I Am a Drupal... (and So Can You!)




So, that's a Stephen Colbert reference. But basically, if I can learn Drupal, you can too. I used this site as a platform to try out features, hoping to develop the site to look as much like my previous course site as possible. Toward the end of Christmas break, I started the Drupal 7 Essential Training on Lynda.com. I have since gone through most of the course on Reporting and Visualizing Data, as well. I plan to dive into the Customizing Themes course next. Here I'll review a few of the features I've tested so far.

Drupal is a content management system. It's a bit more robust than Wordpress. For most people, Wordpress can be used to accomplish most site designs and can be customized with a wide range of features. But Drupal provides a lot more flexibility and functionality, so if you have very specific data, interactivity or ecommerce needs, it may be the best platform. There are many sites online that compare the two, but here are a couple good articles: Drupal vs. Wordpress: The Epic Debate and Wordpress vs. Drupal: The Saga Continues. But with the flexibility of Drupal comes more complexity. The first thing I learned about Drupal is that everything you do takes several steps. You can't just make a post and then it's on the site. You have to decide what type of content it is and decide where and how it will be posted. You may have to add additional features that you might assume would be available as a default.

To install Drupal, you have a couple of options. You can choose to do the Desktop install that the Lynda class recommends via Acquia Drupal (which I have done before), and this is a great idea if you are working on a client site that needs a lot of work before it goes live. But, I decided to go live, using my Bluehost account to use the one-click SimpleScript install, getting a Drupal site instantly on the Web. My students are also doing it this way. We installed the most recent version of Drupal 7, although I am playing around with Drupal 6, due to some of the issues with the VIDI modules. Once students get the site installed, they will be able to login and see the Drupal admin menu across the top of the screen. Like everything in Drupal, this can also be changed, but we won't be focusing on too many admin changes in this class.

Content is stored in nodes, by content type. The two basic content types are articles and pages. You can decide what fields each content type takes. And you can create custom content types, if need be. So, first you can make your pages. Use Add Content, and choose Basic Page. You can add your content, then at the bottom, set up the options. The Menu Settings will add a Menu Link, if you'd like. Changing the weight will allow you to order the items on the menu (smaller weights before larger weights).

Under Structure, Menus you can find settings for the Main Menu (as well as other menus on the site).

Then you can add an Article (blog post) to try out that Content Type. Use the Publish Settings to Publish and to Promote to the front page, if you'd like it to do that.  I do have to add here that the input fields for content, such as Body, don't automatically come with the usual tools/icons for formatting your input, like alignment, bold, adding an image or inserting a link, as you would normally see on something like Wordpress or Blogger. You have to code those by hand, unless you install some sort of WYSIWYG module to add that functionality. I added one that relies on the CK Editor module. You also need to understand who will have access to adding content on your site and decide whether you will allow Filtered or Full HTML. Full HTML allows the range of tags, but can open your site to malicious coding, if you allow anonymous or unregistered users to post to the site. Even if you have a large number of registered users (say like Facebook), you may still have the potential for malicious activity. So, a better bet is to go with Filtered HTML, and add the tags you wish to allow in that area - safe tags like bold, img, <a>, etc. You set those up under Configuration, Text Formats and add to the Allowed HTML tags.

Under Find Content, you can see all the content you have created, edit those items and even filter by content type.

Now, you have some content on your site. But that's just the beginning. You'll want to explore the Structure menu to see what you can do, specifically with Blocks, Contact Forms and Forums. The Structure menu may change as you add different modules (more on that to come) that add functionality to the site. Some of these features must be enabled as Core modules, too.

Blocks are just areas of content on your site. Your theme dictates which kind of blocks you have on the site. Under Blocks, you can choose Demonstrate Block Regions to see the sections in your theme. Then you can create a new block and position it in a sidebar or elsewhere. I have a text block in the both sidebars and one that sticks at the top of the center column, too. I also have a search block and blocks for RSS feeds. Configure those on the Blocks page. I also removed the 2nd sidebar from pages other than the homepage, to allow more room for content. You can do this when you are configuring the block. Add the pages you want this only to appear on or not to appear on. Look for Pages at the bottom of the Block screen.

I played around with a Contact Form, which was easy to setup, but decided I didn't really want to use it on this site. But I did set up a nice forum that allows us to have private class discussions. You have to first enable Forum under Modules (it's installed as a Core module). Then you can Configure and set up Permissions (whether you want only registered users to participate or not, etc) and establish which page you want it to publish under.

The Appearance menu let's you choose a theme. Like other systems, you can search for and install new themes. Check out drupal.org for the available themes that you can install. I chose to clone the default theme, Bartik, and then customize it. The Lynda.com training explains how to do this, but you are basically making a copy of the theme via ftp and changing out the name. This way, you are not modifying the original theme, should you choose to go back to it.  I Iiked the simplicity of Bartik and the way the the blocks were organized as a starting point. But if you choose to stick with a theme, you have a number of things you can do to change colors and customize a logo.

The People menu lets you control users and permissions. This will be particularly important on a site that allows new users and anonymous posters. But that is not the case on the course site and probably won't be the case on the site we do for the Hispanic Serving Status later in the semester.

The Modules area is where you can really customize the functionality of your site. Modules in Drupal are like plugins in Wordpress. You can search for them at drupal.org/project/modules. You search for modules in the version you are using that you want to install, copy the download link, and then install them under Modules. Then they must be enabled. But many modules require other modules, so you must also install and enable them. This can be like going down a rabbit hole, because one module dependency often leads to another. But take your time and make sure you have everything. The VIDI features we will be using are modules, which require other modules, like Views, Chaos Tools and Feeds, to be able to work. One module I found, because I wanted a slideshow on the front page, was Nivo Slider. Once I installed/enabled it and its dependent modules, I was able to set it up under Structure (a Nivo Slider item appears after it is installed). I did have to create images in a size that would work in the slider, and then I had a couple settings to add. Each module can be found if you look at the files on your site under "sites, all, modules" (use an ftp program). If you know php, you might be able to work a little with some additional options and settings. I will definitely have a post specific to the VIDI modules soon, and will probably have one in which I cover a few more modules as well. But for now, just know how the process works and start thinking about the potential.

I installed the Views module and did some basic work with them. I will have more on that in a future post, as I am still completing the second tutorial. But the Essential Training touches lightly on this topic. A View is basically a collection of a content. You can aggregate content types or other types of content, and then repackage and filter and sort it via the powerful Views settings. So, to try it out, I made a new content type called Tutorials. I decided that I would use that content type for any video tutorials I post (need to get on that!). Then I created a View that aggregated that Tutorial content type and displayed them on a page (you can also have a View post to a Block instead of a page, if you want). That way, all I have to do is make the post, and it should automatically go to the Tutorial page. The VIDI modules use Views extensively, so stayed tuned for more on this.

The Configuration menu has lots of other settings for the site. Site Information was particularly valuable in changing the Site Name and Slogan and providing some options for the front page. Under Image Styles, there were some settings that were associated with the Nivo Slider, as well as defaults for image sizes used elsewhere in posts or pages. I set up my RSS feeds with the Feed Aggregator (which was a module that needed to be installed), so I could then add them to the blocks. There are other important things under Configuration, and, like other menus, things are added to that page depending on the modules you install. It's just a powerful catch-all for options not found elsewhere.

Another thing in which to be aware is that many of your options have tabs, so don't forget to look there for a setting or feature that you might be seeking. For instance, the Feed Aggregator under Configuration has a List tab where the feeds can be added or edited. But there is also a Settings tab, that provides more options.

So, that's it for now. The Lynda.com tutorials have been very helpful. My descriptions are not meant to be a step-by-step at this point, just point out the basic process and capabilities. I will have tutorials and handouts posted eventually on the site, as we get to that portion of the semester.

As with any new technology, Drupal can be particularly time consuming to learn. I basically started about three weeks ago, and have probably put in about 40 hours on it, and still have lots more to go. But if you start small, and then take your time adding new features and trying out new capabilities, it will start making sense. Modules can have varying levels of quality as well, as some have better documentation than others. I have done all of this training on my own, with the Lynda.com tutorials, but am seeking some Drupal consultation to help when I get to some of the rough patches.

More to come!