A Comprehensive Guide to Blogging Platforms and their Niches


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The term blog derives from ‘web log’ and was initially coined to describe “discrete entries (posts) typically displayed in reverse chronological order.” This though has evolved over time. Now it incorporates a range of different tools for creating and communicating. Having said this, they often come back to a core set of features.

In a presentation written during the heyday of weblogs, Dave Winer unpacks these core features. At a basic level, Winer says that it all comes back to:

  • A single voice
  • Publishing descriptions and content
  • Identifying each post with a permalink
  • Allowing for comments
  • Archived and organised chronologically

Beyond this list, Winer touches on a range of what he describes as core elements. This includes how descriptions and posts are rendered, the infrastructure used to connect, the type of content allowed and the way content is outlined, including the use of blogrolls.

Although written over ten years ago, these  features have not really changed. Some may have been removed or others given precedence, but the structure remains the same. What I think is significant is that in some respect everything is optional. It is this fluidity that make each tool unique. So here is a summary of some of the different tools available, what they enable and where their biases lie.

WordPress

The most common blogging platform, WordPress is said to be responsible for a quarter of the webpages online. One of the reasons for the popularity of WordPress is the versatility provided through the plugin architecture and theme templates. Whether it be adapting posts or pages, tags or categories, it offers many possibilities. Another reason for the success is that it is open source, therefore anyone can fork it and develop it further. Subsequently, because of this adaptability there are a few different iterations that have developed over time.


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WordPress.Org

WordPress.org is the open version that anyone can self-host. As a platforms, it allows you to not only deploy a wide range of themes and plugins, but also make your own modifications to the code. In turn, you can turn the site into whatever you like. You only need to look at the work of Alan Levine to get a feel for what is possible, including the DS106 Assignment Bank, SPLOT Project and Photo Gallery and Presentation Blog. This freedom comes at a cost as it means that you need to be more mindful of backing up, system updates and site security.

Further Resources

  • Beginner’s Guide to WordPress – An extensive collection of tutorials to everything associated to WordPress. There are many modifications amd workarounds that are not usually found on more generalised sites.
  • WordPress.org – The place to go when looking for general support material, as well as reviews of themes and plugins.
  • Cog Dog Blog – Although not solely focused on blogging, Alan Levine often includes detailed posts outlining things that he has done with WordPress. I find this useful in making sense of what is possible.
  • Getting Started on WordPress (IndieWeb) – The IndieWeb is a space that has been set up to support users in taking more ownership of their presence online through the use of various plugins.
  • (Re)Claiming My Space on the Web – A reflection on my experience in transferring from Blogger to WordPress.org via Reclaim Domain.
  • Why WordPress? The 2016 Version – Still a Fan – Tom Woodward reflects on why WordPress is still his platform of choice.


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WP.Com

Unlike a self-hosted instance, WordPress.com provides a more secure, hassle-free service. This means that there are limited themes, no direct change to the code within the template and only select plugins available through the premium plan. The benefit is that system updates and backing up are taken care of in the background, however unless you upgrade this means advertisements on your page.

Further Resources

  • Self Hosted WordPress vs. Free WordPress ­ Explanation of the differences between free WordPress and self­hosted (which the school website is).
  • WordPress.com Support – A collection of support material associated with WP.com. It touches on topics such as publishing, customising and connecting.
  • Easy WP Guide – An extensive step-by-step guide to WordPress, unpacking each element.


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Edublogs

An educational blogging network, Edublogs is a version of WordPress somewhere between .org and .com. It provides a safe and secure platform with a range of benefits, such as secure plugins, the ability to moderate posts and comments, as well as excellent support. The downside is that you are sometimes limited as to what you can do based on the plan you are on.

Further Resources

  • The Edublogger – A community blog sharing everything associated with Edublogs, whether it be blogging with students or simply the latest updates and changes.
  • The Edublogs User Guide – As Global2 is a part of the Edublogs community, this user guide can be useful when trying to figure out some of the different intricacies.
  • 10 Ways To Use Edublogs To Teach – A video unpack some more possibilities to consider when it comes to blogs.
  • Global2 – A collection of resources associated with Global2.
  • Your Global2 Blog by John Pearce – A presentation unpacking everything from tags to widgets. A good run through of all the different things to consider.


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Kidblog

Another student blogging platform, Kidblog provides a safe and simple environment for students to communicate. One of the selling points is that the teacher as administrator is able to seemingly control everything. This includes passwords, post moderation, levels of access, categories and custom widgets. In addition to this, classes are able to connect with other classes without even leaving Kidblog. The benefit of all of this is that is that it allows students to focus on sharing. The problem though is that in making the process so seamless, students are deprived of the hard fun involved in actually creating your own space or keeping up-to-date with other blogs. Of concern, there are no plugins available to support exporting content for the purpose of backing up.

Further Resources


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Blogger

Blogger is a relatively straightforward platform. It provides a range of options, such as HTML and tags, but tries not to overly complicate things (a complaint often made about WordPress.)  In regards to infrastructure, it has a simple back-end. Although it is easy to use, this in part comes at the cost of versatility and individuality. You can adjust themes by adding in widgets and how they sit on the page, while you can add CSS code to make some changes. However, you do not have the ability to make the wholesale changes like with WordPress.Org, therefore there is a certain repetition when it comes to overall templates.

Owned by Google, there are benefits of direct connection to services such as Adsense and Google+. Subsequently, comments can be connected with Google+, while you are also able to easily link to other Google+ users. This can though be problematic if you decide to move services. Beyond these connections there are no plugins.

In the end, Blogger is a great place to start if you already use other Google products. However, there is always the fear that Google may decide to moth ball the service as they did with Google Reader. There is also the chance at any time that Google may close your site down if you have breached any of the terms and conditions.

Further Resources


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Tumblr

On face value, Tumblr seems no different to any other blogging service. It allows users to publish various types of content, as well as continue the conversation through comments. In regards to the infrastructure, the dashboard is fairly simple, while when it comes to themes you can either choose from those provided or customise your own using the HTML editor. For many, the draw card is the visual archive which is somewhat unique to Tumblr.

Where Tumblr differs from other services is the sense of community created around the culture of follows, likes and reblogs baked into the code. Although platforms like Blogger and WordPress have a space dedicated to following other blogs, the visual nature entices engagement. Associated with this, you are able to drag in media from elsewhere. Tumblr is very much a curated space. A creative repository of the web. As a site it exists somewhere between Twitter in regards to its open feed, Pinterest with its visual layout and Known in its celebration of the short form.

Further Resources


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Known

A lightweight publishing service, Known provides the means to share a range of content. It is fully responsive and is easily accessible via the browser. As a platform, it offers a range of possibilities, such as a digital locker that you syndicate elsewhere, a community space for people to connect or as a more personal short blog. Compared to other offerings, Known’s strength is not necessarily in its appearance, but rather what it allows you to do. With the ideal being to help people to take more control of their online presence it integrates with a range of other services. Due to this intended flexibility, you very much create your own iteration. Want comments, enable them. Want multiple users, enable them. Want to customise things using CSS, enable it. Through the plugins you are able to truly personalise the space to your particular needs. In addition to this, as it is open sourced it has been designed to be forked allowing for many other nuances.

Further Resources


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Medium

For some, Medium represents a blogging ideal. A one stop shop where you can post, comment, highlight, bookmark, collaboratively drafts and connect with different users. There are two glaring problems with this. Firstly, if you want to exist outside of Medium it is not made easy. Alan Levine has documented his efforts to make sense of the RSS feed, while you are unable to download your content in a form that is usable. The second matter is the feel of the space. There is little room for personalisation, while you are limited to the basics of text formatting. (I should.recognise that some like Mike Caulfield explain that there are benefits in bare basics formatting.) In addition to this, the profile pages are somewhat limiting.

With all this said and done, I think that Dave Winer sums up the problem with Medium best when he warns about it becoming the consensus platform. Like with Kidblog, the move away from the open web for the sack of convenience risks putting control in somebody else’s hands. It is for this reason that I always recommend posting elsewhere first before sharing Medium.

Further Resources


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Weebly

Similar in some respects to Storify, Weebly involves dragging and dropping various elements in order to create your content. Whether it be a title, a video, contact form and custom HTML you simply place the parts together like a jigsaw. This means creating a blog requires little expertise. In regards to the overall layout, there are a range of customizable pages, for some the simplicity within these can be frustrating.

Like WordPress.com the basic plan is free. However, this comes with advertisement. The different plans come with greater benefits. While like Kidblog, Weebly Education also lets you create 40 student accounts for free with no student emails required or advertisements.

Further Resources


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Seesaw

A content management system that works across all platforms, Seesaw provides the means to capture learning in a range of forms. Like spaces such as Edmodo, you can create groups and classes. However, what is different is that even with just one iPad in a classroom you can quickly allocate artefacts to different students. Recently, they added a new blogging feature. This allows you to curate student content in a central group space and post it out as a blog. As with most educational platforms, there is the facility to moderate posts. In regards to overall contents, parents have the power to download their child’s content, while schools that have subscribed to Seesaw for Schools have the ability to do a bulk download of.the student data. It is unclear where blog posts fit within all of this. Interestingly, there are many similarities with Kidblog, from the connections to the lack of RSS.

Further Resources


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Google+

Another alternative to the usual short informal forms, such as Known and Tumblr, is Google+. A social media platform, Google+ is designed to connect together different products, such as YouTube, Google Photos and Blogger. It is divided into three parts: collections, communities and the main stream. Whichever section you post in, you are able to incorporate different content type, including images, videos and links. It also allows for the use of hashtags within the writing. There is no avenue to embed content within a post.

What is unique about using Google+ as a platform is the ability to specifically control who sees what is posted. Basically, you can post for specific people, a circle, a community or simply for the public. In regards to reading, you are able to see a summary of someone’s viewable posts in the profile feed, while you can also use third party application to generate an RSS feed. Like Medium, there is little means for changing the look and feel of the site.

Further Resources


The reality is that there are many other blogging options available. Some educators use secure spaces like Scootle Community, others utilise different social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. Some utilise different services. like Storify, to suit their purpose, while others take a more nuanced approach, installing services like 1999.io or Pelican  and going from there.

In the end, it comes back to purpose. If I were starting out with blogging, either personally or as a class, I would sign up to Edublogs. They provide fabulous support, either through the Edublogger blog or via the likes of Ronnie Burt and Sue Waters. The next step personally would be to purchase your own space online and install your own instance of WordPress. This not only provides control over data, but also more options in regards to what is possible. Although this requires a little more effort, there are enough educators out there ready to help that it makes it achievable if you are willing to dive in. Another option when self-hosting a site is to use Known. Like WordPress, Known is open source. Although a seemingly simple site, it offers to possibility to build the web, but also own your presence there. It all depends on context.

So what about you? What service do you use? Why? Have you used any other platforms in the past? As always, I would love to know. Feel free to leave a comment?


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An Introduction to Google Docs and Hyperdocs


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Google Docs is the application that Google Apps seems most well known for. More than just a basic word processor, Docs provides a space to connect and collaborate in real-time (something Microsoft is finally doing with Office 365.) It includes such features as the ability to import and export a range of formats, extend communication through comments and chat, work across platforms, including the ability to work offline, add text via voice, edit Microsoft Word (originally via Quickoffice), as well as build documents and add to a range of templates found within a gallery. Going a step further, there are also a range of add-ons which allow you to do everything from create a bibliography to making a flowchart.

Some possible uses for Google Docs include:

  • Digital Workbook: One of the greatest benefits of Docs (and Google Apps) is the ability to move to a paperless classroom.
  • Collaborative Writing: Docs makes cooperative learning more doable, providing the means for interdependance.
  • Administration: Whether it be taking minutes or sharing curriculum documents, Docs provides the means to organise such work.

Hyperdocs

An interesting example of the use of Google Docs is in the creation of HyperDocs. A cross between Thinglink and a webquest, a HyperDoc is a document which incorporates different interactive features, such as graphic organisers and linked content. In its basic form, it can be conceived as a digital worksheet. However, as with all technology, it has the possibility of amplifying preexisiting practices, providing a means to structure self-directed learning. As Highfill, Hilton and Landis explain,

A true HyperDoc is much more than some links on a document. Digital collaboration is choreographed through the inclusion of web tools that give every student a voice and a chance to be heard by their classmates. Critical thinking and problem solving skills can be developed through linked tasks that ask for authentic products to be created and shared digitally.

Some of the benefits for using HyperDocs include:

  • Deeper Engagement: With the interactive nature of such documents, students are unable to move on without actually clicking through. This is often provided through scavenger hunts.
  • Additional Resources: Through the use of links, HyperDocs provides a means of providing additional stimulus and resources,
  • More Cooperative Learning: Provides the means of working collaborative, as well as independently, whether this be completing a personal copy through Google Classrooms or adding to shared content.

Here then is four steps to creating a HyperDoc:

  1. Identify area of learning: This might be a skill or a point of understanding.
  2. Choose a structure of learning: This involves two steps, firstly choreographing the learning task (see templates) and secondly how this might look as a series of documents.
  3. Incorporate different content: Hyperdocs involve links to a range of different content, from videos to Forms
  4. Publish document: This might involve simply sharing a link or could be done through Google Classroom. As people will be adding content, it is important to think about how this will be done.

Here are some additional resources for Google Docs:

Google Docs Cheat Sheet – Anintroduction by Kasey Bell covering all the key features

The Best 10 Google Docs Tips For Teachers As They Go Back To School – Joshua Lockhart provides a good list of suggestions as to how to use Google Docs to support you in the classroom, including providing creative feedback and giving access to resources.

Google Docs began as a hacked together experiment, says creator – Ellis Hamburger interviews Sam Schillace, the man behind Writerly, the text-editor that became Google Docs, and discusses some of the challenges faced in the process.

12 Free Add-Ons That Take Docs and Sheets to the Next Level – A collection of useful add-ons, including the ability to add a signature and translate text.

6 Powerful Google Docs Features to Support the Collaborative Writing Process – Susan Oxnevad unpacks the writing process highlighting the many benefits of collaboration.

Google Docs Templates – A collection of templates that users can access, as well as add to.

Voice Typing – A discussion of voice typing and how it can be used to support learning.

Hyperdocs – A resource created by Lisa Highfill, Kelly Hilton and Sarah Landis unpacking everything associated with Hyperdocs.

Hyperdoc Tour – An example of a hyperdoc whcih provides a tour of some features associated

HyperDocs – Changing Digital Pedagogy – A collection of hyperdoc lessons from a range of subjects and year levels.


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Merging Passwords and New Accounts


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One of the biggest challenges when introducing a new application, such as Google Apps or Global2, is setting up the new accounts. Although programs often make it easy enough to create the accounts in bulk, the challenge is communicating this to students. My answer has been to merge cards for the students using Microsoft Publisher. This involves three steps:

Making a Spreadsheet

The first thing to do is to make a spreadsheet in which you collect all the information required. I find that it is always good to have a document with all this sort of information in one place. I use a few ‘concatenating‘ tricks in Google Sheets that I picked up via Alice Keeler to help combine different pieces of information and then download as a CSV to turn formulas into text and numbers. It is important to use clear headings for each of the columns.

Create a Template

The next step is to create a template. For this step, I use Microsoft Publisher. I begin by choosing a business card template and then enter all the appropriate information. This can include name, website, username and temporary passwords etc …

Produce the Merge

Once I have something that looks like a finished product, I click on the Mailings tab and work through the Step-by-Step Mail Merge Wizard. This includes selecting the appropriate spreadsheet (choosing comma), inserting the various fields and checking through the previews.  Once satisfied, I then print the merge.


Although I have come to use Google Apps for for many things and could possibly use Autocrat, this is still one thing that I still find easiest to do with Microsoft.

So what about you? What steps do you take to support students with new programs? Feel free to share below.


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A Guide to Following Blogs


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One of the challenges with blogs is how to follow. Although you could simply ‘check in’ regularly, this is not only frustrating, but also a little tedious. Another way is to follow via links post through social media and other outlets. This is ok, but dependent on publishers sharing, which is not always the case. Here then are some other alternatives for how to follow a blog:

  • Email Subscription: The most obvious way to sign up for a blog is to subscribe by email. Platforms provide a means to add what is called a ‘subscription widget’. This is an add-on which allows visitors to enter their email address and subscribe to notifications via email.
  • Following: In addition to subscribing, most blogging platforms have the built-in ability to follow. This means blogs are posted to a central feed found on the dashboard and depends on having an account. Although you can easily follow multiple blogs this way, this method still has the problem of you having to check-in to find out and is not much different to simply checking the blog itself. It is also restricted to the platform in question.
  • RSS Reader: Another alternative following a blog (or multiple blogs) is using an RSS reader. RSS stands for ‘Rich Site Summary’ and is a format for delivering regularly changing web content. Most websites have an RSS feed. You know if you have found a feed when the link ends with XML. Although many email applications have RSS readers built in, they can be a little clunky. An alternative is Feedly, an application which allows you sort all your feeds and information in one place, although there are many others out there.
  • If This Then That: IFTTT is an application which allows you to create recipes connected with different applications and websites. It allows you to easily automate a lot of processes. For example, by using the application on your mobile, you can set a recipe to automatically save your photographs to Dropbox or Google Drive. Using IFTTT, you can create a recipe where if there is a new post associated with a particular RSS then it will send you an email.

Like so many things online, there are no simple solutions, what is important is finding the method that works best for you.


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An Introduction to Google Apps for Education


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Google Apps for Education is a cloud computing package. It provides access to products powered by Google but administered by your organization. Doing so, the school accepts responsibility of how the services are used by their end-users, as well as for the data stored. By providing organisations with control, schools are given the power to easily create and manage both staff and student accounts.

In many respects, Google Apps replicates the basic functionalities of Microsoft Office. The difference though is that it allows collaboration and sharing at the click of a button anywhere, any time.

Examples of the activities in which you can use Google Apps:

  • Planning & Organisation: Unlike having a document on a projector with everyone watching on, Google Apps provides a means for everyone to work together in real-time.
  • Data Collection: Although Google Sheets does not have all of the intricacies of Google Sheets, it allows for quite a bit. From gathering test results to collecting data, there are many different possibilities for sharing and sorting.
  • Goals and Portfolios: Using Google allows students and teachers to collaborate in regards to supporting goals and maintaining a digital portfolio of work.
  • Feedback: Whether it be adding a comment, filling out an exit ticket or completing pre-test, Google Apps provides many ways to gain and give feedback.
  • Templates: Although most simply make copies of files, Google Apps also allows you to create templates that the whole organisation can then access.

Many of the queries and questions about Google Apps relate to the internet and ease of access. However, these concerns can be overcome by setting up offline access by downloading the Google Drive application and opening documents through Chrome. Although you are unable to work collaboratively with them, you are also able to edit Microsoft documents. Lastly, like Global2, Google Apps provides different possibilities for adjusting access to different groups within the organisation. This can all be done through the Admin Console.

Further Reading

Google Apps for Education: Common Questions – A great collection of responses to everything from advertisements and COPPA to security and filtering.

Education on Air Online Conference – Although not directly related to GAFE, this collection of online presentations is a great place to go when looking for more learning opportunities.

Maybe You Should Go Drive by Chris Betcher – An introduction to Google Drive in a step-by-step format. One of many presentations found at Betcher’s Summit Stuff.

Introduction to Google Drive 2014 by John Pearce – A collection of videos unpacking the four core applications that make up Google Apps: Docs, Slides, Sheets and Forms.

Why schools are going Ga-Ga for Google and Transformed learning with Google Apps for Education by Anthony Speranza – Two posts outlining some of the benefits, including some of the potentials for transforming the way students learn in and out of the classroom.

Moving to the Cloud? What should you consider? by Jenny Luca – For those concerned about moving to the cloud, this post addresses many of the questions and concerns.

Going GAFE from Scratch, My Thoughts and In Search of One Tool to Rule Them All by me – Here a couple of more detailed reflections on GAFE and how to go about introducing it.


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Introduction to Edmodo


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Edmodo is an education social networking tool. It provides a means for teachers to easily create an online space where students can connect and communicate. Some examples of some of the things that you can do with Edmodo include:

  • Set tasks and assignments: Whether it is a quick task or a bigger assignment, Edmodo allows you to easily set dates and provide information and resources. In addition to this, once submitted feedback can be provided in a timely manner. Only limitation is focus on scoring, rather than rubrics.
  • Provide links and resources: Although URL shorterners and QR codes make it easier to share long webpages, there is nothing better than simply clicking on a link. You can also provide additional materials, such as documents and images to support learning.
  • A place to respond and reflect: Along with sharing material, Edmodo provides a place for students to post and comment. There are different options associated with this and it can all be locked down by the teacher if needed. Posting can occur within a group or directly with a teacher, but never between students.
  • Include parents in learning: Parents can be provided with a group code to connect. This does not mean that they will be able to see everything, instead they are connected with their child, having access to assignments, events, alerts, direct messages and anything else you tag them in.
  • Connect with other teachers globally: An underutilised function, Edmodo provides the ability to connect with teachers in a safe and secure environment. The initial setup asks for information about subject areas, this then aligns teachers with others in their subject areas. There is a stream of information provided that allows people to share and connect. This not only provides the means for finding ideas and resources, but also for collaborating with teachers around the world.

It needs to be noted that Brookside has signed up for School Account. Not only does this help to organise things, but it prevents students from signing up as a teacher and creating their own groups.

Further Reading

Edmodo Support Site – a collection of frequently asked questions associated with every aspect of Edmodo.

Social Networking for Schools by John Pearce – a thorough presentation from John Pearce looking at all the different elements to consider when it comes to Edmodo.

Edmodo Still Has My Heart by Bianca Hewes – a reflection from a Secondary teacher on how she uses Edmodo within her classroom.

7 Steps on How to Use the New Edmodo by Blake Waldman – A collection of ‘how to’ videos associated how to do different actions within Edmodo.

Should my class blog, tweet, Google App, Moodle, Desire2Learn, or Edmodo? Arrghhh!!! by Royan Lee – A comparison of the different Learning Management Systems and social media platforms available and things to consider.


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