Why in the World Would I Want a Blog?

Making Web Pages is a Pain
I’m frequently asked for an easy way for teachers to create web sites and keep them up-to-date. In the past, I’ve tried a number of approaches with teachers. I started with writing html code by hand using a simple text editor. It’s really not very difficult to make web pages that way, but it was a little too techy for a lot of our teachers.

From there, we moved on to using simple editors like Netscape Composer and Adobe Pagemill. These tools are fairly easy to use, and once you understand how links and images work, they make teachers pretty productive in a short period of time. Lots of our teachers still use tools like this, and they’re happy with them. The problem is that these tools are now pretty dated, and they produce web pages that aren’t as visually appealing as other sites online.

Some teachers have gone further by using programs like FrontPage or DreamWeaver. These are good tools, and they will produce nice-looking web sites. The problem is that the time needed to master them is more than most teachers are willing to invest. Teachers should be focusing on their craft — on what’s happening in the classroom with their students. Teachers are not web designers. If they’re spending a lot of time learning DreamWeaver, that’s time taken away from potentially more important work.

Many teachers have jumped on the Microsoft Office bandwagon. It’s true that you can save documents as a web page in Microsoft Word, Publisher, and PowerPoint. But these documents are produced by programs that aren’t really web design products. The resulting web pages have a lot of problems, especially when viewed with non-Microsoft software. It’s kind of like getting pizza at a Chinese buffet — while it’s technically possible, you probably won’t be very happy with the results.

A few years ago, we tried using online tools for web sites. There are various sites that let teachers create online web sites (My School Online, School Notes, etc) and some of our teachers are still using them. Some of these sites meet our teachers’ needs very well because they’re easy to maintain and they’re professional-looking. But some of them also include advertising or links to other sites that you can’t control. Others require teachers to sign up and pay a fee to use them. If we had something like this, but hosted locally, we could get around these problems.

Blogs: Bad Reputation?
Enter Blog software. What’s a blog? Traditionally, blogs have been online diaries. People can write journal entries and post them online. These entries may contain pictures, or file attachements, or links to other things online. When people read these entries, they can post comments about them, and form an online discussion. Blogs have a negative connotation for a lot of people because they allow people to post anything very easily. Some people don’t have much to say, and their blogs are meaningless rants about the people in line at the grocery store, or something that happened to them at work, or an argument they had with someone. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Blog software is easy to use. It can be used to post text, pictures, and files quickly and easily. That’s perfect for teachers. There’s practically no learning curve, the sites are professional-looking, and they can improve communication with teachers and students while saving time.

Are They For You?

I have configured the WordPress blog software on our web server, can can now set up accounts for any staff member who wants a blog. Once it’s set up (which only takes a few minutes), you can customize it to meet your needs and be up-and-running with a live site in less than half an hour. Updates only take minutes, and don’t require any special software. If you’re not sure whether this is the tool for you, look at these questions:

  • Do you need to have control over every element of your web site, including graphics, fonts, page layout, and formatting? If you need this kind of control, invest the time to learn something like DreamWeaver or FrontPage. It’s a lot more work, but if you really want to be in control of every element on your site, it’s the only way to go.
  • Do you already have a web site? If you’re already using one of the solutions mentioned above, and if it’s doing everything you need to do, there’s no real reason to switch. Changing web tools creates more work. Unless there’s something you want to do that you can’t do now, stick with what you have.
  • Do you need to know who your visitors are, or is your content more-or-less public? If you want to do things where students are participating in online discussions, or submitting work online, or taking quizzes online, you’ll have to identify your students by having them log in to the site. We have tools to do all of that (and I’ll write about them soon), but this isn’t it.
  • Do you frequently have a little bit to say about a lot of things? Blogs really shine when have a small amount of text in a particular post. This post, for example, is WAY too long. If you just want to get quick reminders out to your audience (parents, students, other teachers, etc), then blogging may be the way to go.
  • Do you want to reach your users via email? Our installation of WordPress allows people to sign up to receive updates. If they do, then they’ll receive an email when you update your site that contains the information you posted.

Want to get started? Email me, and we’ll get your account set up.

Free Audio Books Online

LibriVox is a volunteer initative to create audio versions of literature classics. People volunteer to record chapters or books, and then submit these recordings so others may download and listen to them.

To avoid copyright problems, they only accept work that’s in the public domain. For the most part, that means books published before 1923. All of the recordings are freely available on the web site.

Anyone can volunteer to contribute to the project as a reader, and you can suggest any public domain work to be recorded.

If you’re looking for the text versions of public domain works, you can find 17,000 books in the Project Gutenberg collection. This is a similar project that provides these works in text files that anyone may download and use.

WordPress is finally working

It looks like I finally have WordPress working correctly with multiple users. I’ve also written a script that will make it easier to create new sites for staff members. This project is going to allow me to get information out quickly and easily, while still testing and playing with the tool.Right now, it’s pretty easy to add content. I can attach files and pictures to a post. I can specify the categories into which this can be placed. I can create an image gallery. I can do some rudimentary things with calendars. I can incorporate RSS feeds. Finally, I think the email notification system works. This system allows updates to be automatically emailed to subscribers as I change the content on the site. Want to try it? Go ahead and sign up.