Sunday, July 22, 2012

My thesis in three minutes (using Qwiki)

As a self-confessed digital storytelling geek, I’m always interested in new formats and technologies. Inspired by the digital humanities manta “more hack, less yack” it occurred to me that I should take a more hands on approach. This week I thought I’d try out Qwiki – a new platform that combines online interactivity with video and allows people to create dynamic visual web content in minutes.

For me, the most interesting thing about Qwiki is its built-in production values.  It allows you to create slick, professional looking video without the need for complex editing software. Online video shouldn’t be too polished. Keeping it real and being authentic is important – you don’t need to pretend to be a professional broadcaster. Yet, production is probably a major barrier to those considering video content and I like the potential of this product to democratise visual storytelling.

I’m writing my PhD proposal at the moment so it made sense to base a project around this. I wrote the script in around an hour, did one take of video (using the built in webcam on my laptop) and created my Qwiki in about 20 minutes.

If you are creating online content, video is a great addition to the mix. It’s a powerful way to bring content to life and engage people for whom visual communications is a preferred communication method. The golden rule? Don’t use video to replicate – use it to animate. It is a complimentary format rather than a replacement for written content. Before you commence, ask yourself why this particular story should be told visually.

At just over 3 minutes, my Qwiki actually feels much too long. I think this format would work better at half this length. If I used it again, I would keep it really simple. I think a short, stand-alone Qwiki could work well within the context of a longer blog post to express part of the story visually. I was a little frustrated about the lack of flexibility but I realise that the simplicity of this product is also its strength.  I would also take advantage of the ability of this medium to integrate other forms of online content to enrich the story; including Google maps, tweets and links.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Help! I don’t have time to blog or tweet.

Productivity guru? Don't make me laugh.
My friend Andrew joked the other day that every time I see him I have another productivity tip. The thought of coming across as some kind of time management guru made me smile as I am pretty sure my fascination stems from a lack of willpower, rather than a surfeit!

Developing the ability to focus on a problem for several hours at a time has been the most formidable challenge of research study. It’s also been the most rewarding. As an advertising executive, constant interruption was a normal part of my job and I rarely had to focus on a single task for more than an hour at a time. Days were full of meetings, emails, phone calls, negotiations and conversations in corridors. Actually, it occurs to me that there are growing similarities between this existence and academic life...

I recently wrote about how important it was for time-poor academics to have a clear strategy and objectives for online activity. In this post, I thought I’d share a few insights into how I try to balance my PhD research, blogging and social media.

  1. Keep blog posts short. At around 1,000 words, mine tend to be too long. They generally take between 2-4 hours to write (except this one  – I am trying to take my own advice!). I genuinely love writing them but I know if I made them half this length, not only would they be easier to read, I could post more regularly and reap some major Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) benefits
  2. Make blogging an extension of work you are already doing. You can adapt presentations, speeches, book reviews or even lecture notes or research you have been undertaking for teaching purposes. You could even adapt an email you have written and are rather proud of, for example, one that explains a concept, includes instructions or advice (‘How To’ posts are often really popular) or argues an opinion.
  3. When you blog about something new - make it count. I often use the blog as an excuse to research and learn about a research interest that is not related to my actual PhD thesis. 
  4. Create a ‘content calendar’ so you always have ideas on hand. Mine is a word document. Whenever I have an idea for a blog post I jot it down along with a few notes. It doesn’t take long before you have more ideas for posts than you have time to write them! It also means that you will rarely need to start writing from a (scary) blank page.
  5. Collaborate with others. Get together with a group of your peers and create a multi-author blog for your discipline or research group. You can create an editorial calendar and set out deadlines for contributions.  This takes the pressure off one person and keeps the blog fresh, dynamic and chock full of new content.
  6. Enforce a technology embargo at certain times of the day. My PhD comes first so I work on my research 9-5 and blog before or after this time. I block out several chunks of the day for research and try to stay offline during this time. Since I don’t need to be instantly available during the day at the moment (I know, lucky me), my phone is generally on silent to ward off interruptions.
  7. Don’t be ruled by technology - make technology work for you. When my mind is wandering, the temptation to go online can be overpowering (if I'm reading the newspaper, that counts as 'work', right?). I use a firefox plugin called Leechblock to restrict access to certain time wasting sites during the day.
  8. Try a Pomodoro. I write in 25 minute bursts using the Pomodoro technique, a frighteningly simple productivity trick that helps me stay focused for longer. It also allows me to quantify the amount of time I spend working on my PhD each day - which is marvellous on days when the wordcount really doesn’t reflect the amount of effort you have put in. For example, when the day's ‘work’ consists of revising (or discarding) things you have already written.  
  9. Read a lot of blogs? Feed them into one place. Bloggers tend to read a hell of a lot of blogs! It’s how they find fresh, new, inspiring content to share. I am following about 30 academic blogs at the moment (plus another 20 digital media blogs) and feed all of them into Bloglovin so they are in one location. I check them quickly each morning (while having a  cup of tea and toast) to see if anything new catches my eye.
  10. You don’t actually need to be online to tweet.  Each morning, I use Tweetdeck to schedule a few tweets to appear at different times over the course of the day. This allows me to share content at specific times (when I think people might be around to see it) without actually having to stop work and go online, ie: 9am (lunchtime in Eastern states of Australia and evening in USA/Europe), 1pm (Perth lunchtime) or 9pm (morning in USA/Europe). That being said, Twitter is all about conversation so it is vital to check in a couple of times during the day.
I’m hoping you’ll find a few of these suggestions helpful! Please feel free to share your own in the comments section below.