Perpetually Fascinated (or Singing the Praises of the Cloud)

Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, was released in September 2012 and I only purchased it a few days ago.  It was at the top of my reading list since before its release, but other technology related books muscled their way to the top of my list and pleasure reading slipped down the priority chart.   The book is written in a scattered, conversational tone that runs all over the map of Young’s exceptional journey, covering his early days with the Squires, his experiments with new energy, his life-long love affair with automobiles, his obsession with bringing quality sound to the digital age (and not a moment too soon), his overwhelming love and admiration of his family, and the music… it always comes back to the music.  I’m only about 120 pages into this 500 page chronicle, and I’ve been learning a lot more about a man whose work I’ve admired for decades.

I’m not reading the dead tree version of the book.  I’ve actually abandoned the practice of purchasing dead tree books when an electronic version is available, and the Amazon’s Whispersync technology is one of the big reasons why.  With Whispersync, I can be reading a book on my laptop, or iPad, or desktop, or Android phone, and the Whispersync synchronizes the book throughout the locations so that I can read on my laptop during the evening, pick up my smartphone the next day and read a few pages on my lunch break, picking up right where I left off the night before.  That, my friends, is just plain awesome.

Then there’s Spotify.  Whenever I read books about musicians, I always like to have the music they’re discussing as I read.  The soundtrack completes the experience for me, but if I’m carrying around a hard copy version of a book, I can’t do it very easily.  I just can’t carry my record collection around everywhere I go, waiting for the appropriate point in the book to put on the right song.  And this is where Spotify comes in.  I’ve created a Waging Heavy Peace playlist on Spotify, and as I read the book, each time Neil brings up a recording, I add it to the playlist.  So far, it includes some great Neil Young songs, but also a little bit of Rosemary Clooney, some Bob Dylan, a touch of Beach Boys, and more.  The full experience is thoroughly rewarding, and I’m feeling a much deeper understanding of the artist and the art though this technological extravaganza.  Oh, and yes, I have Spotify Premium so I can listen to my playlists from anywhere, including my mobile devices.  So, if I’m reading a few pages during lunch, I can pull up the playlist on my phone’s Spotify app and read the book through the Kindle app.

Since this IS an edtech blog, I better say something about instructional technology…  So here goes…  Think about it.  How can you use cross-platform apps to create materials that fully immerse your learners in the experience?  Sure, publishers have all sorts of bells and whistles tied to e-books, but most e-books are tied to a single workstation or platform and cannot be accessed from any device at any location.  It’s one thing to create a PowerPoint with audio narration and embedded video clips.  It’s something entirely different to use varied techniques to create an experience which will allow the student to incorporate related resources into their reading and studying….  Can we do it without touching the LavaFloor?  Can we create solutions that are truly device and location agnostic and function equally well for students regardless of their accessibility needs?

Can we record Oh Suzanna and make it sound like a brand new song??

Life in the Cloud: Day Eighteen (or There Must Be Some Kind of Way Out of Here)

The lavafloor experiment continues, but I’ve not had much new stuff to report in the past week.  Things keep cruising along and I keep running into the same snags.  Microsoft Web Apps are reliable and could theoretically take the place of their desktop counterparts, but lack some of the robust features of the desktop versions.  Google Docs, as well, lacks the features I need.  The other tools I use still require me to step on the lavafloor more often than I’d like.  I still find myself launching GIMP or Photoshop for image editing because it’s just so much easier to get in there and do it.  I still open up Notepad++ when I’m working with hard code, although both SourceKit and Drive Notepad show promise.

But it’s not just about what I can do or what I plan to do.  I’ve come to realize that I could feasibly find a way to do practically anything in the cloud.  I’m a geek.  We geeks figure out ways to do things. That’s why we’re geeks.  But what about the students?  That’s why I started this experiment in the first place, and over the past 2 and a half weeks, I’ve come to two primary conclusions:

  1. Yes.  It is possible for an average computer user to perform most if not all of their normal daily processes in the cloud, it is not simple,and it’s not intuitive, but it’s doable.
  2. We are not yet at the point where we could reasonably expect first-year community college students to perform all of their work in the cloud.
  3. We should continue to explore ways in which we can get students to become more cloud-reliant , and it stands to reason that within the next 18 months to 2 years, the average student will be able to do all of their work in the cloud.

I will continue to do as much as possible in the cloud and will continue to explore new options and opportunities for a fully cloud-based existence, I don’t see any benefit in continuing the 30 day lavafloor experiment.  There are more pressing issues which demand my attention.

So I’m going to wrap up the lavafloor experiment 12 days early, somewhat singed, occasionally burned, but all the wiser from the exploration.

In the coming weeks and months, this blog will return to its initial concept, that of providing information and links to web-based resources which can (hopefully) help folks in higher ed find more efficient ways to present and share content on the web.

Best,

~Rodney

 

Life in the Cloud: Day Eleven (or Wait… what happened to nine and ten?)

The start of a semester is always a busy time for folks in my profession.  Just as faculty members have to prepare lesson plans and make last minute adjustments to their classes, we Internet Instructional Technology people have a ton of stuff we have to get done at the start of each semester.  We’ve got courses to upload and edit for faculty members to assist and students to support and orientations to run and phones and e-mails to answer and all sorts of minor crises to manage. So it’s pretty hopping around these parts as the semester starts.  And this is only the start of a short 10-week semester that begins 5 weeks into the full 15-week semester.   For the big ones, the full 15-week semesters, the workload is quadrupled (at least).  But I love it, and I’d be a liar if i said otherwise.

So with that being said, I’ve not had too much time to devote to “the experiment” or to the exploration of new techniques and technologies to live fully on the cloud.

So yeah, I’ve been swimming in the lava.  I’ve been using my e-mail client.  I’ve been using my Word and Excel and have been doing a lot of things on the lavafloor that I could have been doing in the cloud.  But, it’s all about productivity.  When the web-based tools don’t allow me to be as productive as their traditional desktop counterparts, then I have no choice but to abandon the web-based tools for the duration of the crisis, then return to the cloud when things are settled down.  Maybe tomorrow the experiment can resume in earnest, but just for today (and the past two days), I’m swimming in a sea of lava tossing life rafts to those on the shore.  Yeah, my metaphor got all mixed up somewhere in there…

Oh, and on a final, unrelated note, today is one of the saddest days of the year for me.  The MLB regular season ends.  Even though my favorite team is in the playoffs (and even won their division), I love the 162 game regular season.  I like to watch the losing teams who’ve been eliminated from playoff contention bring up young talent from the minor leagues to battle it out against proven MLB veterans.   There’s just something about new hope for a bright tomorrow springing forth from the wreckage of today’s failures that excites me…

~Rodney

 

Life in the Cloud: Day Eight (or Oooh! Lava hot!!)

Well, the day-to-day workstuff in the cloud is pretty easy all the way around.  I’m trying to use Google Docs and Google Drive a little bit more just to see if they’re any more flexible and less resource-intensive than their Microsoft counterparts, and on the Chrome browser, they certainly appear to be.  Although, I suppose, to be fair I’d need to use the Microsoft Office Web Apps in Internet Explorer, but I’ve had so many bad experiences with Internet Exploder in the past that I’m just not sure I’m ready to take the experiment to that level… just yet.

Today’s issue does however concern the functionality of one the Microsoft Web Apps… Outlook.  I had to step on the lavafloor a couple of times today thanks to the Outlook Web App.  Sure, I’m running the web app in Chrome and maybe if I ran it in IE perhaps I wouldn’t encounter these issues, but I don’t think that’s the case.  Today, I had to search through some older e-mails and it occurred to me that the Outlook Web App doesn’t have the basic sorting and searching capabilities that are native to its desktop counterpart.  A search that only took a couple of seconds in the desktop application was complicated and damned near impossible in the web app.  Oh, and Quick Parts.  The web app doesn’t have quick parts which I oh so dearly love…  So, since I’m having to write similar responses to student e-mails today, I realized that it was unproductive to try and do it in the cloud (although I’ve got a method that works reasonably well) and just gave up and used the desktop app for a little while.

Dammit.  My shoes and socks are burned clean through!

Tomorrow is another day.

~Rodney

Image above borrowed from http://fatkidatcamp.com/2011/07/25/monday-funny-116/the-floor-is-lava/

Life in the Cloud: Day Seven (or Steady as She Goes)

Very, very, very, very little to report right now.  Today has been a day of helping students and faculty prepare for the coming 10-week semester.  The experiment is still in process, my feet are staying off the lavafloor, but there have been no major developments in either direction.

I’m simply posting this so as to not break the chain.

Life in the Cloud: Day Six (or The Issue of Load)

Living in the cloud!  It’s so liberating!  So exciting!  It’s so… freaking… slow…

I will be the first to admit that during the course of everyday work, I put my computers through some serious abuse.  Most folks would never have any need to do the horrible things I do to my workstation on a daily basis.  At the end of the day, my workstation can often be heard sighing with relief as I shut it down for the evening, assuming, of course,  that I’ve not had to leave it powered on overnight in order to process some batch job or another.

Today, as I labor to do everything possible in the cloud, I’m finding that my workstation is running much slower than usual.  Okay, my first confession is that I’m using Storyline to convert some PowerPoint presentations into web-ready presentations, something which cannot be done on the cloud.  My second confession is that my workstation is going through its weekly virus scan.  My third confession is that I’ve got 12 tabs open in Chrome, one page open in Firefox, and am playing Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 23 on Spotify.  (I’ve never knowingly listened to Viotti until today, but it’s good stuff.)

But, I’m also working on a workstation that’s a little bit more powerful than what most folks are accustomed to, and one would think that even with this great load of work processing that my machine would be able to handle whatever punishment I dole out.  Apparently not.

Which brings me to the point of today’s episode in the Experiment.  We are a community college and we serve a wide variety of students from a diverse set of economic circumstances.  Some of our students have Alienware machines which are designed to run resource-intensive games without problem, while other students are on Windows XP machines that can barely run Internet Explorer 7 and an instance of Word 2003 simultaneously without surrendering to the Blue Screen of Death.

How do we direct students to work exclusively in the cloud when the machines they’re running can’t handle the load?  What ARE the minimum requirements, the absolute bottom from which they can work?  Will a more modern netbook do the job?  Would the same XP machine work with a Linux OS instead of XP?  If so, how do you instruct students to make such a dramatic shift?

Hmmmmm…..

Life in the Cloud: Day Five (or Mmmmmm… Cupcakes)

Over the weekend, my wife made some truly amazing cupcakes. She doesn’t bake very often, but when she does, it’s an event and the results are a wonder to behold. This time around, she made cupcakes for someone’s birthday using a recipe she found on Pinterest. Now, my wife is not a techie type person. As a matter of fact, she just started using a smartphone about a week ago (she upgraded to the Galaxy S3 from a non-smartphone), and she’s still adjusting to the shift. But the fact that she was able to access Pinterest (her new stuff sharing service of choice, after being addicted to StumbleUpon for years), and locate the recipe without even knowing what she was looking for has really got me to thinking of how the web and social media in particular have redefined the way we learn.

So what does that have to do with the topic? Nothing much, but a lot when you consider how dramatically our lives have been altered by the Internet. Folks who aren’t techies now spend a considerable amount of time online doing things that were unimaginable not that long ago. My job as an instructional technology guy is to make it so that folks use technology without realizing what’s going on behind the scenes, hence the experiment about which I am blogging….

Today, the experiment yielded more of the same positive results as I created a series of documents in OnCloud for use in a project, stored the documents in a series of Dropbox folders and used the iPad to access the docs and take notes during meetings. More of the same stuff I was doing on Friday, but with the same results.

I’m a week in to this project and am realizing that things are starting to get easy. Either I’m getting the hang of doing this, or I’m not challenging myself enough. I’m still steering clear of the lavafloor, but what else can I do while I’m up here???

Stay tuned.

~Rodney

Life on the Cloud: Day Four (or The Right Tool for the Job)

The first week of this experiment has seen a wild blend of successes and setbacks, but more importantly, it held a lot of lessons for this Instructional Technology geek.

Today, I’m going to take a minute to sing the praises of Evernote.  If you’re reading this, the odds are that you’ve been using Evernote for a while and know all about its capabilities.  But in case you’re not aware, Evernote is one of the most popular and trusted cloud-based note-taking apps out there.  With Evernote, you install the app to your mobile device(s) (iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile are all supported) and create notes (which can include text, audio, images, or video) on the app then sync the notes to the cloud.  Unlike CloudOn (which for some reason I always want to call OnCloud), Evernote notes can be created, saved, accessed and updated from any practically any mobile device.  Today, I went to a meeting and decided to leave the iPad in the office and use Evernote on my Android phone to take notes.  Once I got back to the office, I opened the app in Google Chrome and lo and behold, there were my notes, organized into my Evernote “workstuff” notebook.    It’s just that simple.

For those of us who remember having to write notes on paper, then try to decipher our handwriting and type the notes into the computer upon our return to the office, this is an amazing innovation indeed.   It’s all about adapting…

The point of the whole Life in the Cloud experiment is to explore ways in which I can change my professional practices to work in the cloud and be productive from anywhere.  Can I live in the cloud?  Certainly.  I’ve worked in all sorts of environments over the years and can quickly adapt to any new technology.  That’s what I do.  The cloud and mobile technologies are simply the latest steps in that journey.  Can I really get used to accessing, editing, updating, deleting, or otherwise working with my files from anywhere?  Sure.  Can these alleged time-saving apps actually save me time?  Sure.  Can I actually use these tools without stepping on the lavafloor?  Well, that’s a little trickier, but I’m doing it. It’s all about changing habits and adapting to new innovations.

The goal of this little experiment is to collect data which will inform our decisions as we develop and implement strategies to help our students and faculty utilize cloud-based tools in online and face-to-face classes.

Ultimately, we want to make the technology as transparent as possible so that the faculty can focus on teaching and the students can focus on learning.

But alas, I’ve begun to ramble… So I’ll stop here and run off to enjoy my weekend.

~Rodney

Life on the Cloud: Day 3 (or Turbulence in the Cloud)

If you’re going to live on the cloud, you’d best make sure that you’ve got all the tools you’ll need before you get up there. So far, it’s not been that bad, but this experiment is entering its third day and now all of a sudden, I’m encountering a little turbulence and the ride is a bit bumpier than what I would have liked.

It seems as if my Java installation is corrupt or malfunctioning or something. Firefox keeps spitting out errors but Chrome acts like it doesn’t notice anything. So I get to fix my Java issues… yippee. Is this stepping off the cloud? Yeah, I guess so, although I’m not really running any desktop applications, I’m still not in the cloud doing this good stuff. More updates later.

Updated 11:20am (EDT)

So my Java situation has been rectified. The problem stemmed from the fact that when Java is updated, older versions of Java are not automatically removed. After trying to uninstall the older versions, I realized that traces of old versions of Java (registry entries, etc.) remain behind after the program has been uninstalled. Oh, joy.

Rather than digging through the registry and possibly screwing things up, I turned to Microsoft FixIt. I downloaded and ran the FixIt program, it removed all traces of Java from my machine and I was able to install Java Version 7, Update 7. Ugh.

Updated 6:09pm

So after the Java nightmare earlier in the day, I was able to get back up on my cloud and spend the rest of the day without touching the dreaded lavafloor. As a matter of fact, the experiment went splendidly this afternoon as I was in a couple of meetings and used CloudOn on the iPad to take notes and jot down ideas. CloudOn is a wonderful little app that allows you to create and edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint presentations on an iOS or Android device and sync them to your Dropbox or Google Drive. The MS Office clone apps in CloudOn are not quite as powerful as their desktop counterparts, but they get the job done with ease, and really… would you want to create a full-on hardcore PowerPoint presentation with all the bells and whistles on your iPad?

All in all, ignoring the Java debacle, it was a successful day in the Cloud. Tomorrow is Friday and I think it’ll be a raging success… Or at least I hope it will.

~Rodney

Life in the Cloud: Day 2 (or It’s Either Simple or It Can’t Be Done…)

I hate to write something that says nothing, but that’s pretty much what I’m doing now… 

A lot of the things I do just can’t be done in the cloud (yet).  Today was one of those days where the Life in the Cloud experiment went well simply because there is no way to do perform some of my work in the cloud.  I require too many specialized applications and too much dedicated local processing power. 

So on one hand, day 2 of the experiment could be considered an utter failure because I couldn’t do most of my work in the cloud. But on the other hand, it was a great success because everything that could be done in the cloud came easily and I encountered no stumbling blocks along the way. 

Tomorrow, however, is another day with its own unique set of challenges. We shall see…

~Rodney