The Urbanist Chronicle | Project Update – 3/25/2012

Today marks a significant milestone in the development of Dr. John Schlichtman’s website, The Urbanist Chronicle. After weeks of preparation and research, J.J.’s site is now essentially “feature complete.” What does this mean exactly? It means for every one of J.J.’s desired features, I have implemented a method to achieve that feature. So then, what components, modules, and plugins do I have installed on his website to achieve these features? Let’s go through the list!

The base of J.J.’s website is Joomla! 1.5. While an older version of Joomla, 1.5 still receives major security updates and allows me to use the template J.J. most desired for his site [GavickPro’s The World News]. Joomla is a powerful and robust Content Management System (CMS) that I’ve used many times in the past. One of its greatest features though is just how customizable the system is. Unlike WordPress or many other basic CMS systems, Joomla has tens of thousands of incredibly rich, feature filled components and plugins. So what components did I get to match with his desired features?

J.J. has 12 desired features that are: (1) A Great Books database, (2) A Closed Discussion Board/Blog, (3) An Image Gallery, (4) A Publications Gallery, (5) A CE6-Like Module, (6) A Personal Blog, (7) Links to Other Blogs, (8) Open News Discussion Boards, (9) A Conference Module, (10) A Social Networking Module, (11) A News RSS Feed, and (12) A Book RSS Feed.

For each of those desired features, here’s how I plan to tackle them:

  1. For J.J.’s Great Books database, I believe I may be using a component called JooDatabase. It’s an incredibly powerful list interface that allows for the importation of excel sheets directly into a MySQL database table. You can then extensively configure how each individual page for each item is offered up to the user. The problem with the system, and the reason I am unsure of whether or not it is viable is the difficulty in setting this system up. Setting it up will be a difficult process, but doable. Teaching how to maintain or make edits to it is another matter entirely, and it could possibly be too difficult for anyone else to pick up.
  2. For J.J.’s Closed Discussion Boards/Blogs, I need to discuss with him whether or not he needs both features or only one. If all he needs is a closed discussion board, then the component I have for that is Kunena. Kunena is a powerful Joomla forum component that integrates well into J.J.’s theme. Each forum can have special permissions on it, allowing only certain classes or students to see specific forums, but still allowing for J.J.’s other desired feature of a open news discussion board. If J.J. desires a more “blog” like approach to this, then EasyBlog is an incredibly powerful Joomla blogging platform that would allow all the features he’s looking for and more. The only downside to this module is the price ($79), so I would have to make sure that this is exactly the kind of feature that J.J. wants. Personally, I’m leaning towards just using Kunena as it provides nearly all the features he’s asking for at an infinitely lower price.
  3. For J.J.’s Image Gallery, I installed the Simple Image Gallery plugin. The Simple Image Gallery plugin is an incredibly simple to use feature that allows you to upload any image you want to be in the gallery to a folder, then import that folder into a post by simply putting {gallery}my_folder{/gallery}. It will automatically take all the images in that folder, resize them to get a nice thumbnail, and allow linked LightBoxes for viewing the images in-page. The only downside is files must be uploaded into their own folder manually or through an additional component that I installed, OSE File Manager.
  4. For J.J.’s Publication Gallery, I just plan to make an article with links to all his publications uploaded onto the server. I can then place a link to this page in the header, and will get his desired effect.
  5. For J.J.’s CE6-Like module to post syllabi, readings, etc., I plan on creating class specific forums for each of his classes and allowing him to pin required reading and the such. The component Artof User’s allows me to assign specific registered users to specific classes and allow them access only to their classes forums.
  6. For J.J.’s blog, he’ll just be creating articles within Joomla’s standard article manager and setting those to certain categories where they’ll be viewable as blog posts.
  7. For J.J.’s other urban blog page, I’ll give him a weblinks page that will allow him to link to other great blogs. If he actually wants to post the blog content, I’m not sure how I’d go about setting that up, or if it’d even be legal. I need to discuss with him exactly what these page would entail.
  8. For J.J.’s open news discussion board, I have two options. Option 1 is to simple allow comments on each of J.J.’s blog posts. This would allow for the discussion of any news that J.J. posts. Option 2, and the one I like better, is to open a public forum for which users can open topics related to current events/world news and then allow discussions based on that. It takes less input from J.J.’s end, and allows for even broader and more lively topics frequently.
  9. For J.J.’s conference module, I’m just going to make a simple page that lists all upcoming conference events. Each event should have its own page with its own information. He would like to have the ability for people to submit their own information, but I’m not sure how feasible of a feature this is. If it’s absolutely necessary, I’ll open a category on the forums related to discussing conferences.
  10. For J.J.’s social networking module, I’m just going to make a simple HTML module that’s displayed on the front page that links to his LinkedIn group.
  11. For J.J.’s news RSS feed, I’m likely going to use the module, Simple RSS Feed Reader to read in from a list of urban news sites that J.J. gives me and display this module on the front page.
  12. For J.J.’s books RSS feed, I don’t think this feature will work without too much development time devoted to a small, feature. I’ll probably end up ditching this feed because the Great Books database simply replaces the need for it.

I still have a considerable amount of work to do in actually setting up and configuring his site. The basic template is there, but has not been tweaked yet, nor has a logo been created. I’m not sure what links to put at the top, where modules should go, etc. I need to get in touch with J.J. this week so that we can start discussing these things. A short list of the things I need from him follows:

  1. A drawn, imaginary version of where he’d like all the modules on his site to go and what pages they should appear on.
  2. The format for his Excel version of the Great Books database. The file may need to be tweaked according to how JooDatabase imports the fields.
  3. How he would like to handle the forums/blogs as noted above.
  4. What he means by linking to other urban blog pages. Does he want to replicate individual blog posts, or just link to the site?
  5. What his top header links should be.
  6. For him to start writing content.
  7. Provide me a list of the classes he’d like to set up discussion boards for.

This list is subject to change, of course, and I’m sure there are a number of things that I forgot to add here. The rest of the semester will very much need J.J.’s active participation to finish the site. For this, I’m going to start dropping into J.J.’s office every Wednesday. I’m hoping these meetings will allow for me to finish implementing site features, allow for him to start filling in site content, and generally allow the project to be completed on-time.

I’m a little concerned at how difficult this site will be to hand off to him. Last semester, half of my project was spent teaching how to manage a very simple Joomla installation with no additional components or features. This installation is about 10-fold more complicated than last semester. This just leads me to hope that this semester will be easier to teach than the last. Either way, I’ll likely in the end make another user-guide for J.J. to that details common administration tasks and how they should be accomplished.

This point is emphasized by the fact that J.J. already had an Urbanist Chronicle developed by a previous semester STA that was left in disrepair as J.J. neglected to manage the site and it was taken over by spambots and shut down by the hosting company. To help combat that, I need to develop easy methods for J.J. to update the site, a rich feature set that will actually get J.J. to use the site, and methods to prevent influxes of spam and garbage on his discussion boards. Already down this path, I have implemented Google’s ReCaptcha into the registration system to prevent influx of spambot registrations (a problem I’ve had with Joomla in the past).

Now if you made it this far into the blog post, congratulations! For your reward, I’m going to present you a very, very early Work-In-Progress screenshot of J.J.’s discussion board (the Kunena component):

Thanks for reading!

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One thought on “The Urbanist Chronicle | Project Update – 3/25/2012

  1. Very comprehensive update, this is an extremely complex project and you seem to have your head around all of the various aspects and have evaluated the potential problems quite thoroughly. I believe that the handoff will require a couple of actual hands-on training sessions as well as a comprehensive handout detailing each task that the faculty member will potentially be required to perform in the upkeep of this site.

    Definitely plan to make those office hours every Wednesday, we are getting down to the last third of the semester (believe it or not!) and that time will fly by quickly. Thank you for all of your attention to detail, as always!

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