Googleholics Anonymous (or A Hard Habit to Break)

As I mentioned in my earlier post Rodney’s Rules of Digital Order (or “Wait, I was using that!”), I’ve come to the realization that over the past few years I’ve become addicted to the wide range of Google services.  My addiction didn’t happen overnight.  First, I used Google for search, and that was great.  Then, I decided to set up a Gmail account.  “Well,” I figured, “since I use Gmail and I DO use Google for all my searches, why don’t I use iGoogle as my start page?”  Then along came Google Reader and I was in love.  I’d used several standalone RSS readers for a while, but because I was increasingly mobile, I needed a single point from which I could access everything.  Then came the Android smartphone. Then came Google Earth and Google Maps.  Oh, and how can I neglect to mention Google Chrome?  Oh, and Picasa!  And Google Groups!  And Google Scholar!  and… and… and…

But I could switch to a different service for any of these things at any time.  I wasn’t hooked!  Not me!  Not at all!!  It’s just that Google has made it so easy, so comfortable, so convenient for me, why would I want to go anywhere else?  Then, when they announced the shutdown of Google Reader, it became evident that I really did have a problem, and as I devised Rodney’s Rules of Digital Order, it was crystal clear that something had to be done about my Google addiction…

Now, I’m doing something about the problem.  My first move was to switch to a new RSS reader and after doing some research (and being finally convinced by Alan Buckingham at ghacks.net) I’ve decided to go with The Old Reader for the time being.  It’s basically a newfangled old-fashioned Google Reader with a minor twist.  Plus, I like the general attitude of the site, which helps a lot.  I’d played around with NetVibes and Feedly but I wasn’t totally satisfied with the navigation and interface and The Old Reader definitely meets my needs (for now).

Next, I’m going to ditch Google Chrome and go back to Firefox as my primary browser for Mac, PC, and Android and use Puffin on the iPad (go ahead and pay for the darn thing.  It’s worth it!)  I had officially jumped ship from Firefox to Chrome in October of 2012, but if I’m going to break my Google addiction, I’ve got to leave Chrome behind.

I’ve been using DuckDuckGo for a few web searches lately, and now it looks like I’ll need to make that transition too…  (That’s gonna be a hard one to do)

As I look at this, I realize that it’s going to take some time and some serious effort to complete this dramatic shift from the way I’ve been doing things, but it’s something that I need to do.  Does that mean I won’t use Google at all?  No.  It simply means that I won’t be relying on Google to provide the answers to all my problems and will employ many different sources to craft unique solutions to fit my own needs… and isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?  Isn’t that flexibility one of the things that make me love the web so much?

Google made me lazy.  I’m taking back control of my Internet.

~R

Updates again? (or The Times They Are Still A-Changin’)

This was written in response to a question I got about why I am so vigilant about keeping the latest versions of everything at my disposal. For some folks, it seems logical. But other folks maintain an attitude of “what I’ve got is working, so why should I update it.” I can understand that point of view, but for what I do, I don’t have that luxury. Here’s why….

Every few weeks, it seems like Facebook or Twitter or Google or Instagram or (insert favorite web-based service here) unveils a new interface update or some new functionality. Every few weeks, two of my desktop web browsers install brand new versions of themselves onto my machines.

These updates can cause headaches for some users, but overall, these adjustments are merely minor inconveniences to which users will adjust in relatively short order. So why do software companies do that? Why don’t they just release a new version every year or two with all the major updates rolled into one fantastic new thingie?

The fact is that annual major releases are becoming a thing of the past, and the web is a much better place because of it. Back in the dark ages, when Internet speeds for most users were limited to 56.6kb/s, the idea of hundreds of thousands of users downloading and installing software updates was absurd. The servers would crash! The Internet would implode. Productivity would screech to a halt! And the fact is, these things are probably true. Distributing software via the Internet was a slow process way back then, and most companies chose to produce and distribute physical media instead of making updates available online.

Welcome to the new world, and it’s this new world that is causing such problems for dinosaurs like Microsoft. Yes, I just called Microsoft a dinosaur. Microsoft releases updates to Internet Explorer once every year or so, and each time the new version is released, we coding geeks know that our lives will be turned upside down trying to make sure our materials are compatible with Redmond’s latest output. But over the past few years, Internet Explorer has seen its share of users steadily declining while more flexible browsers like Google Chrome have seen an explosion of users. Why? Simple. Chrome meets users’ needs while the needs are still fresh. Internet Explorer does not.

We live in a fast-paced society, and what was the latest big thing yesterday is old hat today. Whether or not I agree with that philosophy is of no consequence. The facts are that our systems and processes must be flexible if they are to keep up. The tools we use are no longer one-size fits all, and the businesses that recognize this and adjust their practices accordingly are the businesses that will survive. The dinosaurs were replaced by faster, smarter, more adaptable forms of life. Businesses are no different.

But this is an instructional technology blog written by an instructional technology geek, why should that matter here?

The world of education is in the midst of a dramatic shift unlike anything that we have seen since the introduction of the printing press. Our students know this. Veterans of the industry know this. Even relative newcomers (like myself) are hip to this fact. The procedures we set in place today will set the precedent and determine the future of our organizations for years to come. If we fail to recognize the critical importance of this shift and strive to stay at the forefront, our institutions will suffer. Enrollments will drop as students opt for faster, smarter, more adaptable forms of education. Institutions will merge or close, and students who are already at the greatest disadvantage will fall further behind and their shot at the “American Dream” will evaporate.

So please, update your browser.

~R

Rodney’s Rules of Digital Order (or “Wait, I was using that!”)

A few years ago, I got a call from one of our online students who was having difficulty viewing videos embedded in her online course.  I field these types of calls frequently and have a series of steps I follow to troubleshoot the issue.  I asked her what error she was receiving, what browser she was using, what content she was trying to access, etc. While I had her on the phone, I accessed the course to see if I could replicate the issue.  She was right.  The video wouldn’t play.  Heck, the video appeared to be gone altogether!  Worse yet, the same fate seemed to have befallen all the other videos in the course.  Where could they be???

To abbreviate a lengthy tale,  it turns out that the website which was hosting these videos was shutting down (bad).  The instructor didn’t have copies of the videos (worse). The website used proprietary file formats to encode and play the videos and the video files couldn’t be converted to a different file format even if i could download them (worst possible scenario).  Poof!  All of this instructor’s work was lost.  Gone.  Vanished. 

The morals of the story are simple, and this tale (combined with a little event I shall describe later) have led to the development of what shall heretofore be known as The Digital Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Web-Based Resources, or Rodney’s Rules of (Digital) Order.  (Please, don’t take my feeble attempts at humor too seriously, but do be mindful of the rules.  They could save you untold amounts of mental anguish.)

  1. Always have a Plan B.
  2. Always maintain local backups of any files you create for the web.
  3. Never create materials on the web which cannot be downloaded and edited locally. (Yes, sometimes this means you can’t use the coolest toys, but it also means you don’t lose your work when the coolest toy loses funding.)
  4. Never ever ever ever ever rely too heavily on any single web-based service or site.

That’s it.  Most folks are fully aware of these things and on any given day will have no trouble complying with any of these rules.  However, it can be easy and tempting to disregard any one of these rules for the sake of getting things done “just this once” or “as an interim solution.” Do so at your own peril.  You have been warned.

My Name is Rodney – I’m a Googleholic

So what’s this little event which inspired the actual development of “official” rules?   Thank Google. 

The “Don’t Be Evil” Empire has infiltrated every corner of our digital lives with a vast array of spectacular services and products.  On a daily basis, I use the Android operating system, Google Search (duh), Gmail, Google Webmaster Tools,  Google Chrome, Picasa, Google Docs / Google Drive, Google Groups, Google+, iGoogle, and Google Reader.  

I suppose you can already see where this is heading…  

Sometime in the summer of 2012, Google announced the closing of iGoogle on November 1, 2013.  For those of you who don’t know, iGoogle is Google’s version of the start page.  It’s flexible, customizable, and provides a nice home page for all my browsers (at home and in the office).  It’s my one-stop shop for weather, sports scores, news, Gmail, etc.  But I can accept this.  It happens.  I can find another start page and configure it will all my wonderful widget and such and be on my merry way.  I’ve explored a number of options and have narrowed it down to using NetVibes (if I’m feeling all Web 2.0), My Yahoo! (if I’m feeling nostalgic) or hard-coding a my own start page and hosting it on one of my domains (if I’m feeling practical).   Problem solved.

But what about Google Reader?  The news dropped last week that Google Reader will cease to exist on July 1, 2013.  This is a lot bigger than a start page.  I’m an RSS junkie and get the bulk of my news from my RSS feeds.  Sure, I could get with the 21st century and get all my news from Twitter or Facebook, but I need something more than either of those services can provide.  I need a web-based service because I don’t want to have to find software that will work on all the platforms I use and then install it all the machines and devices I use.  NetVibes has a pretty cool RSS reader, and it’s got a familiar feel.  But I’m not so sure.  I’m considering setting up an IFTTT recipe to send my feeds to Pocket, but I’m still not so sure.  

And my blues aren’t the point.

The point is that I’ve fallen into a trap.  I’m now in direct violation of Rule #4 (Never ever ever ever ever rely too heavily on any single web-based service or site) and I need to de-Googlify my life. I have to stop relying on them to provide the quick and easy one-stop fixes to the problems I face, because it’s apparent that my reliance on Google products has become an issue.  So now, instead of looking for a catch-all solution, I need to build a toolbelt of specific services and tools rather than taking the easy route and turning to Google for the solutions.

I’ve got some ideas, and I’ll chronicle my progress here…

(…to be continued…)

Twitter Decoded: Part 2 (or @rhargismccc isn’t my e-mail address)

In part two in the Twitter Decoded series, I’m going to cover two of the bare-bones basics of Twitter, the 140 character limit and the concept of following.

Keeping it Simple (140 Characters or Less)

Twitter is all about keeping it short, sweet, and to the point.  Tweets are a maximum of 140 characters.  If you suffer from chronic verbosity (like I do), Twitter can prove quite challenging.  Adding to the challenge is the fact that, being the old curmudgeon that I am, I blatantly refuse to employ many of the acronyms and abbreviations that are ruining our language (another topic for another time).  So my tweets (and text messages) all include proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation (including Oxford commas).  But I’m an adventurous type of fellow who’s always game for new challenges…

Who is @gratefuldead and Why Are They Following Me?rhargis_simpsonized

A billion or so people on this oblate spheroid we call home are using Facebook to connect with friends, family, and colleagues around the world.  However, most Facebook users, myself included, tend to limit their Facebook friends to people they actually know in the “real” non-digital world.  Twitter, on the other hand, provides a platform which lends itself to making connections with strangers who share common interests.

As a matter of fact, I probably wouldn’t recognize the majority of my tweeps (a portmanteau of “Twitter peeps”) if they walked in the room.  In fact, for my personal Twitter account, I’ve never used an avatar which featured my actual face, so none of my tweeps would recognize me either.  I’ve always used a Simpsonized version of myself which you see to the left of this paragraph.  (To create your own Simpsons Avatar, visit the Simpsons Movie website.  Look for the link to Create Your Simpsons Avatar)

On Facebook, an individual sends a Friend Request to a person.  If the recipient accepts the request, the two people are “friends” and are able to see each others posts.  On Twitter, it’s a little different.  You can follow pretty much anyone you want (unless they have their tweets protected which is another topic I’ll cover at a later date), but just because you follow someone doesn’t mean they’ll follow you back.  So while you may see Tweets posted by @gratefuldead, unless they’re following you, @gratefuldead won’t see your posts.  Got it???  P.S. Follow Conan O’Brien (@ConanOBrienif you’d like to follow someone who won’t follow you back.

So the @ symbol…  What’s up with that?? 

The ampersat (aka the “at symbol”) has been used to signify the domain in an e-mail address (abc@xyz.com) for so long that many people are confused when they see Twitter handles preceded by the ampersat.  Basically, the use of an ampersat on Twitter signifies that your message is being directed to that individual.  So, if you send out a tweet and put @rhargismccc in the tweet, it means you’re mentioning me and Twitter will notify me of the mention.  Bear in mind that when you mention someone in a tweet, you are NOT sending them a private message, so be careful!! You’re still tweeting publicly and anyone else can see what you’re saying…  Heck, the Library of Congress is archiving tweets, so your great-great-great-great-grandchildren will be able to explore the achives and learn important stuff about their ancestors, like how excited you were about the latest episode of “Girls” on HBO, or how much you didn’t like your lunch from McDonald’s, etc.

So I hope this has made a little bit of sense to you.  I’ll be back soon with part three of the Twitter Decoded series…

~r

Twitter Decoded: Part 1 (or a bit of background on the buzz about the birdie)

Introduction

A couple of months ago, I was asked to facilitate a round-table discussion about the use of smartphones in the classroom and examine ways in which instructors might be able to harness the power of these devices for educational purposes instead of seeing them as a bane to their existence.  For the discussion, I created a WallWisher wall where I posted a few ideas and several tools I’ve found to be helpful.  (Sidebar:  Wallwisher has recently changed its name to Padlet, but that’s another story.)  The discussion was lively and the opinions ranged from “If I see a phone out in class, I take it.” to “I can see how it might work, but I don’t know how to make it work” to “I’ve done something like this!”  We had a great talk, and after the discussion, I shared several great e-mail exchanges with faculty who wanted to know more about the ideas.  Among the topics, tools, and techniques we discussed, the conversation continually found its way back to Twitter.  During the discussion, I realized that many of our faculty had either never used Twitter at all or had never considered ways in which it could be used in the classroom.

My Own Experience on Twitter

I got my first Twitter account in 2009.  Initially, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it, but I figured I needed to familiarize myself with the platform in the event that it became the next big thing or something, because it would be unthinkable for a self-respecting geek such as myself to not be hip on the next big thing before it becomes the next big thing.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.  I entered in some of my interests and Twitter suggested some folks for me to follow.  I obliged and before I knew it, I was following a bunch of people who were tweeting about one of my favorite topics… the New York Yankees.  I’m typically pretty shy until I get to know people.  I stay quiet and reserved and don’t always know what to say.  So for a while, I didn’t participate in the conversations.  I’d just watch them roll by and laugh at the jokes, argue (in my head) with the fans of other teams, and generally stand in the corner, being my wallflower self.  Occasionally, I’d throw out a comment, and every once it a while I’d get a response or even (gasp!) a retweet.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain what all these terms mean later.

It took me a few months of Tweeting to find my way around and to feel totally comfortable with the environment. But about a year later, I thought it might be time to use Twitter with my workstuff.  Eventually, I found it difficult to separate the flood of baseball tweets from the technology and education tweets, so I decided to open a second Twitter account (@rhargismccc) specifically for work purposes.

Now I maintain two separate Twitter accounts, and it’s worked out quite nicely for me.  I still don’t post a whole lot or join into a lot of conversations, but I get a lot of great information from other #edtech professionals and have come to appreciate the value of the platform.

So what’s next?

That’s it for this post.  I just wanted to drop a little bit of introductory stuff so you’d get an idea of what I’m doing and where I’m taking this.  In the next episode, I’ll introduce the basics of how to use Twitter.

Til then…

~r

I heart Dropbox

Just got an e-mail from Dropbox introducing a new feature “Dropbox Links.”  This is big.  Dropbox has always allowed for sharing of materials with other Dropbox users, but now through Dropbox Links, you can share stuff with folks who don’t even have Dropbox accounts.

The possible ramifications for distance learning are staggering. Gonna have to play around with this a little bit more.  But off the top of my head, I can see several scenarios…

  • Instructors can update files in class which students will be able to access immediately. (Notes, homework assignments, etc.)
  • Instructors can share a single file via Dropbox Links, and edit that file throughout the semester. I’m thinking course calendars here.  
  • Students can share materials with one another, simplifying peer-review projects.
  • Instead of uploading individual materials to an LMS, files can be stored in Dropbox and the link published in the LMS.

and the list goes on.

I’ve got a feeling this isn’t the last time I’m going to be writing about Dropbox Links.