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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