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#36-Using an “Aggregator” to Capture RSS Feeds: A Technology for Keeping Up-to-Date

February 15, 2004

A number of LTAs (Low-Threshold Applications) deal with time on task issues – how to become more efficient while accomplishing more activities. “Keeping up” is an activity for which we never seem to have enough time. Yet, if we fail to keep up, especially with news technologies and ideas for improving our teaching and integration of technology into it, we ultimately weaken our ability as educators.

LTA Credits

Steven J. Bell
Director
Paul J. Guttman Library
Philadelphia University
BellS@philau.edu

This LTA discusses two technologies that can go together, and when used appropriately they can make keeping up a far easier chore. These two technologies are: (1) RSS Feeds and (2) News Aggregators. What do they do, and why do you need to know about them. Imagine that there are several Web sites and Weblogs you want to follow. The traditional approach is to bookmark each site, and then visit them daily. They may or may not offer new items each day. Wouldn’t it be much better to use just one technology that would visit all of these Web sites, collect any new information posted there each day, and then aggregate that information for you in one easy to read spot. That is the gist of what a news aggregator does. While the technology that makes this all work is on the complex side, like any good LTA the actual implementation and use of RSS and aggregators is actually very easy.

  1. RSS Feed – RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. In essence, it is a form of a web page – in XML (extensible markup language) – that can be read or “fed” to a news aggregator. In other words, an author creates a web page, then creates an XML version of that page with unique tags. The bottom line is that the RSS Feed can now be subscribed to through an aggregator.
  2. News Aggregators – These come in many varieties. Some can be installed as software, while some are Web-based. The Web-based services, though lacking in some functionality, are extremely easy to use and are free (so far). This LTA will focus on the aggregator, showing examples of several of them at work.

News Aggregators:

  1. Requires little time to learn.
  2. Available at no cost to faculty
  3. Improves productivity and efficiency (time on task)
  4. Procedure itself is simple and requires no real technology

BlogLines

Section One-Using Bloglines as Your Aggregator

  1. Go to http://www.bloglines.com. This news aggregator service is free, but you need to register (there is a link on the home page) and setup your account.
  2. Next, login and start entering your subscriptions. Think of a subscription as the RSS feed that you want to have the aggregator track. You cannot subscribe to a regular Web page. Aggregators can only track syndicated sites. There are several ways to identify these sites. First, they are found through a directory (see Section Three), or they have an RSS or XML tag XML, or simply post a link for the “xml” version of the page. You may need to practice clicking on some of these links. When you get to the XML version of the page, subscribing is often just a matter of cutting and pasting that URL into the subscribe box of the aggregator. However, it is becoming more common for the URL of the Weblog itself to serve adequately for subscribing.
  3. Here’s is what the Bloglines main window looks like when you have subscribed to feeds. Click on the graphic for a magnified view of this object.
    lta36.03sm.jpg
  4. Now it is time to subscribe to your first RSS Feed. On the left frame of the window above – scroll down until you find this box:
    lta36.04.gif
    1. Simply put the URL of the feed into the “Subscribe by Entering URL” box, and then click “Sub.”
    2. A feed’s URL may look like this:
      http://www.theshiftedlibrarian.com/rss.xml
    3. After you click “Sub,” if the URL provided is a legitamate RSS feed, it will immediately appear in your list of subscribed feeds.
  5. Try subscribing to a site (a Weblog) called “The Kept-Up Academic Librarian.” This is a site I maintain. It digests news items about higher education so it may be of interest to you even if you’re not a librarian. The URL for this site is http://keptup.typepad.com/academic and since it is XML syndicated, you can simply enter the URL as it is provided here.
  6. Once you click on the “Sub” button, Bloglines will find the feed and subscribe it. Now, whenever I add new stories to “Kept-Up,” Bloglines will find them and store them until you are ready to read them. So imagine using Bloglines to subscribe to dozens of sites – all of the news from each will be aggregated in this one spot.
  7. To read your news, just click on the name of the site in the main window. In the example below, EdTechPost and all the bolded titles have items waiting to be read. To read them, just click on the title itself. The stories will appear in the main window on the right side of the Bloglines screen.
    lta36.05.gif
  8. RSS can be used effectively for keeping up with instructional technology news as there are a number of good Weblogs being maintained by instructional technologists and designers. The screen shot from my Bloglines show that I subscribe to an RSS feed for MERLOT. This enables me to constantly keep track of any new technology application added to MERLOT. This is incredibly easy to do. Just go to the MERLOT home page, and scroll down until you see this:
    lta36.06.gif
  9. Click on the link to “MERLOT RSS,” and then follow the instructions. You will need to provide your name and email address, plus the URL of your aggregator (such as http://www.bloglines.com). Once you enter the information and enter it, you’ll come to a new page with this at the top:
    lta36.07.jpg

    A bit further down the page you will find the URL for many RSS feeds. Just cut and paste any of these into the Bloglines subscribe box, and soon you’ll be tracking new content as it is added to MERLOT. Click on the graphic for a magnified view of this object.

  10. While the introduction states that a drawback of an aggregator such as Bloglines is that you need to routinely check it for new additions – as opposed to having them funneled into your existing e-mail inbox, Bloglines does offer a helper application called “Notifier.” This app resides on your toolbar and alerts you whenever new items are added to the aggregator. This will certainly help to remind you to check for news items.
  11. That’s all there really is to it. Give it a try and start using Bloglines today to track RSS feeds.

lta36.09.gif

Section Two-Using MyFeedster As Your Aggregator

  1. Feedster is another popular site for searching Weblog content, and identifying Weblogs by subject. Their service, MyFeedster, may be used to perform a function similar to Bloglines. Which you decide to choose may be a matter of personal preference, but Bloglines appears to have the edge in functionality.
  2. You also need to register for MyFeedster, but the service is free. The registration page offers a good tutorial that explains not only what MyFeedster is and how it works, but also gives a simple, clear explanation of RSS, aggregators and the relationship between the two (I point this out because it will no doubt clear up any confusion you may be having at this point).
  3. This is what the MyFeedster main window looks like. Click on the graphic for a magnified view of this object.
  4. MyFeedster is fairly simplistic. The three tabs at the top (Feeds, Posts, Options) allow you to control your RSS Feed subscriptions, track your Feeds, and view the individual posts to each one. This example illustrates that two Feeds are being tracked and when postings were last made to each. Adding a new feed is accomplished by clicking on the “Add Feed” link and then using the box shown below to add a new subscription (URL of the RSS Feed). Subscriptions can be added or deleted by going to the Options Tab.
    lta36.11.gif
  5. Using MyFeedster you can follow RSS Feeds in a way that is similar to Bloglines. MyFeedster does not currently offer any helper application similar to Bloglines Notifier.
  6. There is another Web-based aggregator worth investigating. It is called Bloglet. It works much like Bloglines and Feedster, but its unique feature is that Bloglet sends any new postings to your subscribed Feeds, to your e-mail inbox. This means you never have to go directly to Bloglet to see your RSS postings – this saves some time. Plus, if you are following any number of feeds, all of the new postings to each one of those feeds will be delivered in just a single e-mail message. While this makes using Bloglet convenient, it tends to be a less reliable service than either of the other two. Still, you may want to take a closer look at it.

Section Three-Using Blog Directories to Find RSS Feeds in Education and Technology

  1. Once you register for an aggregator (or choose to acquire the aggregator software that you load on your computer ) perhaps the real challenge is finding those RSS Feeds to which you’ll want to subscribe. Many major news providers offer RSS Feeds for their sites if you want to keep up with current news. That’s just one possibility out of many. There are of course many that deal with education and technology subjects.
  2. There are several directories you can use to identify Weblogs that you may want to follow. Two I recommend are Blogstreet and the directory found in Bloglines. An example of Blogstreet’s education category is shown below. Click on the graphic for a magnified view of this object.
  3. If the directory categories don’t work well for you, just use the search feature with terms such as “educational technology,” “instructional technology” or whatever term/phrase you believe will lead to relevant RSS Feeds on your topic.
  4. Once you find one or a few good Feeds, regularly following them will typically lead to new ones. Anytime you discover a new feed, just locate the URL of its RSS Feed, and then add it to your aggregator.

Section Four – Other Options: Getting Feeds in Your E-mail

One drawback to Web-based aggregators such as Bloglines and Feedster is that you must make a habit of checking them each day or several days. Once you get to your aggregator you’ll find it nicely compiles news for you from a multitude of RSS feeds. If you want to get your feeds delivered into your e-mail inbox there are a few Web-based aggregator services that will provide this service. Here are three free services you can explore and trial:

Section Five – More Resources For Learning About RSS and Aggregators

Recommended Resources For Learning About News Aggregators and RSS

Finally – aggregators are just one option for keeping up with Web sites and Weblogs. What about those sites that do not have an RSS Feed? Well, for those an aggregator will not work. However, that’s what a Web Page Change Detection service is for. You can use a page change service to alert you, by e-mail, whenever a page you are tracking changes. You can learn more about Web Page Change Detection Services, and get names of free and fee-based services, on my Keeping UpWeb Site.

Section Six – A Final Caution

Whichever of these aggregator services you may choose to use, I strongly recommend that you keep track of all of the RSS Feeds to which you subscribe. Keep a list of all of their URLs. Bloglines, for example, offers an export feature that will create a web page with the URLs of all of your subscribed feeds.

Any of these free web-based services may decide to close up shop without any warning or prior notice. If this happens and you haven’t been recording what Feeds you follow and their URLs, you may end up spending a considerable amount of time trying to re-subscribe to all of your favorite Feeds.

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