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modified from creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Lotus Carroll

modified from creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Lotus Carroll

You have set up your blog, connected it to this site, and maybe now you are staring at the empty composition screen. What do you do?

There is no shortage of web sites, books, articles with tips on how to write blog posts. Many are wrapped in goals of branding and growing readership. We are more interested in seeing you write reflectively about your learning. Listen to ds106 students discuss what their blog means to them, and how they relate it in a personal manner.

When I teach, my absolute rule for students is that there are no absolute rules to blogging. It is an ongoing practice, the process of writing over and aver again will lead you hone a style, tone, and voice that are yours. After all, you are writing in a space you own and manage. Do not feel like you have to try to sound scholarly.

So just write. And publish. And review. Much of the advice will talk about considering your audience, but for the kind of writing we do in connected courses, IMHO, you are really writing for yourself. Cory Doctorow framed it well long ago (in 2002) in My Blog, My Outboard Brain.

What follows you might consider as my own guidelines, from my own 11+ years of outboard braining, reading other blogs, and several years teaching the connected course ds106. For that course in Digital Storytelling, we developed some specifications aimed to help students learn to write up their assignments as blog posts, How To Write Up Assignments Like a Blogging Champ.

Take these as one person’s suggestions, modify, reject, or incorporate in your own practice. This is be no means definitive, so if you are experienced at blogging or teaching others to do it, please add your suggestions below as comments.

You Had Me at the Title


creative commons licensed ( BY-SA ) flickr photo shared by Camdiluv ♥

I tease my students with a warning, “Don’t Bore Me With Your Blog Post Title!” They get admonished (gently) when they write something with a title such as “Assignment 2”, “Weekly Reflection”, “Audio Project”.

The title is the first thing readers see when they start reading your blog, or when your posts are listed in a sidebar, when you share it in social media, or as listed on a course hub. It’s the headline, the elevator pitch.

You can do many things with titles- from literal and descriptive, to word play, to using allusions to pop culture or history (did you catch the reference to the one for this section?).

Put some thought into the title, or refine it before you publish. In my own writing, I often do not even start until I have what I think is a clever title (often others do not find it clever) (but hey, I am writing for me first!).

Think, Write, Connect with Hyperlinks


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by hownowdesign

What could a web be without links that connect ideas? Hyperlinks are the fundamental unit of connection; use them in your writing.

How, what to link is something you will develop as you write more. But think about it as you write. Consider creating links from your words to relate them to

  • References, sources of information (papers, other blog posts, the source organizations of something you are writing about)
  • Important people, places. You may be deeply familiar with Henri Bergson or have visited Opatija but help your reader!
  • Sources of media you may use, such as the creative commons flickr photo of the pretty chain I used above
  • Unusual words or terms that might not be widely understood, imagine if I was discussing my night observations of syzygy without elaboration!
  • Ideas, phrases that might be connected to, or the work of others. After all, little is truly original. In this way, you almost play with suggesting similarities, or even differences. Links can be playful and exploration inducing.

Try it out. See how others do or do not use links.

I prefer links that are embedded into the writing itself, rather than an obtrusive CLICK HERE TO SEE THE ARTICLE link. Rather, one can improve the effectiveness of hypertext by writing descriptive links that start with a keyword (that article is worth reading).

In a course where you might be reading and reacting to the writings of other participants, links give credit, and quite often, will automatically notify the author that someone linked to them.

Link, and link often.

It’s what makes this a web after all.

Does Your Post Stand On It’s Own?


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by Stuck in Customs

My students new to blogging often write a post as if the reader knows the assignment or question the student is responding to, they will just start writing about “I redid last week’s visual assignment using these photos I took on my phone…”. This is symptomatic of students writing as if the only person reading it is their teacher.

A blog post needs full context; what if it is the only thing someone reads on your blog? Will they know what you are writing about, why? Write a blog post as if it is a standalone entity. Use your hypertext skills to link it the thing you are responding to, or make sure you are writing a clear introduction so a reader knows what you are writing about. Or even for yourself, years later, when the context is less present.

Just like a story, a blog post ought to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And many sequels.

Often when students are asked to publish their work, assignments on a blog, they consider it something like a slot in a door to drop their homework. “Here is my paper…”, “You can watch my video…”, “I snapped a photo of my poster”.

Your blog is a chance to also tell the story behind something you produced. Where did the idea come from? What is the inspiration? What other work does it related to? And how did you create it? Narrate your process— it will help someone who is interested in your work, and will help you later if you try to do something similar later on? For ds106, the focus is not just on creating stories in media, but also telling the story behind the story, like the extras on a DVD.

Communicating With Media


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by KidzConnect

Writing is not only done with words, in a blog you have ability to embed photos, video, animated GIFs, maps, infographics, sounds. Think of doing this not as just trying to “jazz up” a post, but to communicate visually. Photos are wonderful as metaphors, to introduce topics, to ask your reader to interpret it in context of your writing, or as explanatory information.

A good practical reason to use at least one image in a post is that when it is syndicated into the Connected Courses site, we use the first image as a visual thumbnail on the archive pages. There are numerous places to find creative commons licensed images, but often the easiest route is to take your own photos to represent your idea. It is a great practice in developing your visual communication skills to make your own media (and you do not have to worry about permission!).

My own blog style (the one that developed over time) is that I start almost every blog post with an image. It helps me frame my idea, and to think about the writing before I start writing in how I can represent it in an image. In fact, I will not start writing until I have an opening image. But that’s just what works for me.

Beyond images, we have an entire internet full of media we can use in our blog writing. Why just link to a YouTube video or a TEDTalk when you can insert it directly into your post? By embedding media we can wrap a video, audio, animation with context– rather then sending a reader away from your writing.

WordPress makes embedding media really simple; simply by putting a URL to the place on the web you found it (YouTube or vimeo page, flickr page, etc)– see WordPress embeds as well as the ds106 guide to embedding media.

In the Blogger visual interface, you can add or upload media to embed pretty easy. Tumblr also offers a variety of post types intended to include media in a page.

With almost any blogging platform, you can also manually insert what you might find on media sites as “embed codes”– snippets of HTML that you copy and paste into your blog editor– just note that to have these codes work, you must be using the HTML editor mode of your platform.

The Flip Side of Blogging: Participating in the Blogs of Other People


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by jjMustang_79

My blog. Me. Me. Me.

An import flip side to writing in your own blog, is writing in the spaces of other people’s blogs; that is a key attribute of being a connected learner. One might consider it as a small version of blogging, writing a short response, using links, maybe even media in the comments space of someone else’s blog.

It creates more connections. And nothing, nothing motivates a new blogger more than getting a comment, especially from someone they might not know.

Tumblr gif found on http://giphy.com/gifs/xmQh8NQ78y8QU

Tumblr gif found on http://giphy.com/gifs/xmQh8NQ78y8QU

When you give feedback in someone’s blog, aim to be constructive. What is a constructive comment? It ought to be more than “Nice work” or “I agree” or “like”. Constructive comments often are a few sentences long, and include useful feedback or ideas for improvement. You can explain why you like what was written or why you agree with it. Or explain why you disagree. Or offer additional resources or links that might benefit the writer. For every bit of opinion offered, think of adding an “and…” statement.

Also, think of it as being a guest in someone else’s house (we have enough vile comments in YouTube and newspaper web sites). One approach to giving criticism is to put it inside a sandwich- open with aspects you praise or agree with, offer critical statements, and close with a positive. Perhaps the best advice is to comment in the style and mood that you would like to receive. For some more advice see:

And when you get comments, reply on your site, if it merits a response. Think of this as a conversation; one side conversations are not interesting, right?

The hard part might be- with all the content happening in Connected Courses, what should you comment on? Some people will be tweeting their posts. You can check the flow of posts on the front page on the site. And if you really want an oracle to help you, just try our magic link to a random syndicated Connected Courses blog post.

Now What?


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by onkel_wart (thomas lieser)

Get out there and blog, comment, and connect!

Do you have other suggestions for connected course bloggers? Please add them in the comments below.

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creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by ~Aphrodite

A connected course is a distributed by design. Participants publish their course work in spaces they own and manage, but we also use what we refer to as “syndication” technologies to continually update a central course hub (like this site) with updates of activities by everyone involved.

These can include social media (e.g. photos tagged in instagram or flickr, tweets using a particular hash tag) but a primary locus of activity is in participant blogs. Each time you update– posting a new photo, tweeting a status update, publishing a blog post– behind the scenes these sites produce something in computer code that broadcast the time, location, and content of the new information (typically the technology is RSS, which can mean Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary).

For this Connected Course (and likely the ones you will teach) participants will have to create or use an existing blog. Some courses may specify use of a particular platform (UMW students registered in ds106 use self hosted WordPress, in Project Community students all use tumblr), but in ones where participating is wide open, people can and will use a variety of blog platforms.

In this post, I (try to) provide some guidance to help you get started and connected:

Ahhh, but where to blog? You have options to ponder

Existing Blog or New Blog?


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by eltpics

I already have a blog! Great, you are more than welcome to use that for your Connected Courses work. But we want to make sure the content we syndicate into this site is only the things you write that are relevant (not that your cooking experiments are not interesting…) If you will use an existing blog, than you will need to use a common tag, category, or label to mark all the content relevant. You have to follow a few extra steps to get the correct RSS feed for our site.

Make sure you have written at least one introductory post using the category/tag. But you can skip over the next sections on choosing a blog down to the Connecting Your Blog.

OR

I don’t have a blog or I want to create a blog just for this course! This makes the syndication part easy to do as everything you write on a new blog is relevant. But… you have to choose a site where you will blog.

Pick a Blog (almost) Any Blog


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by Behrooz Nobakht

For the purposes of Connected Courses, it does not matter which blogging platform you choose. If you are familiar with one, use that. If you have helpful friends, colleagues nearby that have experience in another, try that. If you want to learn a new one… this is a great opportunity.

All that matters is that the blog platform can publish an RSS feed of your activity. How do you know? If unsure, check the home page address of any blog published in that platform in our Magic Box and it will let you know if it finds one.

Also, your blog must be publicly viewable; we cannot syndicated any posts from it if its privacy settings are set to require a password. Log out of your blog editor, and make sure you can still view your blog. Or ask a friend.

The ultimate solution for many of us is encouraging participants to establish their own internet domain, completely owning and controlling a digital space where ones installs a blogging platform. This is the premise of the University of Mary Washington’s A Domain of One’s Own (and spreading elsewhere). As individuals, you can consider setting up such a space via Reclaim Hosting ( we will be discussing these options in more detail in these two weeks).

But that might be a lot to start with, so you can choose as well from blogging services that are hosted for you. These are usually free, but may have fewer feature and some advertisements compared to a fully self-hosted blog.

Here is the best thing- you are not married to your first choice, there are ways to migrate blogs to other platforms. In fact, at the end of the course, we will provide information if you want to create a course site like the WordPress one we use for Connected Courses; if you wanted to you easily could import your blog from any other platform into a WordPress site.

The platform does not matter as much as the idea of distributed publishing and syndication.

Now about that blog of yours…

WOAH, SLOW DOWN! BEFORE YOU START CREATING A BLOG…


creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by kewl

You will have to come up with a unique name that will be part of your URL, and this is something that cannot be changed. Most likely connectedcourses.tumblr.com is already taken (yep, Howard got it).

Be creative! It make take a few attempts to find one that is not used. I would suggest avoiding ones that include a specific year in it (e.g. connectedcoursesFall2014.wordpress.com) — what if you really like using this site, say 5 years from now?

You will also have to create a title for the blog; in this case you have the flexibility to change it at any time, but it is good creative practice to try something more original than “My Connected Course Blog” (yawn, boring). The title is where it will be listed on the site, and how other people cite your blog.

An interesting title goes a long way.

Okay, Choose a Blog Platform


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by sashamd

I will try to make this a bit easier than swinging a stick! If you are new to blogging, I recommend the following three (not in any particular order):

  • WordPress.com a hosted version of the most popular blogging platform. You get a good selection of themes and features (but not quite as many options as hosting your own blog).
  • Blogger is Google’s hosted platform, so is fully integrated with your Google account and other tools. Blogger offers a wide range of themes and features to customize your blog.
  • tumblr is less thought of as a blogging platform, and is often more focused on media, but offers everything you need to write and organize your content, and its interface for writing is the least complex. Like WordPress and blogger, tumblr offers a range of themes to choose from. It takes a little more digging to find features for creating pages and enabling comments.

If you are experienced in running your own web site, you can certainly install your own copy of WordPress, drupal, joomla or other blog platform.

This is by no means all the options, you can use in addition TypePad, Squarespace, Weebly or a wide range of newer “minimalist platforms”.

Ok Go! Make a Blog


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC ) flickr photo shared by Dan Dickinson

Pick your blog, make the site. Spend some time looking at the ways you can customize it, usually by changing its theme. Themes can always be changed later without affecting your content. Some people try a new one on every week. Loom for a place to add a description (e.g. an “About” page).

And write a first blog post. Feel free to introduce yourself, talk about your interests in connected courses, or just let us know what you had for lunch. But make sure your blog has at least one post on it.

Now Connect Your Blog (Time to Fill Out the Form!)


creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by MetalRiot

To connect your blog to this site, we have a web form that collects some information from you, and if all goes well, completely automates the process. What you should have ready for the form is

  • A twitter account is recommended but not strictly required. We use it on the site as a unique identifier to associate with a new blog.
  • The web address where all your Connected Courses posts appear on your blog. If you are using a blog devoted completely to Connected Courses, this should be the main/home page of your blog, e.g. http://connectinglikeabigdog.blogspot.com/. On the other hand, if you are using an existing blog where you write about other topics, you should know the web address that shows all your Connected Courses posts as indicated by a tag, category, or label, e.g. http://fastcarsand learning.tumblr.com/tagged/connectedcourses or http://flyingfish.wordpress.com/category/connected.
  • There should be at least one post available at the web address in the previous step. Make sure you have written at least an introductory post, and if on an existing blog, that you have used the tag/category/label you are planning to use for the course.

The web form will ask you if you are using an existing blog or one totally devoted to Connected Courses. For the latter, you will use our Magic Box to automatically determine the RSS Feed address for your blog. For an existing blog, you will have to follow the patterns in the form to determine this address.

Note that these are two different web addresses! One shows the content as a visitor to your site sees it, the RSS feed is a machine representation of the same content.

For example, Bill Benzon is using his New Savanna blog (Blogger site) using the label connect-course. The web address for all his posts is http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/search/label/connect-course. He followed the form instructions to determine the RSS Feed address for these same posts — http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default/-/connect-course.

The way RSS feeds appear in a web browser differ depending on which web browser you use. It most likely looks like code gibberish (unless you are fluent in code gibberish). Technically it is XML, or a structured data representation of Bill’s posts. Each entry includes a title (title of his blog post), the date it was published, a link to the single post, and then the HTML for all of the post’s content. If you explore a bit, you should be able to match the content from your RSS Feed to your own blog as seen in a web browser.

On the other hand, the tumblr blog Howard Rheingold set up is totally devoted to posts about Connected Courses. His web address is http://connectedcourses.tumblr.com/. When he puts that URL into the Magic Box (you can try it too), he learns his RSS Feed address is http://connectedcourses.tumblr.com/rss.

The rest of the form will ask for some demographic and interest questions the course planners would like to know (these questions are optional).

If all goes well, your blog will be listed on the site at http://connectedcourses.net/all-blogs/. Give the site at least an hour before you check this link– to reduce load on remote servers, out site will only knock on the door of your site once an hour to see if there is new content.

And now you should be ready to connect!

Connect My Blog Now