A Workflow For The Deluge of Online Reading

Something that I’ve been recognizing lately is that I have several workflows that I’ve built that help me in my day-to-day life that are used by others, but not as widely used as I would have guessed. I also have experienced shifting my own workflows over time and wish I had a better record of the processes I’ve used in the past. Since this particular one is something that’s come up several times in the past few weeks, I thought I’d document it here:

The Workflow for The Deluge of Online Reading

For the process I use, I require three tools: a smartphone, Instapaper, and Pinboard. There are lots of ways to do this. Some people only use Pinboard because it offers some of Instapaper’s functionality. Some people use Pocket or Readability or another “read later” app (Safari even has it built into the browser). Some people like Delicious or other ways of saving their links. I’m just outlining my process, which I arrived at over time, due to changes in the information environment due to ownership shifts in Delicious and other social/technological reasons.

Step 1: Gathering Reading

All day long we come across interesting things. We see it on Facebook, we come across it in Twitter, people send us emails with interesting links. Maybe you even subscribe to a collection in Medium or use a site like Longreads to find content. There was a point in time when I read as much as I could when I came across it. A “quick” check in on Twitter could grow to half an hour. I’d spend lots of time looking at screens but not recalling very much of it. My solution was to save all internet reading for later, and do the actual reading in batches.

Luckily, Instapaper helps with that! I added a little plugin to my browser which you can see here:

browser plugin

That letter “I” with a circle around it is the Instapaper plugin. When you come across anything that looks interesting to read on the computer, you just click the “I” and it saves. You can also do this on the phone.

iphone interface

I do this all day long. I don’t stop to read the links in the Chronicle emails I get throughout the day. I don’t follow links from Facebook other than to add them to my list. I just keep sending things to Instapaper.

Step 2: Reading

I save my reading for when I am putting my child to sleep. That’s the time I have for internet reading at this point in my life. So once my child is sleepy and won’t be too distracted by my phone, I open up Instapaper, set my phone to the darkest setting, and look through the day’s links. (FYI you can see that the story at the top of the list is the one I just saved in the previous screenshot.)

dark reading view

The trick is: you can’t read it all. If I was going to read everything in my list on any given day, I would not get back out of bed, and I’d be up until the early hours of the morning. My rules are:

  1. Read what still looks interesting
  2. Read what looks like it will be helpful for work
  3. Delete delete delete

Obviously this process only makes sense for inspectional reading. I don’t add things like Ithaka S+R documents. I save that type of reading for daylight hours where I can really think about what I’m reading and incorporate it into my understanding of things in a deeper way.

And it’s so easy to push aside step three, but it’s really the most important one. It’s overwhelming to have hundreds of articles in your reading list, and it makes it easy to lose the “important” things. Clearing the list means if I added something important that day, I will certainly see it and take the time to read it.

The reading process is quick and minimizes cognitive load. Formatting is simplified, ads are removed, only the main media associated with the article is presented. You can see one of the above stories here:

sample storyOther neat things to know: if you do save hundreds of things you can filter on aspects like length of article. You can read saved articles even when you don’t have access to the internet. If you have a premium membership, you can listen to a robot reading your content to you. It’s a great service.

Step 3: Saving

With the additions of extensions in the iOS platform, the step is even easier than it was a few weeks ago. Many of the articles I read, I just delete once I finish them. However, if there’s any chance at all that I think I might want to reference it again, I want to save it. My solution to that is to use Pinboard. Pinboard is a web-based bookmarking site that makes use of tags and descriptions to make your content findable. I add a lot of content to Pinboard: things I read on Instapaper, links to intranets that have logins so that I can find them later, links in tweets that I favorite, and so on. When I add something from Instapaper it’s as easy as clicking on the Pinner extension and filling in the relevant fields:

Pinner Extension  Pinner interface
Once I click Pinner and add the relevant information, I delete the article from my reading list. And here is what it looks like over on Pinboard:

Pinboard interface

You can see from this example how links are shown, how descriptions can be useful, where tags show up, the tag cloud, the source of the post (Twitter, etc). Even with all of that, I use search to find the things I shared later. It’s a really useful tool and has my bookmarks dating back to 2006. I highly recommend it (even though it has a one-time fee).


Take all of this for what it’s worth to you. Do you have a process that works even better for your reading preferences? Have you written about it anywhere? If so, please share in the comments. I’d be very interested in your approach.

Online First Instructional Design

I don’t really blog much anymore, but wanted to capture an idea, in case it is useful later.

I was talking with a colleague today about how online learning fits into thinking about instruction in general. In the course of the conversation I realized that the way I think about how the two fit together is related to a concept that is widely known about in web development circles, but not necessarily widely discussed in education ones.

The concept is Mobile First. Web designers and developers often talk about starting with the mobile interface, then moving to larger format screens. There are a number of reasons for that:

  • Starting with mobile means you ensure the most important information is front and center, no matter the device the user uses
  • It makes it easier to guarantee that the primary functions work on all platforms and devices
  • Constraints can help when finding creative solutions

The analogy in my mind is:

mobile first :: web design
online first :: instructional design

The parallel is that if you start with a perspective of online learning you can gain benefits that help you in your face-to-face instruction just as Mobile First web design can help you end up with a better desktop website. Potential benefits of Online First include:

  • Intentionality about learning outcomes
  • Media that is useful in a number of contexts: online learning, hybrid instruction, flipped classrooms, self-paced instruction, etc. (a la universal design)
  • Instructors have tools to enable them to think about how to create authentic learning situations, with help at a specific point of need.

Of course, we don’t all teach online. I have never worked at an institution with a focus on online education, or even significant online education for undergraduates. However, a solid grounding in online education and eLearning practices has enriched my teaching in face-to-face instruction, whether in a classroom or at the reference desk.

So as we build our online learning team, I’m thinking about Online First Instructional Design and its potential role for my library. (Though, of course it’s wise to keep in mind that there are good arguments for a measured approach to any model, even Mobile First web design.)

A Bit on Learning Environments

As is so often the case, a blog languishes when a lot is going on. Over the past year and a half a lot has been going on: a new job, family stuff, and most recently some new focuses at work.

It’s an exciting time to be at Tech. We’re aligning more closely with our strategic plan, we’re restructuring in ways that will enable better communication and collaboration, and generally it’s exciting to be positioning ourselves to meet our new mission, vision, and aspirational identity. Some of us are finding ourselves in new roles as a result of this focus, and on July 1, I’ll begin the role of Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech.

Today I had the opportunity to begin speaking publicly about what that means at an NLI workshop: Transforming research, teaching, and learning through the new University Libraries.  I suspect this is the first of many chances to hone the message around what “Learning Environments” are, but to briefly describe it, we’re framing Learning Environments as the environments in which learning takes place, as well as the services and partnerships that are situated in those environments.  In our thinking, this includes online learning environments, circulation, reference, point-of-need (roving assistance), spaces, and academic programming. Putting these units and services under one umbrella will allow for some really strong partnerships and collaborations within the library, as well as providing a context from which we can offer consistent learner experience and messages that reinforce one another.

The larger Learning Division also includes Learning Services, where a lot of traditional instruction falls. Learning Environments and Services will be close partners as we are both stakeholders in a number of overlapping areas (such as classrooms, online learning, etc).

If you’re interested in our first stabs at outlining this work, we posted a LibGuide for the workshop and I’ve posted my slides here. (I’m hoping by the third or fourth time I talk on this topic I can move the slides to something more typical of my presentation style. :) )