Archive for the ‘Web 2.0’ Category

Required Reading

As someone who has been involved in a variety of social networks over the last decade, I know that my participation in each tends to ebb and flow, influenced by any number of factors both internal and external.  One service I’ve been making better use of recently is Goodreads, which – if you couldn’t tell from the name – is a social network for book lovers.

When I first started using Goodreads (and Shelfari before it), I thought it would just be a neat way to catalog all the books I’ve read, because I just have a tendency to want to suck the fun out of everything catalog, collect, and categorize things.  Goodreads allows users to sort books into “shelves”, and the initial three that every user gets are “Read”, “Currently Reading”, and “Want to Read”.

Up until now, I used this service primarily to catalog books I’ve read and maintain a list of books I’d like to read (something for which I previously used Evernote) for my own purposes, passively accepting friend requests but never really making use of the network.  Now, however, I’m starting to take more of an interest in the networking aspect – I see what my friends are reading (many of them don’t tend to share this information out to Facebook or Twitter) and getting good recommendations and suggestions for what to read next.

Goodreads also allows you to add shelves to your initial three.  I created one the other day called “Edu-Must-Reads“, which is where I tag books that are – in my opinion – “desert island discs” of the educational publishing world.  Not all of them are necessarily about education, but anything on that shelf is something I consider an essential read for folks in education, for any number of reasons.  These works have all had a significant influence on the lens through which I view teaching, learning, and leadership.  Not only is this a resource for my Goodreads friends, but I figure it’s a quick link I can share with anybody when the discussion of favorite books about education comes up (because those are the kind of nerd parties I go to).

Feel free to peruse my shelf – it’s a bit small at the moment (13 at time of writing) but as I read more, I have no doubt it will grow.  Also, if you’re on Goodreads, let’s connect so we can grow our respective collections together.

The #Quartweet Project

Last time, I wrote at great length about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into bringing a multi-building project to fruition.  Now that we’re officially after the fact, I can speak a bit to what exactly that project was.

Late last school year, Marc Uys, Executive Director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, reached out to one of the elementary music teachers in our district, Dan Beal, to gauge his interest in participating in a project with the German group Signum Quartet.  The SQ was experimenting with something they were calling “quartweets” – short arrangements for string quartet of no more than 140 notes (to parallel a tweet’s 140-character limit) – and they were soliciting quartweet submissions from their fans via social media.  PSO and SQ asked Dan if they could partner with our district to workshop and perform quartweets written by students.  SQ would work with violist/educator Jessica Meyer to flesh out the students’ original compositions, which would be recorded by the quartet and published via social media, and also performed twice: once at a concert for district students, and again at a free evening concert for our community.

Dan brought the idea to me and explained the parameters: the Signum Quartet would only be here in the States for a limited period of time at the end of September, so if we were going to do it, there was no room for discussion about the time frame.  Keep in mind it was after Memorial Day when we first started discussing this, so between then and the end of the school year (about three weeks hence – you know, when nothing else is happening) we had to:

  1. identify participants (after some discussion, we decided to focus on rising third graders in all four elementary schools)
  2. roll this out to the other music teachers and enlist their help in identifying potential participants
  3. contact participant parents/guardians and secure all necessary permissions for publishing their work online
  4. help prep the students to work independently on their compositions over the summer

After school let out, all we could do was wait until September and hope the students didn’t lose interest in the project over the summer.

Fast forward to September…

Not only did the students not lose interest, they all completed their works and submitted them to their teachers.  On September 29, Jessica Meyer and the Signum Quartet conducted two workshops with our seven student composers to flesh out their pieces and bring them to life.


It was such a pleasure to watch Ms. Meyer work with our students.  While she is clearly a very accomplished musician, she is also a teacher who has a knack for helping students determine how their composition tells a story.  That, combined with SQ’s willingness to play a piece a million different ways until the composer found the right one, made for an incredible learning experience.

The following day, we bussed all 300+ third graders from four buildings to our middle school, where they listened to the world premieres of seven local, home-grown quartweets by our Lawrence Township composers, as well as other quartweet-ish short pieces by lesser-known musicians (some hacks called Bach and Beethoven).  The culminating experience was the free community concert, held the evening of October 1 at our high school, at which the SQ once again played all seven of the student quartweets as well as other, similarly short classical pieces.  The students even got to sit onstage with the SQ and speak a bit to the inspiration behind their pieces.


The experience is now over, but I have to believe that the memories will truly last a lifetime for the young people involved in this project.  I’m very proud of the student composers and grateful to the long list of people involved in bringing this idea to fruition.

You can read local news coverage of the event here (with commentary from Dan Beal and Marc Uys), read about Signum Quartet’s Quartweet project here (with directions for writing and sharing your own!), and don’t forget to check out the hashtag #quartweet on Twitter to hear examples of 140-note pieces from composers young and old around the world!

Moving Digital House to Reclaim Hosting

Full disclosure: I was not asked to write this post by any person or entity, nor did/will I receive any compensation for it.  There are no affiliate links anywhere in this post.

I wanted to do a quick follow-up to this late paragraph from my last post a month ago:

I am intrigued by Reclaim Hosting, and plan to investigate them as an alternative to my current webhosting service – which I must confess has been quite satisfactory as far as customer service is concerned, but I like Reclaim’s connection to and roots in the education community.  I am also drawn to supporting small businesses whenever possible (it also doesn’t hurt that Reclaim’s hosting package costs a fraction of what I currently pay), so this seems like a potential win-win.

Since then, I actually did reach out to Reclaim and set up an account for my webhosting and domain registration.  To my great pleasure, the transfer of my website, blog, and associated self-hosted apps (as well as the Google Apps suite on my family domain) could not have been easier.  Once the domains cleared my previous registrar for transfer (they have a five-day waiting period), Jim and Tim at RH did everything for me quickly and absolutely seamlessly.  They also kept in touch with me throughout the process, and were extremely responsive when I ran into a glitch a few days later while playing with new subdomains and self-hosted apps.

While Reclaim provides large-scale managed software hosting and webhosting solutions aimed at institutions, they also offer smaller-scale domain registration and hosting packages aimed at individual and small-group users.  Their Student/Individual package includes one free domain registration and 2GB of storage for $25 per year, and their Faculty & Organization package ups the storage to 10GB for $45 per year (additional domains are $12/year).  Even with the more expensive package, that ends up working out to about $3.75/month.  That’s not a promotional “starter” rate that will inflate after a few months; that’s just. the. rate.  I think I paid something like four times that for my previous hosting package after the promo pricing expired.  Add in Reclaim’s super-responsive customer service and it really was a no-brainer for me.

In keeping with the #ProjectReclaim theme, I would be remiss if I did not mention the variety of self-hosted apps you can auto-install directly through Installatron.  Beside the usual suspects (WordPress, Drupal, MediaWiki) there are a ton of apps set up for 1-click install: blogging platforms to CMSs to bulletin boards to RSS and bookmarking apps, e-commerce, photo galleries… and not just one of each kind of app, either – most types of apps have several different specific applications to choose from.  Reclaim’s app repository absolutely blows my previous Big Name Webhost’s list clean out of the water.  It’s fun for me to play with some of these just as an individual user, but with Reclaim’s app selection, one could very realistically set up a self-hosted online portal for students and/or staff quite easily.

I can probably count on one hand (ok, maybe two) the number of posts I’ve written on this blog endorsing specific products or services in the last eight years, but my experience with Reclaim has been so positive that I felt I needed to give them a shout-out.  If you’re looking to make the move to self-hosting your blog or website, or even if you’re an old hand but are looking to support a business that supports education, I urge you to give Reclaim Hosting a look. 

Swapping Apps for #ProjectReclaim

Last time, I outlined my feelings about self-hosting some free and/or open-source alternatives to popular web apps in the name of Project Reclaim (as in, your data).  Below are the apps I’ve started with.  Instructions for how to set up your own installations can be found at the provided links.

What I Gave Up: Delicious (social bookmarking; like a text-only version of Pinterest for us old-timers)

What I Installed: Shaarli

How I Use It: For broadcasting and warehousing interesting articles.  I don’t need the network component of Delicious; I only ever used it as a central “storage unit” for articles, and I use an IFTTT recipe to auto-Tweet articles I save to my Shaarli account (like Delicious, Shaarli generates an RSS feed you can pipe out anywhere onto the Web).  In addition to going out via Twitter, I also embed the RSS feed on the sidebar of my portfolio website under the heading “What I’m Sharing”.

Going Mobile: The Android app allows me to save articles to Shaarli directly from my phone via the Share menu.  I couldn’t find one for iOS that didn’t look sketchy.

What I Gave Up: Google Reader / Feedly (RSS Readers)

What I Installed: FreshRSS

How I Use It: Just like any other RSS reader, only I don’t have to worry about it being discontinued, being charged for it, or seeing ads.  Has many of the same features as Feedly/GReader (grouping feeds, favorites, etc.).  Requires a Cron job to auto-update feeds, which is beyond my scope of knowledge, but it’s easy enough to just refresh the feed manually whenever I want to read.

Going Mobile: No official iOS or Android apps, but FreshRSS is highly responsive and looks and acts very nice in my mobile browser.  This looks like an attempt at a client, but I don’t speak French so I’m not positive.

What I Gave Up: Instapaper / Pocket (offline article readers; removes most formatting)

What I Installed: Wallabag

How I Use It: This was pretty much a straight swap out for Instapaper as far as basic functionality is concerned (Wallabag makes it dead simple to import your data from your existing Instapaper, Pocket, or Readability accounts).  I can save articles to read offline, adjust fonts, colors, & layouts, generate RSS feeds of stories, share via Twitter or email, or print them out.  There’s even an option to export stories in ePub, Mobi, or PDF formats.

Going Mobile: Wallabag has apps available for Android, iOS, and Windows phones, as well as extensions for Chrome and Firefox.  See them all here.

Stumbling Blocks: I haven’t been able – nor will I be – to switch everything over to self-hosted.  The advertised alternatives to Evernote, for example, just don’t seem to hold a candle to the product I’ve used daily for the last six or so years.  I also don’t foresee moving away from the Google suite of apps anytime soon (although I do host them on my own domain); they’re both just too valuable to me in their present states to compromise.  I’ve also tried setting up self-hosted photo albums, to no avail, so I’ll be sticking with a locked-down Flickr account for the time being for sharing private photos with my extended family.

What’s Next?  No specific plans as yet, though I’ll continue to keep my eyes open for opportunities to reclaim bits and pieces of my digital identity where I can.  I tried a few different self-hosted to-do lists, but they’ve all been missing one or more of the key features I find so valuable in ToodleDo, so I’m staying there for now.

I am intrigued by Reclaim Hosting, and plan to investigate them as an alternative to my current webhosting service – which I must confess has been quite satisfactory as far as customer service is concerned, but I like Reclaim’s connection to and roots in the education community.  I am also drawn to supporting small businesses whenever possible (it also doesn’t hurt that Reclaim’s hosting package costs a fraction of what I currently pay), so this seems like a potential win-win.

Summer is a perfect time for me to tinker and explore this sort of thing, so I will gladly take any suggestions you have about alternative services.  Please feel free to share!

Taking Back My Data with #ProjectReclaim

In my ongoing effort to consider my digital identity and all that it entails (including, but not limited to, privacy and control over my data), I’ve been migrating some of my cloud-hosted services over to my self-hosted domain.  This process started in 2008, when I moved this blog from Edublogs to a self-hosted WordPress installation, then continued in 2009, when I moved my online professional portfolio from Wikidot to another self-hosted WordPress site.  That was about it until fairly recently, when I began exploring free and/or open-source alternatives to some popular cloud services.

Unbeknownst to me then (but beknownst to me now), I wasn’t alone in my thinking.  This was/is part of a larger online movement called Project Reclaim (more on this later).

Anyone who uses cloud services – especially free ones – assumes a certain level of risk that the service will one day disappear.  I’ve lost count of the number of services I’ve used that no longer exist (e.g., Quillpill, MyEmailReminders, PingMe), but they were all replaced easily enough.  The one that really impacted me (and many others) was Google’s decision to pull the plug on its RSS app, Reader.  I used Feedly for a while after that, and while I had no real complaint with the service, it always irked me a bit that I might lose access – yet again – to an app that was a major part of how I consume and share information.

That, coupled with the desire to start tinkering a bit and using all the hosting I was paying for anyway, led me to seek out some alternatives to the free cloud-based services I enjoyed, but feared losing.  I’ll detail some specific examples in my next post, but for readers who are thinking along the same lines, I recommend checking out OSALT and AlternativeTo; these sites are wonderful directories for searching for alternative services and applications of all types.

While I realize that I’m still very much at the mercy of my webhost, my hope is that the more services I can maintain “in house”, as it were, the more control I can exercise over my information consumption and sharing, and the less I am at the whim of external forces.

Further reading: Boon Gorges wrote the original Project Reclaim posts; Doug Belshaw has a series of blog posts on his personal Project Reclaim as well.