Exploring Blogs, Blogging, & RSS
Another Web 2.0 Tool
What on earth do blogs and RSS feeds have in common? At first I couldn’t see any connection between these two tools and this was after three months of using them. However, the more I delved into them simultaneously the more I realized their complimentary natures. These tools make it easier for our students to make new connections and to learn effectively from those they already know. They also work together in developing new literacy skills in students. RSS involves reading and blogs incorporate writing.
My Reflections on the Process of Learning about Blogs, Blogging, & RSS
RSS may stand for Real Simple Syndication but it could also be real simple setup. It is a tool which allows users to receive updates on content from websites that are RSS-enabled. These could include blogs, podcasts, news sites, photo and video sharing sites. (Harris, 2007) One can check all these sites without having to go to each site individually. Instead all this information is fed into an RSS aggregator. The user can then go to the one place to find all the information they subscribed to. An additional advantage of this tool is that only new information will be sent which means that you won’t be overloaded with repeat information. I chose to use Google Reader as my aggregator of choice as it was recommended by Richardson. (2009) Google Reader also has a number of helpful videos at GoogleReaderHelp’s Channel. Because I work both at school and at home I also like that it is a web based tool which allows me to access my feeds using any computer with an internet connection. I could also use my WordPress Blog to act as an aggregator of my RSS feeds. By simply entering the URL of the site I want into the RSS widget I can have as many feeds as I want. Accessing and organizing them is not very convenient and it could clutter up my blog, so for now I have chosen to concentrate my feeds into Google Reader. Once I set up my account and got logged in I began the process of subscribing to some feeds. I began with the sites we were asked to subscribe to and then added a few of my own. The sites that I regularly check (mostly news sites) were bookmarked with my browser and easy to subscribe to. I also tried out some of the search features of Reader. Under “Add Subscription” you can type in a key word or words and it will pull up web sites or blogs that match. Over the few months I have added some new feeds but with so much to read already I have tried to resist adding too many just now. Once again organization is critical. A great feature in Google Reader is it lets you organize your feeds into file folders for easier access. If you come across a particularly good feed that you want to refer back to you can ‘star’ it for future reference. To further organize feeds you can also use tags to help you retrieve specific information based on the key words you associate with each post. Like the tagging system in Delicious, Reader allows you to use multiple tags for each post.
Once I felt comfortable subscribing and managing my feeds I tried to get into the habit of checking Google Reader regularly. I put the link to Reader on my tool bar giving me easy access to Reader. If I checked it regularly it did not take too long to skim through what I had. At first I felt that I should be skimming through all the past feeds that came up for each site. Most of these sites seem to have a large backlog of posts that would be impossible to go through. I started going through all the most recent posts and only looking over a few of the older ones. As checking Reader has become more of a regular routine I have found it to be extremely useful – even more so than my Delicious bookmarks. I like having a detailed title to help me sift through all the information that is there. I’m sure that I still miss a lot of good information but what I do get is more than I’ve gotten before.
I set up my blog three months ago as a requirement for this course and I have been learning about it ever since. It may have been easy to set up and get started but using it effectively will take much longer and will be a constantly evolving process. Before I set up my account I looked over many blogs to try to get a feel for what was out there. Over four years ago my wife set up a Blogger page for us as a way to share our travels with family and friends. She then set up a second page when we moved to the Middle East. In this way I had seen a bit of how Blogger worked and I decided to experiment with a different blog platform. I had looked at a number of nice looking blogs and noticed that they were created through WordPress. Richardson had mentioned in his book that downloadable version of the WordPress platform has some features that are advantageous to educators so I thought I would try its free online version. Other than a few technical hitches here and there it has been a very user-friendly tool. Everything is clearly laid out and anything you have a question about is readily answered in the comprehensive and easy to use help menu. For those of us who are more visual learners there are many YouTube lessons available that can walk through the process of creating an account, personalizing a space, adding a post, creating links to other pages, adding pictures and video, and using all the widgets that are available. Like Blogger, WordPress allows a person to have multiple blog pages which can be managed from one dashboard. The times I did run into difficulty were when I needed to set up a link between my non-Google supported page and a Google supported page. For example the sidebar widget that allows you to insert a video link cannot be fed directly from YouTube. I had to set up an account with Vodpod, download the YouTube video to my Vodpod account and then inset it into my sidebar widget from there. I also had difficulty with my photo sidebar feed. The WordPress photo widget is set up to feed from Flikr. In my ignorance I set up my photo sharing account with Photobucket which is not compatible with WordPress. I have not changed my account over to Flikr yet but it is on my to-do list once I get more time. Inserting video and audio files directly into my blog was another difficulty I encountered. These memory-intensive features exceed the free space you are allocated. For a small fee, however, you can increase your memory allotment. Once you have that, inserting multimedia is very easy.
Another feature of most blog platforms is the ability to have people comment on your blog. It is this that makes blogging an interactive tool. Again there are settings that you can use to limit who is able to comment on your blog which could be useful when using blogs with students. It can be set so that anyone can comment or it can be restricted to only those who are registered members of your blog. It provides some control over comments that may come back to students’ work. These settings can easily be changed at any time should one’s needs change.
Once the technical skills were in place the real work began. Having something to say has to be the most important focus of any blog. Most of the blogs that I have found helpful are focused around a theme. These themes may be libraries, books, education, leadership, or the many non-professional topics such as sports, travel, and hobbies. Fortunately for me the course provided a focused theme, Web 2.0, with specific topic each week to write about. We were encouraged to find our “voice” as we blogged. Having taught writing traits I had the 6 plus 1 idea of voice in my mind. I understand the idea that blogs should be individual, unique, and reflect the personality and quirks of the blogger. What this means when writing for an academic program has been difficult to figure out. But I have been learning about voice so that when I have the opportunity to develop a blog of my own, whether it is a personal blog or a blog for a library or class, I will be ready. Here are a few of the things I have learned:
1. Have a clear purpose for your blog and know your subject. “Be inspired by others but find your own space.” (Simone, August 14, 2009) In this way the audience will know what to expect and start to trust what you say. With their trust you can expand your thoughts and ideas and hopefully engage them in conversation. It is in this interchange of ideas that blogging becomes meaningful as a teaching and learning tool.
2. Know your audience. If you know who you are writing for, your blog will be able to respond to what they need and want. (Truant, November 11, 2009)
3. Allow your personality to be a part of what you are posting in your blog. This can come through in text, audio, photo, and video. Writing with humor and emotion can help connect with people and bring life to the ideas and insights being shared. People connect with the people behind a blog post so if you can put a bit of your person into your blog others will connect with you. (Truant, October 6, 2009)
4. Be consistent in keeping your blog current. Readers will return if they know that there will regularly be new information for them to read and see. If you can no longer provide new material then it is probably time to retire that blog site.
Blogs, Blogging, & RSS and my Own Personal Learning
After this course I will undoubtedly be keeping my Google Reader account active and well used for my own personal learning. Although I have tried to keep the number of incoming feeds to a minimum while I get used to the tool, I have found that I can now start adding more. I have become more efficient at skimming through what I do receive and have dropped a few feeds that I didn’t find helpful. The few feeds I have added have come from links in the feeds I was receiving. A blog or website I follow may regularly cite or link to another website which I then start following. In this way I can see how the feeds coming in could quickly multiply if you’re not careful.
The greatest benefit to me is the way the RSS system allows me to sift through a large amount of information so quickly. This information can be text or multimedia. As a new student, and with my new job, there is a lot to learn. If I can subscribe to the right feeds I can access the resources I need for my roles as a student and librarian.
One of the most recent features I have learned about is that in addition to subscribing to a particular site and having their feeds come to me I can also go fishing for specific information on topics I am interested in. Much like a fisherperson sets out a hook with bait and waits for the fish to bite, I can set out keywords that I am interested in and be informed when something new on my topic gets published. (Richardson, p72) I could set Reader up to search news group sites for specific news topics. Using the Blog search feature, Reader can also check blogs for any newly published information on whatever topic I want. When the tags of a post match my search key words the information is sent to my Google Reader account. I could search topics I’m studying or look for new books by author or subject.
There are a few other areas my Google Reader feeds have benefited me. The first is that using Reader has given me a sort of news clearing house. Having subscribed to several news organizations I am able to stay current with world news and Canadian news in particular. We get a few of the global TV news organizations such as CNN and BBC news but these have limited coverage of Canadian news and certainly do not cover local Canadian news. Subscribing through Google Reader allows me to get the news I want when I want it. A second benefit has been to receive real-estate listings through Reader. At some point we would like to return to Canada. With real-estate RSS feeds we have been able to keep tabs on house prices. Third, Ryan’s Well, (http://www.ryanswell.ca/) a charity we, and our Student Council, have supported in the past, puts out regular updates that we have been able to follow through Reader. If we wanted to find out about fresh water projects in Africa we could also set up a feed to do the searching on this topic for us. That way we can stay abreast of new fresh water projects as they occur. Of course we would have to be careful that our search terms were not too broad or we could be overwhelmed with information. And finally, Richardson (2009) suggests a few other feeds that I think I will try: Airport Delays, Weather, and Word of the day.
My introduction to blogs was through the one that my wife set up for us when we first started our international teaching adventure. It was a way to share pictures and information with our families and friends back home. She has since set up a second blog for sharing our time in the Middle East. She updates the site from time to time particularly after we return from a trip. This journaling has worked well but would not be considered true blogging by Richardson.
The biggest benefit I will gain from blogs is as a tool for my masters program. Although online education is done individually it also needs to be conducted in community. Granted, it’s not quite the same as being face to face in a classroom but it does involve interaction. In this class we have discussed questions and ideas and have read and seen each other’s work through our blogs. We have also been directed to other blogs and websites to broaden our knowledge base. It has been through this process that our thoughts and ideas are shaped causing us to re-think and refine our knowledge.
Blogs, Blogging, & RSS as Tools for Teaching and Learning
As we have seen numerous times in this course, managing information is and will continue to be the biggest challenge for us and for our students. Delicious is one tool that we looked at that can help us become organized, and now RSS aggregators are another. It is a tool that allows anyone to subscribe to any current and relevant information that is out on the internet and allows one to easily and efficiently organize and sift through that information. For our student this means that they can keep track of their current contacts as well as make new ones. This will free and empower them to get the most out of all the information that is available. Richardson quotes Clarence Fisher’s blog; “As a teacher, I consider one of my main jobs to be serving as a personal guide, helping kids to fill their aggregators with content that is relevant and useful for them.” Teachers and librarians can help students build, organize and manage their networks and help them learn from them.
As an organizational tool the most obvious use of RSS feeds is as a way for teachers to stay current professionally. Subscribing to professional journals or blogs created by other teachers or librarians can be a great way to receive and organize great amounts of important information in an inexpensive and time-efficient way. For librarians it is effective for tracking authors or receiving information on new books as they become available. Students too could use it to follow feeds relevant to topics they are studying or to keep informed on areas they are personally interested in.
Another powerful use of RSS feeds is setting it up so that it can search the internet for specific information. (Gardner, 2008) Both students and teachers can set up searches of news group sites for any topics that are being discussed in class. Google Reader can be set to search for current events, politics, science in the news, or any other topic of interest. When something new is published, the information will automatically upload to that person’s Reader account. In the same way Google Blog can search blogs for information on topics that interest you and your students. Gardner (2008) gives examples of keeping current on specific authors, publishers, or book retailers. When doing research students too can set up news group or Google site searches on their topic and receive all the most recently published information. Richardson (2009) even suggests using an RSS feed to track the changes to Wikipedia sites that are of particular interest to you or your students. This could even be an interesting way for a class to study Wikipedia. For younger grades Gardner suggests setting up a similar search but doing it together as a class.
I was particularly impressed with the webpage on the crisis in Darfur that Richardson has made using only RSS feeds. He demonstrates how a teacher or librarian can subscribe to RSS feeds from new sites, video sites and photo sharing sites and have them all fed into and laid out on one webpage. Students could access this page and over time collect all the latest information on the study topic.
Of course, as Richardson points out, not everything that gets fed to an aggregator will be content that is appropriate for students to be receiving. There is a risk when trolling the internet, but this is also true for students being on-line at home in their free time. As I wrote in a previous post, rather than putting up barriers to protect students, we can use the teachable moments to equip students to negotiate these dangers on their own. “…we do need to start earlier on teaching privacy and adept handling of personal information.” (Abram, p. 3) Working with students at an early age can equip them for when they are old enough to be on-line.
For teachers who have student’s blogging as part of their course work, Richardson suggests that the teacher use their aggregator as a place where they can access all their students’ Weblogs. This way they can quickly and easily stay up to date on their students’ latest posts. In this course having subscribed to my fellow students’ blogs has been a quick and efficient way to keep tabs on everyone’s blogs. Parents could also use RSS feeds to follow what is taking place on a class or school blog or even their own child’s blog. What a great new way to participate in their child’s learning!
Developing A “New” Literacy
As I mentioned earlier, one of our jobs as educators is to prepare students to manage the overwhelming amount of information on the web. No longer is it possible for students to store all the factual knowledge they take in; there is just too much information out there. Knowing how to find, access, and organize information is the new intelligence. Having students set up their own accounts with Google Reader or any other aggregator could certainly benefit them in this aspect. Having received and organized the information students now need to be able to read and sort through it. As we’ve discussed extensively in our discussion group, there is a new set of literacy skills required in the Web 2.0 world. Expecting students to naturally engage in the difficult task of regularly reading through their RSS feeds is perhaps unrealistic. It is our job to not only help students develop organizational skills but to also hone new reading skills that will help them sift through the thousands of bits of information that flow their way. “Accessing information in an increasingly digital and networked world requires a range of skills of which decoding text is only a small part. Basic skills for today’s students include … finding information, decoding information, evaluating information, and organizing information into personal digital libraries.” (Armstrong and Warlick, p1) In addition to skimming through and reading the information students need to be able to critically evaluate it and then do something with it. Aggregators like Google Reader are one of the tools that can help us teach these skills. “As I’ve said, they are only going to be more and more inundated with information, and if they can learn early on to create relevant connections to the ideas and sources they need and then be efficient readers, it will serve them very well in their futures.” (Richardson, p 82-83)
Blogs and Blogging
The best thing going for blogs is that they are easy to set up and manage. There are no unique technical skills needed. This is important if we expect busy educators to get involved. To set up a blog one simply needs a computer with an internet connection; no special software needs to be installed and there is no need to go through a network server. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I will not be able to use weblogs with my students due to company security concerns. Nevertheless, at some point, I do hope and expect to be able to use this tool with students.
Blogging as a tool for teaching.
Blogs can be a great professional development tool. There are hundreds and thousands of teacher-created blogs with the purpose of supporting, sharing, and collaborating with other teachers. Like Wikis, Blogs facilitate this learning beyond the set professional development days given by a district. Unlike a Wiki however blogs are not the greatest collaboration tool in that multiple participants can’t change the post. Blogs have a comment feature but they do not themselves facilitate working together. I have read about, but not used yet, a feature that Google offers called Google Friend Connect that may help with this. Their site claims that it lets you “easily add robust, social features to your website”. Wikipedia describes it as: “Google Friend Connect main focus is to simplify the connection between social and non-social websites and standardize the handling and presentation of social applications and content.” By signing up for a Friend Connect account, “a website or blog becomes a place where people meet and get to know each other”. This could add more of this collaboration feature to blogs that they currently lack. My experiences of sharing and collaborating within schools have been great. Taking that beyond our school could benefit students and teachers even more.
Blogs can be a great communication tool. Education is a team-based process where students, teachers, administrators and family all work together to prepare a student for their future. Within a team communication is critical. In the past we’ve had notes, phone calls, emails, conferences, bulletins, and now we have blogs. Through a class blog, teachers can more fully include parents in what takes place in the classroom. Much like a school news letter, school blogs can also effectively communicate all the goings-on within a school. Administrators can deliver a wide range of information on every aspect of the school ranging from upcoming events to school board decisions. In addition to the usual news letter text and pictures, a blog could include video and audio elements plus have links to other helpful information. This form of communication opens the doors of the school and provides parents and others in the community with timely information, not just once a month. Parents can use an RSS feed to conveniently receive updates on what is going on. With the comment option in blogs parents are able to respond to an issue giving them a sense of ownership.
Blogging as a tool for learning.
Not only do weblogs promote the common threads of community, collaboration, conversation, and an easy interchange of ideas but they are a powerful learning tool as well. Students from Kindergarten on up are able to blog and do so on a daily basis. (Jackson, 2005)
There are so many ways to apply blogs as a learning tool that the possibilities seem endless. Richardson (2009, p 26 & 27) outlines the following as some of the aspects of blogs that make them great learning tools:
1. Weblogs are powerful tools for developing literacy. In my previous discussion of RSS I have already described the reading skills that are developed through the reading of blogs and other sites but the benefits to writing are equally strong. Writing for an audience can bring out the best in a student. David Warlick is quoted as saying: “Research has long shown that students write more, write in greater detail, and take greater care with spelling, grammar, and punctuation, when they are writing to an authentic audience over the internet.” (Jackson, 2005) In addition to mastering the mechanics of writing, students must be able to communicate ideas and knowledge effectively. When students do this in a blog they are not restricted to using only text, blogs allow students to use photos, audio, and video to help them communicate this knowledge. (Armstrong and Warlick, 2008) Then, once they have put their ideas out there, what could be more motivating than to receive others written comments and ideas sparked by their ideas? With this feedback and by reading and reviewing other students’ work a process of reflection takes place. This process can then start to shape what they write in the future. It is in this way that conversation takes place and that true learning takes place. (Richardson, 2009)
2. Blogs teach students that they can contribute to society. In many ways students feel that what they do in school doesn’t matter and is not very relevant. Through blogging students can contribute to the collective body of knowledge and begin to feel like they can be contributors. Not only is this motivating and empowering, it also places their education in a more holistic light. Students can begin to see that what they do does matter and can affect others. “Therefore, knowing how to learn and how to participate in creating new knowledge are increasingly essential life skills.” (Grant, 2006, p.1)
3. Blogs offer the opportunity for students to participate with others no matter where they might be. Students in small-town Canada can connect with students from anywhere in the world. What great intercultural possibilities might come from that? With a class blog, not only can collaboration and discussion take place among students in the class but it can take them out into the world beyond.
4. Blogs keep a record of a student’s progress. Over the past three months there have been a few times where I have gone back and re-read my previous posts. It has been very interesting to see how much my knowledge and my thinking have progressed over time. Often when I have handed students work back to them it ends up in the recycling bin without a further glance. Having posts archived in one place and in such a polished state gives them more significance and makes review and reflection a more likely possibility. It is in this reflection that a good portion of the learning takes place.
5. With blogs everyone has an equal say. As I’ve said before I tend to be the quiet listener in a group. I learn by taking all the information in and then forming the shared ideas into my own thoughts and ideas. I do add in my thoughts from time to time but I am happy to let the talkers monopolize the conversation. Blogging has forced me into a more active role in the conversation. With blogging, participation becomes more democratic where the quiet ones are forced to speak up and others are forced to take their turn.
6. Much like with wikis, through blogging students are learning to collaborate and negotiate and to think critically and creatively. In addition, students are also learning about intellectual property, open source software, and public domain. (Richardson, 2009)
As we prepare students for a work world that is considerably different than that of previous generations, blogs are a powerful tool that can be easily used.
Blogs as a tool for libraries.
1. I have already used the blog “Just One More Book” with my library classes. It was a great way to bring stories and authors that we have been reading and studying into the library and give them more life. I’m sure there are many other blogs that could be used in a similar way.
2. Using Blogs for digital storytelling could be a great way to develop both storytelling skills and technical skill that can later be used in research. These stories can be produced individually or in collaborative groups. Stories can incorporate pictures, audio, and or video as well as text for a more powerful result.
3. Blogs can be a place where students can find information for a research project. In addition to using the traditional search engines students can use an RSS search of blogs to have specific information come to them.
4. To be able to write for a blog effectively, it is important that librarians stay informed with issues that affect libraries. In the same way to teach effectively it is important to be well informed on subjects being taught and on issues related to teaching.
5. Having students publish research on a blog can be a great way for them to demonstrate learning. In addition to writing out information and including some pictures, the presentation in a blog can be enhanced with a variety of media including audio and video, plus links to other relevant information.
6. Blogs can help to build a sense of community within a school. A library is one of the few ‘classrooms’ in a school where every student spends time and feels it is their place. A blog focused on this central place can, with humor, creativity, and passion build a positive image of what a library and make it a place where people want to be. (Schwartz, 2007)
7. Blogs can be a great way to communicate information with your community. Newsletter and bulletins have done this in the past but with a blog, information can be multimedia – podcasts, video casts, shared photos, and text.
– Publish any library news that might be relevant such as upcoming events, new policies and procedures or even reminders about overdue books. In our new digital age a blog can also be a forum to promote the new and improved role of libraries and champion their value to a student’s learning.
– Promote library services and new resources. These might include a list of books, CD’s, DVD, or any other resources or it might include reviews of any of these new items. Any new or improved services such as additional operating hours, new computer services, or any other services can be promoted in a blog. (Fichter, 2003)
– In addition to publishing reviews of new books a blog can have an archive of previous book reviews.
– Using podcasts or video sharing, a blog can have author interviews, book reviews by people of all ages, story or poetry readings and so much more.
With so many possible uses, blogs can be a great tool for libraries. They are a simple and time efficient way to provide up-to-date information to a community of users and a good way for the community to communicate with the librarians. Blogs also have a powerful role in helping students learn. Blogs are another of the Web 2.0 tools where the more they get used the more uses for them arise.
What is holding us back from using RSS and Blogs in our practice and with students?
As with other Web 2.0 tools here are similar barriers to using blogs in schools.
– There is certain level of skill required to implement the tool effectively. However, most teachers in western schools could, with a little time and effort, overcome any deficiency.
– Another barrier, related to the first, is the disinclination for teachers to step out of their comfort zone and learn and implement something new in their practice.
– Having limited access to computers could be a barrier in some schools. However, most western schools have one or two computers in the classrooms and often there are computer labs available on a limited basis.
– Unequal availability of computers at home could be an additional barrier.
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Armstrong, S., & Warlick, D. (2008, August 22). The new literacy [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.techlearning.com/article/2806
Fichter, D. (2003, November/December 19). Why and how to use blogs to promote your library’s services. Marketing Library Services, 17(6). Retrieved from http://www.infotoday.com/mls/nov03/fichter.shtml
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The Creation of Man by Michelangelo Sistine Chapel at Vatican City. www.flickr.com/photos/mbell1975/2370055374/
The Writer at Work, By Richard Krzemien. www.thewriteratwork.com/site/archives042.asp
Weekly Geek. Quills at the ready. http://weeklygeekshow.com/2007/10/quills_at_the_ready.php
Ryan’s Well. http://www.ryanswell.ca/