Down the Rabbit Hole

Early today I was updating course materials on when the site started throwing error messages at me. Every text edit produced an annoying new error message. It was a perfect day to pursue the source. I’m housebound anyway and a snow storm was dumping an inch an hour over New England–I couldn’t even take an exercise turn on my crutches in the driveway. I dove into the Drupal installation supporting the site–disabling modules, generating new error messages, updating modules, generating even more error messages–the price I pay for being an untutored trial-and-error site administrator. I branched into a search for new modules to improve site administration and usability, installing a half-dozen that generated their own problems and required their own tweaks. Finally, eight hours later, I’m out the other side. I think. If the site crashes you know who to blame.

Wiki project post-mortem

Students in this semester’s real estate law and Internet law courses created projects for the wiki related to this blog. It was an experiment on many levels, from how to integrate the projects and courses to how, mechanically, to create, edit, and post a wiki article. I used the TikiWiki platform, the learning curve for which I started to climb only a few weeks before the semester began. By the end of the first week I scrapped that plan that a team of students would prepare one project each week and adopted the plan used to settle the western states in the 19th century: line everyone up at the border, say “go!”, and sort it all out when the dust settles. The students were incredibly good sports. Literally, they were working with a blank slate. There were no existing projects to provide clues about topic, length, approach, format–anything. I purposely provided an open-ended description, as is my wont, to encourage a range of topics. Article creation involved many misadventures, with students posting their new articles into existing articles (thank you, roll-back function), into the site welcome page (thank you, roll-back and page lock functions), and sometimes piling new articles onto the deleted bodies of older articles. That’s testimony to the non-intuitive nature of wiki document creation and my failure to conduct a Wiki 101 course. It all sorted out in the end. There are some great articles, many good articles that provide an excellent foundation for future work, and I made enough mistakes to make me much wiser for next semester.

The first decision I made for the future is not to require both a wiki project and research paper. In the future they’ll be combined somehow. The second decision is to find a new platform. I’ve developed some fondness for TikiWiki because I spent so much damned time learning how to use it (I still have much to learn) but most students are understandably unwilling to climb a steep learning curve to complete a course assignment. I was also never enthusiastic about the appearance of the site, despite fiddling with different themes and settings. Right now I’m looking at Drupal, an open-source content management platform. It is not a wiki, although users can be enabled to create, revise, and comment on content through its robust permissions feature. Drupal is quite robust throughout, in fact. It has a professional look and feel that gives me comfort–although I am mindful that I may be succumbing to the feelings described in the post the precedes this. There are a number of impressive third-party modules to add features and utilities beyond those available on the wiki. Over the summer I’ll select and configure a platform, import articles from the wiki, and organize my online course resources to have the new site ready for the fall.