Category Archives: Administrative

Tools and Purposes and Other Fairy Tales.

The gift of instructional technology is tools:

  • little tools that do one or two things brilliantly,
  • big tools that do many powerful things quickly,
  • the constant innovation which makes what is hard one day just a click away the next.

And the bane of instructional technology is: tools.

  • Little tools that do a few things poorly,
  • big tools so big they are slow and cumbersome and suck up your time,
  • the constant innovation which takes away your sanity and causes us all to chase the delusion of endless "improvement" which is often only: the need to keep up and to seem to be improving.

Tools are wonderful. Tools are dreadful. When they are new and work, they are magic. When they age and break, they are worse than inert: they aggravate and infuriate; they are deader than the proverbial doornail. And it all happens very, very fast.

Tools are the how, not the why, mere means to ends, and therein lies the problem.

In higher education we are concerned primarily not with means but ends. The human being is the ultimate (earthly) end: her life and purpose and her ability to use her freedom to choose that purpose and to build that life however she sees fit in an understanding that emerges quickly or slowly, early or late, and sometimes even: just in the nick of time.

We subvert the entire meaning of our enterprise when we fixate upon means––tools, that is––and measure those tools only against other tools and not against the purposes towards which our mission points us.

But think about tools we must, for we are IT, and it's what we do. And so we struggle endlessly against the tendency to focus on the how and to forget the why. It is a mental struggle. It is a moral struggle. Sometimes it almost seems like a physical struggle: a gripping in the pits of our stomachs and an itching and tingling in our legs. As long as we live and breathe tools, we will always be uneasy.

What is the prescription for this unease? How in higher ed can we focus away from the tool and towards the ends?

One way is to focus not on the tool but rather on the use case.

A use case is a term of art. It sounds fancy but it's simple. A use case is a story. It's a picture of some things a user does. It's journalistic: like the "lede," that first part of the news story that gives you the whole picture but also whets your appetite to know more.

Write a journalistic "lede" without the "how," and you have a use case: the problem to be solved, the thing our users need to do, the reason that they come to us, their purpose, their 'end.'

  • Who?
  • Does what?
  • When and where?
  • And why?
  • To achieve what?

Subject. Verb. Circumstances. Purpose. A use case is a sentence writ large, exploded into steps. It could almost be the panes of a comic.

And we are the ones who help to figure out the 'how.'

For many use cases, I would like to argue that the 'how' should always be in three sizes.

Just as in the fairybook bears' house, in IT-land solutions come in three sizes. Like the bear story, it's a fairy tale: there aren't really just three sizes. And they aren't just sizes, they're bundles of traits––ownership, complexity, flexibility, and more.

But three is a good number, because looking at and choosing amongst five or seven or ten things is harder. So we in higher ed IT do well to recommend tools in three sizes and kinds.

  1. A free and easy consumer service with just a few functions. It's not meant for professional use but it's adaptable for many purposes. It's not hard to use, though finding all the tricks can take time. And we don't own it.
    • Think flickr for photos, Youtube for video, Dropbox for file sharing, Slideshare for publishing presentations, etc.
    • We don't care that we don't own it. We just need to make the proper warnings about where the data lives, who can access to it, whether the data can be sucked out, our lack of control, etc.
  2. A free service and which has robust-, numerous- and flexible-enough functions that it can be used for many purposes. It takes time to learn, but the learning curve is not steep. And we own and offer and support it, and that means it's geared more towards the kinds of purpoes our users have.
    • At Yale, think WordPress. Anyone can request a site. There are already-built resources. It can be used for courses, working groups, projects, etc. It can be public, private or community-only.
  3. A specialized service which we have licensed or built, which has a high degree of complexity. It can be used for many different purposes. You can use it a little or a lot. The learning curve is steep. Whether it's someone else's or not, we bought it and we provide it and so even if we don't own it 100%, we get the blame when things go wrong.
    • Think a sophisticated digital asset management service, or even Adobe's Creative Cloud suite, which is licensed by and (in aggregate) is off-the-charts in complexity.

As with many choices, it's really a table. This one has one binary distinction and four scales.

type who owns it? how many functions? how complex? number of purposes learning curve?
simple, free & easy someone else few simple one or two none or trivial
our un-fussy service us not too many relatively simple more than a few, less than a dozen non-flat
"our" high-end service us a lot complex many, many steep

But tables are for nerds like me, and a list is more human-readable, and this is one of those distinctions we in IT-land often forget, because "I can understand it," but then I am not the user.

And unlike in the three bears' house, in IT-land each of the three sizes is "just right" for somebody. Every user is a Goldilocks who deserves her chair and bed and porridge just the way she likes it.

  • People who come to us for simple functions can be directed to simple tools––even if we don't own them.
    • And we need to have worked out the use cases well enough so that we can give a short 'getting started' document or demonstration.
    • We don't need to know all the answers––as long as the client knows they are using someone else's pipes.

Unlike many things in IT-land, the process doesn't have 86 steps.

  • Write the use case, and identify the three choices.
  • Give your users a clear picture of the use case: who does what.
  • Help the users choose wisely, and help them get the right amount of support for each choice.
  • Advise your users appropriately of the advantages and pitfalls––learning curve, data ownership, privacy, security, longevity, etc.

If you can get the users to share their successes, then others will see what success looks like, and they too may come to recognize that one size seldom fits all, but there is often one size for each user that is "just right."

––Edward R. O'Neill

WordPress Filename Bug

A large Thank You goes out to Heather Klemann of English for alerting us to a bug in WordPress's handling of certain characters in filenames when you upload files to the Media Gallery. In short, there are certain characters that won't get handled properly by WordPress, leaving you with a file unreachable from the web browser. WordPress developers are aware of the bug but can't agree whether it's WordPress's problem or a system administrator's problem. For the time being, you are, unfortunately, the best source for the workaround.

Broadly speaking, you have two nonexclusive options:

  1. Avoid having any of the characters below in a filename you upload to Academic Commons.
  2. When you upload a file to the Media Gallery, verify that it has uploaded successfully by going to its entry in Media Gallery and accessing the View link you get when hovering over the entry. (On a mobile device you may need to tap the filename, then find and tap the View Attachment Page button.) For non-image files, you may need to click/tap the link in the post that then appears to check it.

We'll follow this one with WordPress and let you know when it's fixed or that it won't be fixed. (For what it's worth, the same roughly goes for Classes*v2.)

Character Description
\ Back slash
/ Forward slash
? Question mark
* Asterisk
" Quotation mark
: Colon
< Less than
> Greater than
# Hash mark
% Percent sign
+ Plus sign

Site Updates, March 2014

Some new things on this site or in progress:

Twitter feed

We're not the most active tweeters in the world, and we RT as much as we tweet (possibly more than we tweet), but we do think that the things we mention or pass along in that stream are of interest. As of this post, it's in the righthand sidebar. Of course, you could just follow our account.

Delicious Stream

We were pretty respectable Delicious users once upon a time, back when it was del.icio.us and then some. But we fell off as time went on. Now that we can and do find and share links in many ways, it's gotten easier again to tie those ways together (in part provided RSS sticks around). I've brought the Delicious link feed back — to the righthand sidebar as of this post — and hope it will be of use. Other feeds that we have out there may get brought back as and if we reactivate our work with the backing sites.

Broken Links and Other Cleanup

Every now and then, we run Integrity, a linkchecker, on the site to make sure we're keeping content accurate where we have control over it. Our rule of thumb is that when we link out, we're depending on the target to provide a permalink or reasonable facsimile thereof. We've sometimes got to dig to find it, but that's the goal. Site we have read/write access to, however, we need to check on every now and then. We hope you'll benefit from these, even though we know it's small-margin work. But trying to keep our corner of the open web free-flowing is work worth doing.

Academic Commons Release Notes for February 2014

Here are the notable changes to Academic Commons between February 1, 2014 and February 28, 2014. We're a week late on this, in a sense, because we (that is, I) write this update only on Friday, and this is the first Friday after the close of February.

New Plugins

Just one this month: WP QuickLaTeX
From the plugin author, this plugin "Insert formulas & graphics in the posts and comments using native LaTeX shorthands directly in the text. Inline formulas, displayed equations auto-numbering, labeling and referencing, AMS-LaTeX, TikZ, custom LaTeX preamble. No LaTeX installation required. Easily customizable using UI page. Actively developed and maintained." You can read more at the WordPress plugin page or at the QuickLaTeX homepage.

New Themes

No new themes this month. See one out there that you'd like? Reach us at itg@yale.edu. (Caveat: Themes must be on the WordPress site itself or from a WordPress-recommended vendor and must work painlessly with our installation. We're on version 3.5.2 as of today, just so you can check.)

Fixes/Enhancements

Though it's not a fix per se, we want to mention that we are working on a fix to the deep-linking problem. Currently, if you follow a link to something other than the homepage of a restricted site, the login process ends with you getting unceremoniously dumped onto that homepage rather than your intended destination. This happens whether you are trying to reach a post, page, or the Dashboard. We're very close and hope to have this fixed before the end of March.

Academic Commons Release Notes for January 2014

Here are the notable changes to Academic Commons since January 1, 2014.

New Plugins

Just one this month: WordPress Google Form
From the plugin author, this plugin "[f]etches a published Google Form using a WordPress custom post or shortcode, removes the Gooogle wrapper HTML and then renders it as an HTML form embedded in your blog post or page."

New Themes

Just one this month: Clean Retina
This theme features, among other things, a customizable header and menu; the ability to set featured images; a choice of one, two or three-column layouts; responsive design; and prepackaged layouts included.

Fixes/Enhancements

The Query Multiple Taxonomies plugin had a problem, displaying "there are 0 entries" in the appropriate context but linked to a missing entry. It's now hidden when there are 0 entries returned for a query.

It's Not Just Weird Twitter That's Weird

You've heard about (or seen for yourself) the phenomenon known as Weird Twitter (too many NSFW for me to crawl through for an example, so here's a search that will start getting you there), but it turns out that Twitter itself flies the weird flag as well. A little over a month ago they announced they would stop supporting HTTP plaintext connections to the Twitter 1.1 API, requiring everything to use TLS/SSL. Perhaps since WordPress does not develop Twitter applications as a core part of its operations, this change didn't get filed in their bugtracker until after the switch had been flipped. Properly, WordPress devs contacted Twitter to ask about things, and a Twitter dev seemed to me to say that they would look into some sort of failover, but as of today the oEmbed provider in 3.5.2 still does not work for tweets.

The weirdness comes because Twitter keeps making changes with little regard for third party developers and even for average users. Remember when they decided to not-block accounts that you had selected for blocking? (Later reversed, yes, but still. And it's not like 75 million sites run WordPress or anything.) Inarguably, Twitter is a corporation whose primary mission as a capitalist actor is to gain money, not a public commons. But whether they call twitterers customers, clients, users, investors, or people, irritating them (us) enough makes that bottom line hurt, too.

As Arlo said, though, that's not what I came to tell you about. I'm here to tell you that we've updated Academic Commons (in part thanks to an old post at "And now it's all this") so that embedded tweet URIs are broken now, but should be fixed by midnight tonight. Let us know in the comments whether your site has broken embeds on or after 25 January 2014. WordPress has implemented a fix on their end, but we likely won't upgrade to that fixed version until the summertime, at which point we'll all join hands with WordPress and Twitter and sing a happy song.

I can't even come up with a good image for weird twitter, but maybe that's best considering many deny its existence.

Pushing WordPress

Color photograph of a woman pushing a gigantic hay rollSince we are in semester-open mode, I get to do one of the things I really like doing for ITG, which is getting out and talking with/to students and instructors in class. Nearly always — and such is the case right these days — I'm there to talk about Academic Commons.

Once upon a time, ITG had grand visions of building an aggregated source for many tools, documentation, and ideas around key educational technologies such as mapping, wikis, and robust cross-linked annotating. Alas, our eyes were bigger than the increases in our staffing budget, and as everyone knows, people are more important (and expensive, and their [our] importance is indicated in part by the expense) than software to running a good educational technology outfit. Currently, consequently, Academic Commons equates to Yale's institutional WordPress installation, used respectably across Yale College. Not surprisingly, writing-intensive disciplines and courses make the most use of it. Of these, the Department of English makes the greatest concentrated use, thanks in part to many hours of work by departed ITGer Robin Ladouceur as well as the efforts of former ITG intern Sam Gamer.

Strangely enough, though, I will only visit five class sessions in these first two weeks of classes. On the one hand, I could assume that all the other classes using WordPress sites are comfortable making their site their own in part through shared discovery. On the other, I'm a little worried that courses limit their use of the platform to what's obvious. Given that only about 25% of students in classes I visit have any experience with WordPress, and only about 50% have experience in any content management system (I ask each time), it's not unreasonable to think that there are opportunities being missed to use WordPress for something more complex than a shared editable space. (Not that that's all bad, etc. etc.)

This past term, however, an instructor used WordPress more nearly like an LMS, even assigning grades to student work in the site. This term, one instructor is doing the same, and another course (instructor + TF) will be mounting an online exhibition, following a bit along Charlotte Parker's excellent model, produced as part of her senior project in American Studies. As well, more instructors in English will use WordPress sites for workshopping texts this term. (Currently we use Digress.it for this, but CommentPress seems to have restarted development and I will be re-evaluating it.) Signs of hope, or continued outliers? I don't know, but I'm going to keep on trying to get the word out to both students and instructors about the possibilities.

[Creative Commons licensed image via Flickr user BailyRaeWeaver]

Twitter API in Academic Commons

Some time ago (in the middle of 2013), Twitter changed how external applications (such as on your mobile phone or, say, your Academic Commons WordPress site) requested and received data. Consequently, your widget may have stopped displaying your tweets. Inexcusably, we have not published a how-to for fixing this until now. The documents for how to get your tweets into your site as well as how to publish your posts out to Twitter may refer to plugins unfamiliar to you; as part of clarifying the situation, we found that at least one of the plugins previously available failed with the new Twitter rules, so we replaced it. We would prefer questions about the instructions mailed to itg@yale.edu, but comments about their content may be left on the pages themselves.

Academic Commons Update for April 8

An undergraduate student and I were discussing her senior project (an online exhibition of items at the Beinecke Library along with short critical essays on them) and noticed that we didn't have any horizontally-oriented themes for Yale Academic Commons sites. Not a problem any more, as we bought COLr from a freelance developer. I like this theme a lot and hope that some of you will find creative uses for it. Works well on multiple devices, but note that its strengths with media display could become a problem on low-bandwidth connections or could gobble up your data allocations on a cellular network.

Addendum 1: Almost in a procrustean manner, this theme resizes images on the fly to fit the available screen space. Lovely when you have big chunky images, not so great when you have something small. However, I corresponded with the developer and found out that you can prevent this from happening. It's a workaround for, at minimum, intermediate users. TO prevent resizing, add "noScale" as a style class to the desired image. You'll have to go into the HTML tab of the editor interface to make this change, and be sure that a) you add the class name to the existing style attribute of the image and b) you enter the class name exactly as written above, as it is case-sensitive.