I’m always looking for new blogs to read. It’s always good to have fresh talent, with a fresh viewpoint, otherwise it can all start to become a bit self-referential and echo chamberish. So I was delighted when Pete Yeomans recently drew my my attention to a website that collates the blogs written by students on the University of Plymouth’s B.Ed course.
OK, I know it's ridiculous, but I am currently subscribed to 829 blogs. That means if I checked one per day it would take nearly three years to get through them all. What I ought to do is go through them, and be absolutely ruthless about weeding out the ones I don't read as often as I should. Erm, that would be all of them then.
Or perhaps I should ditch the ones I don't like too much. But I often read blogs I don't like because they are useful sometimes.
So I've decided that the only answer to a ridiculous problem is a ridiculous solution: I have decided to experiment with randomizing my blog reading. Here's how it works, using Excel.
Setting up the random blog post generator
- Open Excel and start a new workbook.
- Open your RSS feed reader.
- Export your subscriptions to what is called an OPML file. This option will be found somewhere in the menu system of your blog reader. In Google Reader, for example, you click on the link at the bottom of the screen called 'Manage your subscriptions', then to Import/Export.
- Next, open the OPML file in your web browser.
- Select all the text in the file.
- Paste it into the Excel file. You should find that each blog you subscribe to lands on a row all to itself.
- Get rid of any extraneous text at the top of the worksheet, ie any text which is clearly not an actual blog. Make sure that the first blog is in row 1 or, if you wish to be prim and proper and give your columns headings, row 2.
- Get rid of extraneous text at the beginning of each line, such as 'outline text'. Use the Find and Replace tool for this, replacing the offending text with nothing.
- Next, we need to assign a number to each blog. The easiest way to do so is by using the formula =row() in the column to the immediate right of your list of blogs. For example, in my spreadsheet the blogs are listed in column F, so I have placed the row formula in Column G. Don't worry about obliterating some of the text in the blog list: you can always widen the column just enough for you to be able to read the name of the blog. If you have started your list on row 2 rather than row 1, amend the formula to =row()-1. You only have to enter the formula in the very first row of data.
- Place the mouse pointer on the bottom right hand corner of the cell with the =row() formula in it, and double-click. This will copy the formula all the way down.
- Next, we need to place a random number generator somewhere near the top of the worksheet. The best formula to use is Randbetween: =randbetween(bottom,top). Thus in my case this has to be =randbetween(1,829).
- Save the spreadsheet with an impressive sounding name. I've saved mine as 'blogarizer'.
Using the random blog post generator
Putting this 'blogarizer' to work is simplicity itself.
- Just press F9, and a number will appear where the Randbetween function resides.
- Scroll down your blog list to find the blog to which that number has been assigned.
- Go to your RSS reader and go to that blog.
Some awkward questions
I'm about to start experimenting with this myself. If you decide to try it, let me know how you get on. Although this is an interesting approach to having too many blogs to read, a few questions spring to mind:
- Does each number really have an equal chance of being generated? I have my doubts, but I think I will have to assume it does, unless someone proves to me otherwise.
- Although each blog (we assume) has an equal chance of being chosen, is this actually a fair, in the sense of equitable, method of doing so? Would it not be more fair to weight the randomizer in some way, perhaps to reflect the fact that some people really contribute to the education community and therefore 'deserve' to have their blog posts read?
- Is this actually a sensible way of approaching the problem? It means, in effect, that someone who writes about every aspect of his/her life, and only occasionally about educational technology, stands an equal chance of being read as someone who posts exclusively about educational technology -- and whose posts might therefore be deemed to be the more useful of the two.
- Is it ethical? I mean, there are people whose blogs I follow because their posts never disappoint -- which is pretty good going if you think about it. Yet here am I saying, in effect, "Thanks a bunch for all the great work you are doing, but you have only a 1 in 829 chance of being read by me on any given day." Is that right?
I think it's interesting that although this approach may be fair in the purely mathematical sense, it could be grossly unfair in other ways.
So what's your opinion?
This series, as explained earlier, is intended to give people a flavour of what Web 2.0 is all about in as non-technical a way as possible. This time we look at blogs.
I think it would be true to say that many people have heard of blogs and have a vague notion of what they are. What a lot of people struggle with, however, is the question: What's the point of them?
First things first. A blog, short for 'web log', is a kind of website where you can do four things very easily:
Firstly, you can write new content without much ado. Sure, you can write new content on an ordinary website, but that usually means thinking about what kind of editor you're going to use to do so, how to link the new page to the rest of the site or how to change the content on an existing page without messing up the formatting. When you set up a blog you can, if you like, not worry about anything like that until you want to start exploring the possibilities. You can often even update the blog by sending an email from a mobile phone, or a picture from a phone or a camera.
Secondly, you can get the word out very easily that you've updated the website. Often, the platform you use will automatically create an RSS feed, which is the means by which people find out there's been an update without having to visit your website itself just on the off-chance in order to check.
Thirdly, and this is key, the default setting in a blog is to allow people to comment on what you've written. That's what turns a website from a repository of content to an area where discussion is positively encouraged.
Fourthly, you can quickly publish your work to a potentially worldwide audience. You can do that through a normal website too, but having an RSS feed plus the commenting facility makes the idea of a global audience much more likely to be realised.
Setting up a blog is easy: just go to http://www,blogspot.com and follow the instructions, and you'll be up and running in less than 10 minutes. In fact, the hardest thing will be to think of a name for your blog.
But let's move on to the question of: so what? There are a number of ways in which blogs can be, and have been, used in education:
As a personal learning journal. If you're doing a course, such as an MA, you could use a blog to record papers you've come across and your thoughts on them. You can then refer to these notes -- which nobody else need see -- when preparing essays. You could do the same on paper, of course, but a blog is accessible from anywhere in the world, more or less, and you can't cut and paste URLs and references using pen and paper.
As a diary of feelings or events. This is, I believe, how blogging started in the first place: with people keeping a diary, a log, of their activities.
As a place to do some creative writing. Or just to think aloud.
As a place to show off, and easily update, your creative portfolio. That could be writing, artwork, photography -- you name it. Next time an editor requests a sample of your work, point them to your blog.
As a place to keep, and update, your CV (Resume). Not necessarily the whole thing, but for the headline roles you've had and skills you possess. Interested parties will ask for the 'real thing' if they like wht they see online.
As a means of keeping a group of students informed. If you have a blog to which you publish new links and assignments every week, students can access that from home, their library or even, potentially, their local shopping mall.
As a means of obtaining students' thoughts and feedback, either by giving them the access rights to write blog posts themselves, or by encouraging them to comment on yours.
As a means of engaging students, either to record what went on in the lesson (see, for example, The Scribe Post by Darren Kuropatwa)or as a means of encouraging kids to write.
If the idea of having your students blog appeals to you, look into ClassBlogMeister from David Warlick.
You'll also want to read the relevant sections in Coming of Age: An Introduction to the NEW Worldwide Web, and browse through the many projects in the Web 2.0 Projects Book, both of which can be found in the 'Free Stuff' area of this website.
And look out for the utterly fantastic updated version of the projects book and, if you're in London in January 2010, my seminar on the subject. You can read all about these wonderful developments in my original article in this series!
So many blogs, so little time. What with all the 101 other things you have to do in your life, you can't afford to waste time on blogs that won't benefit you in any way. Or, to be more accurate, in which the benefits are exceeded by the cost, ie the time spent.
So what kind of things might you take into account when deciding whether or not to subscribe to a blog's RSS feed? Here is what I look for.
- I will usually have discovered a blog through a reference to one particular article. The obvious thing to check out, then, is whether all or most of the articles on the blog look interesting, or whether the one I came across was the exception to the rule.
- Are the articles engaging? Ideally, I prefer to read stuff that is well-written. Not just well-written from a technical point of view, but in a way that's engaging, that reels me in. I want to have to drag myself away because I have other things to do, not force myself to read it because I think it might be good for me.
- OK, not everyone can be a great writer, so is it informative at least? Am I going to learn stuff that I may not otherwise come across, or not packaged in as succinct a manner?
- Is it newsworthy? I find it hard to keep up with news, despite, or possibly because of, the dozens of sources I rely on. If there's a blog that consistently mentions the latest news, be it technical or educational or otherwise, I'm interested.
- Is it humorous? Even if it's none of the things mentioned so far, if it makes me smile or laugh that is a big plus.
- Is it provocative? A blog should make you think, or react.
- Once it's made it through the hurdles presented so far, a blog has to show that its owner is serious about it. The issue here is: has it been updated regularly? If it's been more than a month since the last post, that is a real turn-off for me.
Yes, I know that people are busy, but I think it's a matter of priorities. I have blogs that I haven't updated in months. But this one, ICT in Education, gets updated on average at least once a day during the week, and sometimes more, and sometimes at the weekends and on holidays too. And let me tell you: I am busy!
That does raise another issue, of course: is a blog updated too frequently? That doesn't bother me in the slightest. I figure that someone can update their blog every 15 minutes if they want to, but I don't have to read it all. But I mention it here because I have recently had one person unsubscribe from my RSS feed because he thought that I update my blog too often.
- Finally, is it easy to subscribe? I have a Google toolbar which enables me to subscribe to a blog by clicking on a button labelled 'Subscribe'. If I get a message saying 'Feed not found', I become slightly miffed, because it is pretty easy to avoid that,m and people with slick-looking websites ought to know that. All you have to do is insert the following code within the HEAD part of your Index page:
"<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml"
title="RSS Feed for ictineducation.org"
substituting your RSS feed and title for mine, or course.
If clicking on Subscribe doesn't work, I'll click on an RSS feed icon or similar. If have to hunt around for that, I'll probably give up, especially if the decision to subscribe was touch and go anyway.
Total time for this whole process? I would say no more than 5 minutes, and most of that will be taken up with #1.
I'd be interested in hearing about what makes you decide to subscribe to an RSS feed or not, so please either comment below or complete the survey on the subject; it will take you just two or three minutes, and I'll publish the results soon.