An explanation of why maintaining your own space is so important

This is a reflection on my recent challenges associated with maintaining a blog and an explanation of why I persist in doing it.


I got talking with some of technical designers in my workplace recently. I was inquiring about the plausibility of a few ideas I was thinking about. I did not want to commit myself to something that was doomed from the outset. The question was then asked, “But you’re not a coder, right?” Technically, I guess I am not. I have developed a few solutions, in part based on code appropriated from others, but could I develop something from scratch. I guess not. This for me raises the question, in a world which coding is bandied around as the 21st Century literacy, what does it mean to code and be a coder? Is it about a broad understanding of the mechanics and meaning or is it the ability to make and do? Can these even be separated?

This problem raised its head again this week as I tried to fix a problem occurring with two of my sites. I was not receiving linkbacks from other sites. Although webmentions were coming through, there were mentions within blogs that were not even going through to my spam folder. Of course, this is not going to ‘break the web’, but it means that I am missing some of the conversations from those sending from their site.

I came upon the issue after receiving a few messages from people saying that their messages were being rejected or not flowing through. This was occurring in both directions, with my pings seemingly sending emails, but not properly flowing through to posts and comments. Here then are some of the steps I took to investigate. I share these with the hope that I can learn more about these problems, but also to record the steps for future reflection. They are in no way sequential and have been separated for the sack of representing them in a meaningful manner:


In the end, I decided to turn the Semantic Linkbacks plugin back on and see how it went. To my surprise, things seemed to work. I will continue to tinker and investigate. It is a reminder why I have a Domain of One’s Own. As Martha Burtis points out,

Learning WordPress should not just be about learning WordPress — it should also be about all the tacit lessons that go along with learning how to publish online in an open-source Web application.

I know that at anytime that the Facebooks and Wixs are waiting to greet me with open arms and every day I resist. So what about you? What have been your experiences? As always comments welcome, even more so from your own blog.


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The power of query in sorting out data in Sheets

My first iteration using Query and Sheets to automate a solution for turning a collection of data into a regular newsletter.

This year I decided to create a monthly newsletter collecting together the updates and resources that I came upon during the previous month. As I have reflected elsewhere, I realised that there was an opportunity to automate some of this process. Although some spoke about Pinboard or generating a post via email, I was interested in sticking to GSuite. I therefore began with the aim of generating a solution within Sheets. So here is my first iteration of an automated solution for turning a collection of links into a summary.

Organising the Data

I remember being in a session with Jay Atwood a few years ago talk about the importance of considering the way you collect your data before anything else. As I looked at my databases, one for updates and the other for resources, I realised that the first thing that I needed to do was reorganise the way that I was storing information. This included restricting the options associated with type and application, as well as separating the link and title and then smashing them together using the HYPERLINK formula. Inspired by Ben Collins’ post on working with text, I also created a column summarising the information in each row into Markdown summary.


Reorganised Data w/ Formulas by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

From Lookups to Queries

Once I had my data organised, I then started explored sorting and shaping the data. I began with a VLOOKUP with a dynamic selector. This allowed me to filter it in different ways. However, I quickly realised that this was limited. I turned to QUERY.

I remember David Krevitt talking about QUERY, describing it as the, ” big kahuna of Sheets functions.” I think this initially put me off. This time I opened up a number of guides from Krevitt, Collins and Anand Varma and dived in. This lead me to rewrite my VLOOKUP as a QUERY.

Bit by bit I stretched the solution. I began with a dynamic selector to represent variables and explored the ability to define queries by date. I then created a prototype with a query for each application across the sheet.


1st Iteration by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

Once I had that working, I create a vertical set of queries. To allow for the variable of the unknown number of posts each month, I left 30 blank rows between each formula.

Filtering Results

To get rid of the spaces and the data headings, I used a FILTER formula and removed the spaces and column headings produced by the QUERY formulas. This left me with a choice, copy the MarkDown data and paste it without formatting, therefore removing the table/sheet that it was in, or using the add-on Sheets to Docs to copy the text to a Google Doc.


So that is the first step in my solution using Sheets to generate the text for a newsletter. My next challenge is transferring this to a Google Script. If you have any thoughts and advice about this, I would greatly appreciate it. Otherwise, as always feel free to leave a comment.


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A part of the focus on deep learning is the realisation that reporting needs to be ongoing.

It can be easy to look at an application and provide one answer, the problem with this is that it does not cover all contexts. Here is a collection of ideas associated with GSuite and ongoing reporting and assessment.


I recently attended a professional learning day investigating ongoing reporting. As opposed to mandated biannual reporting, the interest was the different ways in which students engage with their learning. During the initial discussions, the following ideas were identified when developing any sort of solution:

  • Consistency
  • Timeliness
  • Clarity
  • Logistics
  • Stakeholders
  • Customisation

During a conversation during a break, I was asked about some ways which GSuite can be used to support ideas. Teachers may know about the different applications, however it is not always clear how these may support ongoing learning. Here then are some thoughts:

Docs

One of the benefits to Google Docs is the ability to work collaboratively within a digital environment. This can incorporate a range of formats, whether it be texts, tables, hyperlinks, images, charts, drawings and gifs. In terms of ongoing learning, Docs allows for feedback at any point, whether in the form of a suggestion or as a comment. Add-ons, such as CheckMark or JoeZoo further extend these possibilities by providing additional functionality, while there are also various options for inserting voice comments.

Slides

Similar to Docs, Google Slides offers a number of ways to collect, collaborate and communicate. Where it differs is the ability to engage with desktop publishing. At a simple level, you can add video, texts and images, as well as use the Explore Tool to automagically organise this content. Alternatively, it is possible to build upon a preexisting template, such as Jennifer Scott’s Slides Yearbook. Matt Miller and Alice Keeler have also created an add-on that allows users to produce a presentation from a collection of images in Slides.

Sheets

For some all solutions begin with Google Sheets. With the ability to protect access, hide cells and sheets, as well as link to a particular cell, Sheets provides a number of ways to organise data and information. One idea is to use Sheets as a central space for writing comments, linking to work and recording reflections. This could include sharing results with students from a mastersheet via IMPORTRANGE or providing an open space for students to support each other as Bianca Hewes’ has done with her work on medals and missions. Another approach to using Sheets is using scripts to automate some of the process. For example, Alice Keeler has created a template for making and communicating rubrics to students.

Forms

Building on the potential of Sheets, Google Forms provides a number of ways to collect and co-ordinate ongoing learning. One way is through the use of pre and post tests to drive differentiated instruction. Although in the past you had to use Flubaroo to automate this, with the addition of quizzes you are now able to do a lot more without the support of add-ons. Another use of Forms is as a way to efficiently record data. For example, you maybe conducting a reading conference, a Form can automate this process and send a summary to the student. Going a step further, it is also possible to create a unique link with pre-filled in content, such as name and class. This could even include attaching evidence using the ‘Upload a File’ function. This might be a short video or some work that has been annotated. This workflow is particularly useful when saving work on a mobile device.

Classroom

One of the challenges with ongoing reporting can be coordinating everything. Google Classroom allows you to create and communicate various resources and templates. This can include sending out individual files or sharing a collaborative document. In addition to giving feedback, Classroom provides a space for teachers to coordinate an ongoing conversation using private comments. Those using the mobile application are also able to annotate submitted artefacts. Classroom provides a way of communicating with parents. This involves sending regular summaries of missing work, upcoming dates and class acivities, such as questions, announcements and assignments. Although this could be done using Gmail, which would in fact allow dialogue, the benefit of Classroom is that it automates the process and allows parents to moderate how the communication works.

Google Drive

Although Google has added the ability to insert video from Drive into a presentation, it is possible to take this a step further and embed content from Drive in other spaces. This might include audio files, PDF documents or images. The benefit of embedding with Drive is that you are able to manage who has access to various content, whether it be only people within an instance or even just particular users. This can be useful when developing something like a closed portfolio. Another use of Drive is to capture and organise learning. As discussed, Forms now provides the ability to upload files. These items are then placed in one folder associated with the responses.

Keep

An alternative to using Drive and Classroom to collect content with Keep. There are a number of ways to organise and annotate evidence within Keep. For example, it can be useful when working with photos on moboile devices, as it allows you to avoid adding images to the camera roll. Notes can also be organised using labels and collaborated upon. This content can then be curated in Docs and Slides via the ‘Keep Notepad’.

Sites

A common application used to share and publish ongoing learning is Google Sites. The new Sites allows users to quickly and easily collect and collate work. One of the challenges though when sharing using Sites is that the setting associated with the various files allow access. If creating a public showcase it can be useful to add all the files into a folder with the desired sharing settings, which then overwrites the original settings. Another option is to use Alice Keeler’s AnyoneCanView Add-on, which changes the default settings associated with the document. For those wanting to embed more than just documents and images, Martin Hawksey has demonstrated how to embed any iFrame application using via Google Apps Scripts.


Many of these aspects cross-over to posts that I have written before involving portfolios and documentation, however where this differs is the attempt to capture many of the parts and how they might interconnect. As always, I am interested in your views. Is there something I have missed or maybe something you disagree with? Comments welcome for this is all ongoing learning, right?


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Focusing on a post-human approach, Ian Guest reflects on the ability for technologies to learn

Often discussions around technologies and transformation focus on tools. Another question to consider is the way technologies entangled with learning.


I met up with Alan Levine recently and we talked about everything from politics to open education to experiences. The thing that came up again and again though was the place of the technology within learning and education. I have explored this before, touching on the place of the tool in making various situations possible. What seemed different is that the stage set by the conversation seemed a lot busier, with many complex intrarelations. What then is the place of technology in relation to learning? Is it learning about technology? Is it technology that aides with the learning process? Or is it technology that through its place learns itself? This all led me to reflect on the recent addition of the Thermomix into our kitchen this year and impact this has had in regards to my own learning about food and technology.


Thermomix by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

The Thermomix is an all-in-one cooking machine combining a number of steps, such as boiling, melting, chopping, weighing, steaming, crushing and blending. (I am sure I have missed a few verbs here.) The machine itself involves focuses on three variables: time, temperature and motion. However, there are a range of add-ons which extend these capabilities, including a whisk as an alternative to the blade, a steaming basket you insert within the cooking jug and a steaming tray you can place on top. The jug that is at the heart of everything also doubles as a scale, converting all measurements into grams.

One of the things that surprised me about the Thermomix was that it did not necessarily do everything for you. When my wife and I spoke about buying one, I had the misconception that it would allow me to set a timer in the morning (like you might with a slow cooker) or quickly throw everything in after work to wiz something up automagically. Not surprisingly, it is not that simple. Although there are recipe chips which step you through recipes, there is also a built in process of what might be called ‘enforced education’. This asks the user to engage after each step. This is important from a safety point of view, but it is also interesting in regards to appreciating how the application works.

One of the biggest ways the Thermomix has redefined our kitchen is our use of individual ingredients over prepackaged jars and sachets. Recipes often involve combining a wide range of ingredients, especially herbs and spices.


Secret Herbs and Spices by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

This has led to a deeper appreciation of the food being cooked and consumed. It means if something is bland or too spicy then you can make our own tweeks next time. Going a step further, there are a range of online communities building on the standardised language provided by the Thermomix to share an array of recipes and creations. Overall, the Thermomix has helped build my knowledge and understanding of food providing me with the means to go beyond the automated processes and complete steps individually.

This whole learning curve also reminds me of the experience provided by Zapier. A ‘translator of APIs’, Zapier provides the means to automate processes by connecting together a range of web apps. It provides the structure of triggers and actions to step through the creation of workflows. Unlike IFTTT, users can then look into their ‘zaps’ and investigate the intracies, such as the data coming in and going out. Although Zapier eliminates the need to code, it also helps to build up an appreciation of what is required if you do want to start developing your own solutions.

When I think about both the applications, I am reminded about learning on multiple levels. Firstly, they put in place support for the development of understanding as to how the application works. They support learning about other things, such as food and APIs. They also learn themselves, being entangled within a feed of information from other applications and communities.

So what about you? What place does technology play within your learning? As always, comments welcome.


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Clay Shirkey on the need to continually rethinking our workflows

Technology is always adapting and evolving, here are a few of the recent changes to my digital workflows.


In a post discussing the setup of digital devices, applications and workflows, Clay Shirky explains how he regularly changes things up:

At the end of every year, I junk a lot of perfectly good habits in favor of awkward new ones.

This disruption seems important in a time when platforms are designed to maximise our attention. As Shirky warns:

The thing I can least afford is to get things working so perfectly that I don’t notice what’s changing in the environment anymore.

Change can take many shapes. Although I may not shake things up as much as Shirky, here are some recent tweeks that have kept things fresh:

Pocket

For a long time I have used Pocket to save links to come back to. It was one of the first applications I really took to. I use a range of methods to add content, whether it be via email, using an IFTTT recipe which saves my Twitter favourites or an extension in the browser. I then either read it later or listen depending on the device or context.

I started out listening using Lisgo, an iOS app. However, this functionality is built into the Android application so I scrapped the additional app when I changed phones. The only issue I had with listening via the Android app is the requirement to select a new article each time. A recent update completely changed that with the addition of continuous playback. This allows you to organise your various links in a playlist and listen to one after another. This new feature has lead me to rethink how I use Pocket and subsequently saving more and more links to listen to

In regards to other aspects of the application, I have never really used the tagging or archiving features. Instead I bookmark elsewhere and then delete the articles in Pocket once I have finished with it. The best functionality is still the ability to read a stripped back version of the text. AMP without all the other stuff associated with AMP. I wonder how Pocket will grow with the acquisition by Mozilla?

Inoreader

I love Feedly. I came to RSS Readers around the time Google pulled its reader from production. Before that, I relied on a combination of Pocket and social media. Feedly was perfect. I progressively built my feed over time getting to the point of following 200+ blogs. I also developed a a process which allowed me to capture a quote and share it out on Twitter.

I did not have any qualms, however when Chris Aldrich pointed out the limitation of storing your OPML file within the application I was intrigued. I didn’t really like how Feedly organised the various categories and always found it tedious to backup my OPML to share with others. The answer is to subscribe to an OPML Feed stored in the links of a WordPress site, rather than upload a static file. Feedly does not allow for this, but Inoreader does.

Starting afresh has been good. There are no features that I used in Feedly that are no replicated in Inoreader. Instead there are ways of working in Inoreader that I prefer, such as the ability to quickly mark posts as ‘read’ by pulling across, rather than swiping, as well as the potential to create my own filters. This maybe a start towards Aldrich’s idea of an #IndieWeb algorithm? At the very least, it helps in understanding how some of these things work and the infrastructure behind them.

Trello

I have written about the features and affordances associated with Trello before. One of the challenges that I have had with the application is how to get it to work for me. A lot of people talk about using the Kanban approach to support an agile way of working. This often involves allocating ‘points’ or colours associated with blocks of time, setting due dates and focusing on priorities. I tried this both personally and in my workplace. It did not work. I decided to leave it for a while and come back at a later point with fresh eyes.

In leaving the application alone, it quickly became apparent why I needed it. I had some documents in my Google Drive, PDF files sent to me via email, links to resources and notes that needed to be recorded somewhere. I therefore wondered if instead of a means of managing priorities that instead Trello could become something of a digital filing cabinet, Something of a ‘canonical URL’, where if you wanted to find something you would start there.

Creating a list for each of the key focuses, the cards broke down the various projects and activities. Each card then contains a description summarising what it is about and a list of resources associated with it. This is all done using Markdown. These resources are all added into one Google Drive folder and linked from there. The card comments are then used to provide a historical snapshot, documenting any developments, additions and meetings, while the checklists are used where applicable.

This new way of using Trello also led me to review my own use. A few years ago I set up multiple boards for all the things that I do personally, whether it be blogging, presentations or projects. Similar to my work experience, this failed. It was too busy and needed to be more efficient. After being reenergised by my use at work, I wondered if I could condense everything into one board? I therefore created lists associated with blogs, projects, ideas, interesting links, things to listen to etc and used the cards to unpack each of these areas. This has subsequently led me to crafting my blog posts using Markdown in the description section and adding links and notes in the comments. Although having its limitations, it is a much smoother process than writing Markdown in a Google Doc which I had started doing. When I want a more thorough writing space though I use Typely.

Typely

I remember reading a rant from Marc Scott a few years ago on the use of Microsoft Word, although it could have been about Google Docs as well. He ended with the plea:

Learn to write in sodding Markdown.

I understand Markdown, but could never find the right reason or workflow. I kept stumbling upon different cases, whether it is Kin Lane’s use of Markdown with Jeykl and GitHub or Mike Caulfield’s Wikity WordPress theme with Markdown built into the bookmarklet. However, it was not until I started having issue with extra bits of code when copying text from Google Docs into my blog or newsletter that I realised why Markdown is so important.

I have been exploring a number of applications to support publishing of late, whether it is add-ons such as Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid or applications in general such as Google Docs and Trello. Initially I took to writing Markdown in Google Docs and pasting the text into a converter. This workflow though does not allow you to preview the text along the way. Using Trello allows you to work cross-platform. However the need to flick between preview and editing screen is tedious and not ideal. I recently came upon another application called Typely.

Typely is best understood as a beefed-up text editor. There are no hyperlinks or formatting. Instead you focus on writing. Other applications offer a similar experience, but where Typely differs are the various options to customise the experience, whether it be turning Markdown preview on or off, switching to a blog background or selecting rules to check for. The screen also adapts to the size of the screen, with panes collapsing if there is not enough space. It does not really work on a mobile screen though. Unlike Pro Writing Aid, the error highlights can easily be turned on and off or resolved. Although on a Chromebook, the combination for resolving issues (CTRL + Spacebar) is allocated to changing between languages. There is also the ability to open and save documents across different platforms if you sign in.

Noterlive

I have long used Twitter to share thoughts and findings at conferences, including quotes, reflections and links. This has gone through many iterations, whether it be retweeting what others shared or typing in a document first before sharing out. One of the challenges that I have always had though is how to meaningfully archive this content?

The obvious answer is to curate tweets and embed them. Like so many others, I have used Storify in the past. However, with its move to a paid product, other solutions are needed. I have also used Martin Hawksey’s TAGS script before to make collections of Tweets. Although these can be easily embedded into WordPress, this archive is broken if the original Tweet is deleted. Although Hawksey provided a link to another application for producing a full embed code, I could not get this to work.

Another option is Noterlive. This web app created by Kevin Marks was designed for making IndieWeb live noting (aka live tweeting/live blogging) easier and simpler. Chris Aldrich summarises it as follows:

It not only organically threads your tweets together into one continuing conversation, but it also gives you a modified output including the appropriate HTML and microformats classes so that you can cut and paste the entire thread and simply dump it into your favorite CMS and publish it as a standard blog post. 

Aldrich has also compiled some additional instructions. See an example here.

As an approach and application, Noterlive provides a means of recording snippets of text in a thread. However, it does not allow you to attach media or connect to the actual Tweet. You are also unable to include other Tweets directly in your archive. A solution to this is to add this content when you save the simple HTML archive. This can be a good point of reflection.


So there are a few of the recent changes to my workflows, what about you? Are there any applications that have made you rethink the way you work lately? As always, comments welcome.

Also posted on IndieNews


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Solutions involve connections and interconnections, not just code

A reflection on going beyond coding when thinking solutions and the Digital Technologies curriculum.


I attended an eLearning session recently where the participants were asked to place ourselves along a continuum in regards to their confidence in regards to the Digital Technologies curriculum. At the far end of the continuum was the idea of ‘coding your own reporting program’. The conversation the ensued was intriguing. “That is not me … I could never do that … You need to know a lot of Excel for that.” To me this only tells part of the story associated with digital technologies.

When you look at something like a reporting solution, we need to start by addressing the problem being addressed? This is why there is a focus on design thinking in the curriculum. A part of this process can be identifying what other solutions already exist. If there is already an application that addresses the problem you are trying to solve, why would you start again?

Alternatively, it is important to work out if there is something you can start with and build upon. Maybe a solution that you have found only addresses a part of your problem, but offers a starting point. This may include some pre-existing code that can be adapted. That is the power of a open platforms like GitHub and Scratch, where you can not only access other people’s code, but share your own iterations.

Another twist is where you might develop a first iteration and then bring others on-board. At some point a solution may benefit from incorporating other skill-sets, perspectives and resources. For example, at some point Gmail went from being somebody’s 20% project to something being developed by a team. In an interview with EdTechCrew, Adam Bellow reflected on the development of eduClipper. After some initial work, he outsourced the creation of a new platform to an outside provider. He then took this iteration and refined it further. This is not to say Bellow could not code it himself, but when we get to systems thinking, there is sometimes more efficient and effective ways of working.

So when we ask the question, can you create a reporting solution, maybe we should ask why are we doing it and has someone else already laid the groundwork? This is something that comes through in Doug Belshaw’s work around digital literacies, such an activity is bigger than whether or not you can code.

So what about you? What has been your experience of coding? Comments welcome.


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