The Information Diet

We all feel it. How do we keep up with this mountain of information gushing towards us each and everyday?

Hundreds of posts sitting unread in Google Reader, our PLN sharing dozens of shiny new links on Twitter & FB, forum posts, a new edition of your favorite journal published – the firehose goes on and on.

It’s that feeling that Alexandra Samuel refers to as FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. Shirky says it’s caused not by information overload, but filter failure, and the ability to manage this flow of information (or cognitive load management) is one of the essential skills future knowledge workers will need to succeed. So, just like the food we put into our body, we need to be critical and discerning with the kind of food we put into our brains.

This food metaphor forms the interesting premise of a new book by Clay Johnson called The Information Diet, which I have just begun reading (the physical book is due out early in the new year, Kindle version is available now).

What I like about the tact of Johnson is that it is not simply a rant against technology and social media, but instead is a much more holistic and, in my opinion, realistic view of information consumption. This balanced view is reflected in a recent blog post by Johnson on Facebook & Twitter.

It turns out that networks like Facebook and Twitter are perfect for consuming your socially proximate information. They’re not bad for an information diet, they’re critical to having a balanced one. But only if you use these tools smartly and proactively — by eliminating cruft, and consuming deliberately from these sources. Granted, spending the day on Facebook is not great for your information diet. But eating bowl after bowl of fiber-one cereal is probably not great for your food diet either.

Sure Twitter and Facebook are no substitute for being physically present with your loved ones, and having meaningful social interactions with them. But as long as you are deliberate about both (there are some great tips in the book about this) then you can use these tools to your advantage. So let’s not dismiss the tools because they’re technical, or out of some kind of strange generational preference. The problem is rarely in the medium itself and usually in either the habits of the user, or the system that supports it.

Reading this reminded me of the excellent Stillness in Motion session at this fall’s ETUG workshop, which I found immensely refreshing  and inspiring. Facilitated by Ross Laird of Kwantlen University, Brian Williams of  DIYDharma and  Scott Leslie  of  BCcampus, the session focused on how to be mindful about the ways in which we interact with technology.

Since that session, I have found myself asking a very simple question whenever I fire up my computer: what is it that I want to do right now? And I’ve found that asking this one simple question has made me much more productive when I get on. It brings my purpose front and centre, and I find I am less likely to get distracted down a rabbit hole when I take that brief moment to really clarify what it is I want to do before I mindlessly plug in.

Sure, I still find myself with a few dozen tabs open in my various browsers, email client up and running with constant notifications coming in, Tweetdeck firing away in the corner on my second monitor, but it is a start. And at least I find I am getting that one thing done that I wanted to get done.

I hope that The Information Diet will help me find a few more nuggets like that to make me a more concious information consumer.


Embedable tweets

One of the new features Twitter rolled out as part of the recent redesign is the ability to embed tweets in other sites, much like a YouTube video.

In the past, if you wanted to embed a specific tweet in a site you had to use a third party plugin. For this WordPress blog, for example, I’ve been using the Twitter Blackbird Pie plugin to embed tweets like this:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/clintlalonde/status/147501892551983105″]

It has worked well, but reducing the number of plugins you need on a site is a good thing in terms of possible platform conflicts.

For Moodle, on the other hand, the ability to add Twitter content into Moodle has been a bit of a pain, even with the official Twitter widgets, which don’t give you the option of embedding a single tweet. Last weeks announcement should fix that and make embedding tweets into Moodle fairly straightforward (and as soon as I get the new Twitter interface on my own Twitter account I’ll give this a try & update this post).

If you have the new Twitter interface, you can try this tutorial and learn how to embed a tweet using the new embed feature.


Universal Instructional Design Principles for Moodle

Universal Instructional Design is the design principle that instruction should be designed not for the average student, but rather for a broad range of students “with respect to ability, disability, age, reading level, learning style, native language, race, ethnicity, and other characteristics“.

For those of us working within the confines of an LMS, this type of design can be a challenge. And while using an Open Source option like Moodle means we do have some flexibility in customizing the LMS for UID (and Moodle has certainly put some thought into making the platform accessible), customizing is often easier said than done.

Which is why I am happy I stumbled across this IRRODL paper “Universal Instructional Design (UID) Principles for Moodle from Tanya Elias which makes a number of recommendations – both technical and pedagogical – on how to improve accessibility within Moodle.

Elias begins the paper by outlining eight universal design principles, based on the work of the Center for Universal Design (which, as an aside, have this wonderful printable infographic (pdf) outlining the principles). She then goes on to make recommendations on how to design Moodle courses & content to meet these guidelines.

Below is a summary of the principles, the recommendations from Elias, and a few of my own thoughts in italics.

1) Equitable use

The design is useful and accessible for people with diverse abilities and in diverse locations. The same means of use should be provided for all students, identically whenever possible or in an equivalent form when not.


  1. Put content online and make them accessible by screen reader, text-to-speech, and screen preferences programs.
  2. Provide translation to overcome language barriers for learners for whom English is a foreign language.

The takeaway here for me is make content accessible, and the most flexible, accessible content on the web is HTML. Eliminate those PDF, Word and PowerPoint files and convert them to the native language of the web – HTML.

2) Flexible use

The learning design accommodates a wide range of individual abilities, preferences, schedules, and levels of connectivity. Provide the learners with choice in methods of use.


  1. Make synchronous sessions optional, or make them small group sessions to make it easier to for participants to schedule.
  2. Provide recordings of synchronous sessions.
  3. Present content in multiple formats.
  4. Offer choice and additional information.

If you have the option to record what you are doing (which is baked into most synchronous applications), always record it & make it available to students. Not only good for accessibility, but good for review for students who can attend as well.

3) Simple and intuitive

The course interface design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, technical skills, or current concentration level. Eliminate unnecessary complexity.


  1. Simplify the interface.
  2. Offer text-only, mobile and offline options.

Most Moodle courses are built from a standard course template, meaning there may be blocks and tools you don’t use. If you are not using them, remove them. They are clutter.

4) Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the student’s sensory abilities.


  1. Incorporate assistive technologies
  2. Add captions, descriptors and transcriptions

On adding caption & transcriptions, a good low cost way to do this for video is to use YouTube for hosting your video and take advantage of their transcription and captioning features.

5) Tolerance for error

The design minimises hazards and adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.


  1. Allow students to edit their posts.
  2. Issue warnings using text and sound.

Moodle gives learners 30 minutes to edit their posts, by default. if your administrator has disabled this option, here is a good argument to have it re-enabled. I would also say that audible warnings are good, but there should be a mechanism to disable them if the user decides they don’t want them.

6) Low physical and technical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with minimal physical and mental fatigue.


  1. Consider issues of physical effort.
  2. Incorporate assistive technologies and multimedia, and embed links.
  3. Include a way to check browser capabilities

The paper notes that “extensive use of external links and external programs (my emphasis) in this way increases the technical effort required by all users.” So, not to harp on this point (but I will), but every time a learner has to open a PDF, Word or PowerPoint file, they have to load a new, external program.

7) Community of learners and support

The learning environment promotes interaction and communication among students and between students, faculty, and administrative services.


  1. Provide study groups and tools.
  2. Provide easy-to-find links to support services.

An easy win to add a block with links to institutional student services.

8) Instructional climate

Instructor comments and feedback are welcoming and inclusive. High expectations are espoused for all students.


  1. Encourage instructors to make contact and stay involved.

As the paper states, “Instructor accessibility is an essential component of course accessibility.” An involved instructor will recognize when a student is struggling and can take steps to intervene and help.

Many of these principles are not Moodle specific and could be easily adapted to any online learning scenario. Where the paper does get Moodle specific is where Elias notes how many Moodle modules and plugins are available to help achieve these principles. This is also where the paper falls a bit short in that Elias gives the number of modules available and doesn’t actually review, or even name the available Moodle modules. So while it’s nice to know there are 4 translator modules available for Moodle, it would be useful to have the actual names of those modules and, even better, a review on whether they met the recommendations. Still, a useful piece of research on accessibility and the LMS.


From Google Reader to Kindle via

I’ve had my Kindle for about a year now, and love it. It is one of the pieces of technology I own that makes me happy every time I use it, for a whole whack of reasons.

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicLike Chad Skelton, I’ve found myself using it more and more for reading things other than books using the Kindle personal document service. If you are not familiar with the service, each Kindle comes with an email address that I can email documents to as attachments. These are then converted to the native Kindle format for reading on my Kindle. Excellent for when I have a PDF or long Word document to read.

Shortly after I began using my Kindle, I discovered a service called, which is a handy little bookmarklet/browser add-on that let’s me send webpages to my Kindle, stripping out most of the crud (ad’s, distractions, etc) giving me a nicely formatted Kindle document. I’ve had the add-on running for the past 6 months or so. It has turned my Kindle into more than just an ebook reader and is the primary reason I use my Kindle each and every day.

Last week, Chad had a very interesting post about Instapaper that got me thinking.  Instapaper has a service that allows you to email articles directly from Google Reader to your Kindle. So, I went to see if had a similar service and, lo and behold, it does. Even better, I can set up an automatic delivery schedule right to my Kindle via my Kindle personal documents account. Sweet.

What this means is that now every morning at 5am, crawls my GReader account, aggregates the latest 50 posts, and delivers them directly to my Kindle. For the past week I have been waking up with a nice, tidy personal newspaper delivered right to my Kindle in time for breakfast. Wonderfully convenient. also has a service that will send my calendar and a weather forecast to my Kindle, but so far I have resisted these services. I want to keep my Kindle as a reading/consumption device &  don’t want it to be an all purpose device (that’s what a tablet is for). But to have a service that sends me articles from GReader to my Kindle? Awesome!

And a note to – I’d happily pay for this service to ensure it sticks around. Please, tell me how I can give you money because it isn’t obvious on your site.


Moodle 2.2 – now with more mobile goodness

Moodle 2.2 has been released, and along with some new features (like rubrics and some tools to make getting content and tools into Moodle from other systems easier) comes an improvement to the Moodle mobile app.

When I last looked at the Moodle mobile app a few months back, it was still pretty slim in terms of functionality, which was fine. It was a first generation mobile app so I didn’t expect killer functionality out of the box. And I deeply respected the fact that, out of all the functionality they could have delivered in that first crack, they decided that it was important to give students the ability to upload media captured on their mobile devices to their courses – a signal (to me at least) that they were looking at mobile devices through a disruptive lens.

Moodle 2.2 mobile app

The 2.2 release adds another piece to that mobile app, now giving learners the ability to download course content from the course to their mobile device. I have to say, not quite as pumped about this feature as I was about the upload feature in the first go round, but I get that for many students content is the key – it’s what they come for.

One thing is for certain with this new feature – we are going to have to be ever more vigilant on issues like optimized file size and correct web formats for content as we develop our courses. We do have a fairly stringent technical quality checks for our courses, but stuff does get through.

For example, today I had to deal with a course that wasn’t backing up and restoring properly. The culprit? 2 PowerPoint presentations; 1 was 54 meg the other a whooping 102 meg. Pity the poor student in that class who decided to download that content on their mobile device. That’s 20% of my monthly data right there in those 2 files.

Anyway, not Moodle’s problem. In fact, in this feature they have given me a tool and another reason to enforce standard file formats and optimized file sizes, so I am grateful for it, and for the continued development of the mobile application. And realistically, we won’t have to worry about this for at least a year or so as we are still in the process of migrating to 2.1 from 1.9 and have decided to continue on the 2.1 path and not go straight to 2.2 when we release next year.

You can read the official release notification in the Moodle forums.


Skype as disruptive educational technology

sign of the times

I realized something tonight as I read the story of how Virginia Tech professor John Boyer landed a Skype interview for his World Regions class with Aung Sun Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic movement in Burma – I don’t give near enough credit to Skype as a disruptive educational technology.

I’ve helped faculty use it for just this kind of activity – bring in a guest from a distance as a guest speaker, and not thought twice about it. I’ve read stories of teachers who have used it to bring sick kids into class so they don’t fall behind. People are using it to connect with native language speakers to learn another language.

All this for free in a package that most grandparents use to speak with their grand-kids.

Maybe it’s because Skype has reached that point where it has become boring which, according to Shirky, is now the point where the conversation becomes interesting. Which is to say, once we stop our fascination with the technology itself and it becomes first mundane and then invisible, then and only then do we begin to see the change it has on society. Maybe Skype is at that point.

Tomorrow John Boyer is introducing his students to Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Want to see a group of motivated students? Check out the last 30 seconds of Boyer’s video request to Aung Sun Suu Kyi, posted on YouTube.

But it doesn’t have to be someone world famous to make it relevant for students. For Camosun College video instructor Andy Bryce, it was a former grad of the Applied Communication Program who now works for CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.

Which begs the question, who do your students want to see in your class?

Photo: sign of the times by Doug Symington used under Creative Commons license.