Technology and the coven

So, my day job as a librarian has a certain amount of spillover into how I priestess – I’m very committed to connecting people to information they care about, and this goes just as much for the coven setting as for the library.

But how to do it? Sitting this week at a library technology conference, I realised I really wanted to talk about some of the great resources out there, and how they can be used to make group work a little easier.

And yet, at the same time, one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is how to balance our online time with other things we want to do. I am more and more firm about the idea that technology should help me do more of what I want to do – but not run my life for me. I want to have time to read and think and create and make music. (Though that’ll be another post too.)

First things first, what do we use? What could we use? And how much technical skill does it take?

My technical skills:

I have more technical skill than many people out there – after all, my original jobs out of college were doing web design and technical support, and I’ve had my own domain since 1998 or so. But I’m not a coder, not a programmer, and my usual level of serious geekery is adapting other people’s code to specific requirements (change a URL, a phrasing, etc. in displayed text, color changes, etc.)

However, many of the options here are not all that complicated to run out of the box, or have relatively simple alternatives. And of the others, a number just require one technically-savvy person in the group to set-up and do occasional maintenance, while editing or adding materials is pretty simple.

Hosting and other questions:

I’ve had a personal site (the same one that hosts this blog) with Drak.net for about a decade, and continue to be really happy with them, but there are many great inexpensive hosts out there.

My former group’s website is hosted in the same account, using an add-on domain (basically, circleofthephoenix.org points at a subfolder of my hosting account.) This is a cheap and elegant solution if someone is already paying for hosting space. (Though you need to make sure that you know what you’ll do if that person leaves the group. More on that in a forthcoming post, too, on information policy considerations.)

If you’re not interested in spending your time fiddling with the code side, I recommend looking for a host who provides Fantastico, which is a series of automated installers and updaters for many of the software packages I’ll be talking about later in this post (including Mailman, WebCalendar, WordPress, and Moodle, along with other software that has similar functions.)

Email and email lists:

Best for announcements and information between group events. Can accommodate a range of text lengths (brief messages to much longer information).

Resources: Many people use Yahoo! lists (free, easy to set up), but in this case, we’re using Mailman mailing list software running on our own hosted domain server. I prefer this because we’ve got more control over the set-up and functions, and it’s generally more reliable. Google Groups is another possible option.

Time needed: Setting up the lists took an hour or so. Maintaining them is pretty easy. Generally, we did additions as needed, and reviewed the list once a year or so to ensure that the lists were up to date.

Downsides: Don’t rely on email for urgent last-minute communication – not everyone is on email every day, and not everyone is near their email all the time. (Even me! I usually am, but because I work at a school, there are days I’m off doing something else all day, and don’t check my email before heading off for my evening activity.)

Tone can also be a significant issue – you may want to have a standard agreement that emotionally complicated discussions happen in person, and save the email list for practical issues. (“Remember, we’re meeting at 5, and here’s the list of who offered to bring what.”)

Web calendar:

It can be really hard to keep track of group events and who’s involved in what. A web calendar can go a huge way toward making sure people know where they need to be when. Other useful information may include what you’re doing, what people should bring, or any other planning information they may want to refer to.

Resources: My former group uses WebCalendar (a free option with installation and upgrade support through Fantastico) because when I originally set up the calendar, Google Calendar was not an option. For Phoenix Song, I may shift to Moodle’s built in calendar, to centralise group information in one place, even though the calendar entry software is a bit kludgy. Yahoo also has some calendar functions.

Things to keep in mind: The calendar will be of most use if it is either very easy to review or if people can download information to their own calendars (especially if you have several people using electronic calendars, handheld devices, or other similar tools for their personal calendars.) Most calendar systems allow you to export and import – but some make it easier than others. Talk to your real actual group members about what makes sense for them.

Time: Setting up the calendar is fairly quick – but maintenance can be really complicated. I found that if I don’t update immediately, it’s really easy to forget to do so.

Useful information may include what you’re doing, what people should bring, or any other planning information they may want to refer to.

Website:

Many groups have a website that provides basic general information about the group. I’ve already talked about this at length in another post.

Resources: As mentioned there, we use WordPress, because it’s easy, it’s quick to edit, and it’s what I’m already using for this blog and other resources I maintain. (This means I remember to upgrade, etc. which is useful.) But there are many other options – everything from hand-coding it yourself to using a complex content management system.

Time: Initial set-up and writing of the Phoenix Song pages took me most of a weekend. I want to go through and review and edit them sometime this spring or early summer because I think healthy websites need periodic review.

Downsides: Someone has to write the content and maintain it. And in a group, you generally should make sure the group members have a chance to comment about it – is it engaging to them? Does it represent the group fairly? This can be a bit time-consuming.

Teaching content:

This is the newest addition to our own technology. I knew as I started putting teaching materials together that I’d like to do several things.

1) Have students read the background material for each class in advance, so that we could spend our time together on their questions, and then on deeper discussion and understanding. We made this choice for several reasons, and we do have a back-up plan for people who don’t learn well this way, but this is our default. More on this at some point in the future.)

2) While there are some printed book requirements, we have had trouble finding books that cover all of the content that we really wanted. So I knew I wanted to write a substantial amount of what we’d discuss.

3) I knew I wanted to make most of it available electronically – which meant some way to manage the materials.

So, after poking around at different solutions, I finally said “Let me just use this nice course management software that I know how to use, is free, and does what we need.” which is Moodle. We use it at work, and it is easy to manage, allows you to set up text and image files very easily (as well as many things we probably won’t use), and allows you to limit access to different sections very easily. For example, we can allow someone access to our Seeker materials without allowing access to the Dedicant information, or to the teacher materials.

We’re testing this now, but I think it’s going to a good solution to our specific needs. And because it’s web-browser based, you don’t need to make sure everyone can read Word files, or PDF files, or whatever else.

Other resources: Depending on what you want to do – and how much material you want to make available – you can use WordPress or another web content management system. You could email files. You could use Google Docs to manage files for the group. Some groups I know use LiveJournal or other journalling software sites. Most of these have some level of password protection or access limits. You could use a wiki base to create documents, and make use of the interlinking abilities.

Time: Installing Moodle, with Fantastico, took me all of 2 hours to do the initial set up for three different ‘courses’. (However, I’m already familiar with the software and settings options. Allow more time if you’re not.) Adding content once it’s written is pretty fast: you can copy and past from a word processor easily, and just edit a bit as needed.

Downsides: It’s a separate site, that may not be well integrated with group member’s lives in other ways. They need to remember to go there, and how to get there. Once we’re sure we’re going to keep it, I can help with the last bit by a link from our website. Finally, different options will give you different tools – linking within Moodle, for example, is not that hard, but it’s a bit clunkier than doing it within a wiki, making pointing at other files a little more cumbersome.

As with all these other things, think about what kind of content you’re going to be working with, and what makes sense with that. Also, seriously consider your privacy considerations – I’ll be talking about oathbound and other confidential information in an upcoming post on information policy.

Bookmarks:

One thing I knew I wanted to do was to use a social bookmarking site to handle community bookmarks. I use Delicious.com to do this, as I really like how they let you sort and manage bookmarks. We have ours tagged by topic, but also by the class they relate to. (So, for example, someone can read seeker class 1, and then go browse all the bookmarks related to that class easily.)

These do take some management – someone needs to make sure they’re tagged in a way that is actually useful for what you want. On the other hand, it’s a great way to share other perspectives and ideas.

There are other social bookmarking sites out there. I do suggest, though, that if you set up an account for your group, you keep it separate from your personal account. It’s a pain to log out and log in again, but it keeps the group bookmarks cleaner.

Group library:

One of my upcoming projects is to scan books in my personal library and in the coven library into LibraryThing, so that group members can see what I own and borrow or make use of them as needed. There are a number of online and computer based catalogs available these days: pick the one that works for your collection and community. (And I’m definitely glad to talk further about this one if anyone has questions: it’s obviously one of the forms of technology nearest and dearest my own heart.)

Conclusion:

I list all these technologies not because I think anyone needs to use all of them – but because they offer ways to help group members connect with information more easily.

Pick the ones that work for you and make your lives easier. Don’t use the ones that don’t, or that overwhelm you. I happen to like messing around with different kinds of technology (and there’s some professional benefit for me in being familiar with a number of different tools). If that’s not true for you, pick the ones that make the most difference in your life.

Bookmark the permalink.