Writing Courses in the Cloud

I have recently delivered a series of lectures in the US and Canada to technology sales people, and part of the course covered how cloud technology has impacted our lives. I realise that I may be something of an early adopter of almost any technology that could improve my productivity, but during the course I relate how cloud technology has made the difference for me between working all hours tied to my desk, and being able to work where and when I want to, from any device, anywhere in the world!

Cloud technology has certainly changed how we deliver education (cloud-based learning management systems, global content delivery networks, cloud storage an so on), but for me, the impact has also been a change in how I write - and I write quite a lot! Courses, documents, reports, blog posts, articles and endless emails…..

Most of my written work relates to education in some form, so I find I have a lot of documents that I need access to. I often refer to older documents which I use as sources for newer work, so it’s helpful if I can access, modify and share all of my documents easily when I need to, and from wherever I happen to be.

Historically, work environments were based around a “bricks and mortar” office setting where everyone could access the company server from behind a firewall. This scenario hasn’t changed much over the years; we have simply extended the same paradigm using VPN’s instead of physical connections. The result is that we are still tied to our desks and our corporate server, except that this time we’re in our home workspaces or hotel rooms, with the main server still in that office behind the firewall. To move an entire corporation onto the cloud, in the eyes of the IT department, is a risky and difficult proposition.

From a practical stand point, if I’m in a situation which requires me to work with a Microsoft Word document then store it on the company SharePoint site, any work will definitely have to wait until I am at my desk, or until I can get a reliable hotel wifi connection. I would rather be able to work on it at any time using the device most suitable to my current working location. With a mobile lifestyle I need a more mobile way of writing:

I would like to be able to outline a course on my iPad, and then create some initial course content, perhaps at a diner during a business trip. I want to be able to automatically sync to all of my devices so I can pick it up later on my laptop when I’m at my desk, or even during a flight. If I can then review it and make minor edits on my phone while I’m waiting in line at immigration all the better. I also want my colleagues to be able to collaborate on my content. I want to send copies for approval from wherever I am, and respond to comments on any device.

Obviously this type of “always on” communications can get out of hand if you let it take over your existence, but equally the ability to get information and emails on my terms and wherever I am makes a lot of what I do possible, and ensures I can not only still have a life, but it can be the sort of life I want.

Trainers Needs Analysis

You may have guessed at some of the ways I work; there are tools which allow synchronisation across all devices, perhaps via iCloud, but that isn’t the way I’ve gone with my writing as I have some very specific needs I needed to take into account:

  • Accessibility
  • Portability
  • Speed
  • Permanence

Accessibility

I need, in cloud terms, ubiquitous access. Access to my data and applications from anywhere and on any device, and I need all of these to synchronise too, and quickly! Cloud-based storage makes everything accessible from any device, but most document types take time to sync, and I need something far more lightweight as a base than PDF, Word or PowerPoint, corporate education’s big 3 file formats of choice. As far as accessibility is concerned I’d also like to store my writing in a single, searchable repository if possible.

Portability

I need to be able to access a single document from different applications, each of which may have a different function. This may be because I’m editing it using different devices that need to stay in sync. Equally I want to export my content quickly into multiple formats - email, Word, PDF, HTML.

I want to quickly produce formatted documents, blog posts, web content, and learning material of any kind from the same files with the click of a couple of buttons.

Speed

I want to make it quick and easy for people to read my content, and speed up agreement when negotiating between different stakeholders. So many of the people I work with get their email on their mobile devices that any content encapsulated in a Word document posted to a SharePoint site often gets relegated to “when I get around to it” and delays the whole process. I want to make it easy for people to access, and also express their outrage at the ideas in my writing!

Permanence

I may be showing my age but there are plenty of courses I’ve written content for that I can no longer access: How are your StarWriter, Lotus Word or Word Perfect documents these days? Can you easily open any of your older PC documents types when you move to a Mac? Or vice versa? If a vendor goes under and their applications and proprietary file formats are no longer supported, how will you work with them?

The Write Way

There are two simple technologies that meet all of these needs:

  • Dropbox for storage
  • Plain text for content

Dropbox gives me reliable access to my automatically synchronised files, and plain text readable documents will outlast any proprietary format, and are readable on any device. Plaintext also has the smallest file sizes, so even whole books synchronise quickly.

If you haven’t already figured out where I am going with this article, then I can hear the protests already! What about formatting? How am I going to put in links or images or any of the other luxuries bestowed upon us by years of using word processing tools?

Well I have one response to that …Markdown.

Mark Up Markdown?

If you think that my suggestion of reverting to the use of plaintext makes it looks like I’m recommending going back to the computing stone age, then you haven’t keeping up with the latest advances in nerd tech.

Plaintext is used in many different ways; everyone is used to seeing files written in Windows Notepad or Wordpad that end in .txt, however plaintext is also the basis of many computing and scripting languages used on the web, these all use text marked up in different ways such as HTML, XML, PHP, and JavaScript.

HTML stands for Hyper Text Mark Up Language. A HTML file is just a text file which is marked up to denote what is a heading, a link, an image, etc. This is a fairly heavyweight markup language which can be very difficult to read by humans. However when interpreted by a web browser it can be used to create beautiful (or indeed ugly!) web sites or applications.

What is Markdown?

Markdown is a simple way of marking up plaintext to show formatting such as headings, links, tables and footnotes, but it still remains easy to read by humans.

Writing Markdown

Formatting in mark down is simple: H1 headings can be shown by using a # in front of the title

Heading 1

or a row of equals signs under it

Heading 1

H2 can be done using a row of hyphens under the title or ## in front of it

##Heading 2

Or Heading 2 ————–

What about lists: - If you put a single dash

- you can create an unnumbered list

* An asterisk also works well

Asterisks can also depict italics or bold text if you add them to the start and end

All of this is much easier to write in than HTML, and it remains easily readable afterwards. You can then use a number of Markdown tools to convert it into HTML, rich text or even print it out as a fully formatted PDF.

Why Do I Use Markdown?

After discovering Markdown about 2 years ago I’ve found that my use of it has grown to the point where I’m writing in it all the time. I’m using Markdown for almost all writing and communications whether its note taking, journaling, emails, course content creation or blog posts. The main motivation for me is because I can write from my mobile devices and they all automatically sync to my Mac. This is also why we are seeing a huge explosion in the number of text editors

for iPhone and iPad being developed over the last year or so, many enabled with Markdown. In addition, if I want to look up any note I’ve made on a subject, wherever I am I can just pick up my phone and access it from there.

Markdown History

John Gruber first invented Markdown as a text to HTML conversion tool with the main goal of making it as readable and easy to write in as possible. Due to its runaway success, it has since been modified by Fletcher Penney into MultiMarkdown, which added syntax for other uses including things like tables and footnotes.

From Wikipedia:

Markdown is a lightweight markup language, originally created by John Gruber with substantial contributions from Aaron Swartz, allowing people “to write using an easy-to-read, easy-to-write plain text format, then convert it to structurally valid XHTML (or HTML)”.1 The language takes many cues from existing conventions for marking up plain text in email. In other words, Markdown is a text-to-HTML conversion tool (for web writers).

Uses of a text based system for Educators

I’ve been using this system to write course outlines, course descriptions, course content, scripts and class registers but also notes on any topic, such as travel information, useful phrases in foreign languages, lists of new blog articles to write, and lists and notes of any kind. Having a text database that I can store documents in and search easily from any device is really helpful.

A Word on Word

I am in no way saying don’t use Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. These all do some things better than any other tools available to us (such as track changes), but there is almost no simple way of working with these on a mobile device in the planning and design phase of course development. By all means use Word if you need multiple people to collaborate on a single document. However if I’m the main contributor I will keep it out of Word for as long as possible.

Collaboration

Dropbox and Markdown offer some unique collaboration capabilities, particularly around sharing and synchronising the same text folders between colleagues, which is very beneficial for me and my work. However, as much as Dropbox simplifies sharing, it can also presents some issues over version conflicts if two people are modifying documents at the same time. To avoid this I use a specific folder for sharing which is separate from my main text repository. Most of my text tools make it easy to share a document using other methods, including email, from whatever text application you want to use. This has made working with others simple while retaining the mobility I need.

Tools

The tools I use have change over time as I constantly try out new text editors, but currently on my mac I use NVAlt which has great Markdown writing capabilities as well as useful methods for searching and navigating through a large folder of text files. I’ve set up Byword as the external text editor as it is very nice to use and you can see when your mark up is formatted correctly as you type it in. On iOS I also use Byword for both iPad and iPhone. Byword has recently been upgraded to integrate posting direct to Wordpress as an in-app purchase. If you want to see a wider range of possibilities then Brett Terpstra has a list of the most common iOS text editors here.

Security

The security of Dropbox is a huge issue from a corporate IT perspective: The system is a little too democratic to please IT security professionals, as it presents the ability to share folders with literally anyone and places the control over content security directly in the hands of the user as opposed to the system administrator. There are other cloud based storage services that do meet many IT departments security criteria, however they haven’t had Dropbox’s success in getting developers to integrating them into applications as a file storage option.

Summary - Why Markdown for educators?

There are many uses of Markdown for anyone, whether involved in education or not. But since a key part of education is clear communications and masses of text based content, Markdown plays a role in making the text we use more available and easier to access:

  • Portability - accessible and editable on any device
  • Permanence - plain text will outlast any proprietary format
  • Mobile friendly - tools easily available to work with Markdown
  • Speed of response - if it’s easy to get to it’s easy to respond to
  • Improve productivity - accessibility, multiple publishing options, automation tools available
  • Less specialised skills - you don’t need to work in Word, code HTML, PDF creation tools etc

Further reading