Using the new site
Those familiar with the old college Web site will find the redesign brings with it new ways of finding content.
At the top of the page are quick links organized by audience. Clicking on the name of a group, such as "Parents," will bring up pages from different areas of the site that are of particular interest to the selected group. We have not been able to do the thorough research into what pages are most important to each audience, and we invite feedback on from our visitors at sccushma [at] ucollege [dot] edu.
The primary navigation is in the sidebar menu to the left. Some of the categories have been renamed, such as "Student Services" being replaced by "Campus Life" and the pages maintained by Campus Ministries are now called "Spiritual Life." In these groupings, we have tried to balance dividing the site by the organizational structure of the college and the communication imperative of arranging pages by theme.
If someone had told me two years ago how much work goes into creating a new Web site while maintaining continuity of content, I would have thrown my hands up and declared it was too much for me to handle alone. I would have been right too. Fortunately, Union's family-like atmosphere means we don't face problems alone, but as a team, learning from each other and growing together.
As assistant director of public relations, the Web site is central to my role at Union, but I would have been lost without the support and expertise of students, coworkers and alumni. Together, we have completed a task that seemed insurmountable at times.
Launched five years ago, the previous version of the Union College Web site was a huge leap forward for its time. Powering the site was a content management system (CMS) written for Union by Obed Corrales '06, Nathaniel Salzman '05 and Brad Woodruff '04 under the supervision of Richard Henriques '83. The CMS allowed each department to update their own section of the Web site using a graphical interface to edit text and upload photos without having to learn HTML.
The task accomplished by the student programmers and designers along with the Web content manager at the time, Laura Rumsey Poblete '03, changed how Union used the Web. The site blossomed from fewer than 100 pages in January of 2004 to more than 7,000 pages and documents in January of 2009. However, expectations for what a good Web site can do change rapidly, and as blogging, videos and interactive features became mainstream expectations, the former CMS began to show its age.
By 2007, the search had begun for a new system. As part of a Web internship in Union's Marketing Communications, Todd Richardson '08 helped research and test systems. We decided the CMS would need to meet the following criteria:
- Open source: this gives us the ability to customize to software to Union's particular needs.
- Free or low cost: with so many excellent free options available, we decided to save the college's financial resources.
- A strong community of users: software with a large, diverse and active user base is more likely to adapt to meet our needs as the Web continues to change. In the previous CMS, if we wanted a new feature, we would have to write it ourselves. A strong community of developers and users means its likely others will have added modules before we even know we want new features.
- Familiar server environment: the system needed to run on hardware and software the college was already using in order to speed the transition and match the skills of current employees.
- Easy for users of varying technical backgrounds: Union's site can only be as good as the content provided by the approximately 30 area content managers from departments around campus. The system had to be easy and intuitive for them to use.
Based on these criteria and a lot of reading, discussions with colleagues, and creating small test sites, we narrowed the choices down to two systems: TYPO3 and Drupal. Both are free, open source systems with strong communities of developers and users, and both have been used to create large scale sites for colleges and universities. In the end, we chose Drupal because of customizations available that would make it more user friendly for area content managers.
The bulk of the back-end work started in May 2008 as Jon Stacey began his computer science internship in Marketing Communications. Stacey converted the database of the old site to work with Drupal in order to migrate the bulk of the content automatically. He also installed, wrote and modified modules to tailor Drupal for Union's needs and has participated in the Drupal community by submitting his fixes back to the developers. Other projects Stacey has completed include creating custom content types, tweaking the templates, administering the temporary server and much more. Without his skill and dedication, this project would truly not have been possible.
Even though the database was converted by Stacey's script, many formatting errors were unavoidable, so during the summer of 2008 we began the process of cleaning the content to look right in the new system. Ashley Barber '05 and Zeb Meharry '03 both helped with this process and Barber also recreated the personnel directory which had previously been stored in a separate database and could not be imported. The content cleanup continued through the first semester of the 2008-2009 school year as David Skau '11, a student Web assistant, focused on the problem.
By November 2008, the site was ready for the area content managers to begin renewing their content. Three training sessions were held before Thanksgiving and many departments began updating and reorganizing their sections of the Web site.
Through most of this process the new site was hosted on temporary servers, but in December 2008, it was moved to the production server in Information Systems. Henriques, the network manager, and Shane Flowers '02, computer technician, installed and tested the system on an existing server.
Throughout this process, Tom Becker, LuAnn Davis, Steve Nazario, Jacque Smith and Rob Weaver have been instrumental as advisors, cheerleaders or ambassadors for the project. With their leadership, this transition will build on the success of the 2004 Web site launch in improving how Union communicates online.
I am grateful for all the work the students, employees and alumni have put into creating the new site. With their dedication, we have limited the costs of the transition to human resources alone, and with the flexibility and community support of the new system, future upgrades will be more frequent and much easier. For a small fraction of the amount budgeted by colleagues at similar institutions, we have launched a redesigned and reinvigorated site—and more importantly, the transition has been an opportunity to learn, mentor and develop professionally in keeping with Union's mission and vision for the future.
The newly launched site is the sixth major revision of Union's Web presence. With the help of the Internet Archive, you can see four of the previous versions of the homepage. (Click on an image for a larger view.)
The new site is powered by the Drupal CMS on a Linux server running Apache, MySQL and PHP, while the calendar uses the UNL Event Publisher. Union College is grateful for the developers and communities that provide these free, open source tools.