July 6, 2014

Blogger as content management system

Since I am getting near the end of my process for adding content, I thought it would be good to document why and how I am using Blogger as a primitive content management system. It has worked WONDERFULLY, better than I ever expected. So, while I am in the thick of things this summer, I need to document some of the nitty-gritty for future reference.


Here are some of the main reasons why I ended up choosing Blogger as my content tool for this summer:

1. Familiarity. I am very familiar with Blogger, having used it pretty much every day since June 2007 for my Bestiaria blog, along with many other blogging projects. I used it sporadically prior to that, but in early summer of 2007 my b2evo installation got hacked, and I realized that I just don't have the time, interest or ability to do my own blog hosting. So, because I had used Blogger on and off since back in 2001 (yes, back when it was Pyra Labs), it was a natural choice for me in 2007, and I have had no regrets and no mishaps.

2. Why not WordPress? Simple: the hosted version of WordPress does not allow javascripts. That's a dealbreaker for me. I am very fortunate that Blogger is the Google product that is most friendly to javascripts. You can have javascripts in posts and in sidebar widgets, no problem.

3. Why not Sadly, my school provides zero support for content development. Apparently all of us are just supposed to put content inside Desire2Learn... as if Desire2Learn could even come close to supporting this amount of content! Moreover, I need my content to be open; I am doing this not just for my students, but for ANYONE who is interested in mythology and folklore. Finally, even if  my school did offer some kind of hosted blogging solution, I would not be able to put my trust in that service. The only disaster I ever faced as an online instructor was when my school discontinued a web hosting service (why did they do that? well, because we have wonderful D2L of course! sigh...).

4. Local back-up. Of course, I know that no hosted service, not even Blogger, is forever, so it is important to me that local back-up is quick and easy: Settings - Other - Export. In fact, while writing this post, I did a quick blog export. 18MB. It's a standard Atom XML format which means, if worse came to worse, I could parse the darn thing myself to extract the content and reformat as needed. And yes, I know, eventually this needs to become a database-driven system. I'm kind of baffled that I've been able to make it work so far with just spreadsheets to manage it. So maybe the eventual demise of Blogger (years from now, I hope!) will lead me to turn my hodge-podge blog into a real database. I'll figure that out when the time comes, knowing that if/when Blogger goes away, there will be plenty of service providers wanting to assist the refugees.


Here's an overview of the types of posts that make my system work:

Unit posts: Each of the 100 units has a unit post that provides an overview, table of contents, etc. I currently have 84 units done. Here's a typical unit:
Chinese Fairy Tales

Library posts: I create a separate post for each book I am using as a source. Most units have just one source, and most books are the source for just one unit, but sometimes a unit has more than one source and sometimes a source is used for more than one unit. As a result, library posts separate from the unit posts has proved very useful. For example:
The Chinese Fairy Book

Story posts: Each story has a post of its own; longer stories sometimes run over two or three posts. Here's a typical post:
The Talking Silver Foxes
The average number of story posts per unit is 19, and the average number of words per story post is 800. And yes, that makes sense since my overall content goal is to keep the units to around 15,000 words in length. I have stuck to that limit very closely since I do not want students choosing the reading options based on length. All the units are appx. the same length, even if the number of posts per unit and the length of a given post might vary.

Eventually, I will be developing other kinds of posts for background information, exploring themes across units, storytelling ideas, etc. I have a few of those posts already published in fact. But for now, the system is working great with just these three types of posts. I track my progress for all three types of posts in a spreadsheet, which is what has given me confidence all summer that I will indeed be able to finish this insanely big project by August 1, even if I will be working on it still more for years to come, literally.


The use of labels is key for me, and I have so many labels going for this project that I actually checked at Blogger to see if there were a limit on the number of labels. Luckily, the limit is VERY high: up to 2000 labels per blog. I use a lot of labels... but not that many, ha ha.

I do occasionally run into a per-post characters limit for labels (I think it's 200 characters per post), but when I do, that's just a sign to me that I need to consolidate some labels and/or shorten them, no problem. There's also a per-post limit of 20 labels, but I have never run into that.

So, I use labels in two very different ways: labels for navigation and labels for editing.


Labels are really useful for navigation and linking, especially because Blogger lets you create multiple label widgets in the sidebar where you can select which labels you want to appear in which widget.

Units Sidebar. The units label sidebar gives you access to each unit.

For example: Bible Women
Of course, as you see, in addition to the sidebar widget, I can use this link wherever I want. It's not pretty, but it works, and it's easy to shorten with or something similar. Here's the raw URL:

That shows all the posts in that unit, in order, starting with the index page on top (I do that by manipulating the time-date stamp for each post artificially). Blogger does have a 1MB limit on size of any display page, so not all units fit on a single page, especially after I have added the images. At most, though, they fit on two pages. So, when I hit "older posts" on the "Bible Women" unit display page, I get the rest of the posts:
Bible Women (page two)

Books Sidebar. In addition to the units label in the sidebar, I also have a books sidebar section. I have labels for the different modules of the class, so people can quickly and easily see all the books used as sources for a given module, such as Native American:
Native American Books

Modules Sidebar.
Finally, I also have module labels for the units, so that in the units sidebar, up at the top, you can click on a module label and see all the unit posts in that module (not the story posts; just the index pages). So, for example:
Native American Units
That shows, at a glance, the index pages for all the 16 units in the Native American module. This is an especially useful navigation page to have for students to review as they make their reading choices!

Note that all of these display pages are generated automatically by Blogger, based on my use of labels and time/date stamp. That's what allows me to call this a content management system. A kludgy one, admittedly, but I do not create any of these display pages manually; they are all automatically generated by the system based on the labels I am using.

Is it wrong to use date/time stamps for navigation order? Well, yeah, I guess so, since the dates and times are not the actual dates and times when I am posting. But does it work? Oh yes, it works great! :-)


I also make use of the labels in Blogger to manage the editing. This is something that is more important behind the scenes, and eventually all those labels will disappear as I finish the summer editing. So, for example, as I am adding images to the story pages in a unit, I set a label filter for that unit, and then do a Control-F search to see at a glance which post pages do not have images (nopix) and which post pages do have images (donepix).

It's not ideal; it would be so great if Blogger let me filter on more than one label at a time, as in a true database (Bento was awesome for that). But it's good enough and has let me get the job done very efficiently this summer. I use editorial labels to keep track of both unit posts and story posts:

unit posts editorial progress:
navigation: which units have story-to-story navigation links and which don't
library: which units have a completed library page and which just have a stub
overview: which units have overview paragraphs and which don't
reading diary: which units have a reading diary from me and which don't
storytelling: which units have storytelling suggestions from me, and which don't
explore links: which units have explore-the-connections links and which don't

story posts editorial progress:
illustrations: which posts have images and which don't
proofreading: which posts I have proofread and which I have not
notes: which posts have editorial notes from me and which don't

both units and stories:
Pinterest: which units and stories I have pinned at Pinterest, which ones I have not (I also keep track of stories pinned per unit)

So, there is lots more I could say about Blogger's conveniences for me, but I think I have covered the essentials. It's very simple stuff, which is the point actually: I have spent 99% of my time on actual content development, and 1% on technical stuff. That's a formula that works for me!

whoever you are!!!

And no, Blogger doesn't look like this now... but I remember fondly when it did! :-)

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