Request to Pantheon for Pantheon EDU webinar

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 20, 2015  

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 ( 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.
Tags: Pantheon EDU, webinar

Pantheon's EDU Platform, Acquia's Content Hub, and academic web development

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 20, 2015  

(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 theMIT Drupal Group website.

Tags: academic web development, Acquia Content Hub, Pantheon for EDU

Blueprint for Academic Web Development

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 19, 2015  

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.

Transparency and MIT's Drupal Cloud

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 18, 2015  

Whatever one thinks of MIT's Drupal Cloud platform, the saga of its development has not been pleasant. As far as I can tell, IS&T stopped working on the platform about three years ago. To say that it is unfinished gives the impression that it was started at some point. The major challenge of a managed hosting platform like Drupal Cloud happens on the dev/ops front, so kudos to IS&T for their flawless execution of that. But on the front end, in terms of what users are given to work with, there's about a weekend's worth of work in Drupal Cloud. Take a look at Stanford's github repository and you'll begin to appreciate what hasn't happened at MIT.

Basically, IS&T is providing free hosting for a barebones Drupal install, with some standard Drupal contrib modules included in the package. If IS&T had been clear at the outset that this was their plan, then others would have been in a position to make alternative arrangements. But IS&T never gave a clear idea of their goals, and it still hasn't, six years into this story. They announced some superficial adjustments which I think were supposed to roll out this past October, but that doesn't seem to have happened. And it was clear in any case they had no real strategy for the difficult issues they're facing in terms of making this a useful, professional tool. 

The basic problem is that they missed the Panels/Panelizer boat, and catching up with that will require serious backend retooling. I wish they would just acknowledge that not much more is likely to happen, so that departments, schools and research centers can move on to the task of figuring out how to handle their web development requirements.

Tags: drupal cloud, github, stanford

MIT's Climate Change report is a catalyst for change in web development at MIT

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 18, 2015  

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.

Tags: climate change, drupal, mit web development, wordpress

Separated at birth?

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 18, 2015  

This may have been a deliberate choice, but the fact that the Climate Change site looks nothing like the Sustainability Office's website undermines the branding of both, and consequently the work they're trying to do. And I assume it also makes it harder to maintain the individual sites.

Tags: maintainability

Speaking of feeds...

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 18, 2015  

By the way, this is why I wished the Flag module could have been part of Drupal Cloud. It’s about 4 lines of code but it gives a great way to quickly tag content in all sorts of ways directly in the interface (as opposed to going into the Editing screen). Here I created three different flags to help prune the content that’s pulled in from the feed, so that I can select what I show on the home page, what I hide altogether, etc.

Also, note how much more interesting the feeds are when they include images. I asked the MIT News office to add images to their feed but never heard back from them.

Tags: feeds, MIT News Office

MIT Libraries and web development

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 18, 2015  

I had been looking for ways to increase the involvement of MIT Libraries in web development across the Institute, and just now by chance I started looking at their Dome repository platform  and have since spent the last hour finding all sorts of services and news that I for some reason had never associated with the Library. They’re so far ahead of what I thought was happening that I don’t know if I’m completely out of the loop or they simply don’t publicize enough of what they’re doing. But good golly! It’s exciting to see how engaged they are in this work and the developments that are coming along.

First of all, they’re posting great news content relevant to web development, so simply using some of their feeds ( is a great way to stay on top of things you might not otherwise come across.  On this demo site, for example, I’m pulling in their art/architecture content, and I love the fact that (ahem, unlike the MIT News Office), they actually put the photos in the feed as well.

But honestly, Python programming classes! Beginning, Intermediate… 

This is an event that just happened: “Working in the Digital Academy.”  To some extent, this is relevant to all web developers and Communication Managers at MIT. In an academic context, web developers are part of the digital academy as well. The day is long since past when a website can spit out a calendar, a list of people, and a few news headlines, then call it a day.  The reason I was looking at the Library site in the first place is because I’m trying to find a way to create a “library” around the digital content that a research center produces. I’m really intrigued by what the DOME project does  but I want that functionality to be integrated within the website, not external to it.

And apparently the Library has a new director, Chris Bourg. I think we all owe something to Ann Wolpert, who did such a great job for so long. I just read her obituary in MIT News and I’m somewhat shocked that everything I thought was my own private feeling about her contribution to MIT, was in fact what she was celebrated for. I have no idea what she was like to work for, but interacting with the Library staff and services is always such a positive experience that that has to reflect positively on her leadership.

Now I’m intrigued to see where things go with Chris. I just emailed Chris to ask if I could be a part of their task force on the future of digital learning. The various groups look really solid, yet I didn’t see anyone who could specifically speak to web development, and it’s the individual sites around MIT that need to step up their game in terms of managing and making available their digital content. New metat aggings systems are coming along that need to be coordinated by the Libraries, and of course managing publications remains a needlessly complicated task. 

But bottom line, Libraries are going to have a leading role in managing web development across academia and it’s just tremendous to see how much is going on at MIT Libraries.

Tags: MIT Libraries

The most beautiful site at MIT

Posted by Ed Carlevale on November 17, 2015  

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. 

Tags: web design

Pantheon's hosting plan for Academic websites

Posted by Ed Carlevale on October 21, 2015  

This will be a gamechanger. It's the exact thing that academic web development has needed, and it will have a transformative impact in education.