Wednesday, October 8, 2008

RSS: a primer

RSS (which stands for Real Simple Syndication, or in some circles Rich Site Summary) is one of the most valuable tools revolutionizing our world today. Fact of the matter is, without RSS, blogs and wikis would not be used even remotely as much as they are. This is significant because most educators have no idea what RSS is.

The word typically used to describe RSS is a "feed". Using a past example, news stations would have a feed from the Associated Press, and anytime the AP had a new story, it would be sent over the wire to the newsroom. This feed always kept the news room up to the minute in national news, even though they couldn't afford to send a reporter out to national hotspots.

With the read/write web, feeds work in a similar fashion. If a website offers RSS and you subscribe to that website's RSS feed, you will automatically get every update from that site sent to you. You can stay current without having to go manually search all of those places. This works for blogs, wikis, podcasts, search engines, delicious tags, you name it.

The key is what is called an RSS aggregator. This is an online tool that brings all your feeds to you for you to browse. Aggregators have different tools, such as sorting features, ranking features, and more. But, the basic premise to all of them is you log into the reader and the reader will show you every new thing that has appeared in your subscribed feeds.

I have used two readers, Bloglines and Google Reader. Google Reader is my preferred choice, mainly because I find myself on Google for many other reasons. For directions on how to set up a Google Reader account, you can go here.

But, how do you use it in the classroom? Well, certainly if you create a blog or wiki, you are already using it. Still, you are missing out on an important 21st century tool that will help you become a better teacher if that's all you do. The top thing teachers can do is use the reader and subscribe to academic feeds in your field. Find blogs that highlight good pedagogy. Subscribe to search tags such as "elementary + math". The benefit for teachers here is that they connect to other professionals. They are unleashing the power of the web, spending more time learning from information out there than searching for it. A growth in the knowledge base will result in a growth of the teacher.

Still, as David Parry points out, teachers not only have to use it themselves, but also have their students use it. He mentions:

The speed of reading in the age of the digital has changed, and we need to help students navigate this. Reading on the internet requires two separate skills: one, the quick analysis to find what is worth reading, and the second, a switch to slow analysis to carefully consider what has been found. What RSS does is allow students to make this distinction, to receive content as "bits" easy to scan, and then to select what they want to read.

Students need to use RSS aggregators as a 21st century tool to be ready to digest the huge quantities of information the internet churns out everyday. They need to use it to learn the essential skill of shifting from "scanning" to "reading", as Parry points out. The aggregator is the tool that makes that happen.

Parry has another good point:

One of the most frequent complaints of students who have been required to blog for class is that they feel as if what they are writing does not get read by anyone except the instructor. By using RSS, you can syndicate all of the students blogs; every student in the class will get the class “newspaper” with headlines and synopsis of each student's writing, allowing them to scan all of the posts at once, and then decide which ones are most relevant, and select them for close reading. Furthermore, RSS can facilitate commenting, as most blogs will allow you to syndicate the comments to a specific post, so that students can post to a blog and continue to follow up on the comment thread. Again, this will help students to realize how writing for the web is a matter of continous conversation rather than static paper design.

This, in a nutshell, is how teachers should be teaching writing in the 21st century classroom, as a continuous process for a larger audience. RSS makes this process possible. A class fully utilizing RSS would start with a common writing activity where students would need to respond to a question... let's say, "What do we need to do to help the environment?" Through RSS, all students could then quickly scan other students ideas for thoughts that shape their reading. A step in the assignment would be: "Now that you have listed your initial thought, incorporate into your post what another student has said, either modifying your thought or refuting the other student's assertion." Students would have to become good readers in order to become good writers.

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