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Mainstream schools are winding down for the end-of-year vacation and universities see this semester coming to a close. I am ramping up as I prepare a new course next semester.

I have lots of notes and resources, but they are linked by two principles that have guided my design and facilitation for almost two decades.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

The first is the focus on the learner and learning. Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown put it best in their book, A New Culture of Learning:

For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur. Accordingly, education has been seen as a process of transferring information from a higher authority (the teacher) down to the student. This model, however, just can’t keep up with the rapid rate of change in the twenty-first century. It’s time to shift our thinking from the old model of teaching to a new model of learning.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

The other follows an issue summed up nicely in this tweet:

Closed access and administrative control are antithetical to learner exploration and empowerment. As difficult as being open and embracing uncertainty is, it is more rewarding in the long term.

I was glad to note that the conversion of old to new Google Sites is now automated.

I have been waiting a long time for this. It has been almost a year since I started using the new version after years of using the original Google Sites for courses, workshops, events, etc.

Last year, I had to manually create new versions of old Sites. Now I can automate the process.

New look
Converted (new) site

Old look
Old Google Site.

I have tried the conversion process in four old Sites and here are some observations:

  1. I had the option of retaining the original URL. This is useful for users who have bookmarked the URL and wish to return to the old site with the new look.
  2. Only a few old Sites were available for conversion. I have a very long list of Google Sites and only those going back to 2014 could be converted.
  3. The conversion was not seamless. One obvious wrinkle was how pages were rearranged in alphabetical order in the navigation bar. I had to manually rearrange them.

I hope that more of my old Sites become available for conversion before Google sunsets the old versions. It would also be helpful if the conversion tool is more intelligent in that it learns to retain the page order and navigation.

 
I have a lunar tic at this time of year. I have to resist the urge to point out we just marked the Lunar New Year (LNY), not the Chinese New Year (CNY).

Wishing someone a happy CNY is perfectly fine if you are celebrating in China.

If you are not in China, you are not thinking about the non-Chinese who also celebrate the LNY, e.g., some Thais, Vietnamese, Koreans, Japanese.

Some do not give a damn and others call this semantics. I call this being inclusive and taking a global perspective. It is about adopting a flexible mindset instead of clinging to a fixed one.

I avoided manually converting two old Google Sites to new ones in the hope that Google would offer an import-export or conversion tool. After all, the new Sites have been available for several months [early adopters announcement] [open for general use]. But such a tool does not yet exist.

Moving to a new Site requires a fair bit of work and is not a simple three-step process described in the help page.

The problem lies in the “copy and paste” step. If all I had was text, then I would have less of a problem. But since I have images, videos, and other embeds, I face an ordeal.

I need to have the images and videos in Google Photos, Google Drive, or YouTube first. Then I need to embed them again.

This could mean downloading these files from other sources and putting them in my Drive and folders. This might contravene usage guidelines of the original source and I have to find some other sources.

An even bigger problem is not being able to embed anything outside the Google tools ecosystem. For example, I like using Padlet and AnswerGarden. Both appear immediately and are usable on old Google Site pages thanks to scripting add-ons. However, in new Sites, my learners need to visit them in separate tabs or windows.

While I can create links to these resources that open in new windows or tabs, Sites is fanatical about warning me and my learners that we are going elsewhere. How very Facebook of Google to do this!

The experience from a learner’s point of view is potentially jarring because new instances and resources need to pop up or draw them away from the page. The experience is no longer as seamless, logical, or convenient.

All that said, the editing and creating interface is simpler and more modern. That is a good thing. However, the point of producing a Google Site is to share, teach, showcase, or otherwise let someone else interact with it.

It is not just my experience that needs to be good. Being learner-centred also means taking their experiences into account. I feel good about using the new Google Sites. I would like my learners to feel the same way too.

About a week of intensive creating with the new Google Sites interface have left a few more impressions on me (read my first impressions).

The create and edit interface has less obvious but useful drag-and-drop features. I discovered one when I brought page elements together to group them.

Drag and drop to create nested navigation links.

I found another when I wanted to create nested items (a sub-menu; see screencapture above) in the navigation bar. I only had to drag-and-drop page titles so that they stood alone or were associated with one another.

It was also very easy to embed Google-hosted elements, e.g., YouTube videos, GDrive items. I could either insert by URL or select from the item bar on the right of the editing interface.

Embed GDrive elements.

However, there was no proper embedding of non-Google elements, e.g., Padlet, AnswerGarden. I use those two alternatives because Google does not offer the equivalent of these tools.

Inserting (not embedding) non-GDrive elements.

The lack of proper embedding of these elements in Google Site pages means my learners cannot use them immediately. They have to click to open them in a new browser tab first.

The editing interface sports a “Publish” button to save changes, but there does not seem to be a publish reminder. As the page editing is WYSIWYG, it is easy to click away in the navigation to another page and start editing the latter. I have not determined if there is some sort of auto save when jumping between pages or if changes are not saved when doing this.

The new Sites seems optimised for desktop editing only. Trying to load new Sites in a mobile browser results in this message (see screencapture below).

New Google Sites not editable in phones or slates/

The old version of Sites could be edited on a phone or slate. While this was not ideal, you could make changes in a pinch.

The new Google Sites is slick and relatively simple to use. But its walled garden approach to its embeddable resources reduces some usability. Its coders might cite security as the main reason for not allowing embeds of non-Google ecosystem elements.

The recent GDocs phishing attempts showed how vulnerable sticking with a popular moniker can be. Perhaps the compromise in usability is a tradeoff for user safety.

Recently I created a seminar and workshop resource in the new version of Google Sites.

I tried the new Google Sites out as soon as it was publicly released, but had no reason to jump on the bandwagon. According to my account, I last edited a new trial site in April.

I had good reason to not adopt the new version immediately. New releases are always buggy and there was no tool to mass convert old Sites to new ones. It has been months since the new Sites creation tool was made available to all and my concerns are still valid.

But first, the good stuff.

My old Google Sites list looks like a roll of toilet paper while new Sites are photos in an album. This is because the new version looks like Google Drive with thumbnails of Sites. This gives it a more modern and unified look.

I created several pages using my MacBook Pro and thought that they looked better and more functional on my iPhone than on my laptop. It took me a moment to figure out why.

I discovered that the design templates insert lots of white space between page elements. Depending on your screen resolution, the elements might spread out too much on a desktop browser. Mobile browsers have less real estate, and while the elements are squished into a smaller screen, the white space creates a pleasing balance.

The navigation on mobile is restricted to the expandable “hamburger” menu (see GIF above). This is not intuitive to users who are not familiar with this mobile standard.

However, the navigation on a desktop always remains in view at the top. Depending on the template you use, the navigation bar might even change colour to remain obvious (see GIF below).

The page creating and editing interface takes some getting used to if you are an old Sites user like me.

For example, once you find and insert an element like an image or a video, you can drag-and-drop it into place or resize it. While this sounds convenient, you have to follow Google Sites rules. One rule is that it decides how many columns there are on the page. Another is that each element is assumed to be standalone.

The number of columns seems to be decided on how large the element is; larger artefacts create fewer columns while smaller ones create more. Refer to this TechCrunch article for a GIF of this.

The standalone element rule seems like a fair one until you realise that each page has chunked elements, e.g., header-text-image chunk; video and source chunk. After inserting separate elements into a page as standalones, I had to drag them one on top of the other to associate them (see GIF below). This was like grouping items in PowerPoint or Google Slides. However, there did not seem to be a way to ungroup them quickly.

The interface is designed for creators with no knowledge of HTML. While this seems like a fair assumption, it dissuades more advanced users from tinkering under the hood. This means not being able to fine-tune or customise the look of a page or to add outside-Google elements.

During my two hours of creating and editing, the new Google Sites interface produced the same error message four times. Unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to screencapture them. Fortunately, after I clicked “OK” on the messages, the editor interface refreshed and I did not lose any work.

Other bugbears I have with the new Google Sites:

  • I like how you can search for and use freely available images. However, Sites does not attribute such images. This not only prevents Sites creators from giving credit where it is due, it was a lost opportunity for Google to take leadership in the open resource movement.
  • The new Sites does not offer uploads to each site or page. If you do not already have an element online, e.g., an image of a QR code or PDFs, you need to upload to Google Drive first and then insert it from the Sites interface. The old Sites allowed you to upload a limited number of files to every page.
  • Each page in the new Sites does not seem to have comment threads anymore. Perhaps Google wants to distance Sites from its wiki roots and the feature has low usage. However, this is shame because comments are a way to capture the history and development of collaboratively-generated pages.


Video source

Despite my complaints, I am glad that Google not only decided to keep Sites alive but also gave it some love and development. The Sites faithful like me had to wait a long time for this and I hope Sites becomes a mainstay instead of an odd poor cousin to G Suite. After all, the pages in Sites are a way to bring the rest of the family together.

 
One definition of a tic is an idiosyncratic and habitual feature of a person’s behaviour.

I exhibit a “tic” every Lunar New Year. I insist on calling this time of year the start of the Lunar New Year, not Chinese New Year.

Why? Simply because it is not just the Chinese that celebrate it. The Wong Fu group can explain.


Video source

This year we celebrate the start of the Lunar New Year of the Rooster. I hope that more people resolve to be more understanding and less ignorant instead of hiding behind old labels or preconceived notions.

Learning is about lasting change and this often starts with the unlearning of what we might hold dear. Chinese New Year is inaccurate and exclusive. Lunar New Year is not. This is not a semantic game, but a reflection of values and mindsets.


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