Monday, 24 December 2012

Tips to improve your iTunes library's artists view.

Written for iTunes users who are passionate about organizing their music library.

Out of iTunes 11's four library music views ('songs', 'albums', 'artists' and 'genres'), I now enjoy using artists the most. It wasn't always like that; an erratic collection of compilations had resulted in a long scrolling view that was irritating to navigate. Tired of the genre view and wanting a fresh way to select my music-of-the-moment, I decided to spend time improving my artists view.

Tagging album and song information more appropriately (as described in the tips below) was a good choice as I now have a much better iTunes-user experience: I not only have a speedy way to select an artist's songs and benefit from a more varied listening-experience (than my past reliance on playlists or Genius Mixes), but now also can quickly use the linked 'iTunes Store', 'Listeners Also Bought' and 'Related' options views to find pre-releases, live and cover versions, novelties and remixes that I ordinarily would not have been aware of.

Follow these steps below and you can also have a better iTunes experience using your artists view:

1. Find and change your compilations' album artist titles
The highest selling albums in South Africa have tended to be compilations, which may pose a challenge for local iTunes users' artists view as iTunes prioritizes the 'album artist' field when displaying an artist's albums and singles. This may result in some of your favorite artists, DJs and tunes being hidden in this view, particularly if they are labelled 'Various Artists', 'Various' et al. in the album artist field and their album is also ticked as a compilation type. It's easy enough to check the extent of this challenge in your library, by opening the 'compilations' and 'various artists' "artists" in your artist view and seeing their size (you should also check that there are no namesakes (like 'Various'). It is easy enough to fix, select the songs of your 'best of' albums and change the album artist name to his or her name. (N.B. If you tire of being automatically redirected to the start of your artist view, remember to use the shift and letter shortcut to get back to where you were making changes).

2. Hide artists best viewed under genre
Your library may feature artists who's oeuvre is not large or interesting enough to merit your focus in the artists view. Simply change their album artist field to 'Various Artists' and they will be hidden in the artists view.

3. Change individual album artist names to their more famous band's (or vice-versa)
To ease selection, you may want to move an individual artist under their band's name (say Agnetha Fältskog under ABBA). Simply change their album artist field to their band's name. Of course, this may be reversed, where relevant (i.e. by placing Cream under Eric Clapton). Although nitpicking purists may frown at this, it's your music collection to label and the resulting streamlined view is likely to take priority over complete accuracy.

4. Order tunes and the best remixes under your favorite DJs and producers
In those cases where DJ mixes, re-mixes or producer work are so distinctive that they merit being featured under artists, you should enter the DJ or producer's name in the 'album artist' field. I suggest you also append all DJ's names with DJ (i.e. 'DJ Tonka' or 'DJ Armin Van Buuren'), which makes it easy to select and see the DJs you follow under the artists view's DJ section (just press 'shift' key, followed by 'd' then 'j'). Unfortunately,  iTunes only supports one artist entry under its 'artist' and 'album artist' fields, so you may be forced to choose which DJ to highlight a seminal collaboration (such as DJs Sasha and John Digweed) or to label the duo as a distinctive artist.

5. Group soundtrack albums by their composer or director
Following on from DJs, there are also some composers (such as Angelo Badalamenti) or directors (like David Lynch) whose soundtracks are so distinctive that you want to group them under the composer's or director's name. Again specify the 'album artist' field to arrange it.

6. Collate an artist's pseudonyms under one artist's name
Electronic music artists in particular are well-known for using multiple aliases and it is helpful to use the 'album artist' field to group work that would otherwise be listed under distinct artists (i.e. AFX, Blue Calx, Bradley Strider, Caustic Window, DJ Smojphace, GAK, Martin Tressider, Polygon Window, Power-Pill, Q-Chastic, Tahnaiya Russell, The Dice Man, Soit-P.P., and speculatively The Tuss, for the Aphex Twin).

7. Get rid of multiple titles for an artist
iTunes does not support attribution to multiple artists, which I have found particularly problematic with classical music; where the conductor, composer and orchestra have all been attributed under the 'artist' field. To address this, I have decided to only use the artist field for the most important performer and to cut-and-paste the composer's information into the 'composer' field. How you address it depends on your priorities; you are most welcome to label Mozart under "artist", for example!

8. Get rid of 'one hit wonders'
To reduce the artists present in your view, you can also remove any one hit wonders {who only play for a short time when selected, anyway}. However, before doing this, check the artist's 'In The Store' view, just in case the 'one hit wonder' describes your library's content, not the artist's output :) !

If you have any other helpful tips, please share them in the comments box below.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Online portfolio users new to computers must get familiar with these new terms and processes.

Written for Visual Arts or Design learners new to online portfolio page creation and computers.

As a learner who wants to create one online portfolio (or more), but has not been taught computer courses and may have limited access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in school and home, you need to learn about the new terms and processes involved in working digitally. This post was written to help you better prepare for these:

1. Getting familiar with new words, acronyms, symbols and signs in online portfolio creation.
If you are used to working on paper and canvas, the move to working on a computer screen involves learning new words (such as 'screen resolution'), acronyms (like DPI), symbols (i.e. ©) and signs (e.g. @) and new processes (such as 'file editing and saving'). It is useful to ask your educator to provide definitions if you do not understand what he or she is talking about to avoid misunderstanding what is being taught. You can also research almost any word, acronym, symbol or sign's definition using Google and other search engines:

1.1 New words
It is important to understand the words used for online portfolio page design elements (such as uniform resource locator, title, header, body, footer, et al.) as your educator is likely to provide you with guidelines for each choice. If you don't know the terms he or she refers to in lessons, you may struggle to understand the reasoning behind the guidelines. Please ask your educator if you need further help or you can find out what new words mean by using a search engine; simply type in the word you want to know, a plus (+) sign, then the word definition straight after (i.e. type 'uniform+resource+locator definition' into www.google.co.za). If you can spare the time, it's best to read through several results to gain a broader understanding of the word's definitions and usage. {You should also read my post on 'Online portfolio page design element questions to help you in creating a better one', as it lists these elements with important questions on your use of them}.

1.2 New acronyms
Acronyms are heavily used in ICT and those you will encounter when creating your online portfolio will fall under the categories including: imagery digitization (DPI, OCR); file format selection (JPG, GIF, PNG); internet-use (WWW, HTTP, .COM) and screen display sizes (W, H). Please ask your educator to explain the acronyms you do not know, or search for them (for example, type 'JPG+definition into google.com and click to its top results).

1.3 New symbols
The symbols you are most likely to encounter in online portfolio use are © for copyright,   for trademark and ® for registered trademark. If you encounter others, ask your teacher for help. It is also useful to get help with sourcing special symbols when typing in your computer's word processing software and via your browser. You can then also ask to be shown how to cut-and-paste these into your  online portfolio.

1.4 New signs
A sign you will definitely use is the at sign (@) in creating your email address (i.e. @gmail.com). You may want to experiment with signs for emoticon creation {i.e. listening to music d(-_-)b}, too}!

2 New processes
If you are new to working with a computer, you should sit close to a more knowledgeable peer or your teacher to get help with; using its keyboard, editing and saving files, using relevant software, accessing your lab's network and installing drivers for your own device(s):

2.1 Working with a keyboard
Be sure you get help if you are struggling to type what you intended to. Pressing a "wrong" button just once on your keyboard can create very irritating results: 'Caps lock' will capitalize all your text; 'Num lock' can prevent you entering numbers; and 'Ins' can lead to you typing over content you didn't intend to. You may also need to be shown by your educator or peers how to select alternate keys (such as the symbols above your numeric keyboard) using the relevant key combinations for your operating system and its software.

2.2 Editing and saving files
You probably have already used a mobile phone to edit and save pictures and search through these. But on moving to a shared computer in a lab, saving, editing and accessing these files often becomes more complicated, because your lab's computer is setup for many users with more complicated file paths. Your educator should show you how to setup and access a folder on the desktop where you can save your online portfolio-related work securely.

2.3 Using your computer's relevant software
In digitizing imagery, you may need to edit its size, colour balance and resolution. Ask your educator or computer lab's manager to show you which software is available for this; your computer may have a basic image editing and management software (like Microsoft Picture Manager) pre-installed or more advanced software like Graphic Image Manipulation Program, Corel Photo Paint or Adobe Photoshop.

2.4 Accessing your lab's computer network
If you are scanning imagery at a different computer from the one you normally use and wish to copy it across, you should ask your educator or lab manager to show you how to access the lab's network and copy your scanned image(s) across. This is also useful if you have to use a different computer from the one you normally have access to.
  
2.5 Installing drivers for your own devices
If you bringing your own device to class, you should bring the device's software drivers and a storage device (like a USB flash drive), too. Hopefully, your school lab's computers are up-to-date enough to install the driver and link to your device. If not, you should ask to be given access to the lastest  computer at your school, so that you can install the relevant driver, download your files, save them to your storage device and transfer them to your personal folder.

Online portfolio page design element questions to help you in creating a better one.

Written for learners new to online portfolio page design choices, plus their educators.

You are already familiar with writing on paper. As you begin to work onscreen as well, it is important to understand the important differences between the analog environment of paper and the screen's digital one. The key aspects to consider whilst designing your online portfolio pages are categorized below, with related questions to answer in helping you design a better portfolio:

1. Understand the terms that define your online portfolio page's layout
Your online portfolio page is constructed using a digital page template that is constructed from a database of entries. Each webpage is constructed inside your web browser and, in Carbonmade's case, has a 'header bar' (featuring the portfolio title and 'Work' and 'About' navigation buttons), a 'page title' (either the artwork project folder's or the name you chose for your about page), a 'body section' (on your homepage this includes your project artwork folders and their titles; in your project's pages an artwork with its labels and tags and in your about page, your description, profile picture and related entries) and a 'footer' (typically used for a statement protecting your artwork's copyright). In reviewing each portfolio page, have you thoroughly defined entries for your; header bar, page title, body section and footer? If not, your page is likely to appear incomplete!

2. Use a spell-checker for your profile description
Are you sure that there are no spelling mistakes in your portfolio? While you may have to rely on your memory or a dictionary when hand-writing your profile, you should write your profile up in a word processing program (like Microsoft Word or Google Documents) to ensure that its spelling is correct. Once you're done, you can 'cut' the text content and 'paste' it into your profile description.

3. Check your digitized artworks' orientation matches your screen's
Paper is commonly used in portrait format, while all screens are made in landscape format. Before uploading digitised artwork, ask yourself if it is formatted for optimal display in the new format? If not, you should experiment with rotating, rescaling and different image resolutions to achieve the desired effect.

4. Check that all the elements of your online portfolio page's structure are present and work well with each other
The designers of Carbonmade's featured portfolios tend to take advantage of all the design options it provides. In particular, their choices for each of these webpage design elements must work together to create a thoroughly-professional impression. Check yours does too, by asking:

4.1 Online browser elements

4.1.1 Does your web address reflect the identity you're aiming to create?
4.1.2 Does your website title save well as a bookmark (see browser- and social bookmarking)?

4.2 Page title elements
4.2.1 Does your portfolio's title link well to your web address and portfolio's content?
4.2.2 Do your homepage navigation buttons link to complete pages?
 
4.3 Page body elements
4.3.1 Does the background colour you selected for your online portfolio resonate with the overall exhibition space effect you are trying to create (i.e. if your portfolio features mostly sketches, you may want to choose a white background to suggest a sketchbook)?
4.3.2 Does your page's heading tie in well with the page body content?
4.3.3 Do the text options you chose with your font's type, size and colour enhance the page's overall look-and-feel?
4.3.4 Have you titled your artwork project folder categories appropriately and chosen cover imagery for them that best highlights their content?
4.3.5 Does the format of the thumbnails you chose (one, two or three per row) create the effect you wanted (for example, choosing one thumbnail per row creates a landscaped cinematic effect for each image)?
4.3.6 Does the labels you chose for your artwork folders look best inside the folder, below it or
should you rather design folder covers that include custom text?
4.3.7 Have you chosen an appropriate style of artwork navigation (either flipbook, flipbook with thumbnails or list) in each folder and is it beneficial to stick to a common style across all folders?
4.3.8 Have your titled your digitised artwork imagery well enough for any viewer to attribute your artwork appropriately?
4.3.9 Have you added sufficient meta-information for your artwork folders and the digitised images they include? (For example, did you enter; an artwork description, a folder description, the relevant tags and a client description?)
4.3.10 Have you linked to your other web presences that relate to your online portfolio?
4.3.11 If you have chosen that you are 'Available for freelance', have you provided appropriate contact details that still protect your privacy from undesirable audiences?

5.  Check that your copyright is protected
5.1 Have you added appropriate copyright statements in each artwork's description or your folder labels and your page footer to assert your moral rights as the artworks creator and protect them?

Hope answering these questions helps you create a better, more coherent online portfolio.

Monday, 17 December 2012

11 points to improve iTunes (versions 11.2 and beyond)

Written for Apple iTune's developers and their future users. 

iTunes 11 featured many improvements from version 10. Coming soon after a version 11.1 update, here's my eleven points worth on improving aspects of the user's experience (which I just submitted to the iTunes team on http://www.apple.com/feedback/itunesapp.html):

1. Add functionality to import wishlists from one's previous iTunes Store.
For those customers moving from one country's iTunes Store to a newly-opened one, consider providing them with the ability to copy their wish-list from their original Store to the new. In the ideal world, these could even be cross-linked; highlighting which content is only available in a particular iTunes Store.

2. Make artist labeling more idiot-proof.
What is the difference between 'Fleetwood Mac' and 'Fleetwood Mac '? Well, one hard to spot space at the end of the name, that's what. And these are then considered "different artists". There are more easy to spot variations, such as; 'The Jacksons', 'The Jackson 5' and 'Jackson 5', but which is the best option to replace all names with? It would be useful if iTunes could help prevent duplicate artists popping up by flagging commonly misnamed ones and suggesting the 'official spelling'. {Also, where names are duplicated, how about a 'country' tag to differentiate them?}

3. Multiple lines for artist names.
In cutting-and-pasting, I noticed by mistake that one can enter a paragraph-long entry for an artist's name? Not sure who uses this, but if it's as useless as it looks like, please remove the multiple lines option for an artist's name. Or let me know what it's for, ta?

4. Provide an override for auto-corrects to artist album or names 
While iPhone auto-corrects can be hilarious (as proved on http://www.damnyouautocorrect.com/), it's not so funny when every time you try and correct an incorrectly-named-album-or-artist and it just keeps defaulting to the prior, incorrect name. The work-around of typing the correct entry in another field and copying-and-pasting it into the correct field is a bit of a schlep. So, please give users like me an override option, thanks.

5. One step forward, two scrolls back.
I'm unusually detailed (yes, that's the nice way of saying it) in wanting accurately-defined iTunes song labels and recently spent a few hours ensuring my artist list didn't feature 'one hit wonders', et al., so that I could readily select the more prolific using the 'Music > Artists' view. However, this was a time-consuming process; after changing a song or multiple songs' information, I was bumped back to the start of my Music Library and returning back to where I was could take a few scrolls or keystrokes. So, kindly give the user an option to stay where they are, after making changes to song information, too.

6. Suggest a shortcut.
The shortcut to quickly move through the 'Music > Artists' view is to 1. select an Artist's name, 2. Press down the shift key, immediately followed by the artist's name's letter(s) i.e. TKZ. It would be very helpful to highlight shortcut tips where I selected the same style of operation via the long keyboard way round! {And while you're at it, how about a shortcut function to quickly navigate through album titles?}

7. Please can I hide that artist, song, album or whatever?
In going through my iTunes song list, I was shocked and amazed to discover that it featured a remix of a Paris Hilton tune and some song by that woman-beating Chris Brown… or other. And then there was even Blondie's "Greatest Hits". Who added that; it could't possibly have been me :) ! As an alternative to deleting them, how can I prevent my (few) hipster, synth-playing friends spotting those trashy tunes and ridiculing my terrible taste? Well, I can't until iTunes gives me an option to hide them…

8. Where is that playing from?
While iTunes gives you great access to a range of media, the flipside is that it's sometimes hard to remember where you've been and to easily get back to what you're currently playing. Especially if it was viewed via the 'Music > Artists > In the Store' route and one's subsequently moved into the deep recesses of your Music Library. It'd be neat to have a show 'Currently playing in the iTunes Store' shortcut.

9. A best-practice user guide
In adding new music to iTunes from non-iTunes Store sources, it'd be useful to have an online reference showcasing the best ways to: title a single versus an album; assign a song to multiple artists, etc.

10. A 'request that song' function
I was searching for Qkumba Zoo's 'Cloud Eyes' under the South African iTunes Store and it wasn't available. It would be useful if I could add items that aren't currently in the store to my wish list, as a variety of 'back-order'.

11. More user-friendly network error messaging
Coming from a bandwidth-constrained, developing-world country, I'd appreciate better error-messaging around network issues. While 'Can't access the iTunes store' is accurate, it doesn't give the user much to act on. For example, warning the user not to 'simultaneously stream music, download songs and order new ones' would be more so...

N.B. Apple's iTunes team don't normally provide individuals with feedback, but I'll add it as a comment to this post, if they do.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Improving the Student ICT Access and Use Project’s Coding Indices with Second Generation, Activity theory activity system components

Written for ICT researchers developing titles for coding indices.

Introduction
Using the components of an ‘activity system’ from the second-generation of Activity theory (Engeström, 2005) proved useful for creating more descriptive category titles in four coding indices that were developed during Laura Czerniewicz and Cheryl Brown’s research project Student ICT Access and Use (2004 -2012) project’s fourth phase (2011). This phase explored the first year university students’ formal and informal uses of Information Communication Technology (ICT). As the project gathered data from the ‘digital habitus’ of 26 students, it uncovered how they participated in many different activity systems. This long blog post explains how components of these activity systems were used to make more accurate and descriptive coding titles for each index.

Background
Phase four of the research project aimed to better understand how first year students from diverse social backgrounds were using ICT technologies, both formally and informally, at four South African universities in 2011.  It sought to explore the ‘habitus’ (Bourdieau, 1986) of twenty six student subjects by analysing interviews, questionnaire feedback and day experience media (DEM) collected by a different researcher at each university for up to seven subjects.

To support efficient analysis across different media file types (video, audio and documents), these files were imported into qualitative research software. To code these media, four coding indices were developed after viewing students’ first and second interviews. The four indices could be used to code each subject’s: ‘past-’ (1), ‘present-’ (2) and ‘intended- ICT use’ (3), as well as common aspects of their feedback concerning ‘recent social media use’ (4). After publishing these indexes as Google documents, with supplementary posts on their development, I was asked to see whether Activity theory could serve a lens to improve the indexes’ category titles.

The Components of a Second Generation, Activity Theory ‘Activity System’
Activity theory (Engeström, 1987, 2001, 2005) has been used in many countries, including South Africa (Hardman, 2005, 2007), in order to understand the use of ICT in education (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006). Activity theory is a conceptual framework that is well suited to explain students’ use of online software in the complex social environment of university.

In Activity theory, the basic unit of analysis is an activity system, which in the first generation comprises a ‘subject’ who works with a ‘tool’ on a problem space, or ‘object’, to achieve an outcome that supports ‘objectives’ (Leontiev, 1974, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978, 1987; Wertsch, 1985). Second-generation Activity theory expands the activity system’s framework’s components to include ‘community’, ‘rules’ and ‘division of labour’ (Engeström, 1987).

An example of an activity system components in use is a student subject using a learning management system software tool as part of a common assignment (or problem space) to download an exercise. She does this with the the conscious objective of starting her assignment timeously. As a student, she is expected to observe rules; principles of control affording or constraining behaviour. If she does not submit her work on time, she will be penalised by losing marks. A division of labour that comprises a horizontal division amongst community members and a vertical division between the power- and status-holders also shapes the community’s actions. For example, the lecturer assigns an exercise to the class, which they must do individually. If he assigned a group project that would mark a change in the division of labour typically expected in class.

As this project’s indices reveal, its researchers explored many student activity systems; whether in the formal university environment or outside. The explanatory power of their components was then applied to all four indices, to see if they could better define category titles.

Updating coding index one, ‘Students' Past ICT Access and Use’.
The first index defined students’ exposure to ICT prior to university. This aligns with the Activity theory principle of development, which emphasises the importance understanding the origin and history of tool-appropriation by subjects. In this instance the index’s original titles did not reflect the learners’ secondary school context versus university: The index was divided into five categories, originally titled: ‘Demographics 0’, ‘Education 1.1’, ‘First ICT use 1.2’, ‘ Family history 1.3’ and ‘Access 1.4’. To clearly distinguish between these two contexts, the title ‘Education 1.1’ became ‘ICT education at secondary school 1.1’. By contrast, ‘Demographics 0’ became ‘Student's demographic details 0’ to highlight that the demographic details captured were for the students in 2011, not learners. It was also important to distinguish between the learners’ initial uses of ICT before university, so ‘First ICT uses 1.2’ became ‘Pre-varsity use of ICT tools 1.2’.

The tiles ‘Family 1.3’ and ‘Access 1.4’ were changed to be more descriptive, the former became ‘Use of tools in the family 1.3’, the latter ‘Site of access to ICT tools 1.4’.

For each index, the activity system components that each category featured were also highlighted under category headings. As an example, ‘Subject - Community - Rules - Division of Labour’ were added under the category ‘ICT education at secondary school 1.1’. This reflected the category’s focus on the learner subject whose formal exposure to ICT at school largely depended on the schooling community that they were part of, and its rules (or policies) influencing its learners’ access. By contrast, ‘Pre-varsity use of ICT tools 1.2’ focussed on each learner subject’s use of ICT tools, so only ‘Subject’ and ‘Tool’ were listed.

Changing coding index two, ‘Students’ Current  ICT Use 2’
The second index was developed to code the students ownership of, as well as formal and informal access to, ICT tools and their academic or informal uses. Most students had access to a diverse range of tools which were provided through a community including their; University, parents or sponsors, peers or acquired through their own work. Although this was reflected through the sub-categories under the original ‘ICT ownership 2.1’ category title, this was not highlighted in the title itself, which was changed to ‘Student’s personal ICT ownership and/or access 2.1’ to better reflect different avenues of tool access. The other two category titles were changed to be more descriptive; from ‘ICT use 2.2’ and ‘Academic use 2.3’ to ‘Student’s personal ICT use 2.2’ and ‘Student's academic ICT access and use 2.3’, respectively.

A sub-category title was also changed to be more descriptive of community; ‘ICT help 2.34’ changed to ‘University, family and peer assistance with ICT 2.34’ thereby emphasising the varied members who provided assistance.

Revising coding index three, ‘Students’ Intended ICT Use 3’
The third index was used in coding transcriptions of students describing; the types of ICT tools and resources they desired, their future aims with ICT, how they plan to use social networks in the future and their current and future social work contributions. The original category titles were ‘ICT tools and resources wanted 3.1’, ‘Future ICT aims 3.2’, ‘Future social network use 3.3’ and ‘Subject's social work 3.4’. These were revised to highlight the role of the learner subject, becoming; ‘ICT tools and resources wanted by the student 3.1’, ‘The student's future ICT aims 3.2’, ‘The student's future social network desired use 3.3’ and ‘Student's social work 3.4’, respectively.

Modifying coding index four, ‘Students' Social Media Use 4’
The fourth index focussed on coding student feedback regarding their social media use for self-representation, friendship and achieving specific tasks (through its affordances), as well as rules they employed in using social media and their feelings about it. The original titles were; ‘Representations of self 4.1’, ‘Friendships and social media 4.2’, ‘Social media affordances 4.3’, ‘Personal social media rules 4.4’ and ‘Student feelings in relation to social media 4.5’. These were also modified to reflect the subject’s importance; ‘Student's representations of self 4.1’, ‘Student's friendships and social media 4.2’, ‘Student's perceptions of social media affordances 4.3’, ‘Student's personal social media rules 4.4’ and ‘Student's feelings in relation to social media 4.5’

In conclusion
Using the components of  a second-generation Activity theory activity system proved useful as a lens to create more accurate and descriptive titles for the Student ICT Access and Use project’s coding indexes. Following a similar process may prove useful for ICT researchers creating or reviewing index titles.

References
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwood.
Engeström, Y. 1987, Learning by Expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research, Orienta-Konsultit Oy, Helsinki, Finland.
Engeström, Y. 2001, Expansive Learning at Work. Towards an Activity-Theoretical Reconceptualisation. University of London, London, England, UK.
Engeström, Y. 2005, Developmental work research: expanding activity theory in practice, Lehmanns Media, Berlin, Germany.
Hardman, J. 2007, "Making sense of the meaning maker: tracking the object of activity in a computer-based mathematics lesson using activity theory", International Journal of Education and Development using ICT, vol. 3, no. 4.
Hardman, J. 2005, "Activity Theory as a framework for understanding teachers' perceptions of computer usage at a primary school level in South Africa", South African Journal of Higher Education, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 258-265.
Leontiev, A. 1981, Problems of the Development of Mind, Progress Publishers, Moscow.
Leontiev, A. 1974, "The Problem of Activity in Psychology", Soviet Psychology, vol. 13, pp. 4-33.
Kaptelinin, V. & Nardi, B. 2006, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Vygotsky, L. 1978, Mind in Society; The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA.
Vygotsky, L. 1987, The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky. Plenum Press, New York, USA.
Wertsch, J. 1985, Culture, Communication and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Define your online portfolio's keywords, check its search results and take these steps to improve them.

Written for Visual Arts and Design learners and students who use online portfolios, plus their educators.

Like the proverbial billboard in a dessert, what good is an online portfolio website if it can't be readily found by your family, peers and potential clients? 'If you build it, they will come' may have worked for Las Vegas, but it won't for your online portfolio or other webpage types, whatsoever!

So, once you have created an online portfolio you want to share, it's up to you to take steps to ensure that your online creative presence(s) can be found through being well-ranked, searchable and visible. Here is a step-wise process to achieve just that:

1. Clearly define what you want to present and what you want to be searched under;
2. Refine your personal description, use of keywords and artwork tags;
3. Check your online portfolio service's search engine results;
4. Submit your online portfolio to external search engines; 
5. Use your social media presences to promote your portfolio;
6. Respond to your audience;
7. Comment on others' works and create new presences;
8. Check your results, improve; check your results, improve; to infinity and beyond...

1. Clearly define what you want to present and what you want to be searched under.
In the attention economy, it is important to be highly differentiated in the work you do. This will ensure your work stands out and be easier for people searching using the distinctive combination of keywords that describe your artworks. Although it may be hard defining your niche within the constraints of your school's syllabus, you can make a start by thinking about the type of post-matriculation online portfolio you desire (i.e. for example it could have a specific niche in Fine Art (i.e. portraits of people in a particular community) or design (i.e. Surfrican slang).

It is useful to list the words that you would like your online portfolio to be found with, and then to ensure  these words are used consistently throughout your portfolio (i.e. in your profile's description, artwork titles and projects' descriptions). These keywords should reflect the media, subjects or themes that predominate in your current and past work (for example; 'body-boarding photography at Cape Town's beaches' or 'Pencil illustrations of Spaza rappers').

If you are at a loss for (key)words, do your own online portfolio apprenticeship by searching the featured work of creatives whose work relates to your artworks and resonates with your interests; learn from the way the describe themselves and imitate their example. As you become comfortable with uploading work and refining your descriptions, you should develop the confidence to set your own example.

2. Refine your personal description, use of keywords and artwork tags.
Like an up-to-date online portfolio helps you prepare for your Visual Arts and/or Design exams, having the right keywords can  guide your creativity and ensure your portfolio's development is aimed at realizing your post-school ambitions. Once you know the core of what you wish your online portfolio to be about, you should review your online portfolio and consider changing its title, artworks labels & tags and your profile description & tags to better reflect your desired portfolio presence. Making these changes is important as search engine algorithms rate coherence in an online presence and by consistently repeating keywords, you not only improve your search engine results, but are more likely to pull the most interested viewers for your creations.

3. Check your online portfolio service's search engine results.
You should test that your website is searchable on your portfolio service's local search engine, before checking results from external ones (like Google and Bing). For example, Carbonmade users can use http://carbonmade.com/portfolios to search for text (such as their 'first-' and 'last names') and by 'expertise' to narrow results down. Use your proper name, nicknames or whatever a friend or family member would typically use when searching for you.

No results? Oops. Check your online portfolio service preferences allow your portfolio to be found. Most services are set to "findable" by default, but yours can be an exception.

As you look at the search results page, you will notice that some creatives have not taken any time to check what their results show. Ask yourself, would you (or any other searcher) be likely to click on a result that: looks bad, features bad spelling and vague information?

Example of a search engine result for a matric learner (29 July 2012)
If you would like the backing image to your search result to look better (which is usually your 'about' profile pic), you can experiment by seeing how changing this pic affects your result's appearance.

Should your portfolio be hard to find using your names, take steps to improve your search results (i.e. use your first and last name in your portfolio and include your nickname in your 'about' description).

You should also experiment with seeing whether you can be found using the combination of 'keywords' you want to be found with. For example, you can use the 'Sift by Area of Expertise' function to see where your results show up for combination of expertise or skills you wish to be found with.

4. Submit your online portfolio to external search engines.
Once you're getting results on the local search engine, it is more likely that you'll get results on external search engines. Most users will search for your portfolio using Google or Bing: to register your online portfolio with Google for free, submit your portfolio to https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/submit-url?continue=/addurl&pli=1, and for Bing go to https://ssl.bing.com/webmaster/SubmitSitePage.aspx. You can also submit your portfolio to the Open Directory Project at http://www.dmoz.org/add.html.

At worst, your online portfolio could take up to two months to be indexed and you should check whether, how and where, it appears on the external search engine's results. If you are dissatisfied with the results, you may want to experiment with search engine optimisation techniques.

5. Use your social media presences to promote your portfolio.
You probably have a Facebook presence and maybe Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest ones, too. By posting a link to your online portfolio, you can introduce online connections to your work and update them when you post a new body of work or similarly significant updates.

6. Respond to your audience.
In Reasons Why Blogs Fail, Rean John Uehara makes several recommendations for bloggers to follow that could also be applied for online portfolios. One of them is to respond to comments; 'Nothing shuns away readers more than a non-responsive author. They might think that your blog is just another aggregator or a robot that publishes posts. Having a human connection is important!' It is rare that internet viewers make the effort to give feedback and you should take this opportunity to respond, whether it is to thank them for their feedback or respond to constructive criticism.

7. Comment on others' works and create new presences. 
You can also raise your portfolio's visibility and visitors by commenting on other people's written and visual creative work with a link back to your blog. Once you are satisfied with the standard of your portfolio showcase, you can also create multiple presences that reflect different aspects of your creative work. For example, if you are produced work in computer graphics, you can join and publish them to www.cgsociety.org. You should aim to use sites that have a high authority in their creative niches, this way you work is more likely to be noticed.

8. Check your results, improve; check your results, improve; to infinity and beyond...
Your online presences are works in progress. In trying different approaches in promoting them, you should learn what works to attract the audience you want. Hopefully, this results in your spending less time experimenting online and more time producing artwork :) !

To let this blog's readers know if there are any other tips they should follow, simply add your advice in the comments box below.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Digitizing one's art and designs for an online portfolio

Written for those Visual Arts and Design learners (and their educators) interested in digitizing artwork for upload to their online portfolios.

Making good digital copies of artwork is a core competence in creating an online portfolio that does justice to your originals. This post was written for novices wanting to achieve this through sufficiently understanding the process and key concepts of digitization. Links to other website articles and online videos have also been provided for more in-depth assistance.

The digitization process
There is a eight-step process you must follow in digitizing your art: 
  1. Collate your best artworks and designs;
  2. Organize access to digitization tools;
  3. Get your work ready for digitization; 
  4. Digitize your works with a scanner or camera;
  5. Save each work to your digital archive with an appropriate filename and format;
  6. Edit your files to get them upload-ready;
  7. Upload your files;
  8. Backup your archive.
1. Collate your best artworks and designs.
You online portfolio should showcase your best art to viewers. So, it is important to keep your digital up-to-date by digitizing your latest (and best) artwork and design projects. It is helpful to review your curricular tasks and sketchbooks to check what you have done, and should these creative works are at different sites (such as home, school studio, boarding house, art center, government exhibitions, etc.), you must plan a schedule for collating them. You should also consider diarising a digization session on a regular basis; this will prompt you to set the time aside for updating your personal digital archives and online portfolio.

2. Organize access to digitization tools.
Once you've collated the artworks you want to digitize, you must organize access and help with the appropriate tools. The type you need to digitize your artworks should depend on their size and dimensions:
  1. For very small (21.5cm x 35.5cm), two-dimensional (2D) works and small, relatively flat three-dimensional (3D) ones use an A4 flatbed image scanner;
  2. For small (297 × 420) 2D and flat 3D works, use an A3 flatbed scanner;
  3. For medium and large 2D works use a tripod-mounted camera (or mobile phone camera) in well-lit studio;
  4. For medium and large 3D works use a tripod-mounted camera, video-recorder or mobile phone video camera.
If you are at a well-resourced school with a computer lab and library, you should be able to organize scanner assistance with either your Visual Arts or Design educator, your computer lab's IT manager or a librarian. You may also be able to ask your Visual Arts or Design educator to setup a well-lit area for you and your classmates to take pictures or video-record your bigger works, too.

If you do not have access to a scanner, camera or video-recorder at school, you should investigate alternatives. These could include:
  • Getting help from family and or friends at home or at their work;
  • Receiving support at an Arts Center or your local library;
  • Or paying for assistance at your local photocopying shop or internet cafe.
3. Get your work ready for digitization.
Once you have defined where and when you can digitize your images, you should order your collated artworks and designs in descending order; from your best, downwards. This will ensure that should you run out of time, you at least have digitized your best works first.

Checkpoints
  • Any small drawings in smudge-able media (like charcoal or pastel) should be sprayed with fixative, so that they do not change whilst marking the scanner!
  • All glass-framed work should be removed from its framing, since photographing or scanning a glass surface without reflections is more complex.
  • Check that any fragile work is safely stored for transport to the digitization venue.
4. Digitize your artworks with a scanner or a camera.
Working with digitization tools means learning some new terminology: you will use these tools to create 'raster images' made up of 'pixels'. Designers and digital artists distinguish between 'vector' and 'raster' images; vector images are images based on mathematical primitives, whose expressions are used to create computer graphic images, and are generally used for typesetting and graphic design. Raster images, or 'bitmaps', are going to be used when you create your photographs and scans. These images are made up of tiny colour squares. These colour squares are pixels (there is a parallel between the pixels and the tiles in mosaics).

Raster graphics are resolution dependent and cannot scale up to an arbitrary resolution without loss of apparent quality (unlike vector graphics, which easily scale up to the quality of the device rendering them). Before digitizing work, it is important to decide what you may want to use your digitized artworks for in the future. For example, you may have two objectives: in addition to using reduced images for your online portfolio website, you may want to print your digitized works on A4 paper.
Defining your objectives are vitally important; they should determine the initial resolution in 'dots per inch' and image size settings you choose when scanning or photographing imagery.

'Dots per inch' (dpi) refers to the number of dots of colour a colour printer creates when printing work, while 'pixels per linear inch' (ppi) refers to the number of pixels per linear inch in a raster image. For example, you would choose a high resolution, like 20,000-ppi, and a large format if you wanted to reprint your artwork at the same size. Or you would convert imagery to a small size for speedy display on a webpage (and at a low resolution, though this need not be a low, 72 dpi!) N.B. Please note that if you are only able to gain access to a mobile phone camera, its sizing is generally much higher than that used in internet imagery, so you can readily create online portfolios imagery with it.

Given the wide variety of scanners and cameras (including video and mobile) available, this post cannot possibly address techniques for specific equipment. It's up to you to take the initiative and either find help at your school, at home, outside or 'Do-It-Yourself' by referring to the online resources below (and/or finding the relevant equipment's manual(s)!).

4.1 Useful online resources for scanning or photographing your works:
A4 or A3 scanning introduction 
Scantip's beginner guide at www.scantips.com/begin.html by Wayne Fulton is a great resource that will help you no matter what type of scanner you use.

Photographing your painting
Tyler Stalman's introduction at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpj28da03JQ&feature=g-like is a useful guide.

Photographing your sculpture
Chris Warner shows at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jNbVdNKaBo how to use artificial and natural light to photograph sculptures.

Same size imagery from scanning or photography
If you want to create same size imagery from your scans or photographs, read Lar Matré's article at http://matre.com/731/print-prep/ to learn how complex this is.

Video screenshots
You can use a video camera to take still photos of your work or your can take lower-resolution screenshots of video with a screenshot (on PC see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGG-58qnsnk {with your volume low} or on Mac, watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKNfjrFsO3E).

Search for other resources
If you are having problems digitizing works, use a search engine like Google or Bing to see if there is helpful content on the relevant terms: i.e. If glossy surfaces are posing a problem, search using 'How to photograph shiny surface',

N.B. To cut down on editing time, please ensure the layout of your artwork matches that you want to see in your online portfolio when your  (ie. with minimal or no background showing, nor upside down or at an unusual angle!)

5. Save each work to your digital archive with an appropriate filename and format.
Based on my design experience, I would recommend that you should first capture your imagery in a high resolution (at 300 dots per inch, or greater) TIF image file format and then export this as a small size JPG format.  The reasoning for this is that you can keep your TIF files in reserve (for larger image work, like poster creation, for example), than you would be required when using small JPG files for Carbonmade uploads.

Check that your scanner or scanner is set to scan TIF files at high resolution after the image preview is shown. You should save the source TIF scans in a folder, and create a sub-folder within it for the JPG exports. You should also give your exported files different names to ensure its easier to spot the difference between the large and small versions. For example, 'table mountain sketch 17 July 2012.bmp' is exported as 'table mountain sketch small 17 July 2012.jpg'.

6. Edit your files to get them upload-ready.
You set your scanner or camera's software to edit and export imagery in JPG format. Alternatively, you can use Microsoft Picture Manager on PC, Preview on Mac, or GIMP on Ubuntu. Simply click on the appropriate link for a tutorial. 

Open the jpg file(s), then focus on learning how to get the appropriate image dimension, cropping technique, colour-balance and size:

6.1 Try out different image dimensions
You will need to experiment with the dimensions that work best for you, but it should not be smaller than 448 by 336 pixels, as you will see on the 'appropriate image sizes for uploading to web/adding to documents/sending by e-mail' listed below:

A. 1024 x 768 ppi   Large document
B. 800 x 600 ppi     Small document
C. 640 x 480 ppi     Large webpage image
D. 448 x 336 ppi     Small webpage image (unsuitable– too small, low quality)
E. 314 x 235 ppi     Large email (unsuitable)
F. 160 x 160 ppi     Small email (unsuitable)(N.B. These may vary to some extent depending of original dimensions of image captured).

Please check that the sizing you use for digitised imagery is consistent for your portrait and landscape formats, respectively; if these sizes vary significantly it will create a jarring visual effect for the viewer scrolling through your works. That's fine if it's deliberate, but a poor show, if not!

6.2 Cropping 
An important aspect of presentation is to ensure that the digitised images of your artworks are cropped neatly to the edge and no extraneous background should be visible, unless this is consistently done. For example, including the wireframe of your sketchbook may be an interesting touch when done in all sketch scans, but odd if done just for one.

6.3 Colour balance 
You can also try out the different colour-scheme in the editor, as listed on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_scheme. Once you have defined a scheme, you can also explore how changing an image's colour balance settings enhances (or degrades) your image's appeal.

6.4 Image size
Once you are happy with how your image looks, you need to check its file size. If you have followed the dimensions guide (6.1) it should be less than 1 Megabyte. If not, you need to be aware that a
large file size may take a while to upload and the download-time for your viewers will also be slow if they are on slow connections.

7. Upload your files.
Log into your online portfolio service and upload your files. If you have a slow connection, it is safest to  upload your files one at a time since batch upoads may time out when your school's broadband is being heavily used by other learners.

8. Backup your archive.
Finally, there are two types of computer users on earth; those who have lost data through computer hard-drive failure, and those who are about to! Rather than regretting that you didn't backup your digital artwork archive, you should schedule regular backups and do them to at least three different sources (i.e. external hard-drive, CD and USB memory stick). To find out more about backing up, read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_backup and to take you backup practices to the level of best practice, check out www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,1847364,00.asp.

I trust that this post provides learners and their educators with the background they need to digitize their art and designs for the online portfolio services they use. I would like to thank the independant Visual Arts Head of Department and IT curriculum integration specialist, whose curricula, 'Digitising, Presenting and Publishing', was sourced in preparing a few sections of this post.

Please let me know if you have any suggestions on improving it in the comments box, below?

Monday, 16 July 2012

Why Multichoice's DSTV won't be offering a less-expensive, pay-per-view service anytime soon.

Written for South African satellite television subscribers.

My DIS'-SA-TV-A rant bemoaned the lack of a truly customized, pay-per-view service for South African television viewers. Now, here's a contrarian view as to why local satellite television subscribers who want to pay only for programming they are interested in (rather than subsidising the ridiculous lifestyles of the "Dim {Kardashians} and Dangerous {Snooki & Sitch}") should not 'hold their breath' for such a product offering from DSTV:

One of Umberto Ecco's most humorous articles 'Does the Audience have Bad Effects on Television?' (from Apocalypse Postponed) saw him confronting the belief amongst certain intellectuals that television is "bad for its audience" by showing that the inverse was true; television audiences had rejected many state-subsidised efforts aimed at promoting High Culture to them. This came to mind after a recent u-turn by Multichoice: I was pleasantly suprised and impressed that DSTV had ditched daily scheduling from their April subscriber magazine. However, it later became clear that I was in the minority. Multichoice did a subscriber poll in May and promised to return to the old format by August due to customers' negative feedback concerning this change.

This may reflect several truths about DSTV television subscribers:
  1. They resist change;
  2. They prefer to read their magazine to know exactly when shows will appear on their favourite channels (even though the reason DSTV initially gave for dropping scheduling from its magazine was their concern that it became outdated during the month);
  3. They do not want to use their electronic TV guide to get more accurate information on programming;
  4. They may find it easier to search the magazine for content they are interested in, rather than using the electronic TV guide (and, yes, IMHO its 'search for' function could definitely benefit from a Google-sque makeover);
  5. They like to know for a month-in-advance what's on television, rather than the week-in- advance that their electronic TV guide shows them;
  6. They may prefer to schedule their daily lives around television programming times rather than to set recordings and watch them later.
If these preferences apply to most of the one million viewers (a quarter of DSTV subscribers responded to the questionnaire), then this suggests to me that the bulk of their audience would not be desirous of changing to more customization, and the extra-efforts this would likely entail. The flipside of this is that DSTV can now readily cite potential audience disinterest as yet another reason for not offering a more customized pay-per-view service. That's in addition to the growth of its subscriber base and the absence of strong competition from satellite television providers in our local market:
  • At around 300 000 subscribers as of November, 2011, TopTV offers no existential threat worth evolving for;
  • If media visibility determines reality, MyTV would not to exist (the only reason I know about it is thanks to Wikipedia);
  • And Free2view "South Africa's only free to air satelite TV platform" is dead, according to Teevee with Thinus, quite contrary to what its Wikipedia entry's PR rep seems to have wrote!
While DSTV's new BoxOffice and OnDemand may point in the direction of more user choice, there seems no sound business reason why Multichoice would ever combine these into a fully customized, pay-per-view satellite television service. So, if you want to spend less on your monthly television bill; your local video store, PushPlay, online video services, an iTunes US Account with AppleTV, GoogleTV, et al. is your best bet for the foreseeable future.

If you agree, or not, let us know in the comment box below. Ta.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Guidelines for learners' Carbonmade homepage and template choices.

Written for Visual Arts and Design learners using Carbonmade and their educators.

Carbonmade gives you varied design choices for creating three distinct pages types; a 'homepage', an 'about' page and 'project folder artwork' pages. In designing with Carbonmade's online portfolio template, you will make design choices that are specific to each page and those that apply to all. This post focuses on providing suggestions for the look-and-feel of your homepage, which covers all template choices and those specific to it. These are your 'portfolio title', 'website address',  'artwork thumbnail layout', 'artwork names', 'background color' and 'footer':

What is your portfolio for?
Before making choices, its important to reflect on your reasons for using an online portfolio. Creating a quality portfolio takes a good understanding of what you want to express, how to achieve it and how you would like your audience to interact.

As a learner, here are some important reasons to create yours:
  1. To impress your adjudicators by exhibiting it as an adjunct to your analog portfolio in your matric exhibition (on a tablet or laptop computer);
  2. To showcase extra-mural and co-curricular work, the extra-effort in which might otherwise be unnoticed by your educator;
  3. To help you in your application for further education;
  4. To showcase your visual creativity and media-savvy to future employers;
  5. To show your interests in an amateur, visually creative hobby.
I suggest you write down your goal(s) and use this to motivate yourself to create an online portfolio that truly helps you achieve your aims.

N.B. If you are unsure, take the time to look at the portfolio examples of the creative types (see the left hand side menu) that interest you, and learn from their example. If a portfolio is one you would like to have one day, simply think about what its creator's goals are, then think if they could match your own...

Your online portfolio's title (and web address')
Once you know the reason(s) you are creating an online portfolio,  you should have a sound basis for choosing a name and its website address. Your online portfolio title can be based on your; genuine identity (i.e. your real name), your nickname, a pseudonym, a fake name, a corporate identity or your particular interest (i.e. subject, theme or medium). Whatever your choice, make sure it is well-aligned to your online portfolio's aims, unless your aim is to confuse your audience :) ! As a free user of Carbonmade, your website address will be your portfolio's title inserted between http:// and carbonmade.com (i.e. http://amymullen.carbonmade.com).

Background color

Learner EG's homepage: white background example (May, 2012)
Learner MH's homepage: black background example (May, 2012)
Carbonmade offers just two choices for a background colour; either 'black' or 'white'. In making your choice, it is useful to think of the resonance that your colour choice creates. For example, a white background can suggest a sketchpad and is well-suited for portfolios that feature many drawings. A black background suggests a screen or film negatives and is often highly appropriate for mixed-media, photographic or film portfolios.

Homepage thumbnail layout

Carbonmade offers three design choices for the layout of your homepage's artwork folder covers; either one, two or three thumbnails per row.

Learner AK's homepage: horizontal thumbnails example (November, 2010)
If you want to create a cinematic effect, then the one thumbnail option works well. It is also well- suited for artworks in landscape format. If you prefer a look that is more similar to a gallery, then the two or three thumbnails option is more appropriate.

Artwork project folder names
Please visit my tips to name your online portfolios for advice on choosing folder names, if your educator hasn't given you specific instructions.

Artwork project folder images
Learner KP's homepage: artwork folder example (May, 2012)
Your artwork folder covers can either be the first artwork that is inside them, or show an image that does not feature in the folder itself. You can choose whether you there's merit in having artwork or designs that are especially chosen as folder covers, or whether your first folder image does the job.

Copyright your online portfolio's content using your footer.
Your Carbonmade online portfolio's 'header' section is at the top of every webpage and features your online portfolio's name and the 'Work' and 'About' buttons. You can also add a footer, which will appear at the bottom of every page. I recommend that you use this space to assert copyright for your website. To do this, insert the copyright symbol © in front of the year your online portfolio was first-published and then list the copyright owner. For example: © 2010 Travis Noakes. It is also a good idea to do the same for each artwork, when you label each newly uploaded one.

I hope this advice proves helpful. Should you need more, kindly review my online portfolio posts. Comments welcome in the box below, thanks.

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