The really great thing about nearly any computer problem you might have is that it’s very unlikely that you are the first person to have it. So if you have access to the internet and Google (to get you to other online help sources like Stack Exchange and other random app sites) you can find a way to do what you want to do, often.
I am working on a long term project. I am trying to visit all of Vermont’s 183 libraries. One of the things I will need to do to get started on that project is to make a map. The Vermont Department of Libraries makes the location of most of these libraries available in an Excel spreadsheet (thanks!) I just needed to figure out how to make that spreadsheet into a map. I toyed around with the Vermont Center for Geographic information but was having trouble making a CSV file that would satisfy Silverlight’s obscure criteria. And then I found a site that would generate a KML file (for Google Earth/Maps) from a CSV file. And again, I was close, but couldn’t quite get it to work. Googling further I found this impressive site, BatchGeo, which basically says “Hey click here and paste your data and we’ll make our best guess as to how it works and then draw you a map!” I had decently clean data. I clicked and pasted, and this was the result.
View Vermont’s Public Libraries in a full screen map
Oddly, the same data file pasted in to Google winds up looking not quite so clean thanks to quirky handling of ampersands and the non-standard address format of the original data file. But who cares, all I needed was one map. 183 libraries (the most per capita of any state in the US) here I come! You can read more about Vermont’s libraries in this report by the Department of Libraries.
I teach a bunch of little “Getting Started with X” night classes at the local vocational high school. They’re fun. I’ve been doing them for years now. They’re the sort of classes you’d teach at a library if you had a computer lab, but the libraries here don’t have computer labs. They’re usually 8-12 hours broken down into two hour classes. Given that, you might be surprised how little we cover, but we go slow, do a LOT of review, and do a lot of things together so that everyone can keep up.
I’m lucky to have access to the computers in the lab, so I can put documents and example spreadsheets on them ahead of time. One of the most important things in teaching novice users is that they’re often bad typists so saying “Type a few paragraphs and then we’ll edit them” is a recipe for disaster and frustration. I usually have them work from some standard text like The Gift of the Magi or something I’ve copied from Wikipedia. I’m also very clear about what sorts of things on the computers are customizeable and what are functions of how the computers work. For new users, they can’t tell what’s a setting — all those annoying pop-up warnings using Internet Explorer when you go to a secure site for example — and what’s something you can’t easily edit — how the cursor behaves. One of the biggest thigns I had to learn is that a lot of my students have no idea what the word “default” means, so when you say “Oh that’s just the way MS Word is set as a default…” that’s not a sense-making sentence to them. We spend half a class just adjusting the settings, turning off grammar-checker, adding and removing toolbars, so they know how to do that if they ever get a computer at home.
It’s fun work and I really enjoy it. Over the years people have emailed me asking for advice so I’ve zipped up my class handouts and sample documents and made them available here. Please feel free to use them in your classes in any way you’d like to. If you do, please remove my name and email address first :)
Who owns the lesson plan I gave to the Google Librarian Center? Obviously the link goes to someplace on my own server, so I guess the answer is “me” but what an interesting use of Google. Last night I started teachign a two week, eight hour basic Excel class. I had asked in an online forum I frequent what the best way to teach basic skills to adult ed. students was. Someone sent me a copy of the syllabus they used in their library Excel class and, using it, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I love not reinventing the wheel. I know that the local nature of most libraries means that we feel like we need to tailor many of our offerings to our specific communities, but having a place to go where we can at least easily see what others are doing seems like a great place to get some ideas. Anyone want to try searching the ALA website to see if you can find something like this there? I didn’t think so.