RSS: The Next Killer App For Education


Mary Harrsch


Technology Source




July/August 2003

Like many technology specialists, I have been looking for the next "killer app" for quite some time. I define a killer application as a program that gives average people the capability to use technology to solve everyday problems and enrich their lives. E-mail was the first killer app. Its usefulness has been demonstrated clearly by its being embraced across the entire spectrum of computer users.

Now a new technology, rich site summary (RSS)—sometimes known as "really simple syndication"—takes the communication paradigm of one-to-one messaging one step further. RSS is a tag-based formatting language like HTML; it gives users the ability to communicate information to anyone who may be interested in a particular topic. Personal Web pages already allow for the same broad contact, but with its emphasis on dynamic content, efficient delivery, and targeted distribution, RSS represents a crucial advance.

Imagine having the news that interests you automatically delivered to your desktop, or being alerted to updates on your favorite Web sites without visiting them first. Picture yourself as a news provider to specific people who share your interests or just appreciate your commentary. Most commonly used to support the publication of weblogs and Internet news sites, RSS is an important development that promises to have a substantial impact on the world of education.

Syndicating Web Content with RSS

A very basic implementation of XML code, an RSS feed is composed of a simple text file (Exhibit 1) with a specific standard format (Libby, 1999) that can be interpreted by a multitude of software clients and devices. Just as HTML can be viewed by any Web browser, people with news readers like AmphetaDesk or FeedReader installed on their computers can "subscribe" to a specific RSS news feed and view its contents in their own customized virtual newspaper. Unlike a discussion group, an RSS-enhanced site does not require its subscribers to join a list, remember a password, or manage a large number of e-mail messages. Once a site is added to its list of news feeds, the material appears daily within the template of the news reader.

From the designer's perspective, one of the main virtues of this technology is its convenience for nonexperts. Weblog applications equipped to generate an RSS file largely eliminate the need for the average person to learn about RSS-specific tags or particular characters that require conversion to XML-compatible code. As with Web composer programs such as Dreamweaver, weblog applications insert coding tags automatically in response to the user's formatting commands. One example of such an application is Moveable Type, which can be installed for free by Web server managers for nonprofit organizations. If an organization does not wish to provide this service, individual users can obtain an account with a Web-based host like Blogger, which offers both weblog and RSS file generation services. Blogger hosts individual weblogs and provides the software to update them from a Web browser without the installation of any client software. The Blogger Pro version also enables users to instantly produce a custom RSS news feed at the same time that they post their thoughts, ideas, and experiences to an online date-stamped journal. (See Exhibit 2 for an illustration of how to produce RSS files with Blogger Pro.)

How does someone with a news portal find appropriate news feeds? Catalogs of existing feeds and valuable search tools are provided by such sites as Syndic8, which presently lists more than 13,000 feeds. A scraping utility like the one at myRRS also can be used to create an RSS feed for another Web site. Headline scraping tools use a Web page's HTML format tags to identify and retrieve headlines and links from the page—stripping away nonrelevant text and interface features, and converting the resulting text to an RSS-formatted file (Exhibit 3). Conversely, if users want to insert RSS feed content into traditional Web pages, JavaScript applications can be used to call server-based CGI scripts that convert RSS feed content into appropriate HTML coding tags (Exhibit 4). For the College of Education (COE) at the University of Oregon, I have so far been able to find feeds that provide information valuable to students in a number of our majors; see the COE Online News page for a full listing.

Applications of RSS for Educators

What potential value does RSS syndication have for educators? Some specific examples may help to illustrate the applications of this technology:

Example 1. You are a teacher looking for content that can be used in the study of the Spanish conquest. You find a Web site that has excellent biographies of the cultural leaders, profiles of the different native cultures, and even some patterns for ceremonial masks that can be reproduced for a class activity. In the past, you would have e-mailed a few colleagues about the site and your plan to incorporate some of its materials into your curriculum. Now you post the URL and your ideas for implementation to a weblog equipped with RSS generation capability. Other teachers like you who are looking for ways to improve their learning environments—including student teachers in colleges of education around the world—can easily "subscribe" to your news feed and learn from your unique professional experiences. In essence, you have established extensive online community of practice specific to teachers of social studies.

We all have unique experiences and solutions that can benefit others. No rule states that only professional textbook publishers should be allowed to create curriculum materials or suggest how to use them.

Example 2. You are teaching a class on science fiction and its parallels to developing technology. You teach this class each term and want to use timely examples. Like most instructors, however, the time you can allot to searching out new technologies on the Web is limited. So you subscribe to a free news feed from Sci-Fi Today that brings the latest news in science and science fiction automatically to your desktop news reader. You simply open your news reader and browse the day's headlines like you would your morning newspaper.

Example 3. You are the superintendent of a school district with 49 schools. Each school maintains a Web site, but it is very time-consuming to visit each site periodically to review each school's news and events. The schools begin to post their news to a weblog that is incorporated into each school's Web site, much like Bryant Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. The weblog tool also produces an RSS news feed. You install a news reader and subscribe to each news feed. Now, each day you can quickly review all the news and events at each school in one place without having to visit all 49 Web sites.

Example 4. You are a researcher working on an archaeological dig on a Greek island. You have uncovered an artifact that puzzles you. You post your progress each day to a weblog, and so you include a picture of the puzzling artifact in your commentary. The next day you are contacted by a German archaeologist that you have never met. He subscribes to your project news feed along with news feeds from similar digs. He was on his way to a conference in Cairo and was browsing his news headlines on his PDA. He tells you that the object is a physician's instrument. Now, with a potential context, you are better able to interpret some of the epigraphic fragments you have collected.

The RSS syndication format enables anyone to share comments, news headlines, links to recent articles, descriptions, and images. This information is available not only to other Web content providers, but also to users of a variety of devices such as PDAs, cell phones, e-mail ticklers, and voice upgrade pagers. Such widespread distribution is possible because XML is fundamentally a database tool instead of a display language like HTML.

Realizing the Potential of Syndication

As suggested by the examples above, RSS syndication provides a way to identify truly useful information in the tidal wave of data that the Internet has become. Research news, learning modules, position vacancies, awards and achievements, significant donations—anything that is dynamic in nature and would be of interest to a particular audience can benefit from RSS technology. Web designers can review and select news feeds for customized news portals, enabling students, faculty members, and staff to stay abreast of discoveries and developments in their particular areas of interest. Our instructional technology news portal at the COE, for example, features periodic updates of trends in electronic publishing and Web design. In addition, Downes (2003) recently defined an RSS format to be used for the syndication of learning objects. This format (RSS-LOM) will make it possible to distribute learning objects to courses without having to depend on the content libraries provided by a learning management system; it also will allow authors to distribute learning objects without having to work through an intermediary such as a publisher.

Since RSS production and use is still rather new, I try to spread the word about its potential benefits. I sometimes find a Web page that contains news items that I would like to include in one of my news portals, but the page does not appear to offer an XML link. In such situations, I e-mail the webmaster with information about RSS, links to basic resources, an explanation of how I would like to use an RSS feed from that site, and a link to one of my student news portals.

Dave Winer, the original developer of the My UserLand news reader (now part of the Radio UserLand application) and a major contributor to the RSS specification, cites his virtual newspaper as an example of what syndicated Web content offers its users:

I'm subscribed to quite a few sources, and the range of sources is significant. Consider that I get news from the New York Times, the BBC, and from weblogs like Sam Ruby (an expert programmer), Jon Udell (InfoWorld columnist), John Robb (he works with me at UserLand), Mike Chambers (works for Macromedia, writes about Flash), The Shifted Librarian, Ernie the Attorney, analyst Kevin Werbach, Ed Cone (North Carolina columnist), book author Christian Crumlish, my own weblog (Scripting News). . . . Not only am I getting news from professional news organizations, but I am also hearing from people and non-news organizations who make a difference to me. Rarely an hour goes by without something interesting happening, my mind is stimulated, I get new ideas, and of course I share them. It's all about choice, customization, and communication. (2002, "Amateurs and Pros," 1, 3)

The implications of RSS file syndication for the academy—in particular, its potential to expand the scope and prominence of self-published Web content—are significant, especially when files are produced from the content of a professional's weblog. In essence, RSS syndication technology provides a bridge between isolated Web content and interested information consumers in multiple institutions, groups, and arenas of practice. By reaching out to a global audience, syndication transforms the "lonely voice" of the Web page into an international dialogue of ongoing professional discourse.


Downes, S. (2003, May 10). RDF site summary 1.0 modules: Learning object metadata. Retrieved May 16, 2003, from http://www.downes.ca/xml/rss_lom.htm

Libby, D. (1999, July 10). RSS 0.91 spec, revision 3. Retrieved May 23, 2003, from http://my.netscape.com/publish/formats/rss-spec-0.91.html

Winer, D. (2002, October 8). What is a news aggregator? Message posted to DaveNet weblog, archived at http://davenet.userland.com/2002/10/08/ whatIsANewsAggregator

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Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Mary Harrsch "RSS: The Next Killer App For Education." The Technology Source, July/August 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=2010. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Article printed 11/1/2004 7:20:34 AM.