Friday, 14 November 2008

Aggregator Alligators and Vanity Feeds

I have been using RSS’s since we began this class, mostly because when I first set up my blog we were told by our brilliant instructor that we should “Sign up to a blog aggregator (RSS feed service such as Google Reader or Bloglines) and subscribe to a minimum of 5 blogs (for your own personal professional development) that you will follow throughout the course and reflect on in a later blog post.”

So I did as I was told (strangely, as I’m not usually one to do that sort of thing!) and signed up for a Bloglines account, and went through the process of figuring out how to add “feeds” to my “aggregator.” To be honest I was totally lost, and it took me some time before I figured out how to find the right URLs to paste into the feed box! But I persevered, and accomplished my task. Then I set about trying to post these feeds to my blog and realized I had to go through the whole process all over again with blogger’s “Blogs I’m Following” on my dashboard, because Bloglines and Blogger wouldn’t allow me to just copy them over! But still I persisted and finally figured out how to get those blog feeds from my dashboard, to my blog (I didn’t actually have to put them on my dashboard, but I guess some element in the universe decided I needed the practice and enticed me to do it!).

To be honest I had not returned to my Bloglines account until this week’s assignment, because I had the feeds that I wanted on my blog and I accessed them through it whenever I needed or wanted. So I really didn’t see the point of an aggregator, (I may have also been avoiding the object of my frustration and pointless repetitive work!). Then I read Chapter 5 of Richardson’s book and got the lowdown on what RSS’s are actually good for. “Hrmph!” I thought, “Wish I would’ve read that chapter earlier.” (Actually, I had thought about reading it waaaayyy back, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise for this week’s assignment. Yes surprise. Don’t YOU think of new readings as little educational surprises all wrapped up in pretty covers? Weird . . .)

So I knew I could get feeds from blogs, and from news sites, but what I didn’t know is that you could get feeds of searches. (Again I thought, “Hrmph, this would have come in very handy as I was doing the research for my other class, and greatly reduced not only my reading, but also my stress level!”) Well this I had to try, and I did (see, its over there --->, a Google Blogs search on using RSS in Education. Yes I know, clever. It came up with some interesting stuff too!) I also realized that I did not have a subscribe button on my blog, so I added one of those as well. (Totally off topic but. . . I think I’ll go back when time permits and add tags to all my blog posts to make them easier to search, something I am realizing just now that I failed to do!) Then I realized that I could get an updated feed of the searches I was doing on the U of A’s Library databases (like ProQuest and Eric) so I tried that as well, but I couldn’t get it onto my blog for some reason (I’ll keep working on that one, don’t you worry).

I hadn’t fully thought out how RSS could help me do all my research for my classes until I read the following quote from Brigham Young University’s website. (they narrow down RSS feeds to being useful for time, convenience, research, currency, sharing, podcasts, and blogs)
“An RSS reader can be a powerful research tool. As you discover information on the Internet that supports your research interests, you can place those sites into your RSS reader and organize them according to topics. As you write and publish, your RSS reader will help you quickly reference critical information.” And further along in the same article a professor says, “To me, RSS feeds are website abstracts and have by far been the best way for me to keep up-to-date with the latest journal articles. Because most articles are published online before they are printed, I am actually able to know the second an interesting article comes out — and I’m much more likely to read the abstract from my RSS feed . . .”

Apparently you can also get RSS feeds for podcasts (ok I knew this, I have 3 on my blog, I just wanted it to sound like something amazing), photo sharing sites, videos, social bookmarking sites, and a whole host of other things (see this site for a list of 100 Cool Things You Can Do With RSS or this site for 30 Different Uses for RSS and this site that expands the list from 30 to 34 by including 4 more ways that apply specifically to education)

So far my favourite way to use RSS is this idea from NCTE Inbox by Traci Gardner “If students have computers and Internet access, set up a homework blog with RSS feeds. Show students how to set up readers and subscribe to your fee. No more "I didn’t get the assignment!” Now their excuse will be, “My aggregator ate my homework!” (HA! Aggregator sounds like alligator, you know like “my dog ate my homework”, only its an aggregator-alligator. . .never mind)

I also especially like the idea of a “vanity feed” just so I can see if anyone out there is actually reading and referencing my blog, so I did one and included it on my blog as well! (Really I just want to be popular and have 10 million friends on Facebook, oh wait, wrong blog post, that was last week’s . . . sorry . . .) Unfortunately, the only hits I got so far were my own blog posts! Oh well . . .

Here’s another great idea: using RSS with your iPod (or rather students using RSS with their iPods, ‘cause I don’t have one, but its on my Christmas list!) This article by Rob De Lorenzo is all about using RSS with iPods. The author says “ . . . RSS on an iPod? You bet. If you happen to have an iPod Touch with WiFi capabilities, you can essentially subscribe to RSS feeds using an online RSS feed reader as you would using a computer.” And “The educational applications of using RSS in a mobile way are huge. Students can use a device they already own to subscribe to newspaper feeds, or feeds from educational content providers and keep up with curriculum relevant information from wherever they are. Uploading content to their devices is as simple as syncing their devices as they would using iTunes. At its most simplist, RSS allows students to spend more time with content and less time searching for it. Since the information is online, much of that content is relevant and up-to-date as well.” Sounds too good to be true, like an educational utopia! I’m skeptical my middle years students would attain that level of involvement with their curriculum, but its still a great idea, and worht a try. In this article I also found a link to a document by Quentin D’Souza which provides “RSS Ideas for Educators.”

I also found this article by Sharon Housley that says even “Financial institutions are reaching out to clients using RSS feeds. While banks and financial institutions are usually slow to adopt new technology, that is not the case with RSS adoption. More and more professionals are using RSS in innovative ways, to stay ahead of their competition.” Then the article goes on to list 20 ways that financial institutions and business people are using RSS feeds to get ahead.

In my never-ending search for RSS info, I also came across this site that provided some good answers too: RSS Guide by Robin Good.

Finally, why should we bother using RSS with students or teaching them how to use it, other than because it makes our lives easier? Again I think it comes back to the “new literacies” that our students will need to master in order to be successful in the future. In this post from Stephen Downes’ Blog, there is a quote attributed to Teemu Arina that speaks to this:

“This is exactly why people who use RSS readers to scan through thousands of feeds, read blog posts from various decentrally connected sources and who engage themselves into assembling multiple unrelated sources of information into one (probing connections between them) have much greater ability to sense and respond to changing conditions in increasingly complex environments than those who read only the major newspapers, watch only the major news networks . . .” (bold emphasis is mine)

There you have it. If we want our students to be able to have this skill, then they should start learning to use RSS right NOW! (I mean it: RIGHT NOW, plan a lesson that shows your students the potential of this tool and teach them TODAY, if you haven’t already)


Downes said...

> plan a lesson that shows your students the potential of this tool and teach them TODAY, if you haven’t already

That's the very valuable take-home from your post, and something I will attend to in future iterations of the course.

I'm not sure if things would have turned out differently for you (because it's pretty easy to just skip over valuable advice, especially at the beginning of the course) but it seems clear that I should have taken more time to present RSS and feed readers, how to use them, and their many uses, as you describe in this post.

Christine :) said...

Hi Stephen, I really appreciate your comments and I'm glad that I could give you something to "take-home" and think about. I'm sure that if Joanne, my instructor, would have provided advice about RSS I would have listened, (I also could have read up on it as I mentioned, so she did give me the tools to learn about it) but it wasn't really as hard as I made it seem. As long as you're willing to play around with things and are not afraid to click the wrong button, then its really quite easy to figure most stuff out. It is nice (and important)though, to have more in depth study on the applications and benefits of these tools we're studying. It really puts things into perspective for me, and as an educator hoping to give my students the best possible education that I can, I welcome the perspective. Thanks again.
Christine :)

Joanne de Groot said...

Hi Christine,

Thanks for your insightful (and funny!) post about RSS...I wonder is there something I should do differently next time around to help students use RSS more effectively at the beginning of the term? I encouraged everyone to set up their feeds early in the course so they could have some time to read/play/learn about it...but I wonder if it is too out of context for many people...what do you think? What should I do differently? This is my first time through this course (and only the second time the course has been offered), so I am always looking for ways to improve!