Headless at VCU’s ALT Lab

https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimgroom/27805645137

Tim and I had the good fortune to be able to head down to Richmond on Wednesday to catch up with the Research & Development group of VCU’s ALT Lab. We basically sat in awe for over two hours while Tom Woodward and Matt  Roberts (unfortunately the third pillar of this amazing triumvirate, Jeff Everhart, was unavailable) took us through the seemingly endless parade of awesome projects this team has been cranking out for the last year or so. The trip was wild because it struck me that this is what folks must have felt when they visited UMW’s DTLT in 2011 or 2012 when we were in full blown ds106/domains discovery mode—there’s an energy that drives a shared sense of mission and purpose that is so very hard to find (no less sustain) when in comes to any working group—-and this one has it in spades right now. I left there inspired and re-energized. 

R&D4Woodward

I was happy to see my good friend and long-time colleague/collaborator Tom Woodward rise from the ashes of ALT Lab’s re-organization a few years back. Much digital ink has been spilt about thought leaders and their ilk, but nothing can replace a group that finds their rhythm and puts in the work. There is no substitute for that simple formula, and when it happens it’s special and needs to celebrated. So, this is my paean to VCU’s R&4EDU group—and I think I have embarrassed them enough, and I can almost make out Tom muttering “Ayyyy kinda half-way sorta know what I’m doing…” all the way up here in Fredericksburg 🙂

So, let me get specific. I was nothing short of blown away but what they have been able to do with WordPress from afar, and a scan of Tom’s blog posts documents that work quite well. But going there reinforced for me that what VCU has on their hands (whether they know it or not is another thing) is one hell of a web dev group for edtech. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about, which may also help disambiguate my post title. The site they built for VCU’s Digital Sociology program beautifully demonstrates what headless web development means. Let me try and explain, although I think Tim’s recent post on the trip down does a better job illustrating how this group is really walking the walk of intelligent, future forward web development. 

So, what is headless web development? Basically it decouples the forward facing website presentation from where folks author and store data (i.e. the content management system (CMS) and database). So, in the case of the Digital Sociology program site, that content is authored through their WordPress site on Rampages, but that is not where the content is shown. On a different server there are HTML/CSS files that are regularly using the WordPress API to poll the Digital Sociology site on Rampages. What does this mean?  Well, the site is a straight-up HTML that use javascript to call the database using the WordPress API. What’s nice is that should the WordPress site go down for any reason, a cached version of the HTML site would be unaffected. What’s more, you could store a synced JSON file with all the database content on a server that would stand-in almost like a failover switch.

I really appreciated this overview because it has helped me wrap my head around what headless web development means through a tool I know and love (i.e. WordPress) which is part of what made it comprehensible for me. What’s more, it goes a long way towards explaining things like WordPress’s Calypso. The idea of using the WordPress API to republish data in various locations seamlessly suggests some of the possibilities for aggregating and syndicating data many of us have been relying on RSS to accomplish for many a year. And while there has been a lot of talk about these possibilities with APIs, this is one of the first examples I’ve seen where the idea really clicked. So, all this to say kudos to the Research & Development for EDU group at VCU’s ALT Lab, the force is strong with you all. And there is much more to say about there work, but let me stop here lest this post never see the light of day.

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