Thursday, April 05, 2007

It Really Is Really Simple: RSS for Educators

Teachers often ask me "how do you find these things?" or "how did you know about this?" Much of the time I don't have to find or even look for innovative new things, because the news comes to me... and not because anyone is sending it to me, but because I'm using a tool called RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. Once you learn about RSS, learning about other new tools becomes much easier, which makes RSS a potentially very important thing for educators (and students) to understand.

What is RSS?

RSS allows you to subscribe to online news and updates that are important to you. Once you subscribe to a source, you no longer need to visit that individual web site to check for updates... the updates come to you. Searching or browsing the web is a good way to locate sources initially, but once you've located them there is no need to return to them over and over. If they offer an RSS feed, all you need to do is subscribe.

TIP: Subscription, by the way, is FREE.

What is an RSS feed?

An RSS feed is really just a file (on a webserver) that includes information about the updates you are interested in. RSS is a lot like HTML, the programming language behind websites. Web browsers (like Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari) can read HTML code and display a web page for you. RSS code is very similar, but must be read by an RSS aggregator (or reader), which can then display the update for you, including any enclosured files such as PDF documents or podcasts.

What is an RSS aggregator (or reader)?

An aggregator, sometimes called a reader, collects (or aggregates) all of your subscriptions in one place, like a magazine rack in your house or classroom. Once you subscribe to few sources, you no longer need to visit each site, you simply open your aggregator to read any new updates. The experience can be a lot like reading email, but can also be thought of as reading your own customized newspaper.

TIP: Web based aggregators such as Bloglines and Google Reader are particularly popular with teachers because they let you check your feeds from any computer, while aggregators like NetNewsWire (Mac) or FeedReader (Windows) have more options. iTunes (Windows or Mac) includes an aggregator for subscribing to Podcasts.

How do you subscribe to a feed using your aggregator?

Most aggregators have a subscribe button of some kind. Generally, all you need to do is locate the web address of the RSS feed (see the tip below), copy the address, click on the subscribe button in your aggregator, and then paste in the address. From then on, any new updates will appear in your aggregator and save you the trip back to the website.

TIP: Most sites with an RSS feed provide a link on their main page, often in a side column, and often indicated by an icon such as the orange one pictured above, or such as the ones here at the ITM, depicted (and annotated) to the right. Notice that sometimes a direct link is used for subscribing to a particular aggregator such as Google Reader.

Why do you need RSS?

Now that it is as easy to create online content as it is to consume it, the amount of information available online can be overwhelming. Once you find a trusted source, you want to be able to take advantage of future updates. However, you don't want to waste time checking sites when they haven't been updated... and on the flip side, you don't want to miss a potentially important update because you haven't checked back in a while. Ultimately, RSS saves you time by brining the updates to you when they are available.

What can you subscribe to?

RSS was initially intended to help people subscribe to news updates. Not surprisingly, many news sources have RSS feeds (also called news feeds). Check out all of the specialized feeds available at, including an Education feed.

Blogs may be the most common source of RSS feeds. Almost all blogs have an RSS feed of some kind, if not several. As you can see the ITM offers a feed. If your students are blogging , you an subscribe to your student's blogs. For instance, if I were teaching high school English again right now, I wouldn't want to visit 180 student blogs to see who had answered their reflection questions, I'd want the updates to come to me as the students posted them. Also, for your own professional development you can subscribe to other educators' blogs... or even the ITM. Visit to learn more about educational blogs and to find blogs to subscribe to.

Podcasts are another common source of RSS feeds. In fact, podcasting wouldn't be possible without RSS. Teachers often ask me what makes a podcast different from simply posting an mp3 file on their homepage... and the difference is RSS, which allows others to subscribe to a podcast and listen to it (or view it) at their own convenience - even on their iPod. You can subscribe to student podcasts (from your school or others) and to other educators' podcasts... or even the ITM shows. iTunes is a common aggregator used particularly for collecting podcasts. Visit the Educational Podcasting Network (or the Education category in the iTunes Podcast Directory) to learn more about educational podcasting and to find podcasts to subscribe to.

Other Web 2.0 (or read/write web) tools also commonly include RSS feeds. Most wikis allow you to subscribe to any changes. So, if students are posting to a group work wiki or making changes on the class wiki, you will be notified. Also, services such as social bookmarking (like FURL or, photo sharing (like Flickr), or even web searches (such as Google News, MSN Search, or Technorati) can provide additional sources of RSS feeds. This can be like having your computer research for you 24/7!

Where can you learn more about RSS in Education?

Will Richardson shares an excellent eleven page guide to RSS for educators. Also, feel free to leave your questions in the comments. The ITM bloggers and readers can help.

Image Credits: The RSS logo comes from the Wikimedia Commons. The annotated diagram of the ITM feeds I created with Snipping Tool 2.0 on my HP TC4200 Tablet PC.