Really Simple Syndication (RSS) might not mean much yet to the average internet user–but it soon could revolutionize the medium. Some forward-thinking educators are taking advantage of the burgeoning technology to keep abreast of school-related issues and push important information to stakeholders.

Simply put, RSS allows you to follow information from multiple online sources, such as news web sites or “blogs” (web logs), without having to surf all over the web to find it. RSS takes advantage of Extensible Markup Language (XML)–a code for web content that can be handled easily by a wide range of operating systems and communications devices–to “feed” new content directly to your desktop.

All the technology requires from a user’s point of view is an RSS reader, and dozens of versions of the software are available for downloading from the web at no charge. Using an RSS reader, you can set up a nearly unlimited number of channels, or feeds, from various online sources that offer the technology. Whenever one of these sources is updated, the new information is pushed to your computer automatically in the form of a web link that appears in your RSS reader. By clicking on the link, you can access the entire original post or article.

Blogs, which began as the musings of individual pundits and programmers looking to talk shop, have quickly caught on in the education field, giving scholars an opportunity to share their ideas in a dedicated, spam-free stream of information. In the past year, blogs have exploded into the internet mainstream, and dozens of bloggers were credentialed as members of the news media at the recent Democratic National Convention.

The blog boom owes as much to the role of RSS as the attraction of the blogs themselves. The blogs came first, but RSS has taken them to the next level.

Because most blog engines were built to generate XML, they are automatically RSS-enabled, giving users an easy way to keep up with new posts. Blogs are now quickly replacing automated eMail list servers, which had become cluttered with spam, as a way to communicate online.

RSS is a natural fit for educators, who were frequent users of listservs.

“I really like the convenience of not having to go to a specific site” to find information, said Craig Nansen, the technology coordinator for Minot, N.D., Public Schools. “With RSS, I’m getting information I want when I want it, and I don’t have to wade through any other junk. I had found that listservs were too cumbersome, and you didn’t have easy access to archives.”

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Although Nansen and others have left listservs for blogs and RSS feeds, educators were initially slow in adapting to the new format. Will Richardson, a former high school English and journalism teacher in Flemington, N.J., discovered as much when he first became interested in web logs three years ago.

In 2001, Richardson went looking for blogs devoted to education, but could find only a handful. To help jumpstart the process, he began authoring his own. The result was www.weblogg-ed.com, a site he still maintains. In producing the site for fellow educators, he soon realized its added potential as a teaching tool in his classes.

“This technology gave kids a chance to collaborate,” said Richardson, now supervisor of instructional technology and communications at Hunterdon Central Regional High School. “They could maintain their own blogs, but since they were generating their own RSS feeds, they could also track what other people were doing. Their work is suddenly visible and open for comment.”

Richardson gave his students personal accounts on a free site called bloglines.com, enabling them to maintain blogs in a web-based environment without additional software. Even though his journalism class’s site was password-protected, Richardson required that students refrain from publishing their last names or any other sensitive data.

Blogs haven’t made the same inroads in Minot, N.D., but Nansen says RSS has had a major impact nonetheless. Minot uses Carbondale, Ill.-based SchoolCenter server software to host building and classroom web sites that can be accessed by teachers. SchoolCenter sites generate their own RSS feeds.

“I’m trying to use RSS as a means of getting information to the public and parents more so than for communicating with students,” said Nansen, who has been familiar with RSS for close to a year, but has only made effective use of it in the past four months. “It’s great for getting calendars and newsletters out. We also use blog engines to archive recent announcements, and those announcements show up in the RSS feeds.”

Nansen is fond of another offshoot of blogging, known as the wiki. A wiki is a form of web-based server software that allows multiple users to edit the same page. This allows for massive collaborations unlimited by geographic distance. Nansen is experimenting with wikis on his own, using them to build pages on the history of North Dakota and the city of Minot. Like blogs, wikis have an educational upside. Because they generate their own RSS feeds, wikis allow users participating in a project and be notified when any content is updated.

Dedicated readers are still the most popular means of getting RSS feeds, but many savvy web masters now cut out the extra step by writing a script to display RSS-generated headlines directly on their web sites. Almost all national news sources, including eSchool News, provide RSS feeds for their readers’ convenience and offer syndicated content for schools and others to incorporate into their own sites.

Nansen and Richardson both agree that RSS has a lot to offer educators. In addition to school-related news, educators can publish calendars and course syllabi in an RSS feed, serving them up to the school’s web page or the RSS readers of community stakeholders who have chosen to receive the feed.

“Everything within a district can be set up in directories that are either limited to select lists or are open to the entire public,” said R. Thor Prichard, the CEO of Clarity Innovations Inc. “This really makes everyone rethink the meaning of how schools organize.”

Prichard’s company works with educators to help them bring about major organizational change, using blogs and RSS as primary communication tools. Prichard says a series of blogs could be used to cover all aspects of the school, including homework assignments, class cancellations, and athletic schedules. The key is determining the right categories for RSS feeds and making sure they can be accessed only by the right parties.

Through RSS, daily life can be shared easily with the larger community. Parents, for example, can keep an eye on specific RSS feeds, letting communication take place in real time. Schools no longer have to worry about eMail messages reaching their recipients in a timely fashion or being blocked by spam filters. Teachers also benefit from RSS communication.

“If I’m a classroom teacher, how will I know about news in the school without reading tons of eMail?” said Prichard. “RSS and web logs represent a paradigm shift.”

Prichard said RSS can have a liberating effect. School administrators, who once had to send individual memos via eMail, now find they can simply update a dedicated “memo page” on the school’s web site, and the RSS feed will be pushed out to all staff members associated with that particular memo.

While RSS feeds can do a lot to enhance communication, Prichard notes they also have a downside in terms of access.

“A school is a public agency. If an individual teacher publishes stuff on his personal blog, and the school allows it to show up on the school’s site, you have to wonder if that teacher’s dialogue with his own class should be taken as representing the school,” he said.

Security methods, such as putting blogs and RSS feeds into password-protected areas, should go a long way toward reassuring educators that RSS can meet their needs. But those who embrace RSS are sure its future is bright, and it’s only a matter of time before the technology goes mainstream.

“Some people say RSS will spell the end of eMail,” said Richardson. “I don’t know about that, but I see a lot of potential for it.”

Links:

Craig Nansen’s Technology Leaders Resource Center
http://minot.com/~nansen/

weblogg-ed.com by Will Richardson
http://www.weblogg-ed.com/

Clarity Innovations Inc.
http://www.clarity-innovations.com

Bloglines.com
http://www.bloglines.com/

Blogspace.com’s recommended RSS readers
http://blogspace.com/rss/readers

XML.com’s guide to RSS
http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2002/12/18/dive-into-xml.html

RSSGov.com’s RSS Tutorial
http://rssgov.com/rssworkshop.html

How to create an RSS feed (WebDevTips.com)
http://www.webdevtips.com/webdevtips/codegen/rss.shtml