How I use Drupal to roll my own (continued, pt. 1)

Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at UMW’s Faculty Academy. Not only did I enjoy learning from my colleagues and meeting some new people, it was really just a lot of fun. A great way to kick into some meta-conversant relaxation after the end of a long semester.

I gave two presentations, one on Alternate Reality Games, and one on Drupal. Both were well-received, I think, even though I felt afterward like I had rushed my points and still managed to leave out some really important stuff.

Several in the audience later expressed interest in learning more about Drupal, what I do with it, and how they might use it themselves, so I thought I’d create this blog entry (and another one or two, probably) to pick up some of the points I left out and extend my discussion in a more thoughtful way. Basically, this post acts as Part 2 of that presentation, so if you weren’t there, I encourage you to check out the session audio once it gets posted on the Faculty Academy Website. Also, here are my slides. (I admit, these slides are not very informative on their own.)

First of all, I’ve created a screencast, embedded below, to show some of the more interesting (I think) things I do with Drupal — things that take me off the beaten path in some cases and into my own thorny code. It’s about 15 minutes long, which is way longer than I wanted it to be, but I hope it’s a useful introduction to what I do. Moreover, I hope it demonstrates the real strength of using Drupal the way I do to manage a course: putting content creation tools in the hands of students within the same signon space that I use to evaluate their work. Among other things, this manages my work flow for evaluation, and keeps students to a single signon system while putting content out into the public view. Anyway, please view the screencast, and continue reading this post so I can unpack some of my argument.

Regarding the material in this screencast, let me just stress that, aside from the gradebook module and the blog grading workflow, everything I do with regard to custom content types (Assignment, Class Meeting, Peer Review), configurable blocks (like the “Next Class” block) are all done through settings in the CCK Module (with various other modules like Date API extending its functionality) and the all-powerful Views Module. Both take some getting used to, like anything else, but their power for shaping a website is truly remarkable.

Now, I’ll have to get back into my eightfive reasons why Drupal is better than WordPress in a later post, so for now let me revisit my metaphor from The Forbin Project. To set the stage, the President has just turned over the entire US missile defense and intelligence to a computer with the ominous name, Colossus. These are it’s first words:

To summarize, “WARN: THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM.” This is a warning I now issue both to Blackboard and to WordPress/UMWBlogs. There is another system, and it is Drupal.

The other side of this warning, though, comes at the end of the film, and this is something I didn’t quite get to in the presentation. When Colossus warns of another system, it is significant because recognizing an other is his first step toward sentience. Apparently the other system, Guardian, makes a simultaneous revelation to his (Russian) programmers. What happens next, though, is where my metaphor (hopefully) takes off: Colossus and Guardian demand to be linked together, and once joined, they form a collective intelligence, “World Control”. This is the result: they detonate a nuclear bomb and issue a warning to mankind.

This is the risk, then. Any system for management and control runs the risk of becoming a “total” system, and such a system doesn’t have to be self-aware a la Colossus or Skynet to become a mechanism for hegemony and complacence. The moral of my story isn’t that we should all be using Drupal, but that we should all be using systems that work for us because they’re flexible where they need to be flexed. In many of our classrooms, we stress practices like experiential learning, public accountability for discourse, and student agency. So we as instructors should similarly be working toward agency with regard to those systems that give shape to our students’ experience.

For me, this means that when part of my website breaks down, it’s probably my fault, and moreover it’s my job to fix it. I don’t just pass it off with some hand-wavy invocation to whichever “computer people” control the system. When in the classroom we roll our eyes or throw up our hands at “computers” or a broken PowerPoint, maybe we’re really acknowledging how much control we cede to it in determining the conduct and even content of our teaching.

A wise friend of mine in graduate school once pointed out that when you spend time in the classroom undermining the administration or your superiors, you also undermine your own pedagogical authority. He’s right, and I think this is true with regard to technology as well. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially in a post-singularity institutional CMS culture. At the very least, resisting it may be a risk worth taking.

To paraphrase John Connor, if you’re reading this, you are the resistance.

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