Going out of my head thinking about headless

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Since coming back from Verona I’ve been continuing to think thoughts about headless WordPress, and even more so again when asked at the start of this week how we could make the University “Teaching Matters” blog be a part of the University website.

The immediate answer is that it should switch to using the new EdGEL (Edinburgh Global Experience Language) theme that Callum in my team has created. I’m hoping he’s going to blog about it soon, because it’s one of the most extensive uses of the GEL outside Drupal and it’s presented some interesting challenges – the largest of these being that WordPress also has some concept of a GEL (in my opinion). Our University theme is going to be the default for sites on the new blogging system, and I really don’t want people to junk it straight away because it behaves “weird”. That means finding the optimal blend between EdGEL and the kinds of behaviour that WordPress users would be familiar with. In the end I think Callum has done a really excellent job here and I hope he could even perhaps write it up as a case study or present on it at one of our web developer community events (especially as it follows on from a session he did in 2016 when he started thinking about this).

But I still can’t quite shake that conversation with Jim in Verona about syndication, APIs and going headless. We know if we can get content actually into our EdWeb (University website – built on Drupal) framework then my colleagues in our web team* can go to town on discoverability and SEO. Anything hanging off the main ed.ac.uk domain is prime real estate. I liked the idea when we were chatting of people able to push HTML out of WordPress and then hook it into our University website somehow.

(2) For WP that allows a push to the institutional website – maybe into Drupal, maybe as static HTML – work will always still be required to put navigation links in from other Drupal content items (I thought about a pull from Drupal instead, but I think that kind of violates all sorts of ideas about the privacy and ownership of blogging spaces).

Working with Callum on the EdGEL theme has given me some additional perspectives on this though and I can see a few tricky issues, not least the compromises we’ve had to make to allow WordPress to be WordPress, but wearing an elegant and tasteful EdWeb dress.

I think if you want to syndicate a single post, or a couple of posts into our main University website then that could be done pretty simply now. We have a content proxy tool in EdWeb (inspiration taken from UPortal proxy portlet type – it’s like all those years a few of us did slogging over enterprise portals taught us a few things) that allows external content to be pulled into a wider navigation framework. All that is really needed is to be able to spit a post out as pretty clean HTML into a known publishing location which should be simple enough to code up as a plugin. It can then be hooked into the navigation structure in the right place, and job done.

However, in the case of the Teaching Matters blog, we actually want the entire blog site contents, not just a post here and there. That gets harder then, because we want the navigation, the additional value that comes from tagging and attributes to allow ways of exploring the content, and all the extra widgets and stuff (but not stuff like the login options). We also need to make this doable and simple for people, so ideas like creating posts in WordPress, barfing out to HTML or into Drupal as a content type, and then building the larger navigation structure in Drupal are just stupid. So I’m coming to think there might be only 2 potential solutions here:

  1. Create an entire copy of the site as HTML, based on the EdGEL theme in a directory within the ed.ac.uk domain filespace and then hook it into the wider EdWeb site via a URL wherever is appropriate. Some jiggery-pokery with internal content URLs will be required as part of the publish to HTML option…
  2. Extend the proxy tool functionality somehow to pull in an entire site from somewhere else, but with none of the EdWeb navigation or UI framework visible.

Maybe there’s a third option too here. If we *really* need a blog like thing to be within EdWeb, and it be easy to hook that content in the navigation and other content, then a blog content-type in EdWeb might be the way to go. I would give it less than a week before my lovely colleagues start getting requests to replicate WordPress features though….


* I work in the Learning, Teaching and Web Directorate, which includes physical teaching spaces, digital teaching spaces, media services, course design & development, all kinds of pedagogical support, digital skills development, the University web portal, the University website, custom website and blog builds, custom digital teaching tools development, graphic design, interactive content development and the University search engine. That gives us a *ridiculous* skill set to draw on, and we are constantly looking for ways to crossover and blend what we do.

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