Working with RSS

RSS for Educators

By Will Richardson, updated by Keith Webster 15 October 2009, 24 October 2010, 29 October 2011, 5 October 2013,
Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License

Introduction

So just what is RSS and how can it be used in education? Depending on who you talk to, RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Real Simple Syndication. Either way, RSS is a real important technology that information specialists and educators would be well advised to harness for the efficient management of their own research and for more effective ways to collect and deliver content created around the world and by your own students.

Try this out:
Go to your WordPress blog and navigate to either the page where all your posts appear in chronological order (usually the home page) or select one of your post categories to go to a page the displays all the posts for that category (ie. EDDL 5101). In your broswer address bar add a slash at the end of the URL (if there isn’t one there already) and then add ‘feed/’ at the end. Press ‘Enter’ and your browser will diplay the RSS feed for your blog posts or for that category of posts on your blog.

In simple terms, weblogs and other sites that regularly add new content, generate a behind-the-scenes code in a language similar to HTML called XML. This code, usually referred to as a “feed” (as in “news feed”), makes it possible for web-based or client-based applications called news aggregators or readers to “subscribe” to the content that is created on a particular weblog so they no longer have to visit the blog itself to get it. As is true with traditional syndication, the content comes to you instead of you going to get it, hence ‘Real Simple Syndication.’

For instance, say you’re a political science teacher and you’ve found 20 or 30 weblog and media sites on the Internet that are consistently publishing interesting and relevant information for you and your students. Finding the time to click through to those sites and keep abreast of any new information on a regular basis would be nearly impossible. But what if you only had to go to one place to read all of the new content on all of those sites? Wouldn’t be so difficult, would it? Well, that’s exactly what RSS feeds allows you to do by using a type of software called an “aggregator” or feed collector. The aggregator checks the feeds you subscribe to, usually after a few minutes to every hour, and it collects all the new content from those sites you are subscribed to. Then, when you’re ready, you open up your aggregator to read the individual stories, file them for later use, click through to the site itself, or delete them if they’re not relevant. In other words, you check one site instead of 30 — not a bad tradeoff for a typically harried teacher.

Setting Up an RSS Feed Reader

Ready to start? First, you need to set up an aggregator to collect your RSS feeds. I would suggest web-based service like Feedly or The Old Reader. Why? While there are a number of great downloadable newsreader packages out there that can do wonderful things, the main advantage to Feedly and The Old Reader is that you can access them from anywhere you have an Internet connection. In other words, you don’t have to be on your own computer(s) with special software installed to read your news. (Of course, if you do only use one machine, there are many aggregators with lots of features that you may want to consider. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_aggregator) and http://c4lpt.co.uk/directory-of-learning-performance-tools/players-readers/.

You can learn about using Feedly with this tutorial http://help.edublogs.org/2012/12/10/introduction-to-rss-and-subscribing-using-rss/

Finding and Adding Feeds

RSS icon

Once you have your aggregator set up, it’s time to find some relevant feeds to stock it with. Most news outlets and standard websites have feeds for their content so there will be lots to choose from. Almost all major and most minor Canadian and international news organizations have websites with RSS feeds for their content, frequently these can be selected by category as well. First, understand that most sites have a link to their feeds on their homepages. On many, it’s a text link in one of the side columns that says “Feed” or “Syndicate this site (XML).” Or, it might be a link that says “RSS 1.0 (or 2.0).” But, often, it’s a pretty orange icon that looks like the one in the upper right corner of this paragraph. No matter which type it is, you’ll need to click on it in order to get the address of that site’s feed. Don’t worry if the page that comes up is a scary-looking mass of code that you can’t make heads or tails of. All you really need is the Internet address of that page (the URL). Just copy the address, go into your reader and add this feed.

If you’re not sure what to subscribe to, you should look for large and small-scale media, organizations, communities and prominent writers active in fields you are interested in. Today many academics and practicing professionals write in blogs.

If you find one or two sites or blogs that interest you, you might want to look at what these sites list as links or what the bloggers are subscribing to. Most blogs will include a blogroll— list of blogs visited by the author.

Using RSS Feeds in the Classroom

So, you’ve got your favourite weblog and media feeds in your aggregator, and you’re starting to get the hang of this “getting the good stuff when I want it” concept. How can you start using this in your school and in your classroom? Well, there are a number of different ways that RSS feeds can add to your knowledge base, help you communicate, and make your teaching better.

RSS Feeds with Student Blogs

If you already use blogs with your students, the uses of RSS should become pretty apparent. Instead of checking out all 25 (or 30, or more) student blogs every day, you could just collect their work in your aggregator, using their RSS feeds. That way, you can scan through all of the class content in one place, and click through to a particular post if you want to comment on it. Using student feeds in this way can drastically reduce the time required to maintain a sense of your class blog use and to make your own presence felt in the student blogs. In addition, you can provide individual student blog feeds to parents or counselors or whoever else might be interested in that student’s work.

With some blog systems, you can even subscribe to feeds that show just certain topics or posts. In other words, you can be very precise in tracking what’s going on in your student blogs. External tools or blog plugins (like FeedWordPress for WordPress) allow you to import RSS feeds into pages you create for your or your students’ sites or to republish blog posts on another blog site. While it takes a little bit of effort to make it work, the benefits of bringing topic specific feeds right into student (or teacher) work spaces is something that you might want to explore. The ability to bring the online work of an entire class into a sinlge space helps build community. (See also the section, “Including RSS Feeds in Your Blog,” later in this guide).

RSS Feeds without Student Blogs

Even if your students don’t have blogs, you may want to encourage them set up their own Feedly or Bloglines account. With so many news sources producing feeds for aggregation, the breadth of current events and even topic-specific research that students could collect could go a long way to assisting them with research or further study. It’s one reason why I think RSS could be a great help for the lack of media and information literacy skills students have. And, if you use a blog, they can include your feed in their aggregator to stay abreast of what is going on in class.

RSS Search Feeds

The idea of creating RSS feeds for search terms is especially interesting. Say you have a student that is doing a project or a paper on global warming. That student could actually create an RSS feed that would bring any news about global warming to her aggregator as soon as it was published. Kind of like doing research 24/7, only the RSS feed does all the work. And you can create a feed about any topic you want. If you want to create a feed for what’s in the daily news about a particular topic, you can make a syndicated feed of search results of Google News. Just follow the instructions found here:

http://www.google.com/support/news/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=59255

One thing to remember is that an RSS feed of a news search term will only be as good and specific as the search term used. If you use an overly generic term you will get items that aren’t on the topic you want (ie. if you search for ‘computing’). As well, if you aren’t careful about your search terms you could return news results that aren’t appropriate for your students.

You can acquire an RSS feed for any other search you do on Google in the same way. Just conduct the search and then select the rss button on your browser (in Internet Explorer, this button is typically to the right of the Home button; in Firefox, it is at the far right of the URL address field), copy the feed URL from the address bar and put it into your RSS reader.

Feeds for Bookmarks

Here’s a Twitter widget displaying any tweets with the hashtag #openlearning.


One of the more useful applications of RSS has been to syndicate the Internet bookmarks you keep of your travels. You can do this by using a social bookmarking site like Delicious or Diigo. These sites let you bookmark any website from your browser, add tags and a description (a crowd sourced set of metadata) and, in the case of Diigo, make notes alongside specific parts of a web page. You can share these bookmarks with others or keep them private. If you share them, both tools allow your bookmarks to be harvested as an RSS feed. Another tool that lets you make similar resources available is Twitter. If you tweet interesting and relevant web-based resources and use hashtags to distinguish them from other tweets, you can deliver these tweets to a web page as an RSS feed. In all of these instances it is possible to provide a feed that lists everyone’s findings around a specific tag or hashtag, or you can provide a feed of just one individual’s resources.

Combining RSS Feeds

Now, let’s say you have a classroom full of students who each have their own blogs. They also have set up accounts at Delicious so that they can collect relevant web pages for the work they are doing, and they have a number of search feeds that they are tracking to collect even more information. From a teaching standpoint, if you wanted to monitor all of that information flow, it would take quite a bit of time and work. With most RSS readers you can group the feeds your are subscribing to and then display just the most recent entries from that group. This way you could create a group of your student blogs from a specific class and keep them distinct from your leisure reading and research feeds.

There are a few tools that will let you collect several RSS feeds and then combine them into one feed that can be used elsewhere. Most of these tools Are either a little flaky or a bit advanced in their use. The typical case for combining these feeds is when you want to display items from several feeds in a single widget on a web page. For example, WordPress blogs have an ‘RSS Widget’ that will display entries from only one feed in the sidebar of your site. In order to display several feeds here you would need to combine the feeds using an external widget like RSS Include or a service that combines feeds for you and offers a single feed you can use with the WordPress widget.

Including RSS Feeds in Your Blog or Website

Even though using Feedly or some other aggregator is the easiest way to collect and view your feeds, with a little bit of work you can actually get feed results to show up on your blog or other web page. Some blog software, like WordPress, have built-in (or software extensions called ‘plugins’) components to do this.

When we talk about displaying your RSS feeds on your own blog or web site, this can mean two different things. Most often what you want is a widget – a small box on a page of your blog or website that displays the last 1 to 10 (it’s up to you) items in your chosen RSS feed (or feeds). This most often is limited to the title of the item in the feed, perhaps with the author and date, and with a link back to the original source.

Sometimes what you want to do is ‘republish’ the material in the feed on your own blog or website. This is what is done on the course sites for EDDL 5101 and other courses in this program to ‘republish’ student blog posts with the appropriate category (eddl5101) on the course blog site. In WordPress this is done with the ‘FeedWordPress’ plugin. In other instances what you want to do is republish the most recent single, or several items, complete with all their content, on a single page. This is what is accomplished with ‘Feed2js’ below.

In your WordPress blog you can add a widget to your left-side or right-side menu that displays the results of an RSS feed by going to your blog dashboard and then following these steps. Note that the WordPress RSS widget only displays one feed.

  1. Under ‘Appearance’ select ‘Widgets’.
  2. Drag the ‘RSS’ widget over to the appropriate widget area.
  3. Paste the desired RSS feed into the appropriate field and then adjust the other settings as needed.
  4. Select ‘Save’ and go check out your widget on your blog site.

Another simple solution to be able to display RSS results anywhere on a blog or website is to create a widget. There are several web-based services that will let you create a widget that will display RSS feed items. Once you’ve created a widget, you take the embed code provided and paste it into your blog page or website page, making sure you are using an ‘HTML’ editing interface.

You should know that these widgets use JavaScript and the “iframe”, “object”, or “embed” tags, so some of your blogs or web sites may not accept their widget (though typically this is not a problem). Another consideration is that these sites do come and go. When the one that made your widget disappears you will not be able to see your widget anymore.

Try the web-based widget creator RSSinclude at:

http://www.rssinclude.com
Note that RSSinclude.com requires you to create an account in order to create a widget. RSSinclude.com also lets you combine more than one RSS feed into a single widget’s display.

If you want yet more control, especially if you want to display all the content from RSS feed items on your blog or web page, then you can use an RSS to JavaScript service like Alan Levine’s “Feed to JavaScript” at:

http://feed2js.org/

This tool provides much more customization and will allow you to display content instead of just the post titles provided by a tool like Widgeteasy.

RSS Resources

You can find more RSS resources by following this topic in the blogs or by visiting:

https://www.diigo.com/user/keithatwork/?query=%23rss

to see what has been bookmarked on the topic lately.

Creative Commons License
RSS for Educators by Will Richardson, Keith Webster is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.

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