Monday, August 31, 2009

Planning a Website

Mark Bell, in his text Build a Website for Free (1), notes that the central question you need to answer before you begin the process of developing a website is: Why do you want to build a website? While it may seem obvious to you that you wish to build a website to provide a means to share information with your students about the classes they take with you, it is not quite that simple. Knowing the answer to this question can help you with the design of your site, with the information you provide on it, and with its functionality.

Bell notes that there are several types of sites that you might build: business, personal, social or informational. Typically, we would consider an educational website as an informational site; that is, its purpose is to provide information to your students. Bell suggests you revisit the last few websites you have visited and ask yourself what type of site each is, and then consider why you feel that is the correct answer. As you do so, you should begin to see the differences in how each site is organized and what it is attempting to do.

Then, ask yourself what the overall goal of the website is. What do you want to accomplish? How would you structure your website to achieve those goals? What elements do you see in other websites that would help you do so?

Once you have the goals firmed up, you need to organize the site. You should consider how you will links elements of site to each other, and indeed what elements you feel you should place on your site. Keep mindful that all a website is is a series of pages linked to each other in various ways. You should sit down and sketch out your plan for your site. From the home page, what do you think should be the main secondary page links? From those links, what other links should be present? One example might be to place main links to the courses you teach on your home page, and then once each new page opens for a specific class, you can link to the main documents for that course, such as syllabus, policies, etc. You should also begin to consider how the design elements of your page may allow for ease of use.

Best practices for website development include the following: (1) Keep the website simple. Simple websites allow your message and goals to be easily understood. We have been to websites so busy and complex we cannot find the information we are looking for. (2) Keep the website consistent. Make it a unified whole. Your pages should all contain the same design elements, and the information should appear in the same location on each page. Keep the pages uncluttered. Make sure headers and footers always appear in the same location. (3) Keep your website easy to maintain. A website is a living document requiring constant monitoring and updating. Links to other pages can go dead, your course syllabus may change every term, you may find new information to share, etc. The better designed your website is, the easier it is to maintain.

This is a first step to creating websites that will be of great use to you in communication more effectively with your students. Consistency is important, as this enhances communication. If you have a website, look at it and ask if it is consistent in its presentation; if you do not, remember to work on this as you move forward in developing your new website.

1. Bell M. Build a Website for Free. Indianapolis, IN; Que Books, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Creating a Website

A number of us here at Palmer College maintain our own websites, upon which we place information about the courses we teach, provide links to information, and update so that our students can obtain course syllabi, and so on. The quality of these sites ranges from relatively modest to good, but more importantly we are taking advantage of this technology, of which most of us are regular users, to become creators in an attempt to enhance student learning. But in saying this, I also must note that most of us have done this on our own, perhaps with help from the CTL, but often without a real understanding of how best to accomplish the creation of a meaningful site. Let me offer here some thoughts on this.

Creating a website is really a 5-step process. I think that it is important to site and first plan out the site, then design it, build it, test it and finally publish it and maintain it. Planning is critically important. Questions you might ask yourself are: What are the site’s functions? What are its goals? Will people be expected to use the site regularly or come to it only infrequently? Sit down and consider what you want to offer on the site, and then map it out on paper. On my site, I provide links to syllabi and other course material, as well as information about myself, and links to papers and other sites I wish to share.

Design is not something most of us are trained to consider. And note that design is more than simply how the website looks; it takes into account how you organize each page, how you link those pages and whether or not you use programming language or a WYSIWYG web developer. You should consider looking at other sites to get ideas for the design elements you want to see in your own. Design is important, too, in terms of making the site visually appealing, which helps make it easier to read and to navigate around. We have all visited sites that are hard to understand when we first open them up; we should not create sites that do the same to others.

Often, people actually begin to build their site before they properly plan it out or consider the best design. Building the site includes creating pages, editing graphics and making links, creating scripts where necessary or desirable, and including other elements you wish to see. Fortunately, building the site has become much easier today. If you know html, you can write in that format, but it is not necessary to know html (hypertext markup language) to develop and build a site. Programs such as FrontPage allow you to build the site without the need to write in code.

Testing is often overlooked. What this means is that before you go live, you work your way through the site, making sure that all your links are active and take the reader to the correct location, that your graphics load quickly and properly and are placed on the screen appropriately (have you ever opened a site that loads up and is printed with some text on top of other text? That site was not tested properly). You can make sure that your navigation links are set up properly, so that a reader does not have to use the back button to maneuver back to a page that allows him or her to access other pages. This frustrates the user and often leads them to not come to your page again.

Finally, you can publish the site, and make it “go live.” But this is not the end of the story; you need to constantly update the site and maintain it. For example, I test links on the CTL on a fairly regular basis (though often, not regularly enough). It is frustrating to look up something, find the link, click on it, and then find out the page no longer exists. I have to remove these links and find new ones. I also have to change out course syllabi every term, to make sure my students get the correct dates for their class work. And I constantly read about web design issues in order to take advantage of the findings as I update my site, which I am never quite happy with.

For those of you without a website, you should consider creating one. They can ease your teaching burden in significant ways, and can provide an efficient means to communicate with our class. It takes just planning and consideration to do it right, and the CTL can always help if you wish it. An excellent book you may consider using is: Bell M. Build a website for free. Indianapolis, IN; Que Books, 2009.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Just a Little More on Office 2007

I have one last entry on some of the nice little touches found in Office 2007. Consider these:

Live Preview: This is a nifty little addition to the bag of tools Office provides. If you are in, for example, Word, you can see changes in your document without applying them for real. Here is how it works in action: select a paragraph of text from one of your Word documents, by highlighting the text. Then, go the font command (which will be listing the font you are currently using) and open the dropdown menu listing all the available fonts. Drag down onto any of the fonts in the menu, and you will then see that paragraph presented in that font. This can be done as well for the font size, and for the styles menu which appears to the right of the font command box. You can see how the material will appear before you decide if you wish to apply the changes.

Styles: With regard to styles, this command allows you to easily format a document without having to apply a series of many commands to lay out paragraph indents, heading weights, and so on. To begin, you should understand that when you open a new document in Word, what you are really doing is opening a template called Normal.dotx (or, if you have macros included, it would be Normal.dotm). This document has a set style in it, but most of us don’t realize that when we begin working on it. Now, if you look at the ribbon (the former toolbar, at the top of the screen), you will see (1) a set of styles already listed- these are known as Quick Styles; (2) a command to change styles, with a small down arrow in it, and (3) a bar at the bottom of the command entitles “Styles” with its own down arrow. If you move your cursor over the quick styles, you will see you document (if all is highlighted), or some part of it (usually the paragraph where your cursor is located), appear in that style, similar to Live Preview above. You will also see a small down arrow for this command as well, which if selected will simply provide your access to additional styles. I would suggest opening a document and playing with this for a while to see how the styles are applied, and then decide if you find one appealing. If you click on the “Change Styles” button, you will see a small screen appear. This will allow you to change a style(using “Style Set”), a color theme (using “Colors”) or change fonts (using “fonts” command). Finally, clinking on the Style bar will allow you to find the commands you are used to seeing , such as the “clear all” command.

Clearing Styles: This is a really useful command. Often I find that I cannot remove style commands that others have embedded in their documents; as a result, I cannot, for example, get bullet points to line up properly. In such cases, I can just use the “clear all” command to remove all style formatting. Once I do that, I can then use a Quick Style to reformat the entire document in a way that makes the information appear the way I wish it to.

These commands also appear in both Excel and PowerPoint, making switching between them all the easier. And it lowers the time necessary to make documents, spreadsheets and slides look professional. Since out students are pretty visually savvy, this can help them more easily understand the message our documents are designed to spread. This is all to the good.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Creating a Rule in MS Outlook 2007

I’ve just upgraded my computer files from MS Office 2003 to Office 2007. This had led to no small amount of existential angst on my part, since there are many changes in how things get done between the two versions, but overall, I think the upgrade was necessary and will lead to greater productivity. I had reached a point where a lot of the student files that I received were unable to be opened, since they were created on a newer version of Office/Word than I had available for my use. And my home computer, a Mac, runs Office 2008 for Mac. So, now I have to go and learn some new skills. Much fun will ensue!

But I have already found one very useful tool in the MS Office package, relating to Outlook. This venerable mail/scheduling program has more depth to it than simply delivering your mail. It can actually do things to your mail, and ease the burden you have of deleting the 30th post of the day letting you know you won the lottery in Nigeria, and offering to send you several million dollars if you will simply send them some basic information. Like your social security number, bank account number (so they can wire that money to you) and the names of all your kids. This is the “Rules and Alerts” entry in the program. It can automate functions for you to help organize all your email.

The “Rules and Alerts” menu is found under the basic “Tools” pull-down menu in the main Outlook screen. When you click on “Rules and Alerts,” it opens up a new screen in which you have a choice of two main tabs, one not surprisingly for “Rules” and the second for “Alerts.” We will open the tab for “Rules.” When you do, it brings up a screen that offers you a number of options, and you can read those over at your own leisure. But for now, let me use one example: you wish to have all of the Nigerian lottery emails sent to your "Junk Mail" folder without you having to take the time to do so one by one as they come in. So you can click on the line that says “Move messages with specific words in the subject to a folder.” Then click “next” on the bottom on the window. This brings up a second screen in which you can set the conditions for how you wish this to be done. Again, as an example, I will click on the line that says “with specific words in the subject.” You will note this instruction appears in the higher of two boxes in the window. Once you click that instruction, go to the lower box, and click the underlined words “specific words.” This opens a screen where you can type in the words you wish the system to track. For our purposes, type in the word “lottery.” Then, again that lower box, click on the word “specified” to denote which folder you want these emails to be sent. When the new window opens, click “Junk Email” and then “okay.” Once you do all this, you can click “next” on the screen. You will then be coached to list any exceptions to your rule. We don’t want one, so we leave everything unchecked and again click “next.” You will have to give this rule a name, so we call it “Lottery Rule.” Click on the box instructing the system to turn the rule on, and then click “Finish.” You are returned to the main “Rule” screen where your new rule appears in the window. Click “Okay” and your new rule is now operational. As every new email announcing your lottery winnings appears, it will be sent to your junk mail folder and will not appear in your main email window.

You can make all sorts of rules. You can make one so that all emails from your immediate supervisor are sent to its own menu, or are flagged for your attention. This is limited only by your needs and your creativity, but it can be a wonderful time saver. I no longer get much spam mail in my main window, and I can then just delete the contents of the junk mail folder once a day. It is a nice little feature, but not one I see a lot of people using. Consider taking a look at it. And if my instructions are confusing, here is a link to a video explaining how to create your own rules:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Really Simple Syndication

I’ve just upgraded my computer to Office 2007 (from the 2003 version which most people here still use) and one of the better features in this upgrade is the addition of a RSS feed to my Outlook system. In the 2007 version of Outlook, the RSS feed is located in the folder menu, under your Inbox. If you click on the folder, it will open a message in your view screen describing the features it offers. It is then an easy operation to click and add RSS feeds to your Outlook system.

But that begs the question. What is an RSS feed? RSS stands for “really simple syndication” and it represents a means for websites to easily share headlines and stories from other sites. Those of us surfing the web then can use something called an “aggregator” to collect those feeds and read them at our leisure. The Outlook program has its own aggregator, so that it can collect stories from the sites you tell it to. In my case, I have stories that come in from MicroSoft on the use of PowerPoint, Excel, and Word, and I also have the New York Times, Washington Post and MSN news linked. The stories go into folders for each newspaper and program, and I can then open and read at my pleasure, or simply delete a story if I do not want to read it.

RSS was actually invented by Netscape as a means to have an XML format to obtain news stories from other sites (because if they relied only their own reporters, of which they had few if any, there would be no stories to post). In order for a web story to be able to become an RSS feed, it has to have certain characteristics, which for the purpose of this article I need not describe (but which can be seen at What we are concerned with is adding the feed to our Outlook system, and for that purpose let me quote the system:

“Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is a way for content publishers to make news, blogs, and other content available to subscribers. You can view RSS content in Microsoft Office Outlook 2007. Using RSS, publishers can make content and updates available for download by subscribers automatically. The content on all Web sites is not available as an RSS Feed, but the list is growing daily.

How does RSS work in Microsoft Office Outlook 2007?
RSS readers, such as the one built into Office Outlook 2007, allow you to subscribe to RSS Feeds and then read content or follow links for additional information. Whenever you see a link to a feed, or an RSS icon such as the one at the top of this page, just click. Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 will automatically subscribe you to that RSS Feed.

Get started
Using Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 to subscribe to an RSS Feed is quick and easy and does not involve a registration process or fee. After you subscribe to an RSS Feed, headlines will appear in your RSS folders. RSS items appear similar to mail messages. When you see a headline that interests you, just click or open the item. For more information, read how to add an RSS feed to Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 and how to read your subscribed RSS feeds. Below is a sample of the many feeds you can subscribe to from around the world. Click on the links that interest you and Outlook will subscribe to them.”

This is an easy way for you to keep up with all new feeds from whatever sites you frequent, and I highly recommend you take advantage of this tool to do so. It is a huge timesaver.