August 16, 2014

Blogger, Inoreader, Feedly: what a great way to start the semester!!!

As people who know me over at G+ or Twitter saw this week, INOREADER was the big event! I am in love with this tool!

So, in this post, I'll explain in detail (yes, it's another tl;dr post from yours truly) just how I am using Inoreader and why it is unexpectedly an essential new tool for my online classes. But first, some context:

Blogging in my classes: Bloglines and Ning. I've been teaching fully online classes since 2002, and I abandoned discussion boards for blogs in my classes so long ago that I cannot even remember when that happened. Maybe in 2004? There are lots of reasons why I far prefer blogs to discussion boards, and I guess I should write up those thoughts sometime. Meanwhile, though, suffice to say that blogs are essential for my classes. Students write several posts every week, and they also read and comment on each other's posts, just as they read and comment on each other's class projects. This reading and commenting is the heart of the class! So, way back when, I recommended that the students use Bloglines, which was primarily an RSS reader but it had a very simple blogging tool too... and people probably remember the hilarious Bloglines Plumber for when the system was down.

That service then pooped out, but I gladly switched to Ning; that must have been in 2008. I enjoyed free Ning for a couple of years (wasn't free Ning amazing?), and then I switched to the mini-Ning (primarily for educators), which was just $20/year. Ning worked very nicely as a group blogging platform, and it really ran itself. Since the students were all blogging in the same place, with a nice homepage display of recent activity, it was very easy for them to find one another, connect, comment. I really pretty much just let the Ning run itself, and it worked just fine. Not perfect (the group space meant students could not customize their blogs, and it had only limited RSS), but since the students were able to find each other, read, share, and enjoy, I was perfectly happy with how Ning was working.

End of Ning. Thanks to a remark by Michelle Pacansky-Brock (I am pretty sure it was Michelle; I learn about so much stuff from her), I found out that mini-Nings were going to be phased out sometime during the 2014-2015 school year. I was sad to hear that, but not surprised. It was clear that other services, like Edmodo, had come to occupy the education niche that Ning had at one time aspired to. I had no interest in paying for the very expensive (I think it's $25/month?) standard Ning since none of the standard Ning features really pertain to my class (they are very much about video, monetization, etc.); I just needed a good way for students to blog and interact via their blogs. But what blogging tool should I recommend? Argh! Crisis! But a productive one, since I knew there were lots of options out there, and I had plenty of time to ponder as I had learned about the coming demise of Ning back in December 2013.

Blogger. After thinking about how I use Blogger (and I am a long-time user of, largely because it is so javascript-friendly, unlike, as opposed to WordPress you host yourself), I decided I would recommend Blogger to my students, while also being glad for students to use any blogging platform of their choice, provided that it had full RSS with separate RSS for comments along with a good system for post labels and label pages. This is the same strategy I follow with the class websites too; I recommend Google Sites and provide extensive technical support and FAQs, but I am delighted if a student wants to use some other tool of their choice to create their website (the only requirement there is that the site should be ad-free). Since my school does not provide any support for student blogging or web publishing (but see below... this may change), it is very rare for a student to have done any blogging before, and almost all the students go with the tools I recommend, with just one or two exceptions each semester. In fact, this is why I have come to see these web publishing experiences as an incredibly important part of my class: I believe that all college students should be gaining a wide range of digital literacy skills, and I am glad that an online course provides a natural opportunity for that to happen (provided, that is, we go beyond the stifling environment of the LMS and its faux tools; about the so-called blogging tool in D2L, I have nothing good to say, and I did not even consider using it).

Feedly Dilemma. So, I spent time this summer thinking about how I would make this huge transition from Ning to Blogger. Luckily, I had for years been recommending that students create their own Blogger blogs as an extra-credit "Tech Tip," so I had lots of good support materials already written up. I was a little nervous just because I am always nervous about doing something new for the classes, but with all my Blogger experience, I figured it would work out. And it did — I opened the classes early, students instantly started created their blogs and posting, and I subscribed with Feedly since that is the feed reader I've been using since the sad demise of Google Reader. I had been a real power user of Google Reader back in the day, and Feedly seemed like a pretty poor replacement, but it had been good enough for my purposes ... until now. Since Ning had provided a group blogging platform with a shared activity stream for all the blogs together, I really wanted something like that again. But Feedly has no bundles, no public pages, no aggregated RSS... it had nothing to offer me here. Bummer!!! So I posted a plea for help at Google+ and ... THANK GOODNESS ... Stefan Heßbrüggen commented that Inoreader would do just what I wanted in terms of RSS and HTML clippings. I was so busy last week that I didn't think I would have time to check it out until the weekend, but at the same time I was so curious that I decided to check it out that same evening.


Inoreader. I was able to log on to Inoreader with my G+ account. And there it was: so blank, so empty... and so configurable!!! This was definitely the right tool for someone who didn't just want an "out of the box" solution but who instead wanted to configure their own RSS world. I quickly subscribed to the student blogs (I'll have about 90 total each semester, but right now it's just about 20 blogs, divided between two classes; these are the students who got an early start), and it took me just a few minutes to see that I could activate an RSS feed for the folders I create for each class. Fabulous!!! And then I saw I could have HTML clippings, just like in Google Reader, for those grouped feeds. Perfect! So, I was already sold at that very moment: this was going to be as good as Google Reader. But then I noticed something that really caught my attention: from the URL of the HTML clippings, I could see that the folder labels were really just tags... so did that mean I could make RSS feeds and have HTML clippings for ANY tags that I created? Oh my gosh: how amazing would that be? So I tagged some posts and, sure enough, it worked: I could activate an RSS feed and have HTML clippings for tags. And then I discovered the rule-maker! Now, with free Inoreader, they only let you make one rule (more than one rule is premium)... I made my rule, gasped at how perfect this was, and instantly upgraded to the premium service ($30/year).

Inoreader Rules. I mean that in every sense of the word! With the rules, I can basically make Inoreader work as efficiently as Gmail. Because I have always asked students to include a specific keyword in their different blog post titles (that is for their own convenience in scanning and searching the blog posts of other students' blogs), it was effortlessly easy to make rules for all incoming posts. So, I am using the rules to label the incoming posts for content and, even better, I am labeling the incoming posts for workflow: for example, nocomment means a blog post has not gotten a comment from me, needcomment means it really should get a comment if I have time (not all types of posts really need a comment), tweeted means I've tweeted the post in our class Twitter stream, pinned means I've pinned the post to one of the class Pinterest Boards. It is working wonderfully! Since I am using Inoreader as a dedicated reader for my student blogs only, the rules are very simple to create because I don't have to worry about filtering out non-class-related activity; it's all for class. With the option to build a custom Dashboard (seriously, there are so many great features in Inoreader!), I can create different workflow spaces to optimize the admittedly limited time I have to spend on student blogs. Rules, tags, multiple dashboards, multiple views: I simply cannot believe how fabulous Inoreader is for my purposes. I've put a few screenshots below:

("card view" is great for scanning image-focused posts)

(column view is what I use for reading/commenting)

(access to tags/folders for display, filtering)

(list view for super-quick scanning)

(a gazillion keyboard shortcuts!!!)

Inoreader as Shared Space. And don't forget, all that workflow stuff is just a bonus — my original goal was to find a feed reader to help promote a sense of shared space for my students, and Inoreader is doing exactly what I had hoped. For example, thanks to the RSS feed for the posts labeled "storytelling" (the most important posts!), I was able to add an RSS widget to the class announcements blog that lists the latest stories as they are published. More importantly, I am able to provide a link to the dynamic HTML clippings in assignment instructions so that students can see work by other students (some folks are always working ahead!), which can be a great source of inspiration; for many students, seeing actual examples of assignments is way more valuable than step by step instructions. So, take a look at the Favorite Places blog post instructions here; originally, I had only my post to look at as a sample, but now there is a link that allows students to see all the latest posts at that time. So cool!

Feedly Redux. So, as I was commenting on the Blogger blogs, I was thinking about how much I hate email... and wondering if there was a way I could switch from getting all these (annoying, clunky, excessive) email notifications from Blogger about comments and comments on comments (and Ning was just as bad with the email notifications). And that's when I had this fabulous idea: I could take the OPML file of the student blogs in Inoreader, and then do a find and replace to change it into an OPML file of COMMENTS, and import that file into Feedly so that I could keep an eye on comments that way. And... it worked! This is because in Blogger the Atom feeds are named so nicely:
I just change "posts" to "comments" in the OPML file from Inoreader, and it's good to go. I don't want all the commenting stuff in Inoreader because, honestly, it will just mess up my rules and my searches, but at the same time I do want to keep track of comments, esp. for any real conversation that takes shape in a blog post where I have commented. Feedly will do that for me! The quick scan layout and bookmark options in Feedly are all I need to manage the comment feeds (which are mostly just students commenting to students; their commenting activity outpaces mine by far!)... so, with Feedly I can keep an eye on the commenting traffic way more efficiently than I ever could with the (damn) email notifications from Ning or Blogger. Here's a screenshot of the comments folder for one of my classes in Feedly:

They came automatically into Feedly in separate folders because of the way the OPML file in Inoreader is structured, but I think I will probably just put them in one gigantic folder in Feedly since there is really no point in having separate class-by-class folders for the comment traffic, although I am still pondering that.

Very VERY happy. So, as I sit here just 72 hours or so after discovering Inoreader, I cannot believe how lucky I am. If I had been given the chance to design a blog management system for my classes, I could not imagine something better than this! I am now going to be a much more active and aware participant in my class "blogosphere" than I ever was before. Plus, students are really loving Blogger so far exactly because of all the customization and personalization options. They have a much stronger sense than they ever did in Ning that the blog is THEIR blog... and that is indeed how they should feel because it is their blog! That sense of pride and ownership is exactly why I abandoned discussion boards long ago: a discussion board belongs to everybody/nobody, but a blog belongs to SOMEBODY, and it thus becomes a way for that person to build their online presence, sharing with others and getting to really be themselves online.

Now, if my school really embraces Domain of One's Own and finally starts providing blogging support for classes (wouldn't that be great???), this system should continue to work just fine. My experience with WordPress is limited, but exactly as I told the students to begin with: ANY blog they want to use will work, provided it has RSS for posts and RSS for comments, which would surely be true for any WordPress set-up which my school is offering (I am hoping they will allow me to join the pilot so that I can investigate questions like these early on).

Saturday morning, start of the semester, and I am simply amazed at my good luck ... but chance really DOES favor the connected mind, doesn't it?

Thanks to Inoreader (which means thanks to Stefan!), I am completely caught up on commenting on student blog posts after the soft-start week, and, even better, I have customized HTML clippings to share with the students, plus there are surely more RSS possibilities that I have not even imagined yet ... because really, this is all just within 72 hours of finding Inoreader: I know there are other amazing features I probably have not even discovered. It was always a hope of mine that I could extend/improve my own participation in the class blogosphere, and now I should be able to do that, even with the very limited time I have available.

And the blogs just look SO GREAT. I love the way that they create a real space for every student and a real presence for them online. I cannot imagine teaching without student blogs, and now with my new trio of Blogger-Inoreader-Feedly, I think I am going to do an excellent job of helping students as their blog coach and cheerleader!

What a great way to start the semester!!! Thank you, Inoreader!!!