In the next three weeks I'll be making a pair of presentations on Drupal in Higher Ed. The first is sponsored by BioRaft's great Drupal Nights series, and will focus on the efficiency that new hosting options from Pantheon and Acquia bring to academic web development. And the second, sponsored by Harvard's W3 Web Publishers group, will focus on presenting new functionality relevant to large-scale academic research centers.
Early next week I'll be posting short screencasts that cover the basic ideas of each presentation.
Further details are available on the sponsors' respective websites:
- Drupal Nights: "Drupal in Higher Ed," February 18, 2016 (Cambridge)
- Harvard W3 Group: "Re-Imagining Web Development for Academic Research Centers," March 9, 2016 (Cambridge).
Now this is a great website — and more or less exactly what I've been trying to bring to MIT web development for the last five years.
I had looked at the site before, about five or so years ago when I was building my own synthetic biology sites (ebics, snythetic biology center). I don't know if the site has improved since then or if its forward-thinking ideas didn't register on me at the time. But they're registering with full-force now.
What I like best:
This group takes content seriously, and is beginning to organize their videos, graphics, and documents in a way that is helpful to anyone looking to understand synthetic biology.
- They take communication seriously.
They have a great podcast ((Disruptive). The Institute's founder and leading figure George Church has even appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss synthetic biology.
In 2012 they won a Webby Award in the Science category, and the development shop that built the site doesn't seem to have updated its blog since 2013, and one would guess they're not currently active in maintaining or developing the site. And that's also the impression one gets from the site itself. There's still lots of introductory content being prominently displayed, and important stuff is buried in the back pages.
But good golly, the more you look at the site the more extraordinary stuff you come across. One of their outreach activities involves a group called Le Laboratoire Cambridge, which apparently just opened up a gallary/performance space in Cambridge. This institute is tripping over great content, and needs to find a more robust, powerful way of working with. But they're still leagues ahead of anything else I've seen in academic communication and development.
Definitely a partisan reaction but I'm still convinced it's true. Yesterday's sprint was the best I've been to, for reasons that Goldilocks could appreciate. It was just the right size, with just the right mix of skill sets. And the focus on migrating Drupal's ecoystem of contrib modules to Drupal 8 brought a helpful organization while at the same time allowed lots of individual choices.
Shoutouts to Mike Miles, Leslie Glynn, Kay van Vaulkenburgh and Jeannie Finks for running the show. Any excuse to visit Genuine's headquarters is worth taking advantage of (next one coming up, Tuesday Boston Drupal Group meetup), and the docs that Leslie and Kay make available just ease the path for newcomers.
The group photo doesn't really convey the sprint. Apart from being a bit blurry, people had come and gone by the time 3pm rolled around, and others were turning up for Day 2 only.
(Email sent Jan 27 to the Harvard-MIT Web Publishers group)
There’s a global Drupal sprint happening this weekend and I urge anyone who has a few hours to spare to participate. All skills are needed, including none whatsoever. Learn more and sign up here This is a perfect moment to plug into the local Drupal community because Drupal 8 has thrown the gates wide open, introducing so many new technologies that everyone is more or less starting from scratch.
When you look at Stanford’s Drupal github page, or UCal Berkeley’s Drupal Meetups, you get an immediate sense of what our peers on the West Coast are doing. From Stanford, a fleet of modules and themes publicly available. From Berkeley, leadership in the local community. Not to run down the local team, but here in Boston the situation is very different. Open Scholar’s front-end is easily the best I’ve ever seen, and I’m certain ten more sites will be built with it by the time I get to the end of this sentence. It’s changing our understanding of academic web development. But Open Scholar’s code is like a glacier that has been rolling toward us since 2008. So many ideas that have been long since abandoned are still buried within it, so Harvard has to maintain the development on its own dime and time. Harvard can afford that but no one else can.
At the quiet other end of the spectrum, MIT has Drupal Cloud, a wonderfully maintainable distribution simply because it contains nothing but Drupal core and a handful of contrib modules. Hence MIT’s ongoing stampede to Wordpress.
But that migration is likely to be temporary, and my reasoning goes like this:
What I’ve noticed in my own development is that academic websites are becoming more or less irrelevant, like printed telephone books. The front lines of communication have shifted to Facebook and Twitter and Linked-In and all the rest. But as I say, this is temporary. As you have no doubt noticed yourselves, the money at Harvard and MIT has shifted to large-scale research centers. That was the building boom we just lived through, that turned Cambridge and Somerville and Allston into a land of hoarding and yellow cranes. Now these block-sized buildings are mostly up and running, and the research centers in them have an entirely different set of needs from the standard departments that we have been building sites for previously. They’re university-wide, first of all, and often multi-institutional, with complex reporting requirements, and even more complex sub-communities within them. But above all, because they are organized around new ideas, they have a need to communicate their work that traditional departments simply don’t have. These centers will transform academic web development. A lovely site that used to show news items and calendar events — creating and managing that will be a bullet item on an admin assistant’s job description. The new sites will need the functionality of a library, a press, and a room full of filing cabinets. It will need to have relationships with a fleet of other websites. About all, these sites will have to communicate in a way that academic sites simply have not tackled to date.
Which brings us back to the sprint this weekend. This is a global sprint happening around the world, with a focus on migrating Drupal’s contrib modules to Drupal 8. Dip your toe in. Sign up here. It’s the right moment.
(Posted on Boston Drupal Group website.)
I'm putting together two workshops to introduce Pantheon's EDU Platform to Boston-area universities and college, and wanted to ask if there was someone available to lead a workshop on Acquia's Content Hub? Both platforms speak to a need I'm encountering over and over in academic web development: how to deal with the growing volume and variety of academic content. We need new networks and tools, and introducing these is a slow-going task, hence this series of workshops to move the work forward.
What's exciting about Pantheon's EDU platform is that it makes it possible to manage a fleet of websites at the level of configuration. That is going to be a game changer. It solves two of the biggest problems we face: 1) outsourced site development that delivers a stand-alone website to a single department, school, or center; and 2) the lack of in-house staff that can maintain a single site, let alone a fleet of sites. I try to lay out how this will work in this schematic.
For awhile, I thought Harvard's Open Scholar was going to be the solution that academia needs. It certainly will be for Harvard, but I don't see it as a viable option elsewhere. Brilliant as it is in making it possible to spit up new sites for all sorts of purposes, offering the best user experience I've found on any website, nonetheless, from a code point of view Open Scholar is a glacier of accumulated ideas that will overwhelm all efforts at maintainability. Spaces? Boxes? These are ideas that take us back to the exciting days of Development Seed, yet those and so many other ideas live on in the Open Scholar code. Like MIT's own Drupal Cloud offering, Harvard's Open Scholar is essentially decoupled from the Drupal ecosystem of contrib modules and community engagement. And when you look at, say, Stanford's extraordinary GitHub repositories, you have a vivid understanding of why that engagement is fundamental to long-term maintainability.
Nonetheless, for Harvard itself, Open Scholar does something that every other university will struggle to catch up to: makes it possible for faculty, staff, students, departments, centers and schools to quickly set up a new site. That is the explosive growth waiting to happen in academic development, and it's only waiting on universities coming up with a better way of delivering websites.
But all this really is just about figuring out a better way to do what universities are already doing: building websites that show a calendar, some news, and a list of people. What interests me are the things that can done once these basic tasks are handled more efficiently. MIT recently delivered a Climate Change report announcing a new Climate Change Initiative. I became a developer because of climate change. It is the driving force of everything I've tried to do as a developer at MIT, because improving the conversation is the fundamental first step toward making progress in the face of climate change. If you look at MIT's climate change website, you can't help but notice how often the word "conversation" appears without actually resulting in any conversation. When I worked for Nobel Laureate Mario Molina's Air Pollution in Megacities program, the program had millions in funding to bring together stakeholders and experts from government, business, science, medicine, city planners, and citizen groups to collectively agree on what is presently known about air pollution. And five years of discussion, they organized their first field study to collect data. That isn't what they were asked to do but it is what scientists, even someone as brilliant as Mario Molina, do. MIT thrives on the model of funding > research > report. They are peerless at this. But communicating that work, and getting involved in the messy work of discussion, is what needs to happen now.
There's one last piece to add to this story and that has to do with Drupal. Not Drupal per se but Drupal as an Open Source platform. What I've learned about Open Source over the last seven years of being involved in Boston's Drupal community is that you have to give in equal measure to what you hope to receive. You can't go it alone. Your work depends on communication and collaboration and some rough sort of consensus. And what's true for open source is all the more true for the progress we need with climate change.
A bit of a soapbox there but you can skip all that and just come to the workshops! Details on the MIT Drupal Group website.
Pantheon has already offered a webinar to introduce their Pantheon EDU platform. It covered the basics and introduced the platform. But it was more along the lines of an ad in a newspaper than a useful presentation of what the EDU Platform can do for academic entities like departments, schools, and research centers. Hence this email to two of Pantheon's co-founders, Matt Cheney and Josh Koenig.
Matt and Josh,
I just announced (https://groups.drupal.org/node/491053) two workshops I’m leading on Pantheon’s EDU platform. But a Pantheon webinar would be so much more effective. I don’t see how the Pantheon EDU platform could be improved; it’s what academia has needed without knowing it needed it. But there’s no one who knows how to use it, or what it can do. It makes powerful site development and management possible at the level of straightforward configuration. But the current system in academia is either single-site management with outsourced development, or centralized IS&T management. The first fails at the level of maintainability and the second at the level of functionality. Pantheon EDU moves everything forward so that we can actually begin to focus on the exciting new things that need to happen in academic web development. But getting people up to speed with using it, nurturing a new community of academic Web Managers, is a necessary first step. And nothing would help with that so effectively as a Pantheon webinar.
Particularly one that covered:
- Using Github repositories to power the fleet
- Showing the possible relationships among individual units such as schools, departments, and research centers.
I've started to create a blueprint for academic web development based on Pantheon's new academic platform, Pantheon for EDU. There are two key ideas in this plan:
- All sites are built from code that is maintained in a GitHub repository (themes, features, distributions).
- A complex network of relationships can exist among MIT schools, departments and centers, so that each has control over its own website, or fleet of websites, while at the same time being able to draw support from peer, sister, or parent groups. I'm working on a group of podcasts to lay out this idea in more detail.
A third important consideration is growing the community of Web Managers who are proficient with the basics of site management, in particular with the Pantheon for EDU platform. To that end, I'm organizing two workshops to present this information. The workshops will be scheduled for the first two Mondays in December, most likely in the late afternoon. They will be open to anyone affiliated with a Boston-area university or college.
What's game-changing about the Pantheon EDU Platform is that they make so much power and functionality available at the level of straightforward configuration. Growing a community of academic web managers will have a transformative effect, particularly when combined with Pantheon's brilliant way of sharing resources and team members across individual networks.
Please fill out this form so that I can have some idea of skills and interests. I'll post confirmation of dates and times before the end of the month, along with a detailed outline.
I became a web developer because of climate change.
After working two years for Mario Molina's Air Pollution in Megacities program, I started building websites for the Sustainability@MIT student group, and then the MIT Energy Club, then the Energy Conference, Energy Night, and Clean Energy Prize. And that in turn brought me to Drupal. But all of it was motivated by climate change and my sense that the fundamental thing that needed to happen had little to do with new discoveries but rather with a more effective conversation.
As it turns out, figuring out how to build websites is quite tricky, and empowering others to use them is far trickier still. That is why Facebook and Twitter thrive; not because people have so little to say that they can comfortably say it in restricted formats. But because every other option is tedious and slow and time-consuming.
The exception to this is Wordpress. If anyone is running a blog, there is no reason to use anything but Wordpress.
But Wordpress isn't right for an academic center. It's difficult to go beyond simply posting a list of people, a calendar of events, and some news items. And so much more needs to happen. Academic research centers are a new beast, and they fall outside the standard academic structure. More often than not, they are trying to establish a new discipline, and there are important archival issues to deal with, and onerous reporting tasks for the investigators involved, and extraordinary redundancy of content because of the inter-departmental nature of these centers.
Web development at MIT is a clogged system
Right now web development at MIT is a clogged system. Each site is developed in isolation from every other, so that maintaining any single site is exhausting and, I would argue, impossible. And all this simply to post news items, a list of people, and a calendar of events.
The MIT News Office provides a great selection of feeds that could be used to pull in their content to various sites around MIT, but few sites are using the feeds. Most simply cut and paste a headline, add a line or two from the text, then simply link back to the news office story. This is inadequate for so many different reasons, not least of them tediousness. But also for SEO control of that story. This happens again and again with the projects going on within research centers. The project page is almost always simply a random url, without any thought given to the longterm consequences of that url fo rthe project itself.
One of the many problems of the current system is that stories and content can't move in the opposite direction, that is, up the chain so that they can feed a larger network of communication, from research group to research center to department to school to news office. But as it stands, an item from a research center is siloed within that center. And if this is true for news stories, it is all the more true for blog posts.
For me, one of the key aspects slowing down web development at MIT is that there simply isn't the layer of staff in place to help manage it. There are probably about five developers working on academic/research web development at MIT. That's simply isn't enough. The majority of the work is outsourced to outside developers, then managed internally by the communication directors and support staff.
Pantheon for EDU — Two workshops to cover the primary functionality
I think Pantheon's "Pantheon for EDU" platform is going to be a game changer in this regard, because its Control Panel is so breathtakingly powerful for managing a fleet of websites. But more more importantly, it brings together all the functionality that can power an extraordinary web development strategy for individual academic units. It's the perfect remote control for academic web development, and the task now is to teach people how to use it and what can be done with.
I'm organizing two two-hour workshops to introduce Pantheon for EDU to Boston area academic staff. The first will cover the basics of migrating a site to Pantheon and then maintaining it. Ths second will go over working from your own distribution maintained in a Github repository, and adding a feature set that you can use to power all your sites. With these basics in place you'll have the means to maintains a fleet of sites for your school or department or center.
I'm planning two workshops to introduce Pantheon for EDU to Boston-area academic staff. Each workshop will be two hours long, and most likely will run on the first two Mondays of December. I'm tentatively planning a third workshop to cover the Open Atrium distribution, which I use as the base for my sites. More on Open Atrium in a later post.
Pantheon makes web development easier for any Drupal website. But the use case that its academic platform is best suited for is a department or school or center running a fleet of sites, let's say five or more. Then you will begin to see real efficiency and power and maintainability in your development strategy.
But what I would most like to see happen at MIT is some linkages among all the individual schools and departments and centers. The go-it-alone strategy that has dominated development to date has been, quite frankly, disastrous, with hard-to-maintain sites delivering the most minimal functionality. To get beyond that, we must begin working in some rough collaborative way, so that we aren't reinventing the wheel over and over again, and never getting beyond the wheel itself.
What Pantheon provides, beyond a brilliant development environment, are easy ways to collaborate across teams and academic units.
I've posted a short questionaire for people to sign up and give me some idea of the interest and skill level, which will help me produce an outline for the content of the two workshops. I'll go ahead and book the classrooms once I'm certain there's some interest in this.
A few words on Open Scholar
When I gave my presentatuon on Open Scholar last month, I had only used the front-end interface for creating new sites and posting content. And there's no question that that is simply the best site development tool I've found. Period. The code, as it turned out, is an altogether different experience, and I can best liked it to a glacier that has picked up and retained everything its found in its path. Spaces? Boxes? These are ideas that take us back to Development Seed's work, but they live on in Open Scholar, along with so much other stuff. I couldn't understand why every university in the country hadn't adopted Open Scholar, and now I understand completely. It would be a beast to maintain.
For me, Open Scholar is essentially decoupled from the Drupal ecosystem, so a significant portion of it is custom Harvard code. I just don't see other universities signing on for a platform that is so dependent on Harvard keeping up with public releases.
I say this in relation to Pantheon for two reasons: First, Open Scholar aims to be a university-wide solution, and Pantheon makes a more modular, inter-connected framework possible. And I think that approach is more robust and maintainable than a centralized megillah like Open Scholar.
The second thing to say is that Open Scholar
Every time I visit the Nuclear Science and Engineering website I'm shocked all over again by how beautiful the site is. I think it's the best looking site at MIT. The screenshot doesn't really do justice to it. And the layout is not the same old, same old. There's irregular patterns going on in there, and yet everything is so nicely lined up vertically and horizontally that it isn't jarring. And the way the color backgrounds are used to group content in subtle ways is also wonderful.
The site is designed by Ilavenil Subbiah, who handles communications for NSE and also, I believe, designed the Deshpande Center's site, which is another flawless piece of work.