Designing Learning Technology

Mon, 23 Jun 2003

Weblogs at NECC
Tim Lauer points out that there is a gathering of educational webloggers at NECC on June 30. A good place to continue the discussion started by the Harrsch article.

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RSS and Education: The Current Hype
The educational weblog community has been hyping a recent Technology Source article by Mary Harrsch that touts RSS, a protocol that enables weblog syndication and aggregation, as "the next killer app for education". Given that the weblog community is intimately familiar with RSS as a technology, it's not surprising that a number of people think that RSS will somehow revolutionize the education world. But the hype is a bit overblown. In my mind, RSS is an interesting technology in search of a killer educational application. But Harrsch's article has served to start a discussion within the community about these issues, one that will hopefully continue.

The main problem is that RSS is not an application. RSS is a low level technology, a data exchange protocol like XML. Forget about RSS. The specific protocol doesn't matter. Let's look at specific applications in more depth. The Technology Source article focuses on four potential applications for RSS-type technology.

  1. Enable teachers to easily share information they find on the web.
  2. Provide topic-specific news aggregation sites for teachers to use in their curricular research.
  3. Create a district-wide news aggregation site to make it easier for a widespread community to keep tabs on one another.
  4. Support pre-publication sharing of research data and questions.

These are all fine goals, but none strike me as earth-shattering. Depending on context, all of these goals might be better served via email and listservs. When assessing RSS (based on how it's used in the weblog community), it's important to look at its strengths and weaknesses compared with alternative solutions. For example, email has the advantage of being a push technology and is better suited to well-defined audiences. A district that create a email listserv for all science teachers in the district knows that they've reached 100% of their audience. By contrast, RSS and weblogs are pull technologies, better designed for unknown, changing audiences, in that they deliver a chronological archive of information for whoever asks.

Ultimately, I think weblogs may have some use in education, but not necessarily along the lines of the examples above. I think discussions of specific applications of RSS in education need to be informed by a closer examination of the context of use: who is the audience, what is the goal, and how would the new technology fit into existing patterns of use.

Currently I have three small thoughts. First, web-based news aggregators would be incredibly useful as a way to inform parents and the community about school events. Forget the superintendent, who will have plenty of ways to track what's going on in the district. Instead, enable students and educators to publish information that better connects the school to its community.

Second, find ways to connect educators into communities that span physical locations. This is not a new goal, and varying technologies (email listservs, real time communities like TAPPED-IN, etc.) have been used to try to achieve this. Web-based community tools offer some affordances in this area; RSS has value a part of a larger toolset. Community-authored weblogs might work here; for example, as a way to tie together all social studies teachers within a district who share many of the same goals and concerns.

Third, build on weblogs' strength as maven enablers. I can say from experience that maintaining a weblog with regular updates takes a substantial amount of time... and my site doesn't update anywhere near daily. (I'm astounded that someone like John Rakestraw could run a daily feed on education for as long as he did.) And what's the reward for taking the time to publish a weblog? Not much, I'd say... unless you're a maven. Mavens (using Gladwell's definition) are those people who are experts within a field and who closely monitor information within the field. In other words, the ideal people to run topic-related weblogs. Weblogs benefit mavens by affirming their reputation within the field. I'm sure that, like me, the weblogs you read most are maintained by mavens. Dave Winer is a weblog maven. Rakestraw was an ed tech maven (probably still is, we just don't have access to him anymore). Dave Barry is a humor maven. And on and on.

The cool thing about being a maven is that, once you've established your rep and your readership, your readers start sending you content. This is the tipping point for weblogs: the content flow has reached a point where it becomes (relatively speaking) self-sustaining. Look at Barry's humor log. Most of his links are sent to him by his readers.

All this reinforces the value of maven sites: they're updated frequently, they have a strong editorial voice, and they're likely to know about significant events in their field first. So what's the point for education, where we envision teachers posting to weblogs? Teachers by and large don't have time to become weblog mavens. But they stand to benefit from maven sites maintained by that rare educator who has the time and experience to edit a valuable weblog.

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