The Most Important Thing I Learned at Northern Voice Wasn’t Part of Any Session

If Northern Voice was only to be measured by the quality of its sessions, that would be enough. Hopefully they will post the recordings soon so that people who weren’t there can hear some of them, but it’s rare to go to a conference with so few duds.

If Northern Voice was only to be measured by the quality of the conversations had with others, friends old and new, that would be enough. It was so easy to ignore the A-listers, the B-listers and all the silly internecine drama they bring with them because the number of deep, engaging conversations to be had was simply astonishing.

But when a conference presents you with the chance for epiphany, all these other considerations seem to fade.

Sitting in a session on the Saturday morning, admittedly still slightly raw from the previous evenings’ festivities chez Casa Lamb-McPhee, I was browsing the conference aggregator page when I came across the first of a number of posts that triggered something in me (in the interests of these people’s privacy, I am not going to link directly to their sites; while they are on the open web, time and again at NV stories came up of people from different contexts linking to personal conversations and upsetting the blog owners. If you’re that interested, dig them out of my links).

The first was a woman who had endured much personal tragedy in her life over the last year and was using her blog as a space for recovery. The second was a site created by a husband and wife to document their love for each other and their children. It was this second that really set me off; maybe it’s because I also cry at weddings, but I found myself sitting in a room full of a hundred people with tears streaming down my face. Must have been odd if anyone was watching – typically wikis (the topic of the session) don’t evoke that kind of reaction. But I wasn’t in that space; instead, these pages had set off a landslide of emotion.

I’ve long been an advocate for blogs and social software, argued that they allow people more authentic expressions of self and engagement. But that’s still largely been in the realm of the edublogoshpere and teaching and learning; I rarely read blogs for non-work reasons and while I feel I’ve made many social connections in addition to the intellectual ones, very few of them are what I would call deep emotional ones. It has always been a somewhat intellectual endeavor for me. Reading these pages blew that apart in a way little else had done; the love this couple felt for each other was tangible, palpable, visceral, and honest in a way that could not be denied. The other woman’s struggle to recover was honest and true, you could see how putting it on a blog was helping her to bypass the traps of self-deception. Any lingering doubts I had harbored about the potential depths of authentic expression held by blogs and the social web in general were blown to pieces.Even now, writing this, I am intellectualizing it when the truth is this caused me to feel in a way few things on the net ever had.

At this point I tried to pull myself together, but I fear I didn’t do much of a job; seeing the couple who had authored one of the sites sitting right in front of me I felt compelled to share with them how much it had moved me, which of course I wasn’t able to do without being overcome again! Hopefully I didn’t freak them out too much, though I won’t be too surprised when the restraining order barring me from future NV conferences shows up 😉

Lunch, immediately after this, brought a long walk to the restaurant during which I was lucky to talk this through with Keira, who helped me to process this “opening of my heart” as she called it, that had just occurred. Her help, along with another of many deep talks with Chris Lott, led me back in time for Nancy White’s afternoon session on communities, which in my newly “opened” state seemed to offer gift after gift. I will write more on this latter.

But it’s also the exact moment I got sick. Yes, I am now home with another bad cold. But are you surprised? I am not. There are no shortcuts to satori, and temporary awakenings, unearned, inevitably lead the pendulum to swing back, hard, the other way. There is no way to do the work without doing the work. But receiving these glimpses can’t hurt, and has left me (although fighting a cold) recharged and renewed both for my personal “work” and to integrating it further and further into my “job.” (Having now written this, I am trying hard not to imagine the sound of ‘unsubscribe’ buttons clicking in aggregators everywhere, but honesty is as honesty does.)SWL

Montastic – Free Website Monitoring Service

I am responsible for a few web servers in addition to this blog, but in all of these cases they are servers that I don’t own or have root access to (nor any particular pull with the sys admins). For a while we kept having server outtages on one of them that would go unnoticed both by me and the sys admins until it was too late and users would get effected. So I started looking for a site monitoring service that didn’t require a software install nor the cooperation of any sys admins, and a few months ago came across this one, Montastic . It is very straightforward – after creating an account based on your email address, you simply give it a website and address and … that’s it. It will send you notifications either by email, RSS or ‘widget’ if that server stops responding so you can start appropriate actions. Perfect for your average instructor or blogger who does not necessarily have control over their server environment and yet feels responsible for the quality of their users’ experience. In an ideal world this is a service any web host should be able to offer you by default, active notification of server outtages, but until then, this is worth a try. – SWL

Testing Out “Write to my BLog” site

On a tip from Alan, testing out the site .

Addendum: So I tried out the site based on a for:nessman link from the CogDog. My one comment – while it provides a nice editing environment, it does not appear to integrate with my local Ultimate Tag Warrior database for tags, so for now I think I’ll pass.

So Long Bloglines…

Unlike most of the of the other cool kids, I’ve had a hard time kicking my bloglines habit for newer tools. A case of “if it ain’t broke…”

Well, sad to say, it is broke. It’s probably a familiar refrain to others who’ve made the leap, but after the umpteenth time of Bloglines acting funny, I sent yet another email to their support folks. Only to get a self-referential email from them telling me to refer to the below ‘discussion thread’ for their response, only to see my original email with another message to ‘refer to the discussion thread’ and so on…

So Google Reader, here I come baby! The basics seem pretty straightforward but there are some things I still just don’t grok. Hopefully I will get a chance at Northern Voices to query better minds than mine about this – I lament cogdog’s absence, but my friend Jason Toal (that’s dj draggin to the rest of you punks) seems to have a hnadle on it too. – SWL

My holiday gifts to you….

You already know what I want for Christmas. So in the spirit of the season, here are my (non-denominational holiday) gifts for ….

WebCT and Blackboard – I’d say a lump of coal, except they’d probably just claim to have patented ‘mining’ and sue me. So instead, how about “Courage,” the courage to adopt a strategy that keeps customers not by locking down their content in difficult to export ways but instead by creating a product people can easily leave but want to stay with; the courage to grow as a company not through intimidation and pathetic legal challenges but again, by continuing to develop a product that people simply want to buy (oh, and did I mention I believe in Santa Claus too!)

ELGG – continued success, and for some funder to acknowledge the blood, sweat and tears of these guys to build one of the best social learning platforms around today. As open source.

D’Arcy – some plane tickets to Hawaii so I can finally stop seeing all the links to Hawaiian hotels in his feed 😉

Alan – what do you get the guy with a great new job and seemingly unlimited talent? How about some well earned time at his cabin soaking in that unused hottub!

Stephen – A Patent. On Everything. Just Kidding.

Brian – his own radio show. I know, I know, who un-Web 2.0 of me. But I’d listen to it. You probably would too if you’d seen his record collection.

All the Edubloggers who felt it necessary to acknowledge an “award” from a link troll – some more self-esteem. Come on folks – “top 100 Edublogs”? What you’ve got there is exactly equivalent to someone’s blogroll. You’re all great. We love you very much. Remember, in the inimitable words of Dave Winer – it doesn’t matter if only 2 people read you, as long as they’re the RIGHT 2 people.

Michael (and all the other tireless folks working to expose the evils of software patents for education) – Math You Can’t Use: Patents, Copyright, and Software. Actually, no. Just a well deserved break. (And to Michael, great success next year in the new job).

the Moodle, Sakai, Atutor, .LRN projects and all the other open source CMS folks – continued success in the new year. Even if you are not an open source CMS adopter, be glad for what these folks are doing for you. Because you benefit from their work and efforts too, in more ways than you likely realize.

And finally…

To the readers of EdTechPost – thanks. And a promise – to re-launch this site early in the new year with comments back on. So you can talk back to nonsense like this post. That’s gone unrectified for far too long.

Hope you all get a break over the next few days, I look forward to learning and creating with you all in the New Year! Cheers, Scott.

StatCounter – great free web tracker (and why that’s important)

As Stephen pointed out, a little while ago this blog began launching annoying pop-up windows on visitors’ browsers. Unbeknowst to me, the free stats program that I had used had a little clause in its user agreement that stated at any time it could choose to use the tracking image and code embedded in your page to launch advertising. Whoa. Not nice. As soon as I realized what was going on, I ditched the tracking code and I believe the problem resolved.

So the downside of that (on top of tarnishing my reputation with annoying pop-up ads) is loosing a few years of stats, but the upside was finding a better solution. I like the web-based model, a simple program that I can check once in a while online and not have to worry about web log analysis. So off I went in search.

I knew a lot of people I read used Sitemeter so I quickly installed it. It worked fine, but the major drawback for me was that the free version did not aggregate the referrer stats, which is for me a primary reason for looking at these numbers in the first place.

I had been running Google Analytics for some time too in the background, mostly to get a feel for how it worked and if it was useful on other sites I deal with, so it didn’t require me to do anything other than see if the reports it produced were to my liking. I can see how Google Analytics could be really useful if you are using Adwords and are trying to analyze and improve how you drive traffic to your site, but I found the reports overkill for what I was wanting. So off to other options.

Which led me finally to StatCounter which is what I’ve settled on. Why? Well, the tracking code is invisible. It does a good job of giving me one click access to aggregated referrer data and gives the option of showing these by URL or Title. And it gives you some “Path” data. Nice. But the icing on the cake was its Recent Visitor map. Sure, this looks at first like the kind of thing you get with GVisit, but click on any of the map pointers and you realize that it is actually mashing up the IP geolocation data with the referrer info, session length and search term data. Sweet!

So lots of the function of these free web trackers can be relegated to a service like Technorati, and I know that is how some bloggers get some of this data. What’s interesting to me, though, is how little I’ve seen written on the use of web stats to build your social network. I see lots of people introducing blogging to newbies, but I also see lots of puzzlement on those newcomers faces about why blogging is essentially a social process, and how they can become embedded in existing networks. To me, web trackers (and services like Technorati) represent one side of the equation – how to find out who is reading you and how people are finding you. The other side seems obvious, and yet many fail to grasp – point to others, as they are looking at their referrer logs too! While some might look on this as evidence of the essential vanity of bloggers, I’d argue that it is instead a critical aspect to becoming a good (read “connected” or “social”) blogger and an emerging online ‘social’ skill.

So please, someone, tell me if I ever start popping up annoying ads on your browser again. I promise, this is something I would never do intentionally! Ick! Luckily, it seems like it’s as anathema to StatCounter’s creator as it is to me. – SWL

Blogs to Advise Users of Server Status

The link above is just an example, but doesn’t this one seem obvious to anyone else? Blogs to inform your users about a server/services status – hosted SOMEWHERE ELSE if you’ve got a clue. Yet, I still get these interminable emails about planned server outtages, upgrades, etc., and NO communication after unplanned outtages actually do happen. I guess there’s no faith that the RSS feed would get read (and lots more, perhaps misplaced, faith that the spam-like emails will). – SWL

educate/innovate = use patents?

OK, so at least they did post something back on August 7 about the patent (a staff member posting a letter on behalf of Michael Chasen, the CEO), but otherwise, the Blackboard “blog” has been thunderously silent given the amount of hoopla in the blogosphere over the last month directly concerning them.

Not really surprising, but also not what I’d call an “authentic” engagement with the concerns of their readers/customers. (And my reaction to the notes from their conference call with ALT in the UK is the same as Stephen’s – apparently I’ve found another use for our stockpiled baby wipes now that our kids are out of diapers).

I did say that I was reserving judgement on the BB ‘blog’ until there was more to judge. Looks like the evidence is in, though, and on the charge of “falsely impersonating a blog” the evidence is based on the omissions as much as what is there. – SWL

‘Blog Uses in Education’ Drag and Drop Exercise

Back in 2003 I created what’s become one of the more popular things on the EdTechPost site, the ‘matrix of blog uses in education.’ For whatever reason it’s gotten lots of links and traffic over the last 3 years, but what has been especially gratifying is when people have picked it up and actually done something new with it (like, you know, re-used/re-mixed it!)

The first example I found a year or so ago was the Dutch site Frankwatching, which took the original sketchy document and translated it into Dutch, along the way making it much more fetching to the eye.

But I was really blown away by a recent example emailed to me by its creator, Tony Lowe. Tony, through a company called Webducate, has developed a number of flash-based tools for creating learning content. Using one of those tools, Dragster, he created an interactive version of the ‘matrix of blog uses in education’ with a cool innovation – in addition to a pre-existing list of “uses,” which the user can drag and drop into their chosen quadrant of the matrix, it allows you to create new ones on the fly to then be placed there.

In an email Tony writes that in future versions people will be able to save completed exercises and look at a gallery of others’ work, but even as it is now I can see this being a useful tool to use with faculty or others in workshops to brainstorm different uses they can make of blogs and blogging and help them see it as an activity and process, not an end product (which was a main goal of the ‘matrix’). – SWL