Software and Technical Requirements
In order to host the Situating the University project, we chose Drupal, an open source content management platform hosted locally by the English department. Although other software could certainly be used, Drupal, familiar to many college campuses, was advantageous for several reasons. It provides free and accessible forum space. Modules added to downloaded Drupal software allow the creation of forums that are easy to use, organize, and tag. For this four-week project, we created forums divided by individual weeks, allowing students to quickly find and use the appropriate forum. Within each week, every student could create and comment on multiple threads. Forums can also be placed in clearly labeled administrator created categories (e.g., “Week Eight” or “Academic Freedom”) that quickly identify the key subjects. After the semester ends, Drupal sites can be archived for later reference.
Drupal is equally easy to manage, especially for multiple instructors, as any account can be given administrator access (technically, students can also be given administrator accounts). Administrator accounts allow users to create new forum topics, organize the site, and view all content created by users by clicking their username. Because all users have this option, the software facilitates Rheingold’s reputation systems by allowing forum participants to click on an author’s pseudonym to see all their posts. Users thus build reputations both week to week and retroactively, and participants often gravitate toward users with particularly insightful, useful, or controversial posts. The ability of administrators and users to track one another opens up monitoring capabilities that generate productive discourse and interaction without creating too many negative possibilities.
Drupal is easy for students to learn and use. After signing up for accounts, students usually grow accustomed to the navigation and operation of the site within a week. The software makes sites easy to organize and therefore navigate, though some might be put off by its frequent use of nested lists (recent releases of Drupal are moving away from nested list navigation in favor of thumbnails). In order to post, students can either learn a few simple html tags, such as <p> (paragraphing) and <em> italics, or they can enable Drupal’s rich-text option and format their text using a WYSIWYG editor. In three years of using this software, few student problems have arisen, and those were mostly the expected and unavoidable technical glitches. Despite various technological skill and experience, every student successfully participated in the forum discussion.
Drupal does come with some disadvantages, however. It often includes many unneeded features, but those can be easily disabled to cater to individual course needs. The biggest disadvantage is that Drupal requires constant and careful administration both by the instructors and whatever technical support assists the department or school. When many classes are using Drupal, the technical support demands increase, and at a large state school with many sections of freshmen composition and professional writing, a committed support staff and extensive server space is required. Other free web forum services may suffice at universities without the tech support to run Drupal, but this open source software worked effectively for this project. (Blogoforum.org, for instance, provides free forum space without obnoxious advertisments).