Bentley University Shares Drupal Lessons

Mar 25, 2013 (08:03 AM EDT)

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12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT
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Drupal is one of the most popular Web content management systems in higher education, but that doesn't mean every university uses it effectively.

Scott Lozier, a senior Web developer at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., says the open source CMS was already in use there when he arrived about a year and a half ago, but it was being used in a scattered way.

"They were using Drupal just like WordPress," he said, meaning that the developers would set up a new instance of the software with its own front-end design and back-end database for every new site. "It became very unmanageable for them, and one of my tasks was to come up with a more enterprise-level solution." By centralizing more of that effort, Bentley has been able to give all its major public-facing sites a consistent look, using a common design based on the Drupal Zen theme. Because Zen includes a grid layout that adjusts to the size of the viewer's screen, it is helping the university implement a responsive design for phones and tablets as well as PCs.

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That requirement is one reason for Drupal's popularity in higher education, according to Tom Wentworth, chief marketing officer at Acquia, which provides commercial support for the open source software. "Imagine trying to recruit a student without a fantastic mobile experience these days."

Website logs show mobile visitors account for about 10% of the traffic to Bentley's marketing and admissions websites, but that traffic has grown 127% over the past year, Lozier said. "We're also looking forward to the future, too, where it's going to become more and more important."

Bentley University Admissions site designed with Drupal
Drupal is helping Bentley University implement responsive design on critical Web pages like undergraduate admissions.

Bentley University Admissions site from an Android phone
The admissions page resizes to fit an Android phone screen.

Lozier said the Zen theme also handles a lot of basic Web design challenges, such as browser-specific hacks to CSS formatting code to deliver a consistent design to every Web user. "[The pre-packaged code] built out a lot of those things for us, things that just would have taken a month for us to do and we might not have been able to implement as well," he said.

According to Acquia, Drupal is used by 71 of the top 100 universities. Of course, that doesn't mean Drupal is all they use for Web content management.

At Bentley, as at his previous employer, Harvard, Lozier has found technology choices to be "very fractured," and his effort to standardize on Drupal is limited to the team that works with marketing communications on the university's public image, as opposed to academic computing or websites for student groups. Many of those are running WordPress, the open source product Lozier repeatedly cited in contrast to Drupal.

Lozier did concede that WordPress provides a more user-friendly authoring and editing environment, a result of its design as a blogging tool first and foremost, with broader content management capabilities layered on top. Drupal is more modular and can be configured many different ways, with multiple options for blogging and Web page management, which also makes the authoring and editing experience more variable. ""Drupal's come a long way, but there's still progress to be made," Lozier said. Wentworth said the introduction of the Spark authoring tool should up the ante for Drupal.

On the other hand, Lozier believes Drupal is better at running many different sites off a single instance of the software, a capability WordPress has only recently begun to match in its multisite configuration. Bentley originally adopted Drupal as a replacement for a proprietary content management system based on Cold Fusion.

As open source software, Drupal is a good choice in higher education, where there is more flexibility to learn new things than in the corporate world, Lozier said. There is a lot to learn because of the size of the Drupal codebase, including all the modules and configuration options. Just by attending one of the Drupal Camp community events, he said, "I was able to learn about other university sites that have been successful."

Bentley relies on Acquia for hosting and back-end programming help, allowing Lozier's team to focus on the user experience. "We spend about two-thirds of our time on the presentation layer, and very little of the site-building effort goes into the actual code writing part," he explained. The university has been able to support a wide variety of Web content types and applications using standard Drupal modules. "I think we have about five custom modules, but we try our hardest to use something out of the box," he said, as the team favors Drupal modules known to be stable and tested.

While Bentley's configuration of Drupal and Zen helps deliver a responsive Web design, things don't always work perfectly. Even in the grid layout, Lozier said, "Sometimes the content doesn't fit exactly where you're expecting it to go [when viewed on a mobile device]."

Bentley's Web team has particularly focused on improving the admissions department's website, and in a follow-up email Lozier reported that applications from potential students are up 6% this year compared with 2012. "We can't draw the conclusion that the website plays a significant role in this increase. Just an indication that we are (hopefully!) doing the right things and the web is part of it," he wrote.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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