How Drupal Changed the University of Cambridge

Brightlemon chats to the head of digital communications at the University of Cambridge.

Posted by Kayla Toh on 10 May, 2017

What springs to mind when you think of the University of Cambridge? For the English, it is an icon. It exudes British culture, from the architecture of the buildings to the celebrated graduates, which include the likes of Sir Isaac NewtonStephen Hawking, and Charles Darwin. It is one of the oldest Universities in existence and, for years, it claimed the title of the highest ranking university in the world, with affiliates that have won more Nobel Prizes than any other university in history. So how does such a traditional, long-established institute maintain an online presence that’s relevant in this day and age?

BrightLemon had the opportunity to speak to Barney Brown, the head of Digital Communications at the University of Cambridge, who was able to give an insight into how the university has developed, adapted and changed over the years and the important part that Drupal has had to play in the process.

barneyBarney Brown, Head of Digital Communications

About the University of Cambridge

For almost 10 years, Barney has been leading a small team in the management of thousands of websites and hundreds of social media profiles that bear the university’s name. It may seem outrageous that one establishment should have so many online presences. But Barney explains that the University of Cambridge is unlike any other:

All of this influenced how the digital side of the university worked. Over 1700 websites have been built in the university’s name by the separate self-governing colleges, so the colleges made their own individual decisions on how to build the websites. This meant that the branding, design, technology used, and platforms used were all different – causing chaos to the structure of the university’s digital domain.

Image courtesy of Barney Brown.

The Purpose of Universities

Barney states that the University of Cambridge’s mission is to: “contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the high international levels of excellence”.

So, how has that mission developed and changed over the years? Barney explains that technology has allowed for more ways to connect and engage online. Barney and his Communications Team were eventually able to reach their audiences directly through social media instead of relying solely on typed press releases. He develops on this: “We have to adapt the way we produce and present content on a channel basis so that we use the most appropriate format and approach in each instance. It’s not a copy and paste job.”

The University of Cambridge Website

Over the years, the face of the university’s website has had many makeovers. In the beginning of the digital age, it had more than 430 live sites, all built by various web teams with different coding languages on different platforms.

By 2013, the university adapted to technological advances and demand. A redesign of the web templates was carried out in order to make pages more accessible on mobile and tablet devices. This was the culmination of over 2 year’s work and marked a significant change in the way that websites were delivered by the University of Cambridge.

Nowadays, the homepage and core pages of the University of Cambridge’s website, including the news and research pages, are maintained by a group of web teams. Aside from the core site, the University hosts over 600 different websites, which cover the Colleges, departments and research groups, and the University Administration Service.

Early Challenges of the University of Cambridge Website

The early expressions of the university’s website posed some problems. One being that the growth and propensity of websites within the university was limited by access to technology and skills to build them. According to Barney: “This meant that on a practical level, getting a presence for a department online meant being able to access a finite resource”. This finite resource being a computer officer, a web server, or someone to help pull together and present content.

The University’s first website, courtesy of Barney Brown.

Barney explains that the university’s college system has meant that “a rigid top-down process has been avoided”, ultimately allowing the university to advantage from academics and students from different subject backgrounds collaborating to find new paths of discussion and thought. But he says that this has meant that the online presentation of the university has been confusing in the past, due to multiple approaches.

The approach needed to bring all of the university’s online content and tech together involved “a lot of hard work from the University of Cambridge’s IT teams to train users across the university to understand what good writing for the web looked like, how images should be used or not used online, and basic principles of information architecture”.

Moving the University of Cambridge to Drupal

In 2013, the University of Cambridge worked with BrightLemon to complete a major re-build of the main website using Drupal. The move coincided with a shift to emphasise content about research, and a transformation to use responsive templates. In Barney’s opinion: “This meant that, Drupal aside, we had set ourselves a mammoth task”.

With a predominantly front-end view of the process, Barney was in charge of checking that migrated content had come in correctly and testing the new site architecture. When asked how the move into Drupal went, Barney said: “ I was impressed at how the content from WordPress was migrated across. But some custom development was required to ensure that the right images were kept with the right articles”.

The Communications Team are still working on they use the CMS, believing that they have a long way to improve the overall University of Cambridge web estate. But Barney states: “the changes that we triggered in 2013 were vital, and executed as best they could be given the time constraints.”

“Our editors, who were previously using WordPress, have been positive [about the move into Drupal] … We definitely benefitted from having custom prompt text within Drupal’s editing screens to help our users get orientated around the process of editing a page.”

The University’s new website, courtesy of Barney Brown.

The benefits of the re-build:

  • Site administrators now had full control of page layout and could improve the manageability of site structure;

  • Content editors found it much easier to create content;

  • Staff and students could easily navigate the site with enhanced usability and a more modern, mobile friendly site.

So, why make the move? Barney explained: “We knew we wanted to evolve our websites to be smarter, and more usable across as many devices as possible. The inclusion of Drupal in this process has ensured we can meet these aims, without compromising the volume and quality of our world-class content.”

Design principles behind the re-build:

  • BBC Global Experience Language (GEL): A set of design principles created by the BBC to ensure that there is a consistent design framework and user experience across all of their digital services.

  • Pattern Lab – Atomic design: A system that breaks down the website into basic components so that they can be reused throughout the site.

  • Pattern Lab – live style guide: A strict set of guidelines and patterns created specifically for the University of Cambridge website. The design team build the domain by following these rules.

  • Project Light: Web templates and components that allow the University’s site to be accessed on mobile, update the look and feel of the site, and align multiple sites.
The Importance of Visuals

Ranking as the 4th most popular social media channel, with over 250 million users, Instagram is a reflection of the growing popularity of image sharing online. The University of Cambridge recognises the importance of visuals in enhancing their establishment. Their Instagram account feeds out content to over 184,000 followers on a daily basis.

Barney believes that an audience’s expectations of how photography can boost the meaning of a page have grown: “In a way, they’ve [the audience] outgrown what we’re currently doing. We’re definitely keen to push what we can do visually online more. This is something we’re already doing with our social media channels.”

In terms of ‘pushing the visuals’, Barney imagines that a gallery-style display of images would be pleasing to the university’s audience. But, at the moment, his team are manually copying ‘embed code’ from Instagram and then dropping it into a block: “Much of our photography is stored outside of Drupal and we are still wrestling a bit with effective workflows for getting it into the system”. Barney acknowledges that photo libraries are an important focus for the university’s digital platform: “I’d be keen to see some case studies of companies that have managed to get a rock solid approach to integrating photo libraries, like Portfolio, with Drupal”.

So far, the University has updated over
 100 websites to use the new Drupal templates. But the impact that Drupal has had on the university goes beyond the aesthetics of their website. It has become part of the institutes culture, with a growing Drupal community present and spreading widely at the university. The university has even gone as far as to implement a specific

Drupal mailing list

Image courtesy of Barney Brown.
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