Learning a Few New Things

MarkdownIn my always-expanding quest to remain somewhat ahead of the curve, I’ve been spending a lot of time recently fooling around with a few new tools (new for me that is). Here in no particular order are some of the heavy hitters. Markdown

Markdown is a new-ish syntax for writing html. It was designed to remove some of the tag-related drudgery from the process of writing in a way that can still be expanded into full html when the writing is transposed from the place of creation to whatever webspace the author wishes to put it. To take one simple example, whereas a non-Markdown process would require the writer to delineate emphasis with a set of <b></b> tags or similar WYSIWYG editor tactics, in Markdown, emphasis is placed with two *’s. An unexpected benefit of the use of Markdown is that it streamlines the writing process, generally. Writing in Markdown encourages the writer to stay with the text, and not get lost in a maze of formatting options.  To best play in the land of Markdown, you’d be happiest with a Markdown editor. You can take your pick. In mac-land, I’m using Byword, which lives on my desktop. In Chrome-ville, I have found that StackEdit is similarly useful (and it works offline in the browser, which is huge). Both offer a handful of handy shortcuts in formatting (Byword supports an expanded list of Markdown syntax to deal with tables, etc.), and both are free, though there are some premium authoring features with Byword, including the ability to publish directly to different blogging platforms, etc.

Github

Github is an online implementation of Git, which is a major tool that software developers use to control “versioning” of code. Basically, if you have a few hundred folks hacking away at code, it can be a PITA to track versions. Git takes care of that, and Github moves it over to the web. You sign up for an account, and then you can d/l a free github client. This way, you can work on collaborative projects offline, and upload them to a central space (or “repo” to use the term of art). All changes are cloned to all versions of the file, and the authors of the file are able to control changes from different versions by determining whether to commit or decline new versions of files. The possibilities of using a tool like GitHub for collaboration among tech-savvy educators in creating materials is intriguing, to say the least, though I imagine I’m still the only teacher in my building who knows what it is or what it does.  It will be interesting to see how long that lasts.

Collaborative Writing Platforms

The ability to use tools like GitHub to control contributions and versioning is leading to a blossoming of different collaborative writing tools online. These tools offer a finer degree of control and notation of changes in a file than a tool like Google Docs does, while still being much less clunky than something like “Track Changes” is MS Office. Penflip is a very early effort that interacts with GitHub but focuses on writing documents (a process that has been successfully accomplished on GitHub proper, though the platform is not really created for the purpose of document authoring). Editorial.ly and Draft are two other, further from the metal tools that get writers up and writing very quickly. All are free, though the last two options require substantially less file-savy than Penflip, which requires a GitHub/Git install to author offline. I’ve sent both of the latter options over to an AP Lang/Comp teacher who has to manage 4 sections of the course, and will be doing quite a bit of collaborative writing with her students. All three tools utilize markdown formatted text.

This is where my head is at, tech-wise currently. Playing around with these new ways of writing, and new approaches to collaboration seems like a natural fit as I continue to try to find the ultimate collaborative environment for my various projects. I’m not sure if they will directly impact my own courses this year, but I do know that going forward, having a basic fluency in these tools will have as many benefits, both expected and surprising, as everything else I’ve managed to cram into my skull.