Blogging at Scale with Google Sheets

When you go directly from several weeks of work travel into the beginning of the semester rush at Reclaim Hosting, the bava.blog necessarily gets neglected. But that changes now!

Back on August 22nd Tim and I sat down with John Stewart to talk about his ingenius work to use Google Sheets to enable near on 1000 students in University of Oklahoma’s biggest lecture classroom to blog at scale. Pretty brilliant to use Google Sheets as a kind of  WordPress Multisite stand-in wherein Google manages scaling the infrastructure for you. In this, the 8th episode of Reclaim Today, we discuss this experiment in detail, and I was really enthusiastic because it felt like a really creative and useful way to imagine getting a class using a simple form to blog up and running with very little financial overhead. Fast cheap, and out-of-control: edtech at its best.

You can read the first and second of the three post series John promised, and the video was recorded on location at Reclaim Video and comes in at a very manageable 23 minutes with a couple of the best looking ed-techs this side of proprietary. Here is the synopsis in case you need a more objective reason to watch:

Jim and Tim sit down with John Stewart of the University of Oklahoma to discuss a recent solution he blogged about in which he’s using Google Spreadsheets and APIs to drive a fast and scalable blogging infrastructure to support a course with 1,000 students.

And if you come away with nothing else, it should be mad kudos for John Stewart for a really creative, relatively light-weight  solution to a potentially expensive and resource intensive problem, the term innovation gets thrown around way too loosely but it makes resonates for me in this case.

Today

Today

I recently got back from a lovely weeklong vacation in Myrtle Beach where amongst all the relaxing I got nostalgic while showing some old DTLT Today videos to a friend. Right on the heels of that I read Jim's post about Reclaim's 5 year anniversary and while doing some digging in my Twitter archive (I'm no longer on Twitter but have a full archive of my stuff here) I found that Jim and I must have put out an episode the day we went public with the idea of Reclaim Hosting narrating our thoughts on the formation of it. Luckily Jim is the best kind of pack rat and had a copy since the original post I wrote had a broken embed from a media server that no longer exists at UMW and I was able to get it back online. Seriously, if you're a Reclaim fan and have some time to spare check this out:

It never ceases to amaze me when I go back to watch these videos how they become a time capsule of a particular moment. I cherish every one we did because just like blogging it helps me understand not just the relationships and the interactions I've been privileged to have in my career but also the political, commercial, and cultural changes that were influencing the work we were doing as a group. So needless to say the bug was starting to bite hard and I know better than to fight that feeling.

So yesterday after floating the idea to Jim and thinking it really could happen I rearranged some furniture in our back office and spent the evening developing an opening sequence (I'm such a god damn sucker for branding, I can't help it!). In an homage to DTLT Today we are calling it Reclaim Today and we recorded our first episode today in meta fashion talking about why we're doing this and what our goals are for the podcast.

As a geeky colophon to that I wanted to write a bit about the technical aspects of building both the opener and how we're currently managing the podcast as a distributed company with half of the team of 4 remote.

For the opener sequence like many video projects I started by checking out what was available on Videohive. I have an Adobe Suite license and I've played with After Effects with a few other projects so I find these templates a great way to get something professional up real quick. I also found a decent audio track on Audiojungle (same marketplace, part of the Envato network). So for ~$35 and a few hours time finding images and editing text I had the pieces I needed to build the video you see at the top of this post.

For the actual recording we leaned towards Google Hangouts on Air, which you can setup to livestream but also record straight to YouTube. Hangouts are awesome in that it's dead simple to act as a standalone switcher between folks, people can share their screens, and no one has to "control the feed" as it were. Hangouts suck in that sometimes you might want that control. Great example was that I had to download the YouTube video, insert our intro video and outro, and reupload as a new video because apparently you can't play videos within a Hangout. The quality also leaves a bit to be desired. So we'll see if we stay with that or move towards something like Wirecast which we used extensively at UMW for a variety of projects including DTLT Today and it was very powerful but a complex and expensive piece of software (and we talk a bit about this conundrum on the first episode).

Another nice piece of the setup I got working was that we had a mobile TV cart on one end of the room with a long HDMI cable to a standalone mac mini that was driving the hangout. The mini had a Yeti mic and Logitech HD webcam connected to it and we ran a long audio cable from the Yeti behind the couch with a splitter so Meredith and I could both hear everything without any echo. It ended up being a pretty nice solution allowing us to look right into the camera while interacting directly with the screen behind it and managing audio in a way that allowed for now echoing. I do want to start breaking out the audio in a separate recording so we're not left with the compressed stuff Hangouts gives us for the final recording (thinking about Audio Hijack Pro for that).

So anyways, we're having a blast and we've launched this thing. As the kids say these days, like and subscribe for more!

Using Google Apps with your Domain

Managing e-mail can be one of the harder parts of reclaiming your space on the web. While building a web presence is easier with modern applications like WordPress, the state of email clients and protocols is much less advanced. You'll have to grapple with getting your IMAP accounts setup and all the settings correct, webmail options are limited in functionality, and deliverability is always a concern with shared hosting servers.

Many users for this reason decide to use a service like Google Apps with their domain. Google Apps allows you to have email addresses based on your domain but completely powered by Google using Gmail as a webmail interface and connecting to any Google-supported client. Luckily it's absolutely possible to push mail to Google while still maintaining complete control of your domain for building out content on Reclaim Hosting. This is done by editing several MX Records which are a type of record for your domain that tells our servers who is in charge of handling email for the domain.

Google outlines the necessary records for setting up Google Apps on your domain at https://support.google.com/a/answer/33915?hl=en. Essentially we'll be editing the MX records to reflect the following:

Priority Mail Server
1 ASPMX.L.GOOGLE.COM.
5 ALT1.ASPMX.L.GOOGLE.COM.
5 ALT2.ASPMX.L.GOOGLE.COM.
10 ALT3.ASPMX.L.GOOGLE.COM.
10 ALT4.ASPMX.L.GOOGLE.COM.

To make these changes you'll log into cPanel and navigate to the Email section and choose MX Entry.

Email Section in cPanel

By default cPanel creates a single MX entry that points to your main domain as the server for email (so if your domain is hosted by Reclaim Hosting mail will be routed through the server your domain is on). We'll need to change that to take advantage of Google Apps for email. Each MX record has two items, a Priority number which tells the server which order to check for email records, and a Destination which is a domain that will serve the email.

MX Entry Editing Interface

You'll need to edit the existing one (or remove it) and then add a few additional ones from the table above. When you're done the records should look like this:

Completed MX Records

You're all done! Keep in mind changing records can take 24-48 hours to begin working, though it typically will happen much sooner. Once the records have propagated globally all email will be routed to Google and you can use their system to handle all of your email functionality while still maintaining control of your domain from Reclaim Hosting.