July/August 2003 // Tools
RSS: The Next Killer App For Education
by Mary Harrsch
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Mary Harrsch "RSS: The Next Killer App For Education" The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Like many technology specialists, I've been looking for the next "killer app" for quite some time. I would define a killer application as a program that provides the capability for an average person to use technology to solve every day problems and enrich their lives. E-mail was the first killer app and its usefulness to anyone who wishes to adopt it as an alternative communication tool has been demonstrated clearly by its embrace across the entire spectrum of computer users.

Now, a new technology, RSS, Rich Site Summary—sometimes known as Really Simple Syndication, takes the communication paradigm of one-to-one messaging one step further and provides the ability to efficiently communicate information to not just family and friends, but anyone on the internet who may be interested, whether you know them or not. This very basic implementation of XML is composed of a simple text file. Weblog applications equipped to generate an RSS file, like Blogger Pro, enables anyone to produce a custom news feed by simply posting your thoughts, ideas, and experiences to an online daily journal. [Figure 1. Configuring Blogger Pro to produce RSS files]

Example 1. You are a teacher looking for content that can be used in the study of the Spanish conquest. You find a Web site that has excellent biographies of the cultural leaders, profiles of the different native cultures, and even some patterns for ceremonial masks that can be reproduced for a class activity. You e-mail several of your friends about your ideas to incorporate some of the site's materials into your curriculum plan.

The important aspect of your communication, as opposed to information provided by a simple web search, is that you shared your ideas as a teaching professional as well as a link to the Web site. If, instead, you post your finds with your ideas for implementation to a Web log equipped with RSS generation capability, you provide a unique information source that can be accessed by thousands of teachers like you that are looking for ways to improve their learning environments. In essence, you have helped to establish an online community of practice specific to teachers of social studies.

We all have unique experiences and solutions that can benefit others. There are no rules that say only professional textbook publishers should be allowed to create or suggest how to use curriculum materials.

Example 2. You are teaching a class in science fiction and its parallels to developing technology. You teach this class each term and want to use timely examples. Like most instructors, the time you have available for searching out new technologies on the Web is limited. So, you subscribe to a free news feed from Sci-Fi Today that brings the latest news in science and science fiction to your desktop news reader.

Example 3. You are the superintendent of a school district with 49 schools. Each school maintains a Web site but it is very time consuming to visit each Web site periodically to review each schools news and events. The schools begin to post their news to a Web log that is incorporated into each school's Web site, much like Bryant Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. The weblog tool also produces an RSS news feed. You install a news reader and subscribe to each news feed. Each day you can quickly review all the news and events at each school in one place without having to visit all 49 Web sites.

Example 4. You are a researcher working on an archaeological dig on a Greek island. You have uncovered an artifact that puzzles you. You post your progress each day to a weblog. You include a picture of the puzzling artifact. The next day you are contacted by a German archaeologist that you have never met. He subscribes to your project news feed along with news feeds from other similar digs. He was on his way to a conference in Cairo and was browsing his news headlines on his PDA. He tells you the object is a physician's instrument. Now, with a potential context, you are better able to interpret some epigraphic fragments you have collected.

The RSS syndication format enables anyone to share their comments, news headlines, links to recent articles, descriptions and even images, with, not only other web content providers, but users of a variety of devices such as PDAs, cell phones, email ticklers, and voice update pagers. This is possible because XML is, fundamentally, a database tool instead of a display language like HTML.

It is also a way to leverage the talent of millions of individuals to identify truly useful information in the tidal wave of data the internet has become. You can review and select news feeds for customized news portals, enabling students, faculty, and staff to stay abreast of discoveries and developments in their particular area of interest . [Figure 2. COE Instructional Technology News Portal]. RSS files could be used to syndicate research news, learning modules, position vacancies, awards and achievements, new publications, significant donations—anything that would be of interest to a particular audience and dynamic in nature. [Figure 3. Using online utilities to produce a news portal]

How do you find news feeds for your news portal? Lists of existing feeds, along with search tools to help you sort through the thousands of feeds available are provided by such sites as Syndic8, which presently lists over 10,000 feeds. So far I have been able to find feeds that provide information valuable to students in a number of our majors. [Figure 4. COE News Portals list]

Since RSS production and use is still rather new, I try to "spread the word" about its potential use. When I find a Web page that contains news items that I would like to include in one of my news portals, but the page does not appear to offer an XML link, I e-mail the webmaster with information about RSS, links to basic resources, an explanation of how I would like to use an RSS feed from their site, and include a link to one of my student news portals.

You can also create an RSS feed for another Web site using a scraping utility like the one at http://www.myrss.com. [Figure 5. How to use a scraping utility]

Bill Kearney, an editor for Syndic8, points out, "Consider for a moment what's possible when the voices of the people are truly available. Hearing the truth is no longer a matter of being controlled by a media outlet. Speaking for yourself truly becomes possible. A lot of people who currently control what we hear would like you to think what you say doesn't matter."

Dave Winer, one of the original developers of the My Userland news reader (now part of the Radio Userland application), uses his virtual newspaper as an example. "I'm subscribed to quite a few sources, and the range of sources is significant. Consider that I get news from the New York Times, the BBC, and from weblogs like Sam Ruby (an expert programmer), Jon Udell (InfoWorld columnist), John Robb (he works with me at UserLand), Mike Chambers (works for Macromedia, writes about Flash), The Shifted Librarian, Ernie the Attorney, analyst Kevin Werbach, Ed Cone (North Carolina columnist), book author Christian Crumlish, my own weblog (Scripting News). Not only am I getting news from professional news organizations, but I am also hearing from people and non-news organizations who make a difference to me. Rarely an hour goes by without something interesting happening, my mind is stimulated, I get new ideas, and of course I share them. It's all about choice, customization, and communication." 


Kearney, Bill.. (2003, March 4). McLuhan Redux.
Retrieved March 5, 2003, from http://www.ideaspace.net/users/wkearney/archives/000128.html

Winer, Dave. (2002, October 8). What is a News Aggregator.
Retrieved March 5, 2003, from http://davenet.userland.com/2002/10/08/whatIsANewsAggregator

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