by Will Richardson and Karl Fisch
What if you could create your own constantly updated newspaper, one in which every story is about a topic you’re interested in, one that pulled together the best thinkers, artists, writers, and leading voices around whatever you’re passionate about, be it education, organic cooking, or Alaskan fly fishing? What if it was multimedia, filled with relevant photos and videos, and what if it even published every time your school’s name was uttered on the web? Best of all, what if all of it—all of the stories, blog posts, search results, videos, and more—came together in that newspaper for free? Would you be interested in reading? All that and more is easily possible thanks to what might be the best-kept secret in the new learning world: real simple syndication or RSS. A powerful tool that was originally built for blogs, RSS gives us the ability to subscribe (for free) to as many feeds of information as we think we can handle, bringing all the latest news together in one, easy-to-manage spot either online or off. It’s as if—in the words of MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte (1996)—we were creating a “daily me” (p. 153).
The good news is that RSS is an easy-enough tool to start using right now. The bad news is that you’ll quickly discover more great feeds to read than you probably can handle. With almost two billion potential content creators and sharers now hooked into the web, the pool of information is incredibly wide and deep. But efficient use of RSS speaks to one of the key new literacies offered by the National Council of Teachers of English in 2008: we must be able to “manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information”. RSS helps us do all of that and more.
To get started, navigate to Google Reader (www.reader.google.com). You’ll need to have a Google account to start using Reader, which is probably the easiest of the many RSS aggregators, as they are called. When you’re logged into Google and you go to your Reader, you’ll find an introductory video that will give you a pretty good overview of the tool. You also can find dozens of great how-to videos at YouTube when you do a search for “Google Reader tutorial.” Although there are lots of things you can do with Reader, the most important process centers on finding and subscribing to feeds. Without going too deeply into the technology (which is pretty transparent), almost every blog on the web has an RSS feed built into its code, which means that you can subscribe to just about every one of them. There are a number of ways to subscribe, but here is the most consistently easy method: Once you identify a blog that you want to add to your daily newspaper, simply copy its web address, navigate over to your Reader page, click on the “add subscription” button toward the top left of the page, and paste in the address. Once you click “add,” the latest blog posts from the feed you added will show up in the right-hand column. Adding feeds from newspapers or magazines, from photo or video collections, or from searches on the web are almost as easy. Say you find a section in the New York Times that you want to pull in—or videos on a particular topic on YouTube as identified by the particular keyword or tag that it’s been posted with—all you need to do is copy and paste the web address of the section or keyword page into Google Reader. Unfortunately, not every news or website will have an RSS feed available. If that’s the case, your Reader will tell you so when you try to subscribe.
A couple of other sites that serve as RSS aggregators are Netvibes (www.netvibes.com) and Pageflakes (www.pageflakes.com). Although Google Reader is purely for your private use (even though you can share with the world certain items that come through your feeds), both of these services make creating public newspapers easy. They are especially useful for educators looking to share specific news or content sources to a classroom or even a faculty group.
Using RSS to learn about whatever your passion is can take many forms, but here are five great ways to start. Each of them can lead to some great connections as you build your own learning community.
1. Find great bloggers. At this point, every topic has some really great bloggers out there writing about it, and blogs are the perfect way to start building out your Reader. To see who is writing about your area of interest, do a search at Google’s Blog Search page (http://blogsearch.google.com). Just put in your topic of interest and you’ll see who’s been writing about it. You’ll need to take some time to vet the results in terms of topics, writing quality, comments, bias, and so on, but if you find someone who’s consistently interesting, subscribe. Then, see who that person reads and you’ll find other bloggers who might be worth reading.
2. Set up a search. Say you want to track every time your favorite author (or sports team or actress or vacation spot) is mentioned in the blogosphere or in the news. You can actually just do a search at Blog Search or at Google News (http://news.google.com) and then subscribe to the results page (remember, just copy and paste the web address into your Reader). This works with other searches at multimedia sites, for example YouTube or Flickr. Say you want to collect videos or photos of your favorite animal or math concept; just search for the keywords (for example, persian cat or trigonometric identities) and then subscribe to the results.
3. Collect bookmarks. Social bookmarking sites such as Diigo (http://www.diigo.com/) now allow us to share the best websites and resources that we find on the web with the world. And it also allows individuals to subscribe to the bookmarks saved under any given tag. So if you want to add a list of bookmarked sites that others have found around, say, Spanish and lessons to your Reader, just do the search, and use the address to subscribe. From that point on, you’ll get every new bookmark saved with those keywords.
4. Follow the tweets. Twitter has become a crucial tool in many educator’s learning lives, and you can use RSS to mine out the most relevant tweets and send them to your Reader. The use of hashtags (keywords preceded by the # sign, as in #knitting) in many Twitter updates makes subscribing easy. Go to the Twitter search web page (http://search.twitter.com), enter the hashtag, and subscribe. You also can enter a regular old word such as literacy and get notified any time anyone uses the word in a tweet. Obviously, this can quickly get overwhelming, so be careful to what you subscribe. But it also can be a great way of finding and connecting to others who share your interests. 5. Get the tunes. iTunes has some great resources in its iTunes U section: course materials, lectures, language lessons, interviews, and more. You can subscribe to the channel that you want by opening it up in iTunes and right-clicking on the “subscribe” button, copying the link, and adding it to your Reader.
Many schools follow a professional learning community (PLC) model of staff development. RSS allows you to make your PLCs both more effective and more inclusive. Even when schools provide dedicated time for PLCs, it’s never enough. If teachers combine blogging with PLCs, then those conversations can continue at times (and locations) that are more convenient to individual teacher’s schedules. By collating feeds of individual teachers reflecting on their practice, and of PLC teams reflecting on their progress, everyone in your learning community can engage in deeper and broader discussions of teaching and learning at your school. Although there are tremendous ideas within your local learning community, there is a larger discussion about these same ideas worldwide. Your teachers can participate in a global PLC—often called a personal learning network (PLN)—of educators and others discussing the areas of teaching and learning about which they are passionate. As teachers discover others who are interested in the same topics, they can build their own PLNs. They can subscribe to blogs, podcasts, and social bookmarks (to name a few); receive a constant stream of thought-provoking ideas and resources; and participate and make their own contributions. Not only will they reap the benefits of tapping into the larger conversation, but they will also model lifelong learning for their students (administrators can participate right alongside teachers).
Everything described in this chapter for educators is even more critical for students. Although administrators are concerned with the reputation of their schools, students need to be curators of their own online, digital footprint. They need to use RSS (among other tools) to monitor, manage, and promote their own digital reputations. The old saying that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression is even more important today because increasingly the first impression our students make on others isn’t going to happen face-to-face, it’s going to be virtual. RSS provides a means to benefit from and manage digital first impressions. Although PLNs are a natural extension of the PLC process for educators, they are absolutely essential for students. Students are the ultimate knowledge workers, and PLNs allow them to expand and learning. They can use RSS on a small scale to help manage group work or individual classes and on a much larger scale, to pursue ideas and conversations around the globe. They can not only tap into the power of global resources for their required assignments but also, perhaps even more important, pursue their own learning passions. Students are no longer constrained in their learning by geography and the interests of their local peers but can join (and co-create) learning communities dedicated to the topics they are interested in. RSS is a gateway to the human network.
Go to http://reader.google.com and set up Google Reader. If you don’t have a Google account, you’ll need to create one, but it’s free and you’re going to want one anyway (check out www.google.com/support/reader/?hl=en for help). Subscribe to at least three and no more than seven education bloggers. (Yes, those numbers are completely made up but start small.) How do you find them? Well, you can start with various lists online (such as this one: http://movingforward.wikispaces.com/Blogs) or just find one or two bloggers you like (perhaps http://weblogg-ed.com and http://bigthink.com/blogs/dangerously-irrelevant) and follow the links from their posts and from the folks who comment. Then read. And reflect. And write (comment on others or start your own blog). Then repeat. You’re on your way.
McLeod, Scott; Lehmann, Chris (2011-09-13). What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media (pp. 38-43). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.