The Anatomy of an Idea – Building a Solution One Step at a Time

I recently came across a post from Jennifer Kloczko discussing the notion of original ideas. In it she documented some of the ideas that she has implemented this year and where she ‘stole’ them from. I too have written about this before, discussing the benefits of sharing and working collaboratively. However, one aspect that Kloczko does not necessarily address is the way in which ideas ‘stolen’ can morph and evolve as they become ingrained in other contexts. This process often starts with a problem. For me, this problem is Synergetic.

This year I have spent a lot of time learning about different facets of Synergetic. A ‘total solution’, Synergetic is a management system with a focus on administration. My work has included developing a reporting solution, setting up the attendance process and configuring online spaces. One particular area that has absorbed quite a bit of my time though has been timetabling.

For secondary schools this is more obvious. You link in a third party applications, such as Timetabler or Edval, to manage things. This however is not the case for primary schools. They have no need for the intricacies of a robust timetabling package, the issue though is that they still need a timetable.

The solution Synergetic offer is a lightweight application called Primary Time. It allows users to create timetable blocks and place them within a visual grid. I have two concerns with Primary Time. The first is that you need to populate a lot of information associated with rooms, teachers, groups and subjects that does not flow through to the timetable file produced. Although there is the means of uploading this information in Primary Time via CSV files (click here for a copy of the different files), these files still need to be made beforehand and maintained moving forward. The second issue is that there is not a direct connection between the two applications. Unlike other software packages that develop a constant connection that allows for a flow of information back and forth, users are required to manually download a file from Primary Time and upload this into Synergetic.

The problem with all of this is that the timetable applications ideally act as the source of truth when it comes to timetable related information. That means if Primary Time were to be used in this way, users would need to follow the tedious cycle of updating Primary Time and then reloading it, every time a change needed to be made, no matter how large or small this change may be. (This issue is compounded by the fact that you cannot download timetable related information from Synergetic and upload it into Primary Time.)

Another factor at play is the reality that most primary schools do not require an explicit period-by-period timetable. Instead, timetables are usually developed around exceptions, with the rest of the time being allocated to a classroom teacher, allowing the to balance and bend their teaching time. Locking in a highly descriptive timetable therefore serves little purpose and is often a hindrance, rather than a help. For most primary schools in Victoria the timetable is required for roll marking purposes, with primary schools mandated to enter results for AM and PM.

An alternative to using Primary Time is manually entering the timetable within Synergetic. Although this is an option, especially when generating roll marking periods, it to is still a very tedious process and not an ideal solution.

After these initial experiences, I was left with the question

How might we use another application to make the development of a timetable for schools easier and more efficient?


At the end of the day, all that Primary Time does is produce a CSV file with six columns: day, period, form, class, room and teacher. This seemed quite simple. I therefore started by trying to reproduce a school timetable by cutting and pasting cells in Google Sheets. This worked, however it was still fiddly, therefore not a feasible solution.

I wondered if there was some way of automating this process, at least generating a basic timetable that could be manipulated. I remembered reading a post a while back from Martin Hawksey documenting a formula for repeating data. (A win for serendipity.) I started with this and then progressively unpacked each column further, addressing the particular requirements. I must admit, I did get some additional help from Hawksey on the formulas that I had conjured together. I eventually managed to put something together.

It involved entering the days in the timetable, the sessions running each day and a list of classes with their rooms and teachers. It would then generate a list with a copy of each class for each session. There were two problems with this. Firstly, it was not easy to add in the specialist classes. Secondly, it was still unwieldy and confusing.

Fine I could make a copy of the timetable adjust it in order to add specialists, one of the challenges with this is working with the timetable in a list format. The ability to visualise the timetable is one of the benefits of using an application like Primary Time. My solution was to recreate the lists as a dynamic table, with a dropdown button to choose the teacher.

To make this, I built on the work of Ben Collins and David at CIFL around the use of the VLOOKUP formula. It also meant I had to INDEX the table to start with the form column. In addition to this, I made a dynamic selector created using data validation to choose the class. Although this answered the visual problem, as soon as different variables (10 day timetable or 8 period day) were added then the table would break. Maybe there is another way I could do this, but I felt like I hit a wall, so I decided to focus on making a simpler solution.

I had started out with the intent of making it easier to create a timetable for Synergetic, so rather than worry about creating a full timetable, I instead turned my attention to creating a timetable solely for timetabling purposes. Rather than create a line for each period, I focused on creating a line for each roll marking period. This way I did not have to worry about anyone making sense of the lists of periods and classes, instead the end user would enter their values and download the corresponding CSV file. The problem that remained was how to make this fail proof.

Spreadsheets can become busy places very quickly and the sight of lengthy formulas puts a lot of people off.

=TRANSPOSE(SPLIT(REPT(JOIN(“,”,ARRAYFORMULA(REPT(SPLIT($H$4,”,”)&”,”,$I$3))),$I$2),”,”))

The challenge then was to focus on inputting the values. I moved the inputs from the page with the formulas and made a separate sheet for that information. After some feedback I then split this information again, with one sheet providing a space to list the teachers, classes and rooms, while the other sheet providing a summary of the days in the timetable and the roll marking periods. Although this hopefully made it easier, there was still the challenge of downloading the CSV file.

To me the process was clear. Enter the classes and definitions, then download the timetable file. The process though of clicking on the right sheet, going to File and then downloading a CSV provided too many concerns. I asked around if it would be possible to turn it into a script. Some colleagues said yes, but suggested just focusing on the downloading of the CSV, with that being the particular point of contention. So I did what I often so, returned to Google.

I have wanted to explored Google Apps Script for a while, but always found other things to distract me. Finally I had a clear purpose. To start off I worked through Ben Collins’ introduction to Apps Script. It provided a useful starting point and a button for my script, but it did not address my particular challenge. After reading numerous forum posts and scrolling through the Developer Page and Drive APIs, I stumbled upon a code that Michael DeRazon had shared on GitHub for downloading a Spreadsheet to Google Drive. As with all things borrowed, I took to bending the code to fit my needs, but none of the changes that I tried worked. I eventually had a colleague look over it and provide some guidance. He pointed out that there was a loop that was messing things up and came up with the solution of downloading the CSV file to Drive and then download to the computer.

Although this was not necessarily the solution I had hoped for, in that it downloaded a copy to Drive before downloading a CSV to the computer, it at least addressed the problem, making the creation of a timetable easier and more efficient. You can get a copy of the sheet here.


For those who got this far, well done and thank you. It would have been easy to have just shared a copy of my resource and be done with it, but I think that the real value is found in the thinking behind it all. To me, this captures the power and potential of digital technologies as summarised by Richard Olsen. He breaks it down into the following:

  • Feedback-Rich Learning
  • Reuse-Rich Learning
  • Continuously Evolving Learning

To build on Jennifer’s point at the start, there are no original ideas and the remix thereof is an ongoing process.

So what about you? What ideas have you borrowed and bent? How have you changed and extended them? As always, comments welcome.


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Developing a Writing Workflow

Clay Shirkey on the need to continually rethinking our workflows

I have been following Doug Belshaw’s posts associated the art and science of blogging. In a recent one he spoke about the tools associated with crafting a post. This led me to reflect upon my own processes. I have touched on this [before](secret blog), actually a few times, however what I feel I have not necessarily discussed are the changes that have occurred over time. As my blog turns four, it is interesting to look back at the journey.

My blog was born on Blogger. Coupled with that my early preference was to craft drafts in Evernote. Not only was it mobile, but it provided the ability to work across devices. I soon moved on from Evernote though after I lost a post because I had gone offline and when it synced with an older version. I lost hours of work (maybe you haven’t really blogged if this hasn’t happened to you). I am sure that it was my fault, however I decided to move anyway.

My next solution was the native Blogger app. I liked this as it was all in one place. If I needed to I could move to the desktop. I wrote many a post on my phone, punching out a line here and there. However, two problems arose. My discovery of Flickr and Alan Levine’s Attribution Tool, as well as my move from Blogger to a space of my own. That all meant a different solution.

In my move to WordPress, I lost control of my workflow for a while. One of the differences between the two platforms was the options I had when posting (WordPress has heaps). I also started tinkering a lot more with embedding content, such as YouTube, which were baked into the Google ecosystem. When I think about those challenges, many are now none existent, with solutions seemingly added into subsequent undates. However, it felt different back then.

The first challenge was that the native WordPress app was not as robust as the Blogger one. I subsequently resorted to finishing posts on the laptop, while developing them in a different space. The search for the ideal ‘other’ space ensued. Around this time, the ability to work offline in Google Docs on mobile became available, so I turned there. For the most part, this was my dominant solution. However, this did not work across all my devices due to my inability to update the latest operating system to accommodate these changes. I therefore tinkered with other options, such as Google Keep and Notes on iOS, as they linked with my Google account, therefore making them available in a number of places.

No matter what choice I made, it just never took. For example, Keep was quick but did not allow for links and I did not like how it presented things. Notes worked, especially on iOS. However, they too were basic. Even Docs started bringing across this weird code when I cut and paste it into WordPress. Another problem that arose was the lack of organisation within any of the applications. Fine I could use tags or folders to sort files, however this did not necessarily help in identifying my current posts and projects.

This all led me to revisiting Trello and wondering if I could better utilise it to fit my current workflow. I use it in my workplace to manage projects. However, my attempts to implement a Kanban model for myself failed. It just did not click with the way I work. (After watching Ian O’Byrne’s video, I feel I am not the only one.) I therefore took to it with fresh eyes and created a list for everything ongoing: posts, presentations, projects, resources and items requiring following-up. Rather than saving everything to Keep and getting lost in the ensuing chaos, in Trello I organise items into particular lists.

In regards to blogging, using Trello has allowed me to build out ideas. So rather than have a bunch of text, I can progressively add comments, lists, links and resources to a card. What’s more, Trello allows me to write in Markdown, therefore alleviating any issues associated with hidden code. (I have started writing my newsletter in Markdown in Google Docs.) Having everything coordinated in one place also allows me to easily review what I have done (even if I have archived cards) and survey where to next.

My process of writing will continue to develop. It always has. Technology comes and goes, whether it be devices or applications. What is important is that I will continue to reflect. Taking in new habits and offloading others. There are platforms like Scripting and Jekyll that I still wish to explore, while Naomi Barnes’ post on how she organises her day has me wondering about how I might better integrate my the personal and organisational aspects of my life. Something David White and Alison Le Cornu started unpacking in a recent paper. So what about you? What is your writing workflow? How has it changed over time? As always, feel free to comment. Always interested.


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Organising Data with Forms and Sheets

Switching to Google Sheets

In my work supporting online learning, I use a lot of Google Forms to collect and curate information. One of the problems that can occur is that there are many sheets with data spread across the all. Here then are some of the steps that I have taken to streamline some of the steps and processes.

Multiple Sheets Imported Together

Summary sheets linked to forms can add up quickly. One way around this is to use the Import Range formula to collect a number of responses in one place. Along with formulas to translate text, generate sparklines and fetch financial data, IMPORTRANGE is a part of the Google collection:

=IMPORTRANGE(spreadsheetkey, rangestring)

The formula allows users to bring in a range of data from one spreadsheet to another. It needs to be noted that the first time it is used, the user will be prompted to grant permissions.

Conditioning Completed

Another issue with forms is that long lists of data can become unwieldy. One particular use is submitting responses and feedback. Often these tasks involve an action, however it can be difficult to manage these. One answer was to add an additional column and use this information as a trigger for conditional formatting to colour a whole row. The following custom formula that allows this is:

=$A1=”TEXT”

‘A’ is the column that includes the trigger, while ‘TEXT’ being the actual trigger.

Developing a Dashboard

Having all the data imported into separate tabs within the one spreadsheet is one step in organising information. The next step is representing this content in the form of a dashboard. My first iteration was to provide a summary of the responses across all the sheets. To capture this I counted the responses by focussing on emails, using the UNIQUE formula (thanks Martin Hawksey:

=COUNTA(UNIQUE(A:A))

The reason that I included ‘UNIQUE’ is because some people submitted multiple responses for various reasons. Although there are other means of avoiding this (submit once or adjust responses), these solutions sometimes create their own issues and confusions.
Once this summary table was complete, I used it to create a chart to visualise it. To share this particular information, I made it a separate tab and published it. This way I do not need to give access to the sheet and instead can give access to the summary. Although this is not technically ‘a dashboard’, I will most likely share the whole dashboard as I develop it further. For more information on designing a dashboard, I recommend this post from Ben Collins.


So these are some of the ways in which I have streamlined data and the way in which people are able to engage with it. The add to my previous tips and tricks associated with Google Sheets. What are some of the ways in which you use Forms and Sheets? As always, comments welcome.


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Professional Development, Awesome or Awful?

In an interview with Douglas Rushkoff, Pixar animator, Michael Frederickson, talked about the sensation of being awestruck, a moment where your mind has been cognitively blown, leaving you open to new sensations. As Frederickson explains,

When awe is positive, you are feeling something vast and novel, but not something that is morally threatening to you.

However, if this experience involves too much awe, it can provoke a negative response. As Frederickson summarises:

If there is a little awe, it is awesome, if there is too much awe, it is awful.

Focused on storytelling, Frederickson is interested in how such experiences open us up to new ways of experiencing the world. Taking this further, Rushkoff asked the question,

Is art meant to solve our riddles or pose new ones?

For Rushkoff, art and awe is about disruption and change. This conversation had me reflecting on learning and transformation. I was therefore left thinking about awe in relation to professional development.

I have had too many professional development experiences where presenters come in and take the mic. Although they approach sessions with the goal of creating awe, the focus on speaking rather than providing space soon turns things awful. There seems to be an unwritten rule that talking justifies the cost being paid. The problem is that this misses the point. What is important to me is the awe associated with self-determined learning.

I presented recently and took the approach to flipping the session. I created a series of posts and provocations to spur teachers onto addressing their own classrooms and context. For me, what matters is not necessarily the content, but the conditions created that provide the possibility for personal problem solving. To reword Rushkoff’s question, is professional development meant to solve our riddles or pose new ones?

So there are my thoughts, what about you? What has been your experience of professional development? Was it awesome or awful? As always, comments welcome.


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My Way or the Highway?

In a recent episode of the Design and Play podcast, Dean Pearman and Steve Brophy spoke about the importance of sticking to their core beliefs and values. This means moving on when conflicted. Although this stance is to be applauded, I was left wondering if it were a luxury to actually be able to move on at will? It also had me wondering if perpetuating such a message is missing a trick?

I remember being told by a boss once ‘if you don’t like it here then you can leave’. I respect that, it was his choice and in the end I did leave. My concern though was not necessarily the location, but rather the leadership, the ‘my way or the highway’ mindset.

Maybe I am idealistic or just naive, but a leader cannot directly do the work of change and learning. Instead, they create the conditions for others to prosper. For some, this is putting ticks and balances in place to make sure that everyone is performing. For others it involves the distribution of leadership, development and collective capacity building.

I am always reminded of the story of Geelong Grammar’s adoption of Positive Psychology. It did not involve a few sessions with staff and students, rather it involved all members of school, including those working in administration and maintenance. This was about creating an environment where everyone can flourish.

Another similar program is Leading Teams. At the heart of this is an organisation leading change from the ground on up. This is not because someone above said so, but rather because it was a trademark agreed upon by the people on the ground. This involves trust. I remember Ray McLean recounting early stories of failure required to achieve collective success. However, too often such goal setting sessions become token, ticked off as something done, with people towing the party line, rather than sharing what they truly believe. Here I am reminded of David Culberhouse’s discussion of ‘positive deviance’, where the focus is on identifying the bright spots within an organisation and using their stories and strategies to help drive change.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone leaves in the end. However, wouldn’t it be better if such decisions happened to further opportunity, rather than fix our values? For in the end, it takes a village and surely that involves compromise. As always, comments welcome.


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Death of the Desktop Computer?

In an act of reading out loud, Mike Caulfield models how how he challenges ideas and assumptions while reading. To demonstrate this, he uses the lead-crime hypothesis which argues that the crime-wave in USA during the 1990’s was caused by lead poisoning in the 70’s. After finding an article from 1971 discussing lead poisoning in Manchester, he progressively unpacks it, opening up tab after tab, asking questions and testing different hypothesises.

For Caulfield, this is what web literate reading looks like:

You read things, and slide smoothly into multi-tab investigations of issues, pulling in statistical databases, unit converters, old and new magazine articles, published research.

The problem though is that much of this is either unavailable or difficult to do on a mobile device. Being an advocate of online reading, I was challenged by this. It had me thinking about what else I do on the desktop that is not possible on my phone or tablet. One aspect that came to mind was bookmarklets.

Although it would be easy to list all the extensions and applications that I use my laptop for, it is the bookmarklets that I have come to rely upon and that I miss when mobile:

  • CC Attribution Helper: This application built by Alan Levine allows you to both attribute and embed images posted under a Creative Commons license on Flickr. I have used it for a few years when inserting images into my blog posts. Even when I have to add an image through the media library (such as featured images), I still use it to capture the appropriate attribution.
  • Wikity: Earlier this year I spun up my own instance of Wikity, Mike Caulfield’s WordPress theme designed to help the creation of knowledge. One of the features is the bookmarklet that allows you to quickly capture a quote and add some text. Although it is possible to create a post on mobile, the ability to provide additional content and links is limited.
  • Radio3: Recently, I started exploring Dave Winer’s Radio3 Linkblog, which allows you to push links out to various platforms, whilst also maintaining your own RSS. Like Wikity, it involves selecting a post or quote and clicking on the bookmarklet. Although I had started dabbling with the idea of pushing links out via WordPress, the creation of a separate feed means that I can do a number of things with it, such as push links to Diigo via IFTTT.

These are just some of the bookmarklets that I use, with others including Quozio, Responsive Design and Mozilla X-Ray Googles. Although I agree that mobile devices are becoming more and more dominant, I think that they have their limit. There are still many activities which I depend on a laptop for, such as finishing my posts or creating visual quotes. I also feel that there are solutions that will always be beyond the realm of the mobile device, especially as I move further and further into the #Indieweb world. So to answer Caulfield’s question as to how we get more students onto laptops, it starts with addressing why it matters today more than ever.

So what about you? What do you still depend upon the desktop for or is a mobile screen enough? As always, comments welcome.


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