Sep 012014

Here we are at the last phase of the personal learning environment: the Demonstration Phase. As the name would suggest, this is where you publicly demonstrate what you know through some means. (Publicly, depending on the situation, can mean in front of the person or people responsible for assessing you rather than the whole world.) How and what you demonstrate is dictated entirely by the material and the situation.

The Demonstration Phase is where the personal learning environment shifts from facing the learner to facing the communities the learner interacts with. It can be something as simple as a blog or well-maintained social media space, where the learner can not only show off what they’re learned and what they’re doing but also interact with others. It can be a more closed off space like a members-only forum, an email list, or a meeting space (online or offline) where the learner can demonstrate their knowledge and skills by contributing productively to the conversation.

During the next month, we’ll look at this phase through what should now be familiar lenses, and explore how the Demonstration Phase can be used by the learner to demonstrate knowledge and thinking, and by teachers and mentors to assess a learner’s development.

Aug 272014

Now that you’ve spent a month thinking about and hopefully planning your information and digital asset management strategies, it’s time to implement them (if you haven’t already). Think about what kind of storage structure will best suit your content: hierarchical, serial, or set. Think about how the use of tags will facilitate the use of your material. Be deliberate and consistent as you design your asset management system.

Remember, the whole point for putting yourself through this is to create a storage system that supports your work by making information and content easy to find and work with. It then strengthens your work by creating opportunities to make connections between the pieces of content and between yourself and others interested in the same topics or crafts you’re working with. It’s worth sitting down and taking the time to sort out a system that works best for your projects.

Next month, we will look at the last phase of the personal learning environment. And then after that, we may go back to a random blogging schedule.

This year, I was experimenting with having themes each month, but it hasn’t necessarily impacted my blogging or my social media the way I wanted it to and you guys have proven that this hasn’t been your cup of tea, either. There are some other changes that need to happen around here, and they may very well start happening in October. But I thank you for indulging me these last several months. As always, if there’s something you’d like me to blog about, something you’d like to hear more about, just drop me a line in the comments or use any of the tools in the social media box in the sidebar to let me know.

Aug 252014

In addition to managing information, you might need to manage digital assets, be they chapters, images, video, audio, multimedia, etc. So, let’s talk about asset management, which is just as important. Digital asset management is the system by which you organize files you will need to find later to continue working on a project. Depending on your project, this system may need to accommodate different types of files and those files may need to be accessed by members of a team. So, the system has to be designed to drive findability as well as minimize confusion and (more importantly) duplication.

A digital asset management system really relies on two things, regardless of the storage system being used – the location of what’s being stored and the name of the stored files. When I think of location where storage is concerned, I think about file folders. It’s a metaphor that’s been extended across many storage systems, so we’re all familiar with it. Designing a useful file folder system really relies on a comfortable knowledge of information architecture. How are these files best grouped? What sort of drill down do we need, if we need one at all? When I was working on the Dead Bunny videos, my file folder system started with the topics. In each topic’s folder there were folders for the slides, the audio tracks, and the graphics. That was it because that was all that was needed.

Within this file folder structure, you then have all these files. Naming these files usefully is an art. A very necessary art. When I started working on Dead Bunny, I didn’t fully appreciate this. I hadn’t worked with projects that had so many little pieces before, so I had never thought about file naming. It took a couple of game writing books to straighten me out (and save Dead Bunny from becoming a massive headache).  When you have a project with a bunch of little pieces, how you name them is just as important as how you file them. The naming convention helps provide another layer of organization to your content, and therefore should really be uniform. In Dead Bunny, this manifested as adopting a uniform name that incorporated both the topic and file’s number. For the slides, this number was the slide’s number in the deck. For the audio tracks (and this made my life a million times simpler when someone showed me this), this number was the slide that the audio matched up to. (I did start out just numbering them, but switching to align with the slides cut down my work time significantly.)

And if you’re in a team situation, having everyone know the file naming convention makes sure files will be where they belong, regardless of who created it. Some software makes it very difficult for you to rename a file once it’s been created, so having this in place at the beginning is a serious time saver. Also, when everyone knows what the structure and naming convention is, everyone is able to find the assets they need quickly without having to chase down the original creator. (You’d think this would be obvious, but I’ve been in painful situations where it wasn’t.)

Another place where having strong digital asset management skills is handy is voiceover work, and this is because I’m regularly shifting between working on personal and outside projects. It should be rather simple, I suppose. I’m only managing audio files, after all. But it’s amazing just how diverse the world of voiceover is. In my file folder structure, I have folders for auditions, hitRECord, and then my voiceover genres. Within those folders are folders for production groups (except hitRECord, which jumps straight to the projects folder level). And then within the production group folders are the project folders. It may sound like too much, but you’d be amazed how quickly I can retrieve a file when I need it.

For audiobooks, each book gets its own folder, and then each chapter gets its own folder. (I’m apparently flying in the face of audiobook production best practices here.) It lets me see where I am in my work and keep on top of things. I keep notes on the preferred technical specs for each group I publish with so I can make sure everything including the file names is correct when I upload them. Following those file naming conventions then allows the publisher to organize and upload my audiobook quickly and accurately.

For audio dramas, I’m one remote cog in the machine, so following the established storage system rules is especially important. In my own system, each production group has its own folder, filled with project folders, filled with character folders. But when it comes time to prepare my work to go back, I make sure my files are organized the way the production group want them. Some prefer files to be grouped by character. Others prefer by episode or scene. Some have very specific file naming conventions designed to make all of the lines fall into order when added to the production group’s folder. Others just need an episode name and a character name, if they even want that much information. It doesn’t matter that each group wants something different and that none of them organize the way I do; what does matter is that my work will be locatable in their system once it gets there.

Anyway, there it is. Managing digital assets from an information management frame of mind. As always, remember the goals are findability and usability, and you’ll be fine.

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.

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