Simple, Possibly Effective

Halloween
In honor of Halloween and returning from the blogging dead, I offer up this post (and so I have an excuse to use the picture above).

I don’t blog much. Never have been consistent. The new job is making it easier to be worse. Lots of ready excuses. I recently found myself only looking through my FFFFound RSS feed and neglecting a lot of other things. It was easy to do. The education stuff made me nauseous and I’d never get to do the pop culture stuff that I liked, so why bother.

In an attempt to remind myself of the things I like about the internet and education (and to remind myself to blog and share content intelligently) I made this aggregation site with the FeedWordPress plugin. It links in all my Delicious additions with a certain tag, my blog posts, and anything I star in Google Reader. So I’m not doing extra work (a tag here or there) but I am providing a single place/feed for a certain audience- in this case ITRTs who work in HCPS1.

This kind of aggregation has some real potential for schools and sharing resources that I’ve rarely seen harnessed. But, more than anything, this will help make me focus on what I am reading and how I am sharing content. I want to remind myself to be doing this with intent. I don’t want to forget why I find this intersection of teaching and the internet interesting. I also want to prove to myself that there is always time for things if you think they are important.


1 I don’t know that any will actually read it but stranger things have happened and having an audience in mind has always helped me.

Intro to Theme Tweaking: Firebug has Magic Eyes

A couple of people at work were discussing how to make a good website for a school newspaper. I couldn’t help but point out the beauty that is The Collegian and mentioned it was based on WordPress with some theme tweaking.

So one thing led to another and now a number of people are interested in learning how to do this type of thing. I’m the one-eyed guy1 who’s attempting to guide them. I’m no master of CSS, PHP or even WordPress but I have managed to do a few things over time- usually through trial and error.

The movie below kind of talks about why CSS exists and then delves into using Firebug2 to explore website and learn how/what to change in the CSS to tweak themes.

Firebug Introduction from Tom Woodward on Vimeo.


1 Too obscure a reference?

2 I find this plugin to be nearly magical and highly encourage you to use it for this and a variety of other purposes.

New Blackboard Executive Starts Blog, Opts Not to Use BB’s “Blogging” Option

—Another mock Chronicle article – it’s probably getting tiresome but it’s entertaining me right now.

original article here by JEFFREY R. YOUNG
footnotes, italics, scare quotes on blog and a few minor deletions by me . . .
____________________________________________________________________

The new head of Blackboard Inc.‘s course-management-software division, Ray Henderson, started a “blog” this week, and he’s already facing tough questions from critics. Blackboard’s top management wanted to know just what the hell this “blog” thing was and if there was a way to charge people extra for it.

Eager to prove that he plans to bring change to Blackboard, Mr. Henderson declared that his “blog” is a sign of more transparent times. “Me joining the company means we’re going to communicate more often and more openly,” he wrote in his opening post on Tuesday. “We are even considering responding to phone calls from clients who pay less than $500,000 a year in fees.”

“I’m excited about having a spot where I can muse out loud about my take on various things in eLearning, and have other folks weigh in with theirs,” he added. “In particular, I’ve got lots to say on the whole openness, standards, interoperability question. It’ll be particularly nice because if I talk about this stuff on company grounds I’ll be fired.

He allows comments on the blog, though he says he is moderating them before they go live. “I’m dipping my toe in the previously uncharted waters for Blackboard of having comments turned on in this blog,” he explained in a note on the blog. “Not revolutionary I know and really required for an interesting exchange. But a new step for Blackboard nonetheless and one we’re taking gradually. Afterall, it’s not like we’re some new fangled company focused on web-based technology or something!

Still, Mr. Henderson has allowed plenty of critical voices on the site so far. “Tell your new Blackboard colleagues to drop the lawsuit with D2L,” wrote one commenter, referring to the company’s patent-infringement lawsuit against Desire2Learn, another company making course-management software. “Start putting education (not litigation) first.” Another commenter said that Blackboard promised more open communication with customers last time it bought a rival, when it bought WebCT in 2007, but did not deliver. The blog commenter asked: “Why should we believe what you are saying this time?”

Mr. Henderson wrote a reply today to some of the questions. He punted on the patent issue: “Step one is for BlackBoard to win the suit or buy D2L. Until we do so it’s not something I’ll talk about here.” And he closed with a cliffhanger: “To the question about what’s new this time around as Bb and ANGEL come together, there are some really important differences that I’ll be addressing directly in the next week or two.”

Mr. Henderson then cackled wildly, drank deeply from a cup that looked disturbingly like a human skull and flew off on bat-like wings.

Publishing Google Docs to WPMU

I was looking to have some people in my class publish lesson plans to their WPMU blogs via Google Docs. So I consulting the dean of WPMU, The Right Reverend Jim Groom, and he made it look so easy. Yet, I failed. Feeling stupid I started drinking looked at the differences in our set up. I began to worry it was because I wasn’t using dynamic subdomains. I reached such a depth of despondency that I actually read one of the error messages from Google itself.

It said “Hey Dummy, you haven’t turned on XML-RPC publishing for that blog. Why don’t you go turn it on?” I did and everything now works. There’s a video on how to do that below in case it helps.

pub2wpmu

WPMU Easter Egg

So I’ve installed WPMU on one of our externally hosted servers and with Jim’s patient assistance have been trying to get it in shape. One of the things I needed was the theme editor. So I was going through the steps to get it installed and things are looking good when . . . I hit the theme editor tab and the video below happened1.

In all honesty, the first time it happened it scared the hell out of me. I frantically thought of all the vague warnings I’d received, reconsidered what I’ve done with file permissions, wished I’d backed things up 2.

I’ve since been wrestling with the .htaccess file and other fairly dreadful nerd stuff. Unfortunately, this server is running both PHP 4 and 5 and has some custom .htaccess stuff set up to password directories down the line. This has led to all kinds of hassle for me (and as a result hassle for Jim :) who has insisted I blog about the easter egg so he can reblog it3).


1 and happened every single time I hit the theme editor tab

2 and then realized I already had

3 Isn’t the Internet a weird place

WordCamp ED in DC!

WordCamp Ed is a WordCamp focused entirely on educational uses of WordPress — in schools and universities. The inaugural WordCamp Ed will be held at George Mason University on Saturday, November 22nd featuring a morning of pre-planned speakers, and a barcamp-style afternoon breaking into smaller discussions and sessions.

SIGN UP NOW!

I’ll be there and I’m hoping to see some of you.

A Blogging Bestiary

Soooo, I had to do another presentation on blogging and “Bob on Blogs” wasn’t really the style I wanted for the UR crowd. Time for something new. This is my basic thought process in case it might interest someone.

Concept (learning objective): There are two key things I want viewers to come away with

  1. A blog is just an easy way to get content (multimedia and otherwise) on the Internet and you don’t have to do commenting, regular posts, etc.
  2. There are lots of interesting ways to use blogs in education

The problem I ran into was that I had lots of blog examples but when I started trying to break things down to show the flexibility it got way too complex. I was initially trying to show things like:

  • Group blog, with comments, using text and images
  • Single user blog, without comments, using text
  • Group blog, aggregating via RSS, with comments using text, video and images

So, instead I divided the presentation into two parts. The first portion would be a more traditional presentation with slides to add some humor and associate some interesting visuals with the relatively dry topic of the conceptual use of blogs, their limitations etc. I really wanted to keep the audience engaged and thinking about things in terms that made sense to them.

The second portion ended up being built with Exhibit so that users could select the design elements they wanted and then be linked to an a blog with those elements. I got the idea from this Exhibit page that allows you to select a variety of political positions and end up with the presidential candidate you should vote for. The nice thing is if I felt others would contribute interesting blogs, I could have them submit via google forms.

Now I had to come up with something that visually and thematically/spiritually carried across my point. I thought about lots of things but eventually settled on the idea of the medieval bestiary.

My rationale was pretty simple. The pictures are really interesting and unusual- and likely to stick with people. The dichotomy between using medieval illustrations to talk about blogs also appealed to me. Finally, using these images helped frame my presentation. I could parallel the strange/mythical animals to the way people are describing new web applications (like blogs) today. The monks who related the “facts” in the bestiary are about as accurate as modern day people who define blogs as “online journals.”

I’ll walk you through the presentation slide by slide below.
Intro Slide for the Bloging Bestiary
I like to have something fairly interesting to start things off that hints at what’s to come without making too much sense. I want to create a sense of intrigue. This image is put up as people come it so they, hopefully, begin to think and wonder about how in the world this weird guy is going to make a relationship between a bestiary and a blog.

This slide is my background as I describe a little of who I am and what I plan to do.
Fancy B Blogging
Now I mention there are many animals in the Bestiary of Electronic Creatures but today we’ll be discussing the blog. I make a joke about being sure there’s a B in there somewhere and start asking a few questions. Who has used a blog? Mastered one? etc. Depending on the audience knowledge I might ask for a definition.
Which one do you choose?
Here I ask the audience to decide which of these three animals a blog is most like. I encouraged them to talk to their neighbor etc. but I don’t think anyone did. I next asked the group what they choose- rhino? octopus? or hydra (which I called a many-headed-thing-a-ma-jig as a joke which didn’t work with one of the librarians in the crowd who volunteered the official name)? After giving them a short amount of time to talk (I only had 30 minutes) I asked if anyone wanted to volunteer their rationale. That worked pretty well.

Old woman fights a dog
This where I compared html etc. to being a lot like an old woman fighting a dog- no one enjoys it. I think I related the story of how I used to do what is essentially a blog by hand and how miserable that was. A need existed for a quicker easier way.

Monk
The next point was that all these “experts” defining blogs often were like the monks of old- they only had second hand information about a new animal and their writings often had motives beyond presenting simple facts. They changed or added facts to make their descriptions more interesting or to make them fit allegories.

a bonnacon spewing fiery manure over 3 acres
As Jim Groom related not too long ago, I did use a bonnacon as a comparison to the way a lot of people described blogs- namely that they were for spewing acres of fiery manure. My point was both that this didn’t have to be the case and that colorful “reporting” resulted in this stereotype.

I actually used a animated transition here. My rationale being that I wanted the bonnacon to be mysterious and then I transitioned it in with fire to emphasize the fiery nature of the bonnacon feces. And I’d always wanted to use that transition.

Blogging evolutionary tree
Now it was time to show how blogs had changed over time. I used Alan Levine’scat diaries” analogy as the origin of blogs- namely boring stuff put up sequentially that only you would be interested in.

Then things got really exciting and you could put up pictures to go with your cat diary. That’s where most of the blogs were today with a few also doing cat videos. However, there were two important divergent evolutionary paths- the multimedia publishing octopus and the static priest. These were the two offshoots that we were going to examine.
Bear licking offspring into shape
This seems slightly awkward here but it seemed to work during the presentation. I think I’d move it were I to do this again. The story is that medieval people believed that bears gave birth to shapeless blobs of flesh in the winter and the mother bear had to lick that shapeless lump into a bear cub. I paralleled to it to the author’s ability to “lick” the blog into any shape they desired. It’s just a way to get stuff on the Internet, you can make it what you want.

solo author vs group author
Now we get into the defining characteristics of blogs and why you might want to go certain ways. Solo vs group for instance. I talked about keeping the voice pure, different reasons you might want the content to just represent you, the options for multiple blogs, ways to control other users that you might want making content but not fully trust, ways to pipe in other people’s blog content via category/keyword – that type of thing. That covered the next four slides or so.

Multimedia octopus
Then I got into all the ways that blogs played nicely with multimedia (pictures, video, text, file downloads, etc.) and ways to integrate that into teaching. There was emphasis put on how easy it was.
carven monk update style
Then I got into how update styles are not set in stone. While blogs are seen as content that’s added sequentially over time, they don’t have to be. They can be set up and used as webpages very easily. This type of use cuts down on expensive software, html or WYSIWYG webpage learning curves and lets the author take advantage of lots of free design templates.

There were a couple of other images indicating a more stately update style (chameleon) and a faster frantic update choice (lots of fleas).

Security rhino
So I wrapped it up with some discussions on how and why you might want to restrict access to your blog (copyright, sensitive information, more open communication of sensitive topics). I discussed the levels of restriction. Starting with no one else can even see it and going down to anyone can comment while trying to cover the risks/benefits of each option.

In the end I compare the blog to an octopus for several reasons that I backed up with video at the very end after my two guest professors spoke.

  1. The octopus can change color to blend into any environment (blog themes)
  2. The octopus is fast and agile (like blogs but not like chameleons who are sloooowww)
  3. The octopus is flexible/malleable and really smart (my whole point about blogs- starts about 1:45 in with some wild shots of an octopus crawling through a clear plastic maze)

I was lucky enough to have Dr. Darell Walden (Accounting) and Dr. Patricia Stohr-Hunt (Education- really nice podcasts for elem. teachers) talk about their experience using blogs in the classroom.

Anna C has a pretty good write up of the content minus my stupider jokes if you’re interested. She did a much better job over the whole conference taking notes than I did.

The images, plus a few I didn’t use, are up on flickr.


The Keynote is here.

Creating a Safe Space: Hacking WP

60% of my teachers have been in our county for less than 3 years (and, most of these newcomers, have never worked with a 1 to 1 initiative). More than 40% of my teachers have put less than 3 years into this vocation. With this in mind, I have created a space, online, for teachers to discuss instruction, vocation, and solutions for our school. I hope it will be a community building experience that gives teachers as much time as they can to the process without having to commit to meetings.

Following the lead of Alan Levine with Tom’s guidance, I started by sketching out my vision. I wanted a place that was password protected and required unique usernames for participation. This site would be a  safe place where teachers could speak their minds in a professional manner. At the same time, I wanted to foster open communication, so anonymous responses would not be an option. I didn’t want a traditional blog format. The U/I needed to be as intuitive as possible, and I wanted meta-data to be presented in a way that encourage conversation. I sketched up two different layouts and solicited some feedback from my faculty.

  

The overwhelming response was for the second layout. After sifting through themes that mirrored my sketch, I decided on Blue Earth. Then, it was time to edit the Main Index Page to pull posts according to category (instead of arranging posts chronologically). The code is annotated, so feel free to play with it:

Right Click to Download index.txt file

On the right sidebar, I’ve added a section that lists the most recent comments using Get Recent Comments, and I’ve also created a section with the most discussed topics using Most Commented Posts. This will give my faculty an idea of what topics are most engaging at the moment.

On the left sidebar I added a section where I can place featured topics that committees and clubs will use to solicit feedback.  Finally, because the topics cycle through the main page weekly, I wanted the archive to go beyond a general archive based on month. The challenge was figuring out how to sort the posts by week for the first month without having to change the tags or code each week. I tried to find a plugin that would do this for me, but nothing seemed to fit. In the end I was digging through the WordPress Codex and found this little gem:

<?php query_posts(“showposts=3&offset=9″); ?>

Since I am only posting three entries a week, I was able to code the archive on the left by counting back (offsetting) from the most recent set of posts, and I added an archive that sorted by category along with the traditional monthly archive.

In an effort to model open communication, I added a FAQ and a Feedback page along the header so my staff could participate in the evolution of this site.  Finally, I had to remove the rss/atom feeds from the site to seal up the blog.  Being a fearless hack (who always backs up data/copies code into a NotePad or TextMate/saves the original theme in a folder on my hard drive) I simply found the rss and atom php files in the wordpress folder and deleted them.  Yes, I deleted them.  Refreshing the page (and expecting the white-screen fatal error message of doom), I was pleasantly surprised that everything worked fine.  I tested my hack by trying to subscribe with Google Reader and NewsFire, but was stone-walled.  

Below you will find a list of the plugins I used and links to helpful resources. Again, Alan’s walk-through was an unbelievably helpful starting point (Thanks, Allen). I’m going to leave the demo site open for your exploration (with commenting turned off). I’ve ported the site to a secure location for my staff, but I’d be happy to update you on how it is being used.

Plugins:

Angsuman’s Authenticated WordPress Plugin (password protect with unique passwords)
Brian’s Threaded Comments (threaded discussions)
Dagon Design Import Users (bulk user creator)
Exec-PHP (used for querying the database for specific posts, images, categories)
FAQ-tastic (FAQ creator–very user friendly)
Get Recent Comments (pulls the most recent comments on your blog–can be adapted very easily)
Secure and Accessible PHP Contact Form (Feedback Form)
Smart Archives (Archives by Month and Subject/Category)
The Excerpt Reloaded (Excerpt Generator)
Most Commented Posts (Tracks the most discussed posts) 

Subscribe2: RSS through Email (Update)

rss2email.jpg

I’m creating an information blog for my new school. One of my assistant principals asked me about RSS, and as we talked through what he needed, we realized the root of his request was a very manageable email subscription program. He was maintaining a list of over 1000 email addresses to send out biweekly newsletter. I thought we might be able to manage this through a blog.

I searched the WordPress plugin directory and came up with Subscribe2. The plugin lets users have entire or partial posts sent as plain text or HTML to their email. Scubscribe2 uses a conformation system to verify the address, so my assistant principal will have less housecleaning to do. It puts the burden of entering the emails on the community. It’s an efficient way to disperse information to parents and the community via blogging–even to those who are “RSS challenged”. I’m testing it on my instruction and technology blog. I’ll have the information blog up by the end of the week. Look for an update after we’ve tested it for a couple months .

Download Link

Update:  After playing with Subscribe2 for a week, I realized it was not fulfilling the needs we had.  I uninstalled it and, thanks to the advice of Chris Craft, switched to Feedblitz.   We have been very happy with Feedblitz for a number of reasons.  The service sends out a confirmation email to all subscribers–screening out improperly entered or fake emails from the start.  You are able to manage your list in your Feedblitz account, so I don’t have to download a data file each time you want to make changes to the list.  We do need to moderate when we post new material.  Since the free service sends the material once a day and we don’t want our parents and community bombarded with emails, we make it a point to hold our posts until they can be grouped together.  The only wish we have is for a name field so we can associate the email address with an actual person in the community.  Overall, we are more than pleased with Feedblitz, and several other high schools in our county have adopted it for their communication blogs.

WordPress Tutorial

nice-to-meet-you.jpg

This WordPress tutorial is aimed at teachers (or anyone else) who is just starting out with some server space and Fantastico support. It covers a lot of the basic installation questions and gets into how to add themes and plugins to the blog. Most everything is done in video format.

I made it for our ITRTs who are mainly using LunarPages for their server space. It also covers the basic blog usage questions regarding activating plugins, changing themes and doing all the other normal stuff. We also get into some of the settings we use to make sure comments are moderated etc. There are also some tutorial on what plugins etc. I used to create different projects (like the Byrd Books audio blog)

It’s a solid intro into the world of assisted WordPress installation and administration.