Done is better than Perfect

95% doneI’ve never really been what you might call a perfectionist. Nor do I believe that it’s ok to do a half-assed job of things. It’s good to do things right and to the best of your ability, and if I had a choice between doing something badly or doing it well, I’d always rather do it well.

But it’s also easy to become paralysed with inaction when you feel that something needs to be done perfectly.

I saw two examples of this recently…

Our school has a very dedicated team of foreign language teachers, and we take our language education very seriously. Many of our students graduate with great proficiency in multiple languages, which I think is pretty amazing. Our languages staff are all deeply passionate about their language teaching and insist that any language should be taught using only the “proper” version of that language… so, for example we teach our French students how to speak Parisian French, and would never encourage them hear “improper” versions of the language like, say the French spoken in Québec.  We take a similar outlook on the other languages we teach… Italian, Latin, Japanese, Chinese.

Our school website used to have translated pages in Chinese and Vietnamese, since we tend to get quite a few students from those countries. The translations were laboured over, initially by paying considerable sums of money to translation agencies, and then having those translations fine tuned by our language staff members. The process was expensive, extremely time consuming, and worst of all, the translated pages easily went out of date whenever we updated the English version of the text. In the pursuit of having perfectly translated pages, we ended up with translation options that were limited and often out of date. Not exactly the level of perfection we were after.

I was a little surprised recently when I looked at our school website and discovered that the expensively translated pages had been removed and replaced with a single dropdown menu of language choices that would convert the page using Google’s free Translate service. By making a choice from the menu, the page was instantly converted to not just Chinese of Vietnamese, but into any of  17 different languages!

Naturally, when I pointed this out to the language staff they were horrified! They felt that the Google Translate service was completely inadequate for the task and that the translations would be utterly unusable by anyone who wanted a “proper” translation. Some of them immediately opened the site and translated a page or two into “their” language to see just how poorly it was being done. Surprisingly, the general consensus was that, yes, it wasn’t perfect and there were a couple of instances of poorly constructed sentences, but on the whole it was much better than they expected.

The benefit of the trade off was clear to me. While the machine translated pages were not perfect, they were at least up to date (since they were always being translated on-the-fly based on the most current English versions) and we could offer many more languages than just the two we had previously offered. Oh, and of course it was all being done at no cost and with no effort from our staff.

I’m not a language purist (I don’t even speak a second language), but to me it seemed that as long as the translations were “good enough”, then the benefits outweighed the imperfections. In this case, it seemed obvious that “Done is better than Perfect”.

The second example is in our school’s shift away from Microsoft Office towards Google Drive. I’ll occasionally get some of our teachers expressing their concern that Google Docs doesn’t have some feature that Word had. It’s usually  some missing feature that hardly anyone else even realised Word had, but occasionally their gripe is about legitimate concerns like Docs’ inability to manage simple tasks like merging table cells. (By the way Google, can you get onto this? We really do need it!)

But seriously, when you compare the extra stuff that you can do in Google Drive – the easy sharing options, the realtime collaboration, the ability to access your files from anywhere on any computer with nothing more than a web browser, the auto saving, the overall simplicity of use, and the fact that it’s completely free – then the trade-off with whatever you might lose from MS Office becomes much easier to deal with. Sure, it would be nice to not lose any features at all, but if I have to choose (and I do) then Drive/Docs wins hands down for me. What I gain far outweighs what I lose. Having a tool that meets my actual daily needs and matches the way I work is a far better option than a “full featured” tool that gets in my way and is missing the real features I need, like realtime collaboration.

Again, “Done” (or in this case, the tool that misses some features but does the things I need and value most) is better than “Perfect” (the tool that supposedly has it all and is the “industry standard’).

When you work on a project, it’s pretty easy to get it 95% perfect. And sometimes, yes, you do need to go the extra mile to get it 100% perfect. But the older I get, the more I come to realise the truth of “Done is better than Perfect”, and that the exponential amount of effort required to take a project from 95% perfect to 100% perfect often really doesn’t matter. Closing that 5% gap usually requires far more than 5% more effort. I’ve spent an hour editing a short video, but then wasted three more hours adjusting the timing of the opening titles or tweaking exactly how the credits dissolve to black and where the music should fade… and really, it was probably just fine the way it was. It makes me wonder what else I could have gotten done with that three hours if I just accepted that Done really is better than Perfect.

Image by KevBurnsJr –  http://blog.kevburnsjr.com/95-done

PS: I was so impressed by the Google Translate service that I added it to this blog. If you scroll right to the bottom of this page you can translate this blog into any language you like. Just don’t expect it to be perfect.

Why I don’t want to lose Google Reader

Reader logo

I just left a comment on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog Websites of the Day, in response to a post called The Best Alternatives To Google Reader Now That It’s Being Shut Down. As the title suggests, after Google dropped the bombshell today about closing down Google Reader, Larry was very helpfully suggesting some alternatives. And they are good suggestions of course, but I think this decision to shut down Reader is more far-reaching than just finding an alternative tool.

Anyway, I left quite a long comment on the post with a few ideas that were on my mind, so I thought I’d crosspost it here as well, just in case it helps stimulate further discussion.  But please do go visit Larry’s original post…

Larry,

I agree with you… I’m deeply disappointed that Google is shutting down Reader. And as good as these suggestions for alternatives are, I suspect most of them will be fairly poor replacements for Reader…

a) Reader is a part of the Google suite of tools. When I’m logged into Gmail all day, have my Calendar and Drive open, regularly connecting to YouTube or Maps or Blogger, then the convenience of having Reader as part of that suite is huge. In a school situation, running Google Apps for Education, the fact that it’s just a built-in part of the environment you work in is hugely powerful. Single sign on. One click, boom, you’re there. Alternatives will break that convenience.

b) Reader is not just a website, it’s a whole RSS management engine. Most of the ways I consume the RSS feeds in Reader don’t actually involve me going to reader.google.com. Instead, they are picked up by Flipboard, River of News, or some other service. I have feeds that act as triggers for cron jobs. I have feeds that do all sorts of things and end up on all sorts of other services and devices, and the reason I can do this is because the Reader API is so open and ubiquitous. When I open FlipBoard I see an option to automatically grab the feeds from Reader… I don’t see any other options there for Bloglines or Feedly or Newsblur. I may be able to set that up manually, I don’t know I haven’t looked, but these other tools don’t have anywhere near the ubiquity of the Reader API.

c) I think your fears about losing Feedburner are well founded. I’m concerned about that too.

d) Like many bloggers, I’ve gradually built up a readership through people subscribing to my blog. While I don’t suppose that all of them subscribe using Reader, I’m sure many do. I’ll be expecting to see my blog readership numbers fall through the floor when Reader gets turned off. I think the same will happen to many others.

e)Ooverall, I’m just disappointed that Google would even consider doing this. As an enthusiastic Google user, Google Certified Teacher, and Google Apps Certified Trainer, it makes me annoyed and embarrassed that Google would kill off a product that so many people clearly care deeply about. Reader may not be sexy and shiny like Google+ but it’s hugely powerful and has an huge following. To see the #Reader hashtag push the #pope hashtag from the top spot today certainly makes me wonder how they can claim that “hardly anyone uses Reader”. I’m hoping they will listen to the people and reverse this decision, much like they did recently with Calendar Appointment Slots. Google CAN show they listen to what people want. I just hope they do it this time as well.

d) I get that Reader is a free service. I get that Google has the right to do whatever the hell it wants with it. But to give it to us and then suddenly take it away feels like bait and switch to me. It makes me question what else might get taken away some day. And it makes me feel much less like I can rely on, or trust, Google.

e) I’d even offer to pay an annual fee for Reader, but that hasn’t even been offered as an option. Not now, not in the past.

It’s all just very disappointing.

Office vs Drive: Some thoughts

Office vs DriveLike many schools around the world, our school has used the Microsoft Office trio of Word, Excel and PowerPoint for many years. Most of us know Word, Excel and PowerPoint well enough for our daily tasks. Although some of us might be willing to admit we probably don’t use it to its full capacity, we’ve been using it for so long that we don’t stop to think much about what, if any, alternatives might be out there.

Don’t get me wrong, Microsoft Office is an amazing piece of software. Like you, I’ve grown up with it and watched it evolve over many versions and seen lots of features get added over the years. If you really know what you’re doing with Word, PowerPoint or Excel, you can make documents that are quite amazing in their complexity.

And then along comes GoogleDocs, or Drive as we now call it. From humble beginnings as an online word processor called Writely, the Google Drive system has also evolved and changed and grown over the years. Sure, it’s not the full-blown productivity monster that power-users of Microsoft Office might be used to, but for the great majority of users it has everything they need. I like to think of it as having 90% of the features needed by 90% of the users.  It has most of the stuff you need, and not a lot of the stuff you don’t.  One benefit of this is that it’s far simpler to use.

It would be a little foolish to just think in terms of one over the other. Each has benefits and advantages, as well as limitations and drawbacks. But each is incredibly powerful in its own way. Which is why we still provide you with both.

So when do you choose Microsoft office and when do you choose Google Drive?  Here’s just a few thoughts on that.

In general, I use Google Docs if I want to…

  • create documents really quickly and easily. I spend most of my computer-using day in my web browser with Gmail, Calendar and Drive open in tabs. Because I’m already there, I find it hugely convenient to be able to create new documents in just one click.
  • keep track of the documents I make. I make a LOT of documents each day. The fact that I don’t need to think about where and how I save them, and then being able to get back to them really quickly is a huge timesaver for me.
  • work on a “living document”. For documents that grow and evolve over time, that have edits and updates regularly applied to them, there really is no better choice than using Drive. Just think about how many documents you create that are works in progress. Probably most of them.
  • create a document can be distributed to others without versioning issues. Having a single master version of the document that is always up to date, while still being able to share it with others, is a huge deal!
  • collaborate on a document with others. Being able to work together on a document with others, in real time, regardless of where they might be, is simply amazing and an absolute game-changer in how we can work together to get things done.
  • work on more than one machine. I have a couple of computers at work, a couple at home, and a whole lot of tablets and phone devices. Having my work saved in Drive has made it completely irrelevant as to which machine I choose to work on.

I would use Microsoft Word if I wanted to…

  • Have very specific control over layout and formatting options. Having those options is really nice but I do find that for the majority of the documents I produce I really don’t need 287 font choices, garish page borders, complex tables inside tables and so on. But when I do need such things, Word provides them.
  • Lock down the final copy of a document in order to distribute it to “normal” users. I’d still probably create, edit and evolve the document in Drive, but then I have the option of exporting it out as a Word file at the end if needed.

I’ve always found that the only way that I can effectively evaluate new technologies is to use them regularly to do real work. So when our school moved to Google Docs over a year ago I figured I would try to move everything I usually did in Microsoft Office over the Google Drive, just to see how feasible it really was to work in that environment. I realised I might have to tweak a few habits and accept a few compromises along the way, but I wanted to see if it was doable.

The answer surprised even me. Not only do I find it perfectly feasible to work primarily in the Drive environment, but I can’t actually imagine going back to do it any other way. Seriously. The “compromises” that I thought I’d have to make have been so minimal, while the increased productivity and satisfaction from just being able to get things done faster, easier and more effectively have been enormous.

I won’t be removing Microsoft from my computer anytime soon, because Office it’s still a kind of defacto standard for documents and I never know when I really might need to use it. But I have to tell you, I haven’t needed to even open Microsoft Word now for about 8 months, something that I’ve found both surprising and liberating.

For many years, Microsoft Office was the right tool for the job, primarily because it was the only tool for the job. And the problem with that is when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. While Office is certainly still a powerful piece of software, it’s often overkill, or worse, it lacks the features that might actually be useful to you.  With Drive, you now have some interesting alternatives. Take the time to evaluate both systems. And next time you reach for a word processor, or a spreadsheet, or a presentation, stop and ask yourself if you’re making that choice out of habit or whether you’re really reaching for the tool most suited for what you want to achieve.

Shiny Object Syndrome

ChromebooksFor a while now I’ve been really keen to get my hands on one of the new Chromebooks but they have been as scarce as the proverbial rocking horse poop. I played with the original CR-48 units at the 2011 Sydney Google Teacher Academy, and although I thought they were a brilliant concept, troubles with the wifi at the time (at Google HQ of all places!) had me going back to my MacBook Pro sooner than I planned. The basic concept of a Chromebook is a computer where the operating system is basically just a browser (although I don’t think it’s really fair to refer to Chrome as “just a browser”.)

Still, by minimising the operating system to little more than a support system for the web browser, it really enables the web to emerge as the platform. With most of the data stored away from the machine – in the cloud – it means that users don’t have to worry about locally stored data. With the “software” on the machine really just being web services on cloud-based servers accessed via the browser, it means that your “software” is always up to date and always the latest version. If you lose the Chromebook or it gets damaged, you lose no data, since there was no data on it to begin with. Just grab another Chromebook, log in with the same Google account and you’re back to exactly where you were.

For schools in particular, it’s a brilliant concept. No software to install and maintain, no user data to store locally, nothing to back up, light and portable, easy to share… just log in and use it.

So for all of these reasons and others (Hey, I just like gadgets!) I was really keen to get my hands on one of the recently released Samsung units. The reviews have been very positive, although dealing with the lack of supply has been pretty frustrating. Lots of people want to buy them, but they have been really hard to get in the US and near impossible everywhere else.

In the leadup to the Sydney Google Summit I was hoping to get hold of one but it didn’t happen. I tried to buy one on Amazon but they refused to ship to Australia. I probably could have bought one on ebay, but for an arm and a leg. Fortunately, while at the Summit I had a chat with Suan Yeo, the head of education for Google in Asia Pacific and he mentioned that he might be able to organise me a loaner.

Well, long story short, I got an email yesterday letting me know that if I wanted to swing by the Sydney Google offices there was a shiny toy made of Chrome for me to play with for a month. Woohoo!  I dropped by after work and picked it up, and I’m now writing this blogpost on it.

Here’s my plan. For the next 30 days I plan to use ONLY the Chromebook for my own personal computing use, just to see how feasible it really is to live entirely in the cloud.  Of course, there are still things I need to do for my job at school that will require access to network drives and printers and so on, so I will have to keep using my Windows machine there. But I will have the Chromebook on my desk during the day and I intend to use it exclusively as my personal machine for the next month. I’ll blog about it here and let you know how it goes, what works for me, what doesn’t and try to give you an insight into what it’s like to live exclusively in nothing but a browser.

First impressions…

I really like it.  I love the size and weight for portability, although the smaller screen size is certainly making my eyes work harder than the larger 15 inch screen on my MacBook Pro or my iMac. But it’s certainly no worse than the 11 inch MacBook Air I have been using as my portable machine. The general build quality feels quite adequate… a little plasticky compared to an aluminium bodied Macbook, but then, so do most other computers. It’s certainly comparable to similar machines, and amazing when you consider it sells for about $250.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the additional functionality that I didn’t expect. Despite not having a “file system” as such, it does have a desktop, a downloads folder, and it can read and write USB and SD card drives. The access to Google Drive is pretty seamless, as you’d expect.  I don’t recall what the earlier Chromebooks did for storage prior to Drive, but having Drive certainly makes them quite usable. The keyboard is full size but has extra buttons that are specific to the Chromebook (and the keys are in lower case, which looks really odd at first.) There are lots of keyboard shortcuts that I want to learn to make it even more functional to use, and they can be accessed by pressing ctrl-alt-?.

Signing into the machine with my Google account immediately brought all my apps, themes and extensions across from my other machine, so within minutes I was working away as though I’d owned the machine forever. Very cool.

Battery life has been amazing. I took it off charge this morning, used it at work all morning, took notes in a meeting, showed it to quite a few people, spent a couple of hours browsing the web, have just been writing this post and it’s now nearly 4pm and it’s still going strong.  Even with the screen brightness turned way up, which is the way I like it, I think I would easily get a full days use from it.

The trackpad is quite good, and it has the same two-finger scroll and two-finger secondary click that I’m used to from the MacBook. I don’t much like trackpads at the best of times, and would always prefer to plug in a mouse (which I haven’t done yet) but the trackpad is about as good as it should be.

So, it’s looking good so far. If you’re interested in following my month with a Chromebook check back here again over the next few weeks and I’ll let you know how it’s going.

Google Teacher Academy in Sydney

At the recent Google Apps for Education Summit held at MLC School in Sydney, details for the next Google Teacher Academy were announced. Rather appropriately, the next GTA will be held in Sydney on May 7/8 at the Google Offices in Pyrmont.

Full details and a link to the application form can be found at http://www.google.com.au/edu/teachers/google-teacher-academy.html

It’s a great couple of days and although it can certainly be a bit of a brain dump and information overload, you’ll have the opportunity to network with other passionate and dedicated educators, meet with some of the local Sydney Google staff, become a part of the very active Google Certified Teacher community, and join in some fun social events as well.

The event is open to people from all over the world… at the last Sydney GTA in 2011 we had participants from the US, Guam, France, Russia and other places. People come from far and wide to attend the GTA. Of course, I happen to think it would be nice to grow the local GCT community even more, so come on you Aussies and Kiwis, get your applications in by February 28.

I’m looking forward to meeting lots of you there!

Keeping Up With The Google

Me at Google SydneyI’m a big user of Google’s tools.  I like what they offer and I like that they just keep getting better and better. When my school moved to Google Apps for Education at the end of 2011 we were generally happy with what was on offer, but there were things that we wished were just a little better, a little more polished, or had just a few more features. Over the course of 2012, some obvious things happened: Gmail got a redesign, Drive was introduced, editing of Docs on mobile devices came along, and of course Google Plus. But there were lots of smaller, less obvious, things that came along too: more fonts were added to Apps, the Research tool was added to Docs and Sheets, the Equation Editor got a boost, and so on. Unless you’re on top of it, many of these improvements were easy to overlook.

Over the course of the year many of the things we complained about in January were fixed, improved or added to by December. Google’s tools just keep getting better all the time.

When Larry Page took over from Eric Schmidt at CEO of Google, he famously cut a number of lower priority projects in order to focus on the bigger ones. His goal was to put “more wood behind fewer arrows“. Some features were removed, some projects were cancelled, but in return, we got a much improved unification of the Google environment, new features like Drive and Google+, and a much better integration of the tools that fill the Googleverse.

On the one hand, who wouldn’t want tools that just keep getting better and better? We all want that, right?  On the other, this constant change and adding of features makes it harder and harder for the average person to keep up with what’s available. Unless you make a deliberate focus of keeping up with what Google offers, it’s easy to fall behind.  For myself, I’m connected to the GCT and AppsCT communities, and I regularly co-host the Google Educast on the EdReach network. I’m not sure what other people do to keep up with this stuff.

Sydney Google SummitWith that in mind, you might be interested in coming along to the Sydney Google Summit on January 17/18 at MLC School in Burwood.  The Google Summits are a fantastic two day brain dump of Google goodness delivered by passionate educators who regularly use these tools in education.  The Summits have been running for a while now in various parts of the world but this will be the first time one has been run in Australia.  The presenters are Google Certified Teachers, Google Apps Certified Trainers, Google partners, and even Googlers themselves. The topics cover a wide range of Google-related stuff, from beginner-level through to expert and beyond.  There really is something for everyone. The agenda is still being finalised, but trust me, if you use Google tools in an educational setting, you really won’t want to miss it.

You can get all the details at the Sydney Google Summit website. Hope to see some of you there!

If you’re coming to the Sydney Summit (or even if you’re not) leave a comment below letting us know what you are most hoping to get out of the sessions.

Email Information Hunt

When students at our school get to Year 3 they are given their own school email account. We are a Google Apps for Education school, so the email they get is a rebadged Gmail account, and part of my role is to teach them to use it. We do lots of work on digital citizenship and we try really hard to give our students opportunities to be responsible members of the online world, but at the point they get their email we really just want to make sure they know the mechanics of using it… how to compose a message, how to reply and forward, the difference between cc: and bcc:, etc. In those early days of getting their gmail account I really just want them to get the hang of it by using it.

Around the same time as they get their email account, they also do a thematic unit of work about national parks where they look at several of Australia’s most prominent national parks and learn about what they are and what they do.

I had a bit of a wacky idea for integrating the use of email into their national parks unit by creating a sort of “email treasure hunt”. I wasn’t sure how successfully it would be, so I made a small proof-of-concept to test the idea and it worked really well.  I plan on developing the idea further, but for now I just wanted to document the idea here in case anyone else wants to play with it.

Gmail has two very useful features – Filters, and Canned Responses.  By combining these two features and making them work together, it can create a novel and fun activity for the kids to learn a little bit about their email and national parks at the same time.

Canned Responses

First, I created an account in our Google Apps dashboard called National Parks, with an email address of nationalparks@plc.nsw.ed.au.  To make it a little easier to manage, I also delegated that account to my regular email account so I could access it more easily without needing to log in and out all the time.

I created a set of filters that used Canned Responses in an automatically generated reply email. Each filter was triggered by a keyword (in my example I was looking for specific words in the subject line but I think you could look for all sorts of other criteria as well)  So if the previous email asked the students to find the name of the national park in the northern part of Australia that was famous for its aboriginal artworks and started with the letter K, they had to work out that the name of the park was “kakadu” and then they put that into the subject of an email and sent it back to the National Parks email account, where it was picked up by the incoming mail filters. Then, I used the Canned Response tool (available in Gmail Labs) to create a series of short email responses that took the kids on a “treasure hunt” for clues about several national parks. I only made three, which wasn’t too complex, because I was really only testing that the idea would work. Turns out that three replies is just about the right amount to get through in a single lesson.

Filter List

When their reply hit the server, the filter would look to see if any of the criteria were met (in this case a subject line containing the word “kakadu”) and if it found one that matched it would reply immediately with the appropriate Canned Response (in this case, called “kakadu2”). This reply would congratulate them on finding the previous answer, and then give them the next clue so the cycle could repeat again.

Essentially, when the students replied to a previous email with a correctly formed response, the filter would check to see that it was a match and then a reply would be generated using the appropriate Canned Response. The response emails they recieved asked them to find clues by watching an embedded YouTube video or looking on a linked Google Map so they could find the next piece of information and send it back to hit the filters again.

I started the lesson by sending this email to every student…

Hi 3C!

Nice to meet you.  I’m the National Parks Dude, and I’m so glad you are learning about our beautiful national parks.

Today I have a special challenge for you…  You need to follow the instructions EXACTLY, or things just won’t work the way they should.  You need to send me a couple of emails, and if you do it exactly the way you should, I’ll send you the next clue for the next challenge.

To start with, I need you to find out the name of the big national park in the very northern part of Australia… I’ll give you a hint, it has lots of aboriginal art in it, and it starts with a K.

Once you work out what national park I’m talking about, click this link to send me an email at nationalparks@plc.nsw.edu.au with only ONE word – the “K word – in the subject line and I’ll send you the next clue.  Make sure you spell it correctly or I won’t know what you mean!

Good luck!

This led to finding the word kakadu, which when sent back to the national parks account, automatically and immediately sent the next clue, and so on. On the final exchange they were asked summarise three interesting things they learned about national parks and to cc their teacher with the list. This way, the teach got a single email  from each student at the end with some indication of what they learned that lesson.

Overall, I thought it worked really well. I liked the fact that it let each student work at their own pace. My next goal will be to expand the idea to be less linear and more networked.  By sending clues that have different possible answers, it should be possible to branch the flow of emails into different directions, so that each student finds a unique pathway through a web of clues. That is a little complicated to set up, but I’m confident it can work.

If you want to try it out for yourself, just click on the link in the sample email above and have a go.  It should work for anyone, not just people in our school domain. Have fun, let me know what you think, and offer any suggestions you have for making the idea work better, in the comments below.

Kakadu Image BY-CC-SA http://www.flickr.com/photos/pierreroudier/3835863758/