Saturday, October 3, 2015

How to create and share a school calendar using Google

Summary: A walk-through explaining how to create and share a public school calendar.
I have three kids enrolled in two schools that operate under different calendars. To keep track of their schedules, I set up the school calendars on my phone (and PC), so that I get event notifications and reminders. It works well, but comes at a cost: in the beginning of each school year I spend 1-2 hours manually entering the information about the school events (minimum days, holidays, days off, back to school nights, etc.) into my personal calendar. And so do other parents at my kids' schools, as well as millions of parents nationwide. Sooner or later the schools will learn how to make the process more efficient, but in the meantime, you -- a school administrator, a teacher, or a volunteer -- can help us. It won't be hard.

In this article, I'll explain how to make it easy for parents to see a school calendar on a mobile device (iPhone, Android device, Windows phone or tablet) and keep this calendar up-to-date. You will no longer need to print calendars on paper (yay, trees!) or have parents enter them manually. A public calendar allows you to add new events, update existing events, delete cancelled events, set reminders, provide helpful event details (such as instructions or locations of off-site events) and subscribers will see them instantly. It lets you share the same calendar online (at your school's website). And it does not limit you to a school schedule. You can follow the same approach to set up a calendar for any organization or activity, such as a sports team or a volunteering project.

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let me first clarify the requirements and limitations.

REQUIREMENTS: A user must have a Google account.
While you may keep a personal calendar locked to your your mobile phone or computer, inside of iCloud, or in Outlook, for a public calendar you better use Google Calendar. It supports all major platforms (iPhone, Android, Windows), has wide adoption, and offers most features.

If you (a school calendar administrator or creator) do not have a Google account, you can easily create one (it's free). A Google account gives you access to the Calendar features including ability to create public calendars. You may prefer to create a special Google account that would "own" the school calendar, so you can transfer it to someone else in case you no longer want to manage it (Google makes it really easy to switch between multiple accounts).

To get real time updates, Google calendar subscribers (parents) will also need Google accounts. As a subscriber, you do not need to actively use a personal Google calendar (if you prefer something else), but you will need it to sync the school calendar with your mobile device.

WARNING: If you have a fundamental objection to using Google, there may be a similar approach to sharing a school calendar using a different provider (say, Apple, Yahoo!, or Microsoft), but it'd be more complex (if possible at all), so let's assume that at this point both calendar administrators and subscribers have Google accounts.

Calendar creation process
To set up a school calendar, follow these steps:
  1. Create a public calendar
    First, you create a public Google calendar for your school online. Here is a short video explaining how to do this (if you prefer a written tutorial, read Create & manage a public Google calendar):

    Although you can change it later, try to give the calendar a meaningful name (or title). Keep in mind that a long name may not show completely on mobile devices, so place the most significant parts of the name in the beginning. Here are some examples of calendar names that I used, so you may want to follow a similar format:

    • CCHAT, Sacramento (School Calendar) (see preview)
    • CMP (School Calendar) (see preview)

    If you want to allow other administrators to maintain the calendar (create and make changes to the events), set appropriate sharing permissions (read the Control what others can see help section).

  2. Add events to the calendar
    To make sure you add an event to the wright calendar, when you work with your school calendar, temporarily turn off all other calendars. Here are some tips.

    When naming events, follow the same naming convention. To make it easier for subscribers identify which calendar an event belongs to, include a short name of the school in the name of event. Here are some examples of event names that I used for a California Montessori Project's school calendar (you can browse the calendar to see more examples and details):

    • Minimum Day (CMP)
    • School Break (CMP)
    • School Holiday (CMP)
    • School Closed (CMP)
    • Last Day of School/Minimum Day (CMP)

    As you may have noticed, I prefer to keep titles short and simple, but I also use the description field for additional information.

    Include details that parents may find useful in the event description. You can use description for special instructions or any type of information you would normally provide in a letter or email invitation.

    For off-site events, specify the address in the location field. The address will help parents find location on map and use navigation apps.

    For some events, such as minimum days, it may make sense to set up reminders. Keep in mind that that parents may need time to travel, so give them enough time (I'd say, for a full-day event, a 12-hour advanced reminder would be fine, while for all other events, an hour would be enough). Use pop-ups for reminders.

    For repeating or multi-day events (such as regular after school activities or school breaks), set up occurrence rules (do not duplicate events).

    Instead of creating each event from scratch, use the Duplicate Event feature, which allows you to copy an existing event, and then update all relevant information. For example, when defining school holidays, set up an even for the Labor Day (I think it's the first holiday in a typical school year), make sure you use proper naming convention and define event details. Then duplicate it to make an entry for Veteran's Day (don't forget to adjust event information), and continue doing the same for other school holidays.

  3. Advertise the calendar
    Once you get the calendar up and running, you send its address (the URL of the calendar's ICS file) to the parents. At the time of writing, you could locate the calendar address by following this steps:

    • Open your Google calendar page.
    • Click the settings (gear) button in the top right corner, and select the Settings option from the pop-up menu.
    • Under the Calendar Settings heading, click the Calendars tab link.
    • Click the name of your public school calendar displayed in the My Calendars section.
    • Scroll down to the Calendar Address section and click the iCal button (make sure you use the public iCal address and not the private one).

    A window will pop up showing the calendar address that looks like this:

    Make sure that the address ends with the .ics extension. This is the address of the calendar that you will need to share with parents.

  4. Maintain the calendar
    You can use the same calendar year over year and make changes to it at any time. All changes to the calendar will be automatically delivered to the subscribers. As a bonus, you can also add a Google calendar to your website.
Calendar subscription process
To see calendar events on your mobile device, such as phone or tablet, do the following:
  1. Subscribe to calendar
    Parents subscribe to the calendar using the provided address of the iCAL (.ics) file. The steps are outlined in the Add someone else's Google calendar article (see the Add using a link section). Alternatively, you can subscribe to a calendar by clicking the Add to Google Calendar shortcut displayed at the bottom right corner of the calendar's HTML page.

  2. Sync calendar with phone
    If you do not see the school calendar events reflected on your phone (or other mobile device's) calendar, you may need to make a couple of adjustments. First, follow the instructions outlined in the Sync Calendar with a phone or tablet article. Depending on the device configuration, it may not be enough, so follow your device maker's recommendations. For example, here are instructions for Windows and iPhone users. For an Android device, you many need to clear calendar data and resync the calendar (if you are not sure how to do this, search for: <your device name> +clear +calendar +data and <your device name> +sync +calendar).


CMP, Orangevale School Calendar Page (short link) * | CMP, Orangevale Calendar (iCAL) file
Crater Lake, CMP, Class Calendar Page (short link) ** | Crater Lake, CMP, Class Calendar (iCAL) file
Denali, CMP, Class Calendar Page (short link) ** | Denali, CMP, Class Calendar (iCAL) file


CHAT, Sacramento School Calendar Page (short link) * | CCHAT, Sacramento School Calendar (iCAL) file

* You can add this school calendar by clicking the iCAL / YEARLY link at the top of the calendar page.
** You can add this school calendar to your Google calendars by clicking the link at the bottom right corner of the calendar page.
Easy? I think so.

I'm almost done, but before we part, one final though. In fact, this is the first question you need to address:
How many calendars do you want to keep?
Do you want to maintain a single district calendar or multiple calendars? Do you need a separate calendars for primary, middle, and high schools? Do you want the calendar to include the information relevant to teachers and staff (such as training)? Depending on the size of your district, differences in school schedules, and other factors, you may choose one approach over another. As a parent, I'd like a single school calendar with information relevant to students only and a class calendar reflecting class-specific events, such as field trips, project deadlines, and due dates. I do not care when and where teachers and staff attend training, but I do care when the school is closed, but others may have other preferences.

I hope this information was helpful. If you have questions or want to leave feedback, please leave a comment.

See also:
Embedding Google Calendar in eChalk
Can I get my Google Calendar shown in my iCloud Calendar on my PC?

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Build API documentation with Sandcastle Help File Builder

Summary: How to build awesome API documentation using Visual Studio, XML code comments, Microsoft Markup Assistance Language (MAML), and Sandcastle Help File Builder (SHFB).
A couple of weeks ago, I gave this presentation to the Sacramento .NET User Group:

The presentation explains how to build first-class API documentation using Visual Studio, Sandcastle, and other tools and technologies. The goal of the presentation is to show how to build documentation with less effort and more fun.

The PowerPoint file (with links and notes) and the demo project can be found here: The demo project page outlines the dependencies and requirements for building the solution and using the assemblies.

If you run into any issues or have questions, please post a comment below or contact me directly.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Technobrief #15

Summary: Recent (and not so recent) findings of software, articles, and more.
CSS Design Fonts Graphics JavaScript
  • Gridforms
    A tiny Javascript/CSS framework that helps you make forms on grids with ease.
  • SlabText
    A JQuery plugin for producing big, bold, and responsive headlines.
Programming Software
  • DVDStyler
    Free slide show and DVD authoring tool. Important features: allows creation of interactive menus (from templates), support for multiple video formats.
  • GlassWire
    Free network monitor & security tool with a built in firewall.
  • LightWorks Free
    The free version of a video editing application (see limitation in the version comparison charts).
  • MP3 Diags
    Identifies and fixes problems in MP3 files, such as duplicate tags, wrong audio duration, character encoding, and many others.
  • Windows Media Preview
    Shows thumbnails for all media files in Windows Explorer.