RSS and Aggregators


I wasn’t originally intending on taking this course. Whether it was it fate that brought me to it or just a stroke of good luck, I’ll never know but I am grateful to have been a part of this intensive, cutting-edge learning experience. The course I was scheduled to take this semester in my teacher-librarianship program at the University of Alberta had been cancelled so I found myself at loose ends deciding what to do next. The coordinator of the program, Dr. Jennifer Branch, suggested I give a new course “Exploring Web 2.0 Tools for Schools and Libraries” a try. At first, I was reluctant because many of the tools she listed that were going to be explored throughout the course I was already familiar with and in some cases, already use in the classroom. However, after consulting with the instructor, Joanne De Groot, I decided that there was enough about Web 2.0 that I felt I could explore so I decided to sign up and the rest, as they say, is history.

Early Struggles

Needless to say, I was not intimidated by the various Web 2.0 tools that were listed in the course outline. In fact, I was more concerned about how I was going to demonstrate my learning on tools that I have already taught to teachers or students. In hindsight, however, I had nothing to worry about since it quickly became apparent shortly into the course that there was always way more to learn about the tools and how they could be used effectively in the classroom and there was no shortage of Web 2.0 tools that I could explore to extend my learning.

What did intimidate me at the beginning of the course was the amount of postings I was going to have to write for my blog and that my postings were going to be read by others. I know that I am a very slow writer and I like lots of time to edit my work so the thought of having to write a detailed post every week, never mind a post interesting enough for others to want to read, scared me. To cope with this fear, I decided a few weeks into the course to not look at my marks for my posts. I decided that this put too much pressure on me as a writer and I figured that as long as I was learning, this was what was important so marks became irrelevant to the process. To be honest, I don’t think I ever completely lost my fear of having others read my work but it lessened somewhat because I was just too busy to worry about it.

In the beginning, I also found it difficult to determine who my audience was and find my own voice or style. Part of this struggle was due to my lack of knowledge of what a blog was and how a blog could be used as a learning tool. I came to the course with a definite idea, dare I say bias, about what a blog is. Having never read a blog before, I thought a blog was a place where people talk about their lives, the people they know and perhaps their plans for the future – all boring topics in my opinion. In school, I have seen blogs used effectively as spaces to post class information, assignments and as ePortfolios but never as complex, higher level thinking tools.

Even the title I chose for my blog “EDES 501 Web 2.0 Learning Log” showed that I had little understanding of a blog as a tool for learning. I thought my blog was going to be a place where I kept track of my learning much like a quantitative, scientific “log” and my blogging days would be over at the end of the course. Since I had assumed coming into the process that it was the personal information in blogs that I didn’t like, when I first created my blog, I didn’t even want my name to appear on the front page. Little did I know that I might want to continue blogging after the course and that it’s the personal “touch” that connects your blog to your readers and makes them want to keep coming back for more.

Making Progress

Although I’ve yet to reach the complex blogging stage, I think I’ve certainly progressed as a blogger throughout the course. I believe that there were four main reasons for this progression: 1) I became more comfortable with the format and found my personal writing voice; 2) I read a lot of other complex bloggers like Will Richardson, Vicki Davis, David Warlick and Doug Johnson who helped me to get a sense of what blogging is all about and how to draw readers in; 3) I read the blogs of my fellow students who taught me a lot about the blogging process; and 4) I found my audience.

Interestingly enough, it was the process of finding my audience that led me in the direction of a complex blogger the most. At first, it seemed logical to me that I write my blog for my instructor and fellow classmates. Over time, however, when individuals outside the course began to leave me comments on my blog, I felt more a part of the edublogosphere and I could tell my feelings about the value of blogging beginning to change. No longer was I a casual observer but now I was a valued participant and that made all the difference in the world to me as a blogger. No longer was I just writing for my instructor and classmates but I began writing for anyone who is as passionate about Web 2.0, education and libraries as I am. I can tell you that when someone like Doug Johnson notices your work, you feel that you just might have something of value to add to the combined knowledge of the world and your blogging takes on new meaning.

Highlights and Lessons from my Classmates

By reading the blogs of my fellow classmates, I have been given an amazing amount of ideas on how to use the various Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. I can honestly say that I have learned almost as much about Web 2.0 by reading my classmates’ blogs as I have writing my own. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to my classmates on how much thought they have put into how these tools can be used in the classroom and I will be referring to their work often in the future. I feel so privileged to have been a part of this dynamic community of learners. Throughout the process, I have appreciated their honesty, humour, questions and critical thinking they put into their blogs. Among many other things, they were the ones who taught me the benefit of finding just the right title to catch my audience’s attention. They also showed me how powerful quotes can be used to “drive home a point” or capture the essence of the post.

Most of all, by reading my classmates blogs, I have witnessed first hand how powerful blogs can be used as a learning tool and how showing your personal side creates a connection with your reader and allows learning to happen and grow. Each week, I eagerly awaited reading their posts to find out how their week went and what they had learned. If there hadn’t been a personal connection established, I don’t think I would have been half as interested in reading and responding to their posts as I was. It will be interesting to see whether this learning relationship continues into the future through the powerful sharing tools of Web 2.0.

Overall, my favourite part of the course was learning the tools each week and thinking about how they might be used in an educational setting. In fact, I found that the more tools I tried the more fun I began to have. Although I don’t consider myself to be an expert in any of the tools, by getting hands-on experience with various Web 2.0 tools, I am now confident enough to sort out any problems I might encounter with them (or new ones) in the future. I am also amazed at my new-found confidence in trying new Web 2.0 tools. I feel like I’ve gotten to the stage of some of my students and children who seem to lack any inhibitions when trying new digital applications. I know I’ll never be a “digital native” quite like them but I feel that I’ve come a long way in terms of understanding who they are and what makes them excited about learning.

I find it ironic that the tools I was frustrated the most with I found the most rewarding to learn. I really struggled with creating my podcast and screencast both from a technical and creative standpoint but I was pleased with the results. I believe that both of these tools have a lot of potential in the classroom as learning tools and I’m glad I persevered. I will be taking part in my school division’s inaugural teacher-librarian podcast in January and I hope that I will be a valuable resource. I have already suggested to our teacher-librarian and technology consultants who will both be involved in the podcast that they look no further than the posts on podcasting from this course to find out more information on how podcasting works and how podcasts can be used in an educational setting.

In this course, I also enjoyed having an opportunity to examine virtual libraries. Although not specifically a Web 2.0 tool, I believe that a virtual library is an integral part of an effective school library program. As a busy teacher-librarian I’ve never had the opportunity to examine virtual libraries in detail so this was a great opportunity for me to do just that. I will certainly be referring to my post and the posts of my fellow students on virtual libraries when I have the opportunity in the future to redesign my virtual library. I have to admit to being thrilled to have been contacted by the creator of one of the virtual libraries I admired and critiqued for my post. That was one of the moments in this course that I felt I had “arrived” as a blogger.

Frustrations

My greatest frustration in this course was not with any one tool or concept but with the filtering system in my school division and the fact that all the programs I needed to download such as Audacity and Picasa, I had to put in an IT work order. Thank goodness I have the power to unblock sites at my school otherwise I would have gone out of my mind with frustration. All the blogs and nings I wanted to follow for this course were initially blocked as was my WordPress blog, YouTube, Facebook, Del.icio.us, Jumpcut, Twitter, parts of iGoogle, and Gmail. If we are going to be able to teach students with and about these tools, we need to have access to them! Enough said.

Future Plans

In the future, I anticipate that I will change the title of my blog (I have no idea to what yet), and continue to write about issues related to teacher-librarians and Web 2.0. Even though I know that my next course will not involve a blog, I think I might post my work anyways to keep my blogging experience “alive.” I have been asked by the Manitoba School Library Association to attach my blog to their site so it will be important to keep new ideas flowing. I will also link my blog to our school division’s teacher-librarian wiki so our teacher-librarians can become involved in the blogging process, as well. I am also on my school and school division’s professional development committees and in the future, I might suggest using blogs or wikis to support professional learning groups.

As a member of the divisional technology team, I hope that I will be able to share my knowledge about the benefits of Web 2.0 and how to integrate these tools in the classroom with teachers within my school division. I also hope to share my new-found knowledge with my fellow teacher-librarians at the divisional level at our monthly meetings. I suppose if I keep blogging, I might be able to help and learn from teacher-librarians who live anywhere, for that matter!

As stated in my previous blog post, my immediate future plans in regard to technology will be to educate my staff and students about the benefits of RSS feeds. I believe that this will help my staff see the “big picture” and encourage them to become fully committed to using Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. Although a few teachers have begun to use blogs, wikis, social bookmarking and multimedia applications such as voicethreads and digital stories in their classrooms, I hope that as the teacher-librarian, I can begin introducing how photosharing, podcasting, screencasting, and social networking sites can be used, as well. Since formal professional development time is limited, I will do this primarily on a one-to-one “mentoring” basis as the opportunity arises.

To keep myself up-to-date on Web 2.0 issues and technology, I will continue to read my RSS feeds religiously. I will also be adding some feeds that relate directly to teacher-librarian. Fortunately, several of my classmates have given me some great ideas of whose library-related blogs I might add to my aggregator so it won’t take me long to get started.

Final Thoughts

I have come to see in this course that the power of blogging as a learning tool is dependent upon the types of connections the blogger makes with its readers. It’s this sharing aspect of read/write web in all the tools we’ve worked with in this course that makes these connections possible and this is the exciting part for teachers and students. Now there are countless ways for teachers and students to share their learning, connect with others, and add to the collective knowledge of the world. I am grateful to have learned first-hand the sharing power of Web 2.0 and look forward to sharing my knowledge with others my fellow teachers and students in the future.

Thanks Joanne and Jennifer for giving my fate a push in the right direction so I could take this course.

Jo-Anne

p.s. My students thank you, too!

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literacy-with-ict1I feel fortunate to teach and collaborate with teachers in the school, school division and province that I do. Like any school, things are not always perfect but in terms technology, I think our provincial and divisional educational consultants, and our divisional and school administrators understand the importance of technology in preparing students for their lives in the 21st century. Since February, 2004, Manitoba educators have been working toward full implementation of a Literacy with ICT across the curriculum continuum in the 2008-09 school year. Teams of educators have been working together both at the divisional and school level to ensure that all teachers understand the importance of ICT and that they have the skills to implement the continuum and give quality feedback to parents. At my school, implementation of the Literacy with ICT across the curriculum continuum has been one of five top priorities articulated in our school plan.

I have been fortunate enough to be on my school’s ICT implementation team for the past two years. During this time I have talked to many educators both within my school and my school division about ICT, I have had the opportunity to learn new Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, digital storytelling and multimedia applications such as Voicethreads and Jumpcut, I have taught several teachers how to use these applications and helped them design authentic ways to use them in the classroom. I have also been involved in discussions regarding best reporting practices for ICT to ensure that parents are kept well-informed of their child’s abilities when it comes to using ICT tools in schools.

Despite all these very positive “moves” in the right direction, there are still many teachers struggling to understand what literacy with ICT means and how they should go about infusing it into the curriculum. Some educators believe that ICT education means instructing students on how to use Word, PowerPoint, Publisher and perhaps Excel. Although it’s important that students learn these skills, what I have heard in this course and in discussions with our division’s implementation committee and divisional consultant is that literacy with ICT is so much more than demonstrating ICT skills on a limited set of software Web 1.0 applications. It’s also about choosing and using ICT responsibly and ethically to support critical and creative thinking about information and communication across the curriculum and it’s about working and collaborating with others both locally and globally online through the World Wide Web using Web 2.0 tools to add and build on the collective knowledge of the people.

Seeing the Big Picture

At school, I have found myself teaching others how to use blogs, wikis, del.icio.us, digital stories, Jumpcut and Voicethreads and modelling how they can be used effectively as learning tools in the classroom but I never realized the significance of the “read/write web” as a whole. I was basically teaching these tools in isolation but not really understanding just how much potential there is to engage learners with these tools. I certainly understood why students like to learn in this way as I’m sure most of my fellow staff members understand this since we’ve discussed it before at various professional development sessions but I don’t think I was really “connecting the dots.”

If I wasn’t connecting the dots and seeing the “big picture” and I’m involved with technology issues every day, I can’t imagine that many others on my staff are getting it either. Although there are a few teachers on my staff who are well on their way toward infusing Web 2.0 tools into the curriculum, I know that there are many teachers on my staff who are not so enthusiastic and probably some that are just going through the motions adding ICT into their programs because the government has mandated that they must. I think that all teachers would be far more willing to find time to learn and adopt new Web 2.0 tools into their classes and get excited about the possibilities inherent in Web 2.0 tools if they could understand just how significant they can be to enhance student learning.

Getting Teachers Excited about Web 2.0

So how do I go about helping more teachers to see “the big picture” and get excited about using Web 2.0 tools in their classrooms? I know we’ve got a good start but where do we go from here? To answer this question, I wondered if I had a particular turning point in this course that led me to see where education is headed and become truly excited about what the tools of Web 2.0 have to offer. Although I found my confidence and enthusiasm grow with each new tool I studied and learned in this course, I believe it was my RSS aggregator that helped me to understand the significance of Web 2.0 for today’s students.

rss-feeds-pictureWhy an RSS aggregator you ask? Both Will Richardson and Mary Harrsch use very similar terminology to describe RSS; Richardson states in his book, Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful tools for the classroom, that RSS is “the new killer app for educators” (p. 75 and Harrsch calls RSS “the next killer app for education.” Harrsch defines a “killer app” as “a program that provides the capability for an average person to use technology to solve every day problems and enrich their lives” and Richardson believes that RSS has the potential to add to a teacher’s knowledge base, help them communicate and improve their teaching (p. 77). He also writes that RSS is one of the new technologies that “are helping make Web 2.0 a reality, transforming the way we live in the 21st century—and the way we learn” (Merrily Down the Stream).

rss-reader-person1RSS was the one tool that truly made me feel a part of the bigger picture of what is happening in education today and this felt truly inspiring. “Rarely an hour goes by,” writes blogger Dave Winer about RSS feeds, “without something interesting happening, my mind is stimulated, I get new ideas, and of course I share them” (What is a News Aggregator?). This has been my experience, as well.

In just ten to fifteen minutes a day, I witnessed myself moving from a casual observer to a committed participant in the edublogosphere and thereby becoming a committed Web 2.0 educator. Not only have I learned from some of the most knowledgeable educators in the field of Web 2.0 today using my RSS reader but I have also started to make real professional connections in the edublogosphere and because of that I am excited to move forward and keep learning. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Google Reader was voted the third most useful tool for learning in 2008 behind del.icio.us and Firefox as tabulated by social media and learning consultant, Jane Hart. (Note: To see the entire list of Top 100 Tools for Learning, see http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/recommended/top100.html I would have voted del.icio.us number one, as well, but I’ve already taught my staff how to use this Web 2.0 tool).

This is what I envision for teachers. To be shown how to set up an RSS feeder, find some engaging bloggers to follow in the field of Web 2.0 and any other field of interest and just start reading. I think that by doing this, they will not be able to help but become enthusiastic about what Web 2.0 has to offer their students. This will serve to cement the beliefs about the benefits of ICT in those who are already highly interested and motivated like me and hopefully bring those that are not so enthusiastic in the first place to understand what all the fuss is about. Once they’ve been given time to “soak it all in,” then it will be time for me to offer my services and help them learn more about any Web 2.0 tool of their choosing and help them infuse it into their day-to-day teaching.

Some Specifics

Like most schools, the time we have for whole-school professional development is limited. Combine this with teachers who are constantly stretched to the max and it’s difficult to envision how professional development in terms of RSS feeds should unfold. What I do know is that whatever I have to teach them about RSS feeds needs to be concise and eminently useful for both themselves and their students. Whatever I do, I need to convince teachers that RSS feeds can not only save them time but can also help them stay “on top of” the latest information the field of education. As Geoff Butterfield writes in Edutopia, RSS feeds can help teachers “sort out the new from the mold” by feeding them the latest news in their field of expertise. In an environment where information is seemingly endless, having a tool that brings information to teachers and students rather than them having to search it out is, in my estimation, indispensable.

Before introducing RSS feeds to my staff, I would first want to ensure that they are clear on what is meant by the term, “Web 2.0.” Although I know some teachers on my staff know what is meant by the term, I know that there are some that do not so this would be my starting point. I think the most effective and efficient way of doing this would be to show them a video at a staff meeting or whole-school professional development session and then follow this up with a short presentation and question-and-answer period. For a video on Web 2.0, I think I would show Web 2.0…The Machine is Us/Ing Us:

For a more detailed look at the educational implications of Web 2.0, I would base my presentation on Michael Nieckoski’s PowerPoint presentation, “Web 2.0: A Primer.

After discussing the Web 2.0 and how it relates to education in general, I would then introduce my staff to the idea of RSS feeds and how this tool can help them begin to get a sense of what the Web 2.0 world has to offer them and their students and save time in the process. Once again, I feel that a short video presentation such as Common Craft’s “RSS in Plain English”

followed by a short discussion period would be the most effective way to introduce teachers to this Web 2.0 tool. For staff wanting a more thorough explanation of RSS, I would recommend Will Richardson’s article, “RSS: A Quick Start Guide for Educators.”

One of the most important things that I would stress about RSS feeds is that they are not the same as email. This is the single most important aspect of RSS that helped me to enjoy reading my RSS feeds throughout this course. I don’t want the teachers on my staff thinking that their RSS feeds are a burden so it’s important that they know that RSS feeds do not have to be read everyday, that they can quickly be deleted if they don’t want to read them and they don’t have to respond to anything if they choose not to. Having said this, however, I would encourage teachers to get into the habit of reading their RSS feeds on a regular basis. As Will Richardson writes, the most important part of using the RSS tool is to develop the habit of reading your feeds daily. He suggests taking a few minutes to read them right after checking email to get into the routine (2006, p. 86). This is what I did throughout the course and found it to be most successful and truth be told, a bit addicting!

From there, I would begin making appointments to visit each teacher individually to show them how to set up an RSS reader, help them find sites that interest them, show them how to add sites and how to read them. (I’ll be starting with our technology committee who can help me to “spread the word” once they get going!) I would come equipped with a list of possible blogs, news sites and podcasts that I feel might interest every department but I would ideally like the suggestions to come from them so they will take ownership over their readers. In addition, I would encourage them to read at least one blog relating directly to education and technology such as Will Richardson’s Webblogg-ed, Doug Johnson’s Blue Skunk Blog or Vicki Davis’ The Cool Cat Teacher Blog to get them started thinking about the bigger picture of Web 2.0.

My RSS reader of choice is Google Reader. This is the reader that I would like to help them set up not necessarily because it’s the best reader (I find all RSS readers very similar) but because they can attach it to an iGoogle page which can be accessed easily from any computer. If they don’t already have an iGoogle page, I think this would be a good time to show them how this application can help keep themselves organized in an electronic world. On my iGoogle homepage, I can access my Google reader, my del.icio.us account, my calendar and my “to-do” list and many other cool add-ons that serve to personalize my space. I think this fun tool might be one way of getting some teachers more excited about the possibilities of Web 2.0 and help simplify their lives online.

rss-reader-blogosphere1As teachers are hopefully reading their RSS feeds, I will continue to mentor them on an individual basis to suggest, plan, teach and assess lessons, assignments and/or projects that use Web 2.0 tools to create authentic learning experiences. This collaborative teaching model has been used successfully in the past to teach new Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs, voicethreads, Flickr, del.icio.us and digital storytelling. Now that I have more experience with podcasts, I hope to add that application to my Web 2.0 toolbox, as well. In the future, it is my intention to keep up-to-date on the latest Web 2.0 tools by continuing to read my RSS feeds, learn how to use them much like I have done in this course and then teach them to other staff members on an “as-needs” basis.

It is my hope that as staff members become more comfortable with Web 2.0 tools, they will be encouraged and excited to try others. I found in this course that the more tools I learned, the more interested I was in trying to learn more. After all, success breeds success! I also noticed that as time went by, I lost my initial “fear” of trying new tools because I knew that if I just kept at it, I would eventually figure out how to use the tool. I also discovered that the great thing about Web 2.0 tools is that they are remarkably easy to use. I hope that more teachers will discover this as they begin working more with these tools.

Long Term Objectives

My long term goal for RSS feeds is for teachers to not only get excited about Web 2.0, but also to get excited about the latest information available in their field of expertise. Eventually, I hope to show them how to subscribe to feeds using Google Alerts, del.icio.us, and Ebscohost so that they can use these tools to enhance learning, as well. Once they have the concept of RSS feeds “under their belts,” I think these will be easy lessons to teach.

Ultimately, I’d like to teach students about RSS feeds so they can use them as learning tools. I think Stephanie Quilao’s explanation of RSS “the Oprah way” might be particularly useful teaching students about RSS. If students knew how to use RSS feeds, they could keep track of the changes made on teacher or classroom blogs, wikis or nings just as teachers can keep track of changes made on student blogs or wikis. They can also subscribe to the blogs of their classmates and suggest their own feeds to create a collaborative learning communities within the classroom. In addition, students can be taught how to use RSS feeds to conduct research on any topic imaginable. Once the students know how to use RSS, they can pass that knowledge on to their parents (this might best be done at a formal tri-conferencing session) who could set up RSS feeds for both their child’s blog or wiki and the classroom blog or wiki. Having parents using RSS feeds would certainly keep them up-to-date on the latest classroom events, lessons and assignments, in addition to highlighting the use of Web 2.0 tools in the classroom.

Overall School Technology Plan

I believe that educating teachers, students and parents about Web 2.0 and RSS feeds will bring focus to our school’s technology plan as a whole. We are currently doing many things right in terms of moving teachers in the direction of embracing the power of the read/write web. We are primarily using a mentorship model that provides on-going support for teachers interested in learning and implementing various Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. Although this model is working well, there are still teachers who do not understand what Web 2.0 has to offer their students and are therefore reluctant to move forward. By educating teachers how to use RSS feeds and asking them to read at least one or two feeds that deal directly with Web 2.0 educational technology issues, it is my hope that our staff will come together and create a unified vision of what education in the future will look like for our students who have grown up in a digital world and in doing so, provide the best possible education for all of our students.

As a teacher-librarian, I am prepared to do my share of teaching and collaborating to ensure that Web 2.0 tools are used to their fullest advantage in my school. In the future, I will be highlighting more Web 2.0 student work on my virtual library wiki and I’m considering creating a whole new blog or ning and inviting teachers to join in on the discussions And, of course, we won’t forget to use our RSS feeds to find out when anything new has been added! I will also be encouraging teachers to create classroom blogs or wikis that will allow them to showcase student Web 2.0 work and share it with other students, teachers, administrators, parents, school board officials and other interested parties around the world. A few of the schools in my area have a parent evening once a year to showcase their students’ use of ICT throughout the year. Perhaps it’s time our school did the same.

References

Butterfield, G. (July, 2007). Tech Teacher: Cut Through the Web Noise. Edutopia. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2008, from http://www.edutopia.org/tech-teacher-RSS

Harrsch, M. (July/Aug., 2003). The next killer app for education. In The Technology Source Archives at the University of North Carolina. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2008, from http://technologysource.org/article/rss/

Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth. (2006). Literacy with ICT across the curriculum. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Retrieved Nov. 17, 2008, from www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/tech/lict/index.html

Quilao, S. (n.d.). How to explain RSS the Oprah way. Back in Skinny Jeans Blog. Retrieved Nov. 28, 2008, from http://www.backinskinnyjeans.com/backinskinnyjeans/2006/09/how_to_explain_.html

Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms. California: Corwin Press.

Richarsdon, W. (July, 2006). Merrily down the stream. School Library Journal. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2008, from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6348380.html?industryid=47078&q=social+bookmarking+in+the+classroom

Richardson, W. (2005). RSS: A quick guide for educators. Retrieved Nov. 21, 2008, from http://www.weblogg-ed.com/wp-content/uploads/2006/05/RSSFAQ4.pdf

Winer, D. (Oct. 8, 2002). What is a News Aggregator? Retrieved Nov. 21, 2008, from

http://www.scripting.com/davenet/2002/10/08/whatIsANewsAggregator.html

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rss-logo1Why don’t more people know about this??? There hasn’t been anyone on my teaching staff or beyond that I’ve talked to in the past two months since I began using an RSS aggregator that has the remotest idea of what I’m talking about when I bring up the topic of RSS feeds. It’s like I’m talking in a foreign language yet I believe that next to social bookmarking, RSS is one of the most necessary Web 2.0 tool anyone who is using the Internet today needs to understand and learn how to use. Goldsborough calls it “The Holy Grail of the Information Age” and I couldn’t agree more (p. 1). In my opinion, using an RSS aggregator or reader is simply one of the most essential tools that people living and teaching in the 21st century need in order to cope with the inordinate amount of information that is available online today. It is the only way to stay connected with the people and ideas in your chosen field(s) of interest and remain sane at the end of the day.

What is RSS?

There are many videos you can find on YouTube, TeacherTube or Google Video that can give you a quick overview of RSS. I found this one on YouTube to help me understand the “nuts and bolts” of RSS:

For more information about RSS feeds, you may also want to check out the Edmonton Public Library’s presentation called “A Gentle Introduction to RSS Feeds.” This presentation provides a clear overview RSS and the benefits of using RSS feeds.

In a nutshell, RSS or Real Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary is a XML code that is embedded in most electronic references that allows the information to be distributed in “natural” language whenever it’s updated, usually by the hour, to whomever subscribes to the site (or parts of the site) where the information was generated. This ever-changing information that gets distributed is called a “feed.” In order to receive the information from a “feed,” the subscriber needs to have access to a “feed reader” called an aggregator. Aggregators can either be found on a computer’s desktop (along with “My Favorites”) or my personal favourite, on free, web-based sites that allow users to access their feeds from any computer.

Although RSS feeds have been around since 1997 (Cohen, p. 4), they have come into their own with the Read/Write web. Before the advent of Web 2.0, anyone wanting to publish information on the Internet either had to know complicated computer language or find someone who did. Now with various Web 2.0 sharing and communication tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, picture and video-sharing sites that require no special computer-programming knowledge to use them, virtually anyone with Internet access can publish information on the web. This has caused an explosion of information available on the Internet and has opened up new avenues to network with people from all over the world.

The beauty of RSS is that it allows you keep up with this enormous amount of information that is now being generated worldwide on the Internet and it actually saves ye time in the process. RSS is all about convenience whether it’s for the creator of the information who wants to let others know about what they’ve created or the reader who wants to keep up with the latest information on any topic, events, groups or individuals. Stephen Abram, an avid blogger and vice president of innovation from SirsiDynix claims that he can keep track of “500 blogs in fifteen minutes twice a day” using Bloglines. How is this possible you might ask? Before the days of RSS, if you wanted to find the latest information or thinking about your chosen topic of interest, you had to conduct a search using one of numerous search engines at your disposal every time you wanted an update and visit each site religiously just to make sure you weren’t missing anything. In other words, you had to do all the work and a lot of time was wasted going to sites that didn’t even have anything new to offer.

With an RSS feed, instead of you doing all the work, the RSS feed does it for you. By subscribing to one or several (the number is unlimited) feeds about the latest news, your topic and/or groups or individuals of interest, every time that site(s) changes, the updated information is sent to your customized aggregator where it is saved until you decide what to do with the information. No more time wasted going to sites that haven’t changed and as Chris Harris states in his blog post “Staying Ahead of Bookmarks with RSS,” “The RSS feed won’t bug you unless there is new information, which helps you avoid overload.” Using your aggregator, you can quickly skim through the feeds to see whether any interest you, read the ones that do and save them in your favourite bookmarking site, email them to yourself or others, print them or save them to file and delete the ones you don’t want.

I think that the best part about RSS feeds is that they are guilt-free. Unlike email where you must open up and read everything, using an aggregator, you’re in total control – read what you want, when you want and delete the rest.

At one time, RSS feeds would have been used mainly by the creators of web sites and blogs but one of the interesting features of RSS feeds is that they are able to convert any digital medium into a text-based feed. Not only can blogs be syndicated but now a wide variety of digital sources can also be fed to your aggregator which can be read on your computer, your phone, your personal digital assistant (pda) like a palm pilot or blackberry or listened to on your MP3 players. I think it’s amazing that I can subscribe to a podcast feed and my iTunes program downloads it directly to my iPod.

In a presentation prepared for the 2006 K12 Online Conference, Quentin D’Souza shows both the various types of online sources that can be syndicated using an RSS feed and how RSS feeds have evolved into being an essential part on all online digital sources and not just blogs as they once were:

rss-feed-possibilities

Getting Started

Using RSS feeds is as simple as its name suggests. It’s simply a matter of signing up for a feed reader or aggregator account such as Bloglines or Google Reader and then copying and pasting your favourite sites into the aggregator. Sometimes it’s even as simple as clicking on the RSS icon and then choosing which reader you want the feed sent to. Then you just need to sit back, relax and wait for the feeds to come to you. Your feed reader can be placed right onto your home page such as iGoogle, Yahoo! or Pageflakes, on your blog or wiki, or onto your desktop so it can be accessed easily. You gotta love it!

I chose to sign up for a Bloglines account because that was the type of aggregator I could attach to my WordPress blog. You can see it on the right of this blog. The first thing I did was to add the blogs of my fellow students in this course by copying and pasting their site addresses into the section in bloglines that said “Add.” I also added a direct feed to the Blue Skunk Blog just to see if it was possible. No problem. My next order of business was to find other blogs, wikis or podcasts to subscribe to in my chosen field. I asked some of my teacher-librarian collegues if they had any favorites and from the sites they suggested, I was able to generate a list of other sites by clicking on the “related subscribers” icon in Bloglines. I have since discovered that I could have also found sites of related interest by conducting searches in Technorati or Syndic8. I have also discovered that I can send my favourite feeds to others by using the edit feature on Bloglines which allows you to export and import feeds.

As I found other sites of interest throughout the course, I added these to my Bloglines account. One thing I noticed about subscribing to various sites is that there are options to which parts of the sites I want to subscribe to. Although this works well with news feed, in particular, I found it a pain to have to subscribe to both the posts and the feeds separately. When I first started using Bloglines, I thought that my aggregator wasn’t working because I wasn’t getting the comments updated. Hmm…now I know better. I also discovered that there isn’t just one symbol to indicate whether a site can be syndicated or not. I found this to be confusing at first and I’m sure newcomers to RSS would find this as well. Although, the symbol that I attached at the beginning of this post now appears to be gaining in popularity, there are many others to indicate syndication. See why this is so confusing:

rss-logos-several1

Using Bloglines as an aggregator was extremely easy but after the discussion in our class about how to stay organized in a digital world, I decided to give Google Reader a try. This would allow me to consolidate many of the online tools I use on a regular basis to just one site – my iGoogle page. Since I already have a gmail account, signing up to use Google Reader took no time at all. It struck me that if I wanted my students and staff to use Google Reader, they would first have to have a gmail account. This would be a problem in our school since gmail is currently blocked. An alternative would be to use Bloglines where students could use their division-based accounts to sign up for an account.

I didn’t find that there was much of a difference between using Google Reader and Bloglines in terms adding and deleting sites, marking them all read and going to the original site or not but I prefer Google Reader because I can see and choose from a list of previous postings in each of the sites which I couldn’t do in Bloglines. This helps me find information in previous posts easier because I don’t have to go to the actual site.

Using RSS Feeds in Schools

I think that RSS feeds are so great for educators that I’m making a personal vow right now to ensure that each one of our teachers and administrators knows what RSS feeds are and how to use them.I will also be approaching our divisional teacher-librarian coordinator to ask her for time during one of our meetings so that I can teach my fellow teacher-librarians all about RSS feeds. Although I’m not as extreme about RSS as one of Andy Carvin’s colleagues who once told him, “If you don’t have an RSS feed, you’re already dead to me,” I cannot imagine a better tool for keeping teachers and administrators up-to-date on the latest educational news than using RSS feeds. What a wonderful professional development tool!

I think that one of the best ways to introduce teachers and students to the beauty of feeds is to teach them first how to subscribe to feeds in the social bookmarking tool, del.icio.us. Since I’ve already taught the teachers on my staff about del.icio.us and how to use it on a basic level, this would be the next logical step. From there, I would show teachers how to set up an aggregator and how to find sites to follow whether they are web pages, blogs, wikis or podcasts just to get them used to reading RSS feeds.

Once teachers are comfortable following their own feeds, I would introduce the idea of having the class follow feeds on a daily basis to keep up with current events, either local, national or international, or the latest information in any topic. This would be so easy to do with digital projectors and/or SmartBoards that are found in many classrooms today. Once the class is used to following feeds, I would teach them how to set up their own feed readers and begin following some sites on their own.

Teachers could use feeds from their classroom blogs or wikis to update students and parents of upcoming assignments, tests and class events. If students had individual blogs or wikis, teachers could subscribe to their feeds and read all the updates in one place rather than having to go to each individual site. Students could also subscribe to each other’s blogs and wikis and comment on the changes as they occur.

Although it might take awhile to teach all teachers and students how to use RSS feeds, I have immediate plans to teach our gifted bio-tech students how to use RSS feeds so they can have access to the latest information in their field. Since much of the latest scientific information comes out in digital format whether it is on the open or deep web, it only makes sense to teach these students how to use RSS feeds. In “Accessing and managing scientific literature: Using RSS in the classroom,” Pence and Pence discuss the importance of teaching their science students how to use this valuable Web 2.0 tool and how to use RSS feeds to integrate them with class curricular content (p. 1).

I think the easiest way to set up RSS feeds to keep up with the latest research is to use Google Alerts. You can set up any number of “alerts” of the latest information on your topic that appear either on the web, in blogs, in the news, videos, groups or all of the above. The alerts can either be sent to your email or directly to your Google Reader (my preference since I hate my inbox to be cluttered or you could create a gmail account just for Alerts). If you use Bloglines, the feeds can be directed there, as well. If you want information sent to you from a particular news source(s), you can subscribe to feeds directly from Google News by clicking on the RSS button in the lower left hand side of the screen after a search has been completed. Students and teachers interested in current events or the latest news in their field or interests might also like to check out Moreover.com It’s another great source of news that allows you to set up feeds that I think teachers and students will love.

I also hope that by learning how to use RSS feeds, teachers and students might be inclined to use the “alert” feeds on our online database, Ebscohost which “has always been on the cusp of RSS technology” (Cohen, p. 3). Like many other teacher-librarians, I have found Ebscohost to be a tough sell. If, like Cohen suggests, teachers and students catch on to the “hip technology” of RSS, maybe online databases would be used more in schools. If nothing else, I’d like to teach my staff how to set up email “alerts” of their favourite professional and personal periodicals. Every month, your favorites periodicals can be sent to your inbox for free – how can anyone beat that??

In the library, I could set up feeds to search for news of our favourite authors and book reviews. To find the latest books for my library’s collection, I could subscribe to feeds from online book sources such as Amazon.com. I could even subscribe to LibraryThing to find out what others are reading. If students are looking for specific information, I could create feeds for the library and provide reference service in a slightly different way. Using RSS feeds to supplement reference services in the library is outlined in an article by Steven Cohen, “The power of RSS: Instant information updating based on quality searches.” In this article, he reinforces the idea of how easy it is to keep up with the latest information using RSS feeds in order to provide quality service to your library’s patrons. To see how the Ottawa Public Library is using feeds, go to: http://www.biblioottawalibrary.ca/events/rss/rssmain_e.cfm

I have found that one of the most interesting ways feeds can be used is to find out what others are saying about you on the web. I’ve had two instances in this course of individuals whom I have quoted in my blog who have left me comments. I’m sure the only way they found themselves on my blog is if they have a Google Alert feed set up that tells them when their name is mentioned. If you want to know whether others are quoting the information on your blog, you can set up a watchlist at Technorati for your blog address.

Final Verdict

I was truly amazed at how easy it was for me to keep up with the latest news, Web 2.0 tools, conferences and library events using Bloglines and Google Reader. Although I’m not following 200 blogs like Stephen Abram, I am subscribing to enough blogs and listening to enough podcasts that I believe will help keep me connected to the latest educational information the world has to offer. I simply got into the habit of reading my feeds everyday after checking my email and Facebook pages. I was usually finished within ten to fifteen minutes and didn’t feel overwhelmed at all. I didn’t feel pressured to read them everyday and although I’ve skimmed a great many, now I feel really connected to the people and ideas floating around the edublogosphere.

I will definitely keep reading my RSS feeds in the future and I hope I will be able to convert a few teachers and students along the way. In Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for classrooms, Will Richardson reminds us how important it is for educators to model the use of RSS in their classrooms in order to give students the skills they need to cope in the 21st century (p. 77). As educators, Richardson believes that it is vital that we give students the tools to sort through the enormous amount of information they are currently exposed to and will be exposed to in the future. We also need to give them the skills to quickly assess for themselves which information is relevant to them if they are to avoid the pitfalls of information overload.

Onward, then, to find and teach the “holy grail” of the information age: RSS feeds.

References

Abram, S. (Dec. 4, 2006). Bloglines. Stephen’s Lighthouse. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2008, from http://stephenslighthouse.sirsidynix.com/archives/2006/12/bloglines.html

Carvin, A. (Sept. 18, 2006). RSS Feeds: Making Your Favorite Websites Come to You. PBS Teachers Learning Now. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from

http://www.pbs.org/teachers/learning.now/2006/09/rss_feeds_making_your_favorite.html

Cohen, S. (Jan./Feb., 2008). The power of RSS: Instant information updating based on quality searches. MultiMedia & Internet@Schools, 15(1), 1-4.

D’Souza, Q. (Oct. 26, 2006). RSS for Educators (Advanced). In Lani Ritter Hall, K12 Online Conference. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from http://k12onlineconference.org/?p=47

Goldsborough, R. (Feb. 2007). Keeping up with really simple syndication (rss). Teacher Librarian, 34(3), 103.

Harris, C. (March 16, 2007). Staying ahead of bookmarks with RSS. School Library Journal, Online Edition. Retrieved Nov. 10, 2008, from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/840000284/post/510007651.html?q=rss

Pence, L.E., & Pence, H.E. (Oct., 2008). Accessing and managing scientific literature: Using RSS in the classroom. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(10). 1. Retrieved Nov. 4, 2008, from the Proquest database.

Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other powerful web tools for the classroom. California: Corwin Press.

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