Contributor: Jeremy Tirrell
University Affiliation: Purdue University
Since the Spring of 2005, the Purdue University Professional Writing Program has used the open source Drupal content management system (CMS) for course management. Any instructor in the Purdue Department of English may request a Drupal site, and the current Drupal installation (Fall 2006) comprises over 80 instructor sites covering class subjects including introductory composition, literature study, creative writing, business writing, technical writing, and multimedia writing (a current list of Purdue English Department Drupal sites is available here). The department also administers Drupal sites for professional organizations, including the electronic journals KBJournal and The Writing Instructor.
The purpose of this brief write-up is to provide an overview of Drupal's strengths and weaknesses in an academic environment. As the current Purdue English Department Drupal administrator—and a user of Drupal with my own students—I have had various experiences deploying this tool. An initial investment of time and effort is required to use Drupal productively, but it is surprisingly flexible and powerful, and it can be used for real educational benefits.
Drupal's "about" page provides a fine terse description of Drupal: "Drupal is software that allows an individual or a community of users to easily publish sic, manage and organize a great variety of content on a website." For our purposes, what this means is that Drupal provides teachers with ready-made websites, wherein classroom members can collaborate and distribute information. This means, for example, that instructors can disseminate handouts, assignments, and syllabi through Drupal, and students can blog, post images and files, and engage in live chat. The strength of any CMS is that it allows users to focus on contributing content rather than building and maintaining the site itself. Indeed, perhaps the best way to explain Drupal is through analogy. Drupal is similar to other CMS such as Blackboard and WebCT, both of which are common in educational institutions. The difference is that Drupal is open source (and thereby more configurable) and available without cost.
In addition to being free (which is no minor factor in educational institutions), Drupal's main strength is its flexibility. Because it is open source software, Drupal is decidedly more configurable than is possible with any closed source CMS such as Blackboard or WebCT. Drupal's code is available for modification by anyone, and the main Drupal website collects useful additions contributed by developers. The main way that developers extend Drupal's functionality is by creating modules, which may be thought of as building blocks that add to the capabilities of a Drupal website. Each module grants some ability to the site as a whole, such as blogging, aggregating RSS feeds, or managing email lists (there are literally hundreds of different modules available for download on the Drupal "modules" page). Also, Drupal has a thriving development base and user community, which cluster around the Drupal forums. This grass-roots knowledge network is a valuable resource.
In actual classroom use, Drupal separates itself from other CMS through the emphasis it places upon collaboration. Blogging, forum posting, and content sharing are, in a real sense, built into Drupal. Drupal also incorporates controls that allow users to be slotted into roles; it would be technically accurate to state that Drupal views users as role-defined groups more than as individuals. Roles enable student collaboration as a class or in smaller groups while preventing interference from anonymous internet users.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Drupal's greatest strengths are simultaneously its major weaknesses. Because it is endlessly customizable, because it seeks to serve so many various purposes, Drupal can be quite confusing to set up, and it can be intimidating for new users. This is a common complaint about open source projects, and it is applicable to Drupal. Drupal gains flexibility and potency at the expense of ease of use. (The opposite charge may be leveled at Moodle, a similar open source CMS of more limited scope.) To ameliorate this issue, the Purdue English Department runs mandatory Drupal workshops for all new Drupal users. Advanced workshops also take place throughout school semesters. This sort of programatic support structure is recommended for departments seeking to utilize Drupal.
Additionally, because Drupal is designed to treat users by role, some features that pertain to individuals are not well-implemented. As of the time of this writing, Drupal does not provide the ability to administer individual tests to students nor does it contain robust gradebook functions. A gradebook module is in active development, but it must be stated that Drupal works best as a space for collaboration and information dissemination rather than as software for gradekeeping.
Like all CMS, Drupal must interact with a database backend. Essentially, a Drupal installation requires a webserver that can execute PHP scripts, such as Apache, and a database that can interact with PHP, such as MySQL or PostgreSQL. (A more complete description of Drupal's system requirements may be found here.) This means that setting up Drupal sites is somewhat more involved than putting a static webpage on a server. The purpose of this write-up is not to provide detailed installation instructions (such information may be found here), but some familiarity with webservers, databases, and PHP is strongly encouraged for those seeking to install Drupal. Because of this, it is recommended that academic institutions have an administrator who is responsible for the installation and maintenance of Drupal sites. However, it is important to keep in mind that site users—instructors and students—are not required to know anything about these topics. The purpose of Drupal, and any CMS, is to allow users to contribute content while remaining insulated from the tasks of creating and maintaining the actual structure and design of the website itself.
An attractive feature of Drupal is that it is designed to host multiple websites in one installation. For example, all of the instructor websites listed on this page are part of the same Drupal installation, which means that administration and maintenance are centralized in one location. Once Drupal is installed, adding additional websites is trivial.
Like any tool, Drupal does not solve any problems itself; its benefit or detriment emerges through its use. The most important tip for using this (or any) digital tool is to be careful not to substitute technology for pedagogy. New Drupal users will be presented with technological options that are novel and exciting, but just because something is possible it does mean that it is necessary. Digital tools should be used in the service of larger rhetorical goals.
More practically, new Drupal users should start small and build their expertise vertically before they branch out horizontally. Start with a small set of core features that map well to non-digital activities. For example, instead of giving students tangible paper handouts, instructors might post electronic handouts on a Drupal site. Instructors can post syllabi on Drupal sites so that they can be amended as the semester progresses. Once users understand how these previously non-digital tasks work inside of Drupal, they can branch out laterally and incorporate features that are only possible in a digital environment, such as blogging and electronic peer review. The most common pitfall for new users of tools such as Drupal is to attempt to incorporate more features than they are able to handle effectively. This causes users to become overwhelmed and frustrated. For Drupal administrators and users, the necessity of a gradual ramp-up cannot be overemphasized.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, new Drupal users must take advantage of whatever support structures are available. The best way to deploy a tool like Drupal is through a department-wide adoption. This gives everyone common ground, and issues can be addressed collectively. If a new Drupal user does not have this kind of programmatic support, the Drupal forums can be a valuable resource. The open source ethos that underpins Drupal encourages community involvement and shared problem solving.
Drupal is a powerful, flexible CMS that is currently being utilized in major academic institutions. It gives classrooms the ability to generate and share information in ways that are not possible outside of a digital environment. Though free of cost, Drupal does require some investment in site administration and instructor training. As such, it is most productively deployed for use by groups rather than adopted by individuals. Transitioning a program, department, or institution onto the Drupal CMS ensures a critical mass of users that can resolve the inevitable difficulties that arise. Overall, Drupal provides a practical, useful way for instructors and students to engage with the digital medium.