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Drupal Site for Military Writers Society of America

For the last few months I have been working on a new website for the Military Writers Society of America. The goal was to create a collaborative writing site, where the members of MWSA could share ideas and work together to create the online version of their magazine Dispatches. In many ways, the goal was the same as when I create an online classroom for university students: the technology should assist collaboration and never hinder participation.

If you are curious, the new MWSA website is at:

What I've learned during this process will influence my approach to designing other online spaces, including courses. Allow me to detail the lessons, some of which were frustrating.

1. Drupal was a good choice.

I experimented with several other content management systems, such as Joomla, Mambo, Moodle, XOOPS, and the classic PHP-Nuke. It was Drupal or Joomla, and Drupal won. For all the choices out there, I settled on Drupal because it is so ubiquitous and rock-solid under heavy use (once it works). There are dozens of good Drupal support sites, in addition to the website. The number of books on Drupal development was also a factor in my choice.

For the MWSA site, I wanted something I could maintain with minimal effort. The PHP code behind Drupal is familiar and I can extend it when necessary. There are more than a few anti-PHP rants online, but PHP works. (I don't blame a language for bad programming, but some programmers do look down on "simple to learn" languages.)

The grandfather of CMS platforms is PHP-Nuke, which has been rewritten several times. I happen to like PHP-Nuke, but its strength is simplicity, not access control levels ("user permission lists") or multimedia. Mambo is the original code that split into Joomla some years ago. Ignore Mambo. Moodle? Great for online courses, but not so great as a general purpose CMS. It's a shame the best of Moodle can't just be merged with the best of Drupal — many sites do run both.

For a reasonable comparison of Drupal and Joomla, read:

2. Drupal, like every other open source platform, is a moving target.

One of the challenges of setting up an open source platform is that these platforms and the contributed modules, add-ins, plug-ins, themes, et cetera, are always changing. This could be a problem for some organizations. Every week there is an update to one or more of the modules I've installed for the MWSA site. Since a few modules have been further modified by yours truly, the constant updates to modules requires careful management.

When "Revisioning" and "Access Control" were updated, suddenly content editors couldn't access "unpublished" content on the MWSA website to edit and release the content. That process is pretty key to an online magazine, so the problem required an immediate fix. Thankfully, I was able to get things working in a few hours — but what would happen if the webmaster didn't realize Drupal updates are tricky? Never trust an update to any module to not break the functionality of other modules.

3. Drupal isn't Drupal.

Live, active websites are running Drupal 5, 6, 7, and 8. The MWSA website relies on the Drupal 7.x core, which seems to be the most stable, though most modules and features are still for the Drupal 6.x core. If you have a problem with anything, you need to accept that the documentation will likely still apply to Drupal 6, not 7, and there will be differences. I've had to read a lot of PHP source code to adapt fixes offered for 6.x issues to the 7.x modules. It isn't hard work, but it can be tedious. Plus, you do have to accept that mistakes will happen.

4. Drupal themes are complex — and picky.

Joomla is better visually. I believe this is because "theming" Drupal is a pain. Not a little pain, either, but a serious pain that requires significant time and effort. I have yet to customize the MWSA website to my liking. For now, the MWSA site uses a highly modified, hand-tuned version of the Garland theme. I had to edit the CSS and the template PHP — and I'm still unhappy with the results. The theme "clearfix" is a problem I despise and want to fix in coming months. If you don't understand the complaint, don't worry. The basic issue: themes are fragile and require delicate testing.

You can make a Drupal site visually appealing, even stunning. Just don't expect theming to be simple.

5. Expect to install modules. Lots of modules.

No two sites have the same needs, but you will need modules from the Drupal community to accomplish what you want. For the MWSA website, we have nearly three dozen modules in addition to the basic core. Read the documentation, read the bug reports, and consider how essential a module is before installing it on the production server. You can also read how many sites are using a module, which is one way to judge the stability of a module. While a module used by three other sites might seem ideal, I would rather install modules used by a few hundred sites.

I ended up having to reinstall Drupal several times when modules created the "White Screen of Death." This happens. I learned the hard way: always check twice (or thrice) to ensure the site is in "Maintenance Mode" before installing any module that modifies the Drupal databases. Also, install a module, test it, and then install the next module.

Through experience, going back to Drupal 5.x, I've gotten pretty good at a routine. There are some modules I install in a specific order because of past glitches. I love "Views" and a few other interface modules. Installing "Views" and "Panels" is well documented and should be done precisely as documented.

Some Thoughts for Schools

I believe Drupal is a great alternative to systems like Microsoft's SharePoint for schools. There's no reason a high school or university couldn't use Drupal to create a great website. If cost matters, you can install Drupal on a Linux server and pay only for the hardware.

My university uses SharePoint, and I am an authorized contributor to the site. However, Drupal with Revisioning is easier and much "snappier" in my experience.

For online courses, however, Drupal isn't Blackboard or Moodle. I hope that does change. For now, I'd use Drupal as the main website and install Moodle in a dedicated path. It's not perfect, but it works.


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