“Drinking from the fire hose”: Web 2.0 tools that help you manage blogs and online information


Photograph by Perry McKenna on Flickr

If you feel like the deluge of information on the net is like drinking from a fire hose, then you probably need an online aggregator as well as RSS feeds from your favourite sites.  What are these you ask? Well, they are both valuable Web 2.0 tools that allow an individual to better manage the sheer volume of information that can stream towards them, and like other tools of the same genre, they can help an individual feel that they are more effectively and efficiently directing the internet flood of information.    So as an example, how does one keep up with all those bloggers you want to keep a watch on, or how does one get warned of important news releases on a certain subject?  One of the easiest ways I have managed is to subscribe to RSS feeds and tailor them to your needs.  “So, reason number one to get your brain wrapped around RSS?  You can read more content from more sources in less time.” (Richardson, 2010)  Here’s a useful definition to help understand RSS:

In simplest terms, if a website has the orange icon pictured above then you can subscribe to feeds from the site through your aggregator.  “The content comes to you instead of you going to get it, hence ‘Really Simple Syndication’.” (Richardson, 2010)   Some call this a ‘push’ versus a ‘pull’ method of obtaining the information you want.   So, aggregators are extremely handy tools because they do the ‘leg work’ of capturing the RSS feeds, the up to the minute changes from URL’s (web addresses) that you want to track and read.  There are different types of aggregators and all help codify information in slightly different ways.  As the list from Wikipedia below shows, there are ample types of aggregators available to select from:

Depending on your information needs, one may only use one or two aggregators though there are many to choose from.  Here’s an example of what I mean:

The screen capture from this site www.popurl.com shows only a fraction of sites that are on the home page.  Popurl gathers updates from a wide variety of social media sites ranging from Flickr to Google Blogs to the latest entertainment news sites and organizes them on one page for convenient viewing.  You just click on the headline that you want and voila, you’re there.  The net benefit to the user is that all the leg work is done for you, effectively and efficiently.

Personal Use of RSS:

The aggregator that I have the most experience with is Google Reader.  I have used it since the summer of 2010 when I first learned how to follow bloggers for a previous course, Inquiry Learning.  It was introduced to me after I asked the question, “how do I know when they post to their blogs?”  I had never followed a blogger before and while I assumed there may be some way to do this, I certainly didn’t know that there was such a simple way to find out when an author (blogger) added something new, apart from going directly to their blog frequently.   Since then, I have added bloggers for both professional and personal interest.  Here’s how simple Google Reader works:

1.  Sign up for a free Google account or simply login if you already have one,

2.  From the list of Google options, click on “Reader.”  On the home page, you will see the place where you paste the URL of the sites/blogs you want to keep up with.

3.  Once you see the summaries in the “what’s new” column in the centre of the page, just click on the links and go directly to the author’s blog. (See red bubble above).  Feeds can also be organized into folders depending on your needs or topics you wish to organize.

As shown, managing your feeds and how you view them in Google Reader is reasonably straight forward.  Note however that while the volume of information is aggregated more efficiently, the trick still remains opening your Reader account often enough to keep up with the traffic.  From my experience, if you leave it for several days, you may find yourself with possibly hundreds of posts to catch up on.   So getting into a routine and rhythm at a convenient time of the day, as I did discovering that first thing in the morning is best for me prior to my kids getting up (and thereby enjoying the silence of the morn), was a good habit for me to get into.

To further explore the benefits of RSS and aggregators, I also signed up for Bloglines because of its apparent ease of use and the many positive user references I came across.  This site operates a little differently from Google Reader by presenting you with lists of sites you may want to receive feeds from as well as providing the option to add URL’s.

It seems to me that the preset feeds are from popular, probably often frequented sites, i.e. American news and entertainment.   With Bloglines, one simply checks the box for the ones you want.  Like Google Reader, creating an account merely requires an email address, username and password. Once you’re in, you select which sites  you would like to receive feeds from and add your desired URLS’s and you’re redirecting the flow of information.

Home screen for the aggregator, Bloglines

In my family, I was the first one using Google Reader.  As I have become a huge fan of this organizing tool, I have encouraged my kids to create their own accounts, especially for school work.  My husband eventually saw the value of the tool, and he too now employs it for helping him stay abreast of those blogs of significant interest to him.  My children aren’t really following any bloggers as of yet, but they do routinely gather research for assignments.  In short, tracking RSS feeds has become a standard internet mining tool for the whole family.  My children do so much school work, and socializing, online now that a web aggregator makes sense for them to understand how best to access, organize and share online information.

As many social commentators have articulated, RSS feeds from one’s favourite newspapers and magazines may one day replace the paper copies delivered to our home, but I don’t believe that seismic shift has happened quite yet, for as an example, Saturday mornings at our home typically see the weekend editions of our favourite papers spread across the kitchen table.  For our family, it may take some time before we change this habit.

Professional Use of RSS:

In my opinion,  I assess that we are now at a point where no educator keeping up with their professional learning should not benefit from the power of a properly implemented aggregator.  There is just so much being published to the web all the time and communicated through social media sites that without some way to keep track of the sites that are of particular interest to one’s specific field, you would quickly find yourself buried.  As Will Richardson (2010) advocates, “…if you’re an educator, I think it’s the one technology you should start using today, right now, this minute.  And tomorrow, you should teach your students to use it.” (p.71)

Without RSS, this could be you.

The beauty of tracking information via RSS is that it just saves you so much time and is therefore more sustainable.  It is unrealistic, at least in my opinion, going to each blogger that you follow and searching their blog.  Instead of ‘pulling’ the requisite information in a manually time consuming fashion, the information is instead being pushed to you in a more timely fashion with the most recent updates being sent to your aggregator.  You are thus allowed the chance to determine whether you need to go to the blog or access links that may be included in the post.  For all educators, regardless of whether they are in the classroom or central office, effective and efficient feeds keep one  informed of the latest research results or published reports.  As Richardson (2010) states, “Teachers could track the blogsphere for discussions about motivating students or the unique pedagogies of the class.  Superintendents could be notified about what’s being written about their schools. (p. 72)”

For our students, Richardson (2010) makes an important point about the learning that is going on when they are deciding which sites or bloggers to follow.  “This is the part of digital reading literacy that our students will have to master, a vetting process that they (and we) should be going through whenever we land on a new site on the Web.” (p. 74)   This is a lifelong literacy skill that should be started when students are taught how to evaluate web sites for credibility.  I often begin the conversation about evaluation by asking students what they do when they use a search engine for a project and get a million hits.  How do they know what is good information and what is not?  There is a lot to learn!

Richardson (2010) is a great resource for the discussion of RSS in the classroom.  As he states, if students are blogging, the teacher can track their posts by having their blogs listed in an aggregator, eliminating the need to go to each blog to check for updates. (p.78)  Conversely, if they aren’t blogging but have Reader, they can keep up with feeds from the teacher.  Content or upcoming events can be delivered to students this way.  This is efficient!  One post from the teacher that all students receive. (p. 78)

For research purposes, students can also use search terms to find news feeds that address their topic.  Once they choose a news source they find relevant, they copy the URL and paste it into Reader.  This way, they receive the most up to date information on their topic. (Richardson, 2010, p.79)  To follow bloggers, they can search www.Blogsearch.Google.com

From a learning perspective, to start students off in this new sphere of using RSS, I would do what was done for us on this course – give students a list of specific bloggers to follow and through exploration of these tools, encourage subscribing to feeds from other bloggers as discussion, research and topics evolve.  This way, students naturally progress in their knowledge of RSS and aggregators in a way that is not overwhelming.

Here is a snapshot of some of the bloggers I follow:

Some of the bloggers I follow include Joyce Valenza, David Loertcher, James Herring, Will Richardson, Judy O’Connell, Scott McLeod, P. Naugle, as well as some of the students from our course.  From reading and scanning their posts, I have discovered others that I’m interested in following and so, have added their blog URL to my Reader account.  This is one of the benefits of collaborative, connected learning and sharing – it can go on as long as you are participating.

In conclusion, seeking, using, and sharing online information is done more effectively with RSS.  If you’re not convinced that RSS is right for you, consider these thoughts expressed by Elyissa Kroski in her book, Web 2.0 for Librarians and Information Professionals (2008).  “With RSS, people participate in the flow of information;  like never before they are attuned to changes, shifts, and happenings.  As blog posts are published, podcasts circtulated, and weather updated, users are notified.  When breaking news happens, users are made aware.  Increasingly, control over online infomation rests with the new Web users who have been put in charge of their own consumption.”(p.28)  We are indeed able to make the web ours as we choose what we want from it, how we contribute and by which means.

References:

Kroski, E. (2008). Web 2.0 for Librarians and InformationProfessionals. New York, London:  Neal-Schumann Publishers Inc.

Richardson, W. (2010). Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin.

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