It can be quite a strange experience to read a book where you know you are not the target audience, I'm not a teacher or an academic, but I work for a university and use Drupal, and, of course, like most people have been on the receiving end of the education system! Despite this though I still enjoyed reading Drupal for Education and E-Learning by Bill Fitzgerald after being asked if I would review it by the publisher Packt Publishing. The book is not aimed at developers like me, but instead to those who want to use Drupal “to support teaching and learning” and to explore opportunities to use social media in the classroom in a safe way. You don't even need to know PHP. However, even though it has this non-techie targeting it could still prove very useful to many people using Drupal in other contexts. Occasionally though a tension would surface in the book between the desire to talk to a non developer audience and the subjects being discussed.
The author, Bill Fitzgerald is someone who is ideally placed to write a book on the subject of using Drupal and social media in education. He was a teacher of English and History for sixteen years and during this time got into using technology in the classroom and is now involved in FunnyMonkey a company that specialises in providing educational solutions using Drupal. He is also very active in the Drupal community, running the Drupal in Education group where anybody interested in this area can swap ideas and keep up to date with developments, and can be found on Twitter, which is continuing its success as a hit social media site, under the name @funnymonkey. An interview with him was recently conducted on the Lullabot podcast. The publishers, Packt, are an interesting bunch too. They have devised a way that they can target specialised markets with IT books that might not be cost efficient for traditional publishers to market. Instead of huge print runs they use print on demand technology, and importantly they donate royalties from each book sold on open source to that project.
The book's narrative is building and maintaining a Drupal site suitable to for use in a school by many different classes. Don't let this necessarily put you off though if your site has nothing to do with education, you can choose to view this as just an a scenario in which the use of key Drupal features is explained. The book covers a wide range of topics from installing, setting up and administering Drupal to using built in modules such as blogs, forums and taxonomies; creating a good user experience for your site with an explanation of the menus system, themes and blocks; and some of the more popular add in modules for Drupal that can give it a lot of power, including Views, Organic Groups and modules to host multimedia content. Once you have worked though the book you get a good idea of what can be achieved without necessarily having to write custom modules. I wish I'd had this book when first experimenting with Drupal as it would have been of great use when coming up with solutions and learning how to get the most out of this powerful software.
One thing I particularly liked about the book was the habit of explaining not only how to do something, but also why you would want to do it, which helps when learning about ideas that might seem abstract. For example the first page of chapter seven on Bookmarks explains that these can help “teach media literacy and critical evaluation of sources”, so an idea that can seem abstract and new when first encountered is immediately grounded in an educational aim, and benefit to the end user, it isn't just having a feature for the sake of it. Advice to teachers around the concepts being discussed is also given, chapter nine on video for example explains how to get the best out of setting a potential video assignment.
Generally the explanations seem to go to the right level of depth and detail on topics, there were a few cases though where I though a bit more detail would have been helpful, e.g. chapter eight covering podcasts and images. Podcasts are covered really well and the walk through was very enjoyable. Images I thought could have done with a little more explanation, it is an area that can be quite confusing to Drupal newcomers, and an explanation of how you might go about embedding several images in a page would have been useful. Only one chapter disappointed, chapter eleven on Social Networks and Extending the User Profile should probably have been renamed as when I saw this title I immediately thought of the tools used in social network sites for users to connect with each other, things like having friends in Facebook or followers in Twitter. Instead the chapter largely concentrated on the “extending the user profile” part with only a small mention of this ability to connect at the end. I can understand that this functionality might not be something that is always appropriate to primary and secondary (K12) education, but it is something potentially really useful for higher education and non-education sites.
An area of difficulty I felt was the tension between having to provide technical detail and trying not to scare non-technical users off. Now I understand this and the fact that we live in a world where even the mention of things like the command line can send people running, screaming, for the hills, but there is also the fact the running an interactive site with something like Drupal requires a certain level of technical skill to make it a successful venture and to keep the site secure. This is a really difficult balance to keep, and on the whole the book did this well, but there were a couple of areas where this didn't really work out. One such example is chapter fourteen under a subheading of Looking Under the Hood where I felt the language may have crossed from acknowledging the fact that the target audience are maybe not developer-types to being rather discouraging. This chapter was about Theming and User Interface Design and this section started out by stating that “you have an overwhelmingly broad range of options available to you … if you want to tinker with the code .. While this holds an incredible amount of appeal to those with a DIY spirit, it's a bit much for most people”, ok this may be fair, some people don't enjoy tinkering with code, understandable, but wait there's more … “if, however, you are one of the statistical minority inclined to roll your sleeves up and start messing with such things this section is for you”. Yep, you must be a bit weird if you are still reading this chapter by now, but this goes on, the author states a little later “I want to make a couple of things clear .. a detailed analysis of Drupal's theming system is being the scope of this book”, ok fair enough, “.. Drupal offers a lot of flexibility for those of you who want to mess about with the code; however, just because you can doesn't mean you should”. Discouraged yet?
I'm sure this is light hearted, but there are a couple of problems here. Firstly, many educational institutions, like companies want to project a coherent brand image to the outside world so they look professional and people take them seriously, so having to work on a theme may become necessary. This can be quite difficult, so maybe a discussion of involving outside help would be useful? What if you have to work with an external designer to come up with a theme? Secondly, how are people meant to learn and understand a system if they can't tinker with it and play with it? It is fair enough to say be careful and point out areas where changes can really break things, but confidence is a really important aspect of using IT to its full potential. Maybe the second point could have been helped by encouraging a local installation of Drupal first before installing to a web host. This is a great option while learning a system as it is faster to make changes and means that fewer people can see our system while you take your first steps. A link to three videos produced by Lullabot could have been useful here, they have explained how to install Drupal locally on Ubuntu, Mac and Windows in a way that is really clear and helpful.
That said though I found the rest of chapter fourteen to be really good, with strong practical advice on providing a good user experience of your new website, focusing on the simple idea of making the use of the site as simple as possible for users by hiding unnecessary options. The author pointed out common errors found in many sites and helped you avoid them in your new site. This is very welcome as we have all had the frustration of dealing with illogical or incoherent navigation structures in web sites and it is something worth thinking about from the start of designing a website.
A really good feature of the book was the chapter on how to work with the Drupal community and be someone who doesn't just seek to take, but also give something back. It is probably fair to say that many people are inexperienced when it comes to open source software and how the communities around the projects operate and the would benefit from the advice on how to behave and get the most out the rich and diverse resources to be found on the drupal.org site. This I'm sure would be of great help to anybody starting out on their open source journey and contained points that would be useful when dealing with any open source project.
On the whole I genuinely liked this book. It is generally well written with a focus on the end user and the opportunities Drupal can bring to them. I'm sure would be very useful to a teacher looking for a way to use the power of social media in their classroom, but might want to do it in a self contained, focused way and in a way that they can supervise. It is also really useful for people outside of education, the context serves as a good example, but there is no reason why the knowledge in it couldn't be transferred to a thousand other uses. At the end of many book reviews you'll find a grade, a score or a number of stars, but as I said I'm not a teacher or an academic so I won't be grading it! What I will say though is that I would recommend it.
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