Monthly Archives: February 2009

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Google Forms Meets the Spaghetti Syndication Monster

Or – how I do things since I can’t program – but isn’t the first title much more fun?1

First off, thanks to Jim Groom for letting me bounce ideas off him, giving some technical assistance and for testing services rendered. Now to business.

Here’s what I wanted- a web accessible form that would display the data as it rolled in right under the submission form. Just like comments for a post but we wanted multiple questions2 and we wanted to be able to divide the responses. So that, in and of itself, is pretty narrow and stupid but what this can do in the end is pretty cool and can have widespread power. Using Google forms and the selective publishing option you can embed all sorts of user inputted data w/o having a clue how to program- and I think that’s pretty neat.

Obligatory Warning for WPMU users (WP single user should just work)- Some of the stuff I’m going to tell you to do is not a good idea if you’ve got other authors on your WPMU installation that you don’t trust. If it’s just you and people who won’t be doing crazy stuff then proceed under your own recognizance.

To make this work in WordPress MU3 you’re going to need to install one plugin - Unfiltered-mu. This basically lets you put in the iframe embed codes w/o WPMU stripping it out as unsafe4.

So once you’ve done that, you can get down to business.

Embedding the form part is easy. Just log into google docs and select New>Form.
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Once you’ve got it set up the way you want – save it. Then go to More Actions>Embed.

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You’ll get a pop box with the iFrame code. Copy it. Go to your blog post or page (make sure you’re in HTML view) and paste it in.
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Once it’s embedded you’ll see something like what’s below- and that is real. Go ahead put something in there and hit submit.

So that’s going to allow people to enter information. Now we need to take what they write and put it other places. Keep in mind you could have multiple questions of multiple types and display different chunks in as many different places as you’d like. Unfortunately, you can’t make multiple forms for one spreadsheet. That’d be awfully convenient at times.

Initially I was using the spreadsheet’s RSS feed to pipe the results back in. That’ll certainly work and you can use the embedrss plugin to make things easy5. In the end, I didn’t go this route but might in the future. With the RSS feed I think you could control the look a lot better and decide how much recent data to show.

In the end I used the selective publishing options that Google SS has. I hadn’t messed with this before so I was surprised how flexible things turned out to be.

Step one – Go to the spreadsheet that was auto created when you made the form. Then publish the spreadsheet as a web page.
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Make sure you click Automatically republish if you want it to update (also note that if the Republish button is yellow you need to press it to make your changes go into effect).
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Once you’ve got that set up. Click on More Publishing Options. You’ll then put in the following info. Choose – HTML to embed in a web page. You can then decide which cells to show. It’s just like Excel here. I only have one question and it’s in column B so I chose B1:B55 but you could do things like B1:D55 or whatever. This is really handy for breaking your data up and showing different pieces in different places.
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Now that you’ve got that set up the way you want- hit Generate URL AND cut and paste the HTML it made for you. Then paste it where you’d like your data to show up. I pasted the result below here. Notice too that the changes in formatting I made to the spreadsheet (the blue background) carried over to the embed. It seems like you have to republish to make that take effect6. Meanwhile, the data from the form should pipe right in every five minutes or so.

So you can use this in lots of fun ways with the added benefit that the info is in a spreadsheet that you can use in lots of other ways.

The information you enter in the form should show up here in a few minutes.

As additional background, I got Jim involved in this originally when I trying to use Cformsii (which is awesome by the way) and its RSS feed to do this (which is a really cool feature). I stopped using it because the feed for new entries was only working globally, that is for all forms, and not per form which is what I wanted. The feed also seems to fail in Google reader but I’m not sure why that is b/c it validates… Things seemed erratic to me but there could be lots of variables causing that. The upside of using Cforms would be increased control over the form and its look. You would have to figure out how to format the subsequent feed via CSS though – which is both good and bad in my opinion.


1 I freely admit that this may be seen as a stupid and useless thing to do (esp. by people who can write any sort of php.) I still see it as interesting if only for the fact that it shows different ways to make the information both portable, dynamic and embeddable.

2 To help make sure people actually addressed each aspect of the questions. If you give three questions in a post and ask people to answer in the comments you tend to get 1.4 questions answered rather than the 3 you wanted.

3 See Patrick, I am doing better.

4 The Rev. passed this on to me when I was cursing a few other plugins for not really allowing iframes to embed despite their claims to the contrary.

5 Thanks to Jim for that one.

6 It could happen automatically but I never waited long enough to see.

Why use WPMU in K12?

Time's Running Out

I’ve been slowly migrating all of our individual WP installs into WPMU over the last few days. It’s going to really make life a lot easier around here while adding some real advantages.

You’ve seen Jim showing a million reasons to use WPMU in the college environment and while most (maybe all) can be transferred over to K12 there are some advantages to using WPMU in K12 that are worth looking at a little more directly.

  • Flexibility – WordPress can handle just about any web need I have in a school setting. I can of course use it to blog but it can just as easily be the backbone for my school’s website and act more like a CMS. And imagine a school website that was both current and easy for multiple users to updated without expensive software. The ability to quickly and easily change themes is attractive to users but it is also a key component in creating engaging web experiences for students. BlackBoard and other CMS options tend to pretend to give you control over how your particular page or site looks but real customization is not an option at the user level and it makes a difference. Being able to control all the aspects of the Richard III page made things far more professional and interesting to the students than changing the buttons in BB to purple. Will most people do this? Definately not. But when they need to or want to it is possible. It is fundamentally wrong to allow software to cap the creativity and imagination of your teachers. It’s a choice you don’t have to make.

    I’ve also seen WordPress used to house podcasts, vodcasts, student newspapers1, book reviews etc. Make portions public, some private. Shutting the door on everyone is a horrific and stupid mistake. Schools need to put their content out there. It improves PR, involves the community and forces a kind of accountability that improves the school as a whole. It shouldn’t be an option.

  • Community and Monitoring – Sitewide feeds for posts and comments simplify things.- You’ve got the ability to keep track of a huge number of blogs and all their comments with just two RSS feeds. On the positive side that allows increased ability to generate community and help build energy and excitement. It makes all the difference in the world that teachers can easily find and see what other teachers are doing. The fact that these people are as similar as possible to those you’re seeking to influence is of paramount importance. The more similar they are the more powerful they will be as motivators2.

    The very thing that helps build community also allows you to monitor content easily3. With individual blogs and having to subscribe to each blog twice (comments and posts) things can easily get messy and hard to manage. If your world is anything like mine, then one publicized mistake can cause your whole experiment to get axed. You can help prevent that by monitoring the feeds for issues and acting quickly.

  • Ease of Use/Cheapness4 – Most K12 places are low on cash, low on IT expertise, don’t have servers5 and are lacking in time to teach people how to use software6. So for, at the most, $100 a year I can take care of an entire school with no problem. Users can learn the basics on their own or within a few minutes. I’m no tech guy and I can take care of things. Now I’ve got one installation to worry about as opposed to 40 or 100.

    And it’s getting easier. I can now update from within, install plugins from within and backup from within. No FTP. I just click a button. That blows my mind.

My advice, start slowly. Build capacity and provide great examples of how to use the blogs effectively in a variety of ways. Then expand. I’d continue to monitor, more to keep the pulse of the community and help group like minded teachers together and look for great examples than to sensor or anything like that. If you read with that intent it’ll seem much more pleasant and you can still keep catch any issues early.

Time’s running out. Get out there and do something. Make it impressive. Make it invaluable. Make it so they can’t take it away from you and replace it with some inflexible content coffin that will pacify only those in power7, only those who don’t use it, while un-empowering students and teachers. It’s going to happen sooner or later. Do it now and do it on your own terms.


1 I was starting to help UR’s students get this rolling right before I left but they’ve run with it entirely on their own and it’s amazing.

2 Can you tell I’m reading books on how to convince people? I can recommend – Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. This book has lots of really quick, actionable concepts that increase your ability to influence people. I figure it’s a must for teacher and especially for anyone in a leadership position in a school.

3 I know, I know, it seems almost antithetical to me as well but the reality of k12 education today requires some checks like this. The media has been busy creating Internet bogeymen after all. Remember there’s a pedophile behind every URL, no matter what the facts say.

4 No use having one without the other after all.

5 or have servers they can’t use

6 Notice I didn’t say train.

7 It’s web 2.0, it’s ajaxy, it’s a magical CMS that almost reaches mediocrity while leaving you stuck in another frustrating box cut to fit John Doe, leaving you no room to breathe

7 Things About Me

Since Milobo tagged me and I follow the rules of tag like a religion here are 7 things about me.

  1. As a general rule I don’t like schools or organized US education 1. I often wonder how I ended up doing this or if I even really belong here. On a positive note, I did enjoy Montessori school when I was younger.
  2. I have had 9 different full time jobs since I graduated in 2000. I’ve been hired by HCPS three separate times now and the University of Richmond twice.
  3. I’ve lived in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, South Korea, New York and Virginia. If it wasn’t for my extended family I’d move to Australia even though I’ve never been there. I like Steve Irwin that much.
  4. I used to chase rabbits a lot in my neighborhood- barefoot 2 I caught one once. Once.
  5. I hate that I have to sleep but like sleeping. I can’t help but think of how much more stuff I could do if I could just get by on 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night. As a result I’m always looking for ways people go without sleep and still manage to survive. For about a year I tried massive amounts of caffeine. It was normal for me to drink 3 Sobe No Fear 24K Energy Gold drinks a day while also chewing Mad Croc Caffeinated gum3. I now know this method does not work.

    Right now I drink virtually no caffeine.

    As a benefit, I can now sleep virtually anywhere at any time.

  6. I refuse to read or watch the news and have no interest in Jessica Simpson.
  7. I was once touched by a lemur- no, not emotionally. He (she?) reached through the cage and touched my hand. I still plan to go back and rescue him.

I’m not sure who I’ll tag. I’m looking for slow, unaware people. Let me know if you see anyone fitting that description.


1 I probably don’t like other the systems in other countries either but I haven’t met them yet.

2 Me . . . that is, I’m barefoot and the rabbit is as well, I guess.

3 Tip- if you don’t chew through the bitter, horrible phase you really don’t get the full caffeine dose.