The Evolution of the English Education Site

This has been my summer of Drupal ( Never quite thought I’d ever say that.

I heard about Drupal some time ago, but I didn’t want to be bothered with it. “Another magical solution to X, Y, and Z…blah, blah, blah.” Drupal could make it easy for users to put up material on the Web quickly, collaboratively, and easily–that’s true, but lately, you see, I’ve been somewhat committed to the notion of “Web Literacy for All…” I’ve come to see courseware like Blackboard as ultimately disenfranchising users from full participation in Internet communication. It puts you on kinda a welfare state, alienates you from your content, mystifies you with its processes, forces you into ill-fitting templates, and ultimately discourages you from using the Web for your own and new, unforeseeable purposes. Over the years, I thought Ronan, from the TechRhet listserv, put it best in his quasi-Orphic pronouncement: “Courseware sucks.” And Drupal to me seemed to be yet another version of courseware–making powerful features “easy”–but still, somehow, mystifying, contorting, and disempowering users….

Then on TechRhet this summer, one colleague put out a query asking people what they might use for an information-sharing site for his whole department–a site where faculty could all post syllabi, assignments, etc.–for sharing, discussing, group authoring, etc. The colleague said he had started the project using Drupal–and he seemed happy with it–but he just wanted to know what others were doing for similar tasks. So, of course, I took a look at his site,, which is a resource site for teachers of First-Year Composition–and I was intrigued.

So I downloaded Drupal, installed it on the English server, and started tinkering. And I was more intrigued. For I soon enough came to see a false “either-or” in my thinking: EITHER “Web Literacy for All” OR “Courseware.” Clearly, we need both. :)

What Drupal adds is powerful inter-activity and dynamic re-configurability of data and uploaded Web content. Here’s how they describe it at

Drupal is an open-source platform and content management system for building dynamic web sites offering a broad range of features and services including user administration, publishing workflow, discussion capabilities, news aggregation, metadata functionalities using controlled vocabularies and XML publishing for content sharing purposes. Equipped with a powerful blend of features and configurability, Drupal can support a diverse range of web projects ranging from personal weblogs to large community-driven sites.

Diversity (of projects) is the thing that most jumps out at me right now. At first I couldn’t quite figure out what the specific application of Drupal might be. Now that I’ve “lived with” the software for a few weeks, I’m beginning to see applications arising left and right.

[Minor rant:] This “emergence of purpose” phenomenon is another example of me pursuing a project without really knowing the goal. As Michael Fullan says, “vision and strategic planning come later”…. What I’m getting at is my old complaint against the ASSESSMENT CULTURE–which insists on measuring progress toward KNOWN GOALS, and doing so from the onset and regular intervals. That’s all well and good. But it misses the point of (or casts an aspersion on?) the indirectness of wondering/wandering–which is the source of so much of my best learning. Goal-directedness and benchmark measurement are fine and good–but they tend (kinda like the Five-Paragraph Essay in high school composition instruction) to TAKE OVER THE WHOLE WORLD once they are let loose. They’re good ideas run amuck. Keeping the things, and keeping them in trim–getting the proportion right–that’s the trick. [End rant]

More valuable to me than even “diversity of projects” are Drupal’s features of group authoring, searchability, re-configurability, and meta-data tagging. These features will make it possible to put the latest English Education news all online easily and consistently–and all gathered and organized in one place. I’m not sure it’ll work, but I’m going to give it a try. The prospect of managing a massive information site like an English Education site has always daunted me in the past. I knew our program needed such a site, but it needed a good one. I knew I could build a good one, but I never had confidence in my ability to maintain one. For those of you who have build Web sites can relate: Adjusting a complex site, like an information-rich program site, is much like renovating a house of cards…you know what the outcome should look like, but getting things there in one piece is quite another matter.

I’ve begun contemplating running my courses out of the EE site, or a different Drupal installation; I have to experiment more. But Drupal allows for the threaded discussion boards I use for my students’ reading journals. I just have some questions about privacy; does Drupal allow for private discussion boards? Even if it doesn’t, I should be able to password protect parts in the traditional Apache way. Anyway….

I would like to simplify the technology experience of my students, so I’m thinking I may not use Blackboard for the course sites. If I could centralize everything in Drupal–i.e., the EE site, my students would be sure to get all the relevant info posted there–and have, in essence, a “one-stop shop.” Drupal and their own Webfolios; that would be enough technology; none of it would conflict with Blackboard; in fact, we could provide useful links to Blackboard and other SXU academic sites. More to follow….(for example the actual address of the English Education Web Site, which is not quite ready for public viewing… :) )

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