Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The New Look –

I moved to the new Blogger starting last Friday and then more over the weekend. The substantive changes for the visitor to the site are mostly in the right sidebar and I want to go through those because in the back of my head I’m asking whether this sort of thing can be a model for a faculty member’s research site or possibly even for a course site (as opposed to using the LMS). I chose a different template, which at least for me gives a cleaner look – whether that is substantive or not may depend on how good your eyes are. I also want to talk a bit about how this works for content creator. The tools for adding sidebar or footer content are quite easy to use. There is drag and drop for positioning particular elements. And in that sense it is fun to be an author.

One can put in quite a variety of different types of sidebar or footer content. Mine are either JavaScript generated by the service provider (Creative Commons, Sitemeter, RSS to JavaScript, Feevy) where putting this stuff in amounts to entering a title and then copying the script info and pasting into the text box Blogger provides, or it is an RSS feed (Low Threshold Applications, Demo of Google Docs, The Charlie Rose show at Google Video). For this, Blogger allows up to five items and then produces the subject line for each, which is a link back to the particular reference. It does not provide direct access to the feed, which I think is a small design flaw for them, but I can enter a different item that would be a list of all the feeds so readers could subscribe to those themselves. This list of feeds is not there now.

Each of these individual elements has to load and if any of them are slow (sometimes the RSS to Javascript seems to choke) then that part of the blog will load slowly and occasionally when that happens a page refresh is useful. But otherwise this functions quite well and gives a great deal of flexibility to functional content on the site. The part I really like about it, especially compared to the design of a homepage in the LMS, is that most if not all of the content auto updates, giving a freshness to the site. In contrast, on the LMS homepage there may be links to things that auto update, such as a particular discussion board, but it is the link you see, not the last few posts from the discussion.

Now let me talk about the individual items on the sidebar. I mentioned the Good Reads item in the post Snow Daze. Here is a bit of extension to the idea. First, there are some very good comprehensive blogs that cover what’s happening in learning technology; Stephen Downes Old Daily is one, Ray Schroeder’s Educational Technology Blog (and his two other news blogs) are some others. We’re after something quite different with the Good Reads, though it might be that occasionally there is some overlap. The goal is to create a feeling of uplift in the reader for having read the piece. I do note that in del.icio.us there are others who have the tag Good_Reads, and if they were trusted then there would be value in the pooled resource that del.icio.us generates as part of its raison d’etre. For a well knit group where the trust already exists, this type of sharing would seem to be a natural. It can readily be accommodated with this approach, just choose a tag that others are not likely to imitate by happenstance.

The Feevy items I also mentioned. Feevy is sufficiently new that the lead developer, David de Ugarte, found a test use on a development site of mine. It looks like a fun and exciting app and I hope they work out the kinks and then that usage really takes off. Let me note here only that in a class use, it might make sense to have the same feevy on all the course blogs. So one student in the class might be assigned (for extra credit, of course) to make the feevy and then to share the resulting javascript with everyone else in the class. This would require collecting the urls for the various class blogs and then assigning avatars to the blogs. Students might have fun trying to figure out which avatar should represent their blog. In any event, there is some manual data entry necessary to get the feevy going, but it is not too onerous. And then once each blog has been activated with at least one post, tracking the posts thereafter becomes pretty simple.

These items are followed by three different RSS feeds. In the prior incarnation of my blog, I disdained in putting in these type of feeds, which as I mentioned appear as lists with links of subject headings. I’m not yet sure I’ve really changed my mind; this is an experiment at this point, not a commitment, but let me explain what I’m trying to do.

The Low Threshold Applications, from the TLTGroup is a nice idea in concept – the idea is to identify things people might try that aren’t so hard to implement and are useful to. The issue in practice is whether the particular applications tickle our funny bones. I don’t know that they will or not, but I’m quite sure that most people on campus including many readers of my blog have never heard of this. So here I can be a conduit, not a creator. If you try one of these out and like it, I’d appreciate learning that. It would contribute to keeping that feed on my site. I believe they don’t update this too often, and in that sense it fits in with the Good_Reads content.

The Google Docs feed is there simply to suggest a possibility for the future – Web distribution of content. I found this little piece of hope/hype about the possibility that Google will expand its array of online offerings to include PowerPoint like functionality in addition to docs and spreadsheets. That would be an interesting development but here I’m really more interested in this for students uploading content a la homework submissions than I am for faculty distributing the content to begin with. On the homework submission front it would a great boon for the instructor/grader to see the content online, perhaps comment there, perhaps comment a la del.icio.us as I’ve suggested earlier, without having to download and then re-upload. It would make the workflow so much easier for the evaluator. On the instructor distribution of content issue, however, at least at present permissions for these documents are set on a document by document basis and if access to the content needs to restricted, say for reasons of copyright, LMS distribution still seems to be preferred.

The Charlie Rose Show feed is there for a variety of reasons. First, there may content that is quite interesting for us to use that is coming from outside Higher Education. Whatever you think of Charlie Rose as an interviewer, you must admit that this show has a variety of interesting guests who don’t appear on other talk shows. This show provides a path into those people. Second, it is a reminder to us about producing our own talking head instructional content. TV has opted for this dialog format. There may be monolog segments on talk show television, but dialog is the rule. There must be a compelling reason for that and I believe that reason is not hard to identify. Instructors who produce online video content may not feel it natural to produce dialog content, but they should be encouraged to strive to do so. Third, we’ve reached the point now in terms of video quality that talking head plays reasonably well in the 320 x 240 windows that are what Google Video delivers, as long as the video itself was captured reasonably close up. My sense is that for doing more technical content, say a screen capture of a spreadsheet manipulation or of a hand written out analytic exercise done on a Tablet PC, then the rendering image needs to be larger, say 640 x 480. So Google Video (or uTube) is not yet the right home for that type of content. But give them one or two more iterations of Moore’s Law and we’ll be there.

Let me make a few other general points and I’ll close. Blogger allows for only one sidebar – on the right or on the left is a designer choice – but not on both the left and the right at the same time. As Web widgets become increasingly popular, for example see Yahoo’s offerings in this space, blog creators may want to put more and more cool stuff on their sites and then the double sidebar view may become necessary to manage all that stuff. Alternatively, the individual blog creator may simply want to bring in more stuff of her own. Personally, I prefer the one sidebar look as it allows more of the screen space to be blank, which for me is better for contrast to the real content.

Blogger’s labels (tags) seem to only exist within a single blog. If they were able to use labels across blogs (at least for those blogs hosted at Blogspot) then one could produce some really interesting aggregated blog sites. It would be good to see Blogger go that route in the future.

And I’m a bit confused on the audio content front. The Google provided services don’t seem to enable individual podcasting. Why not? Is it for fear of illegal file sharing? If not that, then what else? How can they promote video sharing, but not do likewise for pure audio files? If they had it, I’d have a podcasting piece to my blog for sure.


david silver said...

nice design lanny!

as you noted, your page is taking a loooooong time to load - i believe it's the RSS-to-JavaScript that's taking so long. i will load your page later today (when i'm on campus and on a faster connection!) and see if the loading time is different.

btw, i really enjoy your thoughts about how some of these technologies can be used by students - it's as if the classroom is seldom far from your mind.

Lanny Arvan said...

David - it just comes in with IE but Firefox seems to struggle. I'm not sure if there is a javascript setting in Firefox that can be tweaked. I'll investigate more.

The instructional use of these apps is what makes me tick. And that the market provides good to use tools that are free to the end user makes the search for that type of use all the more rewarding.

david silver said...

i just loaded it here at work with firefox and it was a 100% faster. it loaded almost instantly.