Tapping Newsfeeds to Keep Courses Up to Date


Making eLearning courses engaging is one challenge. Keeping them fresh and interesting, presents another.

What if there was a way to assure dynamic content for a course – content that could continually update itself?

That’s where RSS newsfeeds come in.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. It’s a range of file formats (including XML) that can be used on the Web to distribute (or syndicate) frequently updated content. Things like blog entries, news headlines and podcasts. An RSS document (known as a “feed”, “web feed”, or “channel”) contains either a summary of the content from an associated website, or the full text.

With RSS it’s possible to keep up with your favourite web sites via special programs or filtered displays. RSS feeds are particularly useful on websites where the content is updated regularly.

Subscribing to Newsfeeds

You use special software called an aggregator, to subscribe to feeds and receive the most up-to-date items.

A website that has an RSS feed will typically display small icons saying RSS or XML. They’re usually orange, or display little waves. Clicking on the RSS icon will reveal the feed address.

To subscribe, you just copy the address of the feed into the aggregator. You can subscribe to as many feeds as you want. Once subscribed, you’ll see a list of all new items within the aggregator, and can choose which ones to read. You don’t have to go to each individual website.

Getting an Aggregator

Web-based aggregators are very useful if you want to access your feeds from anywhere. There are several free ones including Bloglines, Google Reader and Newsgator Online. If you use a web service such as Google Reader you must go to this site each time you want to check for new postings. This approach works best if you make the reader your browser’s home page.

Web browsers such as Firefox and Internet Explorer offer similar functionality built-in. The browser will detect whether the website you’re viewing offers an RSS feed. It will then let you create a constantly-updated list of links in your Bookmarks menu.

There are desktop aggregators which must be downloaded and installed onto your computer. These include FeedReader (for Windows), and NetNewsWire Lite (for Mac).

You can also set up your RSS feeds in your email program. Mozilla Thunderbird and Outlook provide this option. All new posts are treated as unread mail so you can easily flag the latest postings.

For podcasts, the most common technique is to set up your subscriptions in iTunes or whatever media player is recommended for your MP3 device.

RSS Feeds and eLearning

RSS feeds provide a way of pulling external content into your courses. This allows your students to see dynamically updated and relevant material and can make your course modules more engaging. The feeds will ship out fresh and up-to-date news or information on a regular basis.

Think breaking news items, on a particular field of study. Or blogs and How-To guides, from specialist websites.

RSS feeds exist all over, so it’s almost certain that there’ll be something of use for your students. And they don’t have to originate from professional or commercial sources. Newsfeeds can come from social media streams (like Twitter and Facebook), public bodies or private individuals.

Some Sites of Interest

You can find RSS feeds by searching a feed directory such as eLearningfeeds.com or the eLearning Centre Archive. Here are some other recommendations:

1. BBC Education News Feed:

The latest education-related news, from the BBC’s global network of correspondents.

2. EduRSS:

A syndicated site of many news feeds about e-learning, based at Stephens Web. The feed posts a broad range of information about eLearning – everything from personal thoughts to new resources.

3. eLearningNews.net:

Billed as “A central resource for eLearning news, product reviews, case studies, conferences, exhibitions, employment opportunities and lots more; submitted by eLearning companies and specialists around the world.”

4. FE News:

FE News.co.uk covers the Further Education sector in the UK including eLearning, online learning, training providers, FE Colleges and funding bodies.

5. Reuters RSS:

The service has 19 news channels and 4 television channels listed. Reuters offers RSS as a free service to any individual user or non-profit organisation that would like to access it for non-commercial use.

6. Training Press Releases:

The feed provides news distribution for learning providers, and distributes press releases to learning-related media.

Do-It-Yourself Options

You can add an existing RSS feed to your own webpage by doing the following:

First, get the address of your desired feed. Remember to check the site’s terms and conditions for displaying an RSS feed within WebCT or on your own website. You’ll usually need to credit the content provider. Be aware that you may not have permission to display the company’s logo. An example is the BBC’s use policy.

Next, go to a site that converts RSS to JavaScript. Select the desired options and click the buttons to generate the script. Then copy the code produced.

Finally, open your website in an HTML editor. Paste the code into the existing HTML of the webpage. Provide any other information (such as the web address or URL of the RSS feed) requested by the editing program.

You can even create your own RSS feeds. The easiest way is to use an RSS Generator, which will automatically create the RSS feed for you. ListGarden is one for Windows, Mac or Unix/Linux.

Alternatively, you can write the RSS feed yourself, using XML (a mark-up language similar to HTML). The W3Schools host a tutorial on how to use RSS syntax.

With so many options and newsfeeds out there, the possibilities are endless.