E-Learning for the BC Tech Industry 

An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

Blown Away by RSS Feeds & Blogs: July 25th, 2003


By Paul Stacey


Its been quite a while since a technology "blew me away" but last Friday I had one of those Eureka moments while riding the bus from downtown Vancouver to White Rock where I live - all because of RSS feeds & blogs. I'm still exploring and digging deeper into RSS but let me share the chronicle so far.


I've been wanting to investigate RSS feeds ever since I heard Stephen Downes talk about them at the IMS Technical Forum in February. Stephen's IMS presentation is available at:



Of course the first challenge is deciphering the tech talk. What the heck does RSS stand for anyway? So, lets get some of the technical aspects out of the way up front.


Standing for Rich Site Summary (RDF Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication depending on who you talk to), RSS is a kind of Extensible Markup Language (XML) application that adheres to the World Wide Web Consortium's Resource Description Framework (RDF). From an application point of view RSS is widely used as a method of "feeding" (distributing, syndicating) news or other web content from an online publisher to web users.


Headline news is only one form of content that can be distributed with an RSS feed. The most exciting use may turn out to be weblog (blog) feeds. And what is a "blog"?


According to http://www.whatis.com, "On a Web site, a blog, a short form for weblog, is a personal journal that is frequently updated and intended for general public consumption. Blogs generally represent the personality of the author or the Web site and its purpose. Topics sometimes include brief philosophical musings, commentary on Internet and other social issues, and links to other sites the author favors. The essential characteristics of the blog are its journal form, typically a new entry each day, and its informal style. The author of a blog is often referred to as a blogger. People who post new journal entries to their blog may often say they blogged today, they blogged it to their site, or that they still have to blog."


If you want to know more about the weblog phenomena you've got to read "We've Got Blog - How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture", from the editors of Perseus Publishing. Quoting from this book, weblogs are typically "a mixture in unique proportions of links, commentary, and personal thoughts and essays." Weblogs are pithy. Longer commentary is often done as a separate essay. I think of these e-learning columns I write as essay form weblogs.


But all these definitions don't do justice to the full character of weblogs. "We've Got Blog" gives the full spectrum of weblog evolution over time. Wildly popular weblogs can be stream of consciousness and personality infused like:


http://www.peterme.com, or


Weblogs are frequently irreverent.


While weblogs are a form of personal publishing, increasingly people are using them as part of their media coverage. Some media organizations have begun to treat weblogging as a form of journalism. See:



Picking up the thread on RSS, publishing content, such as news headlines or weblogs, involves creating an RSS XML file describing the content being published and identifying specifically where that content is on the web server. This RSS file is essentially made up of meta data and sits on the web server along with the content. RSS aggregators are then able to read the RSS files, aggregate the content, and distribute it as a syndicated feed to users.


Instead of me having to seek out a website I subscribe to feeds which appear automatically at set intervals of time - say every hour.


To receive a syndicated feed you need a web browser and it helps to have one of the free special aggregator programs that read RSS-distributed content and periodically downloads the latest news, blogs, or whatever you are interested in.


Enough tech talk for now, back to the chronicle, ...


After hearing Stephen Downes my interest was heightened even further when Brian Lamb, a University of British Columbia learning object coordinator, and professional colleague I admire, waxed eloquently on the way RSS feeds allow him to keep up with his field. Brian had even started his own blog and now networked with others doing the same thing. Brian pointed me to a David Wiley link called "A Beginners Guide to Joining the Instructional Technology Blog Scene". See http://www.reusability.org/blogs/david/archives/


Others pointed me to Stephen Downes paper "An Introduction to RSS for Educational Designers" at http://www.downes.ca/files/RSS_Educ.htm


Finally a couple of weeks ago I'm like OK, OK let me try it! So following the David Wiley guide I downloaded Amphetadesk, the free, cross-platform, open sourced, syndicated news aggregator, see http://www.disobey.com/amphetadesk. I removed channels that came with the download and subscribed to education technology channels David Wiley lists in his .opml file. And that's all I had time for. I didn't even have a chance to check out what the feeds were generating.


That evening I was catching a Translink bus from downtown Vancouver out to White Rock where I live, and by chance had nothing to read on the hour long ride. In the absence of a book or a newspaper I turned on my laptop and opened up the Amphetadesk aggregator. Wow! For the next hour I lost myself in a smorgasbord of ideas, notes, and discoveries as I checked out the rich musings of the educational technology weblogs I had downloaded.


Of course on the bus I'm off-line and can't explore embedded follow-on links for more information. But still I was blown away. Collectively the blogs filter news and developments in my domain. More importantly they provide thoughtful commentary, alternative views, interpretation, and additional facts. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the weblog community, the astute observations, the readiness to share.


I delighted in the character and personality of each weblog and began to select ones I wanted to track on an ongoing basis. I wanted to know more about each of the writers. I plan to follow:


D'Arcy Norman's musings in the Learning Commons Weblog

Brian Lamb's Object Learning and

Scott Leslie's EdTech Post


Of course after that bus ride home I've since been online and explored the full depth weblog links and discussion enable. I've also become intrigued by the implications and potential of RSS and weblogs for online learning.


We know one of the most successful forms of e-learning is collaborative learning done online through social interactive discussion. Weblogs build off of this successful model as a dynamic form of e-learning content and an engaging e-learning experience.


Julian Dibbell in the We've Got Blog chapter, "Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man", says that weblogs at their most interesting "are constructed from and pay implicit tribute to a peculiarly contemporary sort of wonder."


Certainly describes it for me. Hmmm, I wonder how I can get my own RSS fed weblog going?


Paul Stacey, is an e-learning specialist in corporate and higher education working in Simon Fraser University's eLearning Innovation Centre (eLINC). Paul helps host & produce LearningTimes an online community for education professionals. Contact: Paul Stacey

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