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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Some Thoughts on Blog Hubs: What are they for anyway?

Adam Croom was kind enough to do a quick hangout video that provides a walkthrough of how the FeedWordPress plugin is integrated into the create.ou.edu network (Domain of One's Own pilot) that we are running at my school. Although I was not invited to use create.ou.edu for my classes (only a few faculty were included in the original invitation), I do have an individual account there now, and I am going to play around with FeedWordPress this spring to see how I can use it for my classes. So, even though my students are not using WordPress at create.ou.edu, I can still go ahead and set up my own WordPress blog as a syndication hub and subscribe to my students' blogs (hopefully via an OPML file, since that sure will be easier than subscribing one by one). I'd definitely like to learn more about how this WordPress approach to syndication works. In fact, seeing Adam's demo got me to thinking about how a WordPress hub could complement Inoreader since they really are very different. Just as a broad generalization, the WordPress hub looks like it will be great for design and presentation, while Inoreader is more of a data management tool, admittedly not so strong on presentation and design.

Hubs and goals. For my classes, the data management side is what is really essential, so let me explain how that works in terms of the goals for my classes. Overall, I have two big goals: one goal is for me to interact with my students via their blogs and the other goal is for the students to interact with each other via their blogs. Obviously, those goals are very similar, but there is one factor that makes them very different: scale. Each student interacts with just a few other students each week... but I like to interact with everybody!

Random for students. Here's how that works for students: each week the students interact with other students in class via randomly assigned blog groups and randomly assigned Project groups (three people in each group, all totally random). It's really simple to do this: I have a list of the students' blog addresses and also a list of their Project Comment Wall addresses (raw HTML with clickable links), and I use an online randomizer to randomize those lists each week. I then divide the randomized list up into sets of three and, presto, groups! It takes me about 10 minutes each week to set up the blog groups and the Project groups for both classes: easy-peasy. Thanks to the power of random, every student gets comments every week, while slowly but surely they all get to know each other, even in my big class (Myth-Folklore has around 50-60 while Indian Epics is around 30). They also have some free choices in the blog commenting and Project commenting, so as they make friends in the class, they can also follow the same person's work from week to week too.

For all that interaction to happen, I don't use a blog hub; the list of links and the randomizer is all I need. The power of random is the essential factor here: I don't want expect the students to be monitoring ALL the blogs (that's my job; see below). Instead, I just want the students to read blogs at random, and that way I can feel confident that the overall level of interaction in the class is really high AND well distributed. Also, since the students do such a great job of customizing their blogs (choosing a design, adding content to the sidebar), I really want them to interact in those individual blog spaces, not in the generic sameness of a syndicated hub.

Systematic for me. My situation, though, is completely different. I cannot afford to just interact with the students at random... because I really am a very hands-on teacher. And yes, I am pretty obsessive, ha ha. I want to see EVERYTHING that is happening in my classes, partly because I want to make sure everything is going well and also because I totally enjoy all of it — I love seeing what my students are creating every day! So, that means I am watching 80-90 blogs (and that may actually be close to 100 this semester since I am seriously overenrolled), with about 5 posts per student per week. I don't comment on all those posts of course, but I do like to glance at them, and I comment as needed and as time allows (my main way of interacting with students is through their Projects, though - which are separate from the blogs). In particular, I need to comment when there might be a problem with a blog post (for example, some students try remote linking to Pixabay images, etc. - little technical glitches like that). I also like to keep an eye on the comments, and there are hundreds of comments every week — very fun to watch: the students are so positive and helpful with all that. Here's what that comment stream looked like last semester for example.

So, when I say that Inoreader provides the blog hub for my class, it is the blog hub for my use mostly, not so much a blog hub that the students use (instead, the students are just using the random groups to visit blogs, and also finding their friends in the blog directory).

Inoreader for assignments. There is one way, however, in which Inoreader really is important for my students, and that is in the way that it can push out SPECIFIC assignments based on the assignment-specific tags that are automatically assigned to incoming posts. Every folder and every tag in Inoreader becomes an RSS feed of its own with an HTML clippings view. That means I can share the HTML view of a given assignment back with the students. In terms of helping students to get an idea of how each assignment works, this is so valuable! Some students are good at reading instructions, but other students do so much better when they can see concrete examples of an assignment... and Inoreader lets me share a stream of examples back with the students for every assignment.

You can see how that works here in the very first blog post assignment for the class: Favorite Places instructions. As always, I provide detailed instructions (yes, insanely detailed instructions...), but I also provide a link to student posts. Right now the link is going to student posts from last semester, but as soon as I get a few of these favorite places posts from Spring semester, I'll change the HTML clipping stream that is embedded here, and that way students will see the latest posts from their fellow students in the class: Favorite Places posts. Being able to see those posts from other students is a great supplement to the actual instructions and, even more importantly, it shows how everybody's post is just different from all the other posts. There's no right/wrong and no sameness about this experience... instead, it's just a fun and friendly way to start getting to know each other as the semester begins.

So, I love how tags and folders let me re-use specific assignments this way in Inoreader. One of the things I want to explore with FeedWordPress is whether I can get that same assignment-level specificity without having to do a lot of manual work. Right now with Inoreader, there are automatic rules that tag the individual assignments as they come in, and that tagging process is about 99% accurate; every once in a while I had to manually add a tag because a student used a very funky post title that my Inoreader rule did not recognize.

With assignment streams on the fly! I can also go through on the fly and add specific tags to instantly create a content stream as needed. For example, in the first storytelling post of the semester, students choose whether to do an Aesop's fable of their own, a nursery rhyme, or an urban legend type of story. The nursery rhyme is probably the most unusual since nursery rhymes do not always have a story plot in the traditional sense. So, right now at this very moment I am going to go through and quickly tag all the first week storytelling posts that used nursery rhymes last Fall (I didn't use that tag originally; I'm adding it now), and that tag-stream will be a resource for students this Spring who want to try a nursery rhyme story ... (pause for about five minutes where I quickly go through last semester's first week storytelling posts, which is easy to do thanks to the tag in Inoreader) ...


And here it is: the Inoreader tag "rhymeF14" that I can now share with my students. Click on that link and see the stories! That's the HTML clippings view for that tag.

Pretty nifty, isn't it? You can see what wonderful stuff the students are doing, already in the first week of the semester. Some students, of course, are hesitant in the first week of class since they might not have done any creative writing since back in elementary school. All they need, though, is just a little encouragement — and seeing other students' work is the single best form of encouragement there is, IMO. Just look at Sir Eyes-Egg Newton, for example: wow! It makes me want to go play with some nursery rhymes right now myself! Here is Sir Eyes-Egg in the Inoreader stream:


And here is Sir Eyes-Egg in a blog of his own (the titles of the posts are links to the original blog posting, so you can see the blog context any time you are curious):



Very happy! So, that's a take on how I use Inoreader: it is great for managing the day-to-day and week-to-week blog posts as they come in... while also being flexible enough for me to do little projects on the fly like this, collecting a specific content stream to reshare for some ad hoc purpose, all in just a few minutes. I could not have dreamed up a better tool for the things I like to do in creating these online classes. And I promise more to come as I get ready for Spring and, even better, when the students themselves start blogging!

4 comments:

  1. There's room/place for both kinds of tools. When I taught ds106 I used Google Reader (and next time would be using Inoreader) to monitor all student blogs at a glance, as well as a folder of comment feeds, much as you do.

    There are a number of ways you can set up FeedWordpress to organize the incoming content, so its not just one big flood hose. I always make all incoming categories in posts get mapped locally to tags, and to keep the aggregator site's Categories for organizing content they way I want. Then I use the settings to apply additional categories to incoming feeds, so I can have all student posts be put into displays by say, different sections, or different project groups.

    For individual assignments, I would ask students to tag (or categorize on their site) with a common tag like "LiteracyRomp"- since those would all end of as tags on the aggregator site, boom- easy to sub organize content.

    I have some custom code I use as well to generate links to a random post within a category, it helps when students are lost as to which blog to comment on. You can see a lot of this in play at http://ds106.us and http://thoughtvectors.net/ and was explained in probably too much details at http://cogdogblog.com/2014/07/14/feed-wordpress-101/

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  2. Oooooh, RANDOMIZER: that is exactly something I could really make good use of!!! I'm just now about to go for my walk (in the snow! it just started to snow)... and I am going to think about all kinds of ideas for using both of these tools in tandem. I was going to try making use of Inoreader bundles, but I'm guessing that FeedWordPress is really the tool I want to use for that type of presentation effect, esp. since I can get the benefit of what you and Adam and others are doing with WordPress that way.
    SO EXCITING.
    Last semester was great... but Spring is going to be even greater I think! :-)

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  3. "I would ask students to tag (or categorize on their site) with a common tag"
    How ridiculously simple. That way even the students can find one another's blogs and be exposed to more of their cohort's work without too much effort.

    Thank you. Sometimes a blog and the elicited comments stir profound thinking , sometimes a groan and an "of course".

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    1. Paige, teaching students how to use labels for navigation is a BIG part of what I do with the blog posts. I provide instructions for labeling the different posts and then it is just a single click for them to access each person's Introduction post, for example, or their storytelling posts. Labels-for-navigation are one of the most powerful features of blogging software; it's so easy to add the label widget to the sidebar: instant navigation! :-)

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(I have limited this to Google accounts only, but no word verification; meanwhile, if you want to contact me directly, you can do that too! laura-gibbs@ou.edu.)