Aug 202014

Continuing our discussion from the other day, let’s look at another specialized, specific organization method: set management. Set management, for our purposes, refers to metadata designed to keep related nonlinear material related and findable.  Set management is a bit more difficult to nail down because it can be a bit nebulous.

Set management can be a hybrid of organization structures. For example,  hierarchical structure could dictate the shape of the broadest organization levels, but within each level the components could take on a sequential order (Dead Bunny’s playlists). Or they could be sequential at the broadest level, with a hierarchical organization within each step in the sequence. (Some curriculum is designed this way so deeper exploration of topics are possible where time and resources permit.)

I personally use set management to keep my research and writing materials organized. I use broad topical structures, and then organize material by type, or by sequence as the material calls for it. Character and setting sheets are organized by type and proximity to other characters and settings. Stories are organized by where and when they take place in the story world’s history. If I tried to implement a single organization type, I’d go insane. (I also implement this organization pattern across all the components of my digital workspace, so keeping the same tags and patterns all the way across makes my work run more smoothly.)

So, when is set management useful? If the material doesn’t fit easily into a hierarchical system because the components are at about the same organizational level, you should consider a set management pattern. If the material can be accessed in any order (making it unsuitable for a serial pattern), then you’re probably better off using a set management pattern. If the material is spread out across different platforms and storage solutions, a consistently implemented set management pattern can go a long way toward making that work.

The most important thing I want you to take away, not only from this post, but from this month, is that you need to choose an information management pattern that best serves the content being stored and that allows you to work with minimal disruption.

Aug 182014

As part of this discussion on information management, I thought it might be interesting to look at a couple of special, specific types of organization. And we’re going to start with a scheme that will be fairly familiar: series management.

Series management is a method for keeping linear, serialized content related and in order while allowing each component of the series to remain individually findable. We accomplish this by linking the content clearly to the piece that comes immediately before it as well as the piece that comes immediately after it.

When I was first writing online, we accomplished this by handcoding links to the previous and next pieces of content in the series. Those who had the time would also handcode a link to a self-created table of contents. It was something akin to a one-track branched story. These days, it’s much simpler. Most blogging and content management platforms offer some way of linking serial pieces either natively or through plugins. The notable exception is YouTube, where you still have to handcode connections between videos (through the annotation tool) in many cases.

Some systems also allow for the easy construction of a table of contents so visitors can see how many pieces are involved in the series and what topics the series will cover, making it easy for visitors to find the exact part of the series they’re really looking for. This is the exception where YouTube gets serialization right. Add the videos in the series to a playlist, order them, and your series becomes easy for viewers to handle.

When should you be using the series management method? Any time you have content you expect the visitor to experience in a specific order. This might be blog posts on a given topic broken up across multiple posts (like my initial series on the personal learning environment, accomplished with a plugin), scaffolded material (like Dead Bunny’s topical playlists, accomplished through YouTube’s native playlist management tools), or maybe you have a timeline presenting your material and each piece needs to be experienced in order to put everything in context.

It’s something to play around with as you’re deciding how to best fit your content together.

Aug 132014

Earlier this week, we focused on using tags to classify and organize material. At the end of the post, I suggested tagging can also support discovery and pattern recognition activities. So, I thought we’d take a look at that today.

Continuing our metaphors from the other post, let’s start with using tags to promote cross-reference. Depending on your age, you may or may not remember doing this with a card catalog in school. You’d go to look up something, and one of the cards you found would say: See also [list of related keywords]. Desperately hoping you’d find more information on whatever obscure topic you were supposed to be researching, you’d make a note of those keywords and look them up, too…only to realize hours later that you had in fact found several interesting things, none of which related to your research. If you were lucky, though, chasing those other keywords could open doors for you. You might have found an interesting direction to take your research paper, because one of those keywords was something you never would have thought of. That’s the beauty of cross-referencing. It might verify what you’re looking up. It might disprove what you’re looking up. It might send you down a different vein of thought, as you get a better look at how other topics relate to your current research. Bookmarking and notetaking apps utilize this type of tagging because they’re kind of designed for it.

For bloggers, bookmarkers, and notetakers, tags can also help identify related material, enabling visitors and users to delve more deeply into a topic. What makes it interesting on blogs and social bookmarking sites is that we choose to show the tagging structure we’ve implemented to keep our content connected. Why is this interesting? Because seeing how someone else has grouped together content tells us a lot about the person and how they perceive the content, and can in turn jog how we think about the topic. It’s a way to be inspired by and learn from each other.

The last type of tagging we’re going to cover here is familiar to most social media users – the hashtag. Hashtags have been in use informally for over a decade, but have only been a formal part of the social media scene for about five years or so. Where other types of tagging are used to organize, identify, and connect content, the hashtag is really more of a communication and networking tool. When used correctly, a hashtag can help social media users discussing the same topic or event find each other, thereby facilitating the conversation. It can help users interested in the same topics and events find each other in realspace. It’s a great way to provide a centralized hub on a global platform. When used incorrectly…well…I know I’m not the only one to use them to make sarcastic or self-deprecating comments on an earlier part of a post. ;)

Regardless of why you’re tagging, remember that your tags must be useful to your intended audience. Consistency and diligence are keys to a successful tagging system.

Aug 112014

I’ve blogged about this in the past, but it took me a long time to come to terms with tagging. Longer than it really should have, given my time maintaining card catalogs, archiving collections of various types, and blogging. But I did finally catch on and realized that tagging, especially when used uniformly across my personal learning environment, is a useful tool because tags can serve as a type of metadata.

Metadata, which can be thought of as “data about data”, is all through our digital life. If you have ever built a website, you know metadata as that information about the site that gets hidden in the site’s code. It’s not meant for human eyes; they’ll get their information about the site from just looking at the site. It’s there to tell robots and search engines information about the site to help determine if a site matches what they’re looking for. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall off the top of my head what’s in this site’s metadata. Oops.) In a way, it’s kind of like what you would find in an old library card catalog. It’s a series of key words and identifiers intended to help someone quickly find what they’re looking for.

When you’re using tags to identify aspects of information, you can then use those tags to better organize your information. This isn’t dissimilar from how museums use metadata tagging as they digitize collections. They use the tags to identify the key aspects of the artifact, and then artifacts with the same key identifier are easily identifiable when the collection is searched digitally. Blogs also rely on this style of tagging, allowing posts to be tagged by key aspects so related posts can be found quickly. Broader tags are often represented by a special set of tags called “categories”. (Bet you never thought of categories that way before!) When we talk about Three Click Design and Information Scent in web design, what we’re really talking about is the simplicity and clarity of a site’s organization as indicated by their use of tags and navigational mechanics.

As I said earlier, I didn’t take to tagging quickly. I fought it for a long time. What finally won me over was losing bits and pieces of projects and research across my digital workspace. I started tagging content important to a research project, and found that I spent less time looking for things I knew I had but couldn’t find. Now, I have a set of tags (in a hierarchical structure more often than not because that’s the kind of nerd I am) that I’ve applied across all aspects of my digital workspace. When I want to work on something, I just open that tab in all of the apps I need, and there is my information and my work.

So, there you go. Tagging is a great way to classify and organize your content so you (or your target audience) can find what they need when they need it. When a tagging system is designed well, it can not only increase productivity, but also enable discovery and pattern recognition, allowing future projects to come together.

Aug 062014

One of the things you’re going to hear me say with some regularity as we move through the month is hierarchy, so I thought we’d start by talking about what that means and why we use it (and why we don’t use it).

A hierarchical structure is a classification system that basically starts with a broad set of terms that becomes more focused with each new layer. We’ve all used it in those outlines we created to write papers for school. But they’re also useful for grouping items. For example, if you wanted to classify the Dresden Files series, you might start with the broad classification “books” (it would be filed with all books), and then drill down to the classification “fiction” (it would be filed with the fiction books, but out of place with nonfiction). From there, you might classify it as “fantasy” (it would be filed with other fantasy novels, but would be a sore thumb in a pile of westerns), and then “urban fantasy” (it would be filed with other urban fantasy novels, but probably not with epic fantasy novels).

If you’re familiar with branched storytelling or interactive fiction, the organization structure is similar. Once you choose a path, you are locked in to only the options available to that path for the duration of this search. (You can always back up the chain if you need to search a different path.) We see that in the Dresden Files example, as we can see what paths are closed off to us because we sorted the series in a specific direction. It limits our focus.

We use a hierarchical structure when we organize information by some trait, including sequential order, where drill downs are the best way to find information within the data or content. We’re actually quite used to this structure, because we use it regularly. Blogs employ this structure through the use of categories and tags to organize content, some blogs going so far as to incorporate subcategories. It works for blogs because the blogger can have a few broad topics (categories) that are then supported by more specific smaller topics readers might want to investigate (tags). Shopping websites also implement this structure to help shoppers narrow in on what they are looking for to better facilitate the shopping process.

While hierarchical structures are fairly forgiving and flexible in their design and implementation, they aren’t suited to every situation. Some data and content just isn’t suited to a drill-down format. For those situations, you’re almost always better off creating broad categories that share a more fluid tag structure. Library card catalog systems used to be a great example of this. A writing project management system for stories told in the same world can also benefit from this. The stories become the broad categories, and then characters, settings, and major events become the tags that can be shared between stories as needed. (Not that this is how I’ve set up New Glory’s story bible or anything. *wink*)

If you’re faced with organizing a collection that can be sorted into groupings that don’t need to be shared between larger groupings, a hierarchical structure might be a good starting point.

Aug 042014

This month, I thought we’d look at something that’s probably come up more than once as you’ve put a project through the phases of the personal learning environment – managing digital artifacts, or “intangibles” as I call them. Digital artifacts are pretty much a routine part of our lives these days. So much is done on our computers and peripheral gadgets. What makes these artifacts particularly nice is that they don’t take up a whole lot of physical space, but that does’t mean they don’t need to be cared for.

For the purposes of our discussion, digital artifacts are gathered information, personal thoughts and reflections, and digital creations. Basically, anything that can be stored and accessed through a computing device.

At its core, digital content management focuses on two methods: information architecture and digital asset management. Information architecture is building storage that allows for quick retrieval as well as discovery and pattern recognition (necessary to produce more innovative work). Digital asset management is building a uniform content storage system that enables smoother work flows in projects and across teams.

Over the next month, we’re going to look at a handful of aspects of digital content management with an eye toward making it work for us. Well thought out, well constructed storage systems provide a number of benefits. They can reduce the time spent finding curated information, giving you more time to produce. The can help you see related ideas within the content that can trigger new thoughts, ideas, and designs. In a collaboration situation, they can also reduce friction by creating a unified work space, paving the way for stronger projects to be created.

Ready? Then let’s get started.

Jul 312014

So far, we’ve looked at participating in communities of practice from a competitive and a cooperative point of view. But now, let’s turn our attention to those who decide to mentor within communities of practice, those who share their knowledge and their experience. As was the case with competition and cooperation, there’s a light and a dark side here as well. What? How can that be? Isn’t sharing knowledge and teaching others a good thing? Well…yes and no. It really depends on why the person assumed the mentor role to begin with.

Some people become mentors within a community of practice because they love the craft and want to help bring up the quality of the craft. What actually inspired this series of posts was a Facebook post by costume designer Yaya Han, who started out, and is still very active, in the cosplay community. About halfway down the post, Han addresses the cosplay community as a whole, trying to address negative feelings and opinions splitting the community. She makes the point that each cosplayer is different in their approach and how they prefer to work, and it doesn’t make any of them less of a cosplayer.  She goes on to talk about the need to bring the community skill level up as a whole through positive critique, encouragement, and recognition of personal achievement or growth. She’s spot on. Han was one of the cosplayers followed in Heroes of Cosplay (which strangely enough is not how I came to learn about the post), and you could see how she lives her own words through encouraging fellow cosplayers, and being willing to be a supportive, nondestructive ear when a fellow cosplayer wants to bounce ideas off her. If the show portrayed her accurately, she comes across as a bit of a mother hen, making sure her little chicks are all fine, and becoming concerned when one of them clearly isn’t. She tries to create a environment where other cosplayers can safely grow and foster their own skills and interests.

Others become mentors and teachers because they see Teacher as the Expert in the room, the voice of Authority. (Yes, those words deliberately capitalized.) We’ve all met at least one of these over the course of our schooling – someone who went into the teaching profession because they want to be needed in a way they never were before they stepped into the teacher role, and still aren’t outside of their teaching role. They’re the ones who clearly didn’t go into teaching because they love sharing knowledge or helping others develop their skills. Their self-esteem is just too low for that, and it shows in their teaching. These are the mentors who can tell you all about this one awesome project they did several years ago (which may or may not relate to the craft being practiced at the moment), but haven’t tried to do anything recently, generally have outdated knowledge and connections, and can’t demonstrate or explain to save their little souls. It’s a very destructive environment for the students, potentially driving out those who don’t realize they could just shift to a different mentor.

For those who do assume a mentoring mantle as part of their practice (or who are considering it), becoming a mentor within a community of practice is worthwhile…if you do it correctly and for the right reasons. Becoming known as a mentor is one clear way to establish a reputation because you are constantly exhibiting your knowledge and skills as you’re helping others learn. People can see what you know and how you present it, and they’ll know in the future why you’re worth turning to for help. But because you’re in contact with the newcomers, you get to learn from the experiences they bring with them, broadening your own knowledge base and allowing you to become familiar with what each newcomer brings to the craft. And because you have this reputation for being knowledgeable and skilled, you get to know other people across the community, which puts you in a great position. You can connect people at various levels of the community when certain knowledge and skills are needed, and you know who to approach when you’re building your own team…two abilities that add to your reputation.

Mentoring is fun and rewarding, a great role for anyone who loves to learn and play. But if you go into it for the wrong reasons, you’re doing a lot more harm than good.

Jul 302014

As so often happens in a project, our work in the Reviewing Phase is done for the month. Some projects never make it to this point for a variety of reasons, but many do. Regardless of whether or not you reach the point where you feel you can declare a project “finished”, you have no doubt learned a lot from working on this project. This is actually why games will often grant you experience points, even when you failed. You put forth the effort; you at the very least gained something useful from it.

Really, that’s what the Reviewing Phase is. It’s about gaining experience with the material and the content. That’s why you spend all that time creating, applying what you’ve learned, and analyzing your work so you can make tweaks and pioneer new ways to approach your project. You work with the material and ideas, gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts while developing  and honing your transdisciplinary skills.

But the Reviewing Phase is also about exploring and experimenting, answering the question “What if?” It’s a time for play, for trial and error, for seeing what you can really do with your project materials. It’s a time to try out new techniques, new tools, and just seeing what happens. Maybe you’ll create more than just your current project. But you won’t know unless you approach your project with an open mind.

Whatever else, don’t let a fear of what happens next keep you from saying a project is done. What does happen next? Well, we’ll discuss that in September when we tackle the final phase of the personal learning environment: demonstration. Next month, we’ll be looking at a topic near and dear to my own workload: information and digital asset management. See you then!

Jul 282014

This is going to be a hard phase to discuss in terms of tools, because every craft and trade has the tools that best fit its activities. There are generic organization tools you can use to help keep you on target and keep your materials on hand, but the other phases have really explored those well enough for our purposes. But as far as actually completing your project or learning your skills, the tools are going to vary by what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

What I will advise is that you experiment. Listen to others who practice your craft or skill at all levels. What are they using? How do their choice of tools work for them? Try out those tools. Some will be free; many that aren’t offer trial periods that should give you plenty of time to decide if the tool fits your work style. That’s what you’re looking for: Does this tool support my work style? You don’t want to hottest new tool if it hinders your work. (It can have a steep learning curve if it’s clear it will make your workflow easier to manage down the road.) You want only those tools that genuinely assist in your work.

Of course, you’re going to have tools that you’ve worked with years, perhaps the entire span of your career, and it’s okay to keep relying on those if they’re still working for you. But it’s also helpful to periodically consider new tools, to see what’s out there. Often, new tool development accompanies changes in a craft or trade, so it helps you stay in touch with the evolution of your craft. Running a smaller project through a new tool to test it out also helps you build a mental agility as you look at different ways to apply your skills. (This can also be a great way to measure mastery – Are you able to transfer your body of knowledge to a new tool? It can be pretty eye-opening.)

So, I guess what I really want you to take away from this is: Find tools designed for your craft or trade. Learn how to use them comfortably and competently. But be open minded and try out new tools when you can, both to see what’s available to your creative community and to test your own knowledge agility. You never know when you’re going to find that right tool to tackle a new project, or to simplify a familiar process.

Jul 242014

The other day, we looked at the light and dark sides of competitive play. Today, we do the same for cooperative play. Because it’s “cooperative” in nature, it’s hard to believe that there’s a dark side to it. But as you will see, not only does it have that dark side, but the majority of us have probably experienced it at least once in our youth.

In the previous post, I said that we have become a competitive society, obsessed with rankings and metrics and being the best. Which is true. But at the same time we’re being driven to be the top dog, we’re being compelled to be a more cooperative society. Just look at the obsession with team projects in classrooms and skills competition-based reality shows. While it’s fueled by the understanding that work beyond the classroom is often completed by teams, I think we’re slowly understanding that teams whose members represent different strengths (the craft specialization mindset found in earlier cultures and cultures considered to be more “primitive”) are capable of achieving more and innovating more than a single individual or level teams. Sadly, we haven’t yet wrapped our education system’s mind around the fact that craft specialization is the opposite of docile clones. Such is the way of progress…

In a team where cooperation is practiced, the skill level averages out. So, it benefits the person building the team to seek out those who are as good or better than they are at a skill, something that becomes easier in a culture where craft specialization is practiced. In a society where the education system turns out young people at a theoretically uniform knowledge level, where a false sense of self-esteem has been developed by the participation ribbon, problems arise. Those who think they have the skills necessary to contribute to the team but don’t (or worse, have the skills but think they don’t) will hide behind the rest of the team so their weakness won’t be found out, effectively leaving their share of the workload to their teammates. We see this all the time in class projects, the child unable to contribute because of weaker or nonexistent skills and not wanting to be called out on it. But it becomes clear when other children in the class start doing whatever they can to not be on a team with that child.

When that weak link is the team leader, the results can be disastrous depending on how willing the team is to cover up for the leader. A leader lacking in the skills they need to have but don’t  can lead to a project with no direction or where they’ve spent the entire time taking out their low self-esteem on the team, demoralizing the group until no work is possible.

Okay, so…that’s the dark side. A lack of knowledge, coupled with low self-esteem or Impostor Syndrome. It’s not pretty…or productive.

On the light side, strong teams are made up of people with a range of talents and skill levels (because a team made up of a uniform group of people is really a waste of manpower when you think about it). Someone looking to put together a team for a project can look at what s/he brings to the project, what the skill gaps are, and then find people who fill in those gaps. People with overlapping skill sets can be balanced by being at different levels. A well-constructed team has the benefit of creating opportunities for peer teaching, for those who are knowledgeable in one field to educate their teammates on skills and team-relevant issues related to their field, meaning that once a team parts ways, each member who interacted with other members of the team comes away with a greater understanding of how their work fits in with other disciplines, allowing them to build stronger teams in the future because they know more about what to look for.

I mentioned in the other post that I enjoy watching skill-based competition reality shows because they often do a good job of showing off the strengths and weaknesses of competition. I also enjoy watching team dynamics and performance in these shows. This past spring, I had a blast watching Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, because the fabricators came from such different backgrounds and experiences and were able to share their knowledge with each other, both in teams and when working separately. There wasn’t a whole lot of voiced concern that someone was training another competitor to beat them; they were simply helping a fellow fabricator out, pulling somebody up to make sure they all turned out the best puppets they could.

Another great show for watching this type of cooperative competition, although it really doesn’t fit the mold of the competition-based reality show, is Heroes of Cosplay (which I think just wrapped up its summer season). I’ll get more into this next time, but the show does a really good job of showing how a group of high-level and up-and-coming cosplayers prepare for the con season. Individual cosplayers may work on their own or with another individual cosplayer, and they’ll bounce ideas off each other or help each other troubleshoot. Teams may work individually or together on their costumes (and skits, depending on the con they’re preparing for). This group of costume designers and fabricators (many of whom are either professional or looking to become professional) aren’t afraid to teach other tips and tricks, and many of them aren’t afraid to experiment and then share the results of their experiments with the other cosplayers. In fact, it’s not unusual for one of these experiments to become common use, and everyone knows where the new technique came from. They want the right designer to get credit.

At its best, cooperative play is a learning opportunity for everyone involved. At its worse, it’s a nightmare for those with low self-esteem, Impostor Syndrome, and anyone who has to work with the afflicted people.

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