Groundling goes mobile with the sexiest plugin on earth

phone-revIf you’re a regular here, then you’ll know that Groundling loves software, apps, services, and devices that are well designed, and which optimise productivity and simplify communications.  If you use a Word Press blog, then you are going to love a really clever plugin which I’ve just installed on a couple of my blogs today. It’s called WPtouch – subtitled ‘the sexiest mobile plugin on earth’ – my emphasis here.  Never thought I’d see a plugin called sexy … however … .  The ‘touch’ part refers to the way WPtouch operates on a mobile device, whether iPhone, iTouch or Blackberry as well as a whole lot of other smart phones.  There’s no doubt that the market penetration of these devices is on the up, and that then trend will continue. Amongst other advantages that pocket computers-that-also-do-calls aka smartphones have for bloggers, is that your posts have suddenly become far more available.  They can now be accessed on the go, and with this particular plug-in it’s faster to load, and much, much easier to read.

After you install WPtouch, and when a visitor accesses your website via a phone, they are provided with the choice of your blog’s regular theme or one that looks and operates just like a compact mobile phone app – the touch part.  WPtouch is very easy to upload via the WP plugin page.  Just search for WPtouch, download, and follow the really excellent installation instructions. Under the ‘Advanced Options’ section on the WPtouch plugin page, ensure that you tick the box ‘1st time visitors will see Mobile Theme.’ You might also like to tick the box ‘Enable WPtouch exclusive mode’ – the drop down pane beside each check box explains what all of this means far better than I could – as instructions should.

Once you’ve completed the comprehensive set up of what you want your page to show and to look like on the phone – yes you can customise it very easily – try it out on your own mobile. Point your phone’s browser to your website’s URL. After it loads, scroll to the bottom of the page, and you’ll see the Mobile Theme button which will be set at Off. Flick it to On, and it will reload the mobile version.

Ready to try it? Get all the documentation, FAQs and download the latest version at the WPtouch homepage brought to you by the Brave New Code folks.

Oh, and it was also recommended by the inestimable Mr Stephen Fry.  His site runs WPtouch, and I have to confess that I have long been an out and out fan girl of the big fella.  Who could resist this (more than slightly tongue in cheek) endorsement by the self-confessed “British Actor, Writer, Lord of Dance, Prince of Swimwear & Blogger” – his bio on Twitter.  Yes you can follow him @stephenfry  and he follows me back.  Meanwhile, give WPtouch a spin and see what you think.

Spring cleaning your blog: a few tips

Yes folks, if you live in the southern hemisphere, the days are getting longer, the birds are hard at it, and it’s time for spring cleaning. Perhaps your blog could do with a tidy out and a freshening up? Here are a few ideas to get you going.

  • Are you running your blog platform’s latest version? If it’s WordPress, you’ll see a reminder in your dashboard. Do it. Now.
  • Check your list of plug-ins. Do any need upgrading? Do it. If you have any inactive plugins, consider tossing them.
  • Dig out some old blog posts and consider updating them, if appropriate. Now either republish as a new post, or tweet or Facebook announce the original.  It will send new readers your way.
  • And speaking of old posts, what about considering bundling related posts together in a series? Download the excellent Series plugin and announce the release of your new bundle to the world.
  • It’s kind of cosmetic-only, but think about a theme or colour change for your blog. Alternatively, add a new widget to freshen up the look of your home page. Maybe a featured content gallery header to showcase those related posts? Yes, there’s a plugin for that too, called unsurprisingly Featured Content Gallery.

I’m sure there are lots of other ideas out there, but I reckon once you get going on these five, you’re going to find lots more for yourself … you know how it is when you start a big clean-up!

… and from Ogden Nash, a little poetic paean to Spring (a couplet actually) called ‘The Dispassionate Pagan’

Spring is sprung, the grass is riz.

I wonder where the boidies is?

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3 Simply Elegant Tools: redux

A year ago I wrote about a few tools I was then using to make blogging simpler. I’ve updated the original post 3 Simple Elegant Tools because in that year I’ve added a few more clever apps to my digital toolbox and tossed others. It’s probably also not a bad idea to revisit and revise posts from time to time. I’ve left the original post rather than deleting it, since I like to leave posts like this as a marker of where my adventures had led me at the time.

Report Card

I wrote recently about good design and some of the aesthetic principles from the philosophy of Zen which inform my personal design preferences and work flow. I wanted to recommend a couple of small tools which fit the bill in terms of ease of use and elegance. I find myself calling on them constantly for their convenience and reliability. They save time, and they just plain work. What’s more they are fine time savers with a purpose.

A couple of dozen years ago, I recall reading a discussion on the freedom word-processing provided writers. There would now be more time to be creative and there would be less time spent rewriting from scratch, and fixing mistakes in various laborious ways … erasers, liquid-paper, Typpex and variations on ripping paper from the typewriter, balling it and tossing across a room. Of course good writing insists on constant editing … I’ve just cut, pasted and rewritten several of the sentences above, but writing, editing and rewriting are now a synchronous activity thanks to the tools under your fingers. There are hundreds of applications and digital tools lurking in menu bars or hovering as invisible plug-ins on blogs. They exist simply to make your job a little easier, and to give you more time to be creative … or just more time.

With changes to WordPress versions or the arrival of newer plug-ins and add-ons (FireFox tools) it’s inevitable that a slicker, more efficient, more elegant … simply better tool will come along. The speed with which new apps are created, modified, used for a while and replaced by others is quite breathtaking. We’re fickle with a purpose on the web. I’ve kept my deactivated plugins on my WordPress backend. There are now quite a few. The newer arrivals will keep their activated status until I find something better, or they stop working. Plugins sometimes don’t play nicely with one another; this is another reason for tossing one and substituting it with a more amenable workmate.

A year ago I was using Linkify a script bookmarklet, and Photo Dropper a WordPress plug-in because I like adding ‘value’ to a blog post via hotlinks to other sites.  Part of the value of a blog entry lies in its potential to lead readers to pursue the post’s theme beyond the confines of my comments.  Now Linkify did it with ease, but I’m sad to say it broke somewhere along the way, and then along came Zemanta … more of that in a minute.

I pretty much always use images in a post to prod the imagination – you know, a picture is worth a thousand words etc. Images also help the aesthetics of the page design. A year on, rather than PhotoDropper and Linkify I’m using Zemanta which is free.  Based on keywords from my post Zemanta not only searches my own and other relevant Creative Commons licensed Flickr images for material, it also suggests relevant and recent links and other posts elsewhere on the web from which, once again, you get to choose. One click on each word or article’s link and they appear as hotlinks in the post or links to those other articles after your own post.  There’s a video tutorial here on how it works.

For a while I had PicApp, a WP plugin installed. If you’re interested here’s a useful Vimeo video tutorial on how PicApp works. I have to say I don’t use it because I don’t like the Google ads that pop up with the image. If you don’t mind ads as the price for a huge collection of searchable images, then go for it. Wherever I can, I use my own images which sit on my Flickr homepage. These are ‘grabbed’ by Zemanta and flow in along with its other choices in the right sidebar from where I can click and insert wherever I choose into the post.

I still love the other non-blog tool which continues making my life so much easier- the data-detector in Mail OS-X Leopard. Hover your mouse over any date or time, even a relative date like ‘tomorrow’ in a Mail message and a drop-down menu appears. Click to add to iCal. That’s it. What this essential interconnectedness does is to get appointments from Mail into my iPhone with a click. It does the same for any phone number in a Mail message. How’s that for elegant simplicity! Yes, I am showing my Apple fangirl status here, but that’s one of the reasons I use Apple products – for their elegance, simplicity and utility.

PS I also use iStock for images when Zemanta doesn’t fit the bill; iStock is not cheap, but the quality of its images and the searchable database of its collection make it a pleasure to use – another time saver.

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Now we are 2

Spider on a wet morning
Image by Dramagirl via Flickr

December 11th marked Spinning a Learning Web‘s second birthday.  I’d used blogs before I created this one, but they were learning tools and marketing devices to publicise an event that I was working on … as such, they were time-limited and topic-focussed. What I found I wanted was something more personal – a blog that would develop along with my own life’s adventures. I guess I was looking for a digital diary that I could experiment with.

This is what I wrote on the day Spinning a Learning Web first drew breath:

This is a blog I have been promising myself for a while. A blog where I can simply chart the happenings of each day, the curiosities that emerge, the lovely things and the sad, the intriguing and the rolling pattern of the seasons of my life. The blogs I keep apart from this one are more like casebook entries in work projects. I needed somewhere else, as in a trusty old journal, where I could keep thoughts along with images and links. This is the first entry of what I hope I can keep for at least a year. We’ll see. Creative Stirrings, Dec 2007

Spinning … has gone beyond the one-year life span I set myself at the outset. Whilst it is not my sole blog, it remains my eldest and therefore, special in its own way. It’s had a couple of lives, first as a WordPress.com hosted blog, then a self-hosted grown-up, WordPress.org publication … ooh how tense it was changing over to the world of php files and CSS stuff. It’s also had a couple of face-washes as far as themes go. We moved from Cutline by the terrific web designer Chris Pearson to his lovely Thesis which is the current look. Widgets and plugins have come and gone, and we’ve upgraded WordPress more times than we can recall. We survived these changes of course, thanks in part to the kind of support I’ve received from my terrific web-hosting service (A2) and friends made along the way. All part of the adventure of course.

But what of the content in the two years since I began? Whilst I’ve remained true to my wanting to chart the happenings of each day, the curiosities that emerge etc etc., I did focus down eventually on e-learning as the ‘chief happening and curiosity’. I had tried to cover a whole lot more for a while, but it became very clear that the resulting sprawling, amorphous grab bag was neither compelling  for me nor anyone else who happened along. I wanted conversation, so I had to find a topic to talk about. My natural curiosity led me to write about what I was working with … the web itself and its potential in learning and teaching in higher education. There was the whole business of blogging itself … how it was the same as or different from other forms of writing. And then there was my interest in the aesthetics and workability of good design, and my continuing affair with Apple Macintosh. These threads managed to spin themselves into the blog I keep today.

And I guess that is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in a year. Find what you want to write about, focus on it, resist the urge to bloat, and work on establishing a readership. It takes time. I’m always wary about the ‘Get 1000 subscribers in a week’ promises of some blogs; they seem suspiciously like get rich quick schemes. I don’t want or need 1,000 subscribers with this blog. As with Twitter, I like to keep my ‘follows’ manageable, and to have a meaningful relationship with them. It’s not a business but an avocation. That will do me for now.

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Class Blogging: getting started

This is a comment ‘upgraded’ to a post. The original was in response to an inquiry from a colleague in the US. She asked for some tips on using a class blog. My response got long, and by the end I thought it probably could do with a dust-off and a reshaping into a stand-alone post. So here it is in the hopes that you too might find it useful.

The first thing is to find out what your school’s policy is on blogging. Do this before you begin. If there are queries raised by any authorities (from colleagues, principal through to school board members), be ready to respond. Last year an Australian colleague (who was a genuine pathfinder in his use of blogging in education) ran into difficulty with a state education authority. The potential for child abuse weighs heavily on the minds of all people of good will, and bureaucratic organisations sadly have little choice but to wave over perfectly innocent projects like this one with a ‘stop’ sign. Subsequently educational bloggers here debated the issues which revolved around the banning of that particular class blog: perceived bureaucratic heavy-handedness, professionalism, pedagogy, the use of children’s images online, the open-ness of the blogging platform and so it went. It was a good if at times emotive discussion, and one that had to be had. It began and ended with everyone fully supportive of the teacher in question, and his approach to class blogging.

What platform should you use for a class blog? I’d use Edublogs, which has built in administrative capacity for large numbers, and which has been designed for educational use. It’s bolted on to WordPress so you know you are getting a great ‘back-end.’ There are built-in widgets and an online help + great community of fellow educators to help out if you get stuck.

Next thing sketch out how you see the blog being used by you and the class and design accordingly. Will it be an all-in, everyone-respond with you (or an assigned student) leading the topic discussions? If so, you are not going to need individual pages or blogs. I’m using the term ‘class-blog’ to mean a blog that provides individual students with an opportunity to contribute to a class-focussed project or theme.

If you require each student to have his/her own page, then you could go the way I did with a reflective blog on a group project. I set up the blog, assigned an individual page to each student and they wrote their own entries as they went. Individual pages can be password protected for confidentiality with students sharing their passwords with you. This approach is a tad more complex in terms of organising entries, and you will need to spend some time teaching students the difference between writing in their ‘pages’ rather than creating entires as ‘comments.’ This might not matter to you.

Edublogger gives the teacher as blog administrator the opportunity to create individual blogs for each student. These can then be linked to a class ‘home-room’ page via the sidebar. Each student has the freedom to design his or her blog to suit … a great exercise in aesthetics, design, and organisation in itself. Students can password protect their blogs as they wish, and each blog is just a click away. Meantime you as the administrator can keep the focus on the main page with your own posts and general comments to everyone. Student blogs have the potential to become a student portfolio over time, or a precious journal or photo-album. This is the way I’d go next time I set up a class blog focussing round a group project.

You should also organise how you want students to respond in terms of style and frequency of posting: text, photos, videos etc., but I guess this is no different from the way we’d set up expectations in terms of material assignment submissions.

Lastly, I’d take the students step by step through the process you have used. Show them how you went about choosing which approach to use and why, and introduce them to how the whole business of blogging works. Demystify the whole back-end thing, so that they are confident about the tools they are using as well as their content. We tend to take pencils and paper for granted, but there is still a lot of mystery and anxiety aka digiphobia hovering around e-learning and its tools.

Add-ons like widgets can be used as you and the students see fit or find useful. You probably don’t need any to start, but there are plenty already available in Edublogger if you want to play. Blogging etiquette including commenting and other bloggy practices like tagging are learned as you go. And that’s how it should be.

I’m sure others will join in here with their tips. Check out also Sue Waters’ Edublogger site. Sue is a prolific and supportive e-learning mentor, and the site is full of great, easy to follow and above all practical support with lots of ‘how to’ information.

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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.

(B+/A)

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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