Wednesday, October 14, 2009


FRSStration In Monday's BS1010 help session, I was still pondering my doubts about RSS. It was clear the students didn't understand why they were being asked to subscribe to RSS feeds, so I conducted a quick straw poll:

Me: Why did we start this course with the bibliographic databases searching exercise?

Students (confidently): So we can find stuff.

Me (pleased): Good answer. So why did we follow that with RSS subscriptions?

Students (blank): <tumbleweed>

Me (disappointed): So that you can find stuff to read?

Students (confused): What stuff?

Me (wavin da arms in a Magnus Pyke stylee): Everything!

Students (backing off): Oh.

We explain the importance of background reading in a science degree. We explain RSS to them. We show them Sarah Horrigan's wonderful Slideboom presentation. We show them how to use Google Reader. And they don't get it. But then again, since I'm unable to persuade most of my colleagues to invest time in RSS (they've figured out it won't be on the exam), can I really go on insisting the students use it?

The other problem we have with this assessment are feedback channels for distributed tools such as Google Reader, delicious, etc. Email doesn't cut it. We can't support 200 private conversations, but the big cheese isn't happy with public feedback that other students can see. Following students in Reader allows us to see activity graphs, but still doesn't allow us to leave feedback reliably - for reasons I don't understand, GR allows me to comment on some shared items but not on others. And even if we did leave feedback comments on items that students had shared some weeks ago, would they see them? Doubtful, Google Reader comments are pretty well buried.

So Google Reader is way too complex and inconsistent for what we need - which is a place for students to share items they find via RSS feeds, to comment on these, and for us to leave feedback on their work. I would rather do all of this in a single location, i.e. GR, but that's not working, so we'll need to go elsewhere. Rather than messing about the GR shared items to measure attention ... what if we used the Send To feature on GR?

Google Reader

This is easily administered via GR: Settings: Send To:
Google Reader

One of the places on the preconfigured GR Send To list is ... delicious. So we could swap the bookmarking and RSS sessions around in the timetable next year, do delicious first, forget GR shared items altogether and get students to send shared items to their delicious account with a comment. The problem with this is there is no way for us to leave feedback via delicious. Using one of the other alternatives where we could leave feedback (Blogger, FriendFeed, Posterous) means setting up yet another account, hardly better than fiddling about with GR shared items. And the hard fact is that delicious is slowly dying, a victim of Yahoo's incompetence and bad redesigns. So maybe next year we need to bite the bullet, ditch delicious and go for the thriving FriendFeed, which not only has commenting but also privacy options so students can opt in to private feedback if they prefer. Yes Jo, I know FriendFeed gives you a headache, but it is social, allows us to have conversations with the students, and it's where the life sciences community has pitched its tent, for better or for worse.

Which raises the question - why bother with Google Reader? The students are clearly struggling with it, and it's a total PITA to administer, so why not cut out the middleman and get students to subscribe to RSS feeds in FriendFeed? Then they can make comments on items to indicate attention directly in a single service, which will also be "feedback central". You could argue that that GR is a "better" feed reader than Friendfeed. And if you subscribe to over 100 RSS feeds, that may be true. But what's also clear is that the learning curve is too steep for these students to cope with the complexities of GR and the concepts of RSS simultaneously.