Solving university needs with Drupal

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A veteran of the web publishing and sports media industries, Jeff Diecks leads professional services and client delivery at Mediacurrent and is an active member of the Drupal community. Jeff also organizes events for his local Louisiana Drupal Users Group and Drupalcamp New Orleans.

I was able to catch up with Jeff ahead of DrupalCon New Orleans 2016, where he'll share insights on site building tools to solve common university needs.

What challenges do universities face with departments having diverse needs when it comes to managing content?

Departments at many universities are really a collection of individual stakeholders, each with unique goals and needs. The departments share the name, logo, and color scheme of the university, but this does not guarantee a shared vision in their online presence. This is also true of any large enterprise. Often, a web agency finds itself in the position of introducing stakeholders with common needs to one another within the organization, and helping to highlight areas of redundancy.

How did the new architecture provide a consistent brand experience across all departments while still providing flexibility for each department to customize their areas?

Via a discovery and planning phase, the project team mapped out the necessary content types, fields, taxonomy and navigation plan to cover a high percentage of the projected at-launch and long-term needs. The team planned for flexibility within the general blueprint to allow individual departments to provide variety in content without heavy and expensive customization. For example, on department home pages, the main content space allows editors the choice of dropdown menus, single-link headers, or headers with teasers and links. The options are all available on the page's edit form, where an editor simply chooses which options to populate with content and the rest are suppressed.

Which modules were key to building a flexible platform with these challenges in mind?

In architecting the new platform, Mediacurrent relied on several contributed modules to maintain a single site installation with the flexibility to serve the needs of the different departments. Organic Groups provides a permissions hierarchy to allow department administrators control of their own department's content without impacting others. Panels and Panelizer provide the flexibility and tools to allow editors the ability to solve for unique needs within their department's content. Features provides the controls and organization to allow site administrators to perform security updates and feature releases with less manual effort and lower risk of regressions and side effects.

What advice would you give to an educational institution looking to consolidate their websites? How can they get started?

Think in terms of building a sustainable platform as a product, and entrust a person or small core team as the product's owner. Charge the product owner with providing a set of tools to solve common goals. It is not necessary to have 15 unique solutions for news pages, event calendars, and staff lists across the campus. Focus on the results the sites need to achieve and the needs of the people who will be using the sites.

Proper planning and prioritization of features is critical to a platform's success. Addressing departmental needs across campus is a complex, lengthy endeavor that requires coordinated planning and consulting before one line of code is written. Universities are often tied to strict procurement procedures and policies and will seek an entire firm fixed price up front. Without a discovery phase of the project, it is difficult for an agency to provide an accurate solution to fully address nuances of platform consolidation that are unique to each institution. In short, fund a discovery phase for the project before issuing an RFP for fixed bid estimates on a complete platform.

What was the biggest challenge managing this project? How did you overcome it?

Like many public universities, LSU faced a limited budget. The office of student life and enrollment managed to reduce costs by having a graduate student on campus provide a style guide and design mockups for the site. Mediacurrent translated the supplied designs into a fully responsive site using Drupal's Omega base theme. The designs were produced in coordination with the technical architecture of the site in order to provide the necessary flexibility for individual departments to achieve unique visual identities while still remaining within a standardized overall template. For example, built-in options included the ability to adjust background images for sections of the site using the Dynamic Backgrounds module.

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Perfume addict, tinkerer, retro gamer, security enthusiast and opensource advocate. Passionate about privacy, ethics and technology. Code slinger at Red Hat.

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