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!

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