Wednesday, December 24, 2014

More on the Power of Random: Random Storybooks

Because of the crazy school calendar (spring semesters starts sooooo early: too early!), I am actually doing a little schoolwork this morning to get ready for the new semester... but I saved my favorite of all new-semester tasks for today: updating the random Storybook widgets that automatically display Storybooks at random in my different class blogs and websites. You can see the updated widgets in action all over the place:
There might even be some other places where the widgets are on display, places I don't even remember... and that is the power of distributed widgets: I don't have to go update the individual places where the widget is embedded. I just update the widget script in one place, and it is automatically updated everywhere.

So, for example, here's the 400-pixel version of the script that features Storybooks from both classes:

I create these scripts using an amazing tool built years ago by Randy Hoyt, a former student: This free tool takes any HTML table and converts it to a javascript that either displays the table cells at random (as I've done with these scripts) or based on a calendar (either a perpetual calendar or a fixed-year calendar, as you prefer). When Randy created this tool years ago, I never suspected I would still be using it eight years later: javascript was definitely a good choice because it is still going strong! You can also choose to create PHP versions of the scripts if you want instead.

In terms of the nitty-gritty, I have one giant HTML table that lists the Storybooks for both classes, Myth-Folklore on top and Indian Epics down below. There is a title linked to the Storybook online, plus a quick little blurb written by me, along with a screenshot of the coverpage, 400 pixels wide. I then cut that table in two, creating a separate script for each class. Then I copy those scripts and manually replace the 400 pixel widths for the 200-pixel version I use in the blog sidebars, giving me two different versions of each script. I publish those new javascripts, and then everything runs automatically, with class-specific widgets or with the meta-widgets that randomizes the already randomized widgets as above. The actual creation of the scripts takes just a few minutes; the part of the task that takes some time is making the screenshots and writing the blurbs for each semester's Storybooks as I add them to the HTML table. But it's fun, as I said: I'm always so proud of the new Storybooks that go into the script every semester!

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I think randomization is the most powerful tool we have for scaling in online classes, whether small or medium or massive. So, for example, I use random blog groups and random project groups to make sure that there is good student-to-student interaction in class every week, and I built some magic crystal balls to help students as they choose items each week from the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. Random also works for the archive of student Storybooks. I really want each semester's new students to be aware of past student projects, but just showing them long lists of projects is not effective. So, instead of expecting the students to come to the Storybooks, I bring the Storybooks to the students: the random widgets display a new Storybook each time they visit the class homepage or look at the class announcements, along with each time they visit the class support sites, etc. It's non-stop Storybooks ... one at a time, randomly.

Of course, I never know just what Storybooks will capture their attention, and that's fine: the power of random means they see all kinds of Storybooks and, sooner or later, they are bound to be intrigued enough to click on a link and learn more. That's my hope anyway... and the power of random means that 24 hours a day on all those webpages and all those blog posts, there are wonderful Storybooks waiting to appear by magic, bringing their stories with them.

Random: it really is a superpower! I continue to be baffled that MOOC platforms and LMS software (like the D2L BS used at my school, or our MOOC wannabe platform, Janux) do not make good use of the power of random in order to scale course content and interactions. Random is great: it means we can all get to know each other and we can see all kinds of content all the time ... but just one person or thing at a time, not all at once! Massive stuff, but on a human scale. It works! :-)

(Cartoon by Sumanta Baruah)

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