Blogging and RSS The "What's It?" and "How
To" of Powerful New Web Tools
by Will Richardson, Supervisor of Instructional
Technology, Hunterdon Central Regional High School
The internet has long been valued by teachers and librarians
as a powerful research and communications tool, and in the last 10 years, it
has brought about a sea change in the way students find, manage, and use information.
But the promise of the Web as more than just a readable, searchable resource
has been slow to be realized ... until now. Two new Internet technologies,
Weblogs and RSS (Real Simple Syndication), are redefining the way students
and teachers use the Internet, turning them from mere readers into writers
to the Web as well, and making it easier to filter and track the ever-growing
number of resources coming online each day. In fast-growing numbers, educators
across the country and throughout the world are finding just how powerful this
new interactive Internet can be.
Weblogs, or "blogs," as they are called, can best be defined as Web sites
that are easily created and updated by those with even a minimum of technology
know-how. What used to be a messy process for Internet publishing is now almost
as easy as sending e-mail; no code, no file transfer, and in many cases, no
hosting setup. Just login to your site from any Internet connection, enter
the content in a typical Internet form, press a button, and your Weblog is
updated. And it's not just text. Blogs can display pictures and video, include
audio and Flash, and even store other files like PowerPoint presentations or
Excel spreadsheets for linking.
The Boom in Blogs ...
Weblogs have been around for years, but only recently that have they caught
on with a full spectrum of Internet publishers. An October 2003 survey by the
Perseus Development Group [http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/] estimated that
over 4 million Weblogs had been created by the middle of 2003, and thousands
more are being created weekly.
But there are more serious uses for Weblogs, and they are already having
an effect in many disparate areas. Howard Dean's Weblog [http://www.blogforamerica.com] vaulted him into the thick of the Democratic presidential race. Companies are
using blogs to communicate directly with customers and to provide collaborative
space for developers. Journalists at The New York Times, ABC News,
and other media outlets are using blogs to connect more closely to readers,
providing insights and information that might otherwise not make it into print.
In fact, in journalistic circles, a debate is raging over whether or not Weblogs
might be changing the profession as we know it.
... Now Extends to Education
Educators have been slower to adopt Weblogs for a variety of reasons, among
them access, privacy, and security issues. But as more and more people get
on the blog bandwagon, more and more teachers and schools are starting to experiment
with the technology as a way to communicate with students and parents, archive
and publish student work, learn with far-flung collaborators, and "manage" the
knowledge that members of the school community create. In fact, many are seeing
Weblogs as a cheaper alternative to course management systems.
Tim Lauer is one of those people. The principal of an elementary school in
Portland, Oregon, Lauer is infusing Weblogs throughout his school. The Meriwether
Lewis Elementary Web site [http://lewiselementary.org/] features the latest
in news and events as collected from a series of separate Weblogs that are
hooked together using RSS. Not only does this allow for the school's Web site
to be a timely source of information, it allows a number of staff members to
contribute in what is a more distributed content creation model: The music
teacher keeps a log for music news, and PTA members contribute to their own
site. Lauer keeps his own Weblog for his personal messages to staff and the
"The key is that the ease of use inherent in Weblog software makes keeping
a classroom or school Web site very easy," Lauer says. "What a teacher or principal
decides to note about their classroom or school is key. They can concentrate
on the content and not worry about becoming a Web designer."
And one of the best parts, according to Lauer, is the cost. "We use Moveable
Type, and it's free for educational use," he said. "It can do just about anything
those very expensive course management tools can do. So in times of dwindling
school budgets, the use of tools such as Moveable Type sends a message to our
taxpayers that we are resourceful and wise with our school dollars."
A Tool for Collaboration
The collaborative aspect of Weblogs is what has brought many teachers into
the fold. Commenting capabilities in many of the blogging software packages
allow for easy peer review for students and teachers and make bringing in experts
or mentors from outside the classroom easy. One such example is my own experience
in a literature class I taught last year.
We had selected Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees for our Modern
American Literature curriculum, and I decided to use a Weblog to carry on our
conversations about the book outside of class. Since we were probably the first
school in the country to study the novel, I wondered if the author might be
willing to join my students in our online discussion. To our great surprise,
she did, and my students got the benefit of a 2,300-word response to our "big" questions
about the characters and the plot in the book [http://weblogs.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/beesbook].
In addition, we set up a Weblog for parents of my students interested in reading
the book for themselves, and about a dozen parents held their own discussions
in parallel to my students [http://weblogs.hcrhs.k12.nj.us/beesparents].
Pam Pritchard, from Lebanon, Ohio, is another educator who is at the forefront
of Weblog use in schools. She has used what are called audioblogs to help her
students work on their reading and pronunciation skills. Pritchard records
her students and posts the audio files on a Weblog. Then her students play
the files back at school or at home when they want to hear how they sound.
She has also used Weblogs with great success as a teacher mentoring tool. She
and her entry year teacher archive their thoughts, reflect on their practice,
and discuss their specific goals and needs for upcoming classes
"Through the use of our Weblog we've been able to build a relationship, engage
in reflective practice, have interactive opportunities that develop and broaden
our knowledge base, and document evidence of growth and refinement in the practicewhich
is required by our state," Pritchard says. "The Weblog has been an incredibly
efficient tool for allowing all this to happen effectively."
The range of uses for Weblogs among other educators is wide. Hundreds of
librarians have realized their power in communicating information about resources
and in starting conversations about books and literacy. Students use Weblogs
as digital portfolios or just digital filing cabinets, where they store their
work. Teachers use blogs as classroom portals, where they archive handouts,
post homework assignments, and field questions virtually. Clubs and activities,
sports teams, and parent groups use Weblogs to post scores, meeting minutes,
and links to relevant issues and topics. In other words, a Weblog is a dynamic,
flexible tool that's easy to use whether you're creating with it or simply
viewing the result.
There are serious considerations that educators must weigh dealing with state
and federal privacy laws (such as CIPA and COPPA), the administration of the
sites, and the level of access students are given to post. Each school and
each district may have its own comfort level that needs to be respected when
thinking about putting student work on the Internet. Some blogging software
programs attend to those concerns more than others.
Rich Site Summary/Real Simple Syndication
But Weblogs in and of themselves are only a part of the story. There is another "tool" that
is built in to most blogging software that many think will change the way we
receive and process all of the information we get from the Internet. This is
what's known as RSS.
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 sooner rather than
later. In simple terms, Weblogs (and an ever-growing number of other sites)
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 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 it.
For instance, say you've found 20 or 30 (or, like me, 120!) Weblog sites
on the Internet that interest you. Finding the time to click through to those
sites on a regular basis is probably pretty difficult. But what if you had
to go to only 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 allows you
to do by using what's called an "aggregator" or news-feed collector. The aggregator
checks the sites you subscribe to, usually every hour, and it collects all
the new content into a folder that is just waiting for you to come and read
it. Big deal, you say? Very big, indeed, for a variety of reasons.
Take this general scenario, for instance: You currently get the headlines
from The New York Times via an e-mail message that arrives each morning.
But more and more, your e-mail box is being clogged up by spammers selling
everything from pornography to mortgages. There are new virus warnings every
day. Not so with RSS. The feed your aggregator checks is virus free, and you
know that everything in your aggregator is something you want to read because
you subscribed to it. No ads, no spam, just new content from the sources you
read. You can scan the headlines, read the entire post, click through to the
actual Web site, and file the information away for later retrieval.
Subscribe to My Homework Page!
For educators, the potential significance of RSS is huge. Think about how
teachers and districts could use this syndication process to communicate with
students, parents, newspapers, etc. In the classroom, teachers who have students
create their own Weblogs can easily keep tabs on what those students are posting
by subscribing to their students' feeds and simply checking their aggregators
regularly. If school Web sites were built on a foundation of Weblogs, as with
Lewis Elementary, parents could "subscribe" to different feeds that are relevant
to their children ... say, the feeds from the College Search page, the Board
of Education page, and Mr. Richardson's homework page.
Similarly, if internal committees used Weblogs to post minutes and links,
administrators could do a quick read in their aggregators to keep abreast of
what the groups are up to with the added benefit that the work is easily archived
for retrieval at a later date. Or, if you teach, say, a media class and want
to stay abreast of the latest developments with the Federal Trade Commission,
you can even subscribe to a Google or Yahoo! search for that term so that any
news on that topic is delivered right to you.
More and more Web sites are creating RSS feeds for their content. Many major
newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The
Miami Herald, and others, now offer RSS feeds of major sections in their
papers. Magazines are following suit. And sites such Feedster and Amazon.com
allow for the creation of RSS feeds for searches. So, for instance, if you
are a librarian and you want to be notified when new young adult books are
released, just add the Amazon.com-young adult books feed to your aggregator
and sit back and wait for the notices to start arriving. Or, if you are a classroom
teacher who wants to stay current on the newest tools in educational technology,
just create that search at Feedster, subscribe to the results, and any time
anyone in Weblog land writes about that topic you'll automatically know about
Getting into It
So if you're convinced as I am that Weblogs and RSS have an important role
to play in education, how do you get started? Here are some suggestions.
First, start your own Weblog, and start aggregating RSS feeds. There's no
better way to understand the process and potential than to practice it yourself.
As you learn more about the technology, start thinking about ways you might
use it in your classroom. Since there exists a whole range of Weblogging platforms
and RSS readers to choose from, you'll want to consider security and privacy
issues, collaboration potential, and general complexity.
The easiest way to start a Weblog is with one of the free services online.
You can be up and running in just minutes with Blogger [http://www.blogger.com],
the best known of the free services, but more and more sites like moTime [http://www.motime.com] and tBlog [http://www.tblog.com] are expanding the options and tool sets available.
Remember, if you want your Weblog to be interactive, make sure you choose a
tool that has a built-in commenting feature so you can invite others to discuss
If you want a bit more power, and you have some server space and tech support
onsite, you might want to consider Moveable Type [http://www.moveabletype.org] or its sister offering, Type Pad [http://www.typepad.com/], both of which are
free to schools. The advantage is that you have more ability to troubleshoot
if your hardware goes down. (If your free site goes down, so do you.) Moveable
Type has a number of plug-ins and extra features that make it the choice of
many educators wanting to provide Weblogs to many teachers and students.
If you want the power to build hundreds of sites for students and teachers
with full-featured commenting and content management, you might consider Manila
[http://manila.userland.com] from Userland. (Disclaimer: Manila is what I use
in my district.) The annual license to run Manila on your server is $299, and
depending on how much server space you have, you can create and maintain thousands
of multimedia Weblogs for your school community. In addition, there are new
open source Weblog solutions coming online on a regular basis.
From an RSS standpoint, there are a lot of aggregators available for free
download, including NetNewsWire [http://ranchero.com/netnewswire/] (for
Mac OS X only) and SharpReader [http://www.sharpreader.net/].
Remember that if you use more than one computer during the day, you will need
to install the
software more than once. That's the main reason I recommend that teachers new
to the technology try Bloglines [http://www.bloglines.com], which is a Web-based,
free aggregator that you can access from any Internet connection.
However you start, start small and experiment. And become a blogger and a
user of aggregators so that you can get firsthand experience in the power of
the tools. Also, take the time to read and study good Weblogs, for these blogs
can do much to inform your teaching. And finally, share your struggles and
successes with the growing number of edubloggers coming online every day.
Editor's note: Do you want to know more about Weblogs in K-12? Have you
got some questions? You can ask author Will Richardson in person! He'll be
delivering the opening keynote, "The Next New Thing: Create, Communicate, & Collaborate
with Blogs," at the Internet@Schools East conference in early
March in Washington, DC. It's sponsored by MMIS, of course! You can
see the whole program on pages 36 and 37 of this issue, or check it out at
Will Richardson is supervisor of instructional
technology at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in
Fleming, New Jersey. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And check out his Web log at http://www.weblogg-ed.com.