Although in the past fews years there has been a marked growth in the number of higher education classrooms that utilize an on-line writing component, adapting the teaching of writing to digital spaces has met with resistance on the part of both students and professors. While there are many hurdles to address in navigating technological changes in writing practices, I would like to suggest that part of the problem has been a lack of understanding about the ways that information is disseminated and archived in these spaces. We need to begin by framing the approach in a new way to contextualize writing better, and, more importantly, to make classroom blogging (and even more broadly writing in digital spaces) more productive for the students and professors. In particular, I want to show how the technology of RSS is crucial both from a theoretical and a practical standpoint to any digital writing, but especially to any blogging classroom.
When asked, those who work in information technology (I speak here not of those in the academy but rather those who work at technology industries) about the most significant transformations in communication in the past ten years, one of the most often cited developments is RSS. However, a large majority of internet users, by some estimations over 90%, have no idea about this technology, or how it is changing information dissemination on the internet. (I have found that among students, even though this is the tech-savvy generation, less that one in ten have used RSS. If you are one of those not familiar with RSS please indulge me for a short moment and I promise to explain.) Although in the past several years RSS use has expanded to include content from almost any type of website, its initial growth in usage can be traced to blogs (weblogs). And although RSS has so many uses beyond blogs, RSS can greatly enhance classroom blogging both in the pedagogical and the practical realms.
For those who are not familiar with RSS, allow me a brief explanation. Although there are more in depth resources available to explain RSS (see references at the end of this article), I am going to offer a short explanation to aim at the concept behind what RSS does. When I am asked by people, regardless of their level of network literacy, what RSS is, I try to explain it by analogy to a newspaper. Imagine that you could have a newspaper delivered to your house that had only the content you wanted. That is, let's say you want the sports section from Chicago Tribune, the education section from the New York Times, the editorial page from the Guardian, and international headline news from the BBC. Now lets say this newspaper would be compiled for you and presented to you whenever you requested, and, what is more, would only give you the information that has changed since last you asked. But, even better what if you could also add into this “newspaper” your best friend's blog on cooking, a travel blog from Asia, updates from the Chronicle of Higher Ed . . .or pretty much any website you want. This allows you to monitor all of the content that you select from the web without having to visit all of the sites. What RSS does is “syndicate” all of the content you want, and send you everything you have asked for. (RSS stands for either “Rich Site Summary,“ or ”Really Simple Syndication.“) Any site you have seen with the following is offering these summaries, or syndication; all you have to do is subscribe. I am not going to go into the details of how you get the subscriptions, or what programs you need to do this (you can even do this all on-line so you do not need a separate program), but you can check the end of this article for a few resources that will help you set up the syndication. There are a lot of resources out there to handle these feeds, and each has advantages and disadvantages, so it is worth some time and effort to try out many of these to find out which works for your particular educational situation.
Why this Matters in the Blogging Classroom
One of the most significant concerns about using blogs in the classroom is that students often feel as if they are doing the same writing, just placing it on the web. Since context determines meaning, the method and message of writing necessarily changes as students compose for the internet; however, many academics fail to convey this information to students. Recently, there has been a significant amount of hype about “Web 2.0,” the idea that the Web has changed from a reading space to a read-write space. Regardless of the intellectually spurious claim to absolutely separate out reading from writing, web content in recent years has changed, most significantly with regard to the increase in wikis, blogs, social sites, and even the speed at which traditional sites now get updated.
For me, one of my central pedagogical goals is always to teach students to critically engage media. As such, I feel it is important to teach students how to become critical navigators in the digital spaces where a majority of their information will be taken in. And for me, this is one of the reasons that blogging in the classroom can serve an important pedagogical role that writing in paper format alone cannot accomplish. If one simply transfers the "book-way" of writing onto the digital space, students have learned little that they could not have gained from more traditional writing assignments. The situation may even be worse than one of unnecessary reconfiguration, for in the digital medium, writing often produces technological frustrations which, if not offset by other gains, leads to negative experiences for the students. Since the context of writing has shifted in the digital, it is important to demonstrate to student how authorship itself has shifted in the age of the digital.
Writing in the age of the digital is no longer a matter of being the absolute genius creator who gives birth to an idea and writes it all down for the world to see (as if it ever was); managing context on the web for writers has become a significantly different task. To write “well” in this space students need to learn not only how to cite and link, but indeed to package their writings in a different way. RSS helps accomplish this goal.
Helping Students to Become Better Readers to Become Better Writers
The amount of information on the web is overwhelming to say the least. I could spend the rest of my life reading Wikipedia and would probably never finish. While this is also true of a large library (say here at the University at Albany) as well, the tools one uses to navigate the library, a static electronic database easily searchable by author, title, or book, is clearly inadequate for the web. RSS helps to give students control over content on the web, reducing time spent navigating from site to site to see what has changed, and instead allowing them to receive updates about the content they are interested in tracking or material that is relevant to class. For example, if you were teaching a class on the Holocaust you could require that students subscribe to feeds that related to the recent trials of Holocaust deniers in Germany, and to the situation in Darfur. In this way students would get regular updates and could read the most relevant content without getting lost in a quagmire of information.
But more important than staying up to date on information is the ability RSS provides to sort what one wants to read from what is not of interest, not only in terms of selecting to receive only certain feeds, but also as a matter of reading only in detail a few of the feeds you receive: sorting again the information you receive, separating what is not of interest from that which is (an invaluable skill for students who will increasingly rely on digital information). For example, I subscribe to somewhere over 100 feeds that allow me to monitor somewhere close to 200 websites (some of the feeds are just a collection of websites all in one feed), which means that on any given day I can receive over 500 new items in my feed reader. This clearly means that I cannot read them all, or even half of them. What a good feed reader does is allow you to quickly scan the headlines, mark the ones you want to read, toss out the ones you don't, and return either immediately, or at a later more convenient time, to carefully read the ones you have selected.
So here is one of my big pedagogical and theoretical claims: The speed of reading in the age of the digital has changed, and we need to help students navigate this. Being able to “surf” around countless webpages, scanning information, might be a good practice for cursory knowledge acquisition, but it does not lend itself to in-depth reading. In fact, I would argue that these are almost two separate mental practices. And it is important to teach students to distinguish between these two. Reading on the internet requires two separate skills: one, the quick analysis to find what is worth reading, and the second, a switch to slow analysis to carefully consider what has been found. What RSS does is allow students to make this distinction, to receive content as "bits" easy to scan, and then to select what they want to read. In a library, notice how these two operations are separated by the act of walking to the stacks and checking out the books. You first scan the database for book titles, copy down the call numbers, walk to the shelves, scan the book to see if you want to read it, and check it out, taking it home to read slowly. The distinction between scanning and careful reading is reinforced in this model by the change in venue: the process of checking the book out and leaving the library. On the computer, since all of this happens in one place and through one interface, it is all too easy to conflate the two. What I tell students to do is actually make a mental separation between tagging items to be read, and then reading items. I even go as so far as to suggest that they take a break between these two processes. And learning to use RSS (along with tabbed browsing) greatly aids this type of reading practice.
When I show students what RSS can do, how it can help them to navigate the internet, it almost always results in a two-stage reaction. First, awe and wonder as to why no one ever showed them this before. Second, a new found interest in reading digital information. (I suspect the second is a direct result of feeling less overwhelmed by content.)
Why it Matters for Student Writing
To state the obvious, writing for the internet, and specifically writing for blogs, is informed by a different context than the paper writing we ask of students for class. To require students to write papers and then post them to a blog or website misses the point. In fact, this often results in frustrated students, because understandably they fail to see the relevance of such writing. Instead, productive classroom blog projects focus on teaching students how writing for the internet requires a different type of authorship—again, an important lesson in how context shapes meaning. Now, while there are several features to this "internet authorship", I want to focus on a few in particular that I think are important, and that will highlight again the importance of RSS.
First, writing in the age of the digital is, as I indicated above, far more a matter of becoming a networked author, of writing a networked book. The internet authors who are most influential and most read all use RSS in one form or another. Teaching students to write blogs without at least providing the idea behind RSS is like teaching them to write papers on word processors, but never showing them how to use spell check, find and replace, italics or any of the formatting tools; it just repeats the prior technical moment of writing. In order to be successful authors in this space, students need to construct content that takes advantage of the iterability and citationality that the web offers. Rather than simply referring to an article, students need to author documents that link to that article, and link to those articles in a way that enhances their writing. (Notice how this very article relies on this contextual ability to help support its writing.) One only has to look at the most successful blogs to understand the extent to which the ability to cite and link to sources is crucial for garnering an audience. By learning to use RSS, students can cull from a large number of resources to provide this citationality. Furthermore, many RSS readers allow users to simply load the current article, or a portion of it, into their current writing and append their comments. This type of citation and appending comments to citation is crucial to becoming critically engaged readers and writers. Writing content for digital presentation is increasingly becoming dependent on understanding the tools, and one of these crucial tools is RSS.
Second, one of the most frequent complaints of students who have been required to blog for class is that they feel as if what they are writing does not get read by anyone except the instructor. Professors can require that students read each others' blogs and comment, but this usually results in just a few of the blogs being well trafficked and commented on, or students reading the blogs of only a few peers they know best. Without RSS, professors must rely on the students clicking and reading through each classmate's blog. Even if you could rely on students doing this, it does not address the previous problem that reading at this rate often reduces to scanning, rather than reading the others' work critically and providing constructive contributions. By using RSS, you can syndicate all of the students blogs; every student in the class will get the class “newspaper” with headlines and synopsis of each student's writing, allowing them to scan all of the posts at once, and then decide which ones are most relevant, and select them for close reading. Furthermore, RSS can facilitate commenting, as most blogs will allow you to syndicate the comments to a specific post, so that students can post to a blog and continue to follow up on the comment thread. Again, this will help students to realize how writing for the web is a matter of continuos conversation rather than static paper design.
Third, digital content is increasingly syndicated. Thus, writing without an awareness of how your writing may be syndicated can lead to addressing your audience in an ineffective way. Content that is syndicated is significantly re-contextualized, stripped of many of its original framing effects (in this example the students blog), and transferred into another context (the RSS reader of another person). This means that the end reader will probably not see the full story, or all of the framing effects of the blog, but often just a headline, summary text, and perhaps a picture, unless they choose to view said blog post. Writing with the possibility that content will be read in syndication requires that writers recognize the different ways in which their writing is likely to become re-contextualized. As an example, look at New York Times headlines, which follow the old paradigm of headline writing, and headlines from Gawker Media. New York Times headlines often do not tell the story, or what the content is about, instead being witty or trying to capture attention, as opposed to a headline from Gawker which attempts to give the whole story, or at least why one would want to read the story in the headline.
Indeed, the concept of a “site feed” has already changed reading and writing practices on the web in multiple ways. As feeds circumvent constant clicking and exposure to web sites, advertisers have had to rethink web-based presentations. And although ads can be placed within an RSS feed, they are remarkably easy to strip out, so as not to be seen by the end user. Sites without feeds garner less traffic, and the number of individuals who subscribe to any given feed has become a mark of distinction, a measure if not of authenticity at least of authority. Finally, because feeds are remarkably easy to transmit and record they are also easy to bundle and share with other users. In praxis this means that I can give another user a document of all the feeds to which I subscribe, and another user can import that document (usually no more than a few clicks) into their reader and instantly see, read, and modify the feeds to which I subscribe. Not only does this mean I have my own personal newspaper, but I have one that I can easily share with others. For example, say one of my students wants to follow current critical work on digital games; I simply export to her a document containing all the feeds I have grouped as relating to digital games (only two or three mouse clicks) and she can import them to her reader, instantly joining the conversation.
In practice using RSS helps address a range of concerns. First, as my above claims gesture, writing in the age of the digital is contextually different than writing for paper (which is not to suggest that we should value one inherently over the other, but rather that we should pay attention to those differences and teach students what those differences are), and to help students contextualize their writing they need to become active readers as well. RSS is a critical tool for becoming an active reader of digitally archived knowledge. Second, RSS readers, and the use of readers by students will help to foster commenting on blogs, and linking between blogs, while simultaneously (if coupled with a pedagogy of explanation) how to process and read this a large amount of writing and subsequent commentary.
RSS is actually surprisingly easy to set up for your classes, as most blogs automatically produce a feed, and once you learn how this works it is usually a matter of just clicking on a link, or copying and pasting a url. Additionally, as I mentioned above, you can export a document of all the feeds to a student group, making it easy for them to sign up for each other's blogs or web sites you want them to read in relation to the classroom work.
Finally, as a related concern, utilizing RSS on the professor's end can help you to keep a handle on all of your students' postings and comments. Having a robust RSS reader enables all of the student posts to be delivered to your reader, instead of requiring that you visit each individual blog. This makes it much easier to asses student work, and, perhaps more importantly, much easier to comment on and provide feedback about students' blogs.
I am going to forgo giving a detailed step by step guide, a how to set up feed reading (something writing in a digital space allows as I can simply direct you to see the references for these resources at the end of this article), in favor of closing with a more important general claim: RSS alters the transmission (reading and writing) of digital knowledge, and thus is critically important to any classroom instruction which requires digital composition, but especially projects which involve blogging. Thus, while I would ultimately argue that a successful digital writing classroom would actively employ RSS technology, requiring students to employ feed readers, teaching students to read and write in a way informed by this technology, at minimal instructors and students should be aware of how this technology frames the context of writing in the age of the digital.
List of Resources and References
Guides to Getting Started
- There are several getting started guides available on the web. Several of which are focused on helping educators.
- Teaching Hacks has a guide written by Quentin D'Souza, as well as links to his presentation on the information. This guide is focused more on educators in primary and secondary ed., and as thus points out how RSS can be used to “monitor” students' blogs. But the explanation is well done, and the downloadable document is an excellent step by step guide. (Note: Quentin uses an online RSS reader, while these work, I think it is important to ultimately have a separate RSS reader, it tends to promote better reading habits, and students have more options about controling feeds.
- Weblogg-ed another great resource for blogging in education, with a focus on primary and secondary ed. also has a Quick Start Guide, just click on the tab in the header of the page. Again this is focused on primary and secondary ed., but well detailed and tremendously useful.
- You can see my walkthrough with screenshots at academhack, although it is not nearly as detailed as the two above, it is aimed at higher education.
- For a general overview of RSS the entry at Wikikipedia on Web Feed.
- Or, for a more in depth look, but still not overly technical check out the article on Fagan Finder.
Guide to Possible Readers:
There are literaily hundreds, possibly even thousands, of programs or web applications that can handle RSS, I am just going to mention a few here. Ultimately it is a matter of preferences and features, so try out several to see which ones best suit your needs.
- Blogbridge is a free, cross platform reader. Designed specifically for handling blog feeds.
- Bloglines is an online reader, as long as you have a web browser you can use this one.
- Newgator is an online service that also has a news reader for PC'sFeed Demon and for Mac's NetNewsWire. NetNewsWire comes in a free version (Lite) and a full featured version (paid). These are a good choice if you are going to have students pay for the software as NetNewsWire and FeedDemon are similar which allow you to work with students regardless of platform.
- Newsfire is a popular reader for Macs.
- RSS Owl is a free reader that works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Not as easy to use in my experience, but free and works across a a range of platforms.
- Vienna is a free reader, Mac only.
- An alternative option is Flock which is browser with a feedreader built in.
- There are also several plug-ins for Firefox which act as readers.
- Finally you can see an extensive list here of possible readers.