What's the deal with all these pages?
Our new website, designed by White Whale Web Services, features dynamic lists of courses from our catalog database, an event calendar with many subscription options, an overhauled search engine, embedded RSS feeds, and seven editable content regions for our editors to use.
Some of these features might not seem to be earth shaking, massive revolutions in website development, but for our content authors the ability to control nearly every aspect of their pages is a big deal.
Let us know what you think about our site »
The waveform / equalizer / bookshelf / bars
The most prominent feature of the site appears on the home page and most top-level sites, like Arts and Athletics. Our last site had a feature called My Midd Experience, where students told stories of their time at Middlebury. These were few in number because they took a long time to produce. The waveform gives us the option to introduce a story in a couple sentences, then link you to a video, blog, news article, research paper or external site to flesh out the details. This should keep the items on our home page fresh, relevant and interesting.
Check back often. We'll be adding new stories all the time.
We were really, really surprised to see that many of our users were frustrated with the search engine on our last site. When we introduced the content management system in 2003, we indexed the site using the Atomz search engine. People were not happy with the results. At one meeting someone asked, "Why can't we have a search engine like Google?"
In 2006 we acquired a Google Search Appliance and used that to index our site. People were not happy with the results. It seems that Google's search algorithm is really good at indexing the internet, but not very good at indexing a single site. There's just not enough information on one site to give Google a good sense of what's important.
We're trying a different approach with our new site. When you enter a search term, we'll first see if we've created a custom search result page about that topic. For example, if you search for "hockey", we don't know if you're interested in the men's or women's team, so we show you information on both of them. If we haven't set up a custom results page for that term you're searching on, we'll next check the GO database. If your search matches a GO shortcut, we'll just take you there. The top search result for most months in 2009 was "LIS". That can only mean one thing at Middlebury: you want to see the LIS home page. So we'll let you skip the search results page and bring you to your desired destination.
If none of that works, we'll show you the results from Google.com (rather than our local search appliance) along with results from the online directory and course catalog. We will likely add other content databases to these results in the future: the library catalog, GO, etc.
Shortly after we selected Drupal as our platform for the new site we ran into a bit of a problem. Using a few modules, you can reasonably get Drupal to a point where, if you build out the site's structure ahead of time, you can delegate permission to edit pages in each area of the site to various groups. But we have hundreds of groups that need to edit the site, and we want them to be able to grant other people access to edit, and we want them to be able to manage the structure of their site, but not that of other people's. This is not a simple thing to do in Drupal.
We were extremely lucky that Amherst College had run into this issue several years ago and developed a solution. They created a content management system on top of a content management system and called it Monster Menus. It allows you to create pages in Drupal, assign content to those pages, and manage fine-grained permissions throughout the site. The best part: you can delegate almost everything. This module allows us to turn over controls of all areas of the site to the people responsible for their content.
The Course Catalog
Three times a year, at 7:00 AM, over a thousand students try to log into our central database server, Banner, at the same time. They're trying to register for courses for the next term and are up early in the morning to ensure that they get one of the slots available for all their preferred courses. As you might expect, we've heard reports of the system being a bit slow at this time.
One of the issues is that the same system is used for registration and looking up course information. We wanted to provide a way for students to browse course data without relying on the central database server. We also wanted to be able to display this information on our website without requiring the registrar's office to copy and paste it all from the database onto the site.
The new course catalog gets a periodic update of changes to course information from Banner, but runs on its own and adds a keyword search, feeds of information for the site, and quick views of the historical data for each course. Want to see the history of the History department in our database? No problem.
Thanks to this new system, every professor's profile on our site features a list of courses they've recently taught. And all department pages show a list of the courses taught in the last four years.