When the Bryan (Texas) Independent School District posted an announcement on its Web site about an upcoming bond referendum, a special Web-based Internet alert with a hotlink to the content was sent to people who signed up for the free service. In fact, subscribers receive such notices whenever new content is added to the district site, which recently included news about a time management seminar, a college information hotline and the purchase of land for a new school.
These services are possible thanks to a rapidly developing technology called RSS--Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary--that tracks changes on Web sites and sends summary descriptions with hotlinks to syndicated subscriber lists. Such "RSS feeds" free users from having to visit Web sites to look for new content, since it is easier to browse updates and click on items of interest.
RSS is transforming the Web and how people access resources, and schools across the country are adopting the technology for various applications. In Oregon, Tim Lauer, principal of Oregon's Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, says he uses RSS to collect information from teacher Web pages to create a composite "classroom notes" page, compile a weekly events calendar and stay informed as students post online assignments. "RSS also lets me keep up-to-date on information published in the media about my school and district," he says.
Thousands of Web sites now offer RSS feeds--including media sources such as CBS News, CNN, Reuters and The New York Times--and users can monitor scores of resources from a single location, including Web sites, news groups and Weblogs. Furthermore, by using related services such as PubSub, RSS will even report when particular search phrases appear online. For example, where I used to visit multiple Web sites to get technology news, most of what I need is now waiting when I log on. Your staff and students can therefore research any topic more effectively by subscribing to RSS feeds. As one educator put it, "RSS is a mechanism for speed-reading the Web."
Sites that offer RSS feeds typically have orange-colored buttons labeled RSS or XML (RSS is based on XML technology) that users simply click to subscribe. However you first need to install an RSS news reader, also called an RSS news aggregator, to interpret the feeds. Numerous readers can be downloaded from the Internet, including AmphetaDesk, Bloglines, FeedReader, RssReader and Pluck.
After an aggregator is installed, you can subscribe to as many feeds as you wish, and updates are then displayed in your reader as Web pages (if you click on subscribe buttons before the software is installed, the computer-readable content will not make sense). Unlike discussion groups, subscribers do not join lists or remember passwords, and all you do to unsubscribe from feeds is highlight and delete them. Plus, since readers are Web-based, RSS information is free from spyware, spam, viruses and adware.
Although using readers "may seem technical at first," says Andy Carvin, director of the online Digital Divide Network, "once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder how you surfed the Internet without them."
Bringing RSS to School
While some Internet providers offer RSS tools, there are various online services for creating feeds such as FeedForAll and My RSS Creator. However, whether or not your district uses the technology to distribute information, your staff and students should subscribe to RSS feeds to follow developments in their areas of interest. In that regard the Manheim Township School District in Pennsylvania put instructions on its Web site for getting started with RSS. The resources below will give you additional information.
Bryan Independent School District www.bryanisd.org
Meriwether Lewis Elementary School lewiselementary.org
Manheim Township School District www.mtwp.net
My RSS Creator www.myrsscreator.com
RSS Quick Start Guide for Educators www.weblogg-ed.com/rss_for_ed
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.