Learning as you go: me and my blog on Thesis

No, not that thesis as in dissertation … been there, done that … but the Thesis theme that graces this blog: DIYThesis a WordPress theme by Chris Pearson.

Now I bought Thesis ages ago because I wanted the freedom to customise my blog’s design without the pain of learning all that coding stuff. I happen to believe that good design matters a great deal. What I wanted was a theme that would provide me with the means to design the look I want – in this instance what’s known as a ‘magazine style.’  I was attracted to Pearson’s design work with other free WordPress themes. In fact I had used his Cutline and Neoclassical themes for quite a while on other blogs. They were clean, minimalist – my preference – and robust in the back end. See, I learned early on to toss the jargon round without necessarily having a clue about the back end of anyone’s blog, let alone my own. More importantly, I came to understand why, like a good auto engine, a good blog backend was as important, if not more so, than a shiny exterior. When Chris Pearson announced the release of the new Thesis theme last year, I was hooked – sorry, no pun intended. The hooks feature of Thesis is what provides the design’s flexibility as well as its functionality.  And Thesis continues getting better. Updates – it’s at 1.5 now – are released pretty regularly, and with each iteration, the theme gets easier to use. Once you’ve bought the theme, your upgrades are free for ever. Nice.

However, I’d be fibbing if I said Thesis was the easy ride I was expecting; it isn’t.  The good news is that there is a responsive Thesis community, and support for newbies like yours truly is provided along the way. I’ve taken my frustrations to the DIY Thesis Forums on several occasions. I’ve heard back smartly and with support from good sports like administrators KingdomGeek and godhammer. There are also some pretty crash-hot Thesis users like Kristarella and Sugarrae who have produced tutorial posts on tweaking the design of Thesis to get the look you like. Again, for a total tyro this is a fantastic resource. There are plenty more at work on Thesis sharing the expertise around. I’ve learned a heck of a lot as I’ve gone along, and I love learning.

So why am I writing this?  Well, I’ve had a successful day or two playing around in the back end – learning on the job – and been helped along the way by the resources that are out there. One thing eluding me was getting that magazine look design I’d craved at the outset. I trawled through the Thesis support forums, and there appeared to be lots of queries that echoed my own, but which didn’t quite answer what I wanted – exactly.  So I shot off a query not too long ago and back came the goods; I got the answer I wanted.  So, time to share the findings around.

In my next post I’ll take you through how I got to solve my problem. I’ll deal with prepping your images, choosing the best place on your domain to store them, and how to get them into your posts painlessly. I hope you will return.

Like a garden, and maybe even life – a blog is a work in progress!

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Mobisodic entertainment and a new frontier

Guest Post Christopher Hatton is a writer-producer based in Los Angeles and Singapore.  He is currently executive producer of the Sci-Fi Channel original movie “Phantom Racer.”  His company CinePede Productions has produced four made-for-mobile series.

It doesn’t take keen foresight to know that mobile television is the next big thing.  Consider how quickly we went from no mobile phones to global penetration in the billions.  From there it was just a hop, skip and a jump to phone games, cameras, web surfing and video conferencing – and you can do it all at the beach!  In the loo!  It’s geektastic!  Of course we’ll all be watching television on our phones.

Some of us already are.  Some of us are producing content for them.

But it’s still early days and it’s not for nothing they’re being compared to the Wild West.  Everybody’s rushing to the new frontier, and while it isn’t exactly lawless, it is chaotic and the rules are being written on the fly.  Just because we know where we’re going, doesn’t mean we know the best way to get there.  Or what will work when we do.

Mobile video has its own set of challenges.  At first it was technical limitations.  The handsets could only handle about a minute’s worth of downloaded material.  And streaming was great, but only if you were into content with a distinctly Cubist presentation.  Most of the kinks have been worked out and now the end-user experience is pretty good.

This puts the creative challenges of mobile video front and center.  So far the arena has been dominated by silly home videos at one end and repurposed television content at the other, probably neither of which is ideal.  Do you really want to watch the latest episode of “Battlestar Galactica” on your phone when you can see it on HD with surround sound at home?

As producers we have to keep in mind that mobile television is different from regular TV and web-based content.  Our venue is small and constantly on the move.  Mobisodes are viewed while riding the bus, waiting for meetings, or in between classes.  Our content has to neatly fit in that limited mind space and still be compelling enough to bring the viewer back for more.  Eventually, somebody will create the first mobile blockbuster, and then the rush will really begin.  Until then, we’re all staking our claims and hoping to hit pay dirt.

Like web content, mobile television has the potential to be an excellent development platform.  A place where you can try out new concepts on fairly small budgets while building a viewer base and – theoretically – generating revenue.  You might just make the case for spinning up to television or a feature.  But lest it sound too good to be true, it’s important to look at some harsh realities, because also like the web, mobile video is no “Field Of Dreams.”  Just because you post it, doesn’t mean they’ll come.

It’s easy to be seduced by the idea of all those hundreds of millions of handsets out there and the nice sounding ring of “revenue share.”  But right now very few independent producers are earning meaningful revenue from mobile television.  From a certain perspective, this is also true of the studios and broadcasters producing spin-offs of hit series.  For them it’s a marketing exercise.  They’re able to promote their brand while “claiming space” in this new arena, biding time for when it inevitably becomes a revenue monster.  Meanwhile, the “little guy” is fighting against the goliath conglomerates for their tiny corner of it all.

Then there are the aggregators who are all too happy to represent your product at a 50-50 rev-share – with no minimum guarantee – which they will then provide to a telcom for a 60-40 rev-share.  By the time the producer gets their piece, it’s pretty small.  (And if you’re still thinking about all those handsets out there, just remember that right now most of them still have limited or no video capabilities.)  Web-based portals provide a platform where the producer can appeal directly to the buyer.  But then we’re back to the Field Of Dreams dilemma.  How do you get the eyeballs?  The end-user won’t find your product unless you market to them, which gets expensive very quickly.

All of a sudden our new frontier seems an awful lot like the old one.

But that’s just today.  As quickly as things have been changing, we can only guess what the landscape will look like tomorrow.  Meanwhile, we can be certain that mobile television is the next big thing.  And for writers and actors and film crews that means one more place to do what we do.

That can only be good.

A (minor) rant on why good presentation design works …

Once again I’m reminded of the impact of good design. This morning I received an e-letter from SlideShare pointing me to the  World’s Best Presentation Contest winners.

Judged by some big-hitters in the web-design stakes (Garr Reynolds, Guy Kawasaki, Nancy Duarte, Bert Decker) here is the overall winner.


View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: design crisis)

Why did it win? Here is the judges’ feedback, but as far as I am concerned, Thirst is a winner as a presentation because

  • It’s not a slideument … i.e., a document pretending to be a slide show;
  • It’s short;
  • It’s visually appealing, with images that support and extend the message;
  • It’s memorable. If you’ve flicked through it even once, there is going to be an image that has told you a story that you’ll remember.

As the Heath brothers might say, it’s a sticky presentation that you’ll recall.

Oh how I wish more presenters would take a leaf from this book. I sat through a slideument last week … with quietly gnashing teeth!

Congratulations Jeff Brenman. Jeff is the talented young designer behind that other fantastically popular and sticky slide presentation Shift Happens.

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My e-learning report card

Report Card

It’s that time of year when assessment, exams and reporting on student progress take precedence over more mundane matters. I thought I’d take the time out to check through my own progress and outcomes in the use of e-learning materials this semester. Apologies in advance, as it’s a biggish post, and I had thought about breaking it down in smaller, bite-sized chunks. I’ve ended up making it part of a new series I’m calling Getting Going in e-learning.

So what have I used, how did the experience pan out? Here are most of the e-learning tools I’ve used for various learning and teaching projects:

Moodle My school took on the Moodle course management system for the first time this year. After a couple of training sessions offered by the university’s IT, I played in the Moodle sandbox and set up my course home pages and learning resources. Moodle became the hub of many, but not all of the apps and services I used this semester.

Moodle’s a long way from the Web-CT push technology we’ve been used to for some years in course management systems. For a start, the ability for an individual teacher to customise the look and way course materials are presented is a big advantage. However Moodle’s skeleton remains sufficiently rigid to please the centralist tendencies of IT administrators.

Moodle is pleasantly easy to work with once the format for writing pages, and uploading and organising files is understood. One of its best features is being able to write an email note to one student or to the entire class and to have it delivered into student-specified email boxes. Likewise they can write to me and have the mail land in my mail box of choice. I’ve chosen to have a daily digest format delivered at day’s end; this way I can keep track of student requests and all course activity on a regular basis. What I really enjoy is not having to log in to your Study Desk to access email in individual courses. In fact, time is saved and productivity enhanced through not having to click endlessly to get to where you need to be to do what you want.

One of my goals was to make the first view that students have of their course home page a pleasant and welcoming one.

Design matters

One of my courses is offered entirely in external mode, and I spent a good couple of weeks assembling resources into topics and weekly activities. These included visual images, sound files, hotlinks to videos, websites and quizzes. After loading these files up to the Moodle platform I sat back and waited for the rush of students eager to join in the e-learning experience. Reader, I waited in vain. They poked around in a desultory fashion, didn’t want to engage in forums (asynchronous discussions) or join in scheduled weekly synchronous chat sessions which were organised around the week’s topic. It felt like I’d thrown a party and no one had come. After the first essay results were in, I offered to lead an online writing intensive for anyone who wanted to join in. I got 3 takers. No show. (F)

Now why was this I asked? What’s the resistance here? Well the fact is that except for a few of the early uptakers and the curious, most preferred to rely on the old, known resources … study materials provided in their paper based external study package. External students are often busy people studying part-time, so part of the transitional strategy had to include consideration of time-saving. I teach a couple of other mixed-mode and purely on-campus mode courses, and had prepared similar course homepages with enrichment materials and study advice. In these latter on-campus and mixed mode offerings, I had to encourage students to get online and try for themselves. My findings were that students continue to prefer lecture notes or handouts obtained in class.

I found most internal and external student expectations of online learning materials were confined to the ubiquitous Powerpoint stack

Those students who checked out my course sites were delighted to find weekly podcasts either as ‘trailers’ for the next topic lecture or podcast-lectures presented in 15-20 minute episodes as well as the Keynote slidestack (pdf). Just as a sidenote, I’m experimenting with strongly visual materials to aid retention of concepts and key themes. I’m heavily influenced by Garr Reynolds and his work on Presentation Zen. Do check out his take on what he calls ‘slideuments.’ It’s worth a read and a check against one’s own teaching presentations. Summed up, it’s all about context: slides are slides and documents are documents, and we shouldn’t mix them together.

Marking online has been a new and pleasantly positive experience for me. I urged the braver student souls in one class to submit their final major essays via the Study Desk. In external mode courses, most submissions will be delayed by several days from submission by the student, through the marking process to return from the university after grades have been entered. I’m delighted to report that most of the class took advantage of my suggestion, but very few didn’t follow up with an email asking whether the essay had been received … anxiety you see! Marking using Word’s reviewing tool bar with tracking changes switched on meant I could annotate the essays quickly and clearly. With only 2 or 3 clicks I was able to return the essays and have the marks sent through to Gradebook. The students then received an automatically generated follow-up email. Neat. (A+ for productivity and ease of use)

We’re in transition here in terms of study materials provision. With the push for student e-portfolios coming hard, it’s imperative that well-designed and presented study materials be prepared for offering on line or via digital media. Until then and until students are engaged positively in using online systems, feel comfortable and confident with their use, I doubt they will be enthused about switching from the tried and true. (A for effort, but a B in outcomes)

Blogging Again this year I introduced a new class of students to blogging as reflective practice during a creative arts production project. I wanted them to learn how to blog and to share their reflections on work with one another. I chose the Edublogs platform because it had the administrative capacity I wanted; I’d used Blogger last year and each student had created individual blogs. This resulted in more work for me as I had to log on to up to 20 blogs when perusing student posts. I hadn’t considered feed readers back then; now that’s something I’ve learned in a year.

This time I decided that I wanted everyone to post and comment in the same place, so I set up a class blog and created individual pages within it for each of the students. The front page was designed to share general findings and for me to write posts and to call for comment. Students would keep their own production reflective journal on their individual pages. In time they learned the difference between logging on via the back end of the blog and writing a page, or posting a comment. It was a very useful exercise and results from this were positive from students: ‘Yes I’ll use a blog again’; ‘It was simple to extract quotes for my final report’. Most had never blogged before this project requirement. (B)

I self-host on WordPress.org and maintain another blog to which I often refer students for posts. (A for modelling and reference)

Google Docs This is the current app of choice for a creative writing project for final year acting majors that I teach with a colleague. Students work across the semester on scripting and then presenting a 20 minute one-person show. The advantages of having one place to collaborate and stay updated on the script (formatted to industry standards) and to refer back to earlier drafts is just great. Scripts can be worked up to the last minute and are instantly available for print out. (A+)

Flickr I set up a group to collect images for use in the production project (above) and once again many students had not used Flickr or realised its creative potential. With the discovery of Flickr, there was a useful opportunity to discuss copyright and Creative Commons licensing of an individual’s work.

Creative Commons comes as a revelation and a strongly debated discussion point with future artists and creatives.


Facebook also provided the opportunity for students to create an event in order to market their production projects. In the entertainment and arts industry Facebook is becoming more and more popular as the way to promote performance-based events. (B+/A)

Garageband This had been my choice for creating enchanced podcasts i.e., podcasts with accompanying images and sound effects … what you lose in production time, you gain with a polished product at the end. However, given the time factor as well as the problem some students have in accessing or converting mp4 files, I’ve come round to recording audio-only podcasts on my lightweight Olympus DM-20 digital recorder. Files then upload easily and quickly via Moodle. Students can either listen online or download to their own mp3 devices. (A)

YouTube Now this is one app that doesn’t need talking up with students. Most use it pretty regularly, but making the leap from online entertainment to learning resource needs guiding. I linked videos to blog posts as discussion tools, and encouraged students to do likewise. (B+-A)

Summary I’m settling into a pattern with my use of Web 2.0 tools. Blogs are becoming my writing tool of choice for class and individual reflections with Google Docs out there for collaboration on individual student projects. Linking to Flickr and YouTube within posts beefs up the potential for discussion within the blog. Moodle is here to stay within the university system, and finding a way to integrate blogging within this platform will be the next step in creating a one-stop for students to work online. At the moment blogging is not available within Moodle.

And I see iTunes U has come to Australia this week. Wonder how that will work out?

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Branding and Theme

This is piggy-backing a little on branding, one of the ancillary threads running through the 31 Day Comment Challenge.

I’m wondering what role you think your blog’s theme plays in the matter of branding you and your blog? Why did you choose the theme you are using right now? Was it because it fits your brand or the tone of your niche?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Day 7 and my week’s worth

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A few words on the week’s adventures with CoComments; niche areas; and video posts and comments