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Pssss... Have You Heard About RSS?

Alan Levine, mcli

We are going to let you in on the ground floor of an exciting, not so new technology... No this is not a get-rich-quick scheme; it is more like a get-informed-quick strategy. This technology, "RSS," allows you to choose specific sources of information from the Internet, and then efficiently review the latest published information, events, data, and writings from hundreds of sources you select to monitor. It is very much a "pull" rather than a "push" technology.

To keep abreast of the latest developments from the top 50 web sites in your field, you would have to bookmark them in your web browser and manually visit them on some regular basis to see their latest information. With RSS, you can "subscribe" to these sites and quickly scan the titles of their most recent updates in a simple desktop application. But keeping up with news is just the beginning of what RSS can offer educators.

What is RSS?

RSS happens to stand for many things (causing confusion), but the one that sticks best is Really Simple Syndication. What is syndication? Beyond re-runs on television, it is a "publish and subscribe" model for information where specific content on the internet "published" from one source can be "syndicated" or used at other subscribing sites. The syndication "feeds" are dynamic, so when the publisher changes the content, the subscribers automatically see the updates.

Originally created as a means for online news sources to "syndicate" their latest published articles, RSS is a technology standard (like HTML), a form of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) that provides a way to describe content that exists elsewhere on the internet (that was three acronyms in one sentence, hang in there!). Systems that can read these RSS feeds can then mix and match information to create customized displays of content from multiple sources.

But to use RSS, you do not have to know a single thing about the underlying technology—much in the same way that you do not need to know the details of SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol) to read and send email. RSS itself is actually a text file with information stored in a specific set of "tags" similar to HTML (see figure 1). But you should never have to look at RSS code again; it is meant to be read and "parsed" by other computer programs and displayed in a friendlier format. Because the RSS tags are standardized, they can be read, interpreted, and displayed in any format or device that is programmed to interpret RSS, including cell phones, PDAs, and other non-computer devices.

Figure 1. A look at the XML code that makes up an RSS feed. The "Channel" data describes the source of the feed, and each "item" represents one published piece of content.

Where do I get more information?

The newspaper metaphor offers the easiest route to understanding RSS. The first part of the RSS "feed" is descriptive information about the "Channel," or the source that is publishing the information. The channel details may include the title of the source, e.g., "New York Times," a description, its web site address, date the information was last updated, name and email address for the manager of the content, etc.

Next comes a list of the "items" that includes:

  • Title: the headline of the article.
  • Description: a 2-3 sentence summary of the article.
  • URL: the web address to find the rest of the story.

Now, if the only thing we were interested in following was the New York Times, we could get this information by visiting their web site. But with RSS, we not only watch the NYT headlines, but are also able to watch news from the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the BBC, Le Monde, The National Enquirer, and thousands of other news sources listed at

Viewing RSS Content

The sources that publish RSS often allow you to subscribe to the latest updates from a particular section of their news, say just Sports, Financial News, or Arts. Each news "feed" has a unique URL, usually identified by an orange "XML" icon or a link that says "syndicate this site."

Viewing these links in your web browser will yield the raw XML code (figure 1), not very useful (or pretty) to the human eyes. But using one of the many free desktop "RSS Aggregator" programs, you can add these web addresses to the list of sites that you wish to monitor. Some of the popular ones include Awasu (Windows) and NetNewsWire (Mac OSX).

Using an interface much like the familiar three-paned email reader, you can select one of your subscribed "channels" from one pane, scan the headlines in the second pane, and click on a selected headline to display the short description in the third pane. If you are interested in reading the full story, you can follow a link to view it in your web browser.

Figure 2: An RSS Aggregator allows you to look at the RSS feeds from numerous subscribed sources (left), where each one will list the titles of its items (top right). The title, link, and description appears in the bottom right. Links lead to the website with the full content.

The aggregator can be set to update itself on a regular basis. In other words, the aggregator brings to one screen the latest news from the sources you have selected that generate the content of most interest to you.

Another interesting option for managing a collection of RSS feeds is the free service from Bloglines. This is a completely web-based RSS aggregator. Once you have created a blogline account, you can access and edit your collection from any web browser.

Figure 3: Bloglines provides a web tool for organizing and sharing your RSS feeds.

An added bonus of this tool is that you can publish your Bloglines collection to be publicly available. This provides a great tool for an instructor to collect a series of RSS sources relevant to his/her discipline or a course, and then to share it as a class resource. The example illustrated above is from a collection I created at

Resources for Weblogs
Weblogs play an important role in contributing content available as RSS. Within the context of the academic environment, "blogs" are often sources of topical information or commentary. Below are some suggested resources for those who are interested in learning more about "blogging":

Where does RSS come from?

Most of the sites that generate RSS feeds are ones that publish content from databases, so it is very easy to also publish the appropriate fields needed to make an RSS feed. The growth in RSS sources has also been greatly fueled by the technology of weblogs or "blogs," the personal web publishing systems that are multiplying like rabbits. Used in many contexts, weblogs can be diaries, but quite often they are sources of topical information or commentary on what is happening elsewhere on the web or in the world (weblogs will take another full article to address!).

Weblog tools such as Userland's Radio and MovableType automatically generate RSS feeds for the content posted through these systems.

Since I started monitoring RSS feeds from about 80 instructional technology weblogs in January 2003, I can without a doubt say I have learned of more innovations and information relevant to my field than I would have gotten from checking web sites and reading listservs.

But RSS offers access to more than news and blogs. There are sources to obtain the weather forecasts for specific cities, the top selling books from, newest instructional resources at MERLOT, the latest news on open source software developments at SourceForge. Here at MCLI, we have added RSS feeds from our major web resource directories, our Bag of URLs, Teaching and Learning on the Web, and the Maricopa Learning eXchange. We have also heard that RSS is being integrated into the KJZZ web site.

But what is in it for educators?

Instructors spend a lot of time reviewing and constructing web resource lists for their students. As we all know, links go bad on us rather quickly. RSS might be able to reduce time spent maintaining resource collections.

Using an approach we developed at MCLI, you can add a feature to any web page (as well as inside BlackBoard or WebCT) that takes the web address of an RSS feed and generates dynamically the latest content from that site. When the site updates its content, your page is updated as well. For example, all of the information topic areas from offer RSS feeds for those subjects (everything from Agriculture to Zoology, with each site being maintained by an expert in the field).

If, for example, you are having your students create weblogs to document their projects or to post assignments, to review their work, you must manually visit these sites. However, if their weblogs generate RSS feeds, you could quickly scan the newest content your students have published in a single interface. On the other hand, if you created a weblog as an instructor (or RSS was generated automatically from Course Management Systems), these sources could generate the latest assignments that students could monitor as dynamic links inside their weblogs or RSS readers.

Figure 4: A literature instructor's Blackboard page uses our "RSS to JS" method to insert a dynamic listing of the top 10 selling books from that match a search on "Transcendentalism." This is achieved by adding one line of JavaScript code to this page (more...)

Do not be surprised to see the Blackboards and WebCTs out there beginning to add RSS tools to their systems. Consider what would happen if these course management systems could syndicate synopses of all course offerings or just the assignments I might be enrolled in. The same RSS aggregator I might use to stay in tune with news could also feed me a summary of my pending projects or assignments.

These are just elementary ideas––we are just letting you in early on something that may be a "killer app" technology. RSS radically changes the way we can access information by flipping control of content to users of technology from the sources that provide (or horde) it.

Once innovative Maricopa faculty get a taste of what RSS tools have to offer, we expect new ideas, subjects, and approaches to be made available in a very efficient manner for our classrooms.

Psss. Now you know about RSS!



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mcli Forum : Fall 2003 : technology: rss
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last modified: 2-Dec-03 : 1:43 PM
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