Drupal at Texas State

I had the pleasure of sitting through the presentations for the Web Content Management Systems class taught by my colleague Jacie Yang. This was the first time she taught the class in our program, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the results were nothing less than amazing. It’s a graduate-level class. Some of the students had taken a basic Web design course previously, but some had not. She had a big task in getting everyone up to speed enough to work with the challenges of hosting and designing a CMS. While the course started with students developing (or in some cases upgrading) their personal sites to WordPress, the final project was a complete Drupal site. I have been observing the students in the lab during finals week, and I was impressed by the focus and teamwork I witnessed. These were all individual projects, but I watched her students help each other out, troubleshoot for one another, discuss various modules and themes. It was all quite heart-warming.

The students presented their sites last night. The topics ranged from video game and music reviews to food sites (lots of food sites, Yum!) and other personal interests. You can see photos from some of the projects below, and I know Jacie will soon be posting links of the finished products. The sites had great original content and photography and engaged various interactive features of Drupal. I was extremely impressed.

Afterward, we talked to the class about what they felt they learned and the value of doing such a project. Below is a list of some of the comments (paraphrased). These are just some quick observations that we will be thinking about in the future:

  • Important to know HTML/CSS – it’s really the foundation; you can’t avoid it.
  • Problem solving, figuring things out on your own. I asked one student how she felt when she figured things out and got them to work, and her response was an enthusiastic “Awesome!”
  • Being resourceful. Using online resources. Thinking through problems and knowing that there may not be anyone else to help you. Jacie provided extensive support to students in the lab, but I witnessed students modeling her approach to problem solving and not automatically seeking her help in every situation. Even though it would take them more time to figure things out on their own, they grew to rely on themselves.
  • Persistence – never giving up and knowing that they had the capability to solve any problems. Knowing that one has the agency to fix problems and create the space any way he or she wants builds confidence.
  • Immediate application to their workplace – One student mentioned that she had already helped out on a work problem by suggesting that the solution was probably “in the CSS.” She was right.
  • Creativity – One student expressed that she enjoyed being able to pick her own topic and design and layout the site, select and create her own media. Many people will use content management systems in their careers, but few will have had experiences that allow them to create and customize one.
  • The students were generally very enthusiastic about what they achieved during the semester. They indicated that they had encountered frustration at times, but felt the overall experience was valuable. I think they all accomplished much more than they anticipated that they could at the beginning of the semester and now think differently about their tech competencies.

In our discipline, we often debate the role of skills vs. theory, but we sometimes lose sight of the intellectual benefits of skills courses, having students actually execute media end-to-end. Both Jacie and I use methods that integrate skills and concepts, resulting in unique perspectives that provide students a solid platform for careers that require not only digital media skills, but to also participate in the digital strategy of the organization.

I must also point out that in this class of 19, 14 of them were female. I often have the same mix in my technology classes, this semester with 2 men out of 18 in my graduate class and 6 out of 14 in my undergrad. Still think tech is solely a man’s game? I am convinced that we have an opportunity in Journalism and Mass Communication to contribute to the solution of the gender divide in technology by increasing the level of tech skills we teach in our programs, by adding programming concepts like Drupal, PHP, Ruby on Rails, Django, APIs, data manipulation and visualization, and teaching them in ways that are contextually relevant to communication.

Both Jacie and I teach basic Web Design as well, to both graduate and undergrad students. We collaborate regularly on how to update the course to provide students the foundation they need in coding, graphics and multimedia. I also teach an Advanced Online Media course. We use it as a platform to try out new topics and skills. Currently, I want to emphasize programming tools that aid in data visualization. Next fall, we will be introducing a required core class to undergraduates that will address many of these topics as well. I am extremely proud of the digital media offering we have developed in our program. I am also very lucky to work with a colleague like Jacie who is skilled and passionate about these topics.

I’ll be back in the lab today with my Web design students, helping them complete their final projects. I’ll post some images and links to those next week.

Click on the images for larger view or to see in lightbox presentation.