Good Learning for a Good Cause

Adobe Master Class

If you live in Sydney, want to know more about the cool things you can do with Adobe’s CS4 Creative Suite products, and would like to support a really worthwhile cause at the same time, you might like to check out this Adobe Creative Suite Master Class.

The event is running on September 30 from 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Zenith Theatre in Chatswood. It’s being run by the folk at Adobe’s Sydney offices, and all the time, energy, marketing and facilities to run this event have been donated, so quite literally ALL the proceeds will go to the Cancer Council Australia.  Cancer is a terrible disease, and you don’t have to look very far to find someone you know – maybe even yourself – whose lives have been touched by it.

If you’d like to attend, you can book using this form.  If you want a copy of the invitation as a PDF (so you can help spread the word) let me know and I’ll email you one.

Hope some of you are able to attend. Take a look at the list of topics covered during the day and you’ll have to agree that it will be a pretty awesome day of learning and creating. For $100 you get some excellent software training, while supporting a very worthwhile cause.

Cache me if you can

I’ve been in a few conference presentations lately where the topic of geocaching has come up.  Usually, the presenter asks the question “who knows about geocaching?” and about three hands go up.  The presenter then tries to give a quick explanation about it for those who haven’t heard about it – “it’s like a treasure hunt”, or “it’s a game where people hide things for others to find”, or other similar explanations.  While these summaries are mostly accurate, they don’t really give enough information and many people seem interested to know more about it.

Thanks to a long involvement with 4WDing, I’ve been playing with GPS and digital mapping for a while now, and I’ve done quite a bit of geocaching over the last few years, including placing our own.  When I started I was using a Garmin GPS V, a great little GPS that can basically do it all – multiple datum switching, realtime path tracking, waypoint extrapolation – you name it, it does it.  Trouble is, it’s not connected to the web, so “going geocaching” had to be a preplanned activity.  I had to look up geocaches in advance on the official website at www.geocaching.com, print out all the information sheets, and then manually enter the GPS coordinates into the Garmin.  Once the cache was found, when I got back home I had to go back to the website to report the cache found.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun with a terrific little iPhone app called, simply, Geocaching.  On the 3G connected and GPS enabled iPhone, you can pull the device out of your pocket, press the Find Nearby Caches button and it will take your current GPS coordinates, go to the website and find all the nearby caches. Pick one, and the app will grab all the relevant data, draw a map, plot your position and the position of the cache, give you a compass to guide you, and it will lead you right to the cache. Once you find it, you have the ability to report the find directly in the app, making it a seamless end-to-end experience. Although the iPhone app lacks some of the more sophisticated features that a “real” GPS offers, the convenience factor that comes from being able to do the vast majority of geocaches anywhere, anytime, without any special preparation, makes up for these shortcomings.  It’s not free, but for me, has been well worth the $12.99 it cost me on the Apple app store.

Linda and I were out walking today so, geeks that we are, I pulled the iPhone out and did a quick search to find that there were two caches within 500 metres of where we were. We found them both of course, but on the second one, I made this short video that hopefully explains a little more about geocaching and how it works.

If you haven’t tried geocaching yet, give it a go.  It gets you out into the fresh air, is an interesting use of technology, and most of all it’s great fun.  I reckon it offers some terrific opportunities in education, and is a way to integrate technology in a really hands-on way that brings a whole lot of skills together – mapreading, fitness, resourcefulness, even a bit of maths. I’ve always had a hard time getting it introduced into schools because a class set of GPS units can be a bit expensive, but with the development of apps like Geocaching for the iPhone (and similar apps for other devices, such as Geocache Navigator on Nokia S60 phones) maybe it’s not such a stretch for kids to have these tools on their own phones instead.

What’s that? What do you mean your school bans phones!?

How Tagging Solves the Problem of the Physical World

This article was written for Education Technology Solutions magazine, but I’ve also republished it here, because I can.

One of the unavoidable buzzwords of Web 2.0 is the term “tag”.  Everywhere you look online you come across the term, and everything from photos to news articles to blogposts are getting “tagged”.

But what exactly are “tags” and why are they such a big deal these days? To understand the importance of tagging, first let’s consider the problem that tagging sets out to solve.

There was a time when everything in our lives existed only in the physical world.  Books sat on shelves. Photos were in photo albums. Music was stored on CDs. Life was simple.  If you wanted to find that photo of your sister-in-law Wendy wearing a silly hat at last year’s family Christmas party you simply went to the family photo album and flicked through the pages till you found it.  The photo was a real physical object that existed in one real physical location.

Storing a photo in a family photo album seems pretty obvious, but the problem is that this method of storing, finding and accessing an object does not scale well. If we had to find that one photo from a room full of photo albums the problem becomes a little trickier. The ability to quickly find something becomes exponentially more difficult as the size of the collection of objects increases, and also as the object becomes more miscellaneous.

For example, have you ever wandered the aisles of a supermarket trying to find a particular item, only to discover that it was located in a completely different section to the one you expected it to be in?  The more obvious items are easy – milk is in the diary section, steak is in the meat section and frozen beans are in the frozen vegetable section of the freezer.  Easy. But as the item gets more unusual or miscellaneous, it gets harder to know just where the supermarket has cataloged it on their shelves.  We expect to find tinned fruit salad in the canned goods section of the supermarket, but if you like to put fruit salad on your breakfast cereal it would also be handy to have it located in the cereal aisle, in fact it might even boost sales of the tinned fruit.  Both of these locations actually make sense, although the people responsible for stacking the supermarket shelves ultimately have to make a decision and put it in only one location.

Why don’t they just put items in every location where it makes sense?  Why not put items in multiple places, making it easier for people to find them no matter where they look?

Of course, the answer is due to the physical limitations of the world we live in.  Supermarkets simply don’t have the physical space to put items in multiple locations. Even if they did, trying to shop in a store that had lots of products in lots of places would end up as a confusing mess.  The idea makes sense, but it doesn’t really work very well in the physical world we live in.  In the physical world these limitations force us to make decisions about the “best” location for every real object.

In an digital world, these limitations of physical objects don’t exist.

Take bookmarking for example. When you browse the Web you often find useful websites that you may want to revisit again, and all web browsing software offers the ability to “bookmark” or “favorite” these sites to make them easy to get back to.  We typically find an interesting website, click the Bookmark menu and choose “Save as Bookmark”… when we want to go back to that webpage, we look through our list of bookmarks and select the one we want from that list

As our collection of bookmarks grows into a long random list most of us eventually work out that we need to organise them somehow, so we start putting our bookmarks into collection, or folders.  Sites that are personal might go into a folder called “Personal” while sites that are useful for work are dropped into a folder called “Work”. Again, as your collection grows you’ll probably find that you need to be more specific, so you end up with a collection of folders designated with names like “IWB Resources”, “Maths Resources” or “Games”.  You can keep adding folders, bookmarking new websites into existing folders or adding more folders if appropriate ones don’t yet exist. Things are nicely organised now, right?

Sort of.

What happens when you find a really good Maths game resource that works well on an IWB? Do you put it in the IWB Resources folder, the Maths resources folder or the Games folder? The truth is, it makes sense to put it in all of these.  You could always bookmark it three times, once in each folder, but as your collection grows, you realise that this could get pretty unwieldy and complicated.  You could just make a decision and put it in one folder only, but unless you remember which one it went into, you may never find it when you need it. You are now facing the same problem as the supermarket shelf stackers; you have an object – in this case a website – that makes sense in more than one place, but to put it in multiple locations is just going to be confusing and hard to maintain.

The solution is to use tags.  Tags are like keywords that get attached to a resource and used as search terms when you want to retrieve it.  A resource can have as many tags as you like, in fact the more tags the better.  It’s a little bit like saving the resource in multiple locations, except instead of having to actually place it in all those locations, the tags simply create an association with those locations.
Tagging works because the tagged objects are digital, not physical. In the digital world, things don’t ever really “exist” anywhere, so having them “exist” in multiple locations becomes a non-issue. A search for all the websites tagged with the word “maths” will generate a list of every website with the tag “maths” attached to it. The search doesn’t care where each website is physically located.  The only thing that matters is that every website has the keyword – or tag – “maths” attached to it.

The fact that the same site might be both an IWB resource and also a game is largely irrelevant.  If a tag search was done for websites tagged with the word “game”, then the IWB-based maths game website would still be in the list.  The beauty of tags is that they allow resources to be cataloged in any ways that make sense.  A decision does not need to be made about the best way to catalog an item, because it can be cataloged in any and every way that makes sense.

In a digital world, photos that are tagged with keywords can be easily retrieved from a huge collection just by looking for one or more keywords. So, if that photo of your sister-in-law was tagged with words like “christmas”, “sillyhat” and “wendy”, then any of these search terms would find the photos.  Someone searching for the word “christmas” would find it, along with every other photo in the collection tagged with the word “christmas”.  Searching with the term “wendy” would find all the photos of Wendy, and a search using “sillyhat” would find any photo tagged with that term, regardless of who was wearing the silly hat.  To find the specific photo you were after, a search using several of these tags would quickly narrow down the search to photos of Wendy, at Christmas, wearing a silly hat. Each tag acts like a filter to only show the photos that match the criteria.

Tagging works because computers are really good at quickly searching through massive amounts of data. Getting computers to find things is pretty easy, but tagging adds the necessary “hooks” that the search can latch onto. Without these tags attached to each resource, computers find it difficult to link each resource to the ideas that you wish to associate with them.  The computer might be able to find things quickly, but tagging helps it know how those things relate to YOU. By adding tags to things, you build a collection of metadata around each object that makes it meaningful to you.  It lets you associate those objects to ideas that make personal sense to you.  And as you tag more and more resources, patterns start to emerge that make it even easier to see the semantic nature of that information, further helping you make sense of it.

Tagging is everywhere on the web however if you are new to the idea and want to see tagging in action, two great place to start are www.delicious.com for web bookmarks, and www.flickr.com for digital photography. Searching these sites using tags is a nice easy way to see the real value of tagging as a way to organise massive amounts of information in a digital world.

For more detailed information about tagging and how to use it effectively, take a look a my K12 Online presentation entitled “I Like Delicious Things” at http://vimeo.com/2415647.


I Like Delicious Things from Chris Betcher on Vimeo.

Image: ‘Symmetry
www.flickr.com/photos/38425817@N00/271683015

The shocking cost of international data

I was in New Zealand recently for a conference and thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Land of the Long White Cloud. I got to meet other passionate educators, talk geeky edtech stuff and just generally hang out with them for a couple of days.  As part of the fun of hanging out with fellow geeks, I made a short video from my Nokia N95 using the live streaming ability of Qik.  The live stream was just a bit of fun, and went for a total of 5 minutes and 15 seconds.  Apart from the brief live stream, I also checked my email twice using the mobile Gmail client, and also checked my location on a Google Map while wandering through the streets of Napier.

While in Napier, a text message arrived from my carrier, 3 Mobile, saying that my account balance for the month has just reached $535.  What??!!  I mean, I know that mobile roaming can be expensive, but surely this had to be some sort of mistake!  I switched my phone off and left it off until I returned to Australia.

When I arrived back home (I was in NZ for three days) I rang 3 Mobile to clarify their message.  I was told that, yes, I had been using data while roaming and that my roaming data bill was $480 (plus my regular monthly charges).  I was stunned.  How can anyone possibly accrue a $480 roaming data bill in just a couple of days, and quite literally only using mobile broadband for less than 10 minutes in total?

I spoke to a “3 Care” operator, who kept calling me “Christopher” and repeating back every question I asked her. She was almost no help whatsoever, so eventually I insisted that she escalate this call to a supervisor.  The supervisor I spoke to was equally as unhelpful, and told me that he would have to check with a different department and get back to me.

Two days later, they called back and basically reiterated everything they said on the last call, except they were now telling me that my roaming bill was $850, as all the data had not been logged as of my last contact with them.  $850!!!!!  For a few minutes of broadband access in New Zealand!!!

Outraged, I asked what they could do about this bill, only to be told that there was nothing they could do, that roaming data in New Zealand comes through NZ Vodafone and is charged at $20/Mb.  I argued that $850 equated to roughly 42Mb of data and that I seriously doubted my mobile phone could have transferred 42Mb of data in less than 10 minutes.  The supervisor said they would check it and get back to me.

A week later, I had still heard nothing, so I called them back again, having to explain the whole story again to a new person.  This guy agreed that the data charges did seem excessive and way beyond my regular monthly charge.  He commiserated and said he was sorry, but insisted that there was nothing he could do.  He said the charges would stick, although they offered a token $100 discount.

I pointed out that I had been a customer with 3 Mobile since its inception in Australia, in fact I was one of their original “family and Friends” customers.  I pointed out that I pay my bill on time each month and do in fact pay a relatively high amount every month for their services, since I don’t have a landline and my mobile phone is my only phone.  I pointed out that between my immediate family, I am responsible for a number of phone accounts with them.  He agreed I was a model  customer, but still refused to do anything about my bill.  This call lasted nearly an hour, only to get absolutely nowhere.

So, 3 Mobile, I’m not happy with you.  You charge 50 cents a Mb for off-network data roaming in Australia, yet have the audacious gall to charge me $20 per Mb when I’m in New Zealand?  You have the courtesy to send me a warning SMS when my balance gets excessive, but the balls to wait until it’s more than six times my regular monthly spend until you bother flagging it with me?  You admit that the charge is excessive, yet you happily charge me for it? Your response to me was that I should read the terms of service more carefully and that it was all there in the fine print.  (Try finding it on their website without using the search function!)

I threatened to cancel my phone services with you, and still you insist that there is nothing you can do about this bill. You would rather lose me as a long term valued customer, than to cut me some slack on this outrageously excessive charge.

I WILL cancel all of my phone services with you, and I will take as many other account holders with me as possible.  I’m not happy, 3 Mobile.  Not happy at all.

To everyone else who reads this, my advice is to be really careful when travelling with your mobile phone overseas.  Data roaming charges can be ridiculously excessive, even for small amounts of usage.  Check the data roaming costs before you leave home and perhaps even disable it unless you really need it.  Even at those costs, there is no way I would have expected an $850 bill for a few minutes of network use.

Oh, and my other advice would be to avoid 3 Mobile as a carrier. Their attitude to their customers sucks.

UPDATE: Just received my official bill from 3 this morning…  the final amount was $874.41.  I have also lodged a formal complaint with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.  Oh, and then I also find out about this!  Wish I’d have know about it a few weeks ago!

Getting Kids to Blog

I recently worked with our Year 4 teachers to get their kids blogging for the first time. I’d suggested blogging as a good activity for these students as a way to get them writing and reading more, as well as being for a potentially more authentic audience.  The teachers involved were a little apprehensive at first but quickly warmed to the idea and were quite keen to give it a go, especially as I said I  would work closely with them to get our blogging project off the ground… this was the first time we had tried to use blogs with the students so I was very keen to see it succeed of course.

As you may have read in a previous post, we managed to be hit with numerous technical hurdles as Edublogs recovered from a series of password resets, something the kids found annoying and tedious but also that they took very well.  The teachers of the students were a little confused that blogging was so complicated (“why do we need to reset our passwords every time we try to use the blogs?”) but again, they managed to take it all in their stride and just carry on with it.  I tried to explain that this was just a freak glitch, that blogging really was very straightforward, and to their credit they coped quite well, although I’m doubtful whether they will be willing to try it again in a hurry unless I’m there to support them with it.  The technical hassles really damage the perception of the process.

All that aside however, the kids really got into it.  They loved working on their blogs, and figured out how to add photos and videos, make categories, add widgets and change themes.  It was great to see the way they encouraged each other, helped each other work out the issues and kept adding to their own blogs both in and out of school.

I thought I’d just share a couple of tips that we picked up along the way and relate a few ideas for how we worked through the project.

The kids were each given their own blogs, set up using the multiple blog registration tool in Edublogs.  I set up the kids’ blogs 15 at a time, and made each of the teachers co-administrators.  This meant that the teacher could log in and make changes to any inappropriate content if required, although thankfully it was never required.

I also created an OPML file of each classes blogs, and used that file to import the kids’ blogs into the teachers’ feedreader.  Our school uses Outlook 2007, which has a reasonable RSS reader built in, so it was straightforward to import the OPML file into each teacher’s Outlook client, thereby giving them a feed for all their kids’ blogposts.  This made it much easier to keep on top of the many posts that were being written.  I also imported the OPML file into my Google Reader and kept an eye on the posts there as well.  To date there have been 49 posts written by one class and 71 posts by the other… not a bad effort for a first time blogging project plagued by technical troubles.

We also made sure we spent enough time discussing with the kids some of the issues about staying safe online… things like not revealing any personal information, not using your last name, not mentioning your school or where you will be at any particular time. We talked about how to handle comments and how to be a responsible online citizen. They took all this very seriously and stuck to the rules the whole time.

Of course, the real point of a blog is to write, so I worked with the teachers to come up with some way to encourage the students to write more, and especially to relate it to the topic they were doing last term which was “Australia, You’re Standing In It”.

To that end, we designed a grid of writing prompts.  It was arranged into four threads – Built Environment, Natural Environment, Flora and Fauna, and States and Territories.  We gave the students three options for each thread, one from the lower end of Blooms Taxonomy, one from the middle and one from the upper end, making 12 possible writing topics in all.  The easier topics were rated at 10 points, the middle ones at 15 points and the harder ones at 20 points and each student was asked to accumulate 60 points, with a special prize given to any student that accumulated 100 points or more. The idea was to create a range of choices that each student could make for what they wrote about, from the easier research and recall type tasks, all the way up to harder tasks that requires greater creativity and synthesis of ideas.  A student could opt for the easier tasks if they wanted to, but obviously they would need to do more of them.  Alternatively, they could do fewer but harder tasks if they chose.  The actual tasks they chose did not matter, as long as they collected at least 60 points worth.  Despite the issues with Edublogs and the large chunks of wasted class time, many students managed to get to the 60 point mark, and some collected as many as 120 points.

Cut and pasted from our Moodle page, it looked like this…


Year 4 Blogging Topics

Choose from the following list of blog topics. You need to collect at least 60 points, and anyone who gets 100 points will get a special prize.

Write each as a separate blog post. Give each a good title and a put them into a suitable category.

10 points 15 points 20 points
The Built Environment Choose a built environment and describe it in words. Add a couple of pictures as well. Write a poem about the built environment. It needs at least 2 verses. Pick two Australian built environments and compare and contrast them. (Describe their similarities and their differences) Include pictures to support your views.
The Natural Environment List 5 natural sites in NSW and include a short description of each one. Include a photo of each if possible. Should tourists be allowed to climb Uluru?
Give 5 good reasons to support your argument. Include a photo or two.
Choose an Australian natural environment and explain how and why it needs to be protected. Give as much detail as you can.
States and Territories Find the weather in 5 other states right now. Include a link to the page where you find this information. In the form of a travel log, describe a holiday you’ve taken in NSW or interstate. Include a few pictures. Which is the best Australian state? Why? Give at least 5 reasons that would convince an overseas visitor to go there.
Flora and Fauna Choose an area of Australia and list at least 3 plants or animals you would find there. Include pictures. Find 3 pictures of Australian flora and/or fauna, and write descriptions about them for someone who was blind. Choose one endangered Australian plant or animal and explain what you might do to help save them from extinction.

What struck me as I watched the students work on this project was just how many other skills they used along the way.  From technical skill trying to figure out how to include photos or YouTube videos, to information literacy skills in choosing the rights sites to gather information from, to improving their general knowledge as they learned things they didn’t know before they started.  I thought it was a successful project on a number of levels, and I do see how blogging can be a very powerful tool for learning.

Anyway, I’m certainly not claiming it was perfect or ideal, and I’d certainly appreciate any comments you might like to make on ways to improve our attempt at blogging.  What can we do to improve it?

Image: ‘shirt.JPG
http://www.flickr.com/photos/78863070@N00/1341839873
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When Everything Looks Like a Nail

The regularity of my blogging has dropped off a bit lately, mainly because I’m in the middle of writing a book about the use of interactive whiteboard technology for teachers. Although I’ve got almost 20,000 words written so far, I am way behind deadline and really need to get the first draft finished so it can be submitted to the publishers in a few weeks. Until I get that done, every time I feel the urge to blog I have to remind myself that there is a (new) deadline looming and direct my writing efforts to the book instead of the blog. I feel bad that my blogging has been suffering lately, but I really need to get this done. So there you have the reason I’ve not been updating lately.

However, I simply had to take a few minutes to share this wonderful new tool I’ve found called Scrivener. It’s an incredible tool for anyone taking on a large writing task and I really can’t believe I’ve never tried it before. I had heard the name mentioned but assumed it was just another word processor. How wrong I was!

There is an assumption that the defining software tool for writers is Microsoft Word. While Word is a very powerful application and has many, many features that most people never even discover, Word can be a frustrating tool for anyone contemplating the writing of a very long piece of work such as a book. I use Word a lot and know it quite well… in fact I hold a Advanced level Microsoft Office Specialist certification in Word, so I feel quite at home in it. I can generally twist Word to my will and make it do pretty much whatever I need, but it’s still a pain in the neck when working on something as large and fragmented as a book.

There’s no doubt that Word is a great tool for certain types of writing. But as they say, when your only tool is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Enter Scrivener. Designed expressly for anyone working on long documents that require many edits, such as books and screenplays, Scrivener takes an entirely different approach to writing. Essentially, it treats easch writing task as a project, collecting resources for writing into a single place and then enables you to break long text into short, movable, definable chunks, letting you categorise and synopsise each chunk and assemble them into the final work. You can break text into chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences… whatever you like… and move them around to let your ideas flow far better than Word will ever allow. Unfortunately Scrivener is a Mac only application, but Windows users might like to check out PageFour which apparently does similar things.

Using Scrivener has been somewhat of an eye-opening paradigm shift for me. It has challenged my assumptions about the very nature of the software tools we give our students. It made me realise what a mistake it is to assume that Word – or any “industry standard” software tool – is necessarily the tool for the job as far as student use is concerned. We inflict tools like Word on our students because they are supposed to be “what everybody uses” and we insist that the best tools to teach them to use are the tools used “by industry”. The fact is, schools are not offices, and the writing needs of a business person are not necessarily the writing needs of a student. The best tool for a student is not the one that they will use when they get older, but the one that helps them do what they need to do right now.

There is nothing “wrong” with Word, but having now spent some time with Scrivener it is now painfully obvious just how much more we could offer our students if we stopped assuming the tools of the business world were what they should master in order to create written texts. Real writing is a process of collecting ideas and thoughts together, manipulating them into a cohesive form, and editing and re-editing them until they make sense to other people. I now see how tools such as Scrivener approach the task of writing from a completely different angle and enable it to take place in a far more fluid way.

Now back to work! I have a book to finish…

PS: Here’s a video that gives a great overview of what Scrivener is all about…

video overview

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Living in the Cloud

Until fairly recently, most of my computing was done locally using “real apps”. By this, I mean they are cllient-side applications installed on the hard drive of my own computer. I guess I’ve always liked the speed and convenience of having my applications – tools like Office, email, calendar, feedreader, etc – right there on my hard drive where I could get to them running at full local speed. Once you’ve been spoilt by the responsiveness of locally-run apps, web apps that run from the Internet just aren’t as snappy.

Of course, many will say that locally installed apps are old skool; that if you really think with a Web 2.0 mindset, then running your key software directly from the Internet makes more sense. The world is certainly trending that way, with a proliferation of Web 2.0 apps that now run directly from “the cloud” and computing devices designed to work this way, such as the Macbook Air. Computing in the cloud started with obvious applications like webmail, but have now extended to office productivity software, photo editing, even video production, all workable with nothing more than a web browser and a broadband connection.

Life is all about compromises and finding the right balance. Although I’ve been resisting cloud computing for a while, my circumstances changed recently and I decided to make a switch to see if I could manage moving my basic tools off the desktop and into the big blue nowhere.

The real trigger for making the move to the cloud was an increase in the number of computers I was working on every day. My main machine has been a Macbook Pro, which I essentially did everything on. I also owned a 20″ iMac on my desktop, but that was used mainly for editing podcasts and storing my media with iPhoto and iTunes. I really didn’t spend that much time on the iMac, although it’s a beautiful machine to use. Since we moved house recently though, I’ve been using the iMac a lot more, even more than the MacBook Pro. Then when I started the new job I was given a Toshiba 12″ Tablet PC as my work machine.  It became awkward to manage all my stuff since it was now spread across three different computers, all using locally installed software applications. Suddenly, locally installed apps were making a whole lot less sense, with important emails and documents never on the machine I happened to be using, my work calendar and my personal calendar getting out of sync on different machines, and I figured it was time to start looking for a better way to consolidate my digital life.

So here’s the problem… I had three machines grabbing email from 5 different accounts, two calendars that needed to be kept separate but I also needed to cross reference them against each other, a writing project which required collaboration with another writer in a remote location, and a group of RSS feeds that were being picked up on three different machines. My digital life was a mess…

It was finally time to submit to the cloud computing model and take all of these disparate bits and move them to cyberspace, where I could access them from any computer. There are many tools to enable this, but I decided to go with Google’s tools since they seem to work really well together and one login would give me access to everything… Gmail for my email, Google Reader for my RSS aggregator, Google Calendar for my appointments, and GoogleDocs for my documents. I won’t labour the point about these tools since I assume most people are already pretty familiar with them, and using web apps is hardly a revolution, but I did want to mention a few tweaks and tips that really made the move to the cloud so much more workable for me.

First, Gmail. For a long time, I’ve been a heavy user of Entourage, and more recently Apple’s Mail, and really liked them.  Although I’ve had a Gmail account for ages, I mainly used it just as my secondary mail account. My real mail comes in on chris[@]betcher.org and I didn’t really want to switch that. Thankfully, Gmail has the ability to hook into my ISP’s account and pull my regular mail into the Gmail service. This means that I can now stick to my long term email address via my regular ISP but get to it with the convenience of Gmail’s web-based anywhere-access. I added another POP account I had and I can now send and receive mail from any of these addresses via Gmail, from any machine, with the added advantage of a powerful spam filtering service freely supplied by Google.

Second, my feed reader. I tossed up whether to use Google Reader, Pageflakes, NetVibes or Bloglines. The new Bloglines beta looked good, but had a few annoying behaviours. After testing each system for a few days, I decided on Google Reader. Once it’s set up, it works very smoothly with Flock – my browser of choice – to add RSS feeds. The way it displays feeds is really intuitive and each to understand, and it was able to import the OPML file from my desktop feedreader, Vienna. So far, I’m impressed with Reader and I can now check my feeds from any machine, and keep them all in sync.

Google Docs are wonderful. Although I’ve got a Microsoft Office Specialist certificate and am a pretty capable “power user” of MS Word, like most people I mostly use it to type up fairly simple documents. Google Docs may lack many of the features of Microsoft Office, but they are mostly features I don’t use anyway, and the ability to collaborate on documents with other people more than makes up for the missing features. Working across several machines, the ability to have all my documents accessible from one place – the Internet – is an incredibly useful concept. But I was really won over with Google Docs when I saw the Firefox plug-in called GDocs Bar. This plug-in gives one-click access to Google Docs for both accessing your online files as well as uploading new ones. GDocs Bar makes Google Docs so much more functional.

Finally, the other big problem was that my personal calendar was being managed by iCal on my MacBook Pro, and my work calendar was being managed by Outlook on the school’s Exchange server. This made it hard to look at both my work and personal events together, as both were kept in separate places although they had overlapping events. The killer link in making the move to the cloud came with the ability to sync both the iCal and Outlook calendars into a single Google calendar. To achieve this, I used a $25 app called Spanning Sync to synchronise iCal to my Google calendar.  It works fantastically with perfect two way syncing. I then used the free Google Calendar Sync tool to do a two way sync of my work Outlook calendar into my Google calendar. The end result is that my online Google calendar now pulls data from my two separate calendars and displays it in real time, in one place, easily accessible from any browser.  This is way cool…

The bottom line is that I now feel I have a really workable cloud computing experience, with all my key information stored in one place – the web – that I can get to from any of my machines. I know there is still plenty of life left in the locally installed software model, especially for the more computationally intensive multimedia applications, but so far I’m pretty impressed at just how easy and effective it has been to move my most commonly used productivity apps to the cloud.

I just hope we can trust Google.

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