A perception is that weblogs are primarily for teen angst diaries, obsessions on favorite pets, or rantings of the extreme lunatic fringe (hey, I think pretty much describes my blog!). I’ve been tinkering here and there with a demonstration case that the tools and features blog can be harnessed to simplify the creation of beautiful and/or useful web sites by every day folks, not just techies, programmers, and designers.
The current site for Low Threshold Applications (LTA), is designed to provide mainly for an audience of non technical teachers, a collection of detailed tips on non threatening ways to use information technology in a beneficial manner. All very good stuff, goal-wise. But the web site falls short on design and functionality, so we have set up a blog published demo to put side by side….
Currently for the LTA site, authors send articles, likely as big fat Word documents, to Charles Ansorge at the University of Nebraska, who then patiently codes them to HTML by hand, or maybe with (ugh) FrontPage. The current design has a side bar featuring the most recent items, so every new one necessitates hand editing of several other web pages to update this side bar. (As my own sidebar, while there have been some good LTAs such as the overview of RSS and aggregators, the time and energy spent to detail how to create bookmarks in a web browser seems so 1990-ish, antiquated, ignoring the current generation of net based tools such as Furl. Or doing something in MERLOT other than just becoming a member).
In addition, after I sent Charles some suggestions on creating RSS, he composes the RSS feed by hand.
In a word, the publishing is tedious to say the least.
Design-wise, the site is rather hemmed in by its used of HTML tables (words smashed against the borders) and a fixed width that does not take advantage of the available screen real estate. There is no keyword search nor any grouping by common topics. There are some links to some external commenting site:
(Click on this link to provide feedback regarding this LTA. Comments will be summarized and posted for later review by visitors to this Website. Check here for summary comments)
It sure sounds like another hand sewn process, and certainly not in near real time. I have yet to see any summaries.
Now compare to this our MovableType published version of the LTA site (we have only 3 there as a proof of concept). Cleaner CSS design, uses the full page width, better use of white space… but there is more. Entries are time./date stamped. Comments are built in.
Also, the graphics on the original site are huge, and rather than optimizing, they are simple resized by height/width attributes. I bothered to clean these up as well.
But the key is the things that the blog adds automatically. It is all in the sidebar, which is automatically updated and generated as content is added. The five most recent published items are automatic placed and linked. We pull out excerpts from the most recent comments (and linked to them). Entries are automatically made available into topic categories, and using MovableType’s ability to put entries into multiple categories, we also set up archiving by category of ease of use low. medium, and high (made do-able in MovableTpye by the FilterCategories plugin). Automatically we get keyword search and Creative Commons License links. RSS feeds are generated automatically.
Editors should now be able to publish simply by typing in the MT Editing forms, and not spending time formatting. Adding links in text may take a bit more effort, but MT facilitates the uploading and inserting of HTML for images, and even generates thumbnail versions for those big images.
What is not there but will take just an hour or so is to create a print version style sheet, so when sent to a printer, the non necessary navigation elements, banner graphics, and color text, will be automatically printed in a clean format.
I am not sure if anything will come of this, and I am not that interested in taking over the publishing of this content, but if you look beyond the hype of weblogs and consider what they can automate and simplify in thew web publishing process, you will see more than cat blogs.
Anybody publishing by hand stamped HTML an online collection of related content or a newsletter /journal ought to take a look at weblogs as a publishing tool.
In doing this prototype and a few others, I have began assembling a series of tips and strategies for improving some of the MovableType templates and constructs (e.g. using modules for the sidebar content, making the archives a linked directory rather than a big fat appendage). Look for a new series of these tips in the next few weeks.