School District Drupal Distribution

There is a great opportunity for Drupal to provide every primary school and secondary school with a cutting-edge, purpose-built CMS distribution.

The elves at ImageX Media have been working extra hard over the last few days to cram as much information and innovation as possible into our Knight News Challenge grant application.

At present, most school boards cannot afford to roll out websites for every school location, leaving the schools on their own to create complex websites that need to deliver up-to-the minute information about special programs, events and alerts.

What normally results is inequality between district schools (with most having a lackluster website or no site at all), painfully out-of-date content and an IT support burden created by each school having a completely unique site.

The amount of text that can be included in the Grant Challenge application is limited, so I’d like to use our blog to further share our vision with interested parties, especially the larger Drupal community. I’d also like to invite all to read, comment and rate our application. The more honest feedback we get, the better our plan can become. Feedback also helps the Knight Foundation during the selection process.

About the Knight News Challenge

For those who are not familiar, the Knight News Challenge is an annual program of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funds innovative open source projects that use technology to transform news and communications within local communities. The foundation has a track record of generously funding Drupal community initiatives and has again reached out to the Drupal community for proposals. In particular, the Knight Foundation has shown interest in support Drupal distributions, with past funding supporting Managing News, the packaging system and other related projects. For more on the Knight Foundation, see their about page.

On Drupal Distributions

We see significant opportunities for customized distributions of Drupal. Dries’ has long held a vision of purpose-built Drupal distributions providing solutions to niche CMS applications. Over the course of 2009 we were pleased to watch the first wave of these distributions such as OpenPublish, Open Atrium and Managing News. With the recently launched packaging system, we see 2010 being a breakout year for Drupal-based products.

For myself, the most exciting thing of all is how this innovation is upending the usual economics of site building, even within the open source world. While Drupal core and all modules are available for free, building a site of moderate complexity typically takes a lot of time and experience. For most, this leads to thousands of dollars of investment to hire a Drupal shop or skilled freelancer. While many businesses and organizations can pay these fees, there are always groups under-served, still unable to take advantage of the best that Drupal has to offer. Distributions change the economics, allowing the value in a site build to be captured and then shared with all for free.

The Current Situation

When thinking about underprivileged groups unable to afford site builds, our minds quickly turned to school districts. Each district includes dozens of schools. Each one of these schools wants its own website to communicate with its constituency of parents, students, teachers and community members. Creating and maintaining dozens of websites is always a challenge, which is amplified in an education environment with limited funding. This often leads to districts giving each school the responsibility of creating and maintaining its own site. The sites created are of varying quality and use different systems, and are all administered by different users. IT staff then need to deal with support requests about dozens of systems and worry about security issues, bug fixes and other regular maintenance tasks for each individual site. The end result is inconsistent communication, disparities between schools and an IT headache for the district.

Our Vision For Schools

Now, getting to the good stuff. With a little bit of funding, we think that these problems can be solved by a Drupal distribution. Think about what a school may need:

  • News posting
  • Blogging
  • Newsletters
  • RSS
  • Events listings
  • Multi-lingual functionality
  • Audio and video podcasting
  • Email and SMS quick alerts

All of these problems have been long since solved by Drupal. We “just” need to make setup and configuration easy by creating a distribution. IT staff need a simple multi-step installer to guide them through setup process. By leveraging the features module for packaging discreet pieces of functionality, a school administrator would be able to modify the install at any time. Drupal’s multi-site capabilities are a perfect match for centralizing the control of all sites within a district. For IT staff, this solves most security and maintenance issues. Taking multi-site usage one step further, we foresee being able to distribute a server virtual machine image (or Amazon EC2 AMI) with Aegir pre-configured, giving districts a full turn key system that easily handles all site backups and updates. Documentation and support would become much easier in such a situation. With a system like this, a school districts’ central website would be able to aggregate news and information from each individual school. Likewise, each school would be able to highlight any district-wide news or alerts that are posted.

We are brimming with ideas. This is just the start of what could be possible. Our goal for phase one of this plan would be to create a polished distribution that covers most common needs. The distribution could then be customized from the solid base provided. Any successful system will need to be well-planned, well-documented, easy to use and be flexible enough to adapt to various workflows across districts. If our application makes it past the first round of evaluations, we will be working diligently to outline the specifics of our proposed solution.

Partnering With Our Local Community

At this point, we are happy to share that if this proposal is funded we will have a partner in the Vancouver School Board. Having re-launched the primary VSB website using Drupal, CIO Stephen Lamb understands how modern online communication tools can make a difference (full disclosure: ImageX Media was heavily involved in this project). However, the district’s nearly 100 schools still can not take advantage of these systems. Here is what Stephen has to say about district communication challenges and how this proposed system could make a difference:

Schools and school districts are somewhat challenged in communicating in a timely fashion to broad, diverse, multicultural communities. Often student success stories don’t receive enough celebration through the popular press, and the challenges of public education become the focal point. By providing our schools with contemporary communication tools that could facilitate access to additional depth of information and insight, education institutes would be able to partner more effectively with mainstream media in presenting a holistic and balanced perspective that is typically of great interest to the community at large. Doing that with open source tools is a thoughtful and appropriate approach. I fully endorse this proposal. It is timely, appropriate and innovative in a time of diminishing resources and increasing public expectations.

We are excited about this endorsement. We see any project such as this dovetailing perfectly with the City of Vancouver’s recent open city motion, which seeks to open online access to city data and “license any software applications developed by the City such that they may be used by other municipalities, businesses, and the public without restriction.” It is our hope that this project and others like it are only the start of open source software increasing effectiveness and communications in public education and government.

In closing, we would again like to ask for your feedback on this proposal. What could improve our plans? What should our formal plan look like? If you support what we are doing, please do take a moment to vote and share your thoughts with the Knight Foundation.