Columbia University is taking proactive steps to ensure its predominantly Drupal-based digital properties are offering the best possible experience to site visitors. Using Acquia’s Lightning distribution as a base, the CUIT team has begun to roll out a new platform on Drupal 8.
Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT) provides Columbia students, faculty, and staff with central computing and communications services. I caught up with Ian Mieville, Director of Web Services at Columbia University, to talk about how Columbia uses Drupal to support the university’s web services -- and how Drupal 8 is improving those services.
How does CUIT support Columbia University?
CUIT is the centralized IT department for Columbia University. We’re in charge of the university’s security and asset management, technology infrastructure, enterprise systems, as well as custom development and application work. We develop, support, and host about 300+ websites and web applications, which are all almost exclusively on the Drupal framework.
What were your goals for Columbia University’s new Drupal 8 platform?
The first goal was to synchronize the user experience of most CU sites. We discovered a real inconsistency of experience site-to-site -- not only with regards to design, but also usability. Users had to constantly reorient themselves every time they went to a new CU site, even if it was related to the one they just left.
So we aimed to create a standard UX where key components (search, events, news, people directories, course directories, etc.) were consistent with a single usable pattern and design. This would allow site maintainers to focus on what’s really important to them (content and information), without worrying about the technical details of digital property management. As an incentive to adopt the new standard model, we’d make this service available for free to our CU clients.
On the back-end, we found it highly inefficient to keep recreating the wheel every time we launched a new site. So our second goal was to standardize things like content types and integration patterns, and provision a single code base. This would mean our time at CUIT could be better spent doing more complex work.
What was your strategy to accomplish these goals?
In conjunction with our partners, we decided to develop three models of a distribution, to serve as blueprints for standardization.
The first was the Research Model, designed for use by Columbia’s labs and research institutes. The blueprint design focused on research projects, peer-reviewed journal publications, and the people running and working in the labs. It’s meant to give faculty members a platform for publishing their research, in addition to marketing to post-doc applicants.
Second, the Administrative Model will support departments like HR, Finance, and the International Student and Scholars Group. As an administrative unit, these departments exist to offer some service to Columbia’s community, so the model for their sites will give them a way to forefront popular services and organize them by personas, so as to better serve the target audience.
Finally, the Academic Model allows academic departments to showcase their course selection, faculty members, research initiatives, etc. It is formatted to be both a recruiting and informational tool for prospective and current students. This model is still being developed at the moment.
You designed these models on Drupal 8, using Acquia’s Lightning distribution as a base. Why Lightning?
We chose Lightning because it fit into what we were thinking already. As a distribution, it is well-suited for site maintainers and people who manage content. From the back-end, it had the tools to support that use case. And because it’s supported by Acquia, we knew we’d get timely updates. Most importantly, it was a recommendation from Phase2 Software Architect Mike Potter, who worked on this project with us early on.
What do other universities stand to gain from using Drupal 8/Lightning?
There’s a lot to gain from Lightning specifically and Drupal 8 in general. Drupal 8 makes it easier for us to control functionality and integration points, and support Columbia digital properties as a product and a platform.
That being said, we had a very good understanding of what Drupal 8 was offering and what we could do within those parameters. So do your research. There are a lot of contributed modules that still aren’t over to Drupal 8 yet. Choosing Drupal 8 should depend on what you want to do, and your development team’s ability to support customizations and write custom modules.
Any other advice for universities investing in digital transformation?
Your digital strategy depends on how centralized the university is. Columbia is very decentralized digitally, but other universities may have a central CMS where every department hangs off that main site -- I can’t speak to that.
Having said that, you should partner with those people on the other side of the IT site, ie your public affairs group. In doing that, we were able to present a more uniform front. It also makes it easier to convince departments to adopt the standard, as it’s a direct recommendation for the central administration.
With Drupal 8, there’s a little bit of a learning curve. Here at CU, we separate our front-end and back-end developers, so each of those teams learned those functions in Drupal for us. My recommendation is, if at all possible, to dedicate team members to different pieces of the Drupal ecosystem to ensure a high level of expertise in both front-end and back-end.
Why did you select Phase2 as a technology partner?
I previously worked with Phase2 (several times!) when I was at the College Board. When we started initiating this project at Columbia, we needed a certain level of expertise in Drupal, which I knew from experience Phase2 had. We also had other ongoing IT work, so having support from Phase2 allowed our team not to be overrun with the platform design.
It was all very seemless; we were happy to work with Chauncey, Daniel, and Mike on the project. They were really great developers and added a lot of value to the overall project.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Ian!