The power of RSS

eLearning Age Magazine, December 2007/January 2008 edition

Jane Hart explains the importance of RSS for her daily work and provides a number of ways that you can use RSS.

People often ask me how I manage to keep up to date with what’s happening in the e-learning world. In the past I used to have to visit websites on a daily basis, however, RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) has changed all that. I no longer have to go out and find the news; it comes to me. But what is more important is that as RSS has become so ubiquitous and so many blogs, websites and other online resource use it as a means of syndicating content, I now use it in many other ways in my daily life for both working and learning. Below I list some examples of the ways that you can make use of RSS, but first if you are not familiar with this technology then here’s a quick overview of what it is and how to read RSS feeds.

Reading RSS feeds

RSS or news feeds (as they are often referred to) are marked on a blog or website with an icon like or a piece of text like “Subscribe here”. If you click on the icon or text, you will just see the XML code, so you need a tool to “read” the feed as well as aggregate and manage your subscriptions.

I use a free online RSS aggregator, Bloglines, and find it very useful for a number of reasons:

  • Whenever I come across a new blog that I want to track, I simply subscribe to the feed using the “Sub with Bloglines” bookmarklet
  • I use the desktop Notifier to alert me when new postings arrive I use the search facility to generate a feed of postings, which means I get to see postings I would not otherwise have found
  • I use the Recommendations feature to provide me with a list of recommended feeds that might interest me base on my current subscriptions.

However, there are other online readers, e.g. Google Reader is very popular, and there are also desktop aggregators like NetNewsWire and Sharpreader, but can just as easily read RSS in browsers like Firefox and Internet Explorer, as well as in online start page tools like iGoogleNetvibes and Pageflakes and even in email clients like Outlook and Thunderbird.

RSS Examples

Here are some ways that you can make use of RSS feeds.  [Note, links are to the sites not the feeds themselves]

Track e-learning blogs or websites
Most if not all blogs now have RSS feeds, which means keeping up to date with new postings is easy, so if you want to read Jay Cross’ Informal Learning blog; Stephen Downes’  OLDaily or my Pick of the Day, just subscribe to the feeds. If you want news and information from other e-learning websites like Training Press Releases or find out what other e-learning companies are up to, simply subscribe to their feed if they have one. It’s also a useful way to keep up to date with what is taking place in e-learning conferences as many bloggers do on-the-fly blogging.

Receive newsletters
It’s also a convenient way of getting newsletters, like the monthly Internet Resources Newsletter from Herriot Watt University.

Find out the latest news
In the same way if you want to track what’s happening generally in the world, you can get your daily news sent to you via RSS. All the major papers provide news feeds - GuardianDaily TelegraphTimes, etc. So it means you don’t have to read a paper newspaper any more (unless you want to!) or even go anywhere near a newspaper’s website. You can also get specialist news too like BBC Education or Technology news and Reuters Internet News.

Get the weather forecast
You can also get the weather forecast for your local area. For example BBC Weather Centre asks you to provide your home (or any other) location and then you can subscribe to the relevant forecast feed to get 5-day forecasts.

Be notified about jobs and contract positions
If you want to be one of the first to see new jobs and contract positions in e-learning subscribe to the job feeds you are interested in at Jobsite,  jobs.ac.uk or The E-Learning Marketplace.

Read books
Some very large books can also be read in digestible chunks via RSS, e.g. a page a day from the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, or The Diary of Samuel Pepys as a daily entry or a monthly summary.

Get regular podcasts
In addition to text, audio content be distributed using RSS, so you could subscribe to the feed to get the weekly Penguin podcast, a daily Chinese lesson from ChinesePod, or a bi-weekly management briefing from HBR Ideacast.

See new photos
If you want to keep up to date with someone’s photo collection on Flickr, you simply subscribe, and every time they add more photos, you’ll get to see them very quickly.

Be alerted to wiki updates
If you are working on a collaborative project that uses wiki tools like PBWiki and Wikispaces, you can get updates by subscribing to the feed – no more checking to see if or what additions or changes have been made.

See someone’s online calendar
You can receive updates on a colleague or friend’s calendar via aRSS feed if they have set one using a tool like RSS Calendar.

Get your learning content sent to you
In the same way you can get your instructional content sent to you via RSS. Course blogs will have their own feeds, so postings with course announcements as well as those that attach content like presentations, PDFs, podcasts, etc, can be delivered directly to you. And course management tools like Moodle have RSS functionality to keep course participants up to date with announcements, forum postings and so on.

RSS is becoming an invaluable technology for consumers of content of all kinds – informational and instructional – and for this reason L&D departments need to embrace it as a means of easily delivering their training messages – as well as content – to all.

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