Hi everybody! School is now out for the summer for me... which means it is time for my summer project: a collection of "chain tales" (think "House that Jack Built" or "The Lady who Swallowed a Fly") from countries all over the world. As always with a project, I develop the content as a blog first (this one will probably turn into a book eventually)... and what I wanted to write about in this post is how great it is to use a blog for content development. Here is the blog so far: I made a lot of progress in just one week! :-)
And, as I said in the title, I did not hesitate in choosing a blog to do this project because it would never work in Canvas Pages. The Pages content area in Canvas is a feature that needs serious improvement, and by listing some of the features I value most about blogs-for-content, I am also listing features that I hope Instructure will consider if/when they finally get around to doing something about the very neglected Pages area. For long discussions about Pages and their problems, see these Feature Requests:
I had hoped for a big improvement to Pages management with the coming of global search as expected from Project Khaki, but I am sad to say that there will be no search; I made some long comments re: lack of search and other content gaps here: there will be no global search.
Personally, I find using blogs for content development to be an ideal solution, but I know most instructors would probably prefer to do their content development inside Canvas. For all kinds of reasons, though, using a blog is a great content development option. If you are thinking about doing a summer project, maybe you will think about trying out a blog. I use Google's Blogger because it is super-fast and easy to use. Because it has fewer features than WordPress, that means you have fewer decisions to make, and you can just go-go-go.
I finished up with school a week ago, and here's the project as I've developed it so far:
1. I created a free blog at Blogger.com using my Google account. Just go to Blogger.com to get started; you will be up and running in literally just a few minutes. Here are the instructions I give to my students (they all have blogs too).
2. I chose a basic template and layout with a sidebar on the left. I really like blog sidebars!. In the mobile view, the sidebar is automatically suppressed; just add ?m=1 to see Blogger's mobile view of your blog:
3. I put an "About This Blog" note at the top of the sidebar with a couple of important links. That way people who end up on a specific story page for whatever reason will understand what the blog is doing overall.
4. I added a "follow by email" option so people can be notified of new content if they want; I do this same thing with my class announcements blog so students can subscribe by email if they want. As the blog owner, you can set lots of different email options too at the Feedburner site (when you create an email subscription option for blog, you then manage that at Feedburner where you can see your subscribers, etc. etc.).
5. I added a "recent posts" widget to the sidebar. This is useful while I am adding lots of new content to the site; I will remove this widget when the project is done and I am no longer adding new content.
6. With labels on the posts, I am able to provide the option to browse by regions, along with an automatic count of the number of stories from each region so far.
7. I also have a sources widget which will allow people to browse the stories based on the books they came from. Each story has a region label and a source label, so these two widgets are just two different ways of organizing the same content. I might come up with some other ways to browse the content based on my own classification system; for example, I might single out poetry versus prose, etc. It's easy to add another labeling system later on if/when I decide to do that.
8. There is a search box for the blog. See my note above about the sad lack of search for Canvas Pages, for which there is no solution even under consideration at this time. I still cannot believe Instructure asks people to develop content which is not searchable; searching is of huge value both to the content developer and also to any people who are using the content: searchability is probably the single most valuable feature of digital content!
9. The "about me" widget is one that I always include in my blogs; that lets people know on any page of the blog that I am the blog author. It also contains a link to the homepage where people can then navigate to all my online content: MythFolklore.net. And it is fun having my fox avatar show up here since the fox will be making many appearances in these folktales, like in the story of the day... with a very evil fox ha ha: The Sky is Falling.
10. The "RSS" widget at the bottom gives people quick access to the RSS feeds for both posts and for comments. I am a huge fan of RSS, and I have written about my use of Inoreader and RSS extensively here in my Canvas blog; it's how I run my student blog network. Inoreader is the magic that lets you display any RSS feed inside a Canvas Page.
11. I have configured the blog to display just one post on the home page, and I am manually adjusting the date/time stamp so that the current "Story of the Day" is always on the home page. I am using labels for the Story of the Day post so that people can click a link in that post for "previous Stories of the Day" that displays those previous stories all together for reading.
previous stories-of-the-day (which is a label display play)
I am using this "Story of the Day" approach so that there is something new at the blog homepage every day, and also as a way to manage my editorial process. As I add new story posts, I just focus on doing the bibliography and folklore classification along with the text; I don't worry so much about commentary or adding a picture. But every day I pick one story that I previously posted to add some commentary along with an illustration, and that then becomes the story of the day. This is a system I've used for other projects, and it really helps me to both stay fresh and also work at a slower or faster pace depending on my available time.
The use of labels and date/time-based display options means that I never have to configure any navigation manually at the site: it is all taken care of automatically, while letting users view the content in all kinds of ways: the Stories of the Day, all the stories, the stories by region (e.g. India), the stories by source (e.g. Jacobs's English Fairy Tales), and by search results (e.g. tiger).
This is also a beautifully scalable system: it works great when you have just a few posts, and it also works for literally thousands of posts, as at my UnTextbook or the Freebookapalooza (and that collection of free books online is a fantastic resource for this project of course). Canvas Pages, by contrast, are not scalable at all: after you get to more than just a few dozen pages, the system is largely unmanageable.
Because these blog design features are automatic, I can focus all my energy on writing the actual content, with basically zero time spent on maintaining the site: I don't have to change the contents of those navigation widgets or the label-based navigation; it all updates automatically as I add new content. Of course, if I decide I want a different template or layout, that's easy to do... but for now, my focus is all on content! I've got over 200 stories already that I know I want to include, which means a story of the day every day all summer long. It's going to be fun, and I will end up with a fantastic resource for my students to explore next year; I chose this topic because it is very useful both for my Folklore class AND for my India class, since India is one of the places where these chain tales are the most popular.
I can also add an entirely new type of content to the blog later on, and I plan to do that: my goal is to create "how-to" pages that teachers can use in helping their students to write their own chain tales. These types of chain-tale stories are still going strong with young readers, and the formulaic nature of the stories means that it is possible to be incredibly creative (you decide who all the characters will be and what they will say and do) while also giving you support in the actual writing. But before I start creating those DIY models for people to use, I want to learn as much as I can about how storytellers around the world have used these types of formulas.
And now...... back to the stories! Just for fun, here is one of the most famous chain tales as sung by Burl Ives: There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.