Who speaks for earth?

carlsagan
This image of Carl Sagan done in Adobe Illustrator CS5

“…the world impoverishes itself by spending half a trillion dollars a year in preparations for war and by employing perhaps half the scientists and high technologists on the planet in military endeavors.

How would we explain all this to a dispassionate, extraterrestrial observer? What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet earth?

Fundamental changes in society are sometimes labeled impractical or contrary to human nature: as if nuclear war were practical or as if there were only one human nature. But fundamental changes can clearly be made. We are surrounded by them. In the last two centuries abject slavery, which was with us for thousands of years, has almost entirely been eliminated in a stirring world wide revolution. Women, systematically mistreated for millennia, are gradually gaining the political and economic power traditionally denied to them. And some wars of aggression have recently been stopped or curtailed because of a revulsion felt by the people in the aggressor nations. The old appeals to racial, sexual and religious chauvinism and to rabid nationalism are beginning not to work. A new consciousness is developing which sees the earth as a single organism and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet.

We have heard the rationales offered by the superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations; but who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for earth?” – Carl Sagan, 1980.

Social Media tools for Learning Practitioners

XKCD 979 - Wisdom of the Ancients

With social media, we have the potential to learn a lot from one another, take those learnings, and transfer them en-masse. As a learning practitioner, you may find that this skill will or has already become critical to your success in building knowledge capacity in others.

What is a learning practitioner? For the purpose of this post, by learning practitioner, I mean trainer, teacher, instructor, or anyone in a position where they are transferring knowledge to others. That could be you today, or it could be you tomorrow. It’s probably you if you are reading this for fun and may send it to someone.

This post is about how to use social media tools to your advantage in the context of teaching a subject or specific topic to a group. So let’s get to some tools and see what they can do for you. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a summary of some of the social media tools I use myself to gather and curate information to enhance subject knowledge in areas I am responsible for knowing and transferring to others.

Google+

  • Circles – build a practitioner community with your peers. Circles are like groups that you can use to apply to your newsfeed, messages, who to share your own updates with, as well as “Hangouts.”
  • Hangouts or video chats – you can teach remotely this way. It’s similar to LiveMeeting but it has the convenience of being on the web and does not needing a specific program to be downloaded to use it.
  • Search by people, pages, communities, posts, hangouts and events

Twitter

  • Lists – build your 140 character practitioner community
  • Take advantage of real time search on a subject when a relevant story is unfolding – may be useful for the classroom/training room
  • Utilize hashtags that are relevant to the subject you wish to know more about and that are in use by subject matter authorities who influence you and your colleagues, ie #leadership

LinkedIn

  • There are many subject matter groups worth joining, many of which that have active memberships that are participating in discussions at any given moment
  • Connect with other professionals who you’ve worked with and develop your knowledgeable network – create a living knowledge base

Blogs

  • Elucidate further on subjects – write for the people you are transferring knowledge to and give them a 24/7 resource – and tell the story of the knowledge you want to transfer in the way you want. Embed videos, enable comments, moderate and interact.
  • Aggregate other blogs using tools like Google Reader and curate content for your students from many sources – interact with your favourite subject matter authorities and stay tuned to the thoughts of thought leaders

Quora

  • Ask a question, get an answer
  • Like Yahoo Answers but in a walled community where readers get points for answering questions and can use points in different ways, such as promoting their own question in other user’s news feeds by applying points to the question.
  • Questions are tagged by topic – tags link similar topics together for greater knowledge aggregation

TED

  • TED is not traditional social media – ie, not a symmetrical (two way) communication but more asymmetrical (one way), however it travels through social networks – including your student’s social media networks and your peer’s social media networks as a way of learning or spreading an idea worth learning about. It also enables something profoundly different when it comes to teaching, as does any video lesson available on YouTube or Vimeo.
  • TED Videos have over a billion views as of this year
  • Flipping the classroom – Salman Khan did a TED talk about how he uses video to teach lessons. Since lessons and lectures are mostly asymmetrical knowledge transfer, they match the delivery method of video, which can be consumed at home. He then proposes that teachers use the time in the classroom to have students work on assignments and answers questions about assignments that are usually done at home without support. As we all know, having a question that you can’t get answered until the next day can be a huge stumbling block in a learning experience. Assignment time has the most potential for use of the most symmetrical communication experience because students will have questions when they take on completion of assignments which test their knowledge.
  • TEDEd – In beta from TED.com, this site is built on the “flipping the classroom” experience. There are 3 components to each TEDEd piece: Watch (video) / Think (quiz) / Dig Deeper (additional research)
  • TEDx – in addition to the main TED videos, there are many excellent and relevant videos released from independently organized TEDx events, which are TED-like experiences, such as TEDxVictoria.

Facebook

  • Crowdsource specific information – my friends are good at answering simple questions .. chances are, yours might be too. Pose a question, see what your friends think.
  • Join groups – although Facebook is a more casual social media platform than LinkedIn, you can still find very passionate groups that are dedicated to specific topics or subjects.

The bottom line is that there are so many tools where you can find and develop your own personal network for any number of subjects, topics or interests. I recommend finding the spot where your influencers are and joining them rather than trying to migrate everyone you know into the spot you like best. The best spot is where your best network is.

That’s it for now. If you have suggestions or examples of tools you use and how you use them, I welcome and encourage your comments!

Creating content for a web based environment

optimize

With the advent of widely deployed content management systems (CMS) and higher use of the web to present content than ever before, a lot of users are finding themselves in front of a variety of tools to present content on the web. There’s one recurring problem, however: how do you get the job done in the most efficient and sustainable way, while taking organizational business factors into proper consideration?

There used to be one person in charge of the process of posting things to the web; now there are frequently 5, 20, or even more. There are limitations on disk space; there are costs associated with moving things to the web, and even more-so in secure environments. With increasing numbers of information suppliers, and an increase of those who demand said information, the importance of understanding web content optimization and presentation strategy becomes even more important as every piece of information uploaded has the potential to relate to another piece of information and create emergent value.

Lately I have been involved in planning an intranet for the organization I work for, BC Stats. This has involved some information architecture (sitemaps and linking), user experience, content strategy, organizational engagement and communications coordination. What I forgot in this process is that not everyone has the understanding of preparing content for the web that I do as someone who has been making websites since 1994 on the Victoria Freenet, a time that had severe file size and bandwidth limitations – ie 5MB for an entire site, and audiences that were on dial-up (phone line) internet. Although archaic in web terms, the Freenet experience prepared me well for working in scalable demand web based environments for every year that followed. It was during this time that I learned content preparation inside out by reading books at the library on file compression, experimenting with my own site, and conversing with others that were largely responsible for launching the web as we know it.

Content Strategy

This is the least technical and most user oriented piece in this writeup about preparing content for the web. A content strategy at it’s most basic level will consider how the information that needs to be disseminated will be presented to the reader. How will the reader know they’re in the right place and will find the right information when they get to the page you have created? What sort of narration do you want to provide throughout your site? How are you speaking to your audience and ultimately how are you providing value with the information you need to present? A content strategy does not need to be exhaustive, but should consider some communication fundamentals, such as telling the reader what they’re going to find on the page in front of them, a consistent format for presenting pages of similar information (think processes or different types of resources), and alternatives for special types of content, ie infographics. For a blog’s content strategy, you might include ways to position the organization or person blogging – ie, if a statistics organization needs to appear to be experts, they could write about methodology. Or a photographer could write articles about aperture or the inverse relationship between ISO performance and megapixel count. Good content strategy takes the user’s perspective in as well as the writer’s. Why post information if you don’t know why people would want to access it? Ultimately a content strategy ensures you are delivering value in a relevant way to your users as well as yourself.

What is a web based environment and how is it different than a network drive?

There are many considerations that will make the Intranet experience different than a network drive experience. For now, I will elucidate on the following:

  • Linking
  • Web servers
  • Optimization practice

Linking

A couple years ago I was at a party and met a very confident man who had built his own identity around that of being a web designer. I usually feel a sort of an unspoken kinship with other web designers and I enjoy talking shop, so I channeled Ali G and asked what initially appeared to be a rather obtuse question: “What is the best HTML element?” My new friend scoffed at the question, saying that it was impossible to answer. I have to admit, when I asked him, I didn’t even know the answer, but the question was irresistible to answer, especially in a time when HTML5 itself continues to evolve as new elements continue to get added. We talked about Embed, H1, IMG, but I concluded that “A” had to be it. “A” is short for anchor, and any text or image inside of it becomes clickable. When the “href” attribute (short for hyper-reference) is added, it makes a click on that text or image lead to the value set by the “href” attribute. Instead of documents living in a series of vacuums, they connect. They are bridged; they have arteries; they connect. And what becomes possible? Search couldn’t work without links. Each result is a link which relies on the “A” tag. Google wouldn’t exist without the A tag. That was it; linking matters.

Although you can certainly link from document to document on a network drive, how often is it actually done effectively? The traditional expectation of a word document is to find a wall of text  that may reference other documents or may not. Because some of these documents are meant to be printed, authors have constrictions about exactly how well they can reference other documents electronically. Although the documents that will live on an Intranet should be able to be printed, the expectation is that printing will no longer be necessary, and as such, authors of these documents will be freer to link documents together. This is especially important when we consider types of content such as process documents, many of which reference each other, ie “if this then that” – the “that” can be a link to another document rather than including every possibility in a process tree in a single document. This leads to leaner documents that are updated faster and easier, as well as less redundant information in multiple files, when increases the functional integrity of the data or information you are presenting.

Web servers

Files are served from a web server. If you don’t regularly work in a web environment, what this means is that all the content you are looking at is stored on a computer somewhere on the network. When you click on a link to a page on a site, what you are actually accessing is a file (or a rendering of a file) that lives on that computer – that computer is called a server or web server. It’s serving you pages or files that you request. It doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, and it’s not sounding very different than a network drive, until you consider that each request you make of that server (by clicking on links or searching) scales with the amount of users doing the same thing as you at the same time. You know how your computer takes a few seconds to open up a word document after you double click on it, or a few seconds more if the document has a large file size? Your computer is using processing power to access the file and open it up. A web server must multiply this experience for how-ever many users need to access files or documents at once.  Ergo, file size matters, which leads us to optimization for the web.

Optimization practice

We can optimize almost everything to reduce loads on web servers and speed things up for our users, as well as make the site more sustainable by taking up less disk space on the web server itself.

Text – writing or pasting in plain text is optimal because there is no hidden HTML code that could be imported from a program such as Microsoft Word. You may have heard many times that you should paste as plain text as much as possible between programs. This is especially true for the web, where extraneous HTML code from desktop publishing software can literally make a document ten times the size without providing any additional value whatsoever. Adobe Dreamweaver has an option in the commands menu, for example, that is “Clean up Word HTML.” It would be better if there was no HTML from Word to begin with. For the most part, pasting plain text into a web editor is fast, and re-applying heading classes only takes a few moments. It is relatively painless and a best practice to paste in plain text.

Images – Files can be compressed and resized to best display on the web. For images, your choices tend to be JPG/JPEG, PNG and GIF. Each compression method has a purpose, which I will explain below. Note: In order to understand the following, you must understand what a pixel is.

  • .GIFs restrict the colours in an image to 256, which is inadequate for photos, but GIFs can include transparency. GIFs are good for images that have a low number of colours (many logos are this way) but ultimately the GIF is a novelty format because PNGs can include transparency (and are better at it) and have no limit on numbers of colours.
  • .JPGs have no limit on numbers of colours and compress images on a sliding scale of quality when saving the file as a JPG – ie you can save an image as a JPG with a quality setting of “20” and you’ll have an image with a very small file size, or you  could save it with a quality setting of “100” and the file size would be much larger. The downside of turning down the quality slider too far is that the image gets visibly degraded the further you pull the slider down. It gets chunky in appearance the closer to zero you get. This is the compression algorithm clustering similarly coloured and shaded pixels together, saving that range of pixels as a piece of information in the file rather than saving information about each individual pixel in the image file. That is how JPGs compress. I have found that the best setting for optimizing for the web in Photoshop is putting the slider between the 60-70 around and eyeballing it for unwanted blockiness. If it is too blocky then I simply slide the quality setting upward.
  • .PNGs (portable network graphic) are my favourite format for the web as they can include alpha transparency and any number of colours. You do need a quality slider because the compression method with PNGs does not use the same algorithm to reduce file size. The PNG file is almost always smaller than the original uncompressed file, be it a BMP, TIFF, RAW etc. PNG is generally a good web format choice no matter the circumstance.

I have found that image sizing is a confusing subject for a lot of people. Some of the confusion I hear about this with regularity is around file size – ie what is a good file size, and also – when we are talking about file size, how are we talking about the size of the image – ie, are we talking dimensions (800 pixels high x 1200 pixels wide) or are we talking file size (1mb or 8 mb)? The reality is that we are talking about both of these things and in different ways. Generally, unless you are in the business of selling photography, you don’t need to put up a 8000×12000 pixel image, and you can safely re-size the dimensions of the image to match the width or height of the container or page that it resides in on the web page that you wish to have it displayed it on. Some modern interfaces, such as Facebook, will take any size image and resize it for you on their servers. They are doing the optimizing for you, but many web services will not do this, or pretend to do it but do an inadequate job, ie overcompression of the image resulting in image artifacting (which makes people’s faces look blocky), or falsely resizing where they use CSS to change the dimensional appearance of the image, but the file dimensions remain the same on the server, and as such, the strain on the server for every request remains the same.

Other Documents – PDFs can be compressed for the web. If you are using Adobe Acrobat Writer, there are export options for printing (larger file size), web & screen (smaller) and some other options that are somewhere in between. Find and use these options to your advantage.

Last point on optimization

Remember, web servers are just computers that sit on a network and have been designated as responsible for fulfilling requests that are made through a web address. Besides cloud based server solutions (which many organizations do not have the option of using), most web servers have finite disk space and processing powers. Reducing the amount of power they must use per request means that the system will be faster for all users, ie your audience and you. The side benefit of optimizing content for the web is lower costs because you are using less disk space on the server (if you do not have an unlimited disk space plan) and you’re not forcing the web server to use more bandwidth (a measure of transmission of data – this has its own costs associated with it, as those with smartphones are quite aware of) than necessary.