Saturday, March 29, 2014

Content Development News: More Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

It continues to be a good sign that when the weekend arrives, my first thought is: I get to make Myth-Folklore modules! I honestly had no idea that I was filled with all this pent-up desire to build new content for my class, but it's true. I had let the content sit on the back burner for a very long time, and while it was happily simmering and still perfectly palatable (to extend the metaphor), I was craving something new! So, things are going great, and following up on my previous post calculating out time required, I wanted to say something about MODULARITY and GRANULARITY. One of my favorite things about the Internet is the "small pieces, loosely joined" way in which it works so that contents naturally gravitate towards modular, granular structures. The strategies of modularity and granularity allow me to work very productively, while also feeling confident in the outcome I will achieve. Details below.

From Website to Blog

I've learned a lot in the 10+ years since I built the website that currently houses my course content. Based on problems with my website, I knew that I needed something much more flexible this time around. The big breakthrough was when I realized that a blog engine was the answer: my course content is built of stories, quite short stories that would work perfectly as posts in a blog. Eureka! I am not a web designer and have no desire to become one; I am instead a content developer, and I now see that using a blog engine is what will allow me to get the granular structure I need without having to spend time on actual web design for a traditional website.

When I built my course website all those years ago, I was essentially creating a kind of textbook that I put online. Of course, that "online textbook" was better than a printed book: it was free for students, I could include lots of images, the stories were directly linkable, the site was searchable, etc. But it also had many of the same disadvantages that a printed book has; in particular, it was really hard to change anything once I was done creating the online book. With my current website, there is simply no easy way to "slide in" new modules to expand the available content, and likewise no easy way to "slide out" a module that I want to replace with something else, and so too with the individual stories in the modules.

At the time, of course, I was so exhausted by having created the website that I didn't even see the lack of flexibility as a problem. As the years went by, though, I saw all kinds of changes I would like to make. When I first created the site, I had very few digitized texts I could use - mostly just content from Project Gutenberg. Now, though, I have literally hundreds of digitized texts that I want to use, and I realize that there will be more and more such texts to come. I truly did not anticipate that back in 2002 (although I probably should have!), but now the opportunities to expand the content are really unlimited. What a great time it is for public domain texts online!

Blogging with Blogger

Using Blogger was a natural choice for me as it is the blogging platform I am most familiar with. It's very barebones, but it has what I need for this project as I've discovered in building three complete modules so far. With some tinkering, I came up with a strong but flexible post-based structure, and now that I have the structure in place, creating content is going really quickly! Each reading module has a bibliography post plus an overview post, along with individual story posts, and then a reading diary post and an assignment ideas post. Each of those posts in turn has a structure of its own. For example, a story post has introductory notes, links to related stories, bibliography, story title, story image, image source, and word count (example).

As for navigation, I do have to do some manual linking (I've got a spreadsheet listing the posts so that I can quickly generate lists of HTML links as needed), but most of the navigation comes from the navigation features provided by Blogger itself via labels and the time/date stamps (I manipulate the time/date stamp for each post to suit my navigational needs).

The overall design also comes from Blogger; I have not worked on developing any content for the sidebar yet, but I will be using that to my advantage later on. By keeping content and design separate, I can focus my efforts 100% on content right now, and then make design decisions later on. I'm very pleased that Blogger has mobile-friendly styles so that my students will have no trouble doing their reading on a mobile device if that is their preference.

Of course, I'm backing up my work locally too, although I'm hopeful that Blogger will be around for quite some years to come, and, when it does go away, I'm confident that migration tools will facilitate moving easily to another similar platform.

Granularity in Action

The advantages of highly granular content in modules will be more clear I think if I provide some specific examples:

1. Granular Development Time. With this granular structure, I can work effectively in short bursts of time. As a result, even while school is in session, I can get lots done. The pieces of work I am completing now can be safely completed in isolation from each other, and then the more integrative tasks that require sustained periods of concentration (adding notes to the stories, creating the alternative navigation paths) can wait until summer. I'll have lots of story posts published and ready to work on when summer does arrive!

2. Interim Use. I can get use out of the project even in its interim stages. In fact, in a sense, the project is forever in an interim stage, never finished! So, for example, at a minimum I need to get 12 modules up and running in time for Fall 2014. I already have three complete modules so far - Tibetan Folk TalesEnglish Fairy Tales, and Welsh Fairy Tales - and more in various stages of preparation. Ideally, I will get 24 modules ready so that students can have a choice of 2 modules every week as they do now. Yet if I end up with only 12 instead of 24, there is nothing essential missing; there is nothing that "happens" as I move from 12 modules to 24 modules - there are just more modules, and more modules allow for student choice. At every stage the project is usable!

3. Granular Use. The modules have a granular structure, and that means there are individual artifacts (in this case, the story posts) which can be used both inside the module and outside the module. So, for example, as an example of use outside the module, last week I shared with a student who is working on Arthurian legend a great Arthurian item in the Welsh modules: Arthur in the Cave.  I've made sure to include basic bibliography on each story page so that they can be easily shared like that as independent items. I am hopeful that this granularity can make these materials potentially useful to others as well; I very much like the idea that I can share the stories independently of the module(s) to which they belong. It seems very likely that people might want to be able to find and link to a specific story even if they are not especially interested in the modules that I am building for my actual courses.

4. New Modules from Old Granules. Even better, as I accumulate a large library of stories, I will be able to build new modules that reuse existing stories. Right now, my push is to build modules drawn from a single source, the way these Welsh stories come from a single source. Later, though, after I have accumulated hundreds of these stories from single sources (24 modules will give me around 500 stories or so), I will be able to create new modules by remixing the stories - a module on tricksters, a module on magic, a module of love stories, a module of humorous stories, etc. I have to confess that the lack of granular re-use was the single biggest failure of my not-very-modular website in the previous incarnation of this class; I am really excited about being able to create these new thematic modules by reusing the source-based modules I am starting with.

5. Granular Feedback. Another thing I am very excited about is being able to gather granular feedback from students about the content I am creating: story by story, and module by module. Since I can easily "slide in" a new story to replace one that is not working well, and so too with entire modules, it will be very important for me to gather systematic feedback from students, especially in the first couple of years of using this system. Google Forms will make it easy to gather that kind of feedback from students, in addition to the anecdotal information I will get from their reading diaries and other blog posts. Blogger also offers possibilities for feedback with the ratings feature you can add to each post, the "plus" button, and so on. I am really looking forward to the way student feedback will fuel a continuous process of content improvement for me over time in this new system, unlike my previous website.

So, those are my thoughts today, and now I am going to go gather more stories to turn into modules! Last weekend I worked on Native American topics, and I think this weekend will be Greco-Roman. A student has been making good use of Padraic Colum's book about the adventures of Ulysses in her project this semester, so that's got me thinking about whether Colum's book might be the best choice for my Homer unit (I was using Samuel Butler's translation before). Or maybe I want to do the Iliad instead of the Odyssey. Or both! The possibilities are unlimited, and I am really happy that I will have exciting new content to share with the students already this fall. And it's only 34 days until summer... whoo-hoo!

I hope everybody is having as much fun this weekend as I am. Meanwhile, I'm labeling posts on this topic as Course Content Redesign for anyone who wants to watch how this unfolds!

Lego Bricks: how I learned to love granularity!

Friday, March 21, 2014

My Million-Dollar Content Development Process :-)

This is a report on my content development plan based on having created 3 course units so far; as I keep creating units I will probably make some modifications, backtracking to make sure all the units are consistent, and then in August I'll make a checklist to do a final proofreading of all the units in place then (12 minimum; hopefully 24). To put this in context, see my Course Redesign Plan.

Tools. Simple simple simple. Free free free. I am developing the units using Blogger as my web publishing tool. To manage the workflow, I am using GoogleDocs (both docs and spreadsheets), and I also use a simple text document for other editing. Those are all my tools!

Total time required: Each unit takes appx. 12 hours to develop (see details below). So, total time for the 24 units I hope to develop for my course: appx. 300 hours.

Thoughts about time. That sounds like a lot of time, and it is a lot of time admittedly, but much of this is the same work I would be doing to prepare the stories for a lecture, for example, if I were the kind of faculty member who lectured. Of those 12 hours per unit, 8 hours involve the planning and research and writing that I would have to do anyway to prepare the lectures and/or a study guide for the stories if they were in a textbook. So, of the 12 hours per weekly unit of prep time, call it 8 hours of regular prep time, plus 4 hours dedicated to making the materials available on the Internet for my students (so they don't have to buy a textbook), as well as to anyone else with an interest in the material.

A million dollars per year, ha ha. I do not feel bad spending that extra 4 hours per unit to do the web publishing given the benefit to the students; the last time I went through this process, I got a website with 28 reading units that has been used for 24 semesters by appx. 50 students per semester - so that's around 1200 students. I would say that spending an extra 100 hours of my time to make a "textbook" freely available to 1200 students is a good use of my time indeed. If it saved each student $60 (just a guess as to what I might spend on a textbook), that is a total savings of $72,000, in exchange for just 100 extra hours of my time to put the readings and notes online. And let's do some more math just for fun, ha ha - if I were indeed making $720 per hour, then that would mean I would be making (drumroll please...) over one million dollars per year.

Pardon me while I ROFLOL. :-)

Meanwhile, here are the nitty-gritty details of the workflow and time required:

1. SOURCE. First, I select a public domain source with a good plain text transcription that I can copy-and-paste. Ideally, there will also be illustrations for some/all of the stories. I prefer to find my sources at Sacred Texts and/or Project Gutenberg. I have literally HUNDREDS of books I could consider using at this point. Narrowing down the choices was hard, but I have plans in place for the first 36 units (12 minimum before Fall 2014).
Time required: none.

2. CREATE BOOK POST. I create a book page post at the blog which contains basic bibliography, along with links to available online editions: Sacred Texts, Sur La Lune, Gutenberg, Internet Archive, LibriVox, Amazon Kindle (if free or cheap). I include the complete table of contents, plus some kind of book cover or other image. This post will be updated in step #5 below.
Sample Book Post: Indian Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.
Time required: 15 minutes.

3. UPDATE SPREADSHEET. I read through the source and do word counts for each story, putting story titles and word counts into a Google Docs spreadsheet. Then, I target the stories to include based on quality of story and length (ideally stories 1000 words or shorter; no longer than 2000 words), for a total of appx. 15,000 words per unit.
Time required: 1 hour.

4. CREATE UNIT PAGE. I create a Unit Page blog post for the book. On the first run, this unit page is just be a copy of the Book Post, but I update the post in steps #5, #6, and #12 below.
Sample Unit Page: English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.
Time required: 15 minutes.

5. CREATE STORY PAGES. I create separate blog posts for the targeted stories. The first run contains just the book title (linking back to the book post) and basic bibliography, story title, image, text of the story, and the word count. More materials get added in step #10 and step #11 below. I read through the stories, making sure these are the ones to include; it is harder to replace stories beyond this point. As I create the posts, I add links from the Book Page's table of contents. This goes faster if every story already has an illustration; if takes longer if I have to find a publicdomain/CC image to use.
Sample Story Page: Mr. Miacca.
Time required: appx. 2 hours.

6. UPDATE UNIT PAGE. Next I update the Unit page to contain a brief introduction to the book, along with any other general information (just a few paragraphs at most, nothing elaborate). Then, I copy over the table of contents (with links) from the Book Page, deleting any stories not being used.
Sample Unit Page: Tibetan Folk Tales.
Time required: 30 minutes.

7. CREATE READING DIARY. Now I create a Reading Diary template using the spreadsheet to generate the HTML and uploading the template to GoogleDocs as a shared HTML document (since the students will also use this template). Then I create a blog post in my own reading diary using the template. This blog post will be used in #10 below, and the template will be needed again for #12 below.
Sample Template: Welsh Fairy Tales diary template.
Time required: 15 minutes.

8. CREATE TEXT FILE. I create a plain text document in which to collect story annotations as I read through the stories - basic glosses of unusual words, links to useful reference materials, etc. (just a few sentences for each story at most; nothing elaborate). I also use this text document to collect the connections among the stories: connect each story to two other stories in the collection based on themes, motifs, etc. I use the story titles and prompts so that I will make sure to accomplish all the tasks required as I work. This text document will be used in #10 and #11 below.
Time required: 15 minutes.

9. CREATE STORYTELLING POST. I create a Storytelling Ideas post using the HTML links from the spreadsheet so that there is a link to each story title and a bulleted list with two blank items for each story. This post will be used in #10 below, and it will also be part of a student assignment link from the course website later on.
Time required: 15 minutes.

10. UPDATE STORY PAGES. Now, I read through the story, adding annotations to the story pages, while also creating a story entry in the Reading Diary post, and update the Storytelling Ideas post for each story also.
Sample Story Page with Annotations: St. Collen.
Sample Diary: Welsh Fairy Tales Reading Diary.
Sample Storytelling Ideas Posts: Storytelling Ideas - Tibetan Folk Tales.
Time required: Varies based on how much research I do for each story. I'll call it 6 hours, but it might take more, depending on the topic.

11. UPDATE STORY PAGES. Then text document should now contain only the explore links. I use the spreadsheet to replace the titles of the stories with HTML link codes, and then I go through the story posts, pasting in the Explore links for each story.
Sample Page with Explore links: The Red Dragon of Wales.
Time required: 30 minutes.

12. UPDATE UNIT PAGE. For the final update to the Unit page, I add the Reading Assignment section with links to the Reading Diary I wrote and the Reading Diary template. Using the ?max-results=N variable, I divide the reading up so that it appears on two separate blog pages, linked to as Session One and Session Two.
Sample Unit Page: English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs.
Time required: 15 minutes.

As I've mentioned before, I'm labeling posts on this topic as Course Content Redesign for anyone who wants to watch how this unfolds!

And here is a proverb poster that expresses my philosophy of content building: from one small seed (blog post) there can grow a great tree.

(Details at the Proverb Laboratory.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Reading Diary Blogs... and the End of Myth-Folklore Quizzes

Well, I have been having such a great time working on new blog-based content for my Myth-Folklore class, so much so that I've decided to see if I can roll out the new course design already this coming fall. The big breakthrough was realizing that I could ask the students to use their blogs (no more Ning - real blogs with Blogger) to create Reading Diaries and these diaries could actually be much more helpful in improving their reading experience than the reading comprehension quizzes I use now. So... it looks like next fall is going to be even bigger than I realized - but I'm so excited about it! There are so many different things going on right now that it's a bit hard to discuss them separately, but in this post I will say something about the Reading Diary plan and why I think it is going to work so much better than the reading comprehension quizzes I am now using.

My Reading Diary. I got the idea for the Reading Diary when I realized that as a natural part of my reading process in building the new content units for the course I was keeping a Reading Diary myself. Well, why shouldn't the students do the same thing? Even better, I can use my Reading Diary as a kind of model to guide/inspire them. Here are the two Reading Diaries I've created for the units I've finished so far.

Required Notetaking. I know that most of my students do not take notes as they read, no matter how much I implore them to do so. Why? Because taking notes is not required for the grade. Sad to say, almost all students focus their attention on exactly what is required for a course, and no more than that. This is understandable since everything about college urges students to overcommit themselves, with the result that there is simply no way to get done every week all the things they want/need to do. If I really think taking notes is important for the reading process (and I do), then I need to require it.

Quizzes: Ideal v. Reality. Ideally, the quizzes could be providing valuable formative feedback for the students. I set the quizzes up for multiple attempts so that students who did not do well on a quiz could go back and review their notes (but, uh, what if they don't have notes to review?) and/or re-read the material so that they could take the quiz again and get a better score. But after years of watching what happens with the quizzes, I know I am just kidding myself: students who get a poor score on the quiz are in a hurry; that's why they get the poor score to begin with. They are not interested in formative feedback; they are just trying to finish as quickly as possible. In almost every case where I have looked to see what goes on with poor quiz scores, the students immediately retake the quiz, with just a pause of a minute or two in-between attempts - clearly, they are guessing and hoping for the best. Instead of reviewing their (non-existent) notes or spending more (non-existent) time to do the reading again, they are just pounding away at the quiz and assuming they might improve their score with some strategic guessing. That's not getting them any closer to the real goal here: improved reading comprehension. By using quizzes to try to guide students' reading experience, I am not having the impact I would like to have, and the students who are being worst served by the quizzes are the students most in need of help.

Externalizing the Reading Experience. A reading diary will externalize the reading experience, creating a lasting artifact that can be useful both to the student and to me. Having students externalize their reading experience in the form of notes in  a diary should be helpful to them as they do the assignments based on the reading (and I have some ideas about how to make specific use of the diary posts for future assignments too). The diaries will also be helpful to me as I attempt to learn more about what really goes on as they read. For example, by spot-checking some of the diaries, esp. of students I know are struggling, I might get some clues about useful information to include in the prefatory notes to each story that will help them focus and not get distracted or confused.

Practical Matters. Here are some of the practical matters I need to organize to make this happen in time for fall with a smooth transition:

Create diary post templates for each new reading unit: I'm doing that with a GoogleDocs files right now (see the Reading Diary info for the Welsh unit for example), along with notes I wrote up for how to use the template.

Change the workflow: Instead of background reading quiz on Tuesday and reading quiz on Wednesday with blog posts on Thursday, students will do a Tuesday declaration about having created and started their reading diary post for the unit (probably require notes on five stories minimum?), and then a Wednesday declaration about having finished their diary post, with the creative writing / essay posts due on Thursday as usual.

Reading units: Obviously this means getting enough reading units ready to go for fall, but I am feeling confident about that. Worst case scenario: I need just 12 units really (because I'm going to borrow the two review weeks pattern that happens in Indian Epics for MythFolklore), although 24 would be ideal. But I can certainly get 12 units done, no problem at all. And of course I can keep adding units; this modular system means content can come and go easily all the time.

Review weeks: As mentioned above, I decided to take a lesson from my Indian Epics class and build two review weeks into the MythFolklore class in Week 8 and Week 15. The Reading Diary will be a great way to make those review weeks productive; before, I did not really have a solid basis on which to build review weeks in MythFolklore like I naturally do in Indian Epics, so I think students will really like that, and it will definitely improve their overall content retention and synthesis. It will be fun writing up the writing assignments for the review week, drawing on their reading diaries and other blog posts.

NB: Quizzes in Indian Epics. I should add that I will carry on using the reading comprehension quizzes in Indian Epics, and I am actually pretty happy with the way those are working, but the reading situation is entirely different in that class. In Indian Epics, the reading is cumulative from week to week, and it is also more substantial than in the Myth-Folklore class (about twice as much reading). Students have actual physical books for that class, rather than online readings (so the default mode for notetaking is highlighting in the book and writing marginalia, which is actually fine with me), and I have prepared detailed reading guides for them already so they actually do not need to write out detailed notes of their own — their time is actually probably better spent in other ways. The quizzes thus serve as a check to make sure the students are using the reading guides and making good use of the physical books (highlighting or some other form of notetaking as they prefer). So, the quizzes will remain as they are in Indian Epics, and that seems right: I can tell exactly how poorly the quizzes are working in Myth-Folklore in part because I can see how effective they appear to be in the Epics class by comparison in terms of really helping me help the students to manage their reading experience.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing to label posts on this topic as Course Content Redesign for anyone who wants to watch how this unfolds!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Content Development: Time for a New Myth-Folklore "Website"

One of the frustrating things about a year-to-year appointment is that it really discourages long-term investments in teaching materials. My focus is always on short-term projects where I can see the benefits this semester or in the next semester, and I avoid projects that would take a year or longer to complete and share with my students. Now, however, the time has come to do something about my Myth-Folklore course website, which is now over 12 years old (it dates back to 2002). When I built it at the time (with Dreamweaver... back before Adobe bought them out), I was constrained by both technology and also available materials. Now, though, there is a whole range of technology options I can use, and the abundance of materials I can offer my students is mind-boggling. So, I need to think about re-developing my class content in a way that takes advantage of new technologies and new content.

At first I was thinking that I somehow needed to salvage my old site, migrating or converting it in some way. But just a couple weeks ago I realized that I really can, and should, start over. The site has served me well, but it has outlived its time. I need to assess the strategies I used originally and then rebuild from scratch. In a sense, my initial success with the site has been a limiting factor: exactly because I made so many good decisions (largely by accident!), I haven’t been compelled to redo the site in all these years. Now, though, there are some things I really want to be able to do that I cannot do easily.

Here are some goals I would like to achieve with a new site:

EXPAND STUDENT CHOICE. Right now students can choose one of two topics for each week, but I would like to dramatically expand that to at least three or four topics per week. I am thinking of going with a smorgasbord approach, so that instead of weekly topics, students just choose ANY unit they want to read in any week, pursuing their own interests, building their own course as it were.

ADD/RETIRE CONTENT EASILY. In addition to adding a lot of new content now during the reboot, I also want to make it possible to add and/or remove content easily in the future so that I do not get stuck in this same trap again. When I find a fabulous new public domain source, I want to be able to build a unit to the class and add it easily, and when it is clear that a unit is just not working well for students, I want to be able to remove it (temporarily for improvement, or permanently if needed).

CONTENT RATING. Since I have not had the flexibility to add/remove content in the past, it has not really made sense to build a system where I gather student feedback for the purposes of content development. Now, however, with a more flexible system, I will definitely want to gather student feedback - formally and informally, implicit and explicit - to help me focus my content development efforts effectively.

QUICK AND EASY EDITING. I’m the kind of person who believes in continuous editing, which is why I prefer web publishing to traditional print publishing. In print, a typo is forever. Online, you can fix things quickly and easily. Right now, though, my website is not very amenable to editing because content and design are not separated as they should be in a content management system. By going with blogging software, I can separate content and design more effectively, and that will allow me to continuous improve content on a small scale - basic editing, repairing/adding links, etc.

CONTENT REPURPOSING. Although my old site pages are directly linkable, I made some assumptions about navigation that are very limiting. In particular, I cannot reuse a story in more than one unit, even though that is a highly desirable thing to do. I want to be able to create reading units based on sources (Tibetan Folk Tales, Brothers Grimm, Dante’s Inferno), but I also want to create thematic units that draw on multiple sources (trickster stories, goddess mythology, supernatural monsters, etc.).

There are other desiderata as well, but those are the main things I have in mind. After pondering these questions, I decided to give Blogger a try since, honestly, I just love using Blogger. I know it has its limitations (I could draw up a long list of its limitations, in fact), but there are also so many things I like about Blogger; I’ll list in a separate post when I see as the pros and cons for me.

Anyway, just as a test, I decided to mock up a typical reading unit in Blogger to see how effective it would be, and also to get a sense of how much time it would take. I was AMAZED at how efficient it was. I was able to create a new reading unit on Tibetan Folk Tales in just a couple of hours! Again, in a separate post I’ll explain just what is involved, but you can see the results here: Tibetan Folk Tales.

And... those Tibetan stories are just fabulous, very much the kinds of stories I enjoy myself. I am so glad that I will be able to make them part of my class. At last!!!

Heartened by that success, I made a unit for English Fairy Tales. And since I was really on a roll, I did Rasmussen’s Eskimo Folktales. All in a single evening.

OMG: I had so much fun!!! Putting these units together made me realize how very much I want to do this redesign. When I built the first website (I was barely keeping a week or two ahead of the students that first semester), I felt such a thrill at sharing the stories. And now… there are so many more stories I can draw on and share. Literally hundreds of public domain books online that I can use for material.

So, I think this could end up being the most fun I have ever had in my work as an online instructor. Very ironic, since it was a task I have been dreading for years… and dreading is not too strong a word.

It just goes to show: learning to LET GO is essential. Once I realized I could just let go of the old site and start again, it all started to fall into place. I'll label upcoming posts as Course Content Redesign for anyone who wants to watch how this unfolds!