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AirTable Review

I have been trying out different project management tools over the last few weeks. So far, I’ve used Notion, Trello, and AirTable and also looked at half a dozen others. I also tried a notebook and paper, but I definitely prefer the digital.


My first goal is to try to find something that can help me keep track of the various projects that I’m working on. I have a habit of saying yes to literally everything anyone proposes, and then losing track of my commitments. So I need something that will tell me what projects I’m already working on, when they’re due, and some sense of how much bandwidth I have to spare.

The second goal is seeing if any of these tools also make sense for adoption by the Office of Digital Learning. We are in the process of hiring new IDs, a new instructional technologist, and a new video person. We’ve been using a combination of Trello and excel to track things for a while, but in an OLC Live conversation with Clark Shah-Nelson, I realized that we could probably do better.


This week I’ve been trying out AirTable at the recommendation of Angela Gunder. As the name suggests, AirTable is a lightweight tool for building tables. My guess is that many people are put off by tables due to repressed memories of having to look at MS Access in a poorly thought out computer class as a kid. I, however, love tables. Working with websites as much as I do, everything now looks like a table. Each webpage is a table. A website is just a table of webpages. And I manage big tables of all the OU Create websites. I’ve organized my research notes into online tables and I’ve built tables for history undergrads to do the same.

For a couple of weeks, I was using Notion.so, and I like how it lays everything out in linked webpages with embedded spreadsheets. Any record that you put into the system can become it’s own little wiki page with embeddable images, spreadsheets, and links to other pages.

However, I eventually decided to abandon Notion, because it was not enough like a table. It was difficult to create two-way links between records for quick movement around the note system. Updates on one page rarely carried over to related pages, so you had to enter the same information on every relevant spreadsheet, rather than just updating a single table.

I spent about two days back in Trello, before remembering that Trello doesn’t do anything other than Kanban charts. There’s no interrelation of information across different charts, and once you’ve completed an item, you just archive or delete it or live it sitting taking up space.

So what I wanted, was something that combined Trello’s Kanban to-do charts with a broader table layout with multiple ways to drill down into the data. AirTable has Kanban charts taking care of my need for visual to-do lists:A screen shot AirTable's Kanban chart viewWhen you update the status (or any other information) of a card in the chart, that update carries throughout the rest of the system. You can view all of your items in a set of spreadsheets that can be tied together with relational tables:

Screenshot of AirTable's table view

In my “To-Do List” database, I have created a table of tasks. Each task can be tied to a broader project, and I can see information about those projects in their own spreadsheet. I also made a spreadsheet for ‘Ongoing’ tasks that I do daily or weekly or monthly, the types of things that can’t just be checked off and removed.

My table also includes a spreadsheet for readings, and these can in-turn be linked back to tasks or projects.


For my own usage, AirTable is brilliant. I’m happy to put in the time and energy to build a table to keep track of all of my stuff. The sheets are interrelated, so my updates propagate through all of the various views and sheets easily. I can sort by deadline to see what’s urgent or by impact to see what the big, important projects are. When a task is done, I can change it’s setting and then hide completed tasks. This is similar to the archival feature in Trello, but it’s much easier to unhide all of my completed AirTable tasks and analyze the amount of work I did in a given week or on a given project.

For my group’s usage, I think AirTable has a lot of power but also several drawbacks. We could easily set up a spreadsheet of all of the programs around campus that we are working with and list out points of contact and notes. We could then create a related spreadsheet of the courses we are developing and have developed. A task list might then list out all of the pieces of content and meetings and design work we are doing for the various courses. We could even set up a separate media table of all of the video and image assets we have acquired and created for the courses. I think in terms of keeping track of all of the stuff that the Office of Digital Learning is working on, this would be a really great tool.

However, my usage so far has been free, but I think we would need to pay about $5 per user (about 15 of us) per month. That’s not a ton of money, but it’s a new cost as compared to our current free usage of Trello or Basecamp which we already have access to.

Also, I felt very comfortable playing with tables, but I anticipate most people will want to stay on their views of the main tables, especially as the database gets much bigger and less comprehensible. It’s easy for me to modify my tables to my exact needs, but it will necessarily be harder to design a set of tables that fit everyone’s needs. My guess is that we will end up with a few tables that are only used by one person, so that they can organize their information as they want. As long as those tables are related back to the main tables, that’s not too big of a problem, but the system will grow ever larger and more complicated.

But, those are all tasks to worry about next week. For now, I will change the status of “Write-up on AirTable” to done, and call it a day.

Week in Review: 3/26-4/1


One of my favorite things about my job is that I meet with people from a variety of departments and offices across campus every week to brainstorm and build all sorts of projects. This week, I had meetings every day.

I have been working with Prof. Honorée Jeffers on a couple of websites and some course design throughout this academic year. Meeting with Honorée is always one of the highlights of my week. As much as she’s a gifted storyteller—she was recently recognized with the Harper Lee Award—she’s equally gifted at flattery, and I always walk away from our meetings feeling like I revolutionized the internet and lassoed the moon.

I also had brainstorming meetings for new websites for an upcoming conference and a history database. I love brainstorming meetings, because I get to throw out all sorts of ideas and then sit back while someone else decides what they want to actually implement.

At the end of the week, Keegan and I met with Stacy Jacob from Slippery Rock to discuss research in gamification and gameful learning. Keegan and I need to start writing more, so I’m hoping that we can find some partners like Stacy who will line up prompts for us, give us deadlines, and then hold us accountable for saying something interesting.

New Tech

On Monday, I attended a demo by CodeOcean that Sarah Clayton arranged in the library. Unlike GitHub, which hosts code, CodeOcean allows you to stand up an environment in the cloud to run the code. You can import python or most other open language code sets into your account, tell the system what environment you need and then allow people to run your code for themselves. This improves transparency and reproducibility in code-based research. I really like this concept and have already recommended it to one of the professors who’s looking for ways to share code with and among his students.

I stumbled across Notion.so this week and have already spent a ton of time playing with it. Basically, it’s a cross-platform service that’s designed to be a personal or team dashboard. It combines the functionalities of Trello, a rich-text note taking app, and a wiki. You can embed files or link out to files. I’m using it for personal organization right now to help me make sense of my files that are spread over my local hard-drive, Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and Apple Cloud.

What I’m Reading

I’m trying to read a book every week this year. This week I read The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn at the recommendation of both my sister and dad. The book plays off of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The narrator is a recluse who hasn’t left her house in quite a while and has spent her time watching Hitchcock and other classics. One day she sees something horrible out her window, and the reader is left trying to decide whether to trust the narrator and her view on the world.

I so enjoyed the novel that I read it in one sitting, probably the first time I’ve done that since Harry Potter 7. I’m not a movie buff, so many of the allusions went over my head, but I still found it a gripping and sad story about mental illness and trust. I really recommend this book.

My Top 3 Goals for next week

  • I need to plan out the 3rd Annual OU Creaties for this year. Every year we honor the best students and faculty who created the best new websites and web content in OU Create. I thought last year was a great success, so I’m going to build off of that and add on 3D printed trophies and one or two other new features.
  • Keegan and I need to draft an abstract for an article on our GOBLIN Faculty Learning Community.
  • We are getting closer and closer to OLC Innovate 18. I am running a new online portion of the conference called OLC Live. This week I need to line up the interviews that we will do with keynotes, organizers, and presenters at the conference.

Photo of the week

This photo is actually from last Saturday, but close enough. I got a decent shot of my daughter and my dad walking to the playground together.

Gamifying Courses: Notes from Session 4 of #PaintCanvasOU

Today, we are kicking off a new mini-conference called Paint Canvas. Prepare All Instruction, Now Teach (PAINT) is a half-day Canvas training that showcases the best of Canvas in the classroom to inform and inspire educators. PAINT is organized into 45 minute rotating stations that focus on various Canvas features including pedagogical approaches and technical examples. In this series of blog posts, I’ll share my notes on the talks I attend in each session.

In the fourth session, we had five presenters:

1:00PM – 1:45PM – Purple Track: Gamification

Topic Presenter Room
Gamified Courses Heather Ketchum, Grant Loney LL 118
3D Game Lab John Stewart LL 118
Peer Review In Canvas Megan Elwood MaddenJennifer Shaiman LL 123
Canvas Badges Jennifer MayesJohn Boekenoogen LL 123
Collaborative Mind Maps Andy Vaughn LL 123

I was supposed to present on 3D Game Lab, but I subverted the plan by joining up with Dr. Heather Ketchum and Grant Loney into a mega-presentation. Immediately, I knew that I’d made the right decision in that I was being thanked on the opening slide of Dr. Ketchum’s deck.


Dr. Ketchum started off by talking about the principles of gamification that we had discussed in GOBLIN. She then transitioned into how she applied these principles into her own course on parasitology.

One of the most exciting elements for me is that in gamifying her course, it encouraged her to move away from a lecture format and into an active learning class format. Noting the problems of the “Tyranny of Content,” Dr. Ketchum advocated for refocusing on the process of learning. There are still structured course objectives, but they include things like “Accept failure and learn from your failures” and conducting experiments to learn experientially. This has vaulted the course up Bloom’s taxonomy into more analysis and creative activity. The feedback has been so positive, that she’s moving from lecturing towards ALC in other courses as well.

To make this shift, gamification elements were introduced around the idea of team work. Students role play as parasitological researchers, starting off as low level grad students and moving up to the director of the CDC. Students level up by earning experience points through their course work. As the reach different levels in their career, they gain benefits. These benefits include expert help in explaining or simplifying difficult concepts and a budget to buy resources and diagnostic tests for their “lab.” Students then use this lab work as the basis for reflective and analytical writing.

This design is so brilliant in that it professionalizes the students into this field of study. It clarifies the grading system making it easier for students to understand and at the same time pulls that grading system out of the normal, painful school paradigm. It integrates the course content, assignments, growth model for learning, and assessment into a well thought out system that is both educational and fun. It makes the teamwork for the course an important, authentic part of the course and necessitates teamwork without the common extrinsic motivators imposed arbitrarily by an instructor frustrated that students are doing what they’re supposed to.

Ketchum and Grant’s presentation was so much fun for me in that it demonstrated how the concepts Keegan and I developed for GOBLIN were translated into a real course. Even better, the course looks so great that I wish I could take it. Building a course so good, that it makes a squeamish person like me want to study parasitic worms and epidemiology, is a huge testament to the power of fun and gamification.

I talked about 3D Game Lab and Canvas. While 3D Game Lab is great, and I’ll write more about it in the coming weeks, the LTI for Canvas integration is currently completely broken. I was very happy to not have to talk for more than 5 minutes.

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