Late last year, I ran a staff training session on RSS feeds to coincide with the release of Google Reader for all Google Apps Education users at my school. Not wanting to mess up a technology that I feel is difficult to understand and use but holds incredible learning potential, I carefully explained the concepts of subscription, syndication and sourcing RSS feeds, showed the teachers the Commoncraft video “RSS in Plain English” and took some time demonstrating the “discovery” of feeds on major news websites, through Google Reader searches and on blogs that many of the teachers read regularly.
Job well done? Well, it’s a start, I told myself. Long since relegated to the halls of nerdy obscurity, many have declared RSS a dead technology, with some educators arguing that it is simply too difficult for the average learner to master. However, I remain convinced that technologies like RSS are alive and well, and deserve further attention. Do others agree?
All of the teachers in my session were impressed by the fact that RSS feeds still enable the user, when properly managed, to effectively move away from the hit and miss nature of engaging with web-enabled content that is updated regularly. Questions like “what if Claire posted an awesome article on her blog – but we missed it because we forgot to check?” are a good way of opening up the discussion as to why we should consider RSS as a tool to gain control over the content that we access. My RSS trainees were also impressed with the accessibility to information: in less than fifteen seconds I’m able to skim the headlines of all the major news sources in the world. Among other teaching-learning benefits, RSS enables:
1. specialised sets of information sources to be collated for research purposes;
2. feeds based on tags (e.g. ABC News website which publishes individual feeds for every tag they use), user comments (e.g. from WordPress), layers of editing (e.g. a Wikispaces page), etc.;
3. the ability to share, via a reader like Google Reader, articles of interest with colleagues and students; and
4. the ability to share whole feeds and channels with classes of students – modelling good choices for web content.
Above all, RSS feeds represent a departure for many teachers and students from the hit-and-miss nature of the search-engine approach that dominates how most people still access information on the web (ok – information beyond that provided in a Facebook or Twitter status update!). For example, by insisting on students using RSS feeds as the basis of their background reading for a research assignment, we emphasise the importance of staying regularly in touch with the content, building the capability to see searched content (if and when a search is necessary) in context rather than in isolation and on establishing a personal learning network (PLN) of trusted information sources (and even authors of those sources). In short, we start to take sustained control of the content to suit our own purposes and learning needs. By maintaining the focus on the one-time search-engine approach, however, we emphasise the very opposite: limiting the the scope of information to usually the first page of algorithm-generated results, seeing web pages in isolation and failing to create any meaningful engagement beyond the supposition that “I might find something” and the typical time spent on most web pages – less than three minutes.
Don’t get me wrong – I love search engines. But there’s a big divide between a web-savvy user with a wealth of background online reading and investment in a PLN searching critically for information that will support their learning (not to mention doing an advanced search) and a user who simply hopes to find something that will help them get their assignment done quickly. I know which side of the divide I want my students to be on in 2011 and think RSS is one of the tools to get there – how about you?
NB – to check out what some of my English students did and said when I tried RSS for the first time with students, see my 2008 post: “Further Research using Google Reader“