RSS Is the Changing the Face of The Web “How Will It Change Our Classrooms?

-Diane Carver

The Internet is a powerful tool in education. Few educators would argue with the truth of that statement. Despite all the drawbacks that come with it, the sheer amount of information and the ease of access to it all combine to make the education possibilities of the Internet staggering.

And that is part of the problem. The sheer magnitude of the information offered for review on the Internet makes it almost impossible to keep up on everything you want your students to know. How often has a student handed in a paper with references that include outdated sources of information from the web, or faulty rhetoric that they found in web searches? Wouldn’t you love a tool that lets you filter the information that they find and one that lets you offer them a pre-selected list of good sources, update it easily to add new sources as you find them, point to specific articles within those resources? And while we are designing this tool, how about adding in functionality that lets them share the sources that they find with you and the class, comment on each other’s work, and has the potential to invite experts to comment and respond to their questions?

Take a deep breath and get ready. That tool already exists. It is called RSS, and while it is not perfect it will not grade your papers for you, for instance it offers an incredible array of uses for the classroom teacher. Combined with news services and weblogs (blogs), RSS can be a powerful tool to help you engage your students in research, cooperative learning and meaningful reflection and discussion on classroom topics. It can provide an easy way for you to disseminate information, check in on students’ work, offer public and private guidance and give parents a view of what their children are doing and working on in the classroom.

RSS – The Semi-Technical Explanation
RSS is an acronym that stands for Rich Site Summary, though it’s often alternatively defined as Really Simple Syndication. The simplest definition of RSS is an XML-based format (using the Resource Description Framework (RDF) – a language for representing information about resources in the World Wide Web). (1)

RSS is most commonly used with web sites that are frequently updated, like blogs and news sites. By creating an RSS feed the author can easily post his or her content in a format that others can access by subscribing to the RSS feed. When the author changes the content on the site, it is automatically updated on the desktop or web page of every single person who subscribes to that RSS feed.

The information contained in the RSS feed is accessed by a piece of software called an aggregator. The aggregator holds a user-defined list of web sites and resources that offer RSS feeds. The aggregator may be a desktop application, or web-based. When it is opened, it retrieves the information from each RSS feed page listed.

Many people use RSS feeds as a way to keep current on topics that are of interest to them. Rather than checking every web site they have found that relates to that topic, they subscribe to the RSS feeds for those web sites. When something new is posted to any of those sites, they will get the new information, whether as a full article or as a title and summary with a link to follow for the complete article. Subscribing to RSS feeds saves the time of checking every single site that you access to find out if they have posted anything new.

Using RSS Feeds As A Learning/Teaching Tool
While RSS feeds started as a way to aggregate news into one application, the possible uses for educators go far beyond the basics. According to Stephen Downes, a well-known voice on the subject of the use of blogs and RSS in education, RSS aggregation “provides greater exposure of (education and training resources) to the wider community. Aggregation also promotes the reuse of resources and encourages the development of interoperable resources.(2) Downes adds that by creating repositories of “learning objects” and making them accessible by RSS feed, educators can capitalize on each others work in true collaborative fashion rather than reinventing the wheel. At eLearningOntario for instance, educators and the Ministry of Education are actively working together to build a learning object repository that will include lessons, lesson plans, content for units and more.

Learning object repositories represent one of the benefits of using Internet resources for education reusability. Blogs and RSS feeds also offer the benefit of reusability. The unit that you put together for your class and posted as part of the class blog can serve as a resource for another teacher on the other side of the country. Even better, many blogs allow you to track those that have linked to your blog with a trackback. By linking to your lesson with a trackback, the teacher makes the work your class (and you) put into the unit available to her class and lets you know that your work is being reused.

Among the other benefits of using RSS feeds and weblogs in an education setting are the ease of sharing information from many sources, the ability to share the task of information publishing and the simplification of gathering and evaluating information from multiple sources. At Centre d’Apprentissage du Haut-Madawaska, for instance, a blog has replaced the schools web site. The C.A.H.M. weblog links to individual blogs kept by students, teachers, department heads and administrators to present a dynamic and up to date picture of the school. Each week, the schools director uses feeds from classroom and student blogs to post an update of whats going on in the school. The front page may include recognition of students or teachers, short summaries of classroom work that is being done and information about upcoming events.(3)(4) The RSS feed makes it easy to pull in and format all the information, and the recognition encourages students and teachers to post their work, questions and information.

Teachers who are early adopters of RSS for classroom work are vocal in their enthusiasm for time saved and new avenues opened, but they do more than simply praise the technology. Instead, they actively post ways to use blogs and RSS feeds as part of coursework to free up teacher time, get information out more easily and uniformly and make it easier for students to get feedback on their work.

1. Start a classroom blog to use for posting important information and sharing web resources. You will find a great example of a classroom blog here.
2. Create an account at del.icio.us or Furl to store, sort and share the web sites that you feel have worthwhile information for your students (and colleagues). Share your del.icio.us and Furl bookmarks with your class using their RSS syndication tool to publish them to your classroom blog.
3. Have your students use blogs instead of paper journals for writing assignments. Services like Blogger and Schoolblogs are free blogging services that your students can join. Both tools make RSS syndication easy. They syndicate, you subscribe and their journals are delivered to your desktop every time they update.
4. Another blogging site that is being developed especially with classrooms in mind is Blogmeister. Blogmeister combines blogging with one of the best features of a content management system the ability to approve posts before they are published. By using an approval system, you can work with students to polish their work before they post it for public comment.
5. Use blogs and RSS syndication to encourage collaboration among students. The commenting feature makes it easy for students to comment on each others work and share thoughts and ideas with each other, and the multiple authors feature of most blogs allows them to work together on a single project outside school walls.
6. Use your own teachers blog or the classroom blog to keep parents in the loop about what your class is doing. RSS syndication is even easier than putting together a class newsletter“ because everyone is working together to add content all the time.
7. Share photos of class events and work using Flickr. Flickr allows you to embed photos in a blog and share them via RSS. It is a great way to give parents a peek into their children school day.
8. Post writing and literature assignments in your blog and have students respond in their own blogs, creating an online portfolio of their work.
9. Encourage students to comment on each others work offering critique, suggestions for direction and encouragement. Students who are shy in class often come out of their shells online, say many teachers. It is also excellent practice for real world collaborations.
10. Create a search feed for school projects using Google or MSN to deliver new information on specific topics directly to your students.
11. Use an online feed aggregator like Bloglines to make compiling feeds easy for yourself and for students. Bloglines is web-based, so you and your students can access it from anywhere that you have access to the Internet. Or check the updated listings for news aggregators at Wikipedia.
12. Use an OPML file to import complete RSS feed lists from other sites and sources. OPML is a markup language that was created for outlines. Using an OPML file you can link to RSS feed lists in other blogs and web sites, effectively importing them into your own to share with students and collaborators. One great way to use OPML is to create a linked list of all of your students subscription lists and publish it in one central space so that all students can benefit from the work each is doing.
13. Share what you are doing with other educators. One of the beauties of this emerging use of RSS and blogs in education is how easy it is to share your ideas and your reflections with other educators. Keep a blog of your experiences, lesson plans and reflections as you go, and syndicate it through RSS so that other teachers can learn from your experience.

Resources on Using RSS And Blogs In the Classroom
This article can only offer an overview of the possibilities for using RSS syndication to involve your students in active learning. The list below includes useful resources for ideas, reflection, instructions on using the technology and tools that make it all easy.

RSS Feeds That Should Be On Your List

http://www.thecanadianteacher.com/feed/


Tutorials and Instructions

RSS QuickStart Guide for Educators
Will Richardsons guide to getting started using RSS is a great first-read for any teacher thinking about using RSS in the classroom.
A Webquest  Blogs and RSS
A Webquest designed to get educators thinking about the uses of blogging, RSS and other web technologies in the classroom.
Jill Walker Blog Review Assignment
An excellent example of a blog-based classroom assignment, annotated and commented by many of the well-known names in edu-blogging.
Stephen Downes: RSS: Grass Roots Support Leads to Mass Appeal
An easy to follow explanation of RSS and how it works.

1 http://www.bytowninternet.com/glossary

2 Downes, S., Stephen’s Web (2002); An Introduction to RSS for Educational Designers http://www.downes.ca/files/RSS_Educ.htm

3 Downes, S. Learning Circuits, American Society for Training and Development: RSS: From Grass Roots to Mass Appeal
http://www.learningcircuits.org/2004/jun2004/downes.htm

4 Centre d’Aprentissage du Haut-Madawska. http://cahm.elg.ca

– TheCanadianTeacher.com Staff Writer (copyright 2005) news(AT)thecanadianteacher.com