A web-based publishing system for a school?
January 28, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

I like the idea of a content management system for an elementary school, so students can write and publish in a clean system with a back-end database. Help me understand the dimensions of the idea.

Currently students at the school (about 500 students) go (infrequently) to a computer lab, type documents in MS Word, save them to various folders on a server and print them. The result is a rubble of work, difficult to manage and impossible to collocate into usable results.

I dream of students sitting down to a login window. They select a project set up by the teacher, and then they see a ridiculously clean, full-screen editor, something like Write Space, with a very few options on the side. For the youngest kids, they might have a few icons to contend with, and perhaps more formatting options for the older kids. There's no saving, no file management, no formatting to contend with.

The teachers (most of whom don't want to muck with technology) pick from among a few presentational templates for the students' work. They'd get help.

The fields the students type into are fields in a database. An admin can pull all the work together by class, by project, by student, by teacher, or combinations. The admin would be able to publish the work to printed reports, possibly to publish to the web, to send in emails, to view on iPads. It has to have flexibility built in.

We have a mix of desktop CPUs in the lab, and some in the classroom. We're also bringing iPads into the process, and there are the computers in students' homes. So I want the front end relying on accepted protocols (HTML5, etc.) and not a proprietary system of software installs.

The database needs to be scalable to potentially swallow up all areas of the process — teacher materials, student data, etc.

I'm a former graphic designer and avid tinkerer with code, currently trying to get up to speed on PHP, MySQL, etc. The tech guys are supportive and strong with server support, network security, and so on. There is no timeline but I drive myself like a maniac when I have a juicy project with many moving parts. So a year or two, building over time?

My questions:

— Where should I point myself? Drupal? WordPress? Homebrew combo of server-side stuff and CSS?
— Are there real-world examples of hyperflexible publishing systems based on Web-standard tools like MySQL and so on?
— If I were to pick a small, strategic spot in the process to bring in a consultant, where would it be?

That's plenty. Many thanks.
posted by argybarg to Computers & Internet (3 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This seems like wordpress would not be a bad starting point. The text editing box is largely what you describe, the kids could all have their own limited logins, admins could tag or categorize the kid's efforts, there is autosaving, lots of stuff you want to do could be hijacked from the tools already present. You'd have to fiddle with some plugins and maybe write or have someone write some custom code to do a few things, but a lot of the heavy lifting would possibly be done.

That said, the output is going to be mainly for screen, though of course you can code your own theme to emphasize whatever you like visually, have mobile and print templates, etc.

If this was published to a public server, but required logged-in users to view and write stuff, kids could review or add new work from home. You'd need to think about a few user management issues, such as whether you could "lock" completed assignments so kids could see them but not edit them once they were "done."

I think another possible fun use of this would be collaborate fiction.

Wordpress is easy to install. Plugins to accomplish some of what you want are readily available. A consultant would be good for custom coding or to help you solve things that seem intractable, or to suggest solutions using already existing tools.

I would suggest getting a cheap web account, install wordpress, and fiddle with it. It's a $20 experiment, plus some hours or your time. But that should give you a basic idea of what the software is like. Create users at different permission levels and see how those levels might be used, etc.

Drupal is relatively powerful but the interface sucks for non-technical people (in my opinion), and keeping it updated can be a pain. I think kids would be frustrated using Drupal.

As for your timeline, if this was going to be a WP-based project and you hired someone like me to help, I'd imagine a prototype would be running fairly quickly, and easily could launch for the next school year.

One thing I would encourage you to do, however you approach this, would be to think about your goals with some flexibility. Find a way to hijack or re-purpose parts of the product you like and be open to different ways to achieve what you want. Often times people spend a lot of time and money trying to get something exactly how they envision it in their mind, when an existing solution (if a parameter or two is tweaked) is ignored.
posted by maxwelton at 9:50 PM on January 28, 2012

Another starting point is moodle; it's specifically designed for education, and has an absolute ton of modules, and of course you can always write your own.

If your tech guys can sort you out a lamp server (linux, apache, mysql and php) that's the standard hosting, but you can always put a test setup externally to start with.

User authentication is also very flexible, you can tie it an existing ldap, active directory or imap server so you don't have to replicate user accounts.

You can easily setup areas by subject/year group, have teachers publish resources and assignments for students, and they submit their work inside moodle itself. There's also a built in wiki and forum for collaboration and discussion.

You can even delegate publishing rights to some students if that fits with your needs.

Drama.clayesmore.com is one of ours for an example, entirety run by the department themselves, we just provide hosting and admin support (it guy)
posted by ArkhanJG at 2:24 AM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Demo.moodle.net is a live version you can play with to get a feel of the interface as different types of user. I also forgot to say that it's all open source, and given its fairly popular, finding a consultant should be fairly straightforward, if you even need one.
posted by ArkhanJG at 2:36 AM on January 29, 2012

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