices and tools with it that I’d like to share. Specifically, I’ve been working on adapting a gradebook module for my own purposes by adding in a mechanism for evaluating student blog entries. I’m basically a committed Drupal fanboy, so I’m really interested to hear if anyone else is doing cool things with this platform. I’d love to converse about my projects or yours, or just generally about best practices and future directions in Drupal development.

I don’t know if there’s enough interest for an entirely Drupal-focused session, but since a lot of the proposals here include comments like “I’d love to see what tools or solutions other people have come up with,” I’d be happy chiming in about what I’ve done with Drupal.

The main thing I’ve done recently (and what I initially proposed) is to use Drupal instead of an LMS (a la BlackBoard) for class websites. I position my use of Drupal as part of the post-LMS conversation discussed in this chronicle piece. Whether we want to call it edupunk or not, the point is that open, flexible tools let us make online class conversations that look (when they work) more like we’re constructing knowledge with our students and less like we’re managing learning. (Also, note how the BlackBoard guy closes the article with the assertion that other tools are inferior because the lack a gradebook feature. Ha!)

To make this more about digital humanities and less ed tech, the thing I like about Drupal is that its flexibility is such that it doesn’t solve problems for me — it gives me tools to solve my own problems. If the defined problem is one of learning outcomes, then maybe Drupal can be built into an LMS. But since we don’t start with that paradigm when we download and install Drupal core, it instead gives us an opportunity to think about information structures, conversation, and knowledge in several different ways at once.

For example, what does it mean that one can use Drupal to think through an answer to ShermanDorn’s question as well as Dave’s?

To put it more generally, what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of any platform, and how are those affordances related to knowledge construction in a (physical or virtual) classroom? I think we’d all agree that WordPress MultiUser allows for different kinds of conversations to emerge (with arguably different stakes) than, say, a Blackboard discussion forum, but why are those differences really important, and does that difference also extend to research and publishing (yes, obviously).

I realize some of these paths may be well-worn, but it’s what I think about as I try to build new Drupal sites, as I’m doing this summer. Anyone want to talk about it this weekend?

I’ve written about this some on my non-blog, and anyone who is interested is welcome to visit my recent courses. Also, for more on using Drupal for teaching, there are several groups and projects out there, including, most notably, Bill Fitzgerald’s DrupalEd project.

9 Responses to “Who is working with Drupal? (I am — here's why)”

  1. kfitz Says:

    Count me in; MediaCommons, which I want to talk about in the context of digital scholarly publishing, is running in Drupal, and we’re in the process of a major project to adapt the profile module for the peer-to-peer network that will be the backbone of the project as a whole. We’ve also got some pieces that are likely to wind up running in WordPress (unless we can persuade someone to create a Drupal version of CommentPress, hint hint), so thinking about the integration of Drupal and other systems would be enormously helpful.

  2. zachwhalen Says:

    Excellent! I do indeed think that scholarly publishing is an area where Drupal presents a lot of possibilities, and not just as a platform for developing an online journal platform like OJS (although I hear through dh09’s twitter backchannel there are some really cool developments in that genre coming from Emory). What gets really interesting (to me, at least) about Drupal is how it can be used to structure information and relate one piece of content to another, including different types of content, comments, etc.

    I checked around for discussion of commentpress on drupal, and I was surprised to see no one’s really jumping on it yet. I mean, on drupal.org I just find a couple of “sounds interesting” posts. I’m certain that a drupal version of commentpress would be possible, though I imagine most of the code would have to be rewritten from scratch. I’ve already got too many summer projects already or I’d be tempted to try it myself. :)

  3. Douglas Says:

    Before I join in this conversation, I should confess/announce that I *loathe* Drupal. But I don’t want to. I want to be as into it as a resource as the Drupal evangelists I know are. So part of what I’ve been doing this summer is checking out Drupal-based projects and attending sessions at conferences where folks are doing interesting work with Drupal. One of the issues that I have with the system is precisely what Zach likes about it — “the thing I like about Drupal is that its flexibility is such that it doesn’t solve problems for me — it gives me tools to solve my own problems.” I think that Drupal’s design to ‘be everything for everyone for any purpose’ actually makes it less useful/usable. How do I know which of the 18 modules that might do what I want will be best? How much time do I have to spend researching which ones look good but aren’t going to be sustained and/or have very little documentation? I have seen people do some really amazing things with Drupal, so I want to see how it could be used in ways that let me, as Zach notes ‘solve my own problems’ — but without having ‘figure out the puzzle that is Drupal development’ be the first problem I have to solve.

  4. zachwhalen Says:

    @Douglas — I know what you mean. I’ve spent years with Drupal, and I still get frustrated trying to get it to do what I want to. The problem of which module to use can be mitigated somewhat by using installation profiles, but the real challenge I find lately is figuring out how to leverage CCK and Views to do what I want them to.

    Speaking of which, your comment reminds me of a short anecdote. I once sat in on the final round of an undergrad software competition where teams had to make sales pitches to a panel of judges. One group had produced a CMS, and they pitched it by proudly repeating “you can do anything you want to with our product.” After their presentation, one judge wisely commented: “When you tell me I can do whatever I want to with your product, you’re really telling me you don’t know what I want to do with it.”

    I think Drupal evangelists can fall into this trap as well, and my post above may be an example of this. That’s why I think it’s still important to start with the problem.

    In any case, I’d be happy to present what I’ve done with it.

    Also, just to add to the list of Drupal resources, Lullabot has some good stuff.

    Anyway, when I started reading your comment, I assumed the main target for your drupal-ire would be its user interface (both for administrators and content creators). I mean, just in the contest between WordPress and Drupal, WordPress absolutely wins on ease of use, and Drupal’s comparative barriers to access are a sticking point whenever it comes up in these discussions. To that point, I’ll just say Drupal really isn’t that bad, once you get used to it, and I actually like it’s lack of a native rich-text editor. Also, usability is a big focus for the forthcoming Drupal 7.

  5. Cole20 » Posts about Gradebook as of 25 June 2009 Says:

    […] to The Gradebook, she recalls a friend who only attended about 30 days during her final semester Who is working with Drupal? (I am — here’s why) – thatcamp.org 06/24/2009 Well, I’m finally caught up in reading these blog entries, so […]

  6. Tim Says:

    As I mentioned to Zach on Twitter, I am using Drupal on a site that will map the WPA Guide to Pennsylvania:

    www.pennguide.org

    I chose this platform a) for its gmap plugin and b) because I already had some familiarity with Drupal. I don’t have much experience with coding, so being able to modify a product like this is great.

  7. Douglas Says:

    I’m not as concerned about usability (I find Drupal fairly usable, and the themes can be adjusted to make it more so) as I am about infrastructure. Drupal 7 sounds wonderful, but how many of the customizations I’ve made to Drupal 5 will break if I upgrade? (Not to mention that I have the same worries with security updates to the modules since those occasionally also break the functionality of the site…plus the time it takes to manually do those updates. Unless you know of a module that might actually do automatic security updating?)

    I have to admit that some of the problems I’ve experienced have come from having to basically run a Drupal site that someone else designed (selected the modules, set up views, etc). If I had put it together myself, maybe I’d have a better understanding of where to fix problems or the rationale for using modules that appear to have no documentation and are no longer being developed.

    So my experience of Drupal is at odds with what I can see that it can do — I just don’t have the expertise to do those things (and when I’m working with Drupal, I wish that I had the programming skills to make changes so that doing what *I* want to do with the system will be easier and more productive). So I suppose this is all to say that I’m almost more interested in how you learned to learn Drupal use and development than in what you’ve actually built with it (although I’m not un-interested in that aspect).

  8. Boone Gorges Says:

    Very interesting discussion, Zach. I’ve never used Drupal in an educational setting, though I’ve done some freelance e-commerce sites with it. To me, a relative novice with the software, Drupal feels a little like a state-of-the-art semi rig: extremely powerful, but bulky and difficult to maneuver without the proper training in double-clutching (and not as nimble as a smaller vehicle even for those who are most adept).

    The academic project that I’m bringing to THATCamp is the CUNY Academic Commons (see my post), which is built with WordPress MU, Buddypress, bbPress, and Mediawiki – the small pieces, loosely joined approach. I guess the idea is supposed to be that by thinking of the project in a maximally modular way, you guarantee that each tool will be the absolute best at what it’s intended to do. But embracing specialized pieces of software means abandoning a totally cohesive interface for users – no matter how much skinning I do, the basic metaphors and UI elements of each component are fundamentally different.

    So I would definitely be interested in taking part in this kind of conversation.

  9. zachwhalen Says:

    @Douglas

    For upgrading from Drupal 5 to Drupal 7, you probably will need to redo some things, but if your content is all created with well-maintained modules (CCK etc.), there should be a smooth upgrade path provided by the module coders. To be honest, I’ve never actually done a version to version upgrade, but in general Drupal tries to be backward compatibility as much as possible.

    In my experience, I too have had a hard time working within a site designed by someone else, and I think that a key to learning it is starting from scratch and building your own thing. I mean, the more I work with it, the more Drupal seems like a platform instead of software. That is, you have to build it into what you want it to do. To continue this analogy, unlike software which can be made more transparent through logical design and clear comments, there’s little such top-down view for a Drupal install. That can make it hard to learn from the outside-in.

    As far as updating security patches, I don’t know of anything that will do it automatically, but I’ve been meaning to take a look at Drush. As I understand it, it’s a command-line utility that works for Drupal modules much like apt-get works for linux packages. So downloading, installing and (I should think) upgrading should be streamlined.

    Maybe this weekend we could talk through the process of building a Drupal site to do specific things?

    @Boone

    I like that semi metaphor. To extend it further, Drupal, like a big rig, requires you to work through 18 gears before you’re up to highway speed, whereas as WordPress gets you 0 – 60 in five minutes.

    I like your point about maximal modularity helping you get a tool that’s the best at what it does. I think Drupal *can* be good at a lot of the things that MediaWiki (e.g.) does, but its advantage is that when you (finally) get a wiki + blog + social networking layer + LMS layer + whatever working under Drupal, you’ve already got the single sign-on working within a (hopefully) cohesive interface. That’s not without effort, of course, and I find I still have to remind my students how to create different kinds of content (as well as that different types of content are actually different).