Teaching Examples

The living Web
March 31, 2006, 2:02 pm
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Newsweek made a good effort at capturing the online zeitgeist in this past week’s cover story, but here are some things they didn’t include:

Many people have neither the time nor sufficient interest to use the “cheap geeky software tools known as the Web’s ‘connective tissue.'” The question is, does that make those who do use them the uber-geeks (marginal) … or the new information elite (central)?

If MySpace is in fact a “community” and not an “audience,” what kind of community is it? Not to sound like an old uber-geek, but I think it’s really much different from the text-only WeLL of yore, which I would call a community. I don’t deny that MySpace is a very social space. But so is a crowded bar.

(I really liked the line describing MySpace as “a site that easily allowed users to create their own little online treehouses.” That’s good!)

I’m not at all bashing the phenom — I love my Flickr and my del.icio.us to pieces — but this current boom is not the be-all and end-all of the online universe. It’s just another phase in the evolution of online media, and of course it’s interesting to watch and experience it.

The article mentions but does not dwell on the viral aspects of all this sharing going on. That’s the key. It’s not exactly that you WANT to “share” your stuff; you catch the bug because you are enjoying what others have come in and shared before you got there. You want to join in and quit sitting on the sidelines. The price of admission is sharing your stuff.

If you don’t share your stuff, then you’re just in the audience — not in the game.

In case you’re wondering about business models, Bradley Horowitz, head of technology development at Yahoo! Search, explained why Yahoo paid an estimated $35 million for Flickr:

“With less than 10 people on the payroll, they had millions of users generating content, millions of users organizing that content for them, tens of thousands of users distributing that across the Internet, and thousands of people not on the payroll actually building the thing.”

It’s similar to the reason why The New York Times bought About.com a year ago — but the difference is crucial. At About.com, unpaid “guides” collect, organize, and even generate content for (yes) an audience. But at Flickr, there are no guides, no gatekeepers — except the moderators (admins) of groups (and you don’t have to participate in those).

Does any of this have anything to do with journalism? Some would say yes, and much has been said and done already about citizen journalism. But journalism (and the practice of journalism) cannot be isolated from the people. If “the Web is where we live” now (as the Newsweek article concludes), then we can’t be having enclaves of journalism that are separate from everything else there.

Viral doesn’t work if you aren’t breathing the same air.

Suffice to say those in the journalism field should not, must not ignore the online zeitgeist. As for answers or solutions, those are still being worked out.

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Great site that teaches Web design
March 30, 2006, 1:54 pm
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Some people have a knack for visual design, but most people — including most students in a journalism program — really could benefit from some training and instruction.

The Web site examples on this page can be fantastic teaching tools. Not only do you get to see a variety of current design techniques beautifully put into practice; farther down on the page, you also get a helpful breakdown of the common elements making up the designs, such as:

  • Simple layout
  • 3D effects, used sparingly
  • Soft, neutral background colours
  • Strong colour, used sparingly
  • Cute icons, used sparingly
  • Plenty of whitespace
  • Nice big text

Web Design from Scratch is a site filled with resources, and it’s free and not plastered with annoying advertising. It comes to us from Ben Hunt, principal at a British-based Web consulting business called Scratchmedia (hence “from Scratch”).

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Search skills: Not as good as we thought
March 28, 2006, 7:32 pm
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In an Op-Ed for The New York Times (March 26), Edward Tenner asks whether Google and other search engines are making today’s students stupid.

We see this all the time among university undergraduates — they know how to use a search engine, but they don’t know how to use it WELL.

“Many students seem to lack the skills to structure their searches so they can find useful information quickly. In 2002, graduate students at Tel Aviv University were asked to find on the Web, with no time limit, a picture of the Mona Lisa; the complete text of either ‘Robinson Crusoe’ or ‘David Copperfield’; and a recipe for apple pie accompanied by a photograph. Only 15 percent succeeded at all three assignments.”

Recognizing the problem, what are educators going to do about it? I think one answer might be to have competitions in the classroom — or maybe during a live online chat — to demonstrate how choosing and combining search terms wisely will produce better search results.

But part of the problem may go back to earlier training, in high school and even the early grades. Students as young as 7 and 8 years old are using search engines in school and to complete homework assignments — but what kind of feedback and criticism are they receiving on the quality of their results?

I have undergrads who can compile a big collection of facts, names and dates and stuff them into a class presentation, but their evaluative skills leave a lot to be desired. They omit key parts of the story and include trivia that would be better left out.

I think this goes beyond Tenner’s complaint in his Op-Ed: Students not only do not know how to search effectively; they also lack the skills to judge whether their search was truly successful.

Related posts from this blog:

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Is Soundslides for you?
March 26, 2006, 6:22 pm
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You want to make a photo slideshow with sound and put it online. You know how to shoot photos and you have some idea how to gather audio and produce an MP3 file. But you don’t even own Flash, let alone know how to use it.

If you haven’t heard of Joe Weiss’ Soundslides, then listen up. Soundslides is for you.

You must have Mac OS X. It will not work on Windows or Linux. But that is the only bad news.

If you’re still reading, then get ready — the price tag is super-easy on the budget: $39.95.

On Saturday our local daily newspaper posted some nice Soundslides work. These are five good examples of what you can do very, very simply with Soundslides, one MP3 file, some JPGs, and a couple of hours (per slideshow):

(1) David Blackburn (2) Jonathan Brown (3) Charles Harriott (4) Riyaana Hartley (5) Raul Quintana

I’d love to link you to a package that explained the story (college students make up Gainesville’s Hip Hop Collective, and there was a big competition on Saturday night), but there is no package. And these five slideshows are not linked to the newspaper’s story, which is on the newspaper’s Web site — but this is where CMS (content management systems) have left many newspapers today — hog-tied and incapable of delivering multimedia in a seamless format that’s easy to use.

But I digress. The CMS does not interfere with the ability to use the fabulously user-friendly Soundslides tool, and if you’re NOT hampered by a multimillion-dollar CMS forced upon you by an oh-so-wise corporate owner in the world of professional journalism, then YOU can use it in all kinds of neat and wonderful ways.

The five hip-hop stories were shot by student photojournalist Briana Brough. The sound was gathered and edited by Gainesville Sun online producer David Houder. Soundslides was created by Joe Weiss, a multimedia producer at the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer.

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Online slideshow vs. online video
March 25, 2006, 3:52 pm
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Illuminating insights from Andrew Locke, director of product strategy for MSNBC.com (Feb. 3, 2006).

The choice between using video and using still photos with audio, he wrote, “frankly has as much to do with time and the multimedia producer’s comfort level as it does with storytelling.” In Locke’s view, these are “very similar mediums and in large part … functionally interchangeable in terms of the storytelling.”

However, “they do have different strengths in terms of what they bring to the storytelling,” he added.

Smart man. Let’s not forget that “functionally interchangeable” does not have the same meaning as “equally good for telling the story.”

About how you choose to tell the story:

I have to say MSNBC.com’s signature “style” (if we have one) has less to do with the medium we chose and a lot more to do with fact that we rely almost entirely on our subjects to narrate their own stories.

About the time factor:

Production is always really labor-intensive, whether done out in the field or in the office. We do have templates and tools, which helps, but the mental/creative process is always the hard part, and it gets harder and harder to do the longer you’re in the field.

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Do we need Newsvine?
March 25, 2006, 12:59 pm
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A new news site came out of beta about a month ago. It’s called Newsvine, and it’s the product of a good old-fashioned startup company (the kind we used to see by the dozens during the dot-com boom days) based in Seattle.

The premise is that a mix of rapidly posted wire stories and user-created news and opinion content can evolve into a useful information environment (or even an ecology) by way of integrated social networking tools, such as comments, tags and even live chat. Newsvine brings together ideas long in use at sites such as Slashdot, Kuro5hin, MetaFilter and (more recently) Digg. Registered users can vote for a story, which raises its ranking in lists on the site.

So far, activity on the site appears to be underwhelming. In the “Tech” section today, for example, the top story (Apple Computer Set to Mark 30th Birthday) has only 42 votes. That’s a pretty ho-hum story. What’s more, it’s the second top-rated story on Page One (“Top News”). Well, it IS Saturday morning …

What differentiates Newsvine from some other “vote for what’s interesting” sites is its MySpace-like sections for each user. After you register (free), you can set up your own “column” (um, that would be a blog) from which you will one day be paid a 90 percent cut of advertising revenues. You get some other tools too, like a watchlist (based on tags) and clippings. You can “seed” stories to Newsvine from elsewhere on the Web, and apparently you could use the tools to replace del.icio.us (see MY del.icio.us) — which I’m very fond of.

In fact, I’m already so accustomed to “rolling my own” by way of Digg, del.icio.us and a few favorite news sites (see the top items under “Sites I Like to Visit” on this blog’s home page), I can’t really see myself investing the time needed to configure Newsvine for my own use. Yet it is a brand-new site, and its value may increase over time. (You know what Metcalf’s Law says.)

I’ve tried to think of a way it might be useful in teaching — maybe instead of having journalism students set up a standalone blog, they could use a “column” on Newsvine instead.

The Newsvine FAQ is helpful. Newsvine began a public beta in November 2005. Here are the diggs on the Newsvine launch (March 1). Here are items tagged “Newsvine” on del.icio.us.

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Annual Web photojournalism awards
March 24, 2006, 12:46 am
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Online now: NPPA’s Best of Photojournalism 2006 Web site winners.

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