Category Archives: Tech Tips

Come on-a my house

I do a lot of RSVP forms for work, using Google Forms. I’m finding that I’m sending out lots of invitations for “pick as many as you like” events – things like writing groups, workshop series, summer book clubs, all-day events where people can come and go.

Screenshot of form to sign up for writing groups. 10 different dates/times, each with a checkbox.
Why and how we offer so many writing groups is its own post.

Unfortunately, when you use checkboxes like this, Google Forms helpfully concatenates all the answers in a response. So it’s easy to tell what an individual has signed up for, but really hard to tell who’s signed up for the Thursday morning group.

Spreadsheet excerpt: column "What groups would you like to join?" has answers like "Mondays 8:30 - 10 am, Wednesdays 8:30 - 10 am" and on a new line "Tuesdays 8 - 9:30 am, Thursdays 8 - 9:30 am"
Google Forms’ “Responses” screen is useful for some surveys, but almost useless in this case. You have to view responses in Google Sheets. It won’t bite.

If you don’t have too many options, or too many respondents, you can do some manipulation with Text to Columns and maybe a Transpose, but pretty soon I always find myself dragging data around on the sheet, a job that’s both tedious and error prone.

I suppose I could make each item on the form a “do you want this yes/no” radio button, but (a) that would be ugly and (b) I never remember this problem until I’m looking at data I can’t massage easily.

I was hoping to be able to handle this with a pivot table or a vlookup or some other function I don’t quite understand. These hopes all appear to be wrong, but searching for it is how I discovered the Filter function. That terrific linked page is where I learned that the Filter function can combine with the Search function, and critically, the Search function doesn’t require a complete match. It’ll find every instance of the searched-for text.

So, I opened a new tab in the results Google Sheet, and laid out all my options in the top row. (I’ve learned the hard way to always use different tabs for data and analysis.) To get a list of email addresses for each option, then I used this formula in each column.

=filter('Form Responses 1'!B:B,(search("SEARCH CRITERIA GOES HERE",'Form Responses 1'!D:D)))

Let’s take that apart. “Form Responses 1” seems to consistently be what Google Forms names the first tab of a responses Sheet. (If you’re not getting data through a Google form, well, change it to whatever the tab is called where your data lives.)

Column A is always a timestamp, and if you’re collecting email addresses they always go in B, so that’s why I’m filtering column B. If I wanted human names, in this form, I’d have used ‘Form Responses 1’!C:C

The Filter condition is the result of my Search against Form Responses 1, Column D, for matching responses… again, which column depends on how the form is organized. For the search criteria, I could have used a cell reference (A1, B1, C1…), since I did put all the options in Row 1 . That might have been better for cutting-and-pasting the formula or using it as a template for next year. I wanted it to be more human-readable, though, so my staff and I have a better chance of remembering how to do this in future.

Anyway, I hope writing this down helps me remember it, and maybe helps out other folks using Google Forms for RSVPs. Plus, I get to knock some dust off the blog.

Joe’s tech tip: tracking blogs

It didn’t escape my notice that we recommended 23 possible Twitter accounts this week, and at least 13 blogs/websites to watch. And then we told you “but you should go look for your own interests too.” I can imagine some of you might feel like

Animated gif of Sheldon Cooper throwing papers angrily

although our goal, when we showed you all this neat stuff, was that you’d feel more like

Animated gif of the M*A*S*H* cast throwing papers happily

(There’s a whole blog post about course design and “coverage” in those gifs, but not right now.)

Specifically, you might be thinking “Joe, how the heck am I ever going to track all this stuff?” Personally, my browser bookmarks are already overstuffed, I couldn’t take one more email newsletter, and I need something else to manage blogs and websites I want to keep an eye on.

Let me tell you about RSS.

RSS icon

Many websites publish a “feed” of information in a standard called RSS. That’s a pretty technical page on Wikipedia, but we don’t have to get technical – an RSS feed is kind of a computer-readable table of contents for a website. It tells you what’s been published and when. A feed might include entire articles, small teasers, or just the title. It might include media.

Sometimes, a site will use that little orange icon to let you know that an RSS feed is available, but sometimes they’re not advertised. Some big news sites publish multiple RSS feeds, so you can get both the “front page” and the various “sections” depending on what you want. (I use this on Inside Higher Ed to follow particular bloggers on that site.) Journals we get through OhioLINK publish RSS feeds (though of course they’re only updated when a new issue comes out).

Now as I said, the RSS feed is computer-readable. So as a human, you need a tool to read it for you, called an “RSS Reader.” There are lots of RSS readers out there in the world; Bryan Alexander had a good discussion about RSS reader options on his blog this spring.

I’m just going to tell you about the one I use, called Feedly. I picked Feedly, honestly, because it’s free for the first 100 feeds, it syncs between a mobile app and the web browser version, and it’s easy to set up.

So you go to Feedly, you set up an account with either a new username and password, or using your Google or Twitter credentials and… it tells you there’s nothing in your account.

Screencapture of new empty feedly account

Well, that makes sense. So you click the “Add sources” button and Feedly will suggest some popular topics you might want to explore, or give you a search box where you can add a specific site.

Adding sources to a new Feedly account

Feedly is pretty darn good at discovering RSS feeds if a website makes them available, so my normal process is to paste the base URL for the website into that search box. If the website advertises its RSS address, you can copy and paste that instead.

When you add a new RSS feed, Feedly will have you put it in a collection… which is also called a feed. (Great.) Creating a new Feedly feed

Feeds are actually one of the most powerful parts of Feedly. They work like filters in email, sending messages to particular folders so they’re organized for easy reading. For example, in my account, I’ve got feeds for webcomics, education, food and cooking, my friends who run blogs, a catchall “interesting” category, and music sites. (A site can be in more than one feed, so my friends like Autumm, who write on education, are in both collections.)

joe's feeds

That number to the side is how many unread articles are in the feed.  I might need to weed my generally “interesting” sources. Or not; I seem to be perfectly happy keeping a close eye on some categories and just browsing others.

I can look at a merged feed of everything, or pull up a particular feed. Those are also drop-down menus, so I can pop them open and check whether there’s anything new on a particular site I haven’t visited in a while.

Feedly will save unread items for 30 days, and then they’ll roll off the feed. However, it also has some neat bookmarking options (called “boards” and “read later”) which will save things for… well, at least 4 months.

I’ve gotten a lot of benefit from using an RSS reader. It’s given me an organization system for keeping current with both professional and personal information. I feel like I have a measure of control over all those great websites I should be looking at. (The Feedly interface is also pretty clean; each article looks the same so I suspect I can scan them a lot faster than trying to find my way around 80+ different sites.)

So, that’s my pitch. Check out Feedly or another RSS reader and see if it makes the social media world of blogs make more sense for you.

I owe some credit here to Alan Levine, who happens to have just blogged on this very topic and tool (twice actually). Seeing how he structured such a post was very useful as I decided what to address in mine. I think his posts are particularly good if you’re thinking that you might like to work on blogging with students or among a research group.


Images:

Gare de triage dans l’est de Montréal (switchyard)” by Claude Robillard; CC-BY on Flickr. Because it’s got tracks. Get it?

Animated GIFs from Big Bang Theory and M*A*S*H* from Giphy.

RSS icon from Wikipedia.

Feedly screencaptures originally taken by Alan Levine or by me.

A few thoughts on blogging

I posted a version of this to the Moodle site, but I thought it was good enough to make public.


From talking to a couple of you, it sounds like there might be a little technostress going on from trying to introduce so many tools at the same time. So first of all… yay! If you’re stressed out from looking at everything at once, then you’re interested and working ahead. That’s good, right?

For this week, the only technology we’re looking at is blogging. (There was some technical stuff here about blogging which I’m leaving on Moodle. It was very “click here”-ish.)

You might be thinking “well, great, Joe, but what do I write”? Our general guidance for this week is “reflect on your readings and/or your visitor-resident map.” Beyond that, it’s a matter of finding your style. I’ll share 3 things that I think are key – one that I think I’m good at, one that I think I’m getting better at, and one which is really hard for me.

Links

Links are how a document knows it’s on the web. I’m borrowing that turn of phrase from Kenyon student Daniel Olivieri. (See what I did there?) So my first piece of advice is to link liberally. Link to the article you’re reflecting on. Link to another piece it reminds you of. Link to an explanation of a disciplinary concept you’re applying. Link to a place where you’ve got a digital presence, or directly to your presence on that platform. Link to someone else’s post on DigPINS that interested you.

Of course, that’s a style choice, and it doesn’t fit every possible kind of blogging you might do. But I do believe that links are the difference between a document that’s really “in the web” and one that’s just published electronically, so I encourage you to think about them.

Images

This is the one I’m trying to get better at. I’m a pretty textual guy and if you look at my blogging, you’ll see a lot of walls of text. But there are lots of ways to leaven your writing with images, from literal illustrations or figures to images which you use to make a point, or enhance a theme, or just make a joke.

Bob Ross at his easel
Let’s add a happy little image right here.

Again, that’s a style choice, and you can use as many or as few images as you like. Without getting into the “click here” or the copyright discussion right now, I’ll say that you can insert images with a button on WordPress which says “Add Media”, and you can either use URLs for images on the web, or upload images to be hosted on our site.

Just hit publish

This is the one I’m just bad at. As you can see from this message, I like to write a lot of things and have them relatively polished before I release them. That’s my style, and I’m OK with it. But the risk of writing small numbers of long posts is that I have a bunch of half-finished blog drafts or ideas instead of an active blog, and that’s kind of a shame. There are a number of more successful bloggers who are more prepared to stop a post abruptly, and then pick up the idea in a new post later on. Remember, you can write a second post, or you can engage us in the comments to flesh out an idea… but only if you hit publish on the first post.

I have more thoughts, but I should take my own advice and just hit publish!

—–

OK, one more thing. I do believe that when you use images from the web, you should cite them. So the picture of Bob Ross is taken from Wikipedia.