Saturday, November 28, 2009

RSS & Blogs

After a long semester of either teaching, or being a student (as is the case this year) I always anticipate and look forward to my Christmas holidays. I especially cherish the first few days of “down time” where I can cozy up, relax and read for pleasure. My ideal day would be to laze in the couch that faces the front window, with its spectacular view of the snow-capped mountains, wearing my down booties, drinking endless cups of tea and have my dog fetch whatever magazine, newspaper or book I so desire. The only unfortunate thing with this image is I don’t have a dog. I do however, have RSS!

Reflection on the process of learning about the tool

RSS
“RSS” stands for really simple syndication and is a web-based aggregator that collects many different blog or website feeds and stores them in one place for me to read at my convenience. Instead of visiting my favourite websites and blogs each day, the content that is new is delivered to me instead. Kind of like having a well-trained dog bring you all your reading material at your every whim and waiting patiently for you (minus the slobber and drool). Since I already had a Google account for email and my blog site, I decided to use Google Reader as my aggregate. It was incredibly simple to set up. Since I already had an account, all I had to do was add my subscriptions. I did this in the third week of classes this semester, as I hadn’t yet learned the wonders of adding them through Del.icio.us and tagging. Instead, I added my 10 subscriptions that we were required to follow by using the “Add Subscription” link and typing in the names of the blogs. It was as easy as clicking the “follow” button when they appeared. Later on, when I started to choose my own sites and blogs to follow, I often just used the RSS icon that was on my favourite website to add it to my list of subscriptions. In the beginning, I added the daily newspapers that I like to read, then my favourite magazines and finally, more educational sites to build my personal learning network. I am now up to 30 subscriptions, and am at the point where I now need to make some folders to organize them into “news”, “education”, and ‘climbing’ categories.

My biggest challenge with this tool was working it into my daily routine. At first, I would check it randomly throughout the day, usually after I’d checked my email account. Now I am in the routine of checking it mid-morning (around 10 am) when I’m taking a tea break and again later in the evening before bed (around 10 pm). I hadn’t noticed this until I looked at the ‘trends’ page and saw my habits clearly displayed in the bright orange bar graph (another neat feature). I also realized that I haven’t ever checked it on a Monday (which I consider my ‘day off’ schoolwork). I am a creature of habit more than I realized! The other feature that I really like is when I log into my home page, it displays the new feeds that I haven’t read yet, so it’s easy to ‘skim’ through them all by scrolling down the expanded view, stopping to read the ones of interest and starring, tagging or emailing them to friends. If I don’t get through all my articles in a given day, it will remember where I left off the next time I log in. It only takes about 20 minutes everyday to read through my customized personal newspaper that Will Richardson refers to as “The Daily Me”. In the last 2 months I’ve read over 540 articles, showing that one of the best benefits of using this tool is being able to read more content from more sources in less time than it would normally take (Richardson 2009).



View at EasyCaptures.com

I tried another neat feature of Google reader this week and that was doing a Google news search for any items mentioned on the CN rail strike. As this strike will heavily affect the town that I live in, I was interested in reading differing viewpoints on what was being published, without having to subscribe to or search every website for all the newspapers across the country. It was remarkable to have up to date information delivered to my reader without actually having to do any work. I have used the email functionality of Google reader to share some of these articles with him, but the one thing I have not yet used my reader for is sharing with a wider audience. Until now I have kept it as my own personalized information aggregate, but I do appreciate that sharing the posts that I find most interesting will help develop a broader personal learning network. This is what I hope to work on in the future.

Blogs
This blog was started as a requirement for my Web 2.0 course that I am taking as part of my masters program at the University of Alberta. Similar to RSS, I chose to use Blogger since I already had a Google account set up. Each week we’ve been asked to use and experiment with a new Web 2.0 tool, research it and reflect on it’s use in our personal and professional lives. The last 14 weeks have gone by incredibly fast for me. As soon as I felt I’d learnt the basics of one new ‘tool’, it was time to start learning about another. I feel like I had barely enough time to ‘play’ with each tool, read and research their purpose and process the new information before writing about them in my reflections. Luckily, I got to use Blogger every week to post these reflections.

It has taken me the full semester to feel like I know the intricacies of Blogger and at this stage I am much quicker at editing and embedding different types of media. Over the course of this semester I have build a “home base” on this blog with links to all my personal Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Picassa, YouTube, podcasts, voicethread and Del.icio.us sites and some of the Blogs and sites I’m following with RSS. Through this blog site I have now interconnected all of these tools.



Diagram: Building a PLN. Sue Waters

RSS and Blogging as tools for my own personal learning

I absolutely love my Google reader. It allows me to stay up to date and discover new information and it simplifies my reading experience at the same time. I love that it brings the content I want to read directly to me and that each morning when I log into it I know it will only be filled with information that interests me (because I subscribed to it). There won’t be any advertising or spam to go along with it – just new content. It allows me to read more content from more sources in far less time than it would normally take me. I simply wouldn’t be able to process as many articles and new items of information as efficiently any other way. I like the ability to tailor my personalized subscriptions so much (ok, I know this could be perceived as lazy) that I actually convinced the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) to add an RSS link to their Mountain Conditions Report two weeks ago so that I could also have that information in my reader each morning. So far I’m their only subscriber, but I suspect that as more skiers, climbers, mountaineers and people who venture out into the backcountry find out about the beauty of RSS feeds this will quickly change. Frankly, I couldn’t think of a better use for RSS than spreading critical safety information that changes throughout the day. I’ve also used the Google News search function to collect information on the current CN strike, from a variety of sources, and it has completely revolutionized the way I look at researching now. It has given me an incredibly powerful tool that will search 24/7 in addition to the other information retrieval strategies I typically use. More importantly however, is the ability that Google reader has to recommend articles to your friends and share them instantly on your public page. When used in conjunction with a personal blog, it has an enormous capacity to build a personalized learning network that is catered to your interests and the ideas that you are passionate about.

My blog has undergone many changes since the start of the semester, and I think it’s going to continue to evolve until I can find a core purpose that I chose to build my posts around and with which I start to build my own personal learning network, or sense of community. When I started this course, I saw the purpose of the blog as being a ‘home base’ from which I could learn about Web 2.0 tools that are new to me and reflect on how I might use them personally and as a teacher and librarian. I thought it would be extremely helpful to document my learning of these tools, so that I would have a reference to look at, should I forget how to implement them when I go back to teaching next year. As we get nearer to the end of this course, I now see the purpose of my blog shifting from a ‘home base’ from which to experiment with new Web 2.0 tools to becoming a means with which I can build a personal learning network. However, I can see that there are some steps that I still need to take in order to attract more people to my blog and build a sense of community.

In developing my blog and trying to find my own ‘voice’ I have tried to follow Rowse’s advice and interject as many personal characteristics as I can by using my own name, sharing personal stories, pictures, videos and using examples from my own life whenever possible. However, it still feels and sounds like my blog posts are far too summative when I write about my ideas and reflections every week after reading the articles and researching other viewpoints. Right now, when I read what I've written, I can see that I haven’t asked enough questions or left space open for discussions to ensue. Part of this is due to having a structured format to follow and knowing that it will be assessed each week for grades. I know now that I need to ask more questions and show that I value readers’ opinions and hopefully draw them into the conversation by asking them to reflect on what I’ve written. My goal is to build a bigger, more interactive and productive comments section as my blog continues to evolve and become a part of the ‘bigger’ conversations that are taking place on the web.


RSS and Blogging as tools for teaching and learning

RSS can be a powerful and flexible tool for reading and sorting information while blogging can be a very effective tool for writing and expressing one’s thoughts.

RSS
For educators RSS feeds can simply help making teaching better. If your students are using blogs, you can collect them in your aggregator. This makes it much easier and more effective to scan the posts to make sure the content is appropriate and make comments (Richardson 2009). You could also provide student Weblog feeds to parents, counselors or whoever else is interested in that student’s work (Richardson 2009). It would also be very convenient for teachers to set up a homework blog with an RSS feeds that students could subscribe to so there are no more excuses “I didn’t get the assignment” (Gardner). Another way that teachers can utilize aggregators is to teach students how read in the digital environment and find content that is relevant and useful for them (Parry, as cited in Richardson 2009). Finally it could be used for “reputation monitoring” to make sure that you are aware of what is being said about you in the digital world (Johnson).

For students, RSS feeds will completely change the manner in which they gather information and sort it for its relevance. They can use aggregators to subscribe to news sources for current events or use search feeds to look for information on specific topics. For example, if they search using Google News for any information on “H1N1” it will bring any news about that virus to the aggregator as soon as it’s published. As Richardson comments it will be “like doing research 24/7, only the RSS feed does all the work” (2009).

Blogs
For educators, writing a blog keeps you current. Posting regularly to a blog encourages you to actively engage in the process of information seeking and current awareness (Schwartz). They can also be an extremely valuable method of developing a community in which to engage in meaningful conversations with others that share the same interests. The can also be a great advocacy tool for exposing issues that are important to teachers and be an effective means of expressing your ideas (Schwartz).

For Librarians and libraries, blogs and RSS feeds can be a very effective marketing and communication tool. They can be used in a variety of ways as suggested by Fichter. First, they can be used to promote library events and programs. Second, they can support the users by giving updates or alerts about new books, CDs or DVDs that have been added to the collection. They could also be used to communicate with the community by posting new book reviews or award lists or by creating a book discussion area to make recommendations to other readers. Blogs and RSS feeds could also be used to support the community by giving information on local events or by streaming important news and information to the community. Blogs could also be used to build new ties with community members by offering blog posts in another language or promoting a newsletter for a specific group of members (Fichter).

Blogs have become a highly effective way to help students become better writers (Jackson). Research has shown that students write more and in greater detail and also take greater care with spelling, grammar and punctuation when they are writing to an authentic audience over the internet (Jackson). Blogs also allow students to share their ideas with a larger community, receive feedback and engage in discussions about their work. Blogs are also a means to collect and archive student work, which they can easily retrieve and use as a means to show personal learning and growth.

Perhaps the most important aspect of RSS and Blogging is the ability for people to create their own Personal Learning Networks. As Will Richardson pointed out in an interview, “it no longer matters where we are in physical space. What matters is that we can find and connect in some way and begin conversations about thing we really want to learn about.” (PLN,YouTube). Essentially, we create our own spaces and learning environments and find our own ‘teachers’ to engage in conversations with that involve the topics that we are interested in and passionate about. I have found this to be particularly true this year, as I am studying in an online format in a fairly remote location. I am also on a leave of absence from my school district this year, and my professional contact with my colleagues is very minimal. I have found that my professional learning has become much more individual and relies solely on the contacts I make through my online discussions.

As an educator, I believe Will Richardson is right when he says that we need to help our students understand and prepare for creating their own Personal Learning Networks. Students need to be taught to read in an online, digital environment and be literate in the uses of hypertext and connected reading and writing environments (Richardson, The Future). Students today need “to be literate at developing their own connections around the world to be life-long learners in the truest sense” (Richardson, The Future). As David Warlick says “This is magical. We are able to not only access flows of information, but actually redirect it, re-combine it, further working the information to make it more valuable and to improve our own capabilities.” There is no doubt in my mind that using RSS feeds and blogs in this manner is how students and teachers alike are going to be learning in the 21st century. See if you agree with me after watching the short video below which summarizes some of the most important characteristics of students today - how they learn, what they need to learn, their goals, hopes, dreams, what their lives will be like, and what kinds of changes they will experience in their lifetime (Wesch).





References
Fichter, Darlene. (Nov/Dec 2003). Why and How to Use Blogs to Promote Your Library’s Services. Marketing Library Services. Retrieved from: http://www.infotoday.com/mls/nov03/fichter.shtml

Gardner, Traci. (June 10, 2008). RSS: Bringing What’s New to You. NCTE Inbox Blog. Retrieved from: http://ncteinbox.blogspot.com/2008/06/rss-bringing-whats-new-to-you.html

Jackson, Lorrie. (November 13, 2008). Blogging? It’s Elementary My Dear Watson!. Education World. Retrieved from: http://www.education-world.com/a_tech/tech/tech217.shtml

Johnson, Doug. (August 27, 2008). Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the Aggregator. Blue Skunk Blog. Retrieved from: http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2008/8/27/dont-underestimate-the-importance-of-the-aggregator.html

Richardson, Will. (2009). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Richardson, Will. (December 7, 2007). Personal Learning Networks. YouTube. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mghGV37TeK8&feature=related

Richardson, Will. (December 7, 2007). The Future. YouTube. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lylamGQ6YUQ&feature=related

Rowse, Darren. (October 28, 2009). The Power of Being Personal on Your Blog. Problogger. Retrieved from: http://www.problogger.net/archives/2009/10/28/the-power-of-being-personal-on-your-blog/

Schwartz, Greg. (October 8, 2007). Blogs for Libraries. Webjunction. Retrieved from: http://www.webjunction.org/social-software/articles/content/430713

Warlick, David. (June 25, 2009). Gathering the Conversation at NECC. 2 Cents Worth Blog. Retrieved from: http://davidwarlick.com/2cents/?m=200906

Waters, Sue. PLN Yourself Wiki. Retrieved on November 24, 2009 from: http://suewaters.wikispaces.com/

Wesch, Michael. (October 12, 2007). A Vision of Students Today. Youtube. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o

3 comments:

Pam said...

Hi Jackie,
I could just picture you sitting in your PJ's and reading for pleasure while looking out the window. What is the count down until then? Isn't Google Reader one of the best tools we learned about. It does make life easier!I too think that our blogs are summative but I think they will all change when we are doing them for ourselves. I have enjoyed reading your posts. Your pictures are great too!
Pam

Kathy said...

I loved your intro - who needs a dog now? Like you I started this course to learn about the specific tools. Now I see them as a way of looking at learning not just individual tools.

Kathy

pbamy said...

I too have found Google Reader to be useful and after reading that Corey uses Twitter instead of Google reader it got me thinking that I should re-think how I have been using twitter. I liked your idea that committing to a blog could “force” me to be more active in my pro-d.