Drupal for Higher Ed: Reflections from the Fall 2016 Intern Team

For the past four months we’ve been working at Sanmita as marketing interns. In the second half of our internship, we focused exclusively on building Sanmita’s sister brand, DrupalAnswers. Over the course of our internship we have gained experience in market research, higher education website audits, video marketing, the creation of social media and blog posts, and content curation.

We also learned how to create an integrated content strategy across different platforms. Throughout the entire experience, we worked as a team to complete tasks and brainstorm strategy, which we believe led us to produce even greater results than we would have alone.

When we started this internship we had basic understanding of what exactly web development involves. We understood there were multiple facets to the development process but our grasp of the topic was limited to design and the aesthetic aspect of a site. Throughout our internship, we gained a fuller understanding of what truly encompasses web development.

We now know the importance of the discovery process and why research is a vital part of a website’s strategy and creation. For instance, conducting proper research influences the development of information architecture, which plays a major role in determining the success and organization of a site. As we completed audits of college websites, we also learned several other aspects that contribute to a site’s success, including accessibility, page speed, mobile-friendliness, and how easy it is to navigate through the website’s content. One of our favorite quotes found during our research sums up what we learned perfectly:

“Pretty things can be useless, and ugly things can be useful. Beauty and quality are not always related.” ― Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess: Information Architecture for Everybody

Essentially, good design rests upon a solid foundation.

Since our company focuses on higher education institutions, we spent a lot of time researching best practices for mission critical sites. Without a doubt, we agree that Drupal is the best CMS for higher education. Drupal is powerful, flexible, and is built to handle the complexity of a higher education site– even the White House chooses Drupal as their go-to CMS. As we’ve learned, Drupal is the best option when stability and scalability are vital to the project, or if it requires close attention to detail and unique customization. An added benefit of Drupal is that most of their extensions and ways to customize the site are free of charge – perfect for higher ed institutions that might be working on a tight budget.

Now with just a week left in our internship, we feel that we have gained experiences that we can apply in the future. One of our favorite parts of the internship was having the opportunity to work on the company’s integrated online marketing strategy. We strategized and executed ways to drive traffic to the website and blog posts through social media, demonstrating the importance of consistent messaging across all platforms. Another aspect of this internship that we were thankful for was being able to see the full lifecycle of the projects we worked on. We were involved in each step of the way, from start to finish. This was a unique experience that we have not received elsewhere. Overall, the skills and experiences we have had working at Sanmita are invaluable to us and will affect the way we will grow as marketers.

 

 

The Secrets of Organizing Your Higher Ed Site, Part 1 of 5: Inventory

In the modern information age, we’re all experiencing information, or cognitive overload. The sheer volume of information we’re exposed to and the frequency with which it arises can be an issue, but researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information; it’s how it’s organized that’s the problem.

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What You Need to Know About Information Architecture

One of the biggest mistakes we see people make when it comes to their websites is not prioritizing information architecture. While the design aspects of a website are fun, glamorous, and ultimately vital to the success of your site, it’s important that you don’t jump straight to the design and forgo the important process of building a solid information architecture and understanding the purpose behind your site and its content.

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Improving Website Performance: A Site Manager’s Guide to Minimizing Downtime

Higher education institutions often have large, complex websites that cater to many audiences who depend on their successful performance: Faculty, students, prospective students, parents and the higher education community at large.

The importance of your institution’s website cannot be understated. The web is now mission-critical, meaning that if your web presence fails, your business operations suffer as well. For this reason, any downtime is an unwelcome hassle for anyone charged with managing the website.

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Website Accessibility: What You Should Know

The average adult spends nearly 20 hours per week on the Internet

The accessible web means that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, interact with, and contribute to the web. This encompasses all disabilities that affect access to the Web, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive and neurological disabilities. But web accessibility also benefits others, not just those with disabilities, including people with “temporary” disabilities such as a broken arm, older people with changing abilities due to aging.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990. Its effects are visible in nearly every public space in the form of disabled parking, ramps as alternatives to stairs, Braille signage, and more. Although the need to provide disabled people with reasonable accommodations has been a civil rights issue for decades, one important public space – the Internet – has been largely overlooked up until now.

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Inspiring Students to Achieve Education Beyond High School

As education becomes more of a necessity for the future workforce, educators and parents are constantly looking for new ways to encourage and motivate students to achieve more academically. However, they often overlook the primary ways to get students to be motivated and inspired to achieve higher education. Often the solution is to set academic standards higher for students but what might actually help students is to communicate with them on platforms that they are already using and encourage them to pursue careers in creating digital content. According to the latest earning and unemployment data, those who earn higher education still on average earn more than those with just a high school diploma and unemployment rates reduce the higher the degree. Here are four simple ways to incorporate the web and social media into your institution to help motivate and inspire students to achieve higher academically:

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Mega Menus

Navigation has always been a design problem for large websites. Mega drop-down menus are a growing trend in web design that structures navigation choices through layout, typography, and sometimes icons.

 

Mega menus can greatly improve navigation and usability on sites that involve a lot of pages or products. With mega drop-down menus, a visitor can see all their choices at once. For bigger sites with many features, regular drop-down menus typically hide a lot of your site’s content. You can scroll, but this becomes confusing and hides a number of choices at any given point in the navigation process. Mega menus show everything at a glance and through grouping, allows your visitors to visualize the relationships among items on your site. CSS-only dynamic drop-downs are possible, but they don’t offer mouse over/out latency or work in every browser.

 

While mega menus can make it easier for users to find the information they’re looking for deep within a site, a vast number of links can also overwhelm some visitors. Mega menus can help streamline the navigation process by allowing you to group menu items. Chunk options into related sets using concise, yet descriptive labels for each group. Try not to offer huge groups of options that require a lot of time to scan. At the same time, don’t make the groups so small that the menu has an overabundance of groups that your users have to spend time understanding.

 

Just because you can put everything in a mega menu doesn’t necessarily mean you should. The standard usability guideline to “keep it simple” also applies to mega menus. Avoid GUI widgets and other interface elements that involve a lot of interaction. Mega drop-downs are temporary – They appear on hover or click so shouldn’t replace dialog boxes, which should be used for more complex interactions. Even though mega menus have the room to support many options, it’s best to try not to overload your users.

 

From a design standpoint, mega menus can look great and allow you to further express your brand’s personality and creativity. These drop-down menus are a design canvas! They eliminate unnecessary scrolling and offer additional elements such as typography, icons and tooltips to help guide users to the content they came for.

 

Mega menus are common on e-commerce sites because they typically include many categories of products. They’re also useful on other large websites where fewer clicks should be necessary to get to a specific page. Mega menus allow visitors to reach the content they’re looking for no matter where they are on your site.

 

Your site may benefit from a mega menu if:
  • You manage a large number of products (eCommerce sites like REI)
  • You publish and manage a lot of content (content aggregators and news sites like Reuters)
  • You have complex service offerings requiring a lot of supporting content (large association sites, higher education sites like Cornell, government sites like The White House)
  • Your site is information-oriented, diverse, and you offer a lot of long-form web copy

 

You probably don’t need a mega menu if:
  • Your site is small without too much content (small businesses, restaurants)
  • You have fewer pages and focused content
  • Your site is dedicated to a singular function, such as a tool or online calculator

 

Be warned: The increased ability to navigate a site will come at a tradeoff on the SEO front. Too many navigation links in a mega menu may dilute your site’s overall page rank. Google assigns a PageRank score based on the number and quality of links pointing to a webpage. A site’s internal link structure transfers PageRank throughout the site. When you distribute a site’s PageRank in a “broad” way, you dilute the page’s ability to rank competitively in the SERPs. Sites with weaker trust and authority metrics will suffer more than established sites with strong authority and trust metrics. Shoot for 100 links or less, but keep in mind that there are occasions where the SEO hit will be worth it.

 

Navigation has a huge impact on your website’s usability and appearance, so make sure you have the right menu for your site’s content, layout and visitors. This article features several free and premium WordPress plugin options that can help you create a responsive menu, or make your existing navigation compatible with mobile devices.

 

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The least you should know about Drupal

What is Drupal?

Drupal is an open source content management system (CMS). CMS are the back-end infrastructures of websites that allow content to be created and managed with greater ease. Of all major content management systems, WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are the most popular. All are open source platforms. “Open source” refers to any software that opens its code to anyone with programming skills. The major advantage of using open source software is anyone can modify it to suit the needs of the individual project.

When compared with WordPress and Joomla, most developers agree that Drupal is more difficult to master, but much more powerful and flexible. You can find a more detailed comparison of the three open source CMS options in our post, Drupal, Joomla, WordPress, Oh My!

Drupal is no ordinary CMS. By design, Drupal is the perfect content management solution for nontechnical users who require simplicity and flexibility. Through a modular approach to site building, Drupal offers its users both. For this reason, Drupal can be described as having the strengths of both a content management system and a content management framework. With Drupal, you can build almost anything. It’s just a matter of combining the right modules.

The History of Drupal

Dries Buytaert started the Drupal project in 2000 while attending the University of Antwerp. It was originally designed as a simple message board system. Originally called “Drop,” Drupal looked eerily similar to what would become Facebook. Dries and his friends would use the system to leave each other messages, coordinate dinner plans and write updates about their lives.

Over time, others became interested in the project. Strangers would email Dries patches for Drupal. These interested parties grew into a mailing list and then a much larger community. Eventually, Drupal gained the recognition and respect it deserved as a very capable CMS by the web development community.

Drupal Core Concepts

Nodes vs. Modules

A single web site could contain many different types of content (informational pages, news articles, polls, blog posts, etc.). In Drupal, each of these items of content is called a node. Each node belongs to a single content type, which defines the various settings for nodes of that type (such as whether the node is published automatically and whether comments are permitted).

So, a “node” is a piece of content. Anything can be a node; a page is a node, an article is a node, a product is a node. It is a developer’s responsibility to define their nodes and how each will be displayed and handled on your site.

A module, on the other hand, is a piece of code that serves to extend Drupal’s functionality. As a new Drupal user, you’ll start with Drupal’s core module, the simplest version of Drupal with very few features. When you add modules, your site can do more. There are plenty of modules that have already been created by Drupal’s developers to address a number of website needs. Rather than reinventing the wheel, a new Drupal user can add these modules onto their site. The modules that can be added are called “contributed” modules because they have been contributed by members of the Drupal community. As the size of Drupal’s development community is quite large, there are plenty of modules available that can handle almost anything. For example, Ubercart is a popular eCommerce module that offers a website the infrastructure necessary to sell products online.

Nodes and modules are the basic building blocks of Drupal. On top of nodes and modules are layered other Drupal controls, such as permissions for different types of users, menus and themes or “skins” of the website. Your development team has complete control to customize and tweak the site as you’d like. It’s this level of customization that makes Drupal so powerful yet so difficult to master.

 

Entity Types

An entity type is a way to group together fields. Entity types are used to store and display data, which can be nodes, comments, taxonomy terms, user profiles, etc.

 

Comment

Each comment is typically a small bit of content that a user submits and attaches to a particular node.

 

Taxonomy

Taxonomy is Drupal’s system for classifying content provided by the core Taxonomy module. With Drupal, you can define your own vocabularies and add new terms. Each vocabulary can then be attached to one or more content types. In this way, nodes on your site can be grouped into categories, tagged, and classified in any way of your choosing.

 

Users & Permissions

Next to content, users are the most important component to your website. By default, a user has a set of associated properties including a username, password, role, and e-mail address. You can extend these properties through additional modules. For example, you could add a “Link” field to a user to log their Twitter address.

With Drupal, you can easily manage users, divide them into types or groups and define different levels of permissions. Permissions can be set to control what users have access to view and/or edit in particular areas of a site. Permissions are a powerful feature to use when developing your site’s structure as they can be very specific

Every visitor to your site is considered a user, whether they have an account and log in or visit the site anonymously. Each user also has a numeric user ID special to that type of user.

Types of Users

  • Master Administrator: This user has the ID one (1). The Master Administrator is the primary admin user account created during Drupal installation. This user has permission to do absolutely everything on the site.
  • Logged In: Users that log in are assigned a user ID when they register for the website. A user name and email address is associated with any user that isn’t anonymous
  • Anonymous: Anonymous users who visit the website but do not login all share a user ID of zero (0).

You can assign permissions for other users on your site via roles. Drupal permissions are quite flexible as you can assign permission for any task to any role, depending on the needs of your site.

 

Regions & Blocks

Pages on your Drupal site are laid out in Regions. These include the header, footer, sidebars and main content regions of your site. Your chosen theme may define additional site regions.

Blocks are chunks of information that display in the regions of your site. Blocks can take the form of HTML or text, menus, the output from modules, or dynamic listings (e.g. list of upcoming events).

 

Menus

By default, content on your Drupal site is not placed in any particular structure. The best way of bringing structure to your Drupal site is to use menus.

A standard installation of Drupal has four initial menus: main menu, management, navigation and user menu. You can add more menus via Drupal’s interface. You can also choose where and how they will be displayed.

 

Themes

With Drupal, you aren’t limited to a single way of presenting your site’s content. You can define custom themes or designs for the site. You can find some contributed themes here.

The Theme layer is separate from the data layer, the functionality extension layer (module) and Core. Your Theme controls the look and feel of your site. How your site is displayed, including the graphic look, layout and colors are defined by your Theme. The Theme consists of one or more PHP template files that define the HTML output of your site’s pages, along with one or more CSS files that define the layout, fonts, colors, and other styles.

 

Views

Not all sites will have Views, but those that do benefit from the excellent tools it provides. Views allows you to choose a list of nodes or other entities and present them as pages, blocks, RSS feeds, or in other formats. With Views, you can create dynamically updating lists or content (i.e. latest news), based on properties of that content.

 

More reasons to choose Drupal

  • Drupal is a powerful and flexible content management system used to build virtually any kind of website. Drupal offers custom functionality, flexible implementation, complex components, easy configuration, customize-able content types, list, sort and search information.
  • An ordinary CMS uses plugins. Each plugin is responsible for tracking and tracking a particular kind of content, and each remains relatively isolated from the others. With Drupal, modules interface with a common underlying system so you can build, mix and match clever, customized features.
  • Like other open source CMSs, Drupal is free and install to use. A CMS like Microsoft SharePoint can handle the same level of technical complexity that Drupal can, but it’s expensive to use due to licensing fees. Almost all of Drupal’s extensions are available free of charge as well.
  • Drupal’s installation is surprisingly easy. If you wanted to, you can have your first Drupal site up and running within an hour.
  • Unified interface: No default distinction between viewing and editing a page
  • Drupal provides an excellent out-of-the-box solution to eCommerce sites
  • Drupal sites can handle heavy traffic. That’s why sites like WhiteHouse.gov and choose Drupal. Drupal has a special built-in cache system that facilitates speed. To see other projects being built in Drupal, check out our post, Three Cool Drupal-Based Software Projects
  • Drupal’s community is 800,000 people strong. This dedicated group of contributing developers who help to update and expand the software has extended Drupal’s capabilities with more than 18,000 modules.

Who shouldn’t be using Drupal?

Drupal isn’t always the best choice. Not every web project requires the sophistication, power and flexibility that Drupal provides. If your only requirement is to write a personal blog, Drupal is not the right tool for you. For large and technically complex websites, however, Drupal stands out amongst its competitors.

 

The Future of Drupal

Drupal 8, the latest version of Drupal, is specifically designed with mobile in mind. Buytaert’s goal for Drupal is to be the best CMS for mobile websites. There are even a number of ready-made themes and modules available to Drupal users designed to specifically enhance a user’s mobile experience.

Drupal is one of the best open source web development platforms. It’s best used for large sites with number of different content types planning to grow over time. With premium design capabilities and technical capacity, you can’t go wrong with Drupal

 


 

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Texas Wesleyan Ups Responsive Design

As mobile use surges, our partners at Texas Wesleyan University are making a strong commitment to be mobile-friendly. In partnership with Sanmita, Texas Wesleyan is upgrading its entire website to adapt to any device and screen size. We are thrilled to do more with our excellent partners at Texas Wesleyan!

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Sanmita is redeveloping the underlying architecture of the Texas Wesleyan website to allow the entire site to be responsive. This is our latest project with Texas Wesleyan as the school upgrades its web products. Recently, Sanmita converted the university’s homepage and admissions section to be responsive. We are also developing an interactive calendar feature that will have the look and feel of a mobile app. The calendar will be integrated into the website, eliminating any obstacle of downloading an app to use the feature.

Texas Wesleyan’s moves come at a time when it is critical for higher education to be mobile-friendly. Mobile is becoming an essential tool in higher ed  marketing and recruiting. A survey of college students shows 89% own a smartphone.  Younger Americans are increasingly using their mobile devices for web browsing; In 2013, 68% of prospective students said they visited college websites on a mobile device. A responsive site helps ensure these mobile-savvy students will have a positive user experience and easily access essential information.  Texas Wesleyan University understands these trends and wants its website to meet these demands.

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