This week I have been mostly playing with Joomla!

Not bad I suppose its only taken 8 months to get back to this. The summer holiday was a busy time for me, one where I set out with every good intention of "getting to grips with Joomla" or at least how it works, unfortunately other deadlines kept me busy too and the project was shelved in the interests of completing my dissertation.

Why Joomla? Well essentially because this platform has been chosen to host, manage and develop our new campus web site. Having spent considerable time managing and establishing our exisiting primary school website as a resource, I was keen to engage with and learn the quirks of this new environment, in order to think about how to integrate this existing space with the projected new.

Joomla is an open source content management system. My personal experiences of building pages for the web have developed through using tools such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver to build and organise html pages before uploading work developed on my desktop to the host server by FTP. As such I might still be considered on so many levels a beginner. Joomla is a very different onion and experience for me in that it is a server based solution using a data base, among other less than familiar tools to manage and organise content created within it. I blog, code a bit when I need to, but have never really taken the plunge and dabbled too far behind the scenes so to speak. In beginning this project I therefore had some personal reservations about the experiences I was bringing to the process, how useful they would be and considerable trepidation about the gradient in the learning curve I would need to follow. I was however determined to have go. As with the students we work with I needed to start from the things I know, and a establish a frame to hang my new learning on. This post then represents my think around, and how I have tried to visualise and organise my thoughts comparing previous experiences while trying to relate these ideas to what was happening as I worked on and played with my experimental site and Joomla this week.

A Clean Slate

In beginning the project again I decided to start with a clean slate,

  • I deleted my previous installation,
  • Downloaded xampp afresh and the most recent version of Joomla.
  • And decided to devote a little more time to watching these tutorial videos than I did last time.

Working through the process outlined in the videos,

  • I set up the server and data base locally on my laptop :o),
  • Installed Joomla :0)
  • And followed the wizard like process to get the space ready to host my site:0).
A Different perspective on a familiar Viewpoint

Following the video tutorials in sequence the next part of the process was to set up sections and categories for the site. I wondered what this was all about initially, and it has taken a while for me to get my head round this.

My previous work developing our school site has been visual, each page built by hand, ocassionally using themes but usually by editing and revising templates and using these to frame and include content.

In essence, Frontpage enabled this process for me by combining the affordances of a Windows Explorer type environment with a wordprocessing like tool. A Folder pane allowing my "local server" or "site" to be managed like a hard drive. I could visualise and then create the folder tree where I wanted to store the files for each section of the site in response to the navigation structure I was physically constructing on my home page. The WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) editor (the wordprocessing element if you like) allowed me to create the hyperlink and navigation structure for the site on the index page side by side and corresponding to the folder structure for the site. Using familiar drag and drop processes I could also copy, paste, open and save files as when editing or in reorganising the space.

In trying to understand how Joomla works I have been trying to reframe my thoughts within my existing model, this is probably really obvious to everyone else, so forgive me as I say I think I've just about cracked it even if an oversimplified view.

Pages in Joomla managed sites do not exist as pages per se, but are compiled through a data base when a visitor arrives at the site and begins their navigation. Administrator defined categories and sections within the data base, allow this to happen. Approaching site set up I decided to try to visualise these categories as if they were folders in my existing tree. First of all setting up categories, broad groups that match the folders and subfolders I previously created for our existing site, but modifying some for clarity. To allocate articles to the correct pages within these categories, I created sections using first of all the category list I created enabling each broad space to have its own page before adding further sections that correspond to other pages I would like within each section of the site.

Why was this so important? I guess this was the question I was asking myself when I began the project? It all seemed a bit back to front in relation to how I was used to working. I needed a way of seeing. The menu system within Joomla drives the page creation or generation process. To compile "pages," through the data base a menu manager is used to create items by linking these to categories and then sections, (in my minds eye corresponding to a folder and a page). Clicking on a hyperlink leads to a request for the data base to behind the scenes pull all these elements together along with style sheets and such to present the content as a page in a visitor's browser.

Where Next For Me?

The next phase for me if my model works is to begin exploring with colleagues the things they would like the site to include and perhaps what they want from it, setting up formally a space based on categories and sections that arise as a result.

Creating user accounts for colleagues and classes will then enable them to log in and use a WYSIWYG editor similar to those they have used in our existing VLE and blog spaces to write, upload files and contribute directly to the content and maintenance of the site, using the sections and categories defined for them eg year4/class name, to post items to the page allocated to it.

Additional modules can be plugged into the space for example breadcrumb trails and RSS feeds to aid navigation or subscription. The addition of common themes through use of shared style sheets will enable a corporate feel for the campus site to be added providing the whole with a consistent look and theme for pages generated across the space.

What has really excited me as I played this week was the ability to add items such as Windows media video directly to a page, and how with the addition of rss feeds, pages within the site could be allocated to support podcasting, while through the use an aggregator content syndicated across the site could be drawn together as a single feed published on the front page through a latest news module.

I still have a lot of playing and exploring to do and apologise wholeheartedly if what I say here is obvious to some or even overly simplistic. I'm not entirely sure what my feelings are right now about the solution as a whole, it does not provide for all of our needs as I see them. I am still wondering how much of what is provided could be achieved through other platforms such as self hosted blogs with the tweaking of design templates. For me the process has been a useful experience, and one I am sure I will be able to draw on further as we work with and develop use of online learning tools for ourselves.

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