Monday, May 26, 2008

Making a Ning Dashboard

I am an unabashed Ning lover, and have several Ning networks I have either started or joined that I consider to be great resources for personal learning--including my own Classroom 2.0 and the network I run for Ning, Ning in Education.

As part of the larger trend I keep feeling--the growing "tidal wave of information"--I often find that it is hard to keep track of the many discussions taking place in these networks. It's not just a tidal wave of information, it's a tidal wave of good information. Part of what I have known that I needed to do was to find a way to better watch or track the many conversations taking place across multiple Ning networks, and I've wished for some kind of control panel or "dashboard" for doing so.

Well, in our way-too-early Saturday morning Web 2.0 Week in Review broadcast this weekend, Michael Staton did a short overview of RSS feeds and how useful they are, and demonstrated by showing how they can populate portal pages in Pageflakes and netvibes. I've been a pretty consistent user of the main iGoogle customizable page(s), and a couple of times had tried to bring my feeds into that page, but it never felt that productive to me. I'd just skipped over Pageflakes and netvibes, thinking that my Google Reader accomplished all that I wanted for my feeds. Michael made the point that in using a page or portal, watching your RSS feeds becomes more like reading a newspaper than reading your email--you can miss the newspaper for a few days and not feel the need to go back and read the days you missed, but unread email stores up and must be read.


Here I'd been waiting for Ning to come up with some kind of dashboard solution, and all the while the ability to create one had been right under my nose and I didn't realize it. I think we might all agree that this is a very Web 2.0 feeling: hundreds of programs with thousands of mash-up possibilities, and suddenly we discover something that we think must have been an obvious combination, but required we be thinking in the right way to see it.

So I've spent a few hours on this holiday weekend working on a good solution here. One that you should now be able to copy in a matter of minutes. I'm pretty happy with the result, and a week of playing with it will tell me more.

My primary requirements were:
  1. The ability to utilize a separate tab or page for each Ning network I want to track;
  2. The ability to easily copy the tab or page layout of one to set up others, so I don't have to start from scratch for each network;
  3. The ability for others to see or copy the pages, making it a usable model of an easily-customizable solution for other Ning users.
I tried iGoogle, Pageflakes, and netvibes. My final solution is in Pageflakes. You can see (and copy) the results at:
All three are essentially the same, and you can take any one, modify it to your liking, then make it "public" and copy it for each network you want to track. In a short period time, you can have a tab for every Ning network you want to track. If you know what you're doing, 5 minutes tops. If you have to learn (like me), might take a half hour to get it all done. (And I assume we will will be tweaking for weeks/months/years to come.)

Each of the three tabs or pages linked above has the same layout that I set up, but which you can change. On the left is the list of all forum posts and replies. (Ning's regular RSS feeds for forums is either a feed of all new posts, or of all replies to a particular post, but if you want all the forum posts and replies, you can use the following feed URL and substitute your network name: " http://[YOURNETWORKNAME]".) For the middle column I have the standard blog posts feed ("http://[YOURNETWORKNAME], and for the right hand column the photo and video feeds. I don't need to give these to you, really, because you can go to any of the three above pages and just click on the "copy" link at top right and it will copy this page and its settings to your own Pageflakes account. All you then have to do is to edit each "widget" by changing jsut the network name in the RSS feed URL, and within about 45 seconds you'll have a page to track a Ning network. After I figured this out I set up five pages in just a few minutes, including one for the Ning Creator Network and one for the Ning Developer Network.

For those with custom domain names, you can put either the custom domain address into the feed URL, or the name in the original address. I use the latter since they both work and since it makes copying one page to another for a new network super easy.


For those who want to drill down on this topic even more, here are some other notes.

netvibes: I liked the graphics and colors way better than either Pageflakes or iGoogle. But I couldn't share page sets making it easy for others to copy. Maybe I missed something? I also couldn't change the name/url of my "universe" page when I figured out what was going on. I loved the defaul action of using the internal reader when you click on a link, and that it shows the item as read. Pageflakes allows you to configure to use the internal reader, but doesn't seem to show what items you have read or not.

iGoogle: Some of the RSS reader widgets I tried didn't like Ning feeds for some reason, and while you can share individual widgets, that wasn't anywhere near as appealing as sharing a full page template for someone else to use. I would have loved a better integration with Google Reader functionality, and would love to be able to use the Reader keyboard shortcuts on my iGoogle page. I'm still going to use the Reader widget on iGoogle for my other non-Ning feeds. I found it very hard to get the RSS URLs for Reader folders, and even when I ad them, the RSS widgets couldn't handle it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Unplugging Conferences

There are times when technological innovations can fundamentally alter our practices or culture. This is not to say that we aren't sometimes so enamored with technology that we attempt to use it to solve human or social issues in impractical ways, but other times we actually create tools that have the power to re-create us, and I believe that is the case with the effect of the read/write Web.

For the last few years there has been an increased trend in the ed-tech arena to explore the use the collaborative tools of the Internet to change the nature of conferences or workshops. First on my radar were David Warlick's informal and loosely-scheduled gatherings of educational bloggers at conferences where he was speaking, which he called "edublogercons." These gave rise to last year's first all-day and now formally titled "EduBloggerCon" in Atlanta before NECC 2007, Chris Lehman's EduCon 2.0 in Philadelphia, a host of smaller gatherings at local ed tech conferences, my own Classroom 2.0 "LIVE" workshops, the online "OpenPD" sessions of Darren Draper and Robin Ellis, and this June's EduBloggerCon '08 and NECC "Unplugged." Trying to avoid the U.S.-centric model of all-good-things-invented-here, similar events in the UK called TeachMeets have been being held, and there are surely others. Going outside of the boundaries of educational technology, Open Conferences,Unconferences , Bar Camps, Foo Camps, and a host of other collaboratively organized events (see links below) are mirroring the the openness and self-organization opportunities not created by, but significantly strengthened and enhanced by the Internet and the Web.

This should not be surprising, and is eloquently described by Clay Shirky in his profound book, Here Comes Everybody:

A revolution in human affairs is a pretty grandiose thing to attribute to a ragtag bunch of tools like e-mail and mobile phones.... [These technologies] are manifestations of a more fundamental shift. We now have communications that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of coordinating action that take advantage of that change.... [T]he core idea is [that] we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations....

By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), these tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort...

For most of modern life, our strong talents and desires for group effort have been filtered through relatively rigid institutional structures because of the complexity of managing groups. We haven't had all the groups we've wanted, we've simply had all the groups we could afford. (pp. 20 - 21)

I would argue that we are not only now capable of organizing, publicizing, and holding group activities without the traditional overhead associated with larger institutions--as Mr.Shirky states--but we also now have a set of Web tools that substantively create new ways of interacting in those group activities which redefine our productive capabilities. Some are listed below, and I'm hopeful that this post will elicit comments from others who have other methods or experiences which can become a part of the larger body of practice we can all draw from when looking at holding these kind of events.

I'm also listing a set of links that I've been keeping up at, a wiki I set up to document these ideas. I'd like to invite, as well, those who are interested in using NECC Unplugged as a venue for exploring the benefits of a collaboratively-built schedule of sessions during a traditional conference, to join me on in a working web-conference meeting on Thursday, June 5th, 2008, starting at 4pm PDT / 7pm EDT / 11pm GMT. Links to the Elluminate session will be posted at for the call. NECC Unplugged offers a host of opportunities, as its generous sponsorship and promotion by NECC's organizers will give it unique reach. Preliminary planning includes offering time for speed or "lightening" demos, facilitated discussions, group meet-ups, informal mentoring, ad-hoc panels, daily wrap-ups, and even a chance for attendees to give an abbreviated version of sessions they either wanted to give at NECC but were not formally accepted (the " Salon de Refuses"), or to speak on topics that weren't prominent or current when presentation submissions were due months ago. While my efforts will be focused in the Bloggers Cafe area, there will be six physical "lounge" areas for these activities. NECC Unplugged, it seems to me, holds the potential to become akin to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, a great addition to an existing and more formal event.

One element to these meetings that intrigues me, and which I'm still trying to quantify, is the ability for an engaged and devoted group to succeed in producing from their own experiences material and learning which not only meet what a single expert might bring, but often exceed traditional expertise. Darren Draper and I have been struggling to find a easy phrase for this, what he calls "Hargadon's Law," but which surely has been expressed somewhere else by someone more eloquent. It's the literal equivalent of 1 + 1 = 3, which does not invalidate the value of an expert, but which demonstrates or draws out the wisdom of a group, showing it to be significantly more powerful than typically manifest in more traditional teaching environments. Again, arguably not founded on the technologies of the Web, but enhanced and focused, perhaps, by using them.

Ideas for enhancing or creating self-organized meetings:

1. Use a wiki to organize the event. Or rather, use a wiki to let others help in organizing an event. You can even transfer the responsibilities for topics and organization to those who are attending! Ask them to sign themselves up on an "I'm attending" page. Make a blank agenda and let them fill it in. Granted, there is a little training or hand-holding that has to take place to teach others how to use a wiki, but return in collaborative effort from your group results in a huge net savings of time.

2. Ask your attendees to volunteer to promote the event, to facilitate sessions, to give speed demos (under 5 minutes) of successful tools or strategies, and to actively participate in whatever session they are in. Let them use the wiki to schedule themselves in to open slots you've created. You can also encourage the use of the "law of two feet:" if you're not giving or getting enough from a session, find or create another one.

3. Encourage independent discussions. Typically frowned upon in a formal conference, encourage participants to seek each other out for one-on-one mentoring, even skipping scheduled sessions to do so if they aren't interested in what's on the agenda. Consider building in as much informal time as formal time. There's nothing more tiring, and unproductive, for me than to have to rush from session to session at a conference, only to collapse at the end, to get home to all my catch-up work, and to not have the time to really go through my notes and drill down on items of significance. There's a temptation to schedule every minute because the organizers don't want to look as though they haven't done a good job! Don't be afraid of longer break times.

4. Be willing to change, reschedule, and reformulate on the fly. With a "living" wiki agenda, getting participants used to checking the wiki for upcoming sessions or activities allows you to make good changes when you need to.

5. Bring in special guests through video-conferencing tools. Skype video-conferencing deserves a post of its own. Some of my favorite times during an event have been during the lunch break when I've "trolled" the edublogosphere for short Skype conversations. Last week at a workshop in Phoenix, I sent out a twitter message and soon had our group talking with David Jakes , Chris Lehman, Dean Shareski, and Leigh Zeitz . We also interviewed a group of students from a high school technology leadership class, and I must say that the student interview panels I have done remotely are almost always a real highlight of a workshop or conference.

6. Use the wiki as a repository for all notes, brainstorms, links, photos, etc. The wiki then becomes a living extension of the meeting, a collective resource that is richer than our individual memories or perceptions, and which can be used as the basis for future events.

7. Encourage blogging, select blog tags, then use Technorati or Google Blog Search to feed into your event wiki the posts written about the event.

8. Take digital photos of the attendees and add them to the wiki or shared document you've created. Better yet, ask them to do so. You'll be amazed at how much more readable and memorable notes are when you can see the pictures of those who were there. You can ask attendees to tag their photos uniformly, so that they can either be viewed at outside storage services like Flickr, or easily embedded through widgets on your wiki.

9. Record sessions by audio or video, then post them for those who were not able to attend. Good audio recorders are now really easy to find at most office-supply stores. With a good webcam and free services like and, you can also video-stream meetings live for remote viewers or participants, and record them as well.

10. Start a social network or group for meetings or workshops. is really good for this (full disclosure: I do consulting work for Ning). A social network with a good discussion forum allows you to transfer some of the discussions to the online forums instead of needing to take place in the actual meetings, or to keep discussions going well after a physical meeting is done. Lots of important discussions happen better over time when they can be addressed "asynchronously" and without rush that having to be resolved in the allotted time on an agenda can bring. Look at the Cue Community as a good example of this, or check out the brand new NECC 2008 community network.

11. Allow, or even promote, "back-channel chatting." You can use a standard IM or chat-client, including, or a web-based service like Not only do most programs allow you to save the chat for later review, but they also can promote valuable ideas, thoughts, and questions from the quieter participants who might not normally jump into a discussion.

12. Remember electrical power and network needs. An event which encourages laptops to be open and in use at all times needs to have have lots of extension cords, power strips, and good Internet access. Don't forget to check the filtering that might be in place as well in case it will block you from your critical Internet resources.

13. Have fun!

Footnote (from

"Unplugged refers to rock musicians primarily known for playing electric amplified instruments (usually the electric guitar & electric bass) performing live using primarily acoustic instruments.

"The word became incorporated into the title of a popular MTV series that began in the 1989/1990 US TV season, MTV Unplugged, on which musicians performed acoustic or "unplugged" versions of their familiar repertoire. Many of these performances were subsequently released as albums, often featuring the title Unplugged."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's Here! It's Here! NECC's Community Network Is Live.

The NECC community network is now live at www.NECC2008 .org.

Built on Ning (of course!) by yours truly, I stayed up late one night after the kids were in bed to figure out how to match the exact colors in the Ning network to the actual NECC 2008 official site. (Hint: I used GIMP--also of course--to identify the exact color values of an imported version of the conference logo, then played with the NIng appearance settings. See how to modify a Ning header here.)

On the network site, you can:I uploaded my NECC photos from the past two years, mostly from the Open Source Pavilion and last year's first EduBloggerCon, just by making a link to Flickr and uploading those sets. 5 minutes tops. For some reason I can't find photos of 2005 in Philadelphia, the first year I was part of the Open Source Pavilion (maybe I didn't take them in between the back-breaking work of bringing in and out 30+ full-sized Dell PCs and monitors!). Speaking of "sweating for the Open Source cause," if you want to help volunteer at this year's Open Source Pavilion, email me directly at

For other Ning conference sites you might check out CUE's Community at or Jeff Utecht's Learning 2.008 Shanghai Conference site.

ALSO: Don't forget to check out the EduBloggerCon 08 & Classroom 2.0 Meetup, being held on Saturday, June 28, hosted by NECC.

And still to come: more details on NECC "Unplugged," the three-day unconference being held in the lounge areas--a conference within a conference.

Firefox Add-ons, Flickr, and $39 Make a Digital Photo "Frame"

Like many others, I am sure, I shelled out some money at Christmas time on digital photo frames as family gifts.  Given the growing library of digital photos our family has on Flickr (up to 13,000 now), it seemed like the digital photo frame was the perfect way to share some of those photos with grandparents.  I was stingy enough to resist the sophisticated ones that can update the photos over the web, but still felt like I had spent a lot of money...

Last night, by accident, I discovered another method for producing the same effect--potentially with the added benefit of keeping the television occupied with something worthwhile.  Our DVD player had broken, and as you can tell from the archaic TV set we still use, I'm a little frugal in this area.  So I went to our local Circuit City and found a PHilips DVD player on sale for $39.  As I'm trying to convince my wife and daughter that my frugality doesn't always mean loss of functionality, I read from the box that the player will display not only DVD movies, but a number of other media formats, including JPEG photos on CDs. 

"Oh," I think.

Remembering the 670 photos I downloaded from Flickr and put on an SD card for the grandparents to use in their digital photo frames, I burn those images to a CD, stick them into the DVD player, and discover that there is a slide-show functionality that displays all the images and loops at the end.  And if it looks pretty darn good on my old picture-tube TV, it would probably look great on one of those higher-end displays I steer my family away from every time we are at Sam's Club or Costco. 

Here's the recipe for anyone using Flickr to easily download hundreds (thousands?) of photos and make your own digitial picture frame for $39.  :)
  • Start with Firefox
  • Use the "set" feature in Flickr to create a new set just for the pictures you want to see. 
  • Install the greasemonkey add-on (requires a restart of Firefox) 
  • Install the DownThemAll! add-on (love this one--great for backing up all of your Google Docs as well; also requires a restart of Firefox)
  • Install the greasemonkey script "Flickr - Link Original Image"
  • View your set in Flickr, right-click and choose "Download them all," select only the images checkbox, and download all your photos into a single directory
  • Burn the photos to a CD, then have some fun!

Monday, May 05, 2008

Flat Classrooms Workshop, July 8 & 9 in St. Louis

Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis are the teachers behind the Flat Classroom Project and the recipients of all kinds of accolades, including being profiled in the latest edition of The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. This summer Julie and Vicki are holding their first-ever live workshop on Flat Classrooms in St. Louis, Missouri, July 8 & 9.

Those who follow the Flat Classroom Project know that Julie lives and teaches in Qatar, and this workshop is only possible because she will be in the United States for NECC. It's an extremely rare opportunity to learn from Julie and Vicki. (I'm helping them manage the logistics of the workshop, and will be there to give tutorials on Ning and Wikispaces.)

Space is limited. More information on the official website and Julie's blog.